The 500th Anniversary of the New Testament in the Language of the People 1522 – 2022
The Bible in 3-D
Jesus Walks on the Water
Is the essence of this miracle best explained by theology or artists? Why has it remained as one of the most familiar stories in the Bible for 2,000 years?
Matthew 14:22-33 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
While Jesus retreats to the mountain to pray, his disciples travel ahead of him, sailing once more across stormy waters. Seeking to calm the frightened apostles, Jesus walks across the sea, but this further terrifies them as they momentarily believe Him to be a ghost.
Jesus Walking on the Sea by James Tissot (1886-1894) (Brooklyn Museum)
James Tissot attempts to explain the fears of the disciples, in a commentary that melds his interests in scientific observation and in legend: noting the early hour designated by the Gospel account—3 a.m.—and the weather conditions, he surmises that the darkness must have been complete. But finding no other explanation for a source of light to illuminate Christ, he concludes that “light emanated from His body, and irradiated all around Him to some extent.” He concludes that only the voice of Jesus with its recognizable “ordinary” salutation—“Be of good cheer”—could reassure the disciples.
Saint Peter Walks on the Sea by James Tissot (1886-1894)
They are reminders to us that the point of the story is not solely that, as God and Lord of Creation, Jesus could walk on water, but that if we have faith we too can do amazing things. Further, that even when our faith is tested or our courage fails and we are found weak, He is able to save us when we call out to Him. The first step is to get out of the boat!
Luther: “To us, of course, who now believe that He is the Lord over death, it seems a small thing that He walks upon the sea. But to them, since at the time they were imagining something else (that He was ashore). He was a terrifying specter, because nothing was farther from their thoughts than that it was Christ Himself.
But why does He do such things to His beloved friends and disciples? It is so that we might learn Hs goodwill toward us, because He plays with us in the sweetest way when we think that all things have become utterly desperate. The fault lies with our sin, which does not allow us to recognize that He is present, but thinks Him an apparition – or rather, a devil – because He appears otherwise than we imagine and He remains silent. For in the midst of temptation we think that He is ashore where we left Him; we cannot understand that He is present.
Second, Matthew alone has this part about Peter. It is a fine spectacle and the story is full of comfort. For when he hears Jesus walking on the sea – for He had said, ‘It is I: fear not’ (verse 27), Peter, seized by zeal and love, asks, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ All this happens quite naturally, as if good friends were sitting or walking and jesting with each other on land.
For since Christ was present there on the sea, Peter believes that he, too, will be able to walk over the sea. For Christ says, ‘Come.’ And indeed he did start to walk. But Christ tests him as one who knows him inside and out, and He shows him a strong wind. Here Peter, his faith slipping, loses hold of that word of Christ which He had spoken – ‘Come’ in the power of which he had leapt out of the ship, but he did not continue in that power. For the wind that he saw wrenched away from him the hearing of that ‘come,’ so that he did not think about that word ‘come’ but about the wind that he was seeing.
Thus the eye always impedes hearing, and visible things take away the Word and invisible things, for faith pertains to things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)” (Luther’s Annotations of Matthew 14)