This is my take on the well-known incident in Matthew 14 of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. Like many of my writings, it is in response to things I have read. Snapshots of those writings will be here without links and their authors may or may not like how I have characterized them. In this instance, I read a blog on this event in Jesus’ ministry. In his “giving context” to the event, the blogger made what I thought was a stunningly bad characterization of one of the principals (Peter, of course) which, again I thought, turned the story on its head, teaching this as a story of Peter’s massive hubris and arrogance – and yet, Peter walked on water! In the blog’s comments, I criticized his context-giving (not always in the most gracious way possible, it probably need not be said) and in the interaction which followed, the point came out that his blog was really an attempt to discredit some “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat” sub-category of “name it and claim it” teaching. Far be it from me to be in support of any “name it and claim it” theology but far be it also to throw left turns into a passage of Scripture for the purpose of hamstringing its use by people with whom I disagree.
I would like to suggest a different approach to Peter’s comment. I believe that Peter’s statement is really a prayer which shows not only faith but the opposite of impetuousness. Wait, asking to walk on water is not impetuous? That’s what I said.
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:23-33)
This is the well known story of Jesus walking on the water. It is also reported in Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21 but neither of these reports mention Peter walking on the water. It follows the incident of the feeding of the 5,000 which itself follows Jesus hearing that John the Baptist had been beheaded. Upon hearing of the execution of John, It seems Jesus was in mourning and wanted to get away and pray. The crowds heard that Jesus left and followed him. Jesus saw the crowds and taught them. He then fed them and after he sent the disciples across the lake (The word means Jesus compelled or forced the Apostles to get in the boat. According to John’s account, the group had been impressed by the miracle of the feed and were clamoring to make Jesus king.), dismissed the crowd and went alone to pray. The story as given by Matthew makes these into essentially one day and the solitary time of prayer was the one sought by Jesus mourning the death of John.
The Apostles, for their part, were rowing across the lake when they were hit by a storm. Their rowing was extremely difficult because the wind was blowing from the direction they were going. They were also rowing at night. The fourth watch (v 25) corresponds to between 3 and 6 AM. I would suspect that the expectation when they left was to get to the other side way before it got this late. Rowing at night in a storm (what could they be using to guide them in the right direction?) with relentless waves and wind against them had to be tiring work, to say nothing of the mental tension involved. Fear as well as physical and mental fatigue must have taken a toll on them as it would on any of us.
During the fourth watch (between 3 and 6 AM; “As the night was ending” – NET) Jesus came walking on the water. The fact that he was seen by the Apostles lends support to NET’s paraphrase that it was getting lighter. The alternative would be thinking that Jesus was glowing (like Moses? Exodus 34:29) as he walked, as in some of the paintings of this event. Some suggest that this miracle happened about the time of Passover and so there was a full moon, but since there was a storm it is unlikely the moon was that visible.
“It’s a ghost!” they said. It could be that they thought it was the end; that these fishermen had watery death personified like Davey Jones or The Flying Dutchman. “It is I. Do not be afraid” said Jesus, probably in a voice which was exactly unlike Davey Jones.
Before I get to the crux I want to step back a bit. In other blogs on this topic, I have looked at the nature of Faith. One key part of my definition is the observation that in Hebrews 11, the so-called “Hall of Faith”, Faith is a response to Revelation. For example, it says By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8) I cannot stress this enough. Faith is not wishful thinking. We all know this, but wouldn’t it be nice if …? Neither Faith nor what one has faith in are self-generated.
Faith is not mediated through a man. One example of what I mean by this is it has been a not uncommon experience to have someone respond to “faith in Christ” by saying “Which Christ? The Christ of Arius? Or of Athanasius?” I would say the biblical answer is “The Christ of Revelation”. Obviously, this would not satisfy the asker of the question as the question demands a man between you and the Revelation.
A key in recognizing a cult is this mediation of Revelation. A man stands up and says he has new insight into the Scriptures or that God has given him new Revelation and his followers must accept his mediation of God’s Word. Years ago, during the siege of David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas, a friend and I were talking about his religion and followers and my friend could not get past “But he says God told him…” as if that gave virtually indisputable credence to what he said.
Faith is not something you whip up in yourself nor is it some commodity so that if you or someone in your group is a brick shy of a full load it stops the show. The well-known verse in James, But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. (James 1:6), describes something far more fundamental and pervasive (and violent) than its common application to the presence of some “doubt”, perhaps even so small you are unaware it exists.
Let’s go back to the passage. Peter said to him, “Lord, if it is you, order me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) Many commentaries and teachings, I think, miss something significant here:
Peter, wanting greater assurance that it really was the Lord, said … – Bible Knowledge Commentary
“being more forward than the rest of the disciples, ventured to speak to him; saying, Lord, if it be thou; for he was not fully assured that it was he” – Gill
The condition which he lays down shows that his faith was not yet fully settled…He ought rather to have judged of himself according to his capacity, and to have supplicated from Christ an increase of faith – Calvin
In other words, teachers commonly approach Peter’s comment with the cliché about impetuous Peter always talking too fast for his own good and revealing his lack of faith. In the blog I mentioned earlier, which was written more for the purpose of eliminating this passage from some false teaching than understanding the passage, dismissed the statement with a crass “Peter, the one with the big mouth, said …”
As I said, I believe that Peter’s statement is really a prayer which shows not only faith but the opposite of impetuousness, patience.
First off, the statement is a response to Revelation. Peter saw Jesus walking on the water. Much can be and has been made about the scaredy-cat Apostles thinking he was a ghost but the thing was somewhat unprecedented, let the perfectionists note. Peter also heard Jesus say “it is I”. Jesus spoke these words later on in the garden and the whole troop of soldiers fell on their faces. Revelation had been given and Peter responded. In any situation, one can either react in Faith or in unbelief. What Peter’s reaction to this Revelation shows Faith.
Next, note that Peter starts by calling Jesus, “Lord”. That is kinda prayer-ish. Especially considering his first idea not a couple of minutes previously was that Jesus was a ghost, Peter’s movement, again in response to Revelation, is striking. In the blog mentioned before, the writer scoffed at my suggestion that the statement of Peter was a prayer. “Why not?” I asked, “He’s talking to Jesus, isn’t he?”
I also note that much has been rightly said about Peter’s prayer later on. “Lord, save me!” (v 30) For this verse, there is no question that Peter is praying, but it is in the exact same context (and similar wording) as this statement in verse 28. One devotional I read recently declared verse 30 the first time we see prayer in the story. Not only is this wrong in the broader context, Jesus was walking on the water after spending a night in prayer, but I think it really shortchanges the significance of Peter’s prayer in verse 28.
Next, the “if” in Peter’s statement (“If it is you”) is what is called a First-Class Conditional. That is, the premise “it is you” is assumed true at least for the sake of the argument. While it is not as iron-clad as sometimes made to seem, Peter’s statement could be translated “Lord since it is you.” This, to me, severely weakens the idea that Peter’s statement is one of doubt. However trembling we may speculate Peter’s words were, they were words which do not show fear or cynicism.
Next, look at the request. The prayer of Peter was not only a response to Revelation; it was based on the Revelation given to him. He asked to do (to be told to do) what he saw Jesus doing. Response to Revelation can take two forms belief or unbelief. Peter responded in belief, daring belief. This response of Peter’s is really as far from hubris as possible.
Further, I think Jamieson Fausset and Brown makes a good point. Peter’s request was not “let me,” but “give me the word of command” – “command,” or “order me to come unto Thee upon the waters.” In other words, the nature of the request is far different than the impression we get. In response to the Revelation of Jesus walking on the water, Peter prays “Command me to walk on the water”.
Why pray, “Command me”? If we consider the “good ol’ impetuous Peter” caricature, I would say the impetuous thing for him to have done is just jump over the side, right? No prayer, just jump. In fact, praying to Jesus is a step back from impetuousness. Up to now, the Revelation had been Jesus walking on the water and nothing concerning the Apostles. Were Peter to have just jumped overboard that would have been presuming or testing the Lord (Matthew 4:5-7) not Faith. Faith is not doing things on a lark. It took another Revelation – Jesus commanding him – for Peter, in response to that Revelation (by Faith), to climb over the side of the boat and to walk on water. By Faith, Peter did not go beyond the Revelation but waited – he sought – further Revelation before acting. This is the opposite of impetuous. And he walked on water.
So why is it walking on the water is such a small thing, a thing to be despised and Peter to be patronized for seeking and doing? Because some people teach frivolously and foolishly concerning this incident? That is not reason to dismiss what happened here. The antidote to bad teaching is true teaching. Far from teaching “If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat” or other such man-made “DIY” teachings, this incident teaches that if you are to walk on water, God who chose that for you, will reveal it to you and you, by faith, respond to that revelation by walking. On water.
Reading the passage without the blinders of wanting to keep people from misusing it or to hang on to the popular caricature of Peter, I think, reveals some significant observations about Faith and how Faith plays out in the life of the believer. Not self will or foolishness we read of Revelation and Response and Revelation and Response.