“Well into the night, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the land. He saw them straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Very early in the morning he came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever tried to clarify something for someone, but your clarification itself was so unclear to them that it just prompted more questions? Occasionally when I’m helping one of our older boys with their homework, I’ll try to explain something in terms that are beyond what they’re ready to understand. The result is that rather than making their lives easier, I wind up confusing them more. In those times it is usually mom who comes to the rescue. She knows just how to put things in a way they’ll understand. What we see here is a little like that. Jesus was revealing Himself in a significant way to the disciples so that they would understand Him better. Unlike me, though, His messaging was on point. Still, like the disciples, we sometimes struggle to grasp what He was saying for the details fogging up the picture. Let’s talk through some of those together.
Let’s start by giving the miracle here its full due. Jesus walked on water. Liquid water. It wasn’t frozen. It wasn’t a sandbar hiding out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. He was walking on top of the Sea. Now, I hinted at this yesterday, but think for a minute about what had to happen chemically and physically for that to take place. As best I can figure, one of two things had to be going on here.
Option 1: Jesus was levitating (that is, flying). Here Jesus wasn’t really walking on the water so much as He was walking over the water. This doesn’t really take away from the miraculous nature of what was happening, it just changes how we should understand it. As far as the disciples could tell, though, He was walking on the water so that’s how the story got preserved.
The trouble with that view is in Matthew’s telling of the event. Jesus wasn’t the only one who walked on the water. Peter did too. He got a personal experience of what Jesus was doing. I’m sure he did his best to describe the sensation to the other disciples and his conclusion was that he was walking on the water. He felt the water under his feet and his feet didn’t go through it.
This leads us to option 2: Jesus was walking on the water. Somehow, without freezing, the water molecules were being drawn together under Jesus’ feet to such a density that his feet didn’t pass through them as it would have any other time. The question I want to ask here was whether Jesus was consciously increasing and decreasing the density of the water with each step He took, or if it was on more of an autopilot sort of basis. He just thought, “Harden as I walk,” and started going.
The agonizing reality is that we don’t know. We just have the words of the text to go on and they don’t give us a whole lot. But none of this changes the fact that Jesus walked on water. His power over the natural world was absolute. And, given that He was the one who created it all, this really shouldn’t surprise us. Bottom line: This was a miracle and a particularly impressive one.
Miracle or not, this doesn’t change the fact that these couple of verses raise some really interesting questions. And I’ll tell you at the outset here that I don’t have answers to most of these. I’m just going to ask them, ponder about them with you, and that’ll be about it. I started with the miracle, though, because I want it to be clear that I am utterly convinced of the truthfulness of the text here. Sometimes, though, Jesus did things in ways we simply don’t understand and it’s okay to acknowledge that. While I understand a desire to have all our questions answered, sometimes we can’t have that. Sometimes in our journeys with Jesus we have to simply learn to live with some tension and walk by faith. This is an evidentially-rich and historically-rooted faith, but it is faith all the same.
So then, did Jesus know He was going to walk on the water when He sent the disciples on ahead of Him on the boat? Was this grand self-revelation a pre-designed plan? My gut is that it is and that this is what His prayer time was focused on while He was by Himself. He was pleading with the Father to enable Him to reveal Himself to the disciples in a way that would help them connect the dots on His true identity. I don’t have any evidence of that. I’m doing contextual guessing here, but that’s what I think all the same. Jesus knew it was time to pull back the curtain a bit more on exactly who He was. Continuing in the text, the evidence would suggest it worked in spite of their confusion and hard-heartedness here because soon after this Peter made His grand confession.
More than wondering whether or not this was Jesus’ plan all along, though, Mark observes that Jesus could see the disciples struggling in the boat. But the boat was in the middle of the Sea. In the middle of the night. And it was windy. Really windy. Even if Jesus was up on top of a mountain overlooking the Sea, how could He have possibly been able to see them? Was this more of a spiritual vision or could He literally see the boat? Was His eyesight that good? John tells us they were 3-4 miles from shore. Now, the Sea of Galilee is big, but not that big. At its widest point it is only about 8 miles across. That’s a long ways to see on a clear day. It’s harder to imagine how He did it at night. (And forget how far He had to see, this meant that Jesus’ walk on the water was not short. Even moving at a brisk pace, a 3-4 mile walk would have taken Him an hour.) Maybe there was a full moon and a cloudless sky, but to be able to see them struggling to row the boat is still pretty amazing. This was frankly another miracle that gets overlooked.
One last big question here. Mark tells us that Jesus “wanted to pass by them.” What on earth does that mean?!? They were struggling along and He was going to what? Walk by and wave? “Hey guys.” Was He going to leave them there struggling? If they had not seen Him walking on the water and completely freaked out, would He have just kept going and met them on the opposite shore? According to John and the geography of the Sea, if they had really gone that far and were aiming for Bethsaida/Capernaum, depending on where they started from, they were really close to the opposite shore. (Why did Jesus wait until they were almost to the opposite shore, having struggled as long as they had, to walk out to them?) What does it mean that He was going to pass by them?
This is one of those places where interpreters start looking for any explanation they can grab. One of the most common explanations sees this as a reference to Jesus giving the disciples a grand theophany (a visible manifestation of God) like what Peter, James, and John would later get on the mount of transfiguration. Evidence for this comes in that the phrase “pass by” is used to describe God’s revealing Himself to Moses. Moses asked to see God’s glory and God “passed by” Moses to give him a glimpse of it. So then, is that what’s going on here? The short answer is: We don’t know. We don’t have more to go on than what we see. John seems to point in this direction a bit more than Mark does in that He labels it one of Jesus’ signs of His identity, but he doesn’t use the language of Jesus passing by the disciples like Mark does, so who knows?
Can you see why the disciples were so utterly baffled by all of this? They didn’t have a category for this sort of thing. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. For now, though, let’s just rest together in the wonder of what Jesus did. He walked on water. There’s really not a good explanation for this other than that He really was (and is) God in human form. There’s simply no denying that fact.