When Jesus Walked on the Water

Matthew 14: 22-36[1]

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognised Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.

This passage is often entitled “Jesus Walks on the Water”, and indeed Jesus did walk on the water in this scenario. However this is perhaps the least significant thing the chapter tells us.

The story begins just after Jesus has finished dividing five loaves of bread and two fishes into more than enough food for five thousand people to eat and be filled.[2] A boat was present because Jesus and his disciples had arrived by boat after using the vessel as a means of gaining some solitary time away from the crowds who had taken to following Jesus.[3]

Jesus specifically “made” the disciples get into the boat and travel ahead of him, the scriptures tell us that Jesus, meanwhile, stayed behind to dismiss the crowd. So here we see the disciples sent out from Jesus’s physical presence, told to go ahead of him to the other shore. There is no reason given for this, maybe it was because Jesus wanted time alone to pray as we see he goes to the mountain top to do, maybe he wanted the disciples to prepare some sort of lodgings, we really don’t know. The only thing we know is that Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him in a boat which he specifically put them in, effectively sending them into the tempestuous seas without him.

At this point it would pay for us to examine Mark’s account of the situation, found in Mark 6: 45-56

45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

47 When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognised Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.

Mark indeed reinforces that Jesus “made” the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him, and we can read here also that the disciples were struggling to keep the boat going where it was supposed to go.[4] What is really interesting here though is that Mark tells us not just that they are struggling, but that Jesus sees them struggling. So Jesus has not just sent them out into a storm on their own, without him physically present, he has also kept an eye on them. We still do not know the reason why he sent them out, we only have guesses. Mark like Matthew also relates how Jesus walks out in the fourth watch of the night (between 3:00 and 6:00 am),[5] but Mark again has some slight differences, that seem to be significant in their own way.

Mark’s account reads like there is no hurry between Jesus seeing the disciples in difficulty and his walking out to where they are, in fact the way the passage reads it could almost imply that there was a delay between Jesus seeing the disciple’s struggling and Jesus walking out toward them. Mark doesn’t really quite link the two events together as much as simply note that at some stage before going out on the lake Jesus saw the disciples struggling at the oars.

Mark, like Matthew, tells us that Jesus did go out to the disciples, so it seems safe to assume that they are the reason he went out on the water, however Mark tells us something more; that Jesus was about to walk past them! Jesus did not seem to have any intention of stopping and getting in the boat, at least not in the mind of Mark when he is authoring this passage. Again the reason for this is not specifically stated, could it be that Jesus expected the sight of him would be enough to encourage the disciples?

The fact that the disciples thought they saw a ghost and were terrified seems somewhat astounding when one considers the timing and context of the event. Mark records Jesus walking out on the water as following the feeding of the five thousand, which itself happened directly following the disciple’s own return from their successful mission to exercise authority over demonic powers.[6] Here it is seen that very shortly after great personal success, and after experiencing the power of God in their lives firsthand, the disciples are filled with fear at the prospect of facing the very powers they had recently had victory over. The tiredness of rowing, the apparent desperateness of the situation had changed their perspective. The Son of God was walking near them and their situation caused them to mistake their merciful Lord for a malevolent spirit. How easy it is to mistake God’s presence in our lives and to forget the power of Christ the Son of God in our lives, when we let our fears overwhelm us.

John’s account is more varied than Matthew and Mark, it is found in John 6:16-24.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 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. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realised that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 Once the crowd realised that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

John reveals that the ultimate destination of the disciples was Capernaum.[7] John, like Matthew and Mark, also records the unfavourable weather adding to it an estimation of how far the boat was from the shore. (The fact that the only gospel author who is a fisherman and used to traveling on the water gives his estimation of distance lends strength to the observation that Jesus was walking on top of the water, not wading in the shallows.[8]) John does not mention fear of ghosts, but he does confirm that the disciples were frightened when they saw Jesus approaching the boat.

All three of the authors give clear account of Jesus’ encouraging of the disciples with his revealing of himself to them with the instruction not to be afraid and in addition both Matthew and Mark relate how Jesus instructs the disciples to have courage.

Of the three authors only Matthew relates Peter’s experience of walking on the water, albeit for a short period of time. Peter upon hearing that it is Jesus responds by asking Jesus to call Peter to him. It may sound likes there is some doubt in Peter’s question, but more importantly there is some hope! Peter may not be sure that it is Jesus, but he does know that if it is Jesus, he can bring Peter to him safely, across the tempestuous waters. Jesus responds and Peter obeys, at first walking on the water. However Peter becomes distracted, from the hope of Jesus, by the blowing of the wind, now disorientated by the dangers around him, Peter begins to sink in the water. Jesus reaches out his hand and rescues Peter while chastising him for allowing doubt to overcome him. This incident highlights the intrinsic relationship between faith and the miraculous, but it also highlights the inverse, how doubt can negate the miraculous.[9]

Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus then climbed into the boat and the storm abated immediately. John provides some extra detail here by stating that the disciples were “willing” to take Jesus into the boat, illustrating that the disciples had to choose to let Jesus come in, before the situation was resolved. While Matthew and Mark tell of the storm abating, John tells us the boat immediately reached the other shore. After all the disciples own hard work to get to their destination they were still stuck in the middle of the stormy sea, Jesus however, brought them to land instantly, with little more than their acceptance of the presence of the Son of God. Mark elaborates and says that the disciples had not understood about the loaves and so they were amazed at Jesus’s ability to calm the winds. What had they not understood? Well it seems firstly that they had not understood the power of Jesus and secondly the power that Jesus had given them as his disciples. Matthew clarifies this further when he tells of those in the boat (the disciples) worshipping Jesus and declaring that he “truly” was the Son of God. It is as if even the disciples did not really understand until that moment that this was not just a powerful prophet, but the Son of God himself come into their presence.

Interestingly the place Jesus took them to was not the disciples intended destination, but Gennesaret, which was even further round the North Western shore of the Sea of Galilee than Capernaum. From a combined reading of the gospel we can see that the disciples were trying to get to Bethsaida in order to get to Capernaum, then Jesus took them past Capernaum to Gennesaret.

Matthew and Mark tell of what happened at the traveller’s destination, of how the people in Gennesaret recognised Jesus and how they brought their sick to him, of how Jesus healed them. Mark tells us that Jesus went about the place into villages, towns and the countryside and on the way people were brought to him and he healed them. These two accounts do not talk of Jesus reaching out, so much as people reaching out to him. Jesus did go to the places, but rather than Jesus initiating the contact that led to healing, the people in those places initiated it. The sick reached out to Jesus and touched him, and in this instance all who touched him were healed, even those who only touched the edge of his cloak![10]

John focuses instead on the people in the location from which Jesus and the disciples departed. John tells how the people on this side of the lake had stayed in place. It seems they were waiting for Jesus, but then discovered he was not there. These people knew that Jesus did not get into the boat with the disciples and that there was only one boat on the shore the previous evening. When some boats arrived (from Tiberias,[11]) the people got in the boats and went in search of Jesus. They went to Capernaum, possibly because Jesus spent a lot of time in Capernaum ministering, possibly because they were looking for the disciples to ask them where Jesus was. However Jesus was not in Capernaum and neither were his disciples, he was in Gennesaret.

To fully understand what was happening for the people left behind we must look back to what happened immediately following the feeding of the five thousand. John, alone, records that after Jesus fed the crowds, they tried to make him their king by force. It is likely the people believed that they had found a person who could restore the authority and independence of the nation state of Israel. Jesus however withdrew from them and went up the mountain to be alone. John’s information allows another possible reason for Jesus placing the disciples in the boat. By ensuring the disciples got into the boat and left, Jesus may have been removing them from a dangerous situation. The strong winds, and any consequent fierce seas, encountered were probably much smaller threats than an angry crowd. A crowd who may have blamed the disciples for whisking away their prize figure head.

For the people who were fed, and from whom Jesus slipped away, this was a tale of loss. They were fed by the Son of God, but they lost their chance to have real communion with him by trying to impose their own collective will and desires on him. Jesus had something greater to offer them than provision of food and their national freedom, but they missed it because they were so focused on using Jesus’ gifts to get them out of their current situation. The people of Gennesaret on the other hand had their lives transformed, because they didn’t want to change Jesus’ course. These people simply wanted the Son of God to touch their lives and make them whole. The people of Gennesaret saw the transforming power of God in their own lives and in their time of need because they believed in the one God sent to them (John 6:29).

 

References

Alexander, D. & Alexander, P. (Eds.), (1984). The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Herts, England: Lion Publishing.

Barker, K. (Ed.), (1995). The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Bible History Online, (n.d.). Bible Maps. Retrieved from http://www.bible-history.com/maps/

Brand,  C., Draper, C., & England, A. (Eds). (2003) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference.

Davis, J.D. (1977), Davis Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Gruen, A. (2002). Images of Jesus (J. Bowden, Trans.). London: Continuum Books. (Original work published 2001.)

Thompson, F.C. (Ed.), (1988). The Thomson Chain-Reference Bible: Fifth Improved Edition. Indiana, USA: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc.

Zwemer, S. (1999). The Glory of the Impossible. In R.D. Winter & S.C. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (pp. 311-316). Carlisle, United Kingdom: Paternoster Publishing. (Original work published 1911.)

Zondervan. (2010, November 1). Updated NIV Bible Text. Retrieved from http://www.biblica.com

[1] All scripture references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated.
[2] Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:1-15
[3] Mark 6:31-32
[4] Mark tells us that the disciples were heading for Bethsaida (meaning, “house of hunting or fishing”), a town on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Gennesaret) around the point where the Jordan entered this Sea.
[5] Mark and Matthew are using the Roman watch system, since the Jews only had three watches during the night.
[6] Mark 6:6b-13 records Jesus’ commission to the disciples and their success in it. Mark 6:30-31 links the event to the feeding of the five thousand.
[7] The account from John mentions that Capernaum was the destination of the disciples, Jesus frequently visited and ministered in this town (which housed a Roman military post and a Tax Collector’s base). Capernaum was further round the northern side of the Sea of Galilee than Bethsaida, however it’s northwestern location may have meant that it was easier to travel there by way of Bethsaida, especially if the conditions were unfavourable (Davis, p. 98).
[8] Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:14-20, Luke 5:1-11 record the calling of the first disciples to follow Jesus, including John, who became one of the apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:14-19, Luke 6:13-16) and is generally believed to be the author of the Gospel book of John (Alexander, p. 533).
[9] Samuel Zwemer’s article entitled, “The Glory of the Impossible” republished in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement A Reader 3rd Edition (Paternoster, 1999) has an excellent discussion on moving out in faith and hope to achieve the impossible with God.
[10] Acts 5:12-15 records how the Apostles later demonstrated a healing ministry also.
[11] Tiberias was a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee near some hot springs. It was built by Herod the Tetarch in honour of the Emperor Tiberius and was built to resemble a Roman city.

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