In Peril on the Sea

Divine search and rescue

John 6:15-21

15 Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.

16 Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into the boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was already dark, and Jesus had not come to them. 18 Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing. 19 So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid. 20 But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they willingly received Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.

The Great Hurricane of 1893 devastated the fishing and trading communities of coastal Georgia and the Carolinas. The storm struck the region between Savannah and Wilmington in the middle of the night and at high tide, resulting in over 2,000 deaths and millions in property damage. Happening before storms were named, it has simply become known as the “Storm of ’93” or the “Sea Island Storm” and its memory still touches the lives of coastal residents.

In the midst of the destruction, one man did not take shelter. Dunbar Davis was a keeper of the Oak Island Lifesaving Station near Cape Fear, North Carolina. Davis, along with his crew of a half dozen men, was a part of the fledgling US Lifesaving Service. As 120 mph winds raged, he and his crew launched in an open rowboat to answer the distress call of a ship caught in the teeth of the storm on treacherous Frying Pan Shoals. This hazard was part of a stretch of water along the North Carolina coast known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

For over 12 hours, Davis and his crew rowed through mountainous breakers and ocean swells to rescue the crew of the schooner Three Sisters. Upon return to the station,Davis discovered a new distress call to the south. More ships and lives were being swept ashore in the raging storm. Over the next three days, without sleep or a hot meal, Davis and his men rescued the crews of three more stranded vessels using only their open boat and lifesaving gear. 

The 1961 issue of North Carolina’s “The State” magazine recalls that at the end, Dunbar admitted he was “pretty tired.” “After all,” the magazine quips, “he was 50 years old. They don’t hardly make that kind anymore.”

Have you ever braved a storm at sea? Maybe you have served at sea in the navy or taken an ill-fated cruise and can remember the terror–or at the very least, seasickness– that can come with such an experience. John’s gospel continues here in chapter 6 with Jesus’s disciples encountering a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the lifesaving effort of the Lord of Life himself, walking across the waves to meet them.

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand has occurred and now Jesus knows that the crowd is growing anxious to declare him king. In the confusion of the miracle’s sensation, Jesus departs for a quiet place in the heights alone. His disciples, knowing that escape across the lake is the next destination, await Jesus on the lakeshore. They wait and wait. Evening comes but no Jesus. They board the boat and set off across the lake in the dim blue light of nightfall.

John recalls not only the scene but the feeling of the expectant disciples:

           …And it was already dark, and Jesus had not come to them.–John 6:17b

They are on the water at night. This in and of itself is not a major problem. After all, four of them were fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John himself. Being on the water at night in a small boat can be somewhat tricky when it comes to navigation, but it can also be a time of peace and beauty. John knows, however, that things can change rapidly on the water and dangers can increase in the darkness.

Light and darkness. John is playing on a theme here with this verse, reminding us of the identity of Christ in his own recollection of the scene. John is bringing us back to the first chapter of his gospel and to the One who is the Light…

…that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.–John 1:5b

Life without Jesus is, in essence, life lived in darkness. John and the disciples acutely feel the absence of the savior from their midst. Jesus is not present with them and the hollowness and fear of life apart from Him creeps into their hearts.  

Have you known life without Christ? Can you recall life before you knew that you belonged to Him–or a time of rebellion as a believer when you had turned your back? Maybe it has not been that dramatic. Maybe you have spent time in a wilderness of this sinful world where life’s misery and pain seemed to drown out all things good and you felt left on your own and adrift.

John captures this feeling in this one verse–and then proceeds to tell us that things get worse. Much worse:

18 Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing.–John 6:18

Here the seafaring man in John emerges. He could wax eloquent on details of towering waves and howling wind,but he does not. The former fisherman seems to simply be noting the conditions as in a log entry from a routine voyage at sea. But this is no ordinary sea. The Sea of Galilee is notorious for freak storms and harsh weather. John knows that they could easily be overcome and drown. All hands lay to oars and work feverishly, fighting rising panic.

The unique topography of the Sea of Galilee lends itself to deadly weather. It lies about 700 feet below sea level and is surrounded by high hills. Storms blowing in can quickly become magnified by this “bowl” effect and produce astoundingly violent conditions. 

I have been at sea in rough weather, but the worst I experienced was in a kayak on Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Some friends and I had determined to paddle out to Fort Sumter National Monument and enjoy the day. The calm waters of the harbor seemed to guarantee an easy time, but within an hour of departing, the wind picked up and soon we were fighting deep swells and whitecaps. Since we were close to the fort, we pressed on andall survived to congratulate each other with hearty backslaps. 

However, it was not all bravado. I have a vivid memory of my kayak riding waves so large that I would dip into a deep trough to see nothing but a wall of water and then riding the wave to the top to catch a glimpse of the fort before heading back down again. I knew fear that day.

Imagine doing this in a crowded, open boat. With no life jacket. At night. 

John ratchets up the fear by revealing something miraculous: 

19 So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid.–John 6:19

Can you imagine the shock and then the terror of this? There must have been a moment when the storm-addled minds of the disciples wrestled to even register what they were seeing. Matthew’s account even goes so far as to say the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost! (Matthew 14:26)

This, then, is the true source of their fear: an otherworldly encounter with Christ. Jesus knows that the confusion found in the crowd seeking miracles and wonders also runs in the hearts of many of His disciples. On top of this, despite the miracles seen just a few hours ago, there is doubt among them.

The disciples are filled with doubt and fear even though they have already had one boating experience with Jesus when He calmed the waters: “Peace, be still.” (Mark 4:35-41) 

Matthew and Mark include in their accounts that Peter gets out of the boat and attempts to walk on water to Jesus. As Peter’s sinking beneath the waves reveals, they all have much to learn about faith. I have often wondered why John does not include this detail about Peter. John is not ignoring a fact, but simply choosing a different emphasis point. 

The other gospels seem to focus on the disciples, but John is focusing on Christ. With the misunderstanding of Jesus’s identity noted in the crowds and the confusion of the disciples, Jesus is revealing Himself to His disciples in His own terms. He is more than a provider of lunch and a potential political insurrectionist; He is the Lord of Creation. 

20 But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

He calls to them. The phrase “It is I” may make us think He is simply saying, “Relax! It’s just me!” He is, of course, revealing something much more powerful: ego eimi, “I AM.” Jesus is not asking them to laugh it off like a good joke or the end of an episode of “Scooby Doo.” He is calling to them as God, purposely reducing dialogue to a minimum. In His voice the disciples know that God is there with them. With almost palpable relief they nearly pull Jesus into the boat:

21 Then they willingly received Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.

Is Jesus in your boat? Dr. Ronald Wallace describes Jesus’s presence with us:

The Good Shepherd does not treat us simply as units of a flock under his care, but  plans or leads us each in the way we have to go as individuals, calling his sheep  by name. The way he chooses can sometimes be through the dark and threatening  valley, under strain and stress. Life grows hard or personal situation seems to be  hemmed in with darkness and our hold on it grows weaker. We too can learn  from this very instant not to let go in despair. He will come. We will hear his  voice. Nothing around will prevent his taking us to the very destination we have  sought and he has planned.    - Ronald S. Wallace 

Jesus is using this to show you that he is always with you, even in the darkest of times. As He called to his disciples, so He calls to you. In fact, many voices call to you, do they not? The voices of family or friends who always have helpful but often harmful advice in your time of need. The voice of a modern age that tells you to “believe in yourself” or “think positive thoughts” in order to overcome despair. 

Or that familiar voice in your head that is your own, echoing a critical parent or your own memory of where you have relied on your own strength once more and failed. This voice is the hardest to drown out and it quickly forgets the loaves and fishes and previous boat journeys with Jesus.    

Jesus calls to you over the turbulent waves. You rest in Him as shown in the words of the old sailors’ hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save:”

Oh Christ whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word
Who walkest on the foamy deep
And how amidst the storm did sleep
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in Peril on the sea

- William Whiting, 1860 

Sometimes Jesus calms the storm; sometimes He calms you. Can you hear His voice?



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.