A Fresh Look at Miracles, Mark 6:45-52
by Dr. Andrew Hoffecker
Dr. Andrew Hoffecker is Professor
of Church History at RTS/Jackson. He is the author of Piety and the Princeton
Theologians and editor of the two-volume work Building a Christian World View.
He has also contributed articles to numerous publications. Before joining RTS, he was
Professor of Religion at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
Not another person could fit into the first floor of the fraternity house. Over fifty students crowded to hear an Ivy League professor speak on the topic, "A Scientist Looks at Miracles." Instead of immediately tipping his hand to reveal his views, the scientist asked the group, "Of all the miracles in the Bible, which one do you find most difficult to believe?" He waited as each person identified a biblical miracle. Not surprisingly; the miracles mentioned most were those over nature, including Jesus' walking on water (Mark 6:45-56).
I'll never forget the professor's response. Rather than immediately commenting on the variety of answers, he stated: "If you can accept the fact that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ and brought redemption from sin by His death and resurrection, you should be able to accept every other miracle mentioned in the Bible."
Years later, I found the source of his answer - Miracles, written by C. S. Lewis, the famous British apologist. In his book Lewis describes the incarnation as "The Grand Miracle." Lewis insists that every other miracle in the Bible "prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this." Just as every event in nature displays what nature is like, so "every Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation."
Let's consider Jesus' walking on water in light of these ideas. When did Jesus perform this miracle and how did it relate to other miracles? What are the possible responses to this miracle?
THIS IS NO MYTH
First, note that this account follows on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000. Mark begins "He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side" (v.45). Why the sense of urgency? We learn from the parallel passage in John 6:14 that after Jesus fed the crowd, people attempted to take Jesus "by force" in order to make Him king. Instead, Jesus takes matters into His own hands and delivers His impressionable disciples out of temptation's way.
Here we are reminded of Jesus' earth mission - to bring the Kingdom of God - but not as a political figure. His miracles manifest that Kingdom. The miracles play a primary role in His ministry, but in a unique way. Although they identify Him as God's Son, His purpose was not to perform them as mere shows of power or as means to popular kingship. Jesus has power but does not flaunt it. In fact the majority of His ministry was characterized by humility and suffering.
The Gospels recount Jesus' walking on water in simple, straightforward terms. Mark states it occurred "about the fourth watch of the night" and that the weather had turned ugly for "the wind was against them" causing the disciples to be "straining at the oars." Matthew adds that waves "battered" the boat, and John adds the distance they had rowed. Such graphic details remind us of the historical nature of this account. In other words, we are not reading a myth or allegory that happened nowhere in particular and at no datable time. Instead, Mark narrates an actual historical event.
Yet, ever since the Enlightenment, people questioned the historicity of Jesus walking on water Thomas Jefferson produced his "scissors and paste" Bible by cutting out all accounts of miracles. A famous philosopher said that our faith in the regularity of nature leads us to accept any natural explanation of unusual events rather than admit a miracle. Rationalizations proliferated as moderns attempted to make the Bible fit the presuppositions of contemporary thinking.
One such rationalization dismisses this miracle by saying that since it was night, the disciples did not see that Jesus was really walking in shallow water. Another states that Jesus knew the location of a sandbar and used it to approach His disciples. (Of course if this is true, we must admit a new miracle - not that Jesus walked on water but that Peter sank into the sand!)
Another rationalization states that people in biblical times manifested a primitive, uneducated world-view. Rampant superstition and ignorance of the laws of nature produced gullible people who uncritically accepted reports of miraculous occurrences.
A moment's reflection dispels these ideas. First, the disciples certainly did not know Newtonian physics. Nor could they explain the molecular structure or surface tension of water. But they did know that people could not walk on water. And all three accounts indicate how the disciples initially explained what they saw. They believed they were seeing a ghost, because ghosts, unlike people, can perhaps walk on water.
AND PEOPLE WERE AMAZED...
Second, Mark's gospel especially emphasizes the emotional and intellectual reaction to Jesus' miracles. Rather than glib acceptance of the unusual as commonplace, we find astonishment and awe in the face of what defies explanation. For example, in 6:50,51 Mark asserts that they were "terrified" at Jesus' visage and "greatly astonished" when, for a second time in their experience, a storm suddenly abated.
Throughout earlier chapters Mark recounts similar instances of people reacting to what they saw and heard. In 1:22 those in the synagogue were "amazed at His teaching." After Jesus healed the paralytic in 2:12, "all were amazed and were glorifying God, saying, 'We have never seen anything like this."' And Mark 4:42 recounts that in response to stilling the storm the disciples "were filled with awe."
Notice a pattern in the Gospels? Jesus' miracles were real historical events which evoked spontaneous wonder. People responded to them as we would expect because they acknowledged phenomena attributable only to God's working as Lord over nature.
C. S. Lewis uses Jesus' walking on water to illustrate miracles of dominion which fall into two categories. Miracles of the "Old Creation," such as stilling the storm, remind us of what God is always doing. God sends the winds and controls their effect (cf., Psa 104:4; 148:8; Rev 7:1). Thus God always stills storms, usually by gradually diminishing the winds. But in Mark 4 Jesus calms the storm instantly merely by rebuking the winds. Stilling the storm is a miraculous reminder of what God always does.
Jesus' walking on water, however, is not a reminder. We do not ordinarily see people walk on water. Here we have a miracle of the "New Creation," a prophecy of what we shall do in the new order of the Kingdom of God. Lewis hints that miracles of the New Creation help us glimpse what life will be like when the Kingdom of God is fully consummated. He speculates that we will once again exercise a power over nature that we lost in the Fall, a dominion that reflects the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 when God commanded Adam and Eve to "fill the earth and subdue it..."
While some might label Lewis' ideas about our future powers in the Kingdom as "speculative," Mark's account clearly demonstrates Jesus' rightful lordship over nature. Jesus' walking on water demonstrates that God's Kingdom was truly breaking into history. Nature is not something absolutely fixed and unalterable. By this dramatic act Jesus shows unequivocally that He is more than a man. Nature does His bidding both because the storm diminishes and because the water supports His weight as He walks toward His disciples.
Jesus' miracles, therefore, represent authentic historical events. They inspire awe or astonishment in those who witness them, and Jesus uses miracles to exercise His kingly power over the created order.
WHAT IS OUR RESPONSE?
Mark, however; does not close with Jesus walking on water. Verse 52 states "For they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves but their heart was hardened." By these words Mark not only returns to the feeding of 5,000 but highlights their lack of faith in the face of the storm. Miracles demand an appropriate response from those who witness them.
We all too quickly assume the transparency of the miracles, that is, that whoever saw them immediately understood them as clear evidences of God's supernatural work and displayed a full and robust faith in the one who performed them. Mark asserts the very opposite. We begin with the disciples. Although they witnessed the event and even acknowledged that a great wonder occurred, they did not comprehend its true significance. They lacked a full understanding of Jesus' person and mission as bringing the Kingdom of God.
Mark uses the phrase "their heart was hardened," a metaphor to denote the human condition due to sin. Throughout Mark's gospel we view the disciples believing in Jesus, yet not fully understanding Him. When commenting on why God permitted divorce, for example, Jesus explains it as the result of "your hardness of heart" (Mark 10:5).
The disciples' lack of belief, however, differed radically from that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus' opponents witnessed the same miracles as the disciples. They could not deny that Jesus performed mighty works. But they resolutely refused to believe that Jesus performed them by the power of God. That would validate Jesus' claims of deity and His ministry as genuine, facts they constantly challenged.
Therefore, they attributed Jesus' power to Satan and his kingdom. Here we find not only a lack of faith, but a total inversion of good and evil - calling the Son of God a worker of the power of Beelzebub (Cf. Mt 10:25; 12:29, 27; Mk 3:22; Lk ll:15ff.).
Obviously for the scribes and Pharisees seeing was not believing. Yet, for disciples seeing led eventually - after the resurrection - to complete believing. Experiencing the risen Lord opened their eyes to the fuller meaning of Jesus' entire ministry. Miracles had indicated supernatural powers, validated Jesus' person (He is God) and illuminated His work (His teaching and miracles brought the Kingdom).
Remember the scientist's initial critical point - Jesus' incarnation and His miracles are inextricably related. That said, how should we respond when reading about Jesus' miracles? Are our hearts hardened because we do not believe in them? Or because of familiarity do we unreflectively skim over them? Miracles should encourage us to: stop and meditate on their significance; bolster our faith in the Lord; trust Jesus in life's stormy trials.
Matthew 14 tells us how Peter responds to Jesus' invitation to join Him on the water "And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus."
Today, may Jesus' miracles bring us closer to Him.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 2