Jesus has just fed five thousand men, as well as additional women and children, with five small loaves of bread and two fish. In verse 45 we read, “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.” You sense an urgency in Jesus’ actions. He wants the disciples gone, and according to verse 46, he wants to be alone to pray. What’s going on here? What had just happened – the five thousand – became a test for both Jesus and for the disciples.
For Jesus, the test was one that we usually don’t recognize as a test. We read in the Gospel of John that the crowd that Jesus fed was ready to force him to become King (Jn 6:15). Jesus was so popular at that point that he faced the temptation to get sidetracked from his mission due to the acclaim of the crowds. Jesus also knew that the path ahead led to the cross, not to glory and conquest. The glory and victory would come, but not before betrayal and death. So Jesus was going through his own storm, and so he retreated and spent most of the night in prayer.
But the focus in this passage really isn’t on the storm that Jesus faced. Mark doesn’t even go there. Instead, he draws our attention to what the disciples are going through. We read in verses 47 and 48: 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.
One commentator says: This episode is a good illustration of the life of discipleship…It was not through stubborn self-will, but through direct obedience to the Lord’s command, that the disciples found themselves in this plight. Thus the storm in no way showed that they had deviated from the path of God’s will: God’s path for them lay through the storm, to the other shore of the lake. Moreover, it appeared as if the Lord had forgotten them; they were alone, at night, making heavy weather with the rowing. (Alan Cole)
Ask yourself: Why would Jesus allow the disciples to go through this crisis alone? The answer has to be that this is part of the preparation process that the disciples needed as part of their training. We are going to be placed in situations, believing that God has sent us. We are going to be straining at the oars making very little progress at all. It’s going to seem as if we’re alone and that Jesus is off somewhere else. We can expect this to be part of our experience.
There really are three lessons we’re expected to learn:
We will face adversity and hardship. Following Christ does not mean an exemption from suffering. Following Christ will sometimes lead us directly into a position of suffering and hardship. We should not be surprised to encounter times of suffering. When we follow Jesus, adversity and hardship will be part of the path.
There are going to be times when we’re at the end of our own resources. The picture of the disciples “straining at the oars” is a good one for us. There are going to be times that we are working very hard but seemingly making very little progress. Reaching the point of helplessness and desperation is actually a step forward spiritually.
There will be times that Jesus seems absent. We will be in the storm and it will seem like God has abandoned us.
If you are in one of these moments right now of suffering and hardship, of being at the end of your resources, feeling that God is perhaps absent, then you are in a very good spot. Suffering is not evidence of God’s absence, but of God’s presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work.
We’re going to face situations like this, and it’s in these very situations that we learn something about Jesus.