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29 October 2018

Jesus and Peter walk on water.

And how this got Jesus’s students to reconsider a few things.

Mark 6.46-52 • Matthew 14.23-33 • John 6.16-21.

Right after Jesus had his students feed 5,000-plus listeners, he sent ’em to the far side of Lake Tiberias (i.e. “the Galilean Sea,” although it’s not quite that big. The Great Lakes are way bigger.) So while Jesus dismissed the crowds and left to pray, the students rowed their way south.

And the rowing wasn’t easy, ’cause the weather didn’t cooperate.

Mark 6.46-48 KWL
46 Saying goodbye, Jesus went off to a hill to pray.
47 Much later, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and Jesus was alone on land.
48A Seeing the students tortured by the rowing, for the wind was against them…
Matthew 14.23-24 KWL
23 Saying goodbye to the crowds, Jesus went up a hill by himself to pray.
Much later he was alone there. 24 The boat was already many stadia away from land,
tortured by the waves, for the wind was against it.
John 6.16-18 KWL
16 When it became later, Jesus’s students went down to the lake,
17 got into a boat, and went to the far side of the lake, to Kfar Nahum.
It had become dark, and Jesus hadn’t yet come to them.
18 The lake’s wind increased, blowing greatly.

Now, the title of this piece tipped you off what’s about to happen next: Jesus is gonna walk to them on the surface of Lake Tiberias. You’ve heard the story before. Heck, everybody’s heard of this story; walking on water is one of the most famous stunts Jesus ever pulled.

Though I should point not everyone who’s heard of this story, knows the details of this story. Pagans regularly assume Jesus is the only person who ever walked on water. Who ever could walk on water; there’s a widespread pagan interpretation that Jesus could do it because he’s so good, God would never let him sink! It surprises them when I tell ’em Simon Peter walked on water too—and then they leap to the conclusion Peter must’ve been a really good person too. Hardly. But I’m getting too far ahead of the story.

I bring up how everyone’s heard this story, to point out how most folks don’t know this story in context. They don’t know what happened before it. They don’t realize what happened before it, should’ve had enough of an impact on the students, they’d behave far differently than they did. But like Mark points out at the end of the story, these kids were pretty dense.

So I remind you there were three experiences the students should’ve bore in mind as the events in this story were taking place:

  • They weren’t unfamiliar with Lake Tiberias’s rough weather. And they also weren’t familiar with the fact Jesus once stopped this weather.
  • Day before yesterday, the Twelve had just returned to Jesus after going round the Galilee preaching the gospel, curing the sick, and throwing out demons. They had personally done what Jesus did.
  • And yesterday, Jesus had ’em feed the 5,000.

You’d think they’d be used to the impossible by now. Apparently not.

Taking a little stroll.

Ancient timekeeping was mighty different from how we do it today. Our day starts at midnight, and is divided into 12 uniform hours of 360 seconds each. Though sometimes we add the occasional leap second.

Ancient days started at sundown. Nighttime was measured in watches, daytime in hours. And as you know, as the earth orbits the sun and seasons change, the length of day and night changes. Nights grow longer as we approach the winter solstice; shorter as we approach the summer solstice. In Israel a night will be 9 hours 47 minutes on 21 June, and 13 hours 56 minutes on 21 December. The night watches stretched or shrank, depending on how long the night is. Same with the daylight hours.

The ancient Hebrews had three watches. The Romans had four, and since the gospels refer to the fourth watch, obviously they followed Roman time. Two watches took place before midnight; two after. Since John said these events took place round Passover, Jn 6.4 which is close to the vernal equinox, it means night was about 12 hours long—and the fourth watch would be from 3 to 6 a.m.

So Jesus had been on that hill from a little after sundown, to at least 3 a.m. Nine hours. Christians tend to respond, “Wow, that was a mighty long conversation he had with his Father.” But I point out the gospels don’t say he spent the entire time praying, and I betcha he got a few hours’ sleep on that hill.

Mark 6.48-50 KWL
48B …around the fourth nightwatch Jesus came to them, walking on the lake.
He wanted to come near them, 49 but seeing him walking on the lake,
the students thought Jesus was a phantasm, and screamed.
50 For everyone saw Jesus and were aghast.
Quickly he spoke with them and told them, “Courage! It’s me. No fear!”
Matthew 14.25-27 KWL
25 In the fourth nightwatch Jesus came to them, walking on the lake.
26 The students, seeing Jesus walking on the lake, were aghast,
saying this: “It’s a phantasm!” They shouted out in fear.
27 Quickly Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Courage! It’s me. No fear.”
John 6.19-20 KWL
19 So, having rowed 25 or 30 stadia,
the students saw Jesus walking on the lake, coming near the boat.
They feared, 20 and Jesus told them, “It’s me. No fear.”

The students, say John, were about 25 to 30 stadia from Beit Sayíd. A stadium—a Greek measurement that, yes, is based on the length of an athletic stadium—is roughly 200 yards. A football field. If you wanna get precise, 4,625 to 5,550 meters from land, but I seriously doubt John did anything more than guesstimate the distance. Certainly it felt like they rowed 25 to 30 stadia.

Various translations say Jesus wanted to walk past them. Which is one way to translate íthelen pareltheín aftús/“is willing to come beside them,” Mk 6.48 but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. What, was Jesus hoping to sneak past them in the dark, and reach the far side ahead of them? Shouldn’t have walked a direct route then. But no; there’s no reason to assume Jesus wasn’t trying to approach the side of the boat so he could get in.

Every once in a while you get some yutz who insist Jesus must’ve walked along a sandbar or something. I’m pretty sure the fishers among the students knew Tiberias had no such sandbars where they were rowing. That’s why they screamed. There was no way something could’ve been walking towards them.

Bibles tend to translate the students’ response, “It’s a ghost!” Mt 14.26 NLT but the word they used wasn’t pnefma/“ghost” but fántasma/“phantasm.” And a phantasm, in ancient thinking, is not a ghost or spirit; it’s a vision. The students thought God was showing ’em something. Or an angel was making an appearance. Which is also kinda scary when you’re not used to such things.

But nope; turned out to be their rabbi, who just wanted on board. And according to John, that was just fine. “Oh it’s you? Come on board.”

John 6.21 KWL
So they wanted to take him into the boat.
The boat quickly came to the land where they were going.

The other gospels tell it a little differently.

Mark: The students don’t get it.

In Mark Jesus came alongside the boat, got in, the wind stopped, and the students come across as a little dumbstruck. Or at least that’s how people tend to interpret it, following the thinking we see in the NLT:

Mark 6.51-52 NLT
51 Then he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, 52 for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.

See, Christians are awfully fond of bashing the students for being dense. Here they’d just traveled the Galilee doing miracles, then fed 5,000 people, just seen Jesus walk on water, and they still couldn’t believe it. Man, what does it take to convince these stupid fishermen that Jesus is the real deal?

Except that’s not what was going on. They did know Jesus is the real deal. The problem they had, had to do with application. Okay, Jesus is Lord and Messiah and Son of God and all that. So… now what? What does it mean?

If you’re wondering where I’m getting this idea, it comes from the text. What the NLT renders “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves” is literally u syníkan epí tois ártois/“[they did] not stand together on the breads.” They didn’t agree what multiplying the rolls meant. No doubt they agreed it, like Jesus, was a big deal. But why is it a big deal? Why’d Jesus do it?—and like your typical over-analyzing academics, it wasn’t enough to say, “Well, people were hungry.” It had to mean something. Something huge, ’cause it was a freaking huge miracle!

Well, till they saw Jesus walk on water. Top that for huge.

But before Jesus showed up, the students had nine hours to row, argue, get exhausted… and come to no conclusion. In fact, come to a stalemate: In aftón i kardía peporoméni/“The heart of them was being hardened.” Those who’d taken up one position or another weren’t budging. Their minds were closed.

Hence my translation:

Mark 6.51-52 KWL
51 Once Jesus got into the boat with his students, the wind stopped.
They were out of their wits among themselves, 52 for they didn’t agree what the rolls meant.
Instead their minds had become hardened.

Walking on water had probably thrown the students into even more confusion. Like I said, their big-deal miracle had just been topped by a bigger-deal miracle. Likely some of them saw the feeding of the 5,000 as a public declaration of God’s kingdom—’cause that’s certainly how many in the crowd saw it. But now it turns out Jesus is doing the impossible simply because he can.

Gratuitous miracles.

How many times do we tell one another, when we overhear another Christian pray for something which sounds “small”: “You’re asking for that? Don’t waste God’s time. God wants you to do that yourself. He doesn’t want you to take shortcuts. He doesn’t do shortcuts.” And we point to the bit where Satan tempted Jesus to turn rocks into bread, and point out Jesus didn’t take shortcuts. Well in both these miracles, Jesus totally took shortcuts. Totally gratuitous miracles. Because he can.

The students—and we Christians—have the wrong idea about miracles. We think every single one of them has to be meaningful and significant and important and weighty. Plenty of Christians have insisted there’s gotta be some deeper, more necessary motive for Jesus to walk on water. Like proving how anything is possible with God. Which sounds like a good, impressive explanation… till you realize every miracle of Jesus does this. Curing leprosy, raising the dead, emptying thousands of evil spirits from a guy, stopping the weather; Jesus always demonstrates anything is possible with God. He didn’t need to prove it by walking on water too.

So why’d he do this? To demonstrate, not just that God can do anything, but God can do everything.

For the most part, Christians only call upon God as a last resort. Which is wrong. God wants us to call on him for little things too. Regularly, not rarely, not on special occasions. In God’s kingdom, in a Christian’s life, the supernatural is meant to be commonplace. We should expect stuff like this to happen all the time. They’re not supposed to weird us out. They’re the fruit of any Christian life where the Holy Spirit is sought and followed.

Every so often, we hear of weird miracles among certain Christians. Fr’instance revivals where feathers fall from the ceiling, where people’s ceramic dental fillings are replaced with gold, where people start laughing in the Spirit, where people can leap over several pews in order to reach the front of the room. And when cessationists react to these stories, they sound exactly like atheists: “Oh, come on. You seriously believe those tall tales? Nonsense.” Or they try to argue God can’t be behind them, because only Satan does miracles anymore, or God’s awfully stingy with the miracles: He only does ’em for pragmatic reasons.

Okay then, explain how pragmatic it is to walk on water.

“That’s entirely different. It’s in the bible.”

Yes it is, but that’s not an answer to my question. How pragmatic is it? Who’d it convert?—the Eleven believed already, and Judas Iscariot still fell away regardless. Whose faith did it grow?—the students still needed various experiences, plus the baptism of the Holy Spirit, before they were unshakable. What did it accomplish, other than demonstrating yet another wondrous thing God can empower?

Well that is what it accomplished: Another demonstration of how miracles aren’t meant to be special, rare occasions. They’re for every single day we follow God in this dark world.

In our lives today, Christians should expect to see the supernatural. Period. Both the legitimate stuff and the fake stuff—for where there’s the real stuff, there’s the devil trying to trip us up, and we gotta be prepared. But if God’s truly a part of our lives, the supernatural should be commonplace. If it’s not—if you’re even arguing it shouldn’t happen—I’m sorry, but your mind is as closed as those of Jesus’s students. And it needs opening.

Matthew: Simon Peter gets it.

For a few minutes, anyway.

Just as Christians knock the students for being dense, Christians are also in the bad habit of mocking Simon for being a doofus. In so doing, they’re projecting their own bad attitudes upon him. Simon wasn’t foolhardy; he was bold. He went further than the other students dared. It’s what made him Jesus’s best student. It also made him fail more often—but if you never try, of course you never fail!

’Cause the other students didn’t try this—and probably never thought to try it:

Matthew 14.28-29 KWL
28 In reply Simon Peter told him, “Master, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 Jesus said, “Come!” and Peter came down from the boat.
He walked on the water, and came to Jesus.

True, it didn’t last. But even so: Simon walked on water. Because he trusted Jesus. And Jesus didn’t even tell anyone, “Hey, if you trust me, you can walk on water too!” Didn’t need to: Simon had been paying attention in Jesus’s classes. He knew full well everything Jesus did was to demonstrate what Jesus’s followers are also meant to do. So if Jesus can walk on water, so should he. So should we.

Yeah, sometimes it feels like God is calling us to do the impossible. Well, as Simon demonstrated, God empowers the impossible.

Provided we keep our eyes on him, and not on our circumstances. In Simon’s case, those circumstances were some scary-looking waves.

Matthew 14.30-31 KWL
30 Seeing the strong wind, Peter feared. He called out as he began to fall in, saying, “Master, save me!”
31 Jesus quickly extended a hand, grabbed him, and told him, “Little-faith, you doubt for what reason?”

Occasionally Jesus called his students oligópistoi/“little-faiths.” They did have some faith; they weren’t unbelievers. They just needed more. He was growing faith in them by showing ’em stuff, by making ’em act in faith more often, by teaching them what to believe and what not to. If his students believed his miracle of the rolls meant one thing, this was meant to show ’em they were wrong. (As we are.) They were thinking too small.

Mark ended the story with the students’ agitation, but Matthew and John ended the story more positively. Not that the students’ debate hadn’t been fruitless and useless, but they didn’t feel the need to point it out like Mark does.

Matthew 14.32-33 KWL
32 As Jesus and Peter got into the boat with them, the wind stopped.
33 Those in the boat fell to worship Jesus, saying, “You’re truly God’s son.”

The students might not have known what to think about Jesus, or about the rolls, but in Matthew they did fall back on what’s most important: Jesus is Lord. Follow him.