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Mark records the famous walking-on-water miracle:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night 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. Do not be afraid.”—Mark 6:45-50 (ESV)

According to Mark, Jesus didn't seem to have been planing on getting into the boat. John and Matthew do not include this detail in their accounts. Presumably, Matthew at least had access to Mark's text and simplified the story. Was Mark suggesting that Jesus was unconcerned for the disciples struggles, dissatisfied with their recent behavior, or is somethings else being communicated?

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Every commentary I could find has seemingly a different interpretation on this passage! I have however, managed to distil these down into two main interpretations:

1. Jesus was going to pass them by, but was diverted

The phrase "meant to" in the ESV and RSV is also translated "would have" in the KJV. The Greek word used here is thelō which means to wish or desire, and is the emotional element that leads to the consequent action (rather than a reasoned decision). I.e Jesus wished to pass by them. The Interpreter's Bible elaborates further:

This feature in the story, so strange to us, served originally to make more vivid the fact that Jesus was diverted by their evident distress from his purpose of following and overtaking the disciples in the morning on the other shore;

It would seem Jesus wanted to pass them by, but their state of distress caused him to reconsider his plans. The ESV Study Bible goes further on this interpretation, giving the following reason:

He meant to pass by them, not so that they would fail to see him (in which case he would have stayed farther away from them), but so that they would see him “pass by” (Gk. parerchomai), walking on the water, thus giving visible evidence of his deity (and thus answering the question they asked after he stilled the sea in Mark 4:41: “Who then is this … ?”). The passage echoes the incident where God “passed” before Moses (the same verb, parerchomai, occurs in the Septuagint of Ex. 33:19, 22; 34:6), giving a glimpse of his glory.

2. It seemed like Jesus was passing them by

To gather more information on this event, we turn to John's account of the event:

...they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened.

John 6:19 (ESV)

From John's account, we learn that it only looks like Jesus was intending to pass them by - he was coming near the boat, waiting for their call. Matthew Henry explains further:

He would have passed by them, that is, he set his face and steered his course, as if he would have gone further, and took no notice of them; this he did, to awaken them to call to him. Note, Providence, when it is acting designedly and directly for the succour of God’s people, yet sometimes seems as if it were giving them the go-by, and regarded not their case. They thought that he would, but we may be sure that he would not, have passed by them.

This means that Jesus wanted to help them, but they had to first call out to him to receive his help. Divine disposition does not rule out human action. We do not sit back and wait for God to save us - we cry out to him for help!


As to which interpretation is correct? I am swayed by the first interpretation, mostly because of the language used in the passage and the fact one of Mark's key themes is proving Jesus' divinity. Ultimately though, this is a difficult passage to interpret, and one is called to make their best judgement in their exegesis of this passage, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their interpretation.

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It was the first option (and specifically the possible reference to Exodus 33) that our pastor suggested yesterday. I would argue that the goal of the first half of Mark is to show that Jesus is the Messiah and the goal of the second half is to show that the Messiah mus suffer. John is far more interested in showing that Jesus both God and man. But as you say, this is a tough passage to interpret. (+1, by the way. ;-) – Jon Ericson Nov 26 '12 at 17:19

Joel Marcus, in his commentary on Mark, addresses this. "Pass by" is a technical phrase for a theophany: it's an aborted transfiguration scene. They weren't ready for it; they thought he was a spirit; they needed to recognize him as the Christ first, as happens in Mark 8 just prior to Tabor. "Pass by" is what the Lord does to Moses when Moses ascends Sinai and the Lord "passes by" him; the Sinai-Tabor connection is rather obvious.

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It seems as though Jesus intentionally puts his disciples in this difficult situation in order to reveal his glory to them. By "passing by them," he would be revealing his divine glory, analogous to the Lord revealing himself to Moses by passing by him in Exodus 33:12-23 (see also Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11). Notice also that Jesus says "I AM here" ... which is a seemingly clear reiteration of Exodus 3:14.

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I concur. Jesus had just performed the miracle of multiplying bread, and thus like Moses Jesus had fed the Israelites "in a desolate place" (Mark 6:35), the only difference being is that Moses did not create the bread, but Jesus did. By walking on water, he was superior to Moses (and Elijah) who had first to part water in order to travel through water; Jesus was superior to them in that he walked OVER water. – Joseph Mar 4 '13 at 4:19

Having looked at this and wondered at its meaning myself, I believe that Jesus had every intention of passing them by. Why? Because He had a divine appointment at the other side which must be kept. Upon hearing the cry of His disciples, He got into the boat. This now needed another miracle apart from the stilling of the storm in order to be where He should be on time. So we come to John's account where it tells us that they were immediately at the other side.

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I believe they included the detail " He meant to pass them by" because when he told them to go he said "I will meet you in Bethsaida" What Jesus speaks is pure truth and when he said "I will meet you in Bethsaida" that was it, Jesus knew they would make to Bethsaida to meet him because he had spoken the truth and made it so. That is why he was going to pass them by. When Jesus says something such as " It is finished" It is complete truth so we know we can stand on his word because it is the truth and will not change.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange. We are glad you stopped by and hope you stay. If you haven't done so already, check out the site tour. In particular, be sure to read the section on what constitutes a good answer and revise your post to either cite references that back your position or to more thoroughly explain how you get this interpretation from the text itself. Please note that "showing your work" is required on this Stack Exchange. – ThaddeusB Oct 21 '15 at 17:22

Maybe Jesus was allowing the disciples to see what it felt like to be "passed" by. After all... They didn't want to feed the 5000 ( they were too tired to feed them and saw it as too much trouble and a burden) They wanted to send them off to get their own food. But Jesus knew that they were hungry and had compassion. As the disciples were in the boat ...there physical need was not food but was "safety"... Jesus could have walked by and let them fend for themselves... But once again... His compassion was greater than His own needs.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor May 18 at 8:26
This answer doesn't currently show its work, which is a requirement on this site. For instance, how are these ideas communicated or implied in the text? Are there particular words or phrases in the passage which support your conclusion? – Steve Taylor May 18 at 8:27

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