The Walking on the Water
Scripture Reading: John 6:15-21
Two signs engage the Apostle John in the sixth chapter of his gospel, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Walking on the Water. The two signs teach that our Lord is both the source and the support of life, both the giver and the guide of life.
It has often been pointed out by Bible teachers that the miracles, or signs, of the Lord Jesus are parables, parables in the sense that His miracles, particularly those in John, are designed to point beyond the evidence of supernatural power to the spiritual truths bound up in them. In the feeding of the multitude of the people Jesus demonstrates that He is the Bread of Life. As He will later say, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you” (cf. . vv. 53, 56).
In the walking on the water to deliver the disciples from the storm that raged over the Sea of Galilee He demonstrated that He is also the Guide of Life. The former sign had in view unbelievers, pointing them to the source of life in Christ. That is evident from the fact that it specifically concerned “His disciples’ (cf. v. 16), thus indicating that it was designed especially for those who were already believers. He is, then, the giver of life to the unbelievers and the guide and sustainer of life for the believers.
There is an old proverb, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” and it is a good and true one. Campbell Morgan has suggested that it might be revised to read something like this, “Man’s extremity is man’s opportunity for finding God.” That, too, is true, for it is in the hour of greatest need that we usually find Him. The apostles in the boat on the way to Capernaum learned that truth in a most heart-throbbing, but exciting way. In the midst of the storm and facing death they learned in a fresh way what Jesus Christ can do for His own.
It was the day of the feeding of five, or fifteen thousand. Due to the stupendous nature of the miracle the men of the multitude exclaimed, “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (John 6:14), evidently alluding to the prophecy of the Messianic prophet that Moses gave in Deuteronomy 18:15-18.
The mood of the multitude, however, did not satisfy the Lord Jesus, for He perceived that they wanted to come and take Him by force, to make Him a king. That might have seemed to be the accomplishment of the goal of His ministry. After all, was not one of His primary purposes in His ministry to show that He was the true Messianic king? Well, yes, it was, but only if the men of His day also recognized that, in order to become the Messianic king, He must also first accomplish the atonement for sinners by the ratification of the new covenant in His blood. To seek to make Him a king with no recognition of His ministry as the Servant of Jehovah offering the atoning sacrifice was to make Him a political king alone. He must, however, be a spiritual king as well as a political king, one who rules by virtue of the finished work of redemption (cf. Luke 24:25-27).
Perceiving this false understanding of the meaning of His miracles and ministry Jesus “constrained” (cf. Matt. 14:22; Mark 6:45) His disciples to get into a boat and go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He evidently hurried them away (the Greek word rendered by “constrained” means something like compelled, indicating that some persuasion was necessary for Him to get them to leave the scene) in order that they might not catch the contagion of the crowd, which sought to make Him their kind of political king.
After He had sent the multitude away, He went up into a mountain by Himself to pray (cf. . Matt. 14:23). When the evening came, He found Himself there alone. It is a beautiful picture of the “man, Christ Jesus,” as Paul puts it (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). Someone has said, “No great discovery was ever made on a crowded street.” That is likely to be true; it certainly is true to my experience of little discoveries! It was characteristic of the Lord Jesus to spend so much of His time in prayerful communion with the Father. Out of this activity came His great ministry of miracle and teaching. How much more ought we, the weak disciples, to occupy ourselves in prayer.
The disciples, in the meantime, had gone down from the hillside to the sea and had entered a ship. They began to make their way over the sea to Capernaum, which lay on the north side of the sea. John adds in verse seventeen, “And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.”
John’s simple words of verse eighteen tell a big story, “And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.” The light breezes had turned to heavier ones. The stars had been shining, for it was night, but soon they were gone behind the clouds. As the winds became stronger and more blustery Peter took command, and one can imagine him, holding the tiller with his powerful arm, his beard anointed with the white foam of the raging waves, issuing commands to lower the sail, trim the ship, and make ready the oars. The earlier calm had become confusion and, as was often the case, the Sea of Galilee had become a boiling caldron. As Matthew puts it, “But the boat was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves, for the wind was contrary” (Matt. 14:24).
In an earlier incident the Lord Jesus had calmed another of the storms that had arisen on that same sea (cf. Matt. 8:23-27), provoking amazement and fear by the contemplation of the fact that even winds and waves obeyed Him. That occasion found Him remaining with them in the boat, but on this occasion He has put them forth into danger on their own, just like some loving mother-bird thrusts her fledglings from the nest, that they may find their own wings and learn to use them.
I saw an interesting illustration of this in my own backyard just a few days ago. Hearing a lot of shrill squawking sounds from some blue jays, I went out to see what was happening. I found about six of them in a large holly bush squawking at a young blue jay that was just beginning to fly on its own. Evidently they were hoping to scare away anything that might harm the young bird, or perhaps they were just shouting their own words of encouragement, like “go, you jay, go!”
Alexander MacLaren has commented on the need that we have to launch out on our own, and that we should not be surprised that we have to face the difficulties of life, the tragedies, and the disappointments. “Nor are we to mourn or wonder,” he has written, “for the purpose of the appointment, so far as we are concerned, is to make character, and to give us ‘threstling thews that throw the world.’ Difficulties make men of us. Summer sailors, yachting in smooth water, have neither the joy of conflict not the vigour which it gives.”1
The Sight of the Lord
In the fourth watch of the night (cf. Matt. 14:25), which was from three o’clock in the morning to six o’clock, the Lord, looking out over the lake, saw the disciples “toiling in rowing,” as Mark puts it. So, He came to them, walking upon the sea. The disciples, however, would no doubt have claimed that His coming to them was worse than His delay in coming, for they were troubled and cried out in fear. I can imagine Peter, seeing Him coming, saying, “Look! what is that?” And they shrieked (as the Greek text has it), “It’s a ghost!” (14:26).
We who live in the twentieth century smile when we read an account like this, for we do not believe in ghosts. It is doubtful, however, if that other invisible, hidden world has ever lost its power over this world. Our rationalism, our scientism, our infidelity and unbelief do not seem to matter. In the times of stress there are many who still believe in ghosts.
The disciples had been worried about perishing in the storm, although they were seasoned and experienced fishermen. Now, something worse than the storm was coming to them. After all, fishermen can fight a storm and have some hope of success, but what can one do against a water-demon, a ghost? Their next destination surely would be Davey Jones’ locker!
Jewish popular belief often recounted the appearances of unusual apparitions on the sea, for the Jews were people of the land, not the water, so the idea of water-ghosts was one that was common in the speech and thought of the ordinary people.2 But, instead of some ancient evil and familiar spirit it was the Lord. And is it not often true that God’s answers to our trials and tragedies seem to be as bad as ghosts, when really they are ministrations from a loving heavenly Father? His delays are not denials; they are part of His loving discipline. “It is the belief that God cares,” J. W. C. Wand wrote, “that marks Christianity from other religions, which under all varieties of form are occupied with the task of MAKING GOD CARE.”3
The liberal view of the walking on the water is that Jesus was really walking on the sea shore and the disciples mistook Him for walking on the water when actually He was wading through the surf near the hidden shore.4 Would not our Lord have corrected their mistake?’ Why, then, were they “sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered” (cf. Mark 6:51)? Did Peter, when he walked on the water and sank into the depths, really sink down into the sand? John may be interpreted in this fashion more easily than the other gospels, but Matthew and Mark make it plain that they understood the event as a miracle, a real walking on the water (cf. Matt. 14:25-26; Mark 6:48).That is what it was.5
What they learned may be put in two ways. First, they learned what the psalmist had learned, “Thy way is in the sea” (cf. Psa. 77:19), for He had made it, and they learned also that the God of eternity is also the God of the hour. At any moment of peril He can be depended upon to be our Companion.
The Sermon of the Lord
It is said, “All good sermons have three points — or seven!” By this questionable standard our Lord’s sermon to the disciples, which He preached upon the water, was a good one. It had three points. The first was, “Be of good cheer.” That is an excellent exhortation and, coming from Him, needs little shoring up, but ordinarily exhortations are only as good as the enabling foundation of them. This one has the soundest of foundations and offers the greatest of hopes, for it rests upon the second point of the sermon, the affirmation of His deity. The words, “it is I,” are sufficient to uphold us in any of the circumstances of life. It is the equivalent of the Old Testament affirmation by which Jehovah encouraged Israel in her deepest moments of need, “I am He” (cf. . Isa. 43:2; Deut. 32:39, etc.). That was the great theophanic formula, used at the important feasts of Jehovah, and it was used in the Passover liturgy. This event occurred at the time of the Passover (cf. John 6:4), and the Passover liturgy glorified God as the God who rules the waters. It is as if His coming on the water is to remind them that He is that God, the Old Testament covenant-keeping Sovereign who makes good all His Word to His own. It said, in effect, where I am, there God is, there God lives, speaks, calls, acts, loves, forgives, and helps. Nothing bolder or more significant can be said.
Therefore, the third point of the sermon (only the second in John, which does not have, “Be of good cheer”) follows naturally, “be not afraid.” How can they be afraid, when this profoundest of the divine declarations has fallen upon their ears to encourage them? Another historical epiphany of God, the final one, has taken place in Jesus Christ, and He has pledged Himself to care for His people. What comfort!
The Sinking of Peter
We are not surprised to hear Peter speak up amidst the storm, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (cf. Matt. 14:28).
The answer of the Lord to Peter’s request is, “Come” (v. 29). And Peter climbed out of the boat, put his feet upon the water and began to walk towards Jesus. His walking, an amazing thing in itself, illustrates man’s strength and weakness. Peter’s walking illustrates his strength when in harmony with the mind of the Lord, or when acting in communion with Him. Evidently Peter walked quite a distance on the water before he, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me” (cf. Matt. 14:30), for the Lord has only to put forth His hand to catch the sinking fisherman. Then they walked back to the boat together! Now observe that, while Peter kept his eye on the Lord Jesus, he did just what Jesus did. He walked on the water. The moment, however, that he took his eye off the Lord and saw the boisterous wind and the raging waves, he lost all power to walk on the water and began to sink. Here, then, is both the strength and the weakness of redeemed man.
“Holy living,” Arthur T. Pierson once said, “is as much a miracle to the natural man as is walking on the water, which presents no proper foundation for our feet, having neither stability nor equilibrium, and especially when tossed up and down and driven to and fro by the wind. The secret of Peter’s power to triumph over what was otherwise impossible was this, that he was in touch with Jesus by faith and had Christ’s power in him; and the secret of his sinking is equally plain — he lost touch with Jesus and became as any other mortal, unable to cope with the difficulties of the situation. But what we need to emphasize is that one moment he was strong TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE and the next moment UTTERLY WEAK and sinking. So a human soul can be strong one moment and weak the next, omnipotent or impotent, and it all depends on the touch of faith which brings virtue out of Christ.”6 That is why Jesus said to Peter as He saved him, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (cf. Matt. 14:31).
One wonders if this incident is the source of the great statement of the apostle in 1 Peter 1:5, “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
The brevity of Peter’s prayer for deliverance should not be overlooked, and it is a lesson to all of us, particularly to those of us who often lead in public prayer. Long and flowery prayers are not always proper and, if Peter had been disposed to offer one of them, he would have been six feet under water before he reached the heart of his petition!
The Sequel to the Storm
The reception into the boat (John 6:21a). John concludes his account with, “Then they willingly received Him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at land whither they went.” Matthew continues his account by writing, “And when they were come into the boat, the wind ceased” (Matt. 14:32). The historical facts described here seem to point beyond the literal event to spiritual principles. The solution to the riddles and troubles of life lies in the relationship of communion with the Lord Jesus.
The results that followed (John 6:21b; Matt. 14:32). The results just mentioned include these things. In the first place, the wind ceased, indicating that contrary elements yield to the divine presence.7 To receive Him into our ship is to find the answer to our questions and needs, for He is as one Bible teacher said, “Lord of both the bread and the billows.”8
In the second place, when He entered the boat with Peter, the others came and “worshipped Him” (cf. Matt. 14:33). It is fitting that this incident should end in worship, for the highest function of the redeemed soul is just that — worship, not service. Life is a relationship which, through supernatural experiences, leads to Him.
The expression of their worship centres in the confession that Jesus is, “the Son of God.” This is the first time that men call Him the Son of God and, no doubt, this is one of the reasons that Matthew gives this incident in his gospel. The consciousness of the Messianic position and the divine nature of the Lord Jesus is gradually being developed in the minds of the apostles by the Holy Spirit. He is the Messiah, they had come to see, but now that vision is broadening to embrace the concept of a divine Messiah, a Messiah who is also the Son of God.
Thus again, in the account we are face to face with the mystery of the divine Son, possessed of two natures, one human and one divine, a Son of God who prays (cf. Matt. 14:23) and commands the elements (vv. 25, 32). The combination of utter lowliness and transcendent loftiness pervades the entire life and history of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This strange combination of elements could never have been invented and portrayed through a lengthy series of events so harmoniously by poets of the greatest genius or authors with the skills of an Aeschylus or a Shakespeare. The only explanation of the riddle of the composition of the four gospels, in which the total lowliness and absolute loftiness of the Son of God are so beautifully blended, is that “the gospel writers” were in reality only reporters, who originated nothing and imagined nothing, but simply observed everything and described what they saw. The reconciliation of the two things found its explanation in the One who was both the Man of Sorrows and at the same time the Eternal Son of God.
And, finally, something should be said about John’s “and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went” (cf. John 6:21b). In the light of the several accounts it can scarcely be doubted that John does not mean that the ship touched shore the moment Jesus entered the boat. The apostle is speaking in something of a figuratively, or even mystical, fashion, as is upon occasion his custom. It certainly seemed to him that the ecstatic moments that followed the glorious experience of the past minutes came to an end suddenly, too suddenly perhaps for him to savor them more, when they touched land. I would suggest that all who are in love know the meaning of this. The moments that we share together with ones we deeply love seem to pass all too quickly, especially if there must come a time of parting. John the lover, the mystic, the beloved apostle who rested on Jesus’ bosom, has given us a bit of an insight into his feeling heart.
The Significance of the Sign
From the standpoint of history. The event may be considered from three standpoints, history, prophecy, and parable.
First, from the standpoint of history the walking upon the water is another of the mighty Messianic signs which identify the Lord Jesus as the Davidic Messiah.
Second, from the standpoint of prophecy the incident is a revealing event that provides us with some insight into the present and future ministry of the Son of God. While the disciples are toiling away on the Sea of Galilee in obedience to His commands, He is in the mountain praying. The picture is suggestive of the present high priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus at the right hand of the Father where “He ever lives to make intercession for them” (cf. Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34).
Such thoughts as our Lord’s departure from the earth (cf. Acts 1:9-10), His session (Rom. 8:34), the church amid the nations serving Him (cf. John 17:14-18), His return in “the fourth watch of the night” (cf. Acts 1:11; Matt. 14:25), their failure to recognize Him (cf. Mark 6:49-50; Tit. 2:12-13), and the stilling of the storm (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 11:15) come to mind.
Third, from the standpoint of parable, remembering all our Lord’s miracles are in measure parables in the sense that they will illustrate truth, we have here an example of how He meets the needs of serving and suffering saints. Storms are often in the path of duty, but there is always safety in our Immanuel. Slow going is often within His will, help and safety are sure with Him on board. His sovereign and calming presence enables us to affirm with the writer of Hebrews, “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:6). That great promise rests upon an equally great one, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (13:5).
Thus, it is true, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” as the proverb has it, and it is also true that “man’s extremity is man’s opportunity for finding God.” In the midst of the storms let us not forget that. They will come, and there may be much toiling in rowing amidst them, but they will inevitably lead His saints to Him.
Our Lord’s search in it all finds its consummation in Matthew’s words, “Then they that were in the ship came and WORSHIPPED HIM.” John has already told us of Jesus’ words, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: FOR THE FATHER SEEKETH SUCH TO WORSHIP HIM” (4:23). Come, let us do that. It is there that we find the peace that passes all understanding.
“At the heart of the cyclone tearing the sky,
And flinging the clouds and towers by,
Is a place of central calm.
So here in the roar of mortal things,
I have a place where my spirit sings—
In the hollow of God’s palm.”
1 Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel of St. Matthew, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1892), II, 12.
2 Strack and Billerbeck, 1, 691.
3 J. W. C. Wand, The General Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude, p. 125
4 Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1953), p. 327.
5 Strachan, p. 182.
6 Arthur T. Pierson, Shall We Continue in Sin?, pp. 42-43.
7 Westcott, p. 99.
8 W. Graham Scroggie, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976 (reprint), p. 124.