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

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

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

What we’re told

The disciples had recently participated in feeding more than 5,000 people with the impossibly small resources of five loaves and two fish. Now, they were rowing across the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Sea of Tiberius, the 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 traveled 3-4 miles (5-6 km). 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 (Matthew 14:28-32).

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

Jesus calms their fears with the words, “It is I. Don’t be afraid,” or more literally, “I am [ēgo eimi], don’t be afraid.” We will explore the significance of the phrase ēgo eimi in a later post.

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

Some say it didn’t happen

Here is a sampling of some widespread attempts to discredit this miraculous sign.

  • The disciples were confused and saw 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 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, 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 but 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. Somehow, Jesus can overcome gravity and walk on the waves. Who can do that?
  • In Matthew’s account, Jesus invited Peter with the command “Come,” and Peter walked on water for a moment—even though he became distracted and needed to be rescued. 
  • John states, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (6:21). If I’m reading it correctly, Jesus compressed time and distance into an instant. Who can do that?

You know who can do that if you’ve read the previous posts!

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, there is a deep sense of his majesty and power. That makes a difference in 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. So why did Jesus send them on their journey when he did – why not the next morning, weather permitting?

Are there not 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. They would have missed if they had resisted and waited for the calm waters the next morning.

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

Obeying Jesus should never be underestimated – expect to be amazed

Let me know how this sign impacts you. You can contact me using this link.

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BACK TO “At the fourth sign of Jesus”

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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