Being with Jesus is insufficient; he must be allowed to lead.
“One might wonder which is more troubling,
the presence of Jesus or his absence.”
Another Sea Crossing and Storm
The crowd has had their physical needs fully satisfied by the provision of bread and fish. In Mark’s gospel, only the disciples know what has happened. Mark does not state the reason(s) why Jesus commands the disciples to cross over to “the other side” and abruptly dismisses the crowds before going away by himself to pray. According to John’s account of the miracle provides a possible reason, which has some historical basis, and should be included as a possibility.
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. (John 6:15 ESV)
Whatever the reason the disciples are away from Jesus when the winds and sea turn against them and they struggle to reach their commanded destination: Bethsaida. Mark has Jesus “seeing” their struggles but only going out toward them in the “fourth watch”, in the final hours before dawn. Why did Jesus wait so long?
Mark writes that Jesus’ intent was to “pass by them” (v.48). It seems an odd phrase but can be read as an allusion to God passing by Moses on Sinai, and of Jesus’ intent to lead the disciples to safety, as a good shepherd leads his flock (echo back to the previous story of the feeding).
Jesus’ presence does not have the desired effect upon the disciples. Rather than recognize Jesus, they think it is a water spirit come to destroy them, and they react in horror and fear.
Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid,” to calm them down. He gets in the boat and the wind and sea return to calm. They are astonished but do not recognize the significance or the revelation of Jesus’ identity. The reason given by Mark for this failure to recognize Jesus is that “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (v.52)
In spite of the disciples having been with Jesus, having been sent out to do as Jesus had done, having witnessed Jesus as Shepherd just hours before, they have failed to recognize Jesus. Even after Jesus uses phrases that allude to Old Testament identifiers of divinity, they do not understand. Instead of experiencing peace, they are amazed – which in Mark, is usually a description of unbelief. (In the first storm calming, they are filled with great fear, 4:41).
Their failure of theological imagination is complete. Rather than understanding the epiphany of God-in-Christ represented by Jesus as he passed by, they feared a demonic attack of some sort. Having followed him more and less faithfully in the preceding days, they had grown accustomed to the ‘normal’ form of his presence among them, teaching and healing the people. But in their own situation of distress, they were unable to ‘see’ his encouraging manifestation of the divine presence on their behalf.
As far as faith goes, the disciples are no better off than Jesus’ opponents and the rocky soil of the parable. The Complete Jewish Bible translates 6:52 as follows: “for they did not understand about the loaves; on the contrary, their hearts had been made stone-like.” It is as if the loaves of the bread of life that the disciples have been given have been turned to stone – the exact opposite of what Jesus was tempted to do at the beginning of his ministry (recorded in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark).
Missing the Mark
They reach shore, but not the intended destination. They end up in Gennesaret, the western shore, rather than Bethsaida, on the eastern side. They end up on the same side as they started, the more-Jewish territory, rather than “the other side,” the predominantly Gentile side. Jesus original intention was to take his ministry to the Gentiles, but it had been thwarted. But as the next couple chapters in Mark will show, Jesus will eventually make it there.
As the company went ashore and traveled about the crowds recognized Jesus, quite in contrast to the disciples out on the sea, and came to him with their requests for healing. Their thinking about Jesus and his power was rather magical, however. Yet unlike the disciples, they recognize he who can help. The peoples’ “faith,” if it can even be called that, is primitive and even superstitious, yet Mark implies to his audience that this is greater than what the disciples possessed during the sea crossing.
Jesus chooses to meet the peoples’ needs, not because they have any great faith, but because he is compassionate. Jesus certainly desires that they understand who he is and why he does what he does, but he realizes that is beyond their comprehension. Therefore he does no teaching. It does not matter to him that they may never come to understand. He is not motivated by “opening the door to evangelism” but simply by compassion.
They are not interested in following. They are interested in getting: getting what they want, getting relief from their suffering, getting deliverance from their affliction. We do not know if those who sought Jesus out in Gennesaret for healing also intended to join his movement. We only know that they wanted something. That is what happens when the people all around sense there is a divine presence in their midst, even if those whom the Son of God has called to be his community do not understand who he is… That he is an effective teacher and compassionate human being is beside the point. Their plea is, ‘What can you do for me? Now!’ By the end of the Gospel, the crowd will have forgotten his good deeds and will turn against him.
Through the next couple of chapters, the question about Jesus’ identity continues in the background until he explicitly asks it of his disciples in 8:27. With this question comes a related question, “Who is included in the gospel?” The next chapters reveal God’s inclusiveness and a re-drawing of boundaries.
Remember, the Pharisees’ hearts are also hardened. Mark describes what that hardening is about (3:1–6). The Pharisees with hardened hearts are sure they know where the boundaries of the community of God’s kingdom lie—in their case, with those keeping the law, particularly the law of the Sabbath. Can it be that the disciples’ hearts are also hardened because they are so sure they know where the boundaries of the kingdom lie?
A church that has been very comfortable in its cultural context is finding the culture around it radically shifting… The age of the culturally established Christian church is gone. The church is, again, sent by its Lord to cross over to the other side. There are adverse winds blowing against the church on this crossing, and the crossing is over ‘the sea’—‘the deep,’ in biblical language—the symbol of threatening chaos.
Left on their own, and then with Jesus but in fear, the disciples failed to break boundaries that limited God’s work and power. Only with Jesus in the lead do fears subside and faith rise. Only then can disciples/apostles transcend cultural, social, and religious boundaries to meet the needs of all (literally, all) people included in the gospel audience.
 Feasting: Mark, location 6865.
 NICNT: Mark, 6:48-50. “The disciples reacted to Jesus' appearance with terror, convinced that they had encountered a water spirit. The popular belief that spirits of the night brought disaster is illustrated by a tradition preserved in the Talmud: ‘Rabbah said, Seafarers told me that the wave that sinks a ship appears with a white fringe of fire at its crest, and when stricken with clubs on which is engraven, ‘I am that I am, Yah, the Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah,’ it subsides.’”
 Reading Mark, 6:31-56. “Continuing the imagery of the new exodus, the narrator has Jesus identify himself with the self-designation of Yahweh, ‘I am’ (Exod 3:14, Is 41:4, 43:10-11). Thus the author of Mark provides the audience with a definitive answer to the question raised by the disciples in the previous sea- rescue story: ‘Who then is this?’ (4:41). The promise of deliverance is reinforced by an echo of Deutero-Isaiah's ‘Don't be afraid’ (Is 43:10, 43; 45:18; 51:2). Sadly, none of this provides clarification for the disciples, who remain ‘utterly astounded.’”
 Feasting: Mark, location 6698.
 Feasting: Mark, location 6741. “Going to the other side in Mark’s language means going to Gentile territory. It means going to the unknown, going to the foreign, going to the other side of humanity. No wonder the disciples were made, or as the Greek word more strongly suggests, forced to go.”
 Reading Mark, 6:31-56. “It soon becomes apparent, however, that without Jesus 'leadership the disciples are not going to make it to gentile territory; again they are meeting with opposition, as in 4:35-41.”
 UBC: Mark, 6:53-56. “This is another summary account of Jesus' ministry (like earlier examples in 1:39; 3:7-12), only this summary makes no reference to Jesus teaching or exorcising demons but concentrates on his healings… The attitude of the people is an almost superstitious reverence for Jesus as a wonder-worker, including the idea that even his clothing contained healing power (6:56; cf. 5:28)… Mark's attitude toward the popular notoriety of Jesus as a wonderworker is that Jesus did indeed do such works but that the crowd's perception of Jesus was all too shallow and incomplete by the standards of the Christian gospel.”
 Feasting: Mark, location 6911. “Already, allusion has been made to the contrast between the disciples’ slowness to trust the calming presence of God in their experience on the sea (vv. 45–52) and the villagers’ readiness to place the sick near Jesus. In this way, Mark reminds us that faithfulness is not always of the authorized sort.”
 Feasting: Mark, locations 6965, 6996.
 Feasting: Mark, location 6770.
 Feasting: Mark, 6747.