Who is able to walk on the sea?

The story of Christ coming to His disciples in the midst of the sea is found in all the Gospels except for Luke. The version in Matthew, however, is the only one containing the disciples’ confession: “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33).

John describes the scene in a much simpler way: “…they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat and they were afraid. But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they willingly received Him into the boat…” (John 6:19-21).

Mark’s version ends with these words: “They were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure and marveled for they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).

Feeding the Multitude

In each of the Gospels the story of Christ in the sea follows the report of how He fed the five thousand from a few loaves of bread and two fish. Both of these incidents came to be understood as pointing to the divinity of Christ.

In John’s Gospel Jesus confronts the crowd which had followed Him around the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum: “You seek me, not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to everlasting life which the Son of Man will give you because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (John 6:26-27).

The people, John suggests, followed Jesus to Capernaum looking for another meal. Jesus’ closest followers, Mark affirms, were not much better. The first disciples “did not understand about the loaves” either. They needed another push to help them see just Who was in their midst.

By the time the Gospels were written, however, Christ had risen from the dead. “Beginning with Moses and the Prophets He had expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). The disciples had received the Holy Spirit and began to speak of Jesus in terms reminiscent of God’s dealings with the Jews in the Old Testament. The Gospel pictures of Christ feeding the multitude and walking on the water were drawn with specific Old Testament allusions in mind.

Christ feeding the multitude with bread and fish is described in terms reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites with manna during the exodus from Egypt. Jesus’ words to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread that these may eat?” seemed to echo Moses’ words, “Where can I get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13) Jesus’ action answered for the believers the response of God to Moses, “Is this beyond the Lord’s reach?” (Numbers 11:23).

The Gospel writers had come to see the One who nourished the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai as the same One who nourished their descendants on the hillside. But they described the Old Testament feeding with manna as surpassed by the act of the incarnate Christ. While the Old Testament says that each Israelite was allowed only one omer (c. 3½ liters) of manna, for example, those receiving the bread and fish could eat “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11).While the manna would spoil if not immediately consumed, the bread which Christ gives produces twelve baskets of leftovers. The message would be clear to Jewish believers: Christ is the One who fed Israel in the wilderness and now outdoes what He did in the past!

Walking on Water

The image of Christ walking on the sea is also rooted in the Old Testament which contains several references to walking on water. The fifth-century disciple of St Jerome, Chromatius, writes that God is the One who walked on water in the Scriptures and He is the One who walks on water today:

“Who was able to walk on the sea if not the Creator of the universe? He, indeed, about whom the Holy Spirit and spoken long ago through blessed Job: ‘He alone stretched out the heavens and walked on the sea as well as the earth’ [Job 9:8].

“Solomon spoke about Him in the person of Wisdom: ‘I dwelt in the highest places and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. I orbited the heavenly sphere alone and walked on the waves of the sea’ [Sirach 24:4-5]

“David likewise declared in his psalm: ‘O God, Your way was through the sea, Your path through the great waters’ [Psalms 76:19, LXX]…

“What is more evident than this testimony? What is more clear? It points to Him walking on the water as well as on the ground. This is God’s only begotten Son, who long ago according to the will of the Father stretched out the heavens and at the time of Moses in a pillar of cloud showed the people a way to follow” (Tractate on Matthew 52,2).

Both the feeding of the multitude and the walking on water show Christ acting as only God had acted in the history of Israel.

The Confession of Peter

Only in Matthew’s narrative do we read of Peter’s attempting to walk on the water. Peter was an experiences fisherman by trade; presumably he knew how to handle himself in water. In any event Jesus’ rescue of Peter prompts the others in the boat to affirm, “Truly You are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33).

The Gospel of Matthew is so crafted that its climax is Peter’s own confession of faith two chapters later: Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:15-16). Jesus responds with the praise of Peter and his faith, “on this rock I will build my church” (v.18). What was so special about Peter’s confession if the disciples in the boat had previously said the same thing?

Although most English-language Bibles translate both confessions the same, there is a significant difference in the original Greek. While Peter says, Su ei o Xristos o uios tou theou (“You are the Christ, the Son of God”), the disciples in the boat say, alithos theou uios ei, without the definite article o. This is perhaps better translated as “Truly you are a son of God.” The disciples confess Jesus as a holy one, as one beloved of God. But Peter confesses Christ’s unique sonship, which would indeed be the cornerstone of the Christian Church’s faith.

A Spiritual Interpretation

The fourth-century Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilary, lived during the major theological controversies on the Trinity and the Incarnation which shook the Church. He saw this event as a preview of the Lord’s Second Coming which would bring an end to these and any tribulations affecting the Church on earth:

“Once [Jesus] got into the vessel, the wind and the sea calmed down. After His return in eternal splendor, peace and tranquility are in store for the Church. With His arrival made manifest, all people will exclaim with great wonder, ‘Truly You are the Son of God.’ Everyone will then declare absolutely and publicly that the Son of God has restored peace to the Church, not in physical lowliness but in heavenly glory.”