In 1680 the German hymn writer Joachim Neander penned the hymn Praise to the Lord the Almighty. Many of you know it, we’ve sung it here a number of times and will continue to do so because of how good it is. Within it we find lyrics calling us to remember God the King of all creation, the provider of redemption, the defender of His people, and the sustainer of all things. In the third stanza we read words, that, push us to expand the boundaries of our low, cold, and shallow thoughts of God. Here’s the phrase I’m thinking of in the third stanza, “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do!” This is not just a phrase we sing, this is a command for us to obey. And from obeying it many of us have found our view of and love for God expanding and increasing. For us today, specifically as we see what Jesus does in our passage, pondering anew what the Almighty can do is something we’ll find ourselves doing.
Let me set the stage. In John 6:1-15 we see the Lord work a wonder worthy of all four gospels. Seeing the vast crowd approaching them, Jesus asked the disciples how to feed them and He received only doubt and unbelief. He then displays His inexhaustible sufficiency by making a meal for the multitude from the loaves of a poor little boy. The crowd saw this, ate to their hearts content, and began to view Jesus as the perfect political candidate to save them from Roman oppression. Knowing this, that this crowd desired to take Him by force and make Him king, prompted Jesus to leave the scene of this miracle because He knew the type of king they desired was nothing like the type of Kingdom He had come to inaugurate. So further up this lake side mountain He goes, leaving His disciples alone with the crowd. This is where our passage today picks up, follow along as I read John 6:16-21 where we see what happens next…John 6:16-21…
In this passage God would have us consider how we ought to welcome Him in the midst of the trials and storms of life. But don’t take my word for it, let’s turn to the text to see these things firsthand.
The Disciples Alarmed Rowing (v16-19a)
Jesus had gone off by Himself further up the mountain and a dark evening had come. So, the disciples get into a boat and head home. v17 tells us “Jesus had not yet come to them.” There is no other detail given here in John’s account as to whether or not Jesus gave them instructions to do this. Maybe He told them to row back home when evening came, or maybe He told them to go on ahead without Him if He wasn’t back by evening. We don’t know these things. We simply see a dark evening come, and the disciples make a decision to row across the Sea of Galilee to go back to Capernaum. Then v18 comes and we get a few details that would’ve made the disciples regret such a decision. It says the sea “became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” This was not a little storm that had come on them. During the first century and still today the Sea of Galilee sits around 600 feet below sea level. Due to the mountains around it the sea forms the center of a kind of wind tunnel. Large gale force winds blow off the Mediterranean, they flow through the mountains, and slam into the sea. This can create very large storms in a matter of minutes. Storms so large, in fact, that the word for ‘strong wind’ in the Greek of v18 is the word megalou which is where we get the word mega. Even though some of the disciples were fisherman and were probably used to storms like this, that John uses the word mega to describe the storm shows us it was not a small storm or a fear free moment. A true terror came to them in this moment.
This scene makes me recall the time I experienced a similar terror. The first and only time I went deep sea fishing we went way out there, way farther than I was comfortable with. The waves were so large we couldn’t see over them when the boat was down in between them. And when we came up over them we saw even bigger waves coming toward us. If you couple the sheer enormity of those waves with the fact that I was incredibly sea sick, you can imagine why I’ve never gone deep sea fishing again. It was horrible, and I don’t ever want to experience anything like this ever again. Terror at sea is truly terrifying. We get a glimpse of it here in our text. But nonetheless the disciples show their bravery and courage despite the storm in v19a by rowing on through it for 3-4 miles.
So here in v16-19a we have the disciples in the midst of a mega storm, alarmed and rowing onward.
Jesus Comes to and Calms the Disciples (v19b-20)
Well, the alarmed and busily rowing disciples are about to discover a new level of alarm in v19b-20. Here we see that while their rowing and laboring to get through the waves and the wind, they see something. Something that they’d never seen before. v19b says, “…they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.” At first thought you may not understand why they’re frightened at seeing Jesus. This is Jesus after all right? He has called them and taught them and loved them and fed them. They’ve seen Him work miracles, wonders, and signs galore. There familiar with Him and not a stranger to Him. So when they see Him walking on the sea nearing the boat why do they become more afraid than they already are if they know it’s Him?
Well, perhaps the answer is easier than you’d expect. How would you react if you looked up and saw someone you know walking on a stormy sea? Through the wind and waves splashing all around them Jesus had to look like a ghost to them at first, so wouldn’t you be frightened if you saw what appeared to be a ghost out walking on the sea? Even if it looked like someone you knew already, would you just sit there and respond by thinking, “Hmm…well look at that?” I doubt it. What would you do? You’d be scared! Fight or flight would probably kick in, or perhaps some of you would be frozen with fear unable to move or get away. The disciples thought their problem was the storm, now it seems they have a new problem, something or someone that looks like Jesus is walking on top of the water, straight toward them.
At certain times throughout His ministry Jesus does things like this in front of His disciples. His divinity was masked and hidden by the veil of His humanity but on occasion Jesus gives His disciples a clear view of His divinity. Job 9:8 spoke long ago of God being the One who tramples down the waves of the sea, and to come near them by walking on the sea Jesus shows Himself to be none other than God Himself. Look what happens next in v20, Jesus “…said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’”
Now, I am of the opinion that many people misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. When Jesus says ‘do not be afraid’ it is clear. God often told that to people in the Old Testament, angels would even say this first to anyone God sent them to, and for the fearing disciples to hear ‘do not be afraid’ from Jesus in the midst of the storm had to be an encouraging moment for them. But He said more than just ‘do not be afraid’ didn’t He? He said, “It is I; do not be afraid.” To understand the significance of the whole phrase of Jesus in v20 we must quickly turn to the I AM statements Jesus makes in John’s gospel. These seven statements are famous, and eventually most Christians get around to studying them one by one to gain a deeper understanding of who Jesus truly is. Jesus is the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the door of the sheep (10:11), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way the truth and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:6). Well, by using this phrase I AM multiple times in John’s gospel Jesus is making the clear declaration that the He is none other than Yahweh the God of Israel who revealed Himself to Moses by the name I AM. In Greek all of these I AM statements use the same two words, ego eimi. Literally it means ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and when we see these two words ego eimi we know we’re looking at one of the I AM statements from Jesus. Do know what the phrase “It is I” in v20 is in the original Greek? Ego eimi.
Therefore, when Jesus comes to the frightened disciples walking on the water and says “It is I, do not be afraid” Jesus is telling them literally, “I AM WHO I AM, do not be afraid.” They would’ve understood the weight of His words. They would have understood that God Almighty, who revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai as the great I AM, made the world and all that is in it, including the chaotic stormy sea. They would’ve understood Jesus to be telling them to not be afraid – why? – because He is the great I AM, God Almighty Himself.
This brings us to the final verse in our passage, v21 where we see the disciples response this.
The Disciples Glad Welcome (v21)
What did the frightened disciples do after hearing Jesus’ declaration of deity while He was walking toward them on the stormy sea? v21, “Then they were glad to take Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Church, we’ve now arrived at our destination. The grand lesson of the entire passage is found in v21. v16-20 exist here in John’s gospel to lead us to what is found in v21. And in v21 we find not only their response to Jesus, but learn much in their response to Jesus of how we’re to interact with Jesus in our own storms and trials of life. I think I can boil it down to one sentence. Though the sea may be rough and waves may be high, they gladly welcome Him into the boat and enjoy a peace in the midst of the storm because they know one thing that changes everything: God Himself, I AM, is with them.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here. This passage is not a parable given to teach us a larger lesson. v16-21 is the description of a real event that occurred with Jesus and His disciples. But, there’s a window here into the story of our lives that God intends us to look through to see something wonderful. Life in a fallen world is itself one long trial, a boat ride if you will. Where we feel as if were rowing against the strong resistance of a stormy wind trying to reach our destination. And though we row and row and row we often find that we’re not getting anywhere. More so, while we’re rowing we often find and fear being toppled by the storms of life. But, we then hear something that interrupts our fear, like the disciples do in v20, that transforms our fears into a peaceful rest. What do we hear? The gospel. That God has broken into this fallen world in His Son Jesus Christ and is mending the hearts of His people through His redemptive work. Now, we deserve to be in these storms of life and a lot of the time we have caused much of it ourselves by our own sin and folly. But by repenting of our sin and trusting in Jesus, Jesus in a sense, comes into our boat, gets us through the storm, through the darkness, through the confusion, through the fear by His grace, carrying us the whole way home, proving to us that He is a reliable Captain. This is what He did with the disciples, and this is what He does with us.
Three implications to see here:
First, the disciples learned how to get through this storm in the midst of this storm. They did not have a lecture from Jesus before they left Galilee’s shore about how to deal with a sudden storm. They left, and ran into a storm, and God met them in the midst of it. Therefore Church, don’t wonder why God may have led you into a trial or storm in your own life. Learn that God intentionally leads His own into stormy waters to show us, and open our eyes to how deep His grace in the gospel is, and how He with and by the gospel, is our reliable Captain who carries us all the way home.
Second, the disciples experienced God’s peace in the storm, not apart from the storm. When did the disciples fear leave? When they gladly welcomed Jesus into the boat, in the midst of the storm. Therefore Church, are you struggling? Are you rowing against stormy winds? Do you feel like they’re about to topple your small boat? Take heart be reminded again or learn for the first time today, peace isn’t found in the absence of conflict but in the presence of Christ. In every station of life, knowing Christ, who He is – what He has done, changes everything about how we do life. Specifically for us, here in v16-21, knowing Christ changes how we go through the storms of life. The sixteenth century reformer Huldrych Zwingli comments similarly on this passage saying, “The darkness of the night fell upon them, and the violent assault of the storm gales was so great that the disciples, as if having given up hope of any aid, were compelled to call on their Savior most ardently…For Christ was absent and when Christ is absent there is nothing but fear and confusion. But when Christ is present every disturbance is calmed.” He continues on showing what we can learn from this saying, “Let us learn from this example to call on God and to ask for His help in every trouble.”
Third, the disciples experienced the calm of Christ by hearing the voice of Christ. Into their fear came a familiar voice that settled their unsettled hearts. They learned that they should not fear the swirling noise because all creation obeys His voice. Therefore Church, throughout the trial that is this life you will hear many voices calling out for your attention and affection. Drowning out all these other voices is the voice of Christ that breaks through the noise of this world and the noise of our restless hearts. In July of 1998 my family and I went on a cruise. This was the first time we’d ever been on a cruise, so we were all very excited. We drove down to Miami, stood in amazement at how big the boat was as my Dad unpacked the car, and we joyfully walked on board. The Carnival Ecstasy cruise ship gently backed away from the dock and we were off until a mile later when black smoke starting rising up from the back of the ship. It didn’t take long for us all to realize that the boat had caught on fire. Immediately, one voice came on the loud speaker, the voice of the captain. For the next 14 hours or so our family and everyone else on board were in our life jackets near our lifeboat stations as tug boats pulled us back to the dock. Among the fear that many on board felt there was one thing kept everyone on board calm, the captain’s familiar and constant voice. It was clear, concise, and comforting. There was no doubt who was in control.
How much more comforting was the voice of Christ to the disciples on this boat who calls out “I AM WHO I AM, do not be afraid.” How much more comforting is His voice calling out to us still today? When He speaks, our unsettled hearts are settled.
In v16-21 God shows us first how He meets the disciples in the midst of the storm and brings them safely home. God shows us next that He also meets us in the midst of our storms and brings us safely home. What should this truth do to us? What are we to walk away from this text lingering on?
We end where we began. Remember the hymn lyric we began with? “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do!” Remember, it’s not just a phrase to sing, it’s a command to obey. May your vision of God expand as you ponder anew what God is able to do, in and through the storms of this life.
 R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrews Expositional Commentary, page 108-109.
 Ibid., page 109.
 Ibid., page 109-110.
 Ibid., page 110. As you can see, because I’m quoting these pages of Sproul so often, it is exceptional on this passage.
 Aegidius Hunnius, John: Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 209.
 Huldrych Zwingli, John: Reformation Commentary on Scripture, page 207.
 Ibid., page 207.