Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thoughts about Jesus (and Peter) walking on the lake

The story of Jesus walking on the lake, recorded in Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-24, and Matt. 14:22-33, is undoubtedly one of the most famous miracle stories in the life of Jesus. One may recall the irreverent yet sometimes insightful movie Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey, where a short scene of Bruce skipping across a lake in Buffalo, NY is meant to illustrate the powers of God he has recently acquired. It is certain that every person who saw the movie knew immediately what the writers were communicating through that scene, for the image of Jesus walking on the water has acquired almost universal significance. Yet, one wonders, while the story itself is familiar to most people, are these same people just as familiar with the meaning of the story? The story’s prominent place in both sacred and secular realms makes the proper understanding of the story all the more difficult, and yet more important, to discern. The following is my attempt to do so in a brief exposition of the story as it is recorded in Matt. 14:22-33.

The broader context of Matt. 14:22-33 is important for understanding the intended meaning of the passage. In Matt. 13:1-52, Jesus speaks a series of seven parables concerning the “kingdom of heaven,” four to the crowds and three to the disciples. Following this instruction, Matthew records Jesus’ rejection by people in “his hometown” (13:54), where he could not do “many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (13:58). It appears that this rejection is a harbinger of things to come as the rest of the gospel records Jesus facing increasing opposition to his ministry and a corresponding increase of time spent with his disciples. Within chapter 14, Matthew records the death of John the Baptist (14:1-12) and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21) before the account of Jesus walking on the lake. Immediately following 14:22-33, there is a short description of numerous healings in Gennaserat (14:34-36), followed by a confrontation with “some Pharisees and teachers of the law” over the issue of hand-washing (15:1-20). Most revealing about the narratives following 14:22-33, however, are the constant blunders of the disciples, featured in their discussion of that which defiles a person (14:15-16), their interaction with the Canaanite woman (15:23), and their inability to trust Jesus in the feeding of the four thousand (15:33). Yet, Peter most aptly portrays the disciples lack of knowledge in chapter 16, where he rightly confesses Jesus’ identity (16:13-20), but later gets sternly rebuked as a “stumbling block” to Jesus (16:21-27).

In Matt. 14:22-33, Jesus directs “the disciples” to get into the boat and “go on ahead of him to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, while he dismisses the crowd, which had been fed miraculously by five loaves and two fish. Once the disciples and the crowd had gone, Jesus “went up on a mountainside by himself to pray,” presumably something he had been trying to do previously (14:13) when the crowds interrupted him. Meanwhile, the disciples are in the middle of the lake, furiously fighting against the wind. They struggle with the boat until the “fourth watch of the night,” (14:25) which was the last period of time before daybreak and presumably the darkest (see Ex. 14:24; 1 Sam. 11:11). The fear and exhaustion must have been very great among the disciples as they fought to control the beleaguered boat all alone in the middle of the lake.

The question arises at this point, why does Jesus order the disciples to go ahead of him in the boat? It appears that two explanations can be suggested: (1) in order to provide Jesus with the privacy he needs to pray (note the references to Jesus being “by himself” and “alone” [14:23]), something he had originally intended to do after hearing of the death of John the Baptist; and (2) in order to prepare the disciples for a miracle that the crowds are not permitted to experience. The second of these explanations seems to be in the forefront, for a complete reading of the passage shows that Jesus deliberately sends the disciples into darkness and distress. He even tarries on the land until the “fourth” or last “watch of the night” before coming to their aid. While the text does not say explicitly that Jesus knew beforehand of the trial awaiting the disciples, there is an unmistakable deliberateness in Jesus’ actions.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Jesus had already calmed a “furious storm” on the same lake in Matt. 8:23-27, so the disciples are not unfamiliar with Jesus’ power over “the winds and the waves.” The major difference between the two experiences is that in 8:23-27, Jesus is with them in the boat, rather than behind them on the land. Following that early miracle, the disciples admitted, “Even the winds and the waves obey him!” Perhaps there is an intention on Jesus’ part to test the disciples in a similar situation, but this time, without his immediate presence. Would they trust that as Jesus had sent them into the difficulty he would also bring them out? Would they believe in Jesus even as the crowds believed and were healed (14:13-14)?

Jesus deliberately sends the disciples into danger, but he does not abandon them in their struggles. He comes to them, “walking on the lake,” a rather bland way of expressing what would have been seen as an awe-inspiring miracle. In the Hebrew scripture, only God is capable of such a feat. For example, Ps. 77:19 says, “The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed…Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” Job 9:8 is even more akin to Jesus’ actions, saying of God, “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” The disciples may or may not have understood the significance of what they saw nevertheless they refuse to believe that the walking figure is their Master. Instead they “were terrified,” “cried out in fear,” and exclaimed, “It’s a ghost,” (14:26). Jesus “immediately” corrects their error and quells their fears saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” (14:27).

At this point, Matthew records something that Mark and John do not: the experience of Peter in his attempt to walk on water. To this point, Peter has appeared only twice before in Matthew’s gospel, both in inconspicuous places (4:18; 10:2). Thus, Peter’s impetuous request is the reader’s first real introduction to his character. Following Jesus’ self-identification, Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water,” (14:28), to which Jesus orders him “Come,” (14:29). Peter is mildly successful in his endeavor, for he gets “down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” Yet, upon seeing the “wind,” he becomes afraid and begins to sink. Peter’s cry, “Lord, save me!” mirrors the desperate cries of the disciples in 8:25 as they too feared death in the waters of the lake. In response, Jesus catches him by reaching out his hand, but simultaneously scolds him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Despite Jesus’ reproach of Peter, it is fairly common for readers to praise Peter for his willingness to “step out of the boat” and at least attempt to walk on water. We usually hold up his bravery and devotion as something to be emulated. Consider the title of a recent Christian publication: If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat. But, Jesus does not praise Peter’s bravery; rather he rebukes Peter’s lack of faith.

So, the question arises, when did Peter’s doubting begin? Was it only when Peter “was afraid” and “began to sink”? Was it when he cried out, “Lord, save me!”? Or, was it when Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you…”? We cannot know for certain what action Jesus means to rebuke as “doubt.” Yet, it is significant to note that Jesus’ identity is questioned with the similar phrase, “If you are…” two other times in Matthew: first by the devil (4:3, 6) and then by mockers at the crucifixion (27:40). In the end, Peter leaves the boat on the pretext of uncertainty about Jesus’ identity. Perhaps rather than being an act of bravery, Peter’s actions betray a reckless kind of confidence that is ultimately dependent upon signs and wonders, and maybe even the elevation of his own status. Strangely enough, we rarely consider whether or not it is right for Peter to desire to walk on water with Jesus. Is this an act of prideful self-importance? Is this an intrusion upon God’s divine prerogatives? Whatever the case may be, Peter’s rebuke by Jesus is followed by their climbing “into the boat” and the wind becoming calm.

In response to what they have witnessed “those who were in the boat,” worship Jesus, saying to him, “Truly, you are the son of God,” (14:33). This appears to be a confession of sincere faith, especially when compared to their declaration after the calming of the sea in 8:27, “What kind of man is this?” Yet, the other gospel accounts caution against putting too much weight on their presumed statement of faith. Mark portrays the disciples as being amazed, yet “their hearts were hardened,” (Mark 6:51-52) and John records nothing of the disciples response, except being “glad” to bring him into the boat (John 6:21). In Matthew, even demons confess Jesus as “son of God,” (see Matt. 8:29) along with Peter who later betrays him (16:16). It is likely that the disciples in the boat are amazed enough by Jesus’ works to proclaim rightly his identity as “son of God,” but they remain wholly ignorant of the true significance of this declaration. The reader is also left wondering whether or not Peter is included among “those in the boat” who worship Jesus. It seems that the ambiguity of Matthew’s language prevents our knowing with any degree of certainty.

After considering the context of Matt. 14:22-33 and surveying the entirety of the passage, it is hoped that we are now sufficiently prepared to discern the meaning of this famous story. At this point in Matthew’s narrative, it appears that two main themes are central: (1) the identity of Jesus as the son of God, and (2) the constant and continuous misunderstanding of the disciples. Both of these themes are at work in Matt. 14:22-33 and their interaction communicates an important truth for the community of God: although Jesus may send us into darkness and difficulty, because he is the son of God, he is capable of seeing us through if only we will not doubt, but believe. Neither the cowering terror of the disciples, nor the impulsive bravado of Peter, is an acceptable response to Jesus’ appearance in the midst of the storm. While Jesus’ question, “Why did you doubt?” hangs unanswered in the air over the Sea of Galilee, it still informs today’s readers that the expected response of Jesus’ disciples is faith.

But, what about those who nonetheless respond to “storms” with doubt and fear? Thankfully, there is merciful secondary truth at work in this passage, as well. For, with the knowledge of Peter’s later restoration and leadership in the early church, today’s disciples are also assured that there is forgiveness and renewal available for those who seek it. Ultimately, Jesus does not leave the faithless disciples floating desperately in the middle of the lake. Despite their failure, he calms the wind, gets into the boat, and continues to teach them the way of the Kingdom.


Anonymous said...

Rex Ray said…
This is the first time I’ve looked at your blog. I like your outlook on life and the Bible. You made some interesting points about Jesus walking on the water.

I don’t know why but I have a tendency to look for things that I would say or do a different way. I’ve never had much ‘Bible training’, and your ‘study’ of Jesus walking on water is the most I’ve ever read about this event.

My father, a Baptist preacher, school teacher, and other occupations, would jump on anyone who used the word ‘story’ in relating to Jesus. He would say “It is an ACCOUNT!”

I just looked up ‘Thesaurus’ meaning of the two words. The most ‘untrue’ word of ‘account’ was ‘story’; while ‘story’ had 12 ‘untrue’ words. So I agree with my father.

I’ve always wondered why Peter said, “Lord, save me!” I mean Peter was a good swimmer—he could have swum to Jesus or back to the boat.

Was Peter so close to Jesus (Jesus reached down and pulled him up), he quit walking? That’s what has happened many times with exhausted swimmers when they think they are about to be rescued that they quit swimming and drown within a few feet of their would be rescuers.

It looks like Peter had enough faith to walk to Jesus but not enough faith to stand by him.

My wife and I have been to Israel 4 times and spent a total of 4 months there. Our son was a missionary and we would baby-sit when they would have another addition. (5 boys) Of all the places we saw, I always loved the Sea of Galilee. It is 9 miles wide and 26 miles long, but with the mountains on both sides, the distance across is deceiving. Such was the case when I thought 4 miles was a mile, and I decided to swim across it alone—starting at a graveyard and ending at a public beach that had guards around it. I had never swum much more than a mile, and at the age of 65, I started across. The water was warm and not a ripple on it—like a mill pond. During the 3 hours and 28 minutes, I wondered if a wind might cause waves like Peter saw. Without water to drink, I was in pretty bad shape. With a mile to go I thought I was in a current since the mountain never seem to get closer. I decided not to look at the mountain but every 10 minutes, and then I could see progress that restored my faith.
I was telling this account (ha) and someone asked. “Did you make it?” If felt like saying, “No—I drowned” or “No—I had to walk the last part.”

I looked up your blog when you told RBM “We get it.”

Thanks for your insight here and on Burleson’s blog.

Anonymous said...

Rex Ray said…
I forgot to ask which was the ‘greater’ miracle…Jesus walking on water or giving Peter the ability to take even one step on water. And were the others a little glad when Peter started sinking?

Also “Then those in the boat worshiped Him and said, ‘Truly You are the Son of God!’” while Mark states, “They were completely astounded, because they had not understood about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were hardened.”

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Hey Rex,

Thanks for stopping by!

I don't mind your preference for "account" over "story." I hope you understand that for me, its not about accuracy. I assume the accuracy of the text when I study and write. I use "story" (for better or worse) because I like to emphasize that the Gospels were written by creative, gifted authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, they really do a masterful job of telling the history/account of Jesus in story form, with meaning behind every event. Story is one of the most basic and most powerful literary forms humans have. I am using "story" in the literary sense, not the "fictional story before bed time" sense. (And, I think its awesome that God used story to portray the life of Jesus [rather than just a list of rules or doctrines or something like that].)

You asked about whether Peter "quit walking" when he got to Jesus and whether he had enough faith to walk to him, but not enough faith to stand by him. My honest response to this is, I'm not sure. Really, I don't know for certain. I have a suspicion (but for now, its only a hunch) that Peter shouldn't have gotten out of the boat at all. This is mostly because of what I said about God being the only one who walks on water. Also, Peter is infamous in the Gospels for attempting things for his own glory. I'm not sure it was his prerogative to ask for that kind of miracle--one that did nothing else but draw attention to Peter. But, that said, I can't "prove" that from the text yet. And, I'm going to have to do a lot more thinking to even come close to proving it.

I loved your story about the Sea of Galilee! What an amazing experience. Even walking the last part of the trip must have been exhausting! :)

Thanks again for your great comments, Rex.


Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Oops! I forgot to address your other post.

Great question about the "greater miracle." Part of me says Jesus walking on water, because he had to walk farther. Part of me says Peter because he was fully, sinfully human when he did it. If you don't mind, though, I'm going to leave that on alone. I would only be speculating.

Again, although its speculation again, I would imagine that the disciples were not outwardly glad at Peter's embarrassing sinking, but I bet they were thinking to themselves, "Yeah, that's what he gets." :) At least, that's probably what I would have said to myself.

You note the difference between the description in Mark and Matthew. I noted the same thing in the post. Did you have a specific question? If its about why they seem so different, I would say that I think the skilled authors are emphasizing a particular part of the disciples response. Matthew intends to reveal Jesus' status as Son of God, so he emphasizes that truth. Mark intends to emphasize that the disciples still didn't "get it" so he emphasizes their hardness of heart. I would say both are accurate accounts. The disciples almost all had a mixture of faith and hardness of heart throughout Jesus' ministry. This experience was no different.

I hope that is helpful. If there was something else you were thinking of, please let me know.

P.S. Please don't bother worrying about your "Bible training." We're all students, no matter what brand of "salad dressing" (BA, MA, PhD, MDiv, etc) we have drizzled on your name. :)

Debbie said...

Emily: Another outstanding post. Thank you for this as it gives me something to chew on. I have never thought of this passage in this light before and I love a Biblical challenge to my thinking.

Anonymous said...

Rex Ray said…
Your reply was nice. I agree that ‘story’ has an appeal that ‘account’ does not—such as the song: “Tell me the story of Jesus. Write on my heart every word. Tell me the story of Jesus—sweetest that ever was heard.” (I have a problem with modern church songs. I believe the old songs preach the Gospel and touch the heart while a lot of the new ones want you ‘swaying’ with the music. Our new pastor has the congregation standing for all the songs. Come to think of it, yesterday when he asked me to help get his car out of a muddy ditch, I should have asked for some ‘give and take’ on getting some old songs sung. ha)

What is a heart that is ‘hardened’? I think of Pharaoh in his rebellion against God of having a ‘hardened’ heart. I don’t think the disciples ever had that kind of hearts. They were ignorant just as we would have been. They didn’t understand. Every time Peter rebelled, he thought he was doing Jesus a favor. (You’re never washing my feet; you’re not going to die, etc.)

Since the Pharisees had their spies following Jesus, they knew more of the wonderful works of Jesus than most of the people, but did they believe? Their hearts were the ones that were hardened and not the disciples.

So to decide who was right in my mind—Matthew was in the boat, and Mark wasn’t.

Emily, you can see by this example why I’m the ‘black sheep’ on Wade’s blog. This thinking started 20 plus years ago when I set out to see how Catholics got started if all early Christians were ‘Baptist in their thinking.’ The search ended with the 15 chapter of Acts. The majority added Jesus to their laws for salvation, while Peter, Paul, & Company had Jesus plus nothing for salvation. It was a case of white hats arguing with white hats, and the winner was wrong.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I've been thinking some more about your suggestion that the disciples never had hard hearts like that of Pharaoh.

I would affirm that there is little comparison between the heart of Pharaoh (an idolatrous, self-worshipping, ruler) and the hearts of the disciples (faithful Jews, at least seeking to worship the one God). Yet, I can't help but think of the many times Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith, even coining the term "little-faiths" to refer to them (this Greek phrase never appears in any extra-biblical Greek literature, so many scholars think Jesus made up this word for his disciples).

In Peter's case, I would especially note the rebuke he receives immediately following his confession of Jesus as the Christ in Matt 16:23 and Mark 8:33. I don't think you can get much worse than having Jesus the Christ calling you "Satan." And this after he judged rightly the identity of Jesus and was told that he received this revelation from the Father. Yet, he was still called "Satan" and determined to be someone thinking with the "flesh" and not in line with God's work.

So, can someone be seeking God on the one hand and still have a hard heart on the other hand? I think the disciples prove that it is possible. (And, for that reason, I think both Matt and Mark portray the story accurately.) In fact, I would venture to guess that it is important to the Gospel writers, especially Mark, that we understand this. Those who are on the "inside" (as Jesus' followers) can often find themselves on the "outside" (looking like unbelievers), if their hearts/minds/wills are not surrendered to the way of the crucified Messiah.

Anyway, for whatever that's worth, I thought I'd share it. I'm sorry it took so long to respond, but I've been chewing on it since you responded the last time.

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...

Rex Ray said…
I also have been thinking about your last reply on ‘hard hearts.’ I agree the hard heart of Pharaoh was different from the hearts of the disciples. We know when his heart was ‘hardened’ by God; Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the people go. We know God wanted to reveal his power so his people would have a stronger faith in him.

The heart of Pharaoh would punish the people. (No straw to make bricks etc.)

Even when Jesus called Peter “Satan”, it was not because Peter was thinking evil. Peter wanted the best for Jesus; not knowing he was aiding Satan in trying to keep Jesus from dying for our sins.

Emily, I know you agree with all of this and have said the hearts of the disciples were not like the heart of Pharaoh. Their hearts lacked faith just as we lack faith today. Their hearts lacked knowledge and a lot of things, but at the moment they said, “Truly, you are the Son of God” their hearts were not hard. I don’t believe they were giving lip service, or sarcasm. I believe exactly as Matthew said.

I know people change their minds—they may believe something today, and tomorrow they may not believe it. But I believe it’s impossible to believe something to be true and false at the same moment in time, and that’s why I believe Mark was wrong.

This opposite conclusion in the Bible is an example of our BFM in saying “We believe the Bible has…truth, without any mixture of error for its matter and that all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

Michael Whitehead, presiding lawyer for the SBC explained that “mixture of error” meant the truth of the Bible is true and the untruth of the Bible is untrue.

To me, Scripture is the truth of the Bible which would exclude the lies of the devil and men. It would exclude the uninformed, ignorance, and stupidity of man. That includes all men in black hats, white hats, or ball headed.

As grain and shaft are tossed into the air and separated by the wind, truth and untruth of the Bible are separated by the Holy Spirit.