Fresh from feeding the 5000ish with 5 loaves and 2 fish, Jesus sends his disciples off to Capernaum [John]/Bethsaida [Mark].
Short aside: There is a possible discrepancy here, depending upon whether there was one or to Bethsaidas on the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida means “Fish House” and there certainly were many little hamlets along the shores of the sea, most having to do with fishing. If there weren’t two Bethsaidas, then the geometry gets a little more complicated depending upon where exactly Jesus fed the 5000ish, and whether the disciples were heading to Capernaum while also heading toward Bethsaida, or whether they made a stop in Bethsaida with the ultimate destination of Capernaum. Some commentators say two Bethsaidas, others say just one. It’s for you to decide, dear reader. But I digress…
Matthew, Mark, and John [Luke doesn’t report this incident] all agree that the incident happened early in the morning after the feeding of the 5,000ish. The question one has to ask is, why does Jesus walk on water now? Why at this particular moment?
Let’s point out from the get go, that we cannot know for sure because neither John, nor Jesus tell us why the incident took place. We are in conjecture territory, but it is an important question because it happened for a reason and Jesus could have walked on the water at any time he so chose.
Context helps us a lot here. In the verses before this incident, after the feeding of the 5000ish, John tells us that the crowd wanted to make Jesus king by force if necessary. The people thought that he was a great prophet or the actual Messiah and why shouldn’t the Messiah be the political king of his people? The disciples had witnessed the great miracle as well, what were they thinking? Jesus was the Messiah? Jesus was a great prophet?
Right after the incident of walking on water, Jesus will make one of his great “I Am” proclamations. In this case, “I am the Bread of Life.” The incident perhaps takes place now because Jesus wants to disabuse the disciples of any notion that he is merely a great miracle worker, prophet, or even a political messiah. He is fundamentally different and greater than all that.
The key to this understanding is in his comment to the disciples when they see him walking on top of the water in the midst of the great storm. “It is I. Do not be afraid,” he tells them. The words translated “It is I” are literally, “I am.” This is what Jesus says to his disciples: “I am. Do not be afraid.” All three gospels report these words exactly the same, so they must have made a huge impact on the disciples in the boat. Surely, John wants us to understand that Jesus at that moment, by the sign of walking on water—his 5th sign—and by the statement “I am,” is communicating that “he is to be identified with God himself” (United Bible Societies Commentary).
Jesus walks on water at this moment because he is not a political messiah, nor a great miracle worker, nor a prophet, he is greater than all of that. He is God in the flesh, which is far different and greater and more eternal than a political messiah. He has come to make known God the father (John 1.18) and because when he says “I am the Bread of Life,” he wants his disciples to understand that he is not talking about his body in its physical manifestation, but “in a supernatural and spiritual sense” (Alford).