Friday, February 12, 2010

Jesus on the Water: Did the Disciples Fear Ghosts?

On day 11 of my small group's Bible reading plan we read a passage from Mark in which Jesus walks upon the surface of the Sea of Galilee. It's a story with which we Christians are quite familiar. However, something caught my eye this time around:

"Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke with them and said to them, 'Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.'" (Mark 6:48-50, emphasis mine)

What struck me about this passage was that it seems as though the disciples believed in and feared ghosts. For years I've told people that ghosts do not exist, and that Scripture expressly teaches as much. When I read this passage, however, I wondered if perhaps I'd been teaching wrongly. After all, if the Bible says there are no ghosts, why would the disciples have feared them? So, I decided to do a bit of research.


Before I explain my findings, however, I want to encourage my readers to do this kind of investigation into the word of God. I promise you, I am not all that different from you. I am an untrained layperson in the pews. I am not a pastor, I hold no degree, I cannot read Greek or Hebrew, and I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture.

What I have is a desire to study the riches contained within the pages of God-breathed Scripture, and I'm telling you, it is so rewarding and fulfilling to dive deeply into the text of the Bible. You will be blessed immensely, as the Holy Spirit reveals the truth to you through His word. (But be careful, you might become addicted!) And it's not that hard to do, honestly. Let me tell you what I do.

First, I look at the text at an online Bible like, and I compare it with other, related passages. The text of the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is perfect because there are links in the text to other places where similar words and themes appear. Second, I look at the original text at Blue Letter Bible, where you can find the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew in which the Bible was originally written, as well as where those words are used elsewhere in Scripture. Third, I look at commentaries written by the giants upon whose shoulders I stand, which you can also find at Blue Letter Bible.

That's about it! I compare Scripture with Scripture (step 1), I look at what the words in their original languages meant (step 2) and I find out what theologians who are smarter than me have said over the centuries (step 3). When you do this, you will discover a limitless wealth of biblical truth that will edify you and leave you thirsty for more. You will find yourself better prepared to share the gospel, and perhaps more importantly, you will protect yourself from doctrinal error, being able to readily identify false teachings from a distance before getting swept up yourself.


Okay, so back to the issue at hand. Here's what I discovered. First, the word rendered "ghost" is φάντασμα (phantasma), a noun which means "an appearance, an apparition." The only place it's used in Scripture is here, both in Mark's and Matthew's account of the event. It comes from the root word φαντάζω (phantazo), a verb which means "to cause to appear, make visible, expose to view, show." So the disciples feared an "appearance" of something.

Interestingly, the verb φαντάζω (phantazo) appears (excuse the pun) only once in Scripture:

"For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, 'IF EVEN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONED.' And so terrible was the sight [φαντάζω], that Moses said, 'I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling.'" (Hebrews 12:18-21, emphasis mine)

So what is the "sight" to which the author of Hebrews refers in this passage? The author is writing to Jewish believers in Jesus who are intimately familiar with their Tanakh (the Old Testament). He is contrasting the inapproachability of God on Mount Sinai, something with which the readers were very familiar, with the new covenant and heavenly Jerusalem through the mediator, Jesus Christ. He is referring to Exodus 19 in which Moses and the sons of Israel had arrived at Sinai having left Egypt three months earlier.
"The LORD said to Moses, 'Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever'" (Exodus 19:9). But, God warned him, "You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, 'Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death'" (Exodus 19:12). And it was not just the people that would die, but "whether beast or man, he shall not live" (Exodus 19:13).
Three days later, "Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently" (Exodus 19:18). God told Moses, "Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish" (Exodus 19:21). And it was from within this terrifying smoke and blazing fire that the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
We see, then, that the φαντάζω (phantazo) to which the author of Hebrews referred was the "appearance" of God in what he called "blazing fire," which the people were not to approach or they would die. Moses recounted the event later, quoting the people as having said, "this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, then we will die" (Deuteronomy 5:25). This is actually a very common theme throughout the Old Testament.
The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah and he thought "We will surely die, for we have seen God" (Judges 13:21-22). He appeared also to Gideon who, upon realizing it, cried out, "Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face," to which God replied, "do not fear; you shall not die" (Judges 6:22-23). And Moses asked God, "show me Your glory," to which God responded, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live" (Exodus 33:18-20).
What is it the disciples of Jesus feared, then? Was it the "appearance" of a ghost, a roaming, disembodied spirit of a dead person? Clearly not. The disciples feared for their lives! They thought they were seeing an "appearance" of the Lord, the likes of which caused the people to tremble with fear of death at Mount Sinai! They feared they were being visited by the angel of the Lord and were about to die! But Jesus comforted them, just as the angel of the Lord had done in the past, and said, "Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid" (Mark 6:50).

The Bible teaches us ghosts don't exist, and perhaps I'll write about that in greater depth later. What we see, though, is that the disciples did not fear a ghost, they feared they would die having seen an appearance of the Lord. But this is more than an interesting bit of insight into the text in which the event is recorded. I am moved deeply, nearly to the point of tears, as I type these words, for in this post I wrote this morning what I was learning as I was learning it.

Reflect and meditate on Jesus' response to His disciples: "Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid." They feared they would die as a result of God having appeared to them, as He had on Mount Sinai. But Jesus and the author of Hebrews remind us that we "have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing terrible was the sight, that Moses said, 'I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling.'" No, we have come to something much greater:

"But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel." (Hebrews 12:22-24)

Through Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and man, we can approach God! In the past God could not be approached, for anyone catching a glimpse of His glory would perish. But because of what Christ has done for us, we are welcome to draw near to God! We "have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear;" we "have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father'" (Romans 8:15).

The word "Abba" is the equivalent of our "Papa." Almighty God appeared in the past in a terrifying blaze of fire. We get to draw near and call Him, "Papa." Think about it.

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