Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 10)

May 30, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Nature Miracles (Part 4)

One miracle that Jesus performed appears immediately after the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospels of Matthew,1 Mark,2 and John.3 Matthew’s account is the longest and is the one I’ll use here, along with some points taken from the other accounts.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 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.”4

While the location of the feeding of the five thousand is unknown, it’s likely that it was somewhere to the east of where the Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee. Starting on the east side of where the Jordan flows into the lake, and crossing to somewhere on the west side of the Jordan’s entry into the lake, would be considered going to “the other side.”

By the time Jesus had finished praying, it was night, and the boat in which He had sent the disciples off had gone a few miles. The Gospel of John tells us that the distance they had traveled was twenty or thirty furlongs (KJV). The word furlong comes from the Greek word stadion and means a distance of about 600 feet, or 182 meters. So the disciples had traveled only about two or three miles (3.6–5.5 kilometers) in six or seven hours, as they were beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.5 We read in John that the sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing,6 and in Mark that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.7

Fishing boats on the lake at that time generally had two sets of oars and a rudder, along with a small sail. When the wind was right, the sail helped to propel it, but often four men would row and one would man the rudder. The sides of the boat were low in order to make it easier for the fishermen to cast their nets and to pull the fish into the boat. However, due to the low sides, waves didn’t need to be very high to threaten the boat with sinking.

In the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. The Jews, Greeks, and Romans divided the night into military watches instead of hours, with each watch representing the period for which the guards were on duty. The Jews divided the night into three watches, while the Romans divided it into four. The fourth watch of the night, according to the Roman reckoning, covered the period from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. This means that the disciples had been rowing for possibly seven or more hours and still hadn’t made it all the way across the lake. They were likely exhausted from rowing, it was still dark, and suddenly they saw someone walking on the water. Their initial reaction was terror and fear. They had never seen anyone walk on water, so they thought they were seeing a ghost. They would have been familiar with ancient pagan superstitions about spirits of those who had drowned in the sea wandering endlessly above the waters. Jesus immediately put their fears to rest by saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

In the Gospels of John and Mark, the account of Jesus crossing the lake by walking on the water ends with Jesus getting into the boat with His disciples and the wind immediately ceasing. Matthew’s account tells of Peter stepping out of the boat in order to go to Jesus, which will be covered shortly.

Within the Old Testament, it was stated that walking on water was something only God could do.

He alone spreads out the heavens, And treads on the waves of the sea.8

Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.9

Here, once again, Jesus showed His authority over nature by acting as only God can.

The Gospel of Mark uses an interesting phrase that isn’t used in the other Gospels and which can be seen as an echo of an Old Testament encounter with God. Mark wrote:

And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out.10 

The description of Jesus planning on passing them by doesn’t fit with Jesus’ usual way of dealing with those in need. Some commentators interpret this to mean that Jesus was testing the disciples’ faith, others that He wanted to remain incognito, some that this was merely a mistaken impression of what Jesus was about to do.11 However, it’s possible that this should be understood as echoing the actions of God in the Old Testament.

When Moses was on Mount Sinai, he said to God, “Please show me your glory.” God responded by saying, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’”12 The Lord said to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”13 Here Moses is allowed to see God and His glory as He passes by him. This event is called an epiphany, defined as “the appearance or manifestation of a divine being.” Some Bible commentators see a connection between God passing by Moses and the mention that Jesus meant to pass by them.

Old Testament Scripture tells of another epiphany which also occurred on Mount Sinai, (also known as Mount Horeb14), when the prophet Elijah was fleeing for his life. In the course of his flight, an angel appeared to him, giving him food to eat.

He arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.15 

While he was there, the Lord spoke to him and said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD.16

In both of these instances of epiphanies, there is reference made to God “passing by” in a moment of self-revelation. Many Bible commentators see Jesus’ walking on the water in a similar fashion.

Therefore, instead of a story about Jesus’ rescue of his disciples who are distressed but not in danger, this is an epiphany story about Jesus’ self-revelation to his own followers.17

Another possible echo of the Old Testament in the account of Jesus walking on the water is in the words Jesus spoke to His disciples after they saw Him walking on the water: “Take heart; it is I.” The Greek words translated as “it is I”—eimi egō—reflect the egō eimi, “I am he,” used within the Gospels:

Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.18

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority.19 

I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.20

Jesus’ use of “I am” reflects the incident in Exodus when God told Moses that His name was “I am.”

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”21

Having looked at these Old Testament echoes, we now return to Matthew’s Gospel, which focuses on the apostle Peter’s role in this event.

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.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.22

Jesus had the authority to share with someone else His miraculous ability to walk on the water, just as He had given His disciples authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick.23 Peter had the faith to step out on the water and to walk toward Jesus, but when he became distracted by the wind, his faith weakened, and he became afraid and started to sink. His response was to cry out to Jesus to save him—the same response the disciples had when they were afraid that their boat was going to sink on an earlier occasion: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”24

Upon reaching out and grabbing hold of Peter, Jesus said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” We read of Jesus addressing His disciples’ lack of faith with these same words four other times within the Gospel of Matthew.25 Clearly Peter had faith, and his faith allowed him to walk on the water, but as his faith weakened, he started to sink. When Jesus told Peter to come to Him, that call to walk on the water was a call to trust in the One who had already done many miracles. Peter’s ability to walk on the water was a manifestation of his faith in God’s power to sustain him; but looking at the natural circumstances caused his faith to waver, which caused him to sink.

Bible commentators have differing opinions on why Peter asked Jesus to command him to come out on the water. Some see it as a means of impressing the other disciples or as a childish search for exhilaration. Others look at it as coming close to “testing” God, something Jesus refused to do when He was confronted by the devil in the wilderness.26 Others see it as an example of valid faith which went wrong.

A more positive way to look at it is to recognize that Jesus was teaching His disciples to do what He did. He empowered them to cast out demons and heal the sick, and sent them out two by two to perform the same miracles that He had. They were learning to demonstrate God’s authority, just as they had seen Jesus do. In the learning stage, they weren’t always able to achieve what Jesus did. For example, when a man brought his son who had seizures to the disciples, they were unable to heal him. Jesus’ response was:

“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”27 

Like all believers, the disciples went through a process of growing into greater faith.

Peter had faith enough to ask Jesus to bid him onto the water and to obey when Jesus told him to come. It seems that Jesus approved of Peter’s request, which gave Peter the faith to step out of the boat and to walk on water. When he started sinking, he had the right response, which was to call on Jesus to help him. Jesus’ mild reproof was not because Peter had stepped out onto the water, but because he began to lose trust and faith.

In reading this account, we gain understanding that when we, like the disciples, find ourselves in difficult situations; when we are fearful and feel as if everything is coming to an end, Jesus’ presence in our lives can end our fears as we trust Him, knowing that He will bring us through. While the disciples weren’t immediately delivered from their difficult situation, they continued to do their part by doing their best to row the boat, even though they weren’t making a lot of headway. When the time was right, Jesus brought calm to the situation, delivering them from their troubles.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus and Peter got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.28 Worship, praise, and thanksgiving certainly seem to be the right response when the Lord moves within our lives; when He mercifully keeps and protects us, guides us when we find ourselves in difficult situations, answers our prayers, and calms our storms.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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1 Matthew 14:22–34.

2 Mark 6:45–53.

3 John 6:16–22.

4 Matthew 14:22–27.

5 Matthew 14:24.

6 John 6:18.

7 Mark 6:48.

8 Job 9:8 NKJV.

9 Psalm 77:19.

10 Mark 6:48–49.

11 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, 350.

12 Exodus 33:18–19.

13 Exodus 33:20–23. See also Exodus 34:6.

14 The names Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb are used interchangeably. See Exodus 3:1; 33:6; 19:20; Numbers 3:1.

15 1 Kings 19:8. For the whole account, read 1 Kings 19.

16 1 Kings 19:11.

17 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, 350.

18 John 8:24.

19 John 8:28.

20 John 13:19.

21 Exodus 3:13–14.

22 Matthew 14:28–34.

23 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 570. See Matthew 10:7–8; Mark 6:12–13; Luke 9:1, 10:17.

24 Matthew 8:25.

25 Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 16:8, 17:20.

26 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:5–7).

27 Matthew 17:17–20.

28 Matthew 14:32–34.