The Sea of Empire

Jesus walks to the disciples in the middle of their storm, he walks to us in the middle of our storms, and he is Lord of all, even the winds and the waves and the sea.   Think about it.

If we are going to understand the true significance of Jesus walking on water, we must understand the Jewish view of the sea.  The Jewish people were not a sea-faring people.  The Phoenicians, the Greeks, even the Egyptians were great sea-faring people.  But as for the Israelites, they’re staying at home, they’re not going anywhere.   They don’t really like the sea, even if they may have fishermen who work the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a lake about 12 miles long and 7 miles wide.  But they really generally view the sea with dread.  In Hebrew thought, the sea is emblematic of chaos and the source of evil.  This is why in the book of Revelation, which is a book comprised of nothing but signs, one of the signs is that in the new earth is there is no more sea.   “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  Revelation‬ ‭21:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  It’s not that there will literally be no more oceans and we’re not going to able to swim with the the dolphins anymore.  It’s that the sea is the origin of evil and this is symbolic that the capacity to generate evil is going to be eradicated.

Job, in his praise of God, says that God tramples the waves of the sea – “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea;”. Job‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  It’s not God walks on the waves of the sea, but God tramples the waves of the sea.  Because the sea was viewed with dread, and it was generally a symbol of the source of evil, so Job says God tramples the waves of the sea.

More significant is Daniel’s vision of the beasts that come out of the sea.  “Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea…”  Daniel‬ ‭7:2-3‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  Daniel has a dream, it’s at night, yes a dark and stormy night.   He’s looking out upon the sea, the sea is troubled, it’s rough, it’s churning, the winds are blowing and the waves are rising.  Up out of the sea come four monsters, four beasts.  These monstrous beasts that Daniel sees coming out of the sea in his dream are identified later as four empires, or superpowers, who dominate the world. They create oppression among the other people.  The four empires are Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome.  It’s all there in Daniel 7 for you to discern.  But by the end of the vision in Daniel 7, here is the point – the Son of Man has come up from the earth into the clouds of heaven and has been received before the ancient of days, and unto him is given dominion and authority over all of those empires, all of those beasts, all of those nations.  They are now all serving the Son of Man.  The vision is that the Son of Man will prevail over the empires and peaceably rule the nations.

Let’s back up again to the beginning of this chapter.   “After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.”  ‭‭John‬ ‭6:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  Remember, Jesus lived on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, but when he fed the 5000 he and his disciples had gone seven miles to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  This body of water is seen over and over in the Old Testament and the New Testament as the Sea of Galilee, you’ve all heard of this before.  But here, John refers to it as the Sea of Tiberias.   This is very significant.  Nothing is in John’s Gospel by accident.  We know the Holy Spirit inspired John, but we also know how the Holy Spirit works.  It isn’t automatic writing, this is John working with the Holy Spirit.  That’s why it sounds like John, Matthew sounds like Matthew, Romans sounds like Paul.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t eradicate our personality, or our thinking, or our style, but works with it.  So, if we asked John “How long did you work on your Gospel?”, would it surprise anyone if he said “I worked on that off and on for twenty years.  I kept working, refining it, getting it just right.”   We can tell, can’t we?   There’s so much in there, it’s just so.  Nothing happens by accident.   There are nuggets we continue to find.   So if John tells us that Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberiasthat’s not just some throwaway line.  He wants you to see that.  His gospel is filled with this kind of thing.

So who is Tiberias?   It’s Tiberias Caesar, who became the Roman emperor in the year AD 14, when Jesus was a teenager, and his reign was through AD 37.  From Jesus‘s teenage to adult years, through his ministry and the first seven years of the church, Tiberias is the Roman emperor.

Tiberias is also a city.  It’s there to this day, right on the Sea of Galilee.  The city was built in AD 20.  This episode in John chapter 6 is probably about AD 28-29.   This city has only been there for 8 or 9 years.  It was built by Herod Antipas, grandson of Herod the Great.  He was the client king of the Jews for the Roman Empire.  He built the city of Tiberias intentionally on the Sea of Galilee to be the capital of the Roman Empire in Galilee.  It housed the Roman army, the Roman officials in Galilee, and lots of Gentiles moved there.   Very few, if any Jews, went to live in Tiberias.
This city has only been there for seven or eight years.  Herod names it for the emperor, Tiberias.  This is the way of empire.  Empire is just swallowing up everything.  They even try to rename this sea, which has been known forever as the Sea of Galilee forever, to the Sea of Tiberias.  It’s like when they take some great historic ballpark, and rename them with corporate name and logo.  It is in this way that empire just attempts to swallow up everything.   Maybe this is why Revelation shows them as beastly, because they just swallow up everything in their path, even the sea.   The emperor Tiberias has his mark on everything.   

In Jesus’ day, Tiberias was the face of the empire, his image was everywhere, his name was everywhere, he’s swallowing everything up.  John wants you to notice that the empire tries even to name the historic seas after itself.  The empire was devouring everything, it’s a beast.   Most people either sink or swim in the sea of empire.    You’re either a winner or a loser in the empire, you sink or swim.

But not Jesus!!   Jesus just walks on top of it!  John wants you to see this anti-imperial sign.  That’s why he tells you it’s the Sea of Tiberias.  He hopes that you will know or learn enough about the way Jews typically viewed the sea.  He hopes you know something about what Job says about how God tramples the waves of the sea.  He hopes you remember Daniel’s vision that it’s out of the sea that all these monsters come.   The latest monster out of the sea is the Roman Empire, represented by Tiberias, who wants to swallow up everything, and everybody had to sink or swim in the sea of empire.  But not Jesus, because he’s Lord and he just walks in top of it!!

We don’t have to swim in the sea of empire like a bloodthirsty shark.  We don’t have to sink in the sea of empire like a drowning victim.   We can walk with Jesus and stay above it all, because Jesus is Lord!!

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”  John‬ ‭6:16-21‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  
John Lewis

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