By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Three of the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, and John – describe the miracle of Jesus walking on water, and it’s one of the most famous miracles recounted in the New Testament. The ‘walking on water’ miracle tells of how Jesus walks across the Sea of Galilee during a storm, to aid his disciple, Peter.
But what is the significance of this event? Let’s take a closer look at what the Gospels say.
Jesus walking on water: summary
This event takes place shortly after another famous miracle: the so-called ‘feeding of the five thousand’, which we have previously discussed here (exploring, among other things, why ‘feeding of the five thousand’ is a somewhat erroneous title for this event).
In that famous miracle, Jesus asked the bread and fish to be brought to him, before telling the crowds of gathered people to sit down upon the grass.
Jesus took just five loaves and two fish and looked up to heaven, blessing them, before breaking the food. Then he gave the food to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the crowds of people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve baskets full of leftovers. The number of those who ate was ‘about five thousand men, beside women and children’ (Matthew 14:21).
After this miraculous event, a further miracle – which is just as famous – takes place, this time involving just Jesus and his core disciples. Jesus sends the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee in a ship, while he remains behind to send the multitudes (fed and satisfied following their bread and fish) away. Jesus then walks up into a mountain to pray.
Evening comes and the winds grow stronger, tossing the ship off-course as night draws on. The disciples are troubled when they see, coming towards them, Jesus walking upon the waters of the sea. They think it’s some sort of spirit. They cry out in their fear.
Jesus tells them to be of good cheer and not to be afraid. He tells them who he is, and Peter says to Jesus, ‘if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.’ So Jesus ushers Peter to him, and Peter climbs out of the ship and, sure enough, he walks on the surface of the water towards Jesus.
Peter is afraid when the wind blows violently, and he calls to Jesus to save him. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, saying, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’
When Jesus and Peter made it onto the ship, the wind ceased. The disciples all worshipped Jesus, declaring it to be true that he is the Son of God.
Jesus walking on water: analysis
The miracle of Jesus walking on water is found in Matthew 14:22-34, Mark 6:45-53, and John 6:15-21. The idea of a powerful person possessing the ability to walk on water was not original when the Gospels were written, but in earlier classical texts it is usually presented in terms which acknowledge the sheer impossibility of the act.
So in 2 Maccabees 5:21, for instance, Antiochus is chastised by the author for ‘the haughtiness of his mind’ for ‘thinking through pride, that he might now make the land navigable, and the sea passable on foot’.
But Jesus’ ability to walk upon the surface of the Sea of Galilee clearly symbolises his true divinity and his conquest of the natural world. In the Old Testament, God had given Moses and Elijah power over the sea (Moses famously parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites out of Egypt), and a link may be drawn between those earlier events and Jesus’ miracle.
However, not all devout Christians are in agreement over how to analyse and interpret the story of Jesus walking on water. Many view the event as symbolic and mythic, rather than as something to be taken literally.
Indeed, it may be more important to focus on the players in the drama, as it were, than on the actual detail of the miraculous event itself: in other words, we should think about the actions of Peter, the plight of the disciples, and what Jesus says to them once he has brought Peter safely onto the ship.
Specifically, Peter’s decision to obey Jesus’ request to step off the ship and into the tempestuous waters shows Peter’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah: he is prepared to place himself in more immediate danger, because he trusts that Jesus will protect him.
Curiously, the Sea of Galilee is indeed known for its storms. The Dictionary of the Bible notes that the great height of the surrounding mountains, differences in temperature arise, and these give rise to sudden and violent storms. The framing of Jesus as saviour who will brave the storm and help those in need is clear enough: all that his followers need to do is place their faith in him.
The versions of the walking on water story in the gospels of Mark and John both include an important context for this miracle story. Immediately before the “miracle” on the sea, Jesus was up in the hills alone in prayer—all night. He came down the mountain sometime between 3 and 6 in the morning. In the tradition of mystical prayer you could interpret Jesus as being on fire with the love of God. He walks down to the water with a faith and a love that defy natural law and contrary to the laws of science the waters of the sea don’t put this fire out. You might say it’s the water that gets burned. The true miracle of the story is the power of deep contemplative prayer.
THe symbolic interpretation of the gospels is a common approach. I’m reminded of Maurice Nicol who interpretated the parables in terms of inner work. He was a follower of Gurdjieff but went his own way. I can’t remember the title of his magnum opus – Commentaries of something?