I have a goal this year of reading through the entire New Testament in the original Greek. I am beginning to realize that this is quite an ambitious goal, but the rewards are well worth the effort. As I was reading from the Gospel of John a few days ago, something I already knew about the story jumped out at me and took on an entirely new significance in my imagination.
And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea, and entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid. But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. They they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went (John 6:16-21).
What stood out to me is the way that John phrased the description of the disciples and Jesus. The disciples went down “unto the sea” but Jesus walked “on the sea”. When we read this passage in Greek we notice that John uses the exact same word, ἐπὶ (epi), in both places. You don’t have to be able to read Greek to see the similarity between the two phrases.
ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν “toward the sea”—what the disciples did in v.16
ἐπὶ τῆς θάλασσης “on [the surface of] the sea”—what Jesus did in v.19
John is definitely making a connection between these two phrases, and he does it in a way that is unique to his gospel. Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels both also record this story (Mt 14:22-27 & Mk 6:45-52), but the way they describe it is totally different.
Just like Matthew and Mark, John points out that the disciples “entered into a ship”. But for Matthew and Mark getting into the boat is the entire focus; they don’t even mention going down to the sea. And why should they? They’re getting into a boat…it’s obvious! But John takes the time to mention it.
What is more, when Matthew tells the story he uses these two phrases interchangeably.
Jesus went unto them, “walking on the sea” ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν (Mt 14:25)
The disciples saw him “walking on the sea” ἐπὶ τῆς θάλασσης (Mt 14:26)
[Technically this is possible because of the ways all of the possible definitions of ἐπὶ (epi) interact with Greek grammar. Matthew’s use is less sophisticated and precise than John’s use of ἐπὶ (epi), which makes the way John phrases things even more interesting.]
And besides, it isn’t like there is any rule of Greek grammar that demands that John phrase himself this way. He could have used different words. He could have said that the disciples went εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν or πρός τὴν θάλασσαν “toward the sea”, or maybe even παρά τὴν θάλασσαν “alongside the sea”. He could have said that Jesus walked ἐν θάλασσῃ “on the sea,” even if this wouldn’t have been quite as clearly worded.
But no, John decided to use the exact same word—really the exact same phrase—to describe how the disciples approached the sea and how Jesus approached the sea. Both of them went “ἐπὶ (epi) the sea,” and yet Jesus and the disciples related to the sea in very different ways. They were in a boat (some sort of human tool or ingenuity to get them across), but Jesus was on foot (held up by the divine empowerment of God).
It goes without saying that when faced with the storms of life, often we face the exact same situation with very different results than Jesus. When we are falsely accused we retort, but Jesus “opened not his mouth.” When we are spoken ill of we often give insults in return, but Jesus “when he was reviled, reviled not again.” We, like Jesus, go to the sea of life. But how we handle it is often so different.
This story should renew our faith in Jesus. It doesn’t matter the situation, Jesus can go farther than we can ever go. This should give us new confidence when we walk up to a situation that we cannot handle. Maybe for you it is an illness. Or financial difficulty. Or rejection. Or the death of a loved one. It doesn’t matter how rough the situation or how stormy the sea. Jesus is already standing atop the waves, and he is making steps toward our boat. Jesus can walk onto what we can only walk up to.