“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side” — Matthew 14:22
This is a passage that many people have trouble with, because it tells us that God sometimes instigates hard times in our lives. It is important for us to be reconciled with this concept; because if we do not, we may find ourselves forever kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14).
Just after Jesus feeds the five thousand, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John tell us that Jesus “made” the disciples get into the boat and go to the western shore of Galilee. This word “made” may also be translated “compel,” “necessitate” or even “force.” It is a very strong word that leaves little doubt the disciples did not have a choice in the matter.
What we see in these passages is Jesus compelling the disciples into a boat He knew would take them into a storm, find them “straining at the oars” (Mark 6:48) and ultimately blown off their intended course. The disciples, intending to take a short boat ride across the northern tip of a lake that is merely four miles wide, soon find they were still in the middle of the lake (Mark 6:47) after rowing three or three and a half miles. They were in a storm and going nowhere fast. Fortunately, Jesus rescues them by walking across the lake.
At first, this sounds like a heartless thing for Jesus to do. Why would God send us to a place where He knows we will fight, strain and struggle, only to wind up further from our destination than when we started? I believe that Jesus needed the disciples to learn a number of lessons, and the first lesson was that He was still sovereign over all His creation.
The account in John (6:16-21) tells us that the disciples were amazed at Jesus because they didn’t understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Had they taken time to meditate upon the miracle of the loaves, they wouldn’t have been surprised and amazed at the Lord’s sovereignty over the wind and the waves. I know I’ve been amazed at God on more than one occasion, and that is more of an indicator of my lack of understanding than it is in God’s ability to produce miracles.
We see in John’s gospel an instance where God repeats Himself for the sake of the disciples. It was important for them to understand God’s hand in nature, for this understanding would be vital in their own ministry. When God repeats Himself in our life (and He has done it more than once in mine…), it may be a strong indicator that He wants us to learn something important for a task He has in store for us. Of course, it may also mean that we didn’t learn it the first time around! Only when we do not understand the significance of Christ’s former works will we be amazed at what He is doing now.
However, there are also some comforting moments in this episode. Not only does He send us into the storm, but He knows we are straining (Mark 6:48), He is interceding while we are in the storm (Matt. 14:23), and He comes to us in the midst of our struggles. Job 23:10 says, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” God is aware of where we are; it is only us who cannot always identify the places we’ve been blown to.
I’ll admit, sometimes I’ve been compelled into a boat that I thought would be an easy row across a small lake, only to find myself in over my head and straining to maintain my momentum. It is at the darkest hour of the night that Jesus shows up, if only to remind us that He has never left us. But there is something else. I believe God wants us to remember that for all our human effort, there is nothing so miraculously comforting as His simple presence walking onto our boat. And when He does, somehow, we will find ourselves on the shore we were headed to in the first place (John 6:21).