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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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2 Answers

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!

Conclusion

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
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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
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