Summary: God is to be feared, and not to be.
I was listening (a few days ago) to a sermon by Tim Keller, a PCA pastor in New York. He made (for me) a helpful distinction between looking at a truth and looking through it. Some think of Christianity as a dry and stagnant and intellectual exercise — a religion that promotes certain facts which can be looked at and dissected. So Christians believe Jesus performed miracles; scholars and skeptics argue whether such claims are possible or believable.
But as Pastor Keller noted, living, vital, life-transforming faith requires that we look through truth. Sin distorts our perception, making life unclear, blurring our view of ourselves and others. To look through truth is to put on glasses which focus the whole world. It is to be changed by truth, not merely to know of it. It may be accurate to say that such is the effect of true conversion — facts now focus our eyes to truly see.
I think that helps explain why Jesus so often acted out his teachings rather than simply state them as doctrinal truths. As in our text today — Jesus could have simply said, “God is to be feared, and not to be feared.” Instead, he sends his disciples into a classroom at sea, to learn to look through this truth as well as at it. Their experience and response teaches us much about God and fear. Please listen (or, if you prefer, following along) as I read John 6.15-21. [Read John 6.15-21. Pray.]
He began his first inaugural speech, March 4, 1933, with these words: “This is a day of national consecration. I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly…. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance….”
Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt correct in those famous words: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”? Certainly his rhetoric captured the imagination and contained truth. Fear can paralyze; unreasoning, unjustified terror grips our hearts and seems to control our wills (and even our limbs). Maybe fear is to be feared, especially unreasoning fear.
But is fear the only thing we have to fear? The disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus. But then they were glad and past the storm. What is Jesus teaching them (and us)?
1. We Overcome Fear By Fearing God (John 6.16-20)
We may miss something if we only read this account in John’s Gospel. He does not include an earlier incident in the life of the disciples. Mark, however, records both.
In Mark 4, the disciples were (also) in a boat, but with Jesus asleep in the stern. Suddenly, a great windstorm arises, threatening to sink their craft. They were terrified of the storm and woke Jesus, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus rebuked the wind and sea, and said to his men, “Why are you so afraid?” They feared the storm; so Jesus demonstrated his power over the wind and the waves. A living lesson: Jesus’ presence controls the circumstances we face so that we need not fear. That was Mark 4.35-41.
Two chapters later, we read of a second “sea sermon.” Right after feeding the 5000, Jesus places his disciples in a boat and sends them across the Sea of Galilee without him. Mark shows us that these two events occur on the heals of one another, but with different lessons.
With that in mind, notice a distinction between the events: there is no indication here that the disciples are afraid of the storm. The sea is rough; a strong wind is blowing; Mark even observes that they were making headway painfully. But fear comes from seeing Jesus walking on the water. They thought it was a ghost, and they are terrified.
That seems strange to me. Jesus feeds a huge crowd by miraculously multiplying 5 barley loaves and 2 salted fish into a feast for ten to twenty thousand people. Plus, there are 12 disciples and 12 basketsful left over. We cannot know for sure, but its seems likely that each took with him a basket and the baskets are in the boat with the men, one for each.
So, what is wrong with these guys? Why do they not cheer Jesus’ arrival? Why are they afraid when they had clearly seen his power and should have anticipated his miraculous help? The answer is that they still do not expect the presence of the supernatural. Jesus is clearly from another world; he is not safe! The transcendent has invaded, and the only possible response is dread and terror. They do not understand about the loaves, for their hearts remain hardened. They see, but they do not yet see through.