In Mark 6, just after the feeding of the multitude, Jesus sends the disciples away so he can gou about dismissing the crowds. The disciples climbed in a boat and started rowing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. After a while Mark offers this account as noted in the ESV:
Mar 6:48 And he (Jesus) saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them,
Mar 6:49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out,
Mar 6:50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Recently I heard a sermon on this passage. The overall theme of the sermon was this – God is there during our most severe struggles and that’s true. However, two hermeneutical points were unwrapped as a part of the message. One was Jesus’ statement to the wave weary disciples that he was not a ghost but ego eimi, “I am” translated as “it is I” in the ESV. The speaker made the point that Jesus was, to a large degree, making a declaration with his “I am” statement. The point he was making – he was God. For it was God who said to Moses that His name was “I AM” – translated in the LXX as ego eimi (Ex 3:6,14). Hence when Jesus used that phrase “I am” he was proclaiming his divinity as being without beginning or end, as was the Father and thus being God. One of the support passages used for this was in John 8:58 where Jesus said to the religious leaders, “before Abraham was, I Am.” Now that may have been his intent, but it seems unlikely considering how many times he uses the “I am” phrase in John’s gospel with little, if any, reaction from the religious leaders or even his disciples who all had a Jewish heritage. Even more to the point, Jesus was not the only one to use that declaration. Gabriel used it in Luke 1:19 to identify himself and the blind man Jesus healed also used the same ego eimi (John 9:9). In fact, the phrase is used a multitude of times throughout the gospel narratives.
Do we thus conclude that each time those words are used it is a reflection of God’s self-revelation in Exodus? Do we say each time Jesus used it that it’s a reflection of God’s self-revelation in Exodus? How do we choose which might be and which definitely are not? Once we leave the pages of the Old Testament, can we say with any certainty that using that phrase ever has supreme theological significance outside of a direct reference or quote? It’s a stretch.
Another point was made when Mark records that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” When reading the text it seems clear that Mark simply stated an aside. Jesus intended to pass the disciples by and leave them to their struggles against the wind and the waves. After all, strength comes from adversity, so what real value is there if Jesus came to the rescue every time his followers found themselves in difficulty. Isn’t that what patience, endurance, and self-discipline are intended to produce? As I observed on a sign the other day, “if God brings you to it, he will see your through it.” Jesus trusted that his disciples would make it through that difficult time and emerge all the better for it. As it was, even though he calmed the storm, suppressed their fears and eased their load, they were oblivious to that and consumed with trying to understand what had just happened regarding the loaves and their hearts were hardened(6:51-53). Unfortunately lesson not learned.
Now, the hermeneutical point made regarding this portion of Mark was that Jesus’ intention to “pass them by” was a reflection of God passing by Moses (Ex 32:19, 22; 34:6). This may have been an insight that only Mark had since not one of the other gospel writers mention this part in their recollection of the event. And since Matthew was most likely the only one present at this early stage in Jesus ministry one would think, if this was important to the story, he out of all of them would have mentioned it. So what might have been Mark’s point? Could it have been a reflection of God’s interaction with Moses? It’s a stretch.*
I’ll grant that there are many times in the New Testament when the writers may be extracting from their understanding of scripture (the OT) and using terms or phrases that give nuance and a deeper meaning to their current narrative. But these are almost exclusively couched in the words of Jesus and are often done in parables. To say that Mark was alluding to something like this in his rather casual comment, “…he meant to pass by them”, is a stretch. I will also grant, with much enthusiasm, that one cannot fully understand the NT without understanding the Old. Does that mean we always see the Old referenced or reflected in the New? Not at all. However, much of the gospel and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God finds its meaning when bounced up against the OT scriptures. Yet to stroke each word and phrase with the same brush is – well – a stretch.
*(The ESV Study Bible offers a treatment of this “event” and makes a strong correlation not only to Exodus, but also to Job’s comments in Job 9:8-11)