Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

93. Walking on the Water (Matt. 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-56; John 6:15-21)*

That long, satisfying, and even exhilarating day had gone sour. The great crowd, thrilled with their repeated experiences of the powers ot the Messianic kingdom, were now sorely dissatisfied, for Jesus, so obviously the right man to be King of the Jews, resented the selfish and political flavour of their enthusiasm. The twelve, too, were bitterly disappointed with their Master’s unco-operative attitude, and were beginning to question whether indeed they were following the right man. Nor were they slow to recognize that Jesus’ insistence on their departure had no practical purpose at all except to get them away from this conflagration of political enthusiasm which appealed to them so much.

Indeed, from one angle this surge of enthusiasm greatly appealed to Jesus himself. But he knew that the spirit of it was wrong. The crowd wanted him to be King of their Kingdom. They were not seeking first God’s Kingdom and His Righteousness.

The slowly widening space between the boat and the shore as the disciples pulled unwillingly on their heavy oars was symbolic of a growing gap between the Lord and his most faithful followers.

At last they were lost to sight in the gathering darkness. Jesus meanwhile was high on the hillside, alone in prayer to his Father. As the big Passover full-moon climbed from the horizon, he was able to pick the boat out, making heavy weather of it in that choppy sea. Nevertheless Jesus left the disciples to it. Since they were infected with the crowd’s eager confident spirit, which would seek national salvation through rebellion against Rome, it would perhaps be no bad thing if they were left to realise in one of the smaller hardships of life just what sort of futile struggle such a movement must mean for them.

A Bad Crossing

The amazing thing is that the fishermen amongst them, recognizing what a desperate job it would be to get the boat across to Capernaum that night, did not flout their Lord’s orders and either lay to or come back to shore until the rising gale had blown itself out. There must have been some dominant spirit among them who insisted: “Boys, Jesus says we are to get across to Capernaum. So there’s nothing else for it. We must keep going regardless of the weather”.

Until they were halfway across (Mt) conditions were not too bad. But then the wind strengthened, and progress was almost impossible. They were “toiling in rowing”, says Mark, appropriating a word which contemporaries used of getting evidence through torture.

Scared Disciples

Jesus knew of their predicament, but it was not until the fourth watch — between 3 and 6 in the morning — that he broke off his prayer to come to them walking on the water (Ps. 77:19). When they picked him out by the light of the Passover full moon, they stared (Jn) in amazement and fright. As the distance narrowed, they knew for sure that it was Jesus. Yet, even though he had promised to rejoin them (Jn. 6:17 RV), unmindful of his other astonishing miracles, they could not believe that this really was he — walking on the sea! It must be his ghost! They were sure of it (Mk). Did-this mean that, when they left him on the beach, the crowd had turned resentful and lynched him, because of his unreasonable refusal to co-operate with their schemes? And now, because they too had wanted to join in this eager move to make him King of the Jews he was come to haunt them. Perhaps one of them thought of that remarkable passage in Job: “Hast thou walked in the search of the depth? Have the gates of death been opened unto thee?” (38:16, 17)

Letting out involuntary cries of terror (Mk) they stopped their rowing and their baling out, to stare, fascinated and scared as never before, at the awesome sight as, minute by minute, Jesus came nearer to the boat.

Just as it dawned on them that this apparition was not coming directly towards them, but meant to pass them at some distance (Mk), Jesus called out: “Take heart, it is I, be not afraid”.

Peter’s Eagerness

Peter’s response was immediate and positive: “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee on the water”. In that “if“ there is no hint of doubt in his own mind. But he knew that with the rest it was different (cp. the “if” in Mt. 4:3; 27:40; Lk. 23:39). Such as Thomas would only believe when Jesus came on board.

The apostle’s eagerness to emulate his Lord’s marvellous powers has been read as rather small-minded presumption on his part. And doubtless it was so interpreted by his fellows. Surely some said: ‘Don’t be a fool, Peter. Do you have to tempt Providence that way?’ But indeed the apostle’s word deserves a better interpretation than that: ‘Lord, I know it is your very self. But let me prove it to these others’. As the next day was to show (Jn. 6:60, 66, 67), the policy and message of Jesus were now creating an unpopular reaction not only with the multitude but even with his own chosen twelve. So Peter’s gesture was not the cocky self-assurance of an egotist but a deliberate demonstration of loyalty in face of the coolness of the rest. Here also was an expression of his characteristic eagerness to be close to his Lord (Mt. 17:4; Lk. 22:33, 54; 1 Pet. 5:1; Jn. 20:6; 21:7). That his intentions were altogether admirable is also to be inferred from the Lord’s response — the single encouraging word: “Come”.

In a moment Peter’s legs were over the side of the boat, and he too, to the utter astonishment of the rest, was walking towards his Master. “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also” (Jn. 14:12). But then, a moment later, his eyes came away from the figure of Jesus and in terror they took in the violence of the wind (Mt) as it whipped the spray into the air and piled the waves as high as the apostle himself. All at once that initial burst of confidence was gone. He was no longer on the water but in it. Cephas, the stone, was sinking like a stone.

His fellow disciples saw him disappear helplessly in the tumultuous waters, and gave him up for lost in that foaming turbulence. Momentarily he fought his way to the surface, and let out a shout for help: “Lord, save me”. Forthwith Jesus was close to him, catching hold of his outstretched hand, and within a couple of seconds Peter had resumed his power to walk the waves with his Master. “When I said, My foot slippeth; thy mercy, O Lord, held me up” (Ps. 94:18; 73:2). The time was to come when Jesus, unable to reach out a hand to rescue his apostle, would save him by a look instead (Lk. 22:61). “Christ lets us sink, but does not let us drown” — unless we want to.

Thus Peter walked, and sank, and walked again. It was an experience he was to repeat in the sequel to his great confession (Mt. 16:16, 23; 17:4), in the time of his vehement denials (26:35, 74, 75) and later in the great crisis at Antioch (Gal. 2:12; Acts 15:10, 11).

But now, as together they walked back to the boat, Jesus reproached his disciple: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” That past tense — ”didst” — is eloquent of Peter’s marvellous renewal of confidence. The rebuke was addressed, not to his presumption in wanting to walk to Jesus on the water, but to his sudden loss of faith in the doing of it.

A Lesson to be learned

It is a lesson disciples of the Lord in this age have been astonishingly slow to learn — that the act of faith ranks highest of all in the estimation of Christ. Here is a yardstick by which a man may estimate the Tightness of his actions. Any policy which leads him to depend on faith in God rather than his own planning and worldly wishes is specially acceptable in His sight. There is much patient endeavour and dutiful service undertaken in the cause of Christ, in the doing of which the strain on faith is negligible. High above these ranks the faith, which many would call rashness or presumption, the faith which takes a leap in the dark. Whenever a man is prepared to get out of the boat and essay to walk on the water, he should not be criticized or censured, but encouraged and helped, no matter how ill-judged his venture may appear to be. The Lord did not say to Peter: “Wherefore didst thou come?” And the one who sets out to attempt any such exploit, depending on Christ, must learn also that once he is committed to an abnormal course of action, there is to be no going back, no occasion for disappointing heaven with “little faith”. Yet — note the further lesson — even in such moments of human infirmity which bring little credit to his cause, the Lord will not let his disciple down.

It is at this point in the story, when Jesus now came to the boat at Peter’s side that John’s narrative inserts a quite astonishing detail: “They were willing therefore to receive him into the ship”. The words seem to imply that up to this moment the disciples were not willing to have him on board. But as a further hint of cleavage between Jesus and the twelve (or some of them), this passage is of great value. Along with others (Study 97) it serves to show how the greatest day in the Lord’s ministry had ended with acutely strained relations not only with the multitude but also with his own closest followers.


As Jesus and Peter clambered on board, the roar and howl of the gale ceased, and there was a dead calm. It added one more element to the impact made by all these astonishing happenings on the apostles. As though anxious to make amends for their wrong attitude hitherto, some of them offered homage to Jesus, saying: “Of a truth thou art the Son of God” (Mt). It is doubtful whether this title (anarthrous in Greek) has anything like the force of the similar phrase in Peter’s later confession (16:16). On this Alfred Morris has very neatly observed that after their Lord’s thrusting aside of royal honour, Nathanael, who was there in the boat, did not add, as in his earlier confession: “Thou art the King of Israel”.

Mark’s Greek uses every device available to picture their amazement: “they were utterly astounded (RSV) beyond measure, and wondered”. The next verse makes it clear that this was the cumulative effect not merely of what they had just witnessed but also of the earlier wonder of the feeding of the multitude: “they considered not (i.e. they did not understand) about the loaves”. They did not grasp the spiritual significance of the miracle (nor did they, next day, when Jesus expounded it in their hearing).

Indeed, until this moment “their heart was hardened”. It is difficult to see how this can mean anything except a feeling of resentment against Jesus, because, with the power at his command to work these great wonders, he was obviously determined not to fall in with their nationalistic aspirations or those of the populace.

In the midst of their bewilderment the twelve suddenly became aware that their boat was practically in port. From the details of the record (Mt. 14:24; Jn. 6:19) it is possible to infer that with all their struggle at the oars through the night, they had gained only about half a mile. Now, immediately (Jn), the rest of the trip was accomplished.

More Healing

Nor was this the last miracle in that amazing sequence. As Jesus came ashore there was instant recognition (Mk), and forthwith messengers were dispatched in various directions to inform the people in the different localities nearby (Mk). Consequently as Jesus moved on steadily to get into Capernaum itself, it was possible for those who were eager to bring their sick folk to him to have up-to-the-minute information where he might be found.

Many especially sought to be healed by getting close enough to Jesus to be able to touch the fringe of his robe (Ps. 133:2) — this because the story of the healing of the woman with the issue had gone round, and many in their superstitious ignorance assumed that this was part of the ritual to be gone through in order to bespeak the blessing of this man of God. Remarkably, Jesus did not rebuke their attitude: “As many as touched him were made whole”. Very evidently there was in the Son of man more compassionate tolerance of ignorance than would be found in many of his disciples today. The verb tenses (Mk. 6:56) are very expressive, implying that one after another the people were beseeching him that they might touch the border of his garment for an instant, and — Jesus not forbidding them — this happened time after time; and all who did so were healed. Considering the bad situation which the compassion of Jesus had brought about the previous afternoon (Mk. 6:34; Mt. 14:14), this latest willingness to give aid to those in need is an eloquent witness to the Lord’s compulsive sympathy for all who suffer.

Another Acted Parable

At this point it is worthwhile to look back over the whole sequence of events packed into this twenty-four hours, in order to recognise the marvellous fore-shadowing of greater things which it represents:

This is not just a “sign” but a whole series of signs. No other book ever written has features of this sort.

As a kind of postscript, it may be interesting to consider whether in this sequence there is room for the mis-recognition of Jesus, for Peter’s walking on the water, and for the willingness of the disciples to have Jesus in the boat.

And there should be special significance in the five loaves and two fishes.

Notes Mt. 14:22-36

While he sent the multitude away. More correctly, “until”. This emphasizes the reason for getting the disciples out of the way.

Sent away is, literally, “bade farewell”, either implying the Lord’s reluctance to leave the crowd (contrast v. 16); or that he was now losing popular support for good (Jn. 6:66).
Into a mountain — to pray. Cp. other occasions of prayer: Lk. 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; Mk. 1:35.
Went unto them. Literally: “came away” (from his prayer).
It is I. Literally, I am. It is doubtful if there is any intention of appropriation of the Covenant Name of God. But probably, afterwards, the disciples made this association of ideas; see v. 33; Job. 9:8. Cp. Lk. 24:39 Gk.
In a section of the gospel where Mt. and Mk. go in step in their records, here Mk. (i.e. Peter) studiously omits the walking on the water.
The wind ceased. Or was it that, as at another Passover, the crossing of the Red sea (Ex. 14:21, 30), there came a sudden dramatic reversal of what had been so adverse?

Mark 6:48

He saw them toiling. Cp. Ex. 3:7; Ps. 56:8.

Would have passed them by. Cp. Lk. 24:28 and “He is risen indeed” (H.A.W), ch. 11. Here was a test for them; Jn. 11:6.

Gk: he wished to pass by seems to contradict the very purpose of his coming to them.

Jn. 6:15

Again; i.e. he had been on the hillside with the crowd, then came down to the shore to see the disciples off, and now goes right away into the hills again.

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