25. Mark 6:47-56: Mark’s Signature Christology

Jesus Walks on Water (6:47-52)

Mark ties this story with the feeding by mentioning the disciples’ failure to “understand about the loaves” (v.52). Likely, then, the two stories make the same point. There the point was Jesus’ royal messianic identity and authority as leader and agent of God’s New Exodus. We must look for the meaning of this story along those lines as well.

Mark began his gospel by calling Jesus “Son of God” (1:1). And he ends it similarly with the centurion crying, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). All the teachings, stories, and events in between fill out what this term means. It is just this that is at issue in the feeding and walking on water stories. And it is just this that Jesus’ disciples (then and now) struggle to embrace.

Misunderstandings we have of the phrase “Son of God” don’t help. In the Old Testament it meant the king who was to rule the people as YHWH would (see Ps.72). For many of us today it means a divine figure, the second person of the trinity. Mark means neither of these things. Jesus is clearly more than a human king (though not less or other than human!). But neither is he a divine figure in the way we think of him today. N. T. Wright is spot on in the following statement:

We are right, then, to be astonished; but not to do what so  many in the last two hundred years have done, and elevate that  astonishment into a critical principle, ruling out from our  world (and that of Jesus) anything that breaks what we think of  as laws of nature. Nor is this a plea to allow for ‘supernature’  or ‘supernaturalism’, as though there were simply a different  force which might invade our world from outside. Rather, we  are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed  died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus  to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam.  From his time with the beasts in the wilderness (1.13), he is  now striding the garden, putting things to rights.[1]


In other words, he is what God is a human being. And he is a human being filled with the life of God as Adam (and us) are meant to be. We saw this in the earlier story of a storm at sea where Jesus calms the sea and the frightened disciples ask “What kind of man is this?” It’s the Son of God, this Adam-like figure exercising divine-like prerogatives. Let’s see how this plays out in this story.

The disciples set out to sail across the sea without Jesus who remained behind. A storm blows up battering the ship and preventing it from making any headway. Jesus sees the futility of their struggle and walks on the water to where they are. Then the very strange comment, “He intended to pass them by” (v.39). What’s up with that?

The answer seems to lie in the allusion to Job 9 here. Richard Hays notes,

“In the same passage that speaks of the Creator God walking upon the sea, Job goes on to marvel at the way in which God eludes his own limited understanding:

“He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength                                                                  —who has resisted him, and succeeded?—                                                      he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,                                when he overturns them in his anger;                                                            who shakes the earth out of its place,                                                and its pillars tremble;                                                               who commands the sun, and it does not rise;                                 who seals up the stars;                                                                    who alone stretched out the heavens                                                   and trampled the waves of the Sea [LXX: κα περιπατν ς π’ δάφους π θαλάσσης (and walks upon the sea as upon dry ground’)];                                                                                        who made the Bear and Orion,                                                                 the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;                                         who does great things beyond understanding,                                      and marvelous things without number.                                               Look, he passes by me,                                                          and I do not see him;                                                                                             he moves on [LXX: παρέλθ με, he passes me by’], but I do not perceive him.” (Job 9: 4-11)  

“Thus, in Job 9 the image of Gods walking on the sea is linked with a confession of Gods mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: Gods passing by’ is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology.”[2]

Hays further notes that the verb “pass by” alludes to God’s “passing by Moses” in Ex.33: 17-23 and 34:6 to reveal his glory to him. And the phrase “It is I” alludes to God’s self-revelation at the burning bush of his name ‘I am (or “will be”) who I am (or “will be”).[3]

All this points to Mark’s meaning: Jesus is God in human form and humanity in God’s form (or “image”). As such he exceeds humanity’s ability to comprehend him. But not our ability to apprehend (lay hold of, embrace) him. And that, to embrace him, is what Jesus wants of us!

The disciples did not understand this because they have failed to understand the same truth Jesus revealed to them in the Feeding of the 5000. They are a work in progress. As are we. May we hear Mark’s teaching about who Jesus “Son of God” truly is with open ears and open hearts!

[1] Wright, Mark for Everyone, 109.
[2] Hays, Richard B.. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Kindle Locations 786-803). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.
[3] Hays, Reading Backwards:807.


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