Question: "What was the meaning of Jesus walking on water?"
Answer: The miracle of Jesus walking on the water, recorded in three of the gospels (Matthew 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-56; John 6:16-21), came on the heels of His miraculous feeding of the 5000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:17). But it was the miracle of Jesus walking on the water that, more than any other, convinced Jesus’ disciples that He was indeed the Son of God (Matthew 14:32-33).
The story unfolds at the Sea of Galilee which lies in the lower portion of the Jordan Valley in a mountain range that rises to 4,000 feet above sea level. The lake itself is 700 feet below the Mediterranean Sea. One of the more noteworthy aspects of this body of water is that is greatly susceptible to sudden and extremely violent storms. These storms are caused by the cold air rushing down from the mountains surrounding it, colliding with the warm moist air rising off the surface of the water itself.
“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 three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. 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” (John 6:16-21).
There are several significant points to recognize about this miracle. First, Matthew tells us that “the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake” (Matthew 14:24-25). Though they were only to travel a short distance from where they were, the storm was so violent that despite all their efforts to control their boat, the storm had driven them nearly four miles out into the very midst of the sea. Being the fourth watch of the night (3:00 AM to 6:00 a.m.), they had been rowing and straining at their oars for upwards to nine hours! They were totally exhausted.
Mark tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the lake, they thought He was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw Him and were terrified (Mark 6:48-50). And this brings us to the second significant point of this miracle. Jesus always comes to us in the storms of life. This is reminiscent of the words of God to Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:2). The Lord may not come at the time we think He should come, because He knows when we need Him the most. Jesus had waited until the boat was as far from land as possible, when all their hope was gone. In essence, Jesus was testing the disciples’ faith, and this meant removing every human prop. Why did Jesus walk on the water? To show His disciples that the very thing they feared, the raging, seething sea was merely a set of steps for Him to come to them. Often we fear the difficult experiences of life such as illness, loss of loved ones, and financial hardships only to discover that these experiences can bring Jesus closer to us.
But we have to ask: why did they not recognize Jesus? The answer is they were not looking for Him. Had they been waiting by faith, they would have known Him instantly. Instead, they jumped to the false conclusion that His appearance was that of a ghost. The point is this: fear and faith cannot live in the same heart, for fear frequently blinds the eyes to the presence of the Lord.
The third significant point is that Jesus proved Himself to be in command of the elements, something only God can do. He revealed this truth to the disciples who recognized His divinity and responded with a confession of faith in Jesus as God and their worship of Him: “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’” (Matthew 14:32-33). This was the first time Jesus was called the Son of God by the disciples, which, in fact, built on what they had said earlier about Him in Matthew 8:27: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him.” Here they answer their own question: “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Though they had a long way to go in their spiritual understanding, they were growing in their faith in the Lord. Also this was the first time the disciples are said to have worshiped Jesus. In Matthew 2:11, the Magi from the East worshiped Jesus. Later a leper is said to have worshiped Jesus (Matthew 8:2). A synagogue ruler does the same thing in Matthew 9:18. But this is the first time the disciples worshiped Him. It is also important to note that their worship is joined to their confession (Matthew 14:33).
And this is what worship is, acknowledging who God is and praising Him both for who He is and for what He has done. It was in this story that the disciples took the first step and worshiped Jesus as the Son of God.