In each of the Gospels that record it, Jesus’ miraculous crossing of the Sea of Galilee follows the feeding of the five thousand. In Matthew and Mark, the crossing is then followed by a miraculous healing in Gennesaret (Matt. 14:34–36; Mark 6:53–56). Not so in John. Instead, the story of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16–21) seems almost like an interruption of an otherwise unbroken narrative about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand and revealing His identity as the Bread of Life (John 6:1–15, 23–71).

It’s important to note that John did not have to include this miracle.1 The decision to include this miracle at all, including where John places it and how he describes it, therefore carries a specific significance. Happily, we don’t have to guess what it is. For while all four Gospel authors record the feeding of the five thousand, only John tells us when this miracle took place, namely, near the time of Passover (John 6:4). And this is his clue to the meaning of all that follows.

The Exodus: Take 2

To anyone familiar with the Old Testament, John 6 reads like a reenactment of the exodus story of which the Passover is a central part. First, we have the multiplication of signs and wonders as in Egypt (cf. Ex. 7–11). Instead of being terrible and punitive, however, the signs Jesus performs are gracious and restorative (John 6:2, 11).

Then we have the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12 and the allusion to the same in John 6:4. After this, Israel wandered in the wilderness, and Moses asked God where he could find food for so many people (Num. 11:13). Using similar language, Philip asks Jesus the same (John 6:5). Moses also doubts God’s ability to provide enough food (Num. 11:22), just as Philip tells Jesus that “two hundred denarii of bread would not be enough” (John 6:7). Note, too, that Moses’ doubts regarding God’s ability to provide meat came after the miraculous provision of manna (Numb. 11:7–9). Even so, Philip’s doubts about Jesus’ ability to feed five thousand come after Christ’s miraculous provision of wine for a wedding feast (John 2:1–11).

Then Jesus multiplies bread, as if from thin air, to feed the multitudes with “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11), just as God had provided “bread from heaven” to feed His people with “as much as any man could eat” (Ex. 16:4). The connections are so strong that the crowds recognize Jesus as the promised prophet like Moses (John 6:14; see Deut. 18:15–18). Hence, they attempt to make Him king (John 6:15; see Deut. 33:4–5). And though He rejects their offer of kingship without the cross (cf. Matt. 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–7), Jesus doesn’t reject the connection to Moses. In fact, He builds on the parallel, ascending a mountain alone (John 6:15) as Moses had before Him (Ex. 19:1–3). Yet, whereas Moses returned from the mountain with the law, Jesus returns with nothing but Himself.

Finally, the crowd’s response to Jesus mirrors Israel’s response to God. They grumbled against the Lord (John 6:41, 61), just as Israel had (Num. 11:1), doubting God’s ability to give what He promised to provide (John 6:52; see Ps. 78:19–20). In this way, virtually every major event in the exodus story is paralleled in John 6.

Jesus Crosses the Red Sea of Galilee

But what about the major exodus event of the crossing of the Red Sea? There is a parallel in John’s gospel as well. In addition to the clear parallels to the exodus in John 6, the Johannine account of Jesus’ walking on water also mentions “the sea” four times—more than any account in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This is all the more remarkable given that John’s account is the shortest by far (86 words in Greek compared with 139 in Mark and 186 in Matthew). Furthermore, John mentions “the sea” four more times in the same chapter, both before and after the crossing of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1, 22, 25). By contrast, none of the other authors mentions “the sea” before or after Jesus walks on its water. In view of all this, it seems that John wants the reader to see the crossing of the Sea of Galilee as a symbolic fulfillment of the crossing of the Red Sea in the exodus/Passover narrative. But why?

It is because John wants us to see Jesus as the greater Moses, as he has already told us both explicitly (John 1:16–17) and implicitly (Moses could only draw water from the rock, while Jesus could draw wine from the rock, the stone jars; see Ex. 17:1–7; John 2:1–12). Therefore, in John 6, Jesus is revealed as the One who brings about the new exodus, that is, the true liberation of God’s people from slavery to sin, the inevitability of death, and the just judgment of God. As the Passover Lamb (John 1:29) and the One who leads His people safely through dangerous waters (John 6:16–21), Jesus is true source of our deliverance.

Jesus is still with us in the storm, reminding us of what He’s done, strengthening us for the trials we face, and encouraging us not to forget that our biggest problems have already been solved.

And we know that He can do this, because Christ tells us who He is. At the height of their trial, when they were fearing the wrath of the sea and the seeming certainty of death, the disciples heard Jesus say, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). This parallels what Moses told the people on the eve of the Red Sea crossing: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that he will accomplish for you today” (Ex. 14:13).2 The implication is clear: we have nothing to fear so long as God is with us, and He is with us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All this receives further confirmation when we consider that in Scripture, the sea tends to symbolize sin, death, and judgment. It is first connected with darkness and chaos (Gen.1:2). In the days of Noah, the sea was the instrument of God’s deadly judgment (Gen. 6:17). Later, when Israel sought escape from Egypt, they were trapped by the sea—let the reader understand—until God made a way for them to pass safely through it on dry ground (Ex. 14:20–22). Yet when God’s enemies attempted to follow them, God brought the same sea that He had stayed from the Israelites back over Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 15:19). In the book of Psalms, the sea is frequently used to symbolize tremendous uncertainty and insurmountable difficulty (e.g., Pss. 46:2; 65:7). In Isaiah 57:20, the sea is said to symbolize wickedness, since its constant waves stir up mire and dirt. Jonah is judged by a storm that is stopped only when he is cast into the sea (Jonah 1:9–16). Likewise, Micah tells us that the sea is the place where God sends sin to be judged, forgiven, and forgotten forever (Mic. 7:18–19). Daniel also tells us that the chaos of the sea is the origin of the enemies of God (Dan. 7:3), and John, the author of Revelation, repeats the same (Rev. 13:1). Furthermore, John tells us that not only is the dark, chaotic sea the origin of God’s enemies, but it is also symbolic of their end (Rev. 18:21).

These passages shed light on the meaning of John’s vision that “the sea was no more” in God’s new creation (Rev. 21:1). That verse doesn’t predict God’s vengeance against beachfront property; rather, it’s His promise that everything the sea symbolizes in Scripture—sin, death, and judgment—will be done away with when Christ makes all things new (Rev. 21:4–5). And here in John 6:16–21, Jesus stands above the sea as One with authority over it all.

Calming the Storms of Life

Growing up, every sermon I heard about Jesus walking on water focused on God’s ability to calm the storms in our lives. After seminary, I came to disdain such interpretations, thinking that they had missed the “true meaning” of the text. But as a matter of fact, Jesus is the One who can calm the storms of our lives precisely because He is the One who liberates us from sin, death, and hell. To put it differently, if we can trust Jesus to resolve our deepest problems, as He does through the cross and the resurrection, then how much more can we trust Him to handle the smaller trials of life?

In other words, Christ can and sometimes does stop our trials as instantly as He carried His disciples off the sea (John 6:21). When that happens, there’s nothing to do except praise God for yet another gift of mercy and grace.

Other times, however, storms rage with no end in sight. What then? Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid.” In other words, Jesus is still with us in the storm, reminding us of what He’s done, strengthening us for the trials we face, and encouraging us not to forget that our biggest problems have already been solved. Therefore, our little problems by comparison are light and momentary troubles that are preparing us for an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17).3

  1. See Luke 9, for example, where the feeding of the five thousand is narrated with no mention of Jesus’ walking on water. ↩︎
  2. Careful readers will note that the words translated “It is I” (egō eimi) in John 6:20 literally translate as “I am.” This is, of course, the same translation of the divine name of God in Hebrew (YHWH; see Ex. 3:14), often translated “Lord,” just as in Exodus 14:13. ↩︎
  3. Is this not what the old hymns taught us to sing? “A mighty fortress is our God / a bulwark never failing; / Our helper He amid the flood / of mortal ills prevailing” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther). “Though Satan should buffet / though trials should come, / Let this blest assurance control: / That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate / And hath shed his own blood for my soul” (“It Is Well with My Soul” by Horatio Spafford). “When darkness veils his lovely face, / I rest on his unchanging grace. / In every high and stormy gale, /My anchor holds within the veil. / His oath, His covenant, his blood, / Support me in the whelming flood. / When all around my soul gives way, / He then is all my hope and stay” (“My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote). ↩︎

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