A deacon friend of mine was studying the book of Daniel with some Orthodox rabbis. In the midst of all the reading and the discussing that one might expect at such a bible study, one rabbi pointed to a particular passage in Daniel and claimed that it was messianic in context. He stated that that passage clearly indicated that the coming Messiah would one day walk on water. The rabbi turned to my friend – the only Christian in the group – and to my friend’s astonishment, explained that this was why Jesus needed to walk on water, in order to fulfill a messianic prophecy.
The account of Jesus walking on water can be found in three Gospels (Mark 6:45-51, Matthew 14:22-33 and John 6:16-21). This incident didn’t occur for Jesus to demonstrate his ability to do supernatural things. He wasn’t in the habit of doing things just to provoke awe. Rather, there was something greater in this demonstration of his power over creation, something which caused this rabbi to recognize the significance of Jesus’ walking on water (and yet still remain unwilling to recognize Jesus as Messiah!).
Why did Jesus walk on water? Why did he send his disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while staying on the opposite bank until nightfall? He could have instructed his disciples to wait until he had sent home the crowd, and then sailed together with them.
Most preachers addressing this passage concentrate on Peter’s response to Jesus. Did Jesus walk on water just to teach Peter something? It is true that Jesus taught Peter a lesson about faith. However, if this had been the main point of the story, Peter’s stepping out from the boat would have been recorded in all accounts, not only in Matthew’s. It seems there is another, more profound reason for this story, beyond describing Peter’s passage on the water toward Jesus.
What was Jesus demonstrating to his disciples and to us? In order to discover this, we must pay attention to what is common to the three descriptions of Jesus walking on water. In all three accounts, Jesus sent the disciples into the coming storm and met them while they were still struggling to reach the other side. The disciples’ fear is also found in all three texts. They were scared when they saw him and were convinced he must be a ghost. Walking on water was unprecedented! We likely would have had the same reaction if we were to observe the same thing today.
Perhaps the most revealing hint about Jesus’ purpose comes at its end, where both Mark and Matthew described the disciples’ reaction. (John rarely described the disciples’ reactions throughout his book, so it’s not surprising that he didn’t do so here.) In Mark 6:45-51, the disciples were amazed and the writer mentioned that their eyes hadn’t yet been opened. What does this event reveal and what should the disciples have grasped already prior to this? In Matthew 14:22-33, the disciples kneeled before Jesus and declared him to be the Son of God. What was it in this demonstration of Jesus’ that resulted in this bold declaration by the disciples?
When we try to find reasons for Jesus’ actions, we must first look in the Old Testament. Walking on water wasn’t customary there, either. In fact, there is only one who does so: the Almighty God treads over waters (Job 9:8); he alone lays the beams of his upper chambers on the water (Psalm 104:3). The waters may have split, exposing dry land, for a few of the most notable figures in the Old Testament but no human ever walked on water. That was reserved for God alone.
With this Old Testament background in mind, we can further understand that the disciples thought they were seeing something supernatural when they saw Jesus walking on water. When this “ghost” turned out to be the very same man they had been following for some time, they responded in awe: “Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” (Matthew 14:33)
But there is more we can glean from this account. There is a remarkable typological meaning that rises from the encounter between Jesus and the disciples, especially Peter, as they were on the water together.
The Old Testament contains another interesting instance of “walking on water”. In Genesis 7:18, Noah’s Ark “walked” on water. Naturally, it would make sense to describe it as “floating” or “moving”, since boats, ships and arks don’t walk. However, the actual root word used here is הלך (HaLaKH) which, translated, means “walked” or “went”. In other instances of boats or ships in the Old Testament, different verbs were used to describe the movement of the boat. The word “walk” was used only in reference to Noah’s Ark.
An interesting connection to this is that the Flood waters are mentioned in 1 Peter 3:20-21 as a typos of baptism. Implicitly, the Ark served as a typos of Jesus, who is mentioned immediately following the discussion of baptism. This is how many of the early Church Fathers saw the connection (e.g. St. Augustine in The City of God and Book 15, and St. Jerome in Homily 84).
If we connect these passages about the Flood and baptism with the encounter between Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, it forms a beautiful picture in which the destructive waters (the Flood waters in Genesis, the baptism in 1 Peter, and the Sea of Galilee in Matthew) are used as a tool of salvation. However, together with Jesus (as the Ark in Genesis, as the Resurrected Messiah in 1 Peter and carrying Peter in Matthew), these waters will carry us safely to the shore: to a purified world in Genesis, into the new creation in 1 Peter and to the safety of the shore in Matthew, Mark and John.
Returning to the rabbis’ Bible study on the book of Daniel… What provoked this discussion of the Messiah being able to walk on water? It was the Divine Being Daniel met (10:5) who looked like a man (10:12), whom Daniel addresses as “my Lord”, and himself as the “servant of my Lord” (10:17). The connection to walking on water comes in Daniel 12:5-7: “Then I, Daniel, looked, and there before me stood two others, one on this bank of the river and one on the opposite bank. One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, ‘How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?’ The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, lifted his right hand and his left hand toward heaven, and I heard him swear by him who lives forever, saying…”
Throughout the text, this Divine Being appears to be higher than angels. To whom else could the aforementioned attributes be ascribed, other than to the Messiah? Since the description clearly indicates the Messiah, it appears that a Messianic expectation includes one who can walk on water. Midrash Bereshith Rabbath 1:2 adds that the Spirit of God moving over the waters in the creation was the Spirit of the Messiah.
Jesus walking on water was a demonstration with a context, background and purpose. The disciples understood the idea – and that’s why they kneeled and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God. No one else could have walked on water. Jesus declared his divinity and messiahship through his words and through his miraculous actions. No one else could have done what God had done in the Old Testament – no one, that is, except God’s only begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah.
The writer is a Lutheran pastor from Finland studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.