When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat walking on the water, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (verses 19-21)
Nerves were stretching thin. “A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough” (verse 18). Violent storms whipped up quickly on the surface of Galilee, so the current circumstance was unsettling, even for seasoned fishermen. They were “straining at the oars” (Mark 6:48), “buffeted by the waves because the wind was against” them (Matthew 14:24).
Fishermen and non-fishermen alike would remember that the Old Testament scriptures often used the sea as an image of chaos – now they were living right in the midst of it.
So, they were already on edge when they began to see a figure approaching them through the gloom, seemingly treading on the surface of the sea, coming closer and closer through the surging waves. They were terrified! Wouldn’t you be? We’ve heard this story so often, marvelling at Jesus’ miracle, that we skip right past what it would have been like to actually experience it, raw and unprepared. Absolutely alarming!
Piercing that terror came the deeply familiar voice, ringing out over the waters: “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Panic turned to peace. Hope surged, stronger than the surrounding waves. “Then they were willing to take him into the boat” – of course. Not only willing, but eager and relieved!
But echoing in the back of their mind, matching the familiarity of the Master’s voice, was the growing familiarity of the words themselves. “It is I; don’t be afraid.” The simplicity of the first phrase comes via two sparse Greek words in John’s text which, taken together, reverberate with Divine significance. “I AM.” No Israelite of the day could hear those two words without perceiving echoes of Almighty God himself, declaring at the burning bush, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). No Israelite of the time would casually string those two words together. Jesus, in using them, is not only speaking the familiar comfort of his presence. He’s speaking Divine revelation of his very Person.
He pairs these words with the phrase, “Don’t be afraid.” Again, it’s communication for the need of the moment – these terrified disciples need his reassurance. But the words ring with deeper familiarity, bouncing off the pages of scripture. These were words heard by the patriarchs as they each encountered Almighty God. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield,” the Lord said as he established his covenant (Genesis 15:1). Isaac heard similar words In the midst of quarrels with neighbouring tribes, when the Lord said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24). And to Jacob, in his old age as he journeyed to the foreign land of Egypt to be reunited with his son, the Lord said, “I am God, the God of your father … Do not be afraid” (Genesis 46:3).
In the midst of turmoil, struggling at the oars, fearful of what was approaching, the disciples heard the Lord ‘s familiar voice say, “I am; don’t be afraid.” Those words echoed with Divine familiarity.
He still speaks. He meets us in our own chaotic moments. He makes his presence known in the midst of struggles and labour and turmoil. He comes alongside when fear seeks to overwhelm us. When the winds roar and waves surge and terror rises, he still speaks.
I AM. Don’t be afraid.
Lord Jesus, I welcome you into the boat. May your presence calm the fear of the moment. May your strong arm grant strength beyond what I myself can muster. May you bring me through the chaos, safely to the destination of your choosing. And give me ears to hear the ongoing reassurance of your voice. Amen.
Reflect: Where are the waters rough and winds howling at present? Welcome Jesus afresh, right into the midst. And if seas are currently calm, reflect back to previous unsettledness and give thanks for his provision in seeing you through.