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.