Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
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.
It’s amazing how often something which is good in and of itself can become bad because of a change of intentions. Sex is good, for instance, when used in the appropriate context; outside of that, it becomes something which is troublesome. Food is good, but it is certainly possible for us to develop an unhealthy relationship with food such that it is no longer used to nourish and strengthen us but becomes a crutch on which we rely when we feel down. Many things are good but can become wrong when used or done incorrectly.
It is good that the people wish to make Jesus king, as part of the reason He came to the earth in flesh was to establish His kingdom among us! The problem, however, is in why they want to make Jesus king – their motives are impure. They don’t want to make Jesus king because He heals the sick or because His teachings are the source of extraordinary wisdom. Keep in mind, this is a statement made immediately after He multiplied the loaves and fish. It appears, rather, that the people want to make Jesus king because they think He'll just give them all they could desire. It is right and good for Jesus to assume the throne – but it has to be for the right reasons. Jesus’ response is to withdraw, for this is not the correct way for Him to achieve what He came to do. His task has been appointed by His Father in heaven, and the methodology has been foreordained. He is to rule and reign, but not before He has suffered at the hands of the very ones who wish to put Him on the throne right now.
Jesus’ practice of withdrawing to the lonely places in prayer is a welcome one for introverts like myself. It seems significant that Jesus withdraws to a mountain for His time in prayer. Numerous mountaintop experiences are found in Scripture which show a strong connection between encounters with God and our geographical location at these high points. Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac at the top of Mount Moriah, which will go on to become the Temple Mount. Moses receives the tablets on the top of Mount Sinai. Elijah has meaningful experiences of God at both Horeb and on Mount Carmel. Jesus’ transfiguration will take place on a mountain as well. Jesus’ withdrawal to the mountain may be yet another sign that He is leaving the concerns of the world behind to go to one of the significant places of encounter with the Father.
An important question to ask in all of biblical interpretation is, “Why, contextually, does this story happen here?” Especially in a work like John, which does not seem to place as much emphasis on recounting historical events in chronological order but rather intends to clearly demonstrate the divine nature of Christ to the reader, what is the theological reasoning for John’s placement of the story of Jesus walking on the water? Several key details which define the other Gospel accounts’ versions of the story are missing; namely, Peter’s encounter with Christ is not here, nor do the disciples declare that they are seeing a ghost. Perhaps most significantly of all, the storm’s end isn’t reported in this account. The details which have been included therefore become all the more significant in telling us why the story is where it is and the theological purpose it serves.
In John’s account, it would seem, the disciples offer something of a contrast to the crowds which were just attempting to make Jesus king for the wrong reasons. Consider this: how frequently do people who are doing well recognize their own depravity and need of a savior? More often than not, those who are doing well on their own wish to make Jesus something of a pleasant addition to their lives rather than their sole focus. They like to add a little dash of Jesus into the mix so they feel like the God component of their lives is comfortably filled. In the case of the crowds, they have eaten and now have plenty. In their contentment they seek to make Jesus king – not, it appears, to have Him as Lord of all, but because they think He’ll continue to give them what they want. It’s the same reason people vote for the politician with the nicest campaign promises.
The disciples, on the other hand, are at a place of desperation. They are three or four miles into the water. They are surrounded by rough seas and fierce winds. They have every reason to be on edge. One false move, they all die. There is no swimming to shore. There is no hope of survival if something happens – and somehow, in the midst of all the turmoil surrounding them, what causes them to truly fear is the presence of a human being walking on the water. Their fears are quickly quelled, however, once Jesus speaks those familiar words: “It is I; do not be afraid.” In response, they receive Him with gladness. He is the only hope they have, and with Him, they arrive safely.
What purpose does Jesus serve in your life? Is He the cherry on top of the sundae because you have a pretty good life as it is? Is He the One on whom you lean in the troubled times, but quickly forget about when all is well? Or is He everything to you?
We can follow after Jesus for the wrong reasons, but His response to the crowds who sought Him with wrong motives was withdrawal. When we seek Him with pure motives and with a desire to let Him take His rightful place as Savior and Lord, He is pleased to enter into the boat with us and bring us exactly where we need to be. In our desperation and our longing, He is pleased to meet us and to fulfill.
Lord, You have always proven faithful in the times where I knew I needed You. I recognize, Lord, that whether I acknowledge it or not, I am always in need of You. May I seek You in all things with a pure heart. May my sole desire be You, not what You can give me. May I be satisfied in Your presence.