After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus withdraws from the enthusiastic crowd that wants to crown him King of the Jews and usher in the golden (political) age of the Kingdom of Israel. What follows in John 6 is an interesting story that highlights the true identity of Jesus as YHWH and reinforces the notion that a merely political and earthly kingdom is not nearly enough for the king of the cosmos.
Beginning in v17, John emphasizes that the disciples are isolated from their teacher. Then, in that moment of isolation, a strong wind blew down across the Sea of Galilee and frothed up the water. But in that moment of chaos, Jesus appears, walking on the rough seas and declaring himself to be king of the cosmos as he says to his disciples, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20 ESV).
Now, beyond what we see on the surface of this text, there is a rich intertextual link between this event and the creation narrative that drives home Christ’s identity. In the first place, Jesus’ disciples are rowing on deep, dark waters. John makes a point in 6:17 to describe the moments just before Jesus’ appearance as “dark.” This note should bring us back to Gen 1:1, where we read of the initial state of creation that “darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen 1:2 ESV). So, then, the disciples find themselves in something of an analog to the primordial deep darkness.
Perhaps this next correspondence is a stretch, but I’ll put it out there anyway. John also makes pains to point out that the disciples are alone without Jesus (John 6:17). Perhaps he wants us to imagine the unorganized void of the initial creation, which is described in Gen 1:2 as “without form and void.” After all, at night, about 3 miles out on a lake, there is neither form nor fullness to speak of as you row.
But then things get worse, because the relatively still void begins to be stirred up by a great wind (John 6:18). The storm then reflects the chaos of the “deep,” the chaotic primordial waters that also do double duty as the grave in Hebrew poetry (cf. Ps 42:7). And so, at this point, the disciples find themselves in a picture of the chaos of the initial creation, for which they are not prepared.
It is also at this point that Jesus appears, “walking on the sea and coming near the boat” (John 6:19). Using our sanctified imaginations, we must appreciate the juxtaposition of the sloshing waves and the steady walk of our Lord. Perhaps his feet were firmly planted on obedient water just below the waves, or maybe he was walking along the frothy waves like stepping stones. Either way, this surreal scene should evoke in our mind’s eye the image of God’s Spirit “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2 ESV).
With that, the imagery and correspondence are complete. On the one side, there is a dark, primordial deep, full of nothing, over which the Spirit hovered, poised to master the formlessness and void into something orderly and filled. On the other side, there is a dark, chaotic sea pressing against these isolated disciples who spot their savior walking on the water, drawing near to them, in full command of his creation. What more vivid picture of Christ’s kingship over the cosmos do we need? For good reason, he had no interest in being crowned the king of political Israel, for he was already the king of the universe.
From this correspondence, we should appreciate the obvious indication that Jesus is God. His self-declaration in John 6:20) is framed in an “I am” statement that points to the great “I am” statements of Isaiah, for example, “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa 43:11 ESV) or “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa 41:10 ESV). It is no accident that this self-declaration is made in a situation in which the disciples could not forget his power and authority.
Indeed, we ourselves should not forget the point of this imagery. Jesus is no territorial or tribal deity. He is not one among many gods, but the only Lord and Master of the universe. Therefore, he cannot be contained to one people, tribe, nation, or tongue, for he owns and rules over them all. To him, then, we give our worship.