Q. I’m reading in John. Before Jesus walks on water, why do the disciples leave without him? Why would they do that if they were following him? Do you think he told them, “If I’m not down from the mountain by tonight, go on ahead to Capernaum without me?”
John’s gospel says simply, “When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.” This does make us wonder what kind of arrangements Jesus had made with his disciples beforehand.
But Mark and Matthew shed more light on this question in their accounts of this day in the life of Jesus, which included the feeding of the 5,000 and then Jesus walking on the water to join the disciples in the boat. Mark explains that “it was late in the day” even before the large crowd was fed, so that once everyone had eaten, “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” (They were on the “far shore of the Sea of Galilee” according to John, so Bethsaida and Capernaum were in the same general direction from there; either city could be used to describe the boat’s general heading.) Matthew says something very similar to Mark about why Jesus stayed behind. So it appears that there was some urgency to get the group to its next destination, enough so that Jesus sent the disciples on ahead while he wrapped things up on the “far shore” and then spent some time in prayer, before taking his extraordinary route to rejoin the disciples!
That is likely the reason for the separate departures. But perhaps more significant for our understanding of this day in the life of Jesus is the theological motif that John brings out as he tells the story. As I explain in my study guide to John, in that gospel, “the festivals and locations that Jesus visits allow his identity to be disclosed against the symbolic background of Jewish religious life and history.” In this particular case:
The fourth section of the Book of Signs describes a journey that Jesus takes across the Sea of Galilee and back. The action occurs at the time of Passover. But in this section Jesus’ identity is still not explored against the background of that festival. (This will happen in the Book of Glory.)
Instead, the focus is on the event that Passover commemorates: the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Jesus’ identity is explored in this section against the background of that event. While Jesus is on the far shore of the lake, he miraculously feeds a large crowd. When the crowd returns to the opposite shore, they compare this feeding with the manna, the “bread from heaven,” that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness. And to get back across the lake himself, Jesus miraculously walks on the water. This recalls the way God made a path through the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from the Egyptians. The two “signs” that Jesus does at the beginning of this section thus associate him with the exodus.
So we might say that the reason for the disciples leaving ahead of Jesus was the demands of the group’s ministry schedule and responsibilities. But in the larger plan of God, the purpose for them leaving earlier, occasioning Jesus’ walk on the water, was to reveal more of his identity and glory, as happens throughout the gospel of John.