16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
After miraculously feeding a crowd of five thousand with the bread and fish from a young boy’s lunchbox, Jesus withdrew to be alone and sent the disciples across the sea ahead of him (John 6:1-5; Matthew 14:22-23). During the crossing, the wind whipped the sea into a frenzy and the disciples were forced to row against the wind, until the figure of Jesus suddenly appeared to them like an apparition off in the distance, walking on top of the waves. Understandably, they became even more frightened.
Now take a moment and try to put yourself in the boat with these disciples. John says they had rowed “about three or four miles” into a strong headwind before the figure of Jesus appeared, walking across the water. In Matthew’s account, his appearance was in “the fourth watch of the night” (Matthew 14:25), which means sometime between 3am and 6am. In other words, these men had been rowing into the wind, through dark and menacing waters, for roughly 6-8 hours. Not a few minutes of rowing through circumstances beyond their control. Not an hour or so. Nearly an entire night of trauma that had no discernible end in sight. It is not hard to imagine the disciples wondering, “Has Jesus forgotten us?”
And then in his own timing, Jesus appears. Never once in his earthly life do we find Jesus in a hurry, and that is no less true here. In fact, John’s recording of this miraculous moment paints Jesus with a surprising casualness. He is not panicked; he is walking. In the midst of nature’s fury, he strolls with supernatural calm. Is it any wonder that the disciples were terrified that they were seeing a ghost (Matthew 14:26)?
It is here that Jesus announces himself with three simple words: It is I. And in his presence, their fears are exchanged for gladness. Interestingly, the whole encounter carries prophetic echoes from God’s promise to his people through the prophet Isaiah. Look at these lines from within the first five verses of Isaiah 43:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you …
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you …
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, and your Saviour …
Do not fear, for I am with you. (v 1-5, CSB)
How would your life change if you remembered, and kept on remembering, that no matter what is happening around you, Jesus has not abandoned you? Martyn Lloyd-Jones has given one of my favourite definitions of what it looks like to trust in Jesus in the gritty moments of life: “Faith is the refusal to panic.” After all, Jesus never promised us easy sailing. Just the opposite: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In other words, if Jesus really is with us—truly, fully, inseparably, and eternally with us—then for the rest of our lives, you and I will never have a single good reason to panic.
“Faith is the refusal to panic.” (Martin Lloyd-Jones)
Trouble is going to come. When it does, where will you fix your gaze?
Fix your eyes on the storms around you, and your heart will be battered by despair. Fix your eyes on the resources within you, and your hope will extend only as far as your creaturely limitations. Fix your eyes instead upon Jesus, and you will discover sufficient grace woven into every present and future trouble.
He commands your fearlessness by announcing his presence. It is I; do not be afraid. There is no storm in your future that he will abandon you to face alone. There is no night so dark or wind so strong or wave so high that will separate you from the ever-present and invincible nearness of Jesus.
How could it be otherwise? The One who called the elements of the physical universe into being rules them still. Jesus walked on top of the waves, because even the waters recognised their rightful place under the feet of their Maker.
Where in your life do you need to draw strength from these words of your Saviour? It is I; do not be afraid.
This article is an excerpt from Truly, Truly, I Say to You: Meditations on the Words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, published by The Good Book Company.