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What do you do with a man who walks on water?

If you were a ‘friend’, even a follower, of this man what difference would it make?

Here’s a short report of what John witnessed one dark and stormy night.

What we're told

The disciples had recently participated in the feeding of 5,000+ people with the impossibly small resources of five loaves and two fish. They were now rowing on their return journey across the Lake of Capernaum (also known as the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberius, Lake of Gennesaret, or Kinneret).

The Sea of Galilee is about 21 km (13 miles) long, and 13 km (8 miles) wide. In the middle, it’s over 140 feet (43 meters) deep.

You should read John’s report yourself in John 6:16-24.

When we read details added by Matthew 14:22-34 and Mark 6:45-53 the picture includes:

  • All three accounts put the time in the fourth watch of the night which is between 3:00 – 6:00 a.m.
  • They have travelled 3-4 miles (5-6 kms). Matthew 14:24 puts them “a considerable distance from land”; Mark 6:47 locates them “in the middle of the lake.” They are not near shore.
  • The disciples were on this trip in response to Jesus’ command: “Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida” (Mark 6:45; Matthew 14:22).
  • Matthew includes Peter’s experience of walking on the water toward Jesus in response to Jesus’ invitation (14:28-32).

They had been rowing most of the night against a strong headwind (John 6:48) in stormy waters when they all see a human form “walking on the lake.” They interpret this as a ghost or phantom – after all what else could it be?

Jesus calms their fears with the words “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

When things settle down, the gospels record “they were completely amazed” (Mark 6:51) and “they worshiped him” (Matt 14:33).

Some say it didn’t happen

Here is a sampling of some popular ways in which these events are explained away.[1]

  • The disciples were confused and actually were seeing Jesus walking on the shore (Albert Schweitzer).
  • Perhaps he was walking on a sandbar and only appeared to be walking on water (Sherman Johnson).
  • Perhaps Jesus was wading in the surf (Vincent Taylor).
  • We can’t prove it so we don’t know what happened (Bart Ehrman).
  • Nothing really happened. It’s just a “pious legend” (B. H. Branscomb), an allegory, or symbolic fiction, on the level of myths such as Neptune and Poseidon.

Most, if not all, of these explanations are based on the presumption that miracles cannot happen.

Well, if your starting point is "it can't happen" then your foregone conclusion is "it didn't happen" – despite the evidence.

What’s your conclusion?

For the disciples, this was a new and unexpected experience.

The disciples not only witnessed these events, they also experienced fatigue and sore muscles, together with fear and amazement.

None of the gospel accounts present this event as an allegory or a parable; they present it clearly and simply, each adding their respective perspectives and details.

One thing is clear: the disciples saw what they saw.

You can believe it or not.

Who is Jesus?

If you haven’t prejudged the record, here are a few things we learn about Jesus from this sign:

  • Jesus walked on water in the middle of a large body of water over 140 feet (43 meters) deep. Jesus, somehow, is able to overcome gravity and walk on the waves. Who can do that?
  • Jesus invited Peter with the command “Come” and Peter shared this experience by walking on the water – even though he became distracted and needed to be rescued. Who can do that?
  • John states “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (6:21). If I’m reading it correctly, time and distance were compressed into an instant. Who can do that?

If you’ve been reading the previous posts, then you know who can do that!

What difference does it make?

Here are three things I’m learning from this sign – feel free to add more:

1.     Power: Jesus is selectively demonstrating his power over Creation. We’re seeing Jesus’ power in action. 

He is over Creation. He may choose to use this power, or not – that’s his decision. For me, I’m left with a deepening sense of his majesty and power. That makes a difference to how I understand him. 

2.     Timing: Only after the disciples had rowed into a strong headwind most of the night did Jesus calm the storm. 

The disciples were probably tired and their muscles sore. They probably were yearning for some dry clothes and a warm bed. Why did Jesus send them on their journey when he did – why not the next morning, weather permitting?

Aren’t there times when we ask “Why” God is doing or allowing something in our lives – especially when it makes things difficult, uncomfortable, even painful?

The better question is “What is Jesus teaching me through these circumstances?

3.     Obeying: When we obey what Jesus commands unexpected (and wonderful) things happen.

Jesus commanded the disciples to go to the other side. They obeyed. Despite the hardships of those hours of rowing, they experienced something about Jesus (and themselves) that changed them forever. If they had resisted and waited for the calm waters the next morning they would have missed it.

In particular, Peter responded to Jesus’ command, “Come.” Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water. Do you think he ever forgot that moment?

Obeying Jesus should never be underestimated – expect to be amazed

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[1] Some of these are summarized by Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_walking_on_water. 

Photo credit: This image of Jesus walking on water is by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. I've cropped out most of the painting's portrayal of Jesus focussing on his feet as he walks on the Sea.

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