Walking On The Sea

Recently I received a question about the Gospels that has attracted a fair amount of commentary. Two passages in the Bible tell the same story of Jesus Christ walking on water, one of His most notable miracles, and one that has had a long life as an impossible sort of behavior for human beings to imitate. Matthew 14:25-27 reads: “Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.  And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid.”” The version in Mark 6:48-50 is broadly similar but includes a few more details: “Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.  And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.””

There is a lot going on in this passage, but for our purposes today, we are focused on one aspect of it mainly, and in other details only insofar as they help to illuminate that main issue, and that is: what is it that the disciples thought that they saw? Judging from the context, it is not hard to see why they were so terrified, as the scene seems, on its face, to come out of a horror movie. The fourth watch at night was between 3 and 6AM, so most people tend to be asleep during that time, and the disciples and their boat were struggling with a contrary wind. Jesus Christ casually (!) walks across the water, and would have passed them by and simply walked to his destination except that his presence and the unworldly nature of his walking on the water terrified the disciples and meant that he had to interact with them in order to tell them to be courageous and not to be afraid.

This context is unfortunately not immediately helpful in giving us a picture of exactly what the disciples thought that they saw. When we look at the word translated (unhelpfully) in the New King James as ghost, we find the word translated is phantasma. This word is translated, variously, as phantasm, apparition, spirit, ghost, appearance, phantom, and other words of that kind. Unfortunately, these various words are not exactly helpful at all either. It is clear that the disciples did not think that they were seeing a demon, per se, as they did not use the word for demon that is used so often in the Bible. But knowing that they did not think that Jesus was a demon is hardly helpful, for there are different sorts of thoughts that they had which are often left to the eye of the beholder.

So, what are the options here? It does not appear as if the disciples knew in fact what they were seeing, as the word they used is a very vague one that includes a lot of options. They were not sure if they were seeing some sort of (likely hostile) spirit, or if their eyes were playing tricks on them. Most of us have had the experience where we have looked at something in the night that appeared to be malign and ended up not being a real terror but rather only a trick of our fears and anxieties. As it turned out, Jesus Christ was not a hostile spirit, nor was He a figment of their imagination either. And, it should be pointed out, he was not a ghost. The Bible does not give details about what it is that the disciples thought they were seeing when Jesus was walking on the water towards them.

It is not hard to imagine why this lack of detail is present here in the two accounts where this story is given. The most obvious reason why is that what the disciples thought they were seeing was not ultimately very important. They did not correctly interpret what they were seeing, and so it ultimately did not matter what they thought they were seeing, as their terror led Jesus Christ to interact with them in order to calm their fears. Interestingly, enough, Jesus Christ did the same thing when he rose from the grave in John 20:19-20: “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

In reflecting upon this incident, it is perhaps most noteworthy that the disciples learned whatever they needed to in order to not see Jesus Christ as some sort of malign spirit when he walked through a locked door while they were hiding in fear of the Jews who had put Jesus Christ to death. People materializing through locked doors would ordinarily be a horrifying experience if one thought that the being was malign, but they trusted in Jesus Christ and were glad to see Him, aware that Jesus Christ was not limited by the same physical laws that everyone else was and is, apart from God’s own purposes and plans not to be limited by the physical and the usual. What matters is not what the disciples thought when they were mistaken–we can make all kinds of mistaken judgments about what is going on around us–but rather what actually was the case.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Guide To Demonology, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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