The interesting thing about the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus doesn’t tell us (over and over again) He’s the Messiah; He proves it by His actions.1 This passage (Mk 6:45-52) is full of trinitarian implications. It follows right on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000 (“for they did not understand about the loaves,” Mk 6:52), and it can’t be rightly understood without that connection.
Alarmed at the crowd’s blasphemous intentions to make Him a dime-store King (Jn 6:15), Jesus “immediately made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side,” (Mk 6:45).
Commentators are divided about why He “went into the hills to pray,” (Mk 6:46). Some suspect He prayed that the disciples wouldn’t be seduced by these wrong Messianic ideas;2 a notion some scholars reject.3 Others think He prayed the disciples would have a safe voyage.4 If that was His intent, then God surely didn’t listen! Some think Jesus prayed for Himself, that He wouldn’t yield to the temptation to take a shortcut to His Kingdom and bypass Calvary.5 Options one and three are the most likely.
But, for our purposes the content of His prayer is less important than the fact of it – who did Jesus pray to? Oneness Pentecostal theologians would have us believe Jesus’ human will is praying to His divine will for strength;6 a rather extreme form of Nestorianism. In light of the evidence we’ve seen for a distinction between Divine Persons,7 this is a desperate dodge. Jesus, as our divine substitute, truly prayed to the Father for strength to avoid this temptation8 as part of His lifelong active obedience to the law for our sake.
Walking on the Waves
Several hours later, as the disciples made their way across the lake, Jesus “saw that they were distressed in rowing, for the wind was against them,” (Mk 6:48). In recent weeks, Jesus has:
- Called and commissioned the twelve, “gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” the ability to miraculously heal the sick, and sent them out to preach the Good News of the Kingdom (Mk 6:713). In short, Jesus commissioned them to duplicate His message and the signs which accompanied it (cf. Lk 7:22-23; Isa 35:5-6).
- He’s fulfilled the role as Israel’s true leader and shepherd, preaching the Kingdom of God to a massive crowd and healing their sick (Mk 6:34).
- Like Moses before Him, Christ fed the Israelites in the wilderness by miraculous provision. He did it as a teaching lesson; e.g. “Look what I’m doing here – what does this say about who I am?”
- But, where Moses prayed to God for food and waited, Jesus simply produced it Himself – because He is God. Moreover, He allowed the people to gorge themselves on the food (“they all ate and were satisfied,” Mk 6:42); a rare treat for people who did not have much.
What follows is a deliberate display of divine power, to show these disciples who He really is. Before, during an earlier storm, they’d asked, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mk 4:41). As if they didn’t have enough evidence, Jesus will show them one more proof and answer that question. This story is not an allegory about how Jesus helps His people in difficult times; that is a terrible misreading of the context.9 Rather, this miracle acts as a crescendo, an epic finale of self-disclosure to men who haven’t quite grasped the truth yet.10
Mark tells us that, somewhere between 3:00 AM – 6:00 AM:
… he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear,’ (Mk 6:48-50).
Some commentators try to explain away this miracle, as if Christ were merely splashing through the shallows along the shore, or perhaps this account was a later invention. Others worry this story presents a docetic Jesus; a phantasm who is less than human (“they thought it was a ghost,” Mk 6:49).11 This assumption relies on the idea that Jesus somehow renounced His divine attributes or the use of them and, thus, cannot use them without compromising His humanity. This is incorrect; Jesus continued to exercise all His divine attributes, while assuming a human nature in such a way that He now “lives and acts in both natures forever.”12 As God the Son Incarnate, He lived His life (including the exercise of divine and human attributes) in accordance with the Father’s will13 – and it was evidently His will for the Son to reveal Himself in this unique way.
What, then, should we make of Jesus “walking on the sea?” The contrast is between the Old Covenant revelation of Yahweh as distant and frightful, and Jesus’ New Covenant revelation of Yahweh as personal, intimate and close. The Book of Job tells us God “alone stretched out the heavens, and trampled the waves of the sea … Lo, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him,” (Job 9:8, 11). There are two points to notice; Yahweh shields Himself from His people, and He has awesome power:
- Job knows Yahweh as the One who is invisible, indistinct and unapproachable. “If he should pass over me, I would not notice, and if he should pass by me, likewise I would not perceive,” (Job 9:11; Lexham LXX).14
- Likewise, His power is so great, He “walks about upon the sea as upon a floor,” (Job 9:8b, Lexham LXX).
This is precisely what Jesus does in our passage; “he came to them, walking on the sea,” (the NT phrase is nearly identical LXX text).15 But, where Yahweh hides His divine presence from His people (“you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live,” Ex 33:20), Jesus, “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,” (Jn 1:18). Jesus is equal with the Father, and is Yahweh, God with them, showing Himself to His chosen disciples. Like Yahweh, He, too, was “walking on the sea.” He would have passed them by. Instead, unlike Yahweh in the Old Covenant, He stops and joins them.16
Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear,” (Mk 6:50). This phrase ἐγώ εἰμι could mean “it is I.” Or, it may be a deliberate reference to the Divine Name. Commentators are divided,17 and context is key. Here, in the midst of a culminating series of miracles and expressions of divine identity to the disciples, it’s hard to see this as an innocent, “Hey, its me!” greeting.18 Even if that’s all it is, the greeting has no meaning without a context for who Jesus is. Also, even if the disciples didn’t understand Jesus to be saying, “I AM Yahweh!” at the time, the Lord may have wanted us to understand this when He moved Mark to write these words.19
It’s best to see this as Jesus’ deliberate identification with Yahweh. This is more than simple oneness with the Father; Jesus is explicitly claiming to be Yahweh. In a truly delightful way, Father, Son and Spirit work in a correlative way, so the seeming actions of one are actually performed by all three as a single unit.20
Having revealed Himself as the true shepherd, teacher and leader of Israel who preached God’s Kingdom (Mk 6:34), miraculously provided for the people in the wilderness as Moses’ preeminent and divine successor (Mk 6:35-44), having then come to the disciples as Yahweh Himself (Mk 6:48), walking “about upon the sea as upon a floor” (Job 9:8; Lexham LXX), then told the disciples to be calm because He is Yahweh Himself in the flesh (“I am!” Mk 6:50), Jesus caps this crescendo by stopping the storm (Mk 6:51).21
After all this, why are the disciples “utterly astounded,” (Mk 6:51)? Mark tells us they still didn’t understand who Jesus is; “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened,” (Mk 6:52). This series of divine unveilings was intended be a bright mirror, showing who this Messiah is.22 Yet, it didn’t work here.
Today, as we reflect back on the passages like this one (and so many others), I hope Christians are committed to progressing beyond these disciples to actually know who Yahweh, our triune God, is.23
David Bernard, a Oneness Pentecostal theologian, has well said:
“Many church members do not really understand the doctrine of trinitarianism and, as a practical matter, are closer to Oneness belief … Most Catholics and Protestants do not have a welldeveloped concept of the trinity, do not know in detail what trinitarianism teaches, and cannot explain Bible passages in trinitarian terms.”24
I’m afraid he is correct. It is a shame the very identity of our great God and Savior is such a neglected doctrinal subject. Carl Trueman has observed:25
Ask yourself this: if my church put on a conference about how to have a great Christian marriage and fulfilled sex life, would more or fewer people attend than if we did one on the importance of the incarnation or the Trinity?
The answer to that question allows an interesting comparison between the priorities of the church today and that of the fourth and fifth centuries. It is not that the people in your church do not believe that, say, Christ rose from the dead and the tomb was empty; rather it is that such belief has no real usefulness to them other than as it provides them with what they are looking to obtain in the here and now.
In such a context, orthodoxy as expressed in the great creeds and confessions is not rejected; it is simply sidelined as irrelevant and essentially useless.
The Trinity is all over Scripture; it’s certainly all over the Gospel of Mark. Jesus shows us who He is, and He shows us the Father and the Spirit, too – our One God, who eternally exists in three co-equal, co-eternal Persons. If we seek to love God with all our heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5), then we ought to want to know who He really is – in all His triune glory.
1 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 199.
2 See Edwards (Mark, 196-197) and William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 235.
3 “The feeding miracle certainly has messianic overtones (cf. Isa 25: 6– 8), but Mark presents it as an act of compassionate shepherding and nothing about the crowd’s behavior indicates messianic ambitions or expectations,” (Mark Strauss, Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 284).
4 William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, in NTC (Grand Rapids, MI: 1975), 258-259.
5 This is the view advocated by many theologians, such as James A. Brooks (Mark, vol. 23, in NAC [Nashville: B&H, 1991], 111); R.C.H. Lenski (The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel [Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946], 271; and Albert Barnes (Notes on the New Testament, vol. 9 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998], 155-156).
6 “We do not say Jesus prayed to Himself, for this would incorrectly imply that the man was the same as the Spirit. Rather, we say that the man prayed to the Spirit of God, while also recognizing that the Spirit dwelt in the man,” (David K. Bernard, Oneness of God [Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2000; Kindle ed.], KL 1737-1738).
7 Mk 1:1-3, 8, 10-12, 14, 24, 35; 2:10, 12, 28; 3:11, 28-30, 31-32; 5:7; 6:41.
8 Jesus, in the incarnation, was made in a state in innocence and holiness, just like Adam. His temptations did not come from a wicked disposition from within, but from without – just like Adam and Eve.
9 “As with the stilling of the storm, this miracle has been interpreted from patristic times as an allegory of the Church, subjected to hardship and persecution, and wondering if the Lord would ever return: the story is then understood as a message of hope in a dark hour—a promise that Christ will indeed come. This interpretation was natural enough for those in that situation, but Mark himself gives no indication that he understands the story in that way; rather his concern here, as elsewhere, seems to be with the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ The answer is clear to those who grasp the significance of the story,” (Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, in BNTC [London: Continuum, 1991], 169).
10 “Jesus’ walking on the water to his disciples is a revelation of the glory that he shares with the Father and the compassion that he extends to his followers. It is a divine epiphany in answer to their earlier bafflement when he calmed the storm, ‘Who is this?’ (4:41). In this respect Mark’s Christology is no less sublime than is John’s, although John has Jesus declaring that he is the Son of God (John 10:36), whereas Mark has him showing that he is the Son of God,” (Edwards, Mark, 199).
11 See Hooker (Mark, 168-169). She doesn’t agree with this perspective, but she discusses it briefly.
12 Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, in Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 435. Wellum explains, “From the moment of the virgin conception, the eternal Son ‘took into his own divine person a complete set of human characteristics and components – including everything that pertains to humanity – so that from then on he is said to possess a human nature as well.’ The direction of metaphysical movement is crucial. The Son did not come to an existing human being or even human nature to form an artificial or ad hoc union. Rather, through the virgin conception, God created a new human nature for the Son, who assumed that nature as part of his subsistent existence,” (435).
13 “The best way to account or the asymmetrical relationship in Christ is in terms of the Trinitarian relations worked out in redemptive history for the sake of the Son’s incarnational mission. The Son lives out his divine and human lives in relation to the Father and Spirit as our Redeemer. Against all forms of kenoticism, the Son does not renounce his divine attributes or even the use of them. Instead, the Son’s entire life is best viewed through the lens of his filal dependence on the Father in the Spirit. The Son does nothing except what he knows that Father wills him to do,” (Wellum, God the Son, 441).
14 Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
15 The Lexham LXX reads: καὶ περιπατῶν ὡς ἐπ᾽ ἐδάφους ἐπὶ θαλάσσης. The Gospel of Mark reads: περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης. Mark left out the editorial flourish, “like on a floor/ground.” The sense is the same.
16 Matthew 14:28-33 includes an additional element to the account, which I won’t deal with here.
17 For example, Lane (Mark, 237) and John Grassmick (Mark, in BKC, vol. 2 [Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983], 132) believe this is a theophany. Walter Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 676) and Strauss (Mark, 286-287) disagree.
“The phrase ‘I am [he]’ (ἐγώ εἰμι) is a normal way of self-identification in Greek and so would not by necessity recall these OT allusions. In the present context, Jesus’ purpose is to assure the disciples that it is he and not a ghost. Furthermore, an explicit divine claim would be unusual in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus reveals his divine authority through his actions, but never directly through his words (but cf. 14: 62, where the same phrase is used). It seems unlikely, therefore, that Mark understands Jesus to be saying emphatically, ‘I am Yahweh!’ Whether Mark’s readers in the post-resurrection church would have picked up such an allusion is a more difficult question,” (Strauss, Mark, 286-287).
18 “God cannot be fully seen, but Jesus can. The one who comes to them on the sea is not simply a successor to Moses, who fills baskets with bread in the desert. Only God can walk on the sea, and Jesus’ greeting is not simply a cheery hello to assuage the disciples’ fears. He greets them with the divine formula of self-revelation, ‘I am,’” (David E. Garland, Mark, in NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 264).
19 “It is not clear that Mark interpreted the words in this way, but others may well have soon done so (cf. John 18:5f.),” (Hooker, Mark, 170).
20 Carl Beckwith observed, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (The Holy Trinity, vol. 3, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 9443-9448).
21 Lane doesn’t believe this was a miraculous act (Mark, 239).
22 “But the principal charge brought against them is blindness, in allowing so recent an exhibition to fade from their memory, or rather in not directing their mind to the contemplation of Christ’s divinity, of which the multiplication of the loaves was a sufficiently bright mirror,” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 239).
23 “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity [Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998], 26).
24 Bernard (Oneness of God, KL 2963 – 2964; 2971 – 2972).
25 Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.), KL 532-538.