In 1988 Eddie Money released the single “Walk On Water.” It became his last top ten hit to date on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and aside from a blistering guitar solo from a onetime member of his band who had written the song and come back into the fold to perform that song with his old boss, the song itself for the most part is part of a fairly typical genre of rock songs: the earnest plea for a rock singer’s partner to take him back into his/her good graces after an undisclosed indiscretion. What makes the song remarkable, aside from the guitar solo, is the singer’s reference to walking on water. For whatever reason, the narrator of the song believes that walking on water would be a proof the singer’s sincerity and the power of his devotion, which would wipe away whatever he did to throw the one more chance that his partner had given him after a previous indiscretion.
What is the importance of walking on water anyway? What was the point of it? Three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John, tell the story of Jesus Christ walking on the water. Let us look at each of these passages and then seek to understand the point of why Jesus Christ walked on the water, and what it was that Jesus Christ was trying to prove. We may know, for example, that it was not the same thing that Eddie Money was trying to prove, but that is only the beginning:
Matthew 14:13-36: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.”
Mark 6:30-56: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray. Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified. Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
John 6:1-24: “Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.”
There is a lot going on in these passages. Let us note the immediate contexts of these passages to narrow down what points Jesus Christ is making by walking on water by combining insights from the three passages. In all three passages, the feeding of the five thousand occurs right before Jesus Christ walks on the water. John adds the detail that these events occurred at the time of the Passover, and both Matthew and Mark begin with a note about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. Of interest as well is that John tells us that Jesus Christ was trying to avoid the crowds because they wanted to make him king by force, even as he took compassion on them and fed them because of how they had been abandoned and mistreated by their shepherds. In John, the passage of Jesus Christ walking on the water–where He is mistaken as a ghost–is immediately followed by a testy conversation where Jesus Christ makes reference to His being the bread of life that must be eaten in the Passover of the New Covenant for people to have eternal life, which strikes his literal-minded audience as being cannibalism. to put it very mildly, then, there is a lot going on here.
For the most part, the disciples do not come off very well in these passages. Peter is the only one of the twelve to have enough faith to stand up and walk on water towards Jesus Christ, but he begins to panic and be afraid and has to be saved by Jesus Christ, who says he has little faith. The other disciples show even less. The account in John shows the attention that Philip paid to logistics and show Andrew’s skill at paying attention to a child who has the five loaves and two fishes that are the only food anyone had with them during the miraculous feeding. Given Jesus’ unwillingness to be made a king by force, considering that He had come to earth the first time to be the sacrifice for sin and to feed others, it is rather striking that he had the crowd sit in fifties and hundreds, which were the traditional Israelite units for the levy of the militia in the time of the Exodus and the period immediately after that in the promised land. Above all, the disciples appear to be self-absorbed. They seem to forget that Jesus Christ has more than enough power to feed the crowds, and when He does so and provides enough leftovers that every one of the disciples has a basket of leftover fish and bread, they sail off and forget that He has the power to walk on water and calm the storm. Mark attributes this self-absorption to a hardness of heart, and I am inclined to agree.
We may see this hardness of heart in the way that the disciples want to tell the crowd to go away and by their own food. Jesus’ own compassion is striking. He had wanted to find a quiet place to be alone to rest and recuperate, but the crowd will simply not let him get a moment’s rest. He knows the crowd is thinking with their appetites and He is unwilling to be drafted as a political Messiah, and yet He feeds them and cares for them anyway. When the crowd meets up with him on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, He heals their sick even as He rebukes them for their own selfishness. Jesus’ compassion is not easy for others to take, but He is moved for compassion even without agreeing with the motives of those who come to Him. He wishes for His disciples to be so motivated to have compassion even for those they disagree with, for those who misunderstand them, and who may even have serious quarrels with. This is no easy task. Yet if one has the power to walk on water, one has the power to be kind even for those who have no idea what they are doing, seeing as this world is all too full of sheep without shepherds longing to have their bellies filled and to seek for some kind of temporal salvation in this life that does not require their natures to be changed from human ones to godly ones. Are we any different from them?