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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The presence of Jesus calms the fears of his disciples
Text:John 6:16-21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 84:1-3

Hymn 11:9 (after the law)

Hymn 53:1,2

Hymn 64

Psalm 84:4-6

Scripture reading: Psalm 77

Text:  John 6:16-21

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Imagine you’re in a terrifying and chaotic situation.  Perhaps you can think of that one person you would want to have with you at that moment.  The presence of that person has a calming effect on everyone around them.  When things are falling apart, if that person is there, you can still believe everything will turn out okay.

I enjoy military documentaries.  I’ve watched many stories of men in combat.  Whether it’s Gallipoli, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, it always strikes me that combat is one of the most stressful things a person might face.  Especially if you’re faced with overwhelming odds, a fighting force with greater numbers, better equipment or a more advantageous position, combat can be absolutely terrifying.  I’ve never experienced it, so I can only listen to the stories and imagine.   When I listen to those stories, what strikes me is how many of them feature a single soldier whose presence made all the difference to the outcome.  Sometimes it’s an officer or some other leader in a unit, sometimes it’s just a regular soldier.  But in many units there’s a man who’s level-headed, has grace under pressure.  His presence makes the impossible possible.  He has a calming effect and gets people through. 

In our passage from John this morning, we see a group of twelve men and they’re in a tough spot.  They’re faced with a life-and-death situation in a boat out on the water.  They’re exhausted and terrified.  Filled with fears -- and then suddenly they’re not.  One person comes on board their boat and he makes all the difference. 

Our passage is one of those rare things in John’s gospel that you also find in Matthew and Mark.  Matthew and Mark also describe the feeding of the 5000 and then the disciples get out on the water and find themselves in a storm.  Each account has its own flavour or emphasis.  They don’t contradict each other, but they put different things at the forefront.  In Matthew’s version, we read of Peter going out to meet Jesus on the water.  Peter becomes afraid and starts to sink.  In Mark’s version, Jesus is alone praying on a mountain, but he looks out and he sees the disciples in the boat struggling against the storm.  In both Matthew and Mark, we’re explicitly told that after he got in the boat, the wind ceased.  I want you to notice right away here in John’s version that the wind is only mentioned once – it’s only mentioned in verse 18.  We’re not told directly that the wind stopped.  Instead, the Holy Spirit wants us to focus on something different.  Rather than on stopping something in the outside natural world, he wants us to fix our attention on Jesus stopping something inside the disciples. 

So I preach to you God’s Word as we see how the presence of Jesus calms the fears of his disciples

We’ll look at:

  1. The frightful storm
  2. The faithful Saviour

In the passage right before this, our Saviour fed over 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  That miraculous sign shows us how Jesus has power to lavish us with more than enough.  It’s in Scripture to evoke our faith and trust in Christ.  After he performed this miracle, our Lord Jesus went off by himself to a lonely spot to pray. 

Meanwhile, as the day was getting on, verse 16 tells us his disciples went down to the Sea of Galilee.  Now just a quick note here about the twelve being called “his disciples.”  You have to take note of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  All Christians are disciples.  Some might hear that and wonder whether it was only the twelve who were called to be disciples.  To answer that, let me point you to a couple of passages.  In Luke 6:13, we find that Christ called the twelve who were to be apostles from among his disciples.  There was a large group of people who followed Jesus as disciples, but he chose twelve to be his inner circle, his closest followers.  In Acts 11:26, we read, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”  That’s not referring to the twelve, but to all the believers.  Christians are disciples.  Christians are all students of Jesus Christ, called to learn from him and follow his example.  There are many more places I could mention.  You just need to take a concordance or do a search on a Bible website and you’ll see that the word “disciple” is applied throughout the New Testament to all Christians in general.

So here when we read about this experience of the disciples in the boat, there’s something for us to learn as disciples of Jesus as well.  Our Saviour Jesus was not only teaching the twelve something, as if it was just limited to them and their day.  No, there’s something here we need to learn as modern-day disciples too.

The feeding of the 5000 took place on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Bethsaida.  Now the disciples want to travel over to Capernaum which is on the northwestern shore.  It’s a distance of about 8-10 km across the water.  So they get into a small Galilean fishing boat and begin the journey.  Darkness settles on the land.  Darkness is always an uncertain time.  Who knows what might happen in the dark?  And the question takes on greater weight with the fact that Jesus is not there.  “Jesus had not yet come to them” tells us that Jesus is not there.  They leave without him.

They’re on the Sea of Galilee.  It’s a big lake way below sea level in the northern part of Israel.  In fact, it’s at about 600 feet below sea level.  There’s higher ground all around.  What happens at times is the cooler air from higher up rapidly displaces the warm moist air on the lake.  Even to this day the Sea of Galilee is known for its intense wind storms.  The wind will pick up just like that and when it does, it whips up the waves and if you’re out on the water it’s not going to be pleasant.  That’s what the disciples found themselves up against.  The Holy Spirit tells us that the water “became rough because a strong wind was blowing.”  Any of the original readers familiar with the Sea of Galilee would instantly recognize the seriousness of the situation.  The disciples were in deep trouble.  Nobody had given them a small craft wind warning.  They got caught by the wind and there was no way out. 

From the other gospels, we learn the wind was blowing against them.  These Galilean fishing boats had sails, but if the wind is blowing against you, that doesn’t do you any good.  That’s why they started rowing.  These boats had oars and the disciples set to working them.  After a long while of rowing, they had made only a little progress -- they had gone three or four miles, which works out to about 5 or 6 ½ kms.  Moreover, from Matthew and Mark, we also know that this distance was not bringing them any closer to Capernaum.  In fact, we read that they were being blown out into the middle of the lake, far from land.  It was not a great situation to be in.  Some of them were experienced fishermen who knew the Sea of Galilee quite well, but that was little comfort.  Being in a windstorm in the middle of the night on that lake is terrifying.

It wouldn’t be the last time these men would be faced with danger.  After Christ’s ascension into heaven, the disciples went out with the gospel message into the world.  In Matthew 10, Christ warned them they would encounter hatred and violence.  The world hates Christ and it hates the gospel.  Except for Judas Iscariot, the disciples all experienced it.  They would all face persecution.  Some of them would face torture and martyrdom.  For example, the tradition is that Peter was crucified upside down for his faith in Christ.  Even regular upright crucifixion is frightening enough if you know what it involves.  They faced a hostile world that would do anything to try and silence them. 

Then there’s us as disciples of Christ today.  The world still hates us and wishes it could silence us.  Thankfully we live in a country where we’re still relatively free to share our faith and worship.  We’re not faced with persecution or the threat of torture or death for our Saviour.  Yet we still have our fears, other fears just as real.  We still have things we deal with which can be terrifying to us.  We still have situations where the world seems like it’s out of control.  It feels like the ground is falling out from beneath our feet.  It’s a broken and messy world and it affects us.  Even if it doesn’t right now, it could very well do so in the near or distant future.  It could be the natural world that causes you to fear for your life.  It could be an act of criminal violence that shatters your peaceful world.  It could be sickness in your family.  All kinds of stuff can come up that makes us feel like we’re in the middle of a storm, water is getting into the boat, and we’re blown off course.  What does the gospel say to disciples in the middle of that kind of frightening chaos?  Let’s see.

We’re in the middle of verse 19 and there’s Jesus.  Suddenly they see him walking towards them on the water.  They’ve already seen Christ do some remarkable things, but walking on water is not one of them.  Miraculously, he is able to walk on the waves.  Though the wind is blowing and the waves are billowing, he simply steps across the water as if it’s a meadow.   Just by itself, this is a remarkable thing.  But it becomes even more remarkable when you consider it within the context of the entire Bible. 

We read from Psalm 77.  That psalm speaks about the Exodus from Egypt.  It refers to what happened at the Red Sea, how God controlled the waters and delivered his people from Pharaoh.  The waters divided and the people walked through.  When Pharaoh tried to do the same with his army, they were all destroyed.  Verses 16 and 17 describe how the waters were afraid of God.  It goes on to describe the storm.  Most people don’t realize that the crossing of the Red Sea took place in a thunder storm, but it’s there in Psalm 77.  And then there’s verse 19, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”  God is portrayed as walking through the sea, leading his people onward.  Christ walking on the water has to be understood in connection with this.  When he did this, he was revealing his divine power and majesty.  The Son of God is God, he is the God spoken of in Psalm 77.  He created the waters, he controls them, and if he wants to, he can defy gravity by walking on them.  Here we see the waters literally under his feet. 

When the disciples see him they’re frightened.  This is not the fear of God, that healthy, godly fear and reverence.  Rather, this is dread.  This is the terror of unknown things that can hurt or kill you in the night.  We know this from the parallels in Matthew and Mark.  They both tell us this happened in the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 and 6:00 in the morning.  That time period has always had superstitions attached to it.  It’s sometimes been called “the witching hour.”  It’s the time in which ghosts, demons, and witches do their dirty work.  Palestinian Jews in Jesus’ day had these kinds of superstitions too.  Matthew and Mark tell us the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost.  Who knows what a ghost might do to you in the dark?  Who knows what a ghost might do in the middle of the lake in a storm?   That’s why they’re frightened.  It’s not because they’re afraid of Jesus or have the fear of God, it’s because they don’t know that it really is Jesus their Lord and God.

That’s why when he gets close to the boat he reassures them by saying, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  These words are rich in gospel comfort.  Let’s take each of the two parts in turn. 

First, Jesus says, “It is I.”  On the one hand, this is simply his way of identifying himself to them.  On the surface, he’s saying, “It’s really me, Jesus.  It’s not a ghost.”  But in the context of John’s gospel there’s also something else here.  In Greek Jesus literally says, “I, I am.”  When God revealed himself to Moses he told him his Name was “I am who I am.”  Later, in John 8, we’re going to hear Jesus tell the Jewish religious leaders, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  That’s John 8:58.  Then in verse 59 we read that they picked up stones to stone him.  What provoked that response?  Simply the words, “I am.”  Jesus was claiming divinity, claiming to be God.  So also here in John 6 when Jesus says, “I, I am,” and especially when we combine that with Psalm 77 and the way it portrays God, it’s legitimate to conclude that Christ was also saying, “I am the LORD your God.  I am the one who has saved his people in the past and I will save you now and in the future.  I am God and I will be faithful to what I have promised for your salvation.”

Then he says, “Do not be afraid.”  This is the most frequent command in the Bible.  Did you know that?  It appears in the Bible in so many places:  do not fear, do not be afraid.  It’s a command which appears far more than any other.  And in most places it appears as something commanded by God.  God commands his people to not be afraid.  Do not be in dread.  Do not be terrified or anxious.  Here it comes from Jesus, again reinforcing the fact that he is God come in the flesh.  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” to his disciples.  And what does that tell us about him?  What does that tell us about our God?  Remember, Christ came to reveal God to us.  What we learn about our Saviour here, we learn about our God.  It tells us that Jesus was alert to the fears of his disciples.  God knew.  Jesus knew what they were thinking.  He knew what was going on in their fearful hearts.  He knew their superstitions and their fright.  Because Jesus knows, he comforts them, “It is I, do not be afraid.”  He says, “You can let go of your fears, because I’m with you.  I’m here, I’m your faithful God and Saviour, you’re okay.”

Now look at verse 21.  At the end of verse 19 it says, “they were frightened.”  Verse 20, Jesus says, “It is I, do not be afraid.”  Now verse 21, “Then they were glad to take him into the boat.”  Notice the shift taking place over those three verses.  There’s fright.  There’s Jesus’ response to that fright, and then the fright is gone.  Now there’s gladness at the presence of Jesus.  His presence has sent their fears fleeing.  His presence brings them gladness.  They’re overjoyed to have him join them in the boat.  Notice again how it doesn’t say anything about whether the storm is still raging.  It’s as if the Holy Spirit is saying, “It doesn’t matter if the storm was still blowing or not.  Their gladness is because they have the presence of Jesus to calm their fears.  The storm is irrelevant.  Jesus’ presence is everything, storm or not.  He makes all the difference.”

Then there’s a second miracle described here – one that also makes the storm irrelevant.  It’s something not found in Matthew or Mark.  John says at the end of verse 21, “and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”  Miraculously, Christ brought them straight away to their destination.  They arrived safely through his intervention.  No more rowing or sailing for the night.  They made it to Capernaum.  Through his divine power, he transported the boat instantaneously across the water. 

The central thing this passage is telling us is that the presence of Jesus makes all the difference.  The presence of Jesus is what will calm the fears of disciples and give them gladness instead of fear.

Assuming the tradition is correct and Peter was crucified by the Romans for his faith, imagine how he might have drawn comfort from remembering what happened in our text.  Peter would have been imprisoned and at a certain moment he would have been told that he was going to be tortured and made to suffer crucifixion.  He knows it’s coming and he knows what it’s like because he saw Jesus go through it.  Wouldn’t fear be a reasonable reaction for Peter to have?  But now, unlike in the boat, Peter doesn’t have Jesus there to say, “It is I; do not be afraid.”  Or does he? 

Here we need to think of something our Saviour said right before going up into heaven.  At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, Christ gave the Great Commission.  He sent the church out into the world “make disciples of all nations.”  By the way, that reminds us again that Christians are disciples.  Christians are to make more Christians, more disciples.  And then Jesus says at the end of verse 20, the very last words of Matthew’s gospel, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus promised to always be present with his disciples.  Yes, physically he went up into heaven.  But yet he promised to still be with his followers.  And how?  From later in John’s gospel, we know that this is through his Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised that, after he physically left this earth, he would still be present with the Holy Spirit.  And therefore he said to them again in John 14:27, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  There again you find the most frequent command in the Bible and it’s connected to Jesus’ presence.  It’s connected to his presence with the Holy Spirit. 

Another important thing to remember is that Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest.  He is sympathetic.  Because he went to the cross, he knows what it’s like to suffer alone.  Jesus understands what it’s like to go through horrible suffering completely abandoned by everyone.  He had no one to encourage or support him.  Jesus did that out of love for you to pay for your sins, but because he did it and experienced it, now also he never wants you to experience that.  Because he was abandoned, he will never let those whom he loves be abandoned.  He is sympathetic and compassionate.  He will be faithful to you and he will stay by you.  Jesus promises you his presence so you need not fear.   

So when Peter faced a terrible death by suffering on a cross, Jesus was with him to calm his fears.  He was present with the Comforter, with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was there to say, “It is I, do not be afraid.  Even in the storm, I am with you.  You’ll be okay.  You’ll get through.”

And what about for disciples today?  Storms or not, we have the presence of Jesus to comfort us too.  We have him in the person of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts.  Loved ones, our Lord Jesus is still with us to encourage us and calm our fears, whatever they may be.  To hear his voice encouraging you, the Holy Spirit calls you to hear the Word.  The Bible tells you the Lord is aware of your fears and anxieties.  Not just some of them.  He’s alert to all of them, all of the time.  He tells you to cast your fears on him.  Bring them to him in prayer and ask him to take care of those things that burden you.  He is present. He does hear you.  He does care for you.  He loves you – in fact, he loved you to death on the cross.  If he would do that, he’s going to be present with you in your troubles and he’s going to get you through.  He really will.  He did it for people like Peter and the other 11 in the boat.  He did it for Peter later in his life too.  For Peter getting through the suffering of his cross meant being steadfast and not renouncing Christ.  Because of Christ’s presence with his Spirit, Peter could do that.  Our faithful Saviour is going to help each of his disciples get through whatever trials they’re up against.  Trust him. 

Loved ones, our Saviour is the best person you could have with you when things are terrifying or chaotic.  His presence calms.  His presence gladdens.  Jesus has the power and the willingness to get us where we need to go.  He will always be faithful to his disciples.  He was out there on the lake, and he will be in our lives too.  Jesus is with you, do not be afraid.  AMEN.  


Our Lord Jesus,

We worship and adore you for being our God and Saviour.  You have power over wind and waves.  You created these things and they’re under your power.  As our Almighty God, you are able to walk on water.  We praise you for your divine nature.  And when you left this world, you promised to remain with us in your Holy Spirit.  You’ve kept that promise and we’re thankful to you for that.  Thank you for being faithful.  When we’re faced with hard stuff in life, we pray that you would continue to comfort and calm us with your presence.  Help us with your Spirit always to be conscientious and aware of your presence with us.  Speak to us the words of comfort and courage we need from your Word.  Lord, we especially pray for those of us right now who feel like their lives are in a chaotic storm.  Please especially calm their fears and anxieties with your Spirit and Word.  Please continue to show yourself faithful to all your disciples.  Help us all to get through the storms and difficulties we encounter in this broken world.  Lord, have mercy on us now and always.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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