The Sign on Top of the Sea (John 6:16–21)

Read John 6:16–21.

The five thousand who ate their fill of fish sandwiches soon realized that something special had just taken place. They watched as the disciples passed out the food without the supply ever running low. Then they watched as those disciples came back around to pick up the leftovers—twelve baskets full. They know that Jesus had given them a miraculous sign, and it wasn’t just any old sign; it was a sign of a powerful prophet. Elisha, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament era, had also multiplied bread. He fed one hundred men with twenty loaves (2 Kings 4:42–44). On a purely mathematical level, Jesus’ miracle was far greater. “They began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14).

Back in Deuteronomy, God had given Moses a message for the people of Israel: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Over the years, this promise was thought to be Messianic. This wouldn’t be just any old prophet, but the One who would finally show them the way and set things right. The crowd at the mountainside is now convinced Jesus is this prophet, and they intend to “make Him king by force” (John 6:15).

However, that is not how Jesus’ story is supposed to go. Had He wanted to unseat Herod, or Pilate, or Caesar himself, Jesus needed no crowds backing Him to do it. He came to be lifted up higher than any earthly throne could take Him. So, Jesus leaves the people in their political fervor, and goes up on the mountain by Himself.

Sometime later, the disciples are in a boat, making their way across the Sea of Galilee without Jesus. They’re about halfway across the lake. The wind is kicking up and the waves are getting choppy, but there’s something else that concerns them. They can see, in the distance, a shape on top of the water. It looks like a human figure, moving slowly towards them.

John’s account of Jesus walking on the water is the briefest of the three we have in the Gospels. He leaves out certain details found in the other versions. For example, both Matthew and Mark tell us that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost at first. Mark mentions that it was Jesus’ intention to pass the disciples on foot as they struggled to row against the storm. (Weird, right?) And Matthew tells us that Peter joined Jesus on the water, however briefly.

John has none of those interesting tidbits. His account is simple and straightforward, but it allows us to zero in on His main point. Jesus, still strolling on the water, says to His friends, “It is I; don’t be afraid” (v. 20). In our English Bibles, there’s nothing terribly remarkable about that sentence (other than the fact that it’s spoken by someone defying the law of gravity, of course), but in Greek, Jesus literally says, “ego eimi,” which can also be translated, “I am.” Again, that may not sound all that remarkable to you, but in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ego eimi is how God introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush. “God said to Moses ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14).

Jesus is introducing Himself to His disciples anew. They’ve seen the miracles. They’ve heard His teaching. They watched as He challenged the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. But others had performed miracles, spoken on behalf of God, and confronted the dull hearts of crusty, stubborn religious leaders. Jesus is different than those who came before. He is the Prophet like Moses, but He is more than that. Where Moses parted the sea, Jesus walks upon it. Standing on top of the waves, He offers His friends an unvarnished look at the truth. He’s saying, “It’s me, Yahweh.”

John includes another detail that the others leave out. After Jesus gets into the boat, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (John 6:21). Their struggle against the relentless winds and the crashing waves is over. They’ve arrived safely and miraculously at their destination.

It may seem a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s often when we’re struggling against the currents of this life that we get a glimpse of Jesus clearly. It can be a frightening thing to have this new view of Him challenge what we thought we knew about the world, but it’s in that moment of revelation then that we must decide whether or not to welcome Him into our boat. He is able to bring us safely to shore, no matter what we’re dealing with. Sometimes He travels with us through the storm bit by bit, and sometimes He brings us relief in a miraculous moment. Either way, His presence makes all the difference.

What’s this all about?

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