While I was in college, I loved leading 5-day wilderness canoeing trips up in norther Wisconsin. Water (especially the fast-flowing class V rapids kind) can induce fear and intimidation. I think that maybe why Mark includes so many boat scenes with Jesus and the disciples in his gospel. Each boat scene reveals the disciples’ lack of faith or failure to comprehend Jesus’ mission or identity, and in each scene the anticipated solution is faith in Jesus, their rabbi and the Son of God.
Boat Scene #1 (4:35–41)
After teaching a very large crowd in parables, Jesus instructs his disciples to get in the boat and go to the “other side.” The destination was “other side” was the Decapolis, an unclean and forbidden place that no practicing Jew would dare to visit. The mode of transportation was a boat across the Sea of Galilee. But boats in this culture were not used for transportation from point A across a vast body of water to point B. Open water to the 1st century Jew was the realm of chaos and darkness. Fishing practices involved throwing out nets into the relatively shallow waters along shore – they didn’t fish or bring their boats out into the open water. To get someplace they would choose to simply walk along the shoreline. So, to the disciples, both the destination and the mode of transportation would trigger fear.
POINT: The power of Jesus, the Son of God, trumps the power of nature and the power of the unclean – so you needn’t fear when you feel threatened by either.
Boat Scene #2 (6:45–52)
Immediately after feeding the 5,000 in Jewish territory, Jesus sends the disciples off in their boat onto the Sea of Galilee while he goes up a mountain to pray. A while later as the disciples are struggling to control the boat in the open water, they think they see a ghost, and they were overcome with fear. But it was Jesus walking on the water. He joins the disciples and tells them not to be afraid (6:50). Mark records “they were utterly astounded, but they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52).
POINT: The 12 baskets full clearly point to the abundance of salvation Jesus brings to the Jews. The power of Jesus, the Son of God, trumps the power of storms and he has enough salvation for the Jews, so you should trust in him.
Boat Scene #3 (8:14–21)
Shortly after feeding the 4,000 in the Decapolis (Gentile area), Jesus hops in the boat with his disciples after a brief, but exasperating exchange with the spiritually blind Pharisees on the west shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus thinks about the Pharisees and their lack of belief, he cautions the disciples against the Pharisees and their unbelief, saying “beware the leaven of the Pharisees” (8:15). The disciples hear that and conclude that Jesus was commenting of the challenges they would face at lunchtime – since they only had one loaf of bread. Jesus is now even more exasperated with them and pepper them with 7 questions framed by “Do you not understand”?
POINT: The 7 baskets full clearly point to the abundance of salvation Jesus brings to the Gentiles (just as the Syrophoenician woman in ch. 7:24 said!), yet the disciples don't get it.
What is Marks point in exposing the disciples fears and lack of faith? To the Roman reader all this would be encouraging:
Jesus is the Son of God, he controls the powers of nature.
Jesus does not exclude anyone – even those in the Decapolis.
The 7 baskets full left over at the feeding of the 4,000 indicate that Jesus is the savior for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Even through the disciples were super slow to figure it out – There’s hope!
Any Roman reader of Marks gospel is invited to surpass the initial lack of spiritual discernment among the disciples and place their faith in Jesus.
How about you? Do you get it?