“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” (John 6:16-21, ESV)
Three of the four gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are referred to as the Synoptic gospels. This is because they share many characteristics in common including material covered, language used, and order, whereas the gospel of John seems to be much more reflective in nature. Synoptic means of the same eye or same vantage point, and they seem to share this in common. It is very easy to lose sight when working through any of the gospel records that the events accounted from in one may be accounted for in others as well. This is particularly true of the synoptic ones. As I have been reading through the gospel of John I have, to a significant degree, relied on the information which John has provided with limited regard to the other records. Realizing that all of these gospels were written by men through whom the Holy Spirit brought these things to mind so that they would accurately record them (John 14:25-26; 1 Peter 1:21), we see in comparing them that each of the men also was moved in different ways by the Spirit to emphasize certain aspects of an event over others.
We see this in comparing this particular event of Jesus walking on the water, which is also found in Matthew 14:22-33 and Mark 6:45-53, but not mentioned by Luke. Both Matthew and Mark give a great deal more detail as to the actual details, with Matthew including Peter calling out to Jesus and briefly walking on the water before he turned his eyes to what he was doing and not to Christ and began to sink. Not one of these accounts in in conflict, but we do see that each had some aspect which stood out to them maybe more than another.
John seems to really be much more contemplative, being focused on the miraculous signs of Jesus and the responses of the people involved. He also knits together other events which tie the greater work of Christ together into a very personal narrative as opposed to a historical record of what transpired. Even in this passage he continues with a focus on the demonstration of miracles by Jesus. This time He showed His power over the laws of nature by walking on water. Reading from Matthew and Mark we know that this occurred immediately following the feeding of the 5,000. When Jesus withdrew to the mountain He sent His disciples away ahead of Him so that He might have a time alone of prayer. When evening came they went down to the sea and got into a boat in order to cross the sea to Capernaum. As they went out it grew dark and Jesus still had not caught up with them.
Progressing along the wind started to blow strong and the sea became very rough. Our translation says that they had gone about three or four miles, but the actual original distance was measured in stadia, saying that they had gone twenty-five or thirty of them which would amount to about 600 feet each. This would have been quite a way out, but it was also still away from their destination. Other than possibly another boat they had no expectation of seeing anyone or anything until they saw a form moving across the water which they presumed it to be a ghost, and they were very frightened. Of course, John tells us that it was Jesus who was coming near the boat, but they had no idea who or what it could be. As their fear grew Jesus spoke to them saying, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
Having been startled before and even having a vivid imagination about the things lurking in my dark closet as a kid I can only imagine the mixture of anxious emotion and relief that they felt when they realized it was Him. Still learning who He was, they must have been amazed at His ability to just walk out on the water even though He had already done some pretty amazing things in their presence. But the greatest relief came when they could rest in the joy of being reunited with Him even in these most unique of ways. Our passage tells us that they were glad to take Him into the boat.
The other accounts tell us that they continued across to the destination where they arrived in Gennesaret and moored their boat. For John, the moment Jesus stepped on the boat the miracle was accomplished and they reached their destination. Reflecting back on the account and all of the miracles of Jesus I can just imagine him in later days remembering the impact of those moments when Jesus appeared to him, entered the boat, and the winds were calmed. Nothing else on this adventure mattered beyond the recognition of what Jesus had done.
As I think about the nature of John’s record as opposed to the others I try to picture the special relationship that existed between him and Jesus such that John would say of himself that he was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Sure, Jesus loved them all because He told them so, but John saw the relationship between himself and Jesus as particularly close. And as I read the gospel of John his love for Jesus rings loud and clear.
Thinking of the great love that John expressed in his writings my mind was taken to his briefer letters and in particular 1 John in which love is a major theme. There we read in 1 John 4:7-12 and 19, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” … “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:7-12, 19, ESV)
It is such an encouragement to know that God loves us with an infinite love and that He sent His Son, His only Son, to bring us back into that relationship through forgiveness which only comes through faith—faith which also comes from Him. Even today we get to taste His love in many different ways knowing that one day we will get to experience it fully in His presence.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. …” (1 John 3:1, ESV)