Itinerating on the Water
Our author, John, wants us not only to see the prophet Moses, whose rich memory is woven throughout the entirety of chapter six, but he also wants us to see He who is greater than Moses. Consider: the setting, we’re told, is the season of “the Passover, the feast of the Jews” (vs. 4), and just like that ancient Exodus event where Moses, after he performed many signs to lead God’s people out into the wilderness, we likewise see here “a large crowd following Jesus, because they saw signs” (vs 2). Indeed, the people call Jesus “the Prophet who is to come” (vs. 14), referring, of course, to Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15 concerning a second Moses-like Prophet who will come and fulfill a final and perfect Exodus for all of God’s people.
Seen in this light, all the miracles of John chapter 6 jump out at us with fresh insight grounded as they are in this Moses-Exodus motif. Just as Moses was used by God to feed his people with the miracle bread of manna, so now Jesus creates bread ex nihilo, feeding the five thousand. Just as Moses went up on Mount Sinai while the people stayed below, so too we see Jesus go “up on the mountain” (vs 3) or again, when the people wanted to take Jesus by force, he “withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (vs. 15).
This helps us see, I think, why this little section (verses 16-21) appears right in the middle of chapter 6. The whole chapter is committed to describing and then explaining the miracle of feeding the five thousand, but right in the middle we see this short episode, with not much explanation, about Jesus walking on water. Why? Because just as Moses led his people through the water on dry ground, here we see Jesus, the greater Moses walk on water as if it were dry ground! Moses, who needed God’s help to split the sea, pales in comparison to the Lord of the sea who can walk upon the very water whose existence is upheld by his sovereign, sustaining hand. “The waters saw You, God; The waters saw You, they were in anguish; The ocean depths also trembled… Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints were not known. You led Your people like a flock” (Psalm 77:16, 19).
John is leading us to behold Jesus as The Prophet, sent of God to deliver us, not from political bondage like the Jews in Egypt, but from the spiritual bondage of sin and spiritual death. Here is our more perfect Moses come to lead us through a greater and more perfect Exodus.
To be sure, John is highlighting that Jesus is the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15; that Jesus is the better Moses finally come. But its more than that as well. At the heart of this sign are the words of Jesus himself. Consider again the setting: as John tells us, it was “dark” (vs. 17), the sea “became rough because a strong wind was blowing” (vs. 18), and when “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened” (vs. 19). In other words, here was this little band of believers cast into the darkness and storm of a sea which could swallow them whole. By themselves they were certainly vulnerable.
But isn’t it fascinating that they only really became frightened once they saw Jesus walking on the water towards them? It seems that they see Jesus here as more than just a Moses-like prophet who performs miracles. No, they’re confronted by one more powerful than the storm and the sea combined. “They saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight” (Psalm 77:24-26). Like the prophet Isaiah who comes face to face with the glory of God and feels like a man undone, so too do the disciples tremble at the presence of the God-man walking their way.
And it is here where we see the heart of our passage. Jesus said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” The words translated here, “it is I” are from the Greek phrase egō eimi, which, notably, is so often translated elsewhere as the personal name of God, “I Am.” Indeed, the phrase is a central motif in John’s Gospel, showing up a total of seven times (here in 6:20, as well as in 6:35; 8:24, 58; 10:14; 15:1; 18:5)!
The phrase allows us to see here again the reemergence of Moses in this text. It was to that greatest of Old Testament prophets whom God revealed his personal name. But here we see a greater Prophet who bears that very name! And so, though they were afraid, now, at his leading to not be afraid, they find their hearts calmed. “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven” (Psalm 77:29-30).
There is a contingent “miracle” perhaps described here; the fact that as they took Jesus into the boat, they “immediately” found themselves at their desired haven, “the land to which they were going” (vs. 21). Perhaps we’re meant to see here that Jesus will bring his people home. Moses, imperfect as he was, wasn’t quite able to bring that first exodus to completion; the original generation died in the wilderness while he himself was disqualified from even entering the land. Not so our Savior, Jesus. As Bruce Milne so beautifully puts it, with Jesus in our presence, “the church, for all its internal failings, may yet sweep upon its way, and at the last be carried by its triumphant Lord on to that ‘eternal shore’ for which we are destined.”
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.