When any storm comes our way in life, we tend to have one of two responses: Grabbing hold of truisms that comfort us or determining that God has abandoned us. For some, there is a third alternative: pure despair, as they realize their belief system has no answer outside of self-reliance.
When the storms of life come our way, we look for salvation. But what if we’re looking for the wrong thing?
In a society plagued by food scarcity and security issues, self-reliance offers no hope. A lack of access to basic necessities leads people to look beyond themselves for answers. This is why the book of James says:
“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5 NIV).
The poor often understand something the wealthy do not: They cannot save themselves. This is why so many impoverished people were drawn to Jesus, while the rich generally turned away or persecuted him.
But while poverty may draw someone near to God, it is also against the heart of God. God wants a full and healthy life for all. Poverty can also create a different type of faith crisis. Faith can become reliant on what God provides rather than on who he is. We see this with the Israelites in the wilderness: When God did not provide for their needs in the way they desired, they lose faith (see the book of Numbers).
Belief in God must transcend even our most basic needs, our desires, and even our prayers of desperation. We must seek something deeper that will withstand our health fading, our loved ones being lost, and even our countries failing us.
When everything is stripped away, what will we believe? Or perhaps the better question is: What are we truly seeking now? Is it what God can give us or is it authentic relationship with God? A look back in time, to Jesus’ day and sayings, offers us a glimpse into how we should navigate the storms of life.
Jesus lived in a primarily agrarian society. Politics preyed on the poor and weak. The wealthy gained further riches off the backs of the poor. The people felt insecure as the ruling powers had their own interests in mind, not the security of those they governed. The situation in first-century Judaea and Galilee was very similar to many places in the global East and Southeast today.
It is in this context that Jesus miraculously fed about 8,000 people: 5,000 men and an additional 1,000 to 3,000 women and children. What’s extraordinary is that all four gospels record this story (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:32–44; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–15). This is a rare occurrence when it comes to the gospels. It’s a little surprising to find a particular teaching or miracle of Jesus in three gospels, but four is very rare. This suggests that all four Gospel writers viewed the feeding of the 5,000 as one of the pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry.
But the feeding of the 5,000 is not critical to all four gospels simply because it is an extraordinary miracle. It is critical because of what the miracle teaches us about believing in Jesus.
Just after the feeding of the 5,000, three of the four gospels record the exact same story: Jesus walking on the water. Luke is the outlier, who moves straight to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (the anointed one of God; Luke 9:18–21). In the other three gospels, there are multiple events that separate Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 and this confession (compare Matthew 16:13–20; Mark 8:27–30; John 6:66–71). But what if Luke is onto something here? Perhaps the confession that Luke records is rooted in what the feeding of the 5,000 should have taught the apostles—Jesus’ closest 12 disciples. Perhaps the confession is what we’re meant to learn before we go into the storm, through the storm, and understand more fully after the storm?
John’s Gospel records the story of Jesus walking on the water this way:
“Jesus, knowing that they [the crowd who ate at the feeding of the 5,000] intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough” (John 6:15–18 NIV).
Matthew and Mark fill in the detail that Jesus told the apostles to cross the Sea of Galilee and that he would dismiss the crowds (Matthew 14:22; Mark 6:45). Thus, it was not the impatience of the disciples that sent them to sea; it was the command of their rabbi.
Here are Jesus’ closest followers, simply following the orders of their rabbi, and they are caught in a tempest. At this point, you can almost hear Simon Peter say: “Did Jesus really know what he was doing when he sent us out here?” To this, Andrew would reply, “Maybe we misheard him.” To which Bartholomew may reply, “What if he was speaking in parables again and we weren’t supposed to go to sea but to prepare for our spiritual journey?” And John the son of Zebedee would say, “You know, he isn’t a fishermen—maybe he doesn’t know what the Sea of Galilee can be like at night this time of year.” James, John’s brother, would huff angrily in agreement, as he attempted to tie down the remainder of the items on deck.
I know you’re laughing now, because you see in these responses parallels to your responses to God’s wishes. When the sea gets rough, “You too think, ‘What is happening here? I thought God asked me to do this—maybe I was wrong.’ ” Or even, “Maybe God was wrong.”
We can gain an incredible insight into this dilemma from the context of John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel is ordered differently than the other three gospels. This is because John has a very different emphasis than Matthew, Mark, and Luke—known collectedly as the Synoptic Gospels.
From John 1:19 to the end of chapter 12, the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ public ministry—accentuated by his actions during Jewish festivals. This makes the story of Jesus walking on water rather unique: This miracle—and what it teaches—is just for the apostles. This is not for the public, but for the insiders—those already in the boat, literally. This point is accentuated by the fact that Jesus does not directly answer the later question of the crowd, “Rabbi, when did you come here [across the Sea of Galilee]?” (John 6:25). Instead, Jesus responds:
“Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26–27 NIV).
Jesus’ signs, then, are much more than miracles. They are meant to teach who he is and what he is all about. While he can answer a cry for provision, he especially wants to answer the cry of our souls. The signs, then, of John’s Gospel are about what it means for Jesus to be Messiah—the Christ, the anointed one of God—not merely about helping people.
We cannot divorce charity from the gospel. We cannot divorce the need of the stomach from the need of the soul. The whole gospel requires loving the whole person. This is Jesus’ lesson to the crowd and one of his lessons to the apostles through the storm.
Jesus emphasizes that our focus must be on relationship with God. He first takes a break from his public ministry to privately pray. And then he takes a further break to privately teach his apostles a critical lesson.
Here’s the lesson Jesus is teaching his apostles through the storm: All of this life pales in comparison to knowing God. This is why Jesus walks on the water—it’s pragmatic, he needed a time with God the Father. And this is why the apostles are in the boat: to remember their reliance on God, even when things go sideways.
John records the remainder of the story of the storm as follows:
“When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (John 6:19–21 NIV).
Even if the disciples die, they have something to hold onto—the one who walks on the water. They have no need to fear.
This story and the feeding of the 5,000 begs the questions. If Jesus is Lord over all—the bread and the fish that he can multiply and the tumultuous sea, which he can walk on—how can he not be Lord over our lives? How can our confession of Jesus as the Christ not pull us through, even in the most difficult of circumstances?
Here in the boat, Jesus’ disciples learn that faith is no guarantee of prosperity; it’s a guarantee of eternal love and dwelling with God. This is in many ways the point of John’s Gospel (compare John 3:16–17). Chaos overwhelms us, but the God of order stands with us.
In the ancient Near East, open water represented chaos. In ancient Near Eastern myths, the waters represent chaos that must be wrestled with by the gods; sea monsters must be battled with. If a god could subdue the waters, then he showed himself worthy of worship. The gods were looked to for order.
The gods were also looked to for provision throughout the agricultural year. They were celebrated when provision came with parades, singing, dancing, and sacrifices. In John’s Gospel, Jesus shows himself superior to these gods. He can provide grain for thousands, in the form of bread, from a few loaves (John 6:1–15). It is not Baal who can be relied upon for this, but Jesus. It is not Dionysius, who is the true god of the vine, but the God of Israel as seen in God the Son, Jesus. He can turn water into wine (John 2:1–11). It is not Poseidon who can subdue the seas; it is Jesus the Christ, the holy one of God, who can walk on the water (John 6:16–21; compare Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25).
We all look for security and provision in all the wrong places. We look to jobs, financial investments, our homes, our family members, and our government. But we know deep down that much of life is unstable.
In the midst of the storm—in the boat of faith—we cry out to God, saying, “Why would you put me here? I thought I was following your plan. I have been your servant and you have betrayed me.”
But the truth is that God put us in the boat of faith, but he never guaranteed security. Instead Jesus told us it would be painful and difficult and that people may even kill us for our beliefs. Note that after Peter’s confession in Luke, which comes right after Jesus feeds the 5,000, that this is precisely what Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV).
What Jesus did guarantee was eternal relationship with him—through his Son who died on the cross and rose again three days later—for us.
It is through Jesus that all things were made (John 1:1–3). It is Jesus who offers us eternal life (John 3:16–17)—reconnecting us to God the Father. It is this God who will get us through all things, for better or worse in this life, for the sake of his eternal purposes, which are good (Romans 8:28). It is this God who can walk on the water and reign over all (John 6:19–21). Jesus can calm the storm, but shouldn’t we praise him even if he doesn’t (Luke 8:22–25)? After all, he is perfectly capable of walking on the water in the midst of the storm—showing that he can see far beyond it.