Thursday, November 25, 2010

Walking on Water

The story of Jesus walking on water is told in Matthew, Mark, and John. However, only Matthew records Peter's attempt as well. This is very interesting to me, because many scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was largely based on the teachings of Peter himself, recorded and consolidated by his friend and assistant, John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12:12). If this is true, it means that either Peter did talk about himself walking on water, and Mark didn't record it--which seems unlikely.  Another explanation is that Peter didn't talk about it at all. Either way, it's an interesting thing to think about.

We're going to be focusing on Mat. 22-33 today. This takes place immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus has the disciples get in the boat and take off without him while he stays behind to dismiss the crowds. After they're gone, Jesus goes up to pray alone on the mountain, and he's there until evening. When he's done praying, the boat and the disciples are, obviously, "a long way from the land," and they're in pretty choppy waters because the wind is picking up. And in the "fourth watch of the night," sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus comes walking across the water. So: it's dark- it's stormy- the disciples are very tired- and they see someone walking across the water towards them. Somewhat understandably, they freak out. They think he's a ghost, and Jesus calls out, saying "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." I love that. Be encouraged. Be brave. Do not be afraid. You're with me now.

And Peter takes that to heart. Immediately he replies with "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Now, he doesn't doubt that it's Jesus. He's already called him "Lord." He knows who it is. He's not testing him or anything. I think it's another way of saying, "Since it is you, then command me to come to you." I think that this demonstrates the reason he wants to go. He doesn't say, "Command me to walk on water." He says, "Command me to come to you on the water." He wants to walk on water because at the end of the walk he will find Jesus. This is important. It isn't pride that causes him to say that. If it was pride, he would have sunk as soon as he stepped out of the boat. It's love, a yearning to be with Jesus, a refusal to stay in the boat and wait for Jesus to come to him.

So he gets out of the boat. And remember, this isn't a nice day on the lake. It's very early morning, probably extremely cold, and very windy with very rough waves. He gets out and "walk[s] on the water and came to Jesus." He's doing it. Peter is walking on water, and I can only imagine the other disciples looking on in astonishment. But then comes the fatal flaw. He takes his eyes off Jesus. This is an often-used phrase in the church, and sometimes we may get tired of hearing it, but it's so important. He literally stops looking at Jesus and "saw the wind [and] he was afraid." Here's the kicker--he doesn't even notice the waves before this point. He's been concerned with one thing and one thing only--getting to Jesus. The fact that this requires him to walk on water is a mere incidental detail. But halfway through he allows himself to be distracted and focuses on the adversities before him. And he immediately begins to sink.

However, in the very midst of his failure, Peter once again brings it back. He's in the middle of the lake. Waves are crashing around him and he's sinking into the cold water. His response is incredibly important. He doesn't turn back and try to get back to the boat. He doesn't rely on himself, on his own swimming abilities, to get him out of this. It's a stormy sea. He doesn't stand a chance. All of this flashes through his mind--what should I do? And he does the only thing he can do-- he cries out "Lord, save me." All of this--his utter helplessness, his failure, his terror, but also his faith in Christ--is summed up in this one cry.

And "immediately," Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs him. He doesn't do it right when Peter starts to sink. But he does it as soon as Peter cries for help. And I love what he says to him. "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" This is a rhetorical question. It's not as if he doesn't know why Peter doubted. He knows that Peter "saw the wind [and] was afraid." He's saying "Peter, you were so close!" There is exasperation there, because Jesus has already given them ample reasons to put their faith in him, but there is also affection and love and an approval of the attempt. And Jesus helps Peter back into the boat, and literally as soon as they get in, the wind stops. The sea grows calm. And "those in the boat worshiped him, saying 'Truly you are the Son of God." Peter's attempt is... not forgotten, but passed over in favor of what is truly important.

The parallels to our own lives should be obvious. I'm not going to belabor the point. This is just more of the theme of our daily struggles being embodied perfectly in Peter. Let me know what you guys think (even if you think this is dumb).

This post was written in 2010. And in 2014, I published my very own book, Simon, Who Is Called Peter. It's a First-Person narration, meaning it gets you inside the head of Jesus' most notorious disciple. However, it's also extensively footnoted, referencing dozens of commentaries and scholarly works on the life of Peter. CLint Arnold, Dean of Talbot School of Theology, calls it "an account that is both faithful to the biblical text and engagingly expressed," and Darian Lockett, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, describes it as "a comprehensive portrait of Peter that is delightfully and skillfully woven together with the fabric of the New Testament." If that sounds like something you'd like to read, check it out!


  1. I like your writing Mackenzie. It always is focused on a good subject matter.

    A mentor of mine recently helped me see Peter's water walk from a different perspective. As you point out, Jesus says, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

    Who was Peter doubting? Was he doubting Jesus' ability to walk on water? Well, Jesus was standing upright in front of him, evidently unmoved by the wind and waves. Wasn't Peter having doubts about his ability to imitate his master? Sure, the reason he begins sinking is linked to his shift in focus, but that shift in focus appears to influence Peter's perceptions of his own abilities, not Christ's.

    It seems then that we need to have faith in our own abilities as they are empowered by Christ. We do this by constantly looking to Christ, the source of all strength who is also within us.

  2. Yeah, I heard that in a Rob Bell video. And I think it's right, to an extent. It seems as though Peter just has this total "What am I doing?" moment in the middle of the stormy sea. So it is doubting his own abilities, but it seems that implicit in that is a doubting of Christ's ability and/or willingness to imbue that power in us. It's a both/and thing, because if you have faith that Christ has given you the abilities, you'll have faith in your abilities (always in Christ), but if you don't have the one, you won't have the other.

    And thank you so much for commenting. I wish more people would.