There is an odd turn of phrase (to modern ears) midway through the gospel: About the fourth watch of the night, [Jesus] came toward them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them (Mark 6:48).
This seems odd. Why would Jesus approach them, walking on the water (astounding miracle that it is), and simply mean to pass on by?
We may think that this means that Jesus will not to stop, but will keep on walking past them. However, this is not what it means.
This expression of God “passing by” is a common one in the theophanies of the Old Testament. For example, when Moses was up on the mountaintop, God revealed himself by “passing by.” The text says,
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33: 18-23).
Another example of this is in the appearance the Lord made to Elijah, who was hiding in a cave after his flight from Jezebel. At one point, God called him out of the cave so that He could “pass by.” The text says,
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Here are some other example of this “passing by.”
- When John the Baptist saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36)
- Now hearing a crowd going by, [the Blind Man] began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk 18:37-38)
Hence, for Jesus to “pass by” is not for Him to walk past us in hiding. Rather, it is for Him to reveal Himself to us and summon us to faith. Similarly, in the Old Testament texts God “passes by” not to hide but to reveal Himself and summon us to faith.
Some may argue that these phrases should be translated differently so that we can better grasp their meaning. Why not just say, “He came toward them to reveal himself to them?”
Perhaps there is some merit in this argument. But I would counter that a text often has a greater effect on us if it causes us to ponder and pray. Consider that in trying to “decode” this text, we have looked at four other passages. Further, we have deepened our appreciation of what it means for God to “pass by.”
What is easy is not always what is best for us.