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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 planning on getting into the boat. John and Matthew do not include this detail in their accounts. Presumably, Matthew 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?

12 Answers 12

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At the center of Mark is the question of Jesus' identity. The story here in Mark 6 is the second of three boat stories that link up with three bread stories in Mark 8:13-21. These two triads together revolve around the revelation of Jesus' identity and the failure of the disciples to fully grasp that identity. Jesus' intent to pass by the disciples as he walks upon the sea is part of a major theme in Mark wherein Jesus' identity is at once revealed and concealed.

A number of commentators have noted an echo of Job 9:8 in the miracle. Job asks how a mere mortal can prove their innocence before God when he is so vast beyond them. Job proceeds to describe God's vastness, and in the midst of his description, he says: "He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea."

Richard B. Hays, though, develops this a little further and ties Mark 6:48-49 to Job 9:8-11 in the LXX. Here is the Lexham English Septuagint translation:

8  who stretched out the sky alone, 
     and walks about upon the sea as upon a floor, 
9  who made Pleiades and Hesperus and Bear 
     and the chambers of the south winds, 
10 who does great and inscrutable things, 
     both glorious and extraordinary, which cannot be numbered. 
11 If he should pass over me, I would not notice, 
     and if he should pass by me, likewise I would not perceive. 

Note how 8b makes for an even more explicit connection with Jesus' action. Relevant for your question, though, is 11b. There Job says God's power and glory are so vast that he wouldn't even recognize God if he should pass by Job.

Thus, in Job 9 the image of God's walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark's emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus.

Hays, Richard B.. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (p. 72). Baylor University Press. 2016.

In other words, Jesus' action is part of that theme in Mark where Jesus' identity is simultaneously revealed and concealed. He shuts the mouths of the demons who know who he is; and in doing so, he reveals his authority over them. His power is revealed as he heals eyes, ears, and tongues (cf. Isa. 35:5-6), even raising the dead; but he gives strict orders not to tell anyone about these things. He teaches with authority; but he teaches in parables to conceal his teaching.

And here, Jesus is revealed as one who walks on water - as God alone does; but he intends to pass by the disciples in order for his power and glory not to be perceived.

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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!

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
  • +1 but I am continually amazed at the low bar people set for "proving deity". I mean, physically passing by the disciples while walking on water is only a proof of deity if Peter is also proved to be God: Acts 5:15 "Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them." (See also Acts 19:12) I mean, if he "meant to" pass by but was then made aware of the disciples distress because the disciples made him aware, the text actually argues against divinity. Just sayin'. – Ruminator Oct 5 '18 at 12:44
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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.

  • Can you please quote your source rather than just dropping a name? I find it absurd to propose that "pass by" is a "technical phrase for a theophany" when a casual glance at the scriptures demonstrates that it is a common phrase for any kind of passing by: blueletterbible.org/search/… And you don't even identify the passage about Tabor let alone quote it. -1 – Ruminator Oct 5 '18 at 12:59
  • However, I see that 5 people so far ignored the poor quality of the answer and eagerly lapped up the milk of some shred of evidence that maybe their beloved Trinity dogma is found in scripture. Ugh. I weep for my generation. – Ruminator Oct 5 '18 at 13:00
  • It seems to be you who's reading Trinitarianism into a verbal allusion – Luke Sawczak Oct 14 '18 at 12:19
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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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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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    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 Nov 2 '15 at 0:31
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I see this as God Has a sense of Humor, and this was his humor at work. The Apostles were scared when they saw him, fearing it was a ghost. He calmed them and assured them he was real. I find this to be God showing his humor and how our fear of his revealing ways is unfounded. I also see this when he appeared to them in the locked room before he was resurrected. I love Christ and I love his sense of humor. This world, this life is a tragedy when viewed up close but when viewed from above it is a comedy.

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    Your answer is opinion-based and cannot be substantiated from other sources. – Pilgrim Nov 7 '17 at 16:03
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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.

  • 1
    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
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I would like to suggest a radical solution, that Mark did not write "he wanted (ethelen) to pass them by" but that it is an addition by someone else. My reasons: (1) It says that Jesus did not want to help them, directly contradicting verse 48, which says that he did want to help them. (2) The passage makes perfect sense without it. (3) The rest of the passage totally ignores it. (4) John 6.19: "they saw Jesus drawing near" contradicts it. (5) Matthew 14.24-7 includes everything else in Mark. He even adds to Mark in 23 "the boat was by this time many furlongs distant from the land". Why does his account lack only this detail? The obvious answer is that it was not in his text of Mark, but was only added later. (6) It is absent from r1 G 495 with no obvious reason for its accidental omission - i.e. they preserve Mark's text. Its similarity to Luke 24.28: "he made as if to go past" has long been observed. I suggest that this suggested to an interpolator a way to increase the drama. In Luke it is well motivated - Jesus wanted to see if they really wished him to stay. The interpolator has made this motivation impossible in Mark: Jesus did not make as if to go past - he wanted to go past.

  • This is an interesting hypothesis but you have really only cited internal, rather weak arguments for the interpolation. Do you have any stronger external evidence other than a single "difficult to classify" MSS (according to Aland and Gregory and Wisse)? – user25930 Oct 10 '18 at 21:13
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As the disciples were toiling against the contrary wind they were being tossed around by angry waves. While they were making very little if any progress they see Jesus easily traversing accross the water at remarkable speed.

The phrase:

“would have passed by them” Mark 6:48 (ESV)

may by better understood to say

could have passed by them.

  • Hi Gary, welcome to the BH site. And thank you very much indeed for your contribution. Please note that this site is rather different from a forum or a q&a site. This is why we expect more elaborate answers. In this case, please return and explain why do you think Mark6:48 can be understood as "could have passed by them". Are some hints in the text or comments that could support this assumption? On the other hand, please take time and have a look over here to find out more about how to provide a good answer. Thank you. – Constantin Jinga Oct 13 '18 at 8:31
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"Walk past" certainly is a funny wording, but I suspect the answer is much simpler than people have thought so far.

Why are we doing hermeneutics from a translation when the wording seems so key? The Greek word is παρέρχομαι parerchomai, which does have a host of meanings related to passing without stopping or neglecting. But the NAS exhaustive concordance lists a separate meaning: "to come to". Thayer (on that page) adds "to come near, to come forward, arrive". The abridged dictionary in my hard copy of Mounce & Mounce's interlinear also gives "come alongside of" or "come to".

Two passages that seem to have this sense are Luke 12:37, in which this verb describes the master coming up and serving the servants:

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.

And Luke 17:7, in which it describes the servant coming indoors and (not) being invited to recline:

"Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'?

I think Mounce's wording "come alongside them" is probably my favourite, on this theory. (However, I am not a Greek expert and wouldn't mind seeing a cogent argument for why it can't apply here.)

Incidentally, even the English is ambiguous, at least in my dialect. If I say to someone, "Oh, you'll be in town? Why don't you pass by my house while you're here?" I'm actually hoping for them to stay a while. :)

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I believe there's a "hint" when it says "He saw them toiling in rowing"..He could have used a completely different route to his destination. Instead He chose that particular trek which tells me he wanted to be seen by them. (Reason: to be determined.) He knew their situation and also knew they would complete their journey with or without him. (Strictly because He said so!) I suggest that this was definitely a situation for them straining and laboring to achieve their destination. When they saw Him, all thought it was a spirit: "and were troubled" (a clue) "and immediately he talked with them". They did not recognize Him but He knew them! In fact vs.54 says, it wasn't until they reached the other side and came out of the ship that "they knew Him". Really? Mark tell us their hearts were hard, but this takes the cake! In summary I revert to my own toiling to get to the place He's expecting me to be and I'm behind in performing according to His word, nevertheless at every interval, somehow He shows up, hard heart or not to speak peace into my situation. I may not recognize Him but His eye was on every disciple and He showed concern for their safety and the condition of their hearts...in love

  • Welcome lynn. I cleaned up the formatting of your answer a bit. I appreciate the idea that he chose that way to go so that they would be comforted. But the text clearly says his intention was to pass the boat. It doesn't say he specifically chose that route to comfort the disciples. So the struggle I have is that the text strongly indicates Jesus was picking a direct route (walking over the wave since he had that ability) and didn't intend to stop by. I don't think the text supports your answer. – Jon Ericson Feb 1 at 17:36
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Jesus knew they almost had the faith to stop the storm.

These men later caused blind eyes to open : they were in training

  • I'm not entirely sure what you are trying to say here. Could you flesh out your answer and back it up? Remember the question isn't about Jesus and his disciples, but about this passage in Mark. – Jon Ericson Feb 13 at 21:55

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