The Gospels contain unforgettable stories that capture our imagination. Jesus’ miracles and healings challenge how we look at the world, both amazing and confounding us. One particularly astounding miracle is Jesus walking on the water. There’s something so dramatic about the details.
You have the storm element. You have the disciples believing that they’re seeing a ghost. And you have a powerful and intimate moment with Peter and Jesus.
Let’s take a look at the three accounts of this event and see what kind of takeaways we can discover.
Jesus walks on water: Matthew’s account
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
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 14:22–33, New International Version).
Some background details
This event happens after the feeding of the 5,000. Both Matthew and Mark’s accounts begin with Jesus sending the disciples off “immediately,” which suggests some sense of urgency. But neither of them tell us why Jesus would have rushed them off. It’s John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000 that tells us what was happening.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (John 6:14–15).
After seeing Jesus feed a crowd with a few small barley loaves and fishes, the crowd is mumbling about forcing Jesus to be king. Instead of directly confronting this issue, Jesus decides it’s time to send the disciples off and for Him to withdraw for prayer.
This isn’t a full-blown storm
It’s easy to get this story confused with elements of Jesus calming the storm. Both take place on Galilee and both feature some amount of disturbance on the lake. But the choppy waters in this story aren’t the life-threatening kind that Jesus commanded to be still. Mark will give us some more details about the situation the disciples found themselves in.
Matthew tells us that the wind was against the ship, but doesn’t indicate any frustration or hardship among the disciples. This was just a normal night on Galilee when the conditions weren’t entirely in their favor. It’s the moment when they see Jesus that everything changes.
Mistaking Jesus for a ghost
When the disciples first see Jesus walking on the water, they don’t recognize Him—in fact, they don’t even think He’s human.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:36–39).
Their impulse to assume Jesus was a ghost makes sense. They didn’t really have a framework for their miraculous experiences with Jesus, but they do have some shared cultural stories about ghosts. It makes sense that a figure out walking on the waves in the middle of the night or suddenly appearing in their midst after death would make them first think of ghosts. This isn’t the only time that the disciples will mistake Jesus for a ghost. After His resurrection, the disciples will voice the same fear.
This is helpful for us to consider because God often acts in ways that might not always make perfect sense to us. In order to wrap our minds around these actions, we’re tempted to attach meaning or significance to events in ways that make more sense to us but aren’t always accurate.
For instance, when our prayers aren’t answered in the way that we hoped, we might assume that God was cruel or angry with us. The truth is that there is a lot that goes into running the universe, and we can’t always understand why or how certain decisions were made. Sometimes the explanation we come up with makes the most sense to us—like the disciples assuming Jesus was a ghost—but it’s completely inaccurate and unhelpful.
Take courage. Do not be afraid
The instruction not to be afraid often comes up in Scripture. It’s interesting to look at it in the context of this example. It’s the disciples’ fear of seeing a ghost out walking on the waves that frightens them. If they had recognized it as Jesus, they wouldn’t have been so afraid. In fact, Jesus calms them by saying, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He attempts to calm their fear by letting them know that it’s Him.
The injunction not to be afraid assumes that, on some level, their courage is a choice. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that we can choose not to give into fearful impulses—especially when we remember that behind many of the things we’re afraid of is the Lord’s voice telling us, “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter walks upon the water
The story of Peter walking on the water seems like a major part of Matthew’s account. It’s fascinating that Mark and John omit this part of the story. It would be funny to find out that they left it out because the other disciples were so tired of hearing Peter bring it up, “Hey guys. Remember that time I walked on water for a second?”
Peter tells Jesus, “If it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” It’s a daring test of Jesus’ identity, but it speaks to Peter’s bold—and often impetuous—personality. It’s because of Peter’s impulsiveness that he finds himself in situations that the more timid disciples miss out on. Some might consider Peter reckless, but Jesus counted him among His closest confidants. Peter is about to have an experience with Jesus that’s completely unique.
We often focus on the fact that Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and was overcome by the situation and started to sink. But we can’t ignore the fact that Peter got out of the boat. Think about that for a moment. Peter has to throw his leg over one side of the boat and steady himself to throw over the other leg. He steps into the water and starts walking toward Jesus. He does all of this with the wind whipping up and the water being fitful.
Peter had faith to get out of the boat, and that’s not something the other disciples can say. So it’s curious that the Lord would question Peter’s lack of faith. But what we don’t get from Matthew’s words is Jesus’ tone. One has to wonder if He was smiling when He said it.
Let’s pray when the time comes, we all have enough faith to get out of the boat.
Jesus walks on water: Mark’s account
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:45–52).
Right away we notice that Mark’s version is much shorter, but he does give us some details we don’t get from Matthew’s version. First of all, he tells us that in the middle of the night, He saw the disciples were straining against the oars. The wind was strong enough that they had a hard time making any real headway.
Jesus still waited until just before dawn to head out toward them. But Mark tells us that He was going to walk past them, but they saw Him. This gives us some understanding of Jesus having to let them know it was Him and Peter’s demand of proof, “If it’s really you…”
Commentators offer a lot of reasons why Jesus was going to pass by the boat, but the truth is we can’t know for certain.
Jesus walks on water: John’s account
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 about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 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).
John’s account fills in a few more details about this event. He lets us know they were heading to Capernaum. He indicates that the disciples were probably not too keen on the idea of inviting a ghost into the boat, but once they were sure it was Jesus, they were willing.
The most interesting thing we learn from John comes later. He tells us:
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here” (John 6:22–25)?
The crowd knows that Jesus didn’t get into the boat with the disciples, but when some of them end up in Capernaum, they’re surprised that Jesus is among them. This adds to the whole mystique that caused Jesus to send the disciples off in the first place. And it leads to a difficult discussion about what it means to be a disciple that causes many who follow Jesus to leave (John 6:26–70).
If you’re interested in the dialogue that ensues between Jesus and this crowd of disciples who are compelled to follow Him because of His miracles, watch Life of Jesus, the movie based on the Gospel of John.