LEARNING BASIC BIBLE STUDY METHODS
An Inductive Guide to the Study of the Bible,
Using the Gospel of Matthew
WALKING ON THE WATER
(Note: This is the 21st lesson in this series of inductive Bible study. To work through the series and discover the principles of Bible study covered already, begin with the Introduction and follow the lessons in sequence. These are all stored in the archives).
In this passage we have another amazing miracle of Jesus that shows that He has authority over nature. The event of the walking on the water is clearly designed to reveal His authority, and to draw a response of faith from the disciples. But there is a story within the story, that is of Peter walking on the water to Jesus. Here we have a faith response, but it is weak, and he begins to sink. In this little section we have a picture of where the disciples are in their faith, growing but still doubting. Our study will then focus on Jesus’ walking on the water, Peter’s coming to Him and being saved from drowning, and the disciples’ response.
Reading the Text
22 And straightway he constrained the disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before Him to the other side, until He should send the multitudes away. 23 And after He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into the mountain apart to pray; and when evening came, He was there alone.
24 But the boat was now in the middle of the lake, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. 24 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the lake. 26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were greatly troubled, saying, “It’s a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, bid me come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come.” And Peter got down from the boat and walked on the water to come to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” 31 And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand, and took hold of him, and says to him, “O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
33 And they that were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “Of a truth, You are the Son of God.”
Observations on the Text
As I mentioned above, we can make the preliminary observation that there is a story within the story, so we will have to look at Jesus’ miracle first, and then Peter’s participation in it. The first couple of verses set the stage for the miracle, with Jesus sending the disciples on ahead and His going apart to pray (22, 23). Then we have the storm and His walking on the water (24-27). Peter’s attempt to come to Jesus comes next (28-31). The conclusion is their faith response (32, 33). It is often helpful in Bible study to make these preliminary observations of the sections of a story to break it down into more manageable units and then trace the development.
In most narratives there is dialogue, and so we need to note the speeches in the story and relate them to the circumstances:
The first words are the disciples words of panic at seeing Jesus, “It is a ghost.”
This is responded to by Jesus’ calm words of reassurance, “Be of good cheer; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Then we have the interchange with Peter. Peter says, “Lord, if it is You, bid me to come to you on the water.”
And Jesus says, “Come.”
Then, as Peter sinks, he prays, “Lord, save me.”
And Jesus responds, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Then in the boat they all say, “Of a truth, You are the Son of God.”
What we notice here is that Jesus’ words are mostly in response to their words; his are strong, sure, comforting, and rebuking, but their words are fearful and timid. Then, at the end, when all are safe and the storm is gone, they affirm their belief.
There are two mentions of praying in the story. First, Jesus went up into the hills by himself to pray. We do not know what He prayed for. But He was there when it became evening, praying; and then He was walking on the water. The other prayer in the story is when Peter cried out, “Lord, save me.” He did not have the strong faith to ignore the waves and the wind, and was soon to drown.
There is a literary device in this passage that should not be missed in the telling of the story. It is the word “immediately/straightway.” The sequence of events is rapid. It occurs in verse 22, verse 27, and verse 31. Jesus does not wait; He immediately acted to send the disciples on ahead, to identify Himself, and to save Peter.
Critical to this study will be the connection between the miracle of Jesus and the event with Peter. Certainly Peter’s walking and sinking shows that it was a real miracle on real water (not on the shallow shore as some liberals would argue). But more than that it shows that Jesus was ready to commission the disciples to do the kinds of things He was doing, if they had faith.
Tucked in here is a hint at the salvation motif. Peter’s prayer is the first response of faith people must have: “Lord, save me.” This was in response to Jesus’ “Come.” While the context tells us what this all means here, the words are familiar on a wider level of the faith: Jesus, the supernatural one, invites people to come to Him, and they step out by faith to do that, but afraid of the dangers around them cry out for Him to save them. This will be a secondary application (not the primary meaning, but a picture of the drama in life on a metaphorical level).
Then we will have to see the connection between the events and their conclusion of worshiping Him and saying that He is the Son of God. Here is faith for sure. But what did they mean by “Son of God,” and why did walking on the water show that?
Finally, we must also note that the passage is in between two other accounts of His miraculous deeds. Just before this we have the account of the feeding of the five thousand, which shows that He has the compassion and the ability to meet the needs of the people, with plenty to spare (a motif from Exodus). After all, He is the true manna from heaven. And then following this story we have a brief note of how the multitudes flocked to Him for healing, if only they could touch the hem of His garment they would be healed. This too shows that Jesus has authority over illness and death (and in Exodus the theme of His being lifted up to draw all people to Him came in a need for healing). So the walking on the water incident reveals that He has authority over nature, and recalls many of the nature wonders of the Bible where the Lord was not bound by the laws of nature, whether it was parting the Red Sea (note the connection of the miracle at that Sea in Exodus and the feeding of the people with manna in Exodus), or making the axe head swim, or mounting the clouds, or causing a storm to cease, or any other number of nature miracles in the Bible. Jesus was showing that He is the Lord of creation, the Lord of heaven and earth.
The Gospel of John (6:15-21) records this event very briefly. It informs us, though, that the reason Jesus was sending the crowds away is that they were trying to make Him king. He is the king, of course, but He does not want people to make Him king because of physical and earthly reasons—he gave them bread (v. 26); He wants them to desire His kingship for spiritual reasons. Besides, the time was not ready; He had to redeem before He would reign.
John also tells us that they got into the boat and were heading for Capernaum; and when they had rowed about 25 or 30 furlongs they were overtaken by the storm. John tells us that Jesus came to them walking on the sea, that they were afraid, but He calmed their fears. He got into the boat, and they were quickly at the shore. John adds that the people were baffled at how he got there. John does not mention that Jesus had gone up to pray, or that Peter came to Him on the water, or that they worshiped Him in the boat. He had a different purpose for the account.
Mark’s account (6:45-53) is close to Matthew’s, but with some variations. Mark says that Jesus sent the disciples to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He was sending the people away. But he concludes by saying that when they arrived at shore it was in the land of Gennesaret, which is close by Capernaum. The text could be rendered that He sent them “over by” or “against” Bethsaida where they were to wait for Him. So it seems the boat trip was across the northwestern part of the lake. Mark also tells us that Jesus saw them rowing hard in the sea, and came to them; but as He came walking on the water, “He would have passed them by.” It was as if He was heading to the destination by walking, but walking close by so that they would see His power. Mark does not mention the Peter incident. But he does elaborate on their weak faith, saying that they had forgotten the miracle of the bread already, because their hearts were hardened.
The best way to understand the geographical tension is this, in my opinion. Jesus sent the disciples off across the lake (from the north west shore where He multiplied the bread) with the command to wait for him on the north east shore near Bethsaida Julius, but not beyond a certain time. The delay in waiting for Jesus would then account for the actual walking on the water not occurring til the fourth watch, between about 3-6 a.m. The important word here is in Matthew’s account that they should go on ahead of Him to the other side until (heos hou + the subjunctive) and not while he freed Himself of the crowds. After that He would join them, after He spent some time in prayer; and then together they would cross “to the other side.” Mark 6:45 specifies Bethsaida, but has heos + the indicative, indicating that the disciples were to go “to Bethsaida while” He sent the crowds away. I know this gets a little technical, but it makes sense out of the two accounts and resolves an apparent difficulty. If this is correct, then the delay in Jesus praying time (most of the night) is what prompted the disciples to go across the lake on their own. They went to Bethsaida, waited half the night, and then put out to cross the lake; Jesus joined them in the boat, and then they headed back to the shores of Capernaum.
Old Testament Background
The passage does not quote an Old Testament passage, but it makes a strong allusion to a major motif. Throughout the Old Testament, and in the world around Israel, the sea was the symbol of chaos because no one could control it—except Yahweh, the God of Israel (see Ps. 93; Job 38). He divided the sea at the exodus, rebuking it and controlling it, and divided the Jordan as well (Ps. 114). He is the sovereign God of the wind, rain, and storms (Ps. 29). He alone can gather the winds in his fists; and so they should know His name, and His Son’s name (Prov. 30:4). There is much more, but that should be enough to show that Jesus here is doing what only God can do, control the storms, the sea, the weather. But the point in the Old Testament is that God’s sovereign control of the chaotic seas was connected to His saving His people. And so here Jesus walks on the sea and saves Peter (and the others) from death.
Principles of Bible Study
It is worth reviewing here some of the steps we take in studying a story like this. We should (not necessarily in this order);
1. Relate the story to the contexts around in, and to the purpose of the Book of Matthew as a whole.
2. Distinguish the story within the story (a fairly common feature of stories about Jesus) in order to understand the intended impact of Jesus’ miracle on their faith.
3. Look carefully at the speeches to see the mood of the people and the interpretation of the event. Note especially the climax of the story in the disciples’ statement of faith. These kinds of things are what Matthew wants you to say.
4. Look for key words in the passage. Here “immediately” plays out strongly. But look closely also at “It is I,” “faith,” “come,” “worshiped,” and “Son of God.”
5. Get the biblical background of the storm and sea and chaos; and see how the God of the Old Testament is revealed through them to see how Jesus is being presented.
6. Keep an eye on all the “Exodus” motifs in these stories.
7. Read the passage as the early church would have read it, to see who Jesus is in truth, and how this incident could comfort them in their terrifying times. Then make the connection to the modern circumstances.
Analysis of the Passage
The best thing to do next is to work through the passage verse by verse with these things in mind.
The Setting: Jesus sent the disciples ahead and He prayed (22, 23). The transition from the feeding miracle to the walking on the water is expressed by these two verses. It was time to move on to the next phases of the training of the twelve, and so Jesus sent them ahead in a boat to wait for Him while He would send the multitudes away. The text does not say how He dismissed them, because they usually flocked to Him wherever He went. And in Matthew we might wonder how the text could say He was moved with compassion for them in one verse, and then in the next that He sent them away. Well, John tells us why--they wanted to make Him king, and He had to stave off this misguided popularism (which was inspired by the wrong motives). But for now He was able to free Himself from them so that He could go up into the hills to pray.
The prayers of Jesus are an intriguing aspect of His life. We do not know what He prayed for on all these occasions, unless the text records His prayers. But I suspect the point that He prayed is instructive enough. Jesus felt that He needed to pray in order to realized the will of the Father in His life. They had wanted to make Him king, and I suspect He had to seek the Father’s will about that, because He was to reign eventually. But He probably needed to pray for the continuation of His mighty works. Yes, He had amazing power; but it cannot be separated from His regular and frequent praying. See, for example, passages like Luke 6:12. Here He prayed for hours, from dusk til after 3 in the morning.
From the hills above the shore Jesus could see the storm come up, and He could see the disciples out in the lake rowing very hard, and so He would go to them. His seeing them might have been a supernatural perception, or it might have been only a distant sighting of the boat in trouble. After all, it is after 3 a.m. and the winds and waves are churning severely.
The Miracle: Jesus came walking to the disciples on the water (24-27). The disciples were seasoned fishermen (most of them) and so were used to storms. But now the winds were against them, meaning the wind was strongly coming out of the west (a regular feature during the rainy season [Mark’s “green grass” in the events before confirms it was early spring). So they had to row hard to get over to the shore. They were not going the length of the lake, but from the northern shore to the western shore, far enough into the lake to be caught up in the storm. They were apparently several stadia (NIV “a considerable distance) from the shore (a stadia is about 200 yards).
So Jesus came to them about the fourth watch (between 3 and 6 a.m.), walking on the water. Here was a man who on occasion had done many mighty works already, but as Mark says, they had forgotten the most recent, and were focused on surviving this storm. So when Jesus did the completely unexpected, walk on the water, they thought it was a phantom, a ghost, and they were terrified and cried out.
But Jesus calmed their spirits with His comforting words: “Be of good cheer, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the middle of the storm, in response to their terror, Jesus calmly identified Himself and told them not to be afraid--not to be afraid of Him for He was no ghost, and certainly not to be afraid of the storm. When He is present, or better, when believers know He is present, there is nothing to fear.
His words to the disciples include the significant ego eimi in Greek, “I am” (NIV, “It is I”). Probably Jesus was revealing Himself to them in a veiled way as the “I am” of the Bible, although they would not have caught this at the time, but after the resurrection and ascension these self-disclosures of Jesus proved significant for the church.
The Test: Peter came to Him walking on the water (28-31). Only Matthew gives us the account of Peter’s walking on the water. Peter spoke first, probably what was in the minds of others. If this was indeed Jesus (and the construction he uses is a real condition, almost “since it’s you”), then He should bid Peter to come to Him walking on the water. This was not arrogance or presumption on Peter’s part, for Jesus said, “Come”--and Jesus never invited presumptuous acts.
And so Peter did, and this must not be missed in the rebuke of Peter. He did not step over the side of the boat and sink; he walked on the water to the place where Jesus was. There was faith, for sure, but it was not fully developed to the confidence Peter would have later. And so when he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the raging storm around him, he was afraid, and began to sink. “He saw the wind” is a figure of speech meaning he saw the storm (what the wind produced). His faith was strong enough to get him out of the boat and on the water; but it was not strong enough to withstand the storm. He therefore becomes in this passage a good example and a bad example.
He cried out, “Lord save me.” What a prayer. There is nothing here that is not necessary. A simple, clear, urgent, direct prayer. There was no time for, “O thou who inhabitest the universe” for he was sinking in the water. But no part of this prayer could be eliminated and have the same result. He needed saving, fast. And the Lord could save him.
“Immediately” Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him up out of the deep. There, holding him safely, he gave a mild rebuke to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Yes, Peter saw the storm and doubted. He had little faith. But he had faith, faith enough to come to Jesus walking on the water. Jesus said, “Come,” and that was all Peter needed; defying all the laws of nature he stepped out onto the water. His faith would grow the more he followed Christ, until he was ready to lead the disciples in the witness in Jerusalem and throughout all the world.
Their faith response: Jesus is the Son of God (32, 33). Matthew tells us that when they got into the boat, the storm ceased, so that they could make their way easily to the shore. And it seemed like no time and they were there.
But in the boat the disciples worshiped Jesus, saying, “Of a truth, You are the Son of God.” And this is the point that Matthew wants to make by the recording of this story, using the words of them all. This is the climax of the story. It declares in their words that Jesus is the Son of God. This is a little different than saying Jesus is the Messiah, although it is related. The Messiah was to come from Heaven, from the presence of the Ancient of Days; He would be like a Son of Man (Dan. 7:12-14). The Messiah would be known as God’s “Son” (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 2). And already in the Gospel the voice from heaven used the description (Matt. 3:17), and Satan used it as well (Matt. 4:3, 6). But now the disciples were beginning to realize that this Jesus could not do the things that He was doing unless God was with Him in some very special way, and the only explanation was that He was from above, from Heaven, and was the Lord of all Creation. They began to realize that Messiah was called God’s Son for a reason--it was not just a title. But it would take the resurrection for them to understand fully what it meant, what they were actually saying. The disciples learned by degrees, and frequently fell back into confusion, then saw something new by Jesus and gained greater insight, only to be uncertain again. They are perfectly understandable given the situation.
But here they worshiped Him, and expressed a “christological” truth. Mark does not have this material, only that they were amazed. Mark is wanting to teach something from their hardness and slowness to believe; Matthew hints at their weak faith through Peter, but wants to focus on the confession of faith that followed. Even there the reader would know that the disciples were amazed and unsure of themselves (especially in view of things that follow in the book). But Matthew is presenting Jesus as the heaven-sent Messiah, and their words keep that idea in the readers mind.
So they worshiped Him; and He did not rebuke them for it. He is the Son of God, in a way that they might not have fully comprehended at that point (or that we may not fully comprehend either). But He proved to be the divine Lord of all creation, worthy of all worship. And this statement of faith, by men who were weak in faith, keeps that revelation in our minds as we try to understand the significance of this miracle.
Theological Ideas and Applications
The basic meaning of the passage should be clear enough now: you can think in several categories to draw the lessons. First, Jesus demonstrates His authority over nature by walking on the water. Second, the disciples’ faith is growing but it is not yet strong enough to withstand the circumstances of life. Third, they acknowledge that He is the Son of God, certainly Heaven-sent Messiah everyone was expecting, but their words go beyond what they understood. Nevertheless, the response to this Son of God, this Lord of creation, is worship.
Now we can tease some more ideas out of this passage, some secondary applications or explanations.
One idea that comes to mind comes from the contrasts. In the chapter Jesus refused to be crowned king, even in spite of the fact that the king they had (who beheaded John) was so corrupt (read the whole chapter). Jesus would not be crowned king on the basis of material things. But here in the boat Jesus was with men who believed in Him. They were the ones who constituted the heart of His kingdom so far. They were distressed men, troubled by the problems of life, and now caught in a storm. But they had faith in Jesus, even if it was not strong. And it is that faith that is required to enter His kingdom and make Him king and lord of life. It is not a kingdom of perfect souls or of super believers. But it was a kingdom of people who in the middle of a storm on the sea would come to Jesus if He said come. So in this passage we can develop the theme of their growing faith along these lines. Faith does not mean we will have no fears in life, or not be troubled by storms; but it does mean in those hours we will turn to Jesus as our only hope.
We also see here a picture of our Lord’s compassion. When the story opens He is in the mountains praying, and they are in the storm rowing. He is in a place of rest and calm and quiet; they are in a place of danger and fear. But what we learn from this event, using all the accounts, is that Jesus had never lost sight of them. They did not know where He was; but He knew exactly where they were--physically and spiritually. He would use the physical experience to strengthen them spiritually. So He will even have His rest and communion broken in upon by their trouble. He left the mountain calmness and went to them walking on the water--He went the way that they had gone. He followed them; He did not meet them on the other side. He went to them over the very waters that threatened to engulf them. He came to them with His calmness and His majesty, to offset the circumstances they were in. When He is there, there is rest and peace, even in the middle of the storm.
But what the men feared the most was the first sighting of Jesus on the water--it was a phantom to them. Nobody walks on the water. They could row, they could hang on to the boat, they could ride out the storm, perhaps; but they could not control a ghost. Here the thing that terrified them the most was the very thing they could not explain--not the storm, but the vision. We all experience troubles that are common to all people; but then there are supernatural things that at first set us back--until we have the spiritual perception to see the presence of the Lord in the unexpected and inexplicable. As they strained in their looking at this phantom, the Lord speaks words of comfort to them. “It is I.” The story is so simple; detailed analysis fails us. This is a clear revelation from the Lord to explain a miracle in the middle of the storm.
But there is a lesson in this as well, for the thing that frightened the disciples the most was the very thing that calmed and saved them. The phantom is the Master. Some of the greatest spiritual victories come from the darkest hours of life. While at the time we would have preferred not to go through those storms of life, afterwards we would have it no other way, for the Lord’s presence was made known to us in that time in a way that would have otherwise been impossible. It is out of the darkness that He comes the closest to us. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. An old saying, but proven true again and again. And each of us looking back we can say on the one hand “I would not want to endure that again”; but on the other hand we would say, “For that day above all days may He be praised, for out of the darkness came the light, inviting me to come to Him for peace and rest in the midst of the trouble.”
Immediately they were at the shore, safe and secure in the harbor. The long journey was covered in what seemed to be a short time. Taking this secondary application to an additional point, then, we could say that the storms come about us; and He tries our faith by being absent from us, or so it seems. And then He “comes” to us (= makes His presence clear), for we are never far from Him, nor He far from us. And as He delivers us from danger and shows that even when the storms rage they are no problem for Him, we focus our worship and acclamation on Him. And before we know it, we shall be home with Him, in the company of the king of the universe, where we shall see His face more clearly and perfectly, and we shall not think Him a phantom, nor be afraid any more. In a practical way, that is what it means to be in His kingdom, to have Jesus as our king. May our faith grow as the disciples’ faith was growing, as we sense His presence with us in the storms of life.