“He meant to pass by them”1
In a previous article we took note of the sovereignty of our Lord who not only created water and its many properties, but also walked on water. But perhaps the most amazing facet of this story is often overlooked by the casual reader of Scripture Neither Matthew nor John mentions it. It is found only in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:48). There we are told two seemingly contradictory facts. We read that “about the fourth watch of the night he [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them.”
OK, which is it? If he meant to “pass by them” why did he “come to them”?
All of you are aware of how we “pass by” people all the time because we don’t want to talk to them or make eye contact; so we try to slip by without being noticed (head down or turned away or perhaps faking being occupied with something or someone else). We try to slip in and quickly out of a room filled with people, hoping no one will notice.
Is that what Jesus is doing? Did he get out on the sea and suddenly change his mind, saying to himself: “I think I’ll leave them to themselves. They got into this mess; they can get themselves out of it.”
No! There is something profoundly glorious in what is happening here. There is something deeply spiritual and eternally significant in the fact that Jesus walked on the water and the way he intended to “pass by” the disciples and also in what he said to them when they freaked out. Look closely with me.
First of all, these men were steeped in the OT. They lived and breathed the Scriptures. They knew from childhood that in the OT Scriptures only God walked on water!
“[God] alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8).
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16).
“Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (Psalm 77:19).
In walking on the water Jesus is doing what only God can do.
Second, as if that weren’t enough, the words translated “pass by” are rich in meaning when we look at how they are used in the OT.
And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:17-23).
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exodus 34:5-8).
In saying that Jesus walked upon the water and intended to “pass by” the disciples, Mark isn’t saying he wanted to sneak past them unnoticed. He intended to be seen! He intended to be revealed! He intended to be disclosed in the most marvelous and glorious way as the very God who “passed by” Moses in Exodus and was made known as the one true God, the great and majestic Creator of all mankind!
Third, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus doesn’t simply do what God does in “passing by” as he walks upon the water. Notice that he also speaks and in doing so claims to be God in unmistakable, breathtaking terms. “But Sam, where does he do that? All he says is, ‘Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid’” (v. 50). Let’s return again to Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain.
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15).
The Greek behind the English “It is I” could easily be rendered: “I am!” Ego eimi! Jesus is saying, “Men, women, young and old, of every race and tribe and people and nation; hear what I’m saying: The great and awesome and eternally holy Yahweh of the OT is now before you in human flesh! I am the I am! In Jesus of Nazareth we come face to face with the God of Israel, now in human flesh. The Creator and Redeemer God who made himself known to Moses in causing his glory to “pass by” is now “passing by” yet again in the person of Jesus! The great and glorious “I am” of Exodus, the God who declared, “When the people of Israel ask you who sent Moses to set us free; when Pharaoh asks who is this God who demands that his people be set free from bondage, tell them that “I am who I am” has sent you.” This I am is now present in the person of Jesus!
And what was their reaction? Initially they thought it was a ghost! The word translated “ghost” is the Greek phantasma, from which we get the words “phantasm” and “phantom.” I can understand this, at least to a point. It was dark. The mist from the wind and waves and their obvious fatigue from rowing all night easily explain their failure to recognize Jesus.
Once again, liberal theologians who are uncomfortable with anything supernatural or miraculous insist that the disciples only thought they saw Jesus. They were tired and their frightened minds played a trick on them. Really? All 12 of them? And what of Peter? And how do you account for the fact that when Jesus got on board the boat with them there was no possible way to mistake his identity?
Mark also tells us that once Jesus got into the boat and the wind ceased, “they were utterly astounded” (v. 51). Amazing! It’s Jesus! And once again he shows up and nature bows in his presence. The wind obeys its Creator and Lord!
When we read Matthew’s version of this story, we discover that in this movement from initial hardness and blindness on to amazement and still a measure of confusion they eventually come to terms with what has just happened. Their fear and doubt and uncertainty eventually gave way to worship: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (14:33).
Can you say the same thing?