John 6:16-24 – What was the Point of Walking on the Water?

Taken with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’s “walking on the water” miracle is an allusion to the Exodus. There are a number of elements found in John 6 which may be understood as using Exodus language. The fact that this miracle takes place around the time of Passover brings the events of the Exodus to the foreground. In the immediate context, the provision of food in the wilderness clearly evokes the wilderness traditions. Jesus organizes the people into groups and gives them food, just as Moses did in the wilderness. This is the main point of the lengthy discussion between Jesus and the people in John 6.

Jesus Walking on the WaterThe churning waters of the storm are an allusion to the chaos of the sea in the Exodus. Jesus walks on the water as if it is dry land and leads his disciples through the waters to the other side of the sea. In Mark 6:48, Jesus is passing by them, similar to God passing before Moses and revealing his glory (Exod 33:18-34:6). The same verb is use din Mark 6:48 and LXX Exod 33:19. When God causes his glory to pass by Moses, the Lord declares his sacred name and character (Exod 34:6). God reveals his name at Sinai, he is “I am,” here in John 6:20 Jesus says “I am” using the same words as LXX Exodus 3:14-15.

It is possible the phrase “do not be afraid” alludes to the Exodus as well, although the words are common in a theophany or when an angel appears. The aorist passive form of the verb φοβέω appears in LXX Exod 14:10, when Israel saw the army of Pharaoh the were greatly afraid, Moses tells the people to not be afraid, although the word in LXX Exod 14:20 is θαρρέω, not φοβέω. The Hebrew verb is the same (ary).

What is the point of Jesus enacting the Exodus and Wilderness events as a part of his ministry? Jesus is creating a new Israel, leading them on a New Exodus through the wilderness at the end of the Exile. If Jesus is announcing the end of the Exile in his ministry, then his disciples ought to have anticipating the coming of the new covenant as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the dawning of the new age.

The miracle also confirms that Jesus is in fact God. God trampling the chaotic waters of the sea is a classic element of the divine warrior metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. In Psalm 77:16-19 God is described as walking through the seas as the rage around him (cf., Job 9:8, Hab 3:15). In Psalm 77 the writer has a moment of despair, thinking that God has abandoned him. In Psalm 77:8-9, for example, the writer wonders if God has forgotten to be gracious. Someone might wonder if God has become so angry he has canceled out his compassion for Israel.

It is only when the writer begins to meditate on the might acts of God which he has already done that he realizes that God will act one again on behalf of his people. In Psalm 77:11-12 the writer says that he will “ponder on the works of God” and “meditate on his mighty deeds.”

In Psalm 77:16-19 the Lord himself treads on the waters, and it is the waters who are afraid and flee before the Lord. The Lord led his people through a path in the sea into the wilderness like a flock (verse 20). In fact, the Psalm ends enigmatically with a reference to Israel being led like flocks by Moses and Aaron. They were led into the wilderness where God provided them food and water and enacted his Covenant with them at Sinai.

By walking on the water and leading his twelve disciples through the storm to the other side, Jesus is consciously evoking the Exodus and Wilderness traditions being celebrated at Passover, but he places himself in the center of the story. Just as God led Israel in the past, now Jesus leads Israel at the end of the exile.

What are other elements of this memorable miracle which reveal something about Jesus’s relationship with the God of the Hebrew Bible?

22 thoughts on “John 6:16-24 – What was the Point of Walking on the Water?

  1. Your blog postings are much more enjoyable when one can read them for leisurely as opposed to strenuously trying to respond the few moments before the assignment deadline.

    This is a very interesting connection to the O.T.

    Any connection like this in the story of Peter walking on the water?

  2. I think that the new Exodus thing is certainly part of the original tradition – John leaves Peter out since his focus is on Jesus rather than discipleship. In John, the disciples are not “ye of little faith,” they do not think he is a ghost, and Peter does not try to get out of the boat. John’s story is all about Jesus’ self revelation.

  3. That makes sense. That is also something I’ve always wondered, because I was wondering if the difference in the stories was because of multiple occurances of Jesus doing this or if the authors simply had different intentions. Now, does the addition of those above mentioned elements (Peter, little faith, ghosts) have any O.T. connections like the ‘New Exodus’ or does Peter’s role in that story taint the symbolism?

    I am curious as the Peter part is my ‘favorite’ Bible story.

  4. @Jared Kusz there is actually some pretty cool stuff about peter if you go by rabbinic tradition. I highly highly recommend reading this article. It’s 14 pages but the main stuff starts a few pages into it. I’m currently writing a paper about the parallels of these two accounts. Here’s the link.

  5. Quick question….where did you get that graphic? I’ve seen it around, but I’m not sure where it’s from or who created it. Thanks!

      • haha, ok thanks! I’ve tried Google Image and I found it at several other places, but didn’t want to use it without giving credit, etc..all that other good stuff. Thanks for the reply again, though! Blessings!

  6. Another element that I think the story of Jesus walking on the water adds in the Gospel of John is that Jesus has a purpose for everything. It may seem interesting, but when Mark explains this event, he says that some of the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, which it hardened their hearts (Mark 6:49-52). But in the Gospel of John, he explains that Jesus’ presence made them calm and it has not mention of hardened hearts. I believe that both were what happened in this event because Jesus has a purpose for everything and in this case, it is reassurance that God is always there even in times of confusion and maybe even fear. As Kostenberger explains, “if God is God, everything ultimately must be traced back to his action and will rather than to that of any one human being,” (Kostenberger, 95). Although it is true that God and Jesus has a purpose for our life, we also have free will, but God already knows ahead of time what we will pick. So through every scenario and event that takes place in life, God already knew it ahead of time, including when Jesus walked on water. The disciples hearts may have been hardened, but Jesus wanted to show them that he catches us even when we fall. Even if the waves are too high, we may have already made a bad decision, but he is their to lift our spirits again and keep us calm in the storm.

  7. This is very interesting to read as I have never correlated Jesus walking on the water as a parallel to the Israelites leaving Egypt with the parting of the Red Sea. The disciples take on the role of the Israelites in the walking on the water miracle, showing the guidance that Jesus is giving to them as God gave to the Israelites. However, there is another element between these events that shows that Jesus and God’s relationship to each other. I noticed that both God and Jesus showed that they had control over the natural elements. In Exodus, it is God who parted the waters of the Red Sea and then later guided them with pillars of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). Jesus has authority over the water in John as he is walking on it. It also seems that he stills the wind here as the passages say that as soon as he got into the boat, “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going” (John 6:21). It seems that as soon as Jesus got into the boat, the waters and wind that were pushing against the boat were gone and they arrived right away. Kostenberger believes that this is Jesus’s way of having a private revelation to his disciples of who he is (Kostenberger, 83). Another incident like this happens in Mark 4:35-41 as well where Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves. It all comes down to the basics of how can nature deny the one who created it? Because God and Jesus are one and the same, this means that both God and Jesus created all the elements of nature. Jesus having control over nature shows that he himself is God for nature can not be controlled by man. This is a connection that the disciples then may have made back to Jesus and God of the Hebrew Bible.

  8. Jesus’ life, ministry, and miracles are parallels to many things. When looking deeper into the passage about Jesus walking on water and feeding the 5,000. We can see these parallels in other verses in the Bible as well. Jesus walking on the water (6:19), this verse can parallel Genesis 1:2 “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the water”.
    John tells us that it was evening when they set sail for the other side of the lake (6:16). He mentions in (6:17) that it was dark. Because this happened over 2,000 years ago there would not have been any lights or any way to see across the lake and because of that the only source of light there would have been would’ve been the moon, if it was visible. So, the picture we see is this it’s dark, the sailors couldn’t see anything, and in the darkness a storm had formed. So, to those who were there things might have seemed empty with darkness all around them. The darkness covered the surface of the water and everything around the boat they were in. They were sailing blindly through the water unable to see the shore. Nothing except the close waves as they hit the boat, nothing else except the darkness. Until they saw him, Jesus walking on the water.
    “When they had rowed about 3 or 4 miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water, and they were frightened (John 6:19).” John 6:19 parallels Genesis 1: 2 in they way that the Spirit of God hovered above the waters. This parallels Jn 6:19 because Jesus was walking on the water as if he was hovering over the water so therefore the spirit of God was hovering over the water both symbolically and literally.

  9. The thing that strikes me in this mirracle is the connection to the exodus. I have never noticed that about this mirracle in conjunction to the other mirracles John places around this one. It never ceases to amaze me the smarts that John had to be able to write his account in such a way that purposfully shows all of this conection. Jesus is leading a new exodus is an amazing picture of what he has done, and shows how connected the works of God throughout time really are. Salvation history really is a big plan unfolding through out time and we get to see it all happen up to our current time. This exodus that Jesus is leading the people through is an exodus from the bondage and condemnation of sin, we were slaves to sin but now slaves to Christ!

  10. Christ in the passage where He walks on the water (John 6:16-24), instead of covertly implying that He is God, conspicuously identifies Himself as the great “I Am”. For the readership that John was trying to reach would have immediately recognized this type of language. They would have understood that Jesus in this moment was claiming to be One with the God of the Old Testament. Moreover, this would have been even more clear because John makes notes that the miracle occurred on passover. This was not a coincidence. Kostenberger argues that this miracle was a theophany, a visible manifestation of God, and that Jesus intentionally refers to Himself as equal to the God of the Septuagint. When I was reading through the passage again, I encountered even more evidence that John had the Old Testament Scriptures in mind when he told of the miracle. In Exodus 33:22, God tells Moses that when His glory “passes by” He will secure Him in a rock so that He is not abolished. In Mark 6:48, the author tells us that Jesus “meant to pass” by the disciples, and I assume the same verbiage is in the Exodus. This is a glaring parallel that ought not to be ignored. Just as God in the Old Testament had to conceal His glory from Moses for his own good, I believe Jesus was temporarily veiling His glory from His disciples. But of course, we know that in the telling of the story the disciples perceived Him and were afraid. Thus, although He meant to pass by, He did not manage to do so successfully. I think the main point, however, of this parallel is that Jesus is full of the glory of God, and He has the power to reveal it whenever He so chooses. Jesus was of course meek, and He had a special mission from God, which explains why He often concealed His glory. Nevertheless, it is clear from this parallel and others that when John composed this story, He had in mind particular Old Testament events.

  11. While reading this John 6, I noticed something that I had never before noticed. All my life I had assumed that Jesus was on the boat with them and jumped out and walked on the water. However, while reading the passage I realized that Jesus had not been on the boat yet. He had not left when the disciples took the boat. Jesus walked on the water out to them instead of taking another boat. I think I would be quite frightened if I saw someone walking on the water in the darkness, especially since the water was seen as chaos. The people of those times often viewed the seas and darkness as demon filled. Because of this reason, it also makes sense that the disciples were afraid at first when they had seen Jesus walking on the water. Additionally, it is important to recognize what this sign would have recalled. This sign eluded to a few scriptures: Psalm 77:16-19 and Isaiah 43:2. Each of these two passages discuss times when God was described as walking on waters or calming the raging waters with his presence. God is able to control the water, which we also see in the parting of the Red Sea when Moses brings the Israelites out from Egypt with the help of God. By walking on the water, Jesus shows his holiness, solidifying the faith of his disciples.

  12. I feel like there is not just one point in which Jesus walked on the water, but rather this simply story of Jesus walking on water
    goes deep and has many different reasons.
    One of the reasons I feel like Jesus walked on water was to open the disciples eyes to who He is. That Jesus is God.
    This may seem simple, but Jesus wanted to show that He was Lord over the sea and that He has that authority.
    By Jesus walking on the water, John is showing the authority of Jesus as God and that He has authority over all things seen and unseen.
    This may seem simple, but when Jesus says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” Jesus is revealing Himself as God.
    Than when He steps into the boat, they arrive at the shore.
    This is showing that Jesus is Lord over space and time.

    Just a side note:
    I like how Jesus waited for the disciples to take Him into the boat.
    This is pretty beautiful that God waited on the disciples to welcome Him in.
    He did not force Himself on the boat, but He waited patiently.

  13. I am constantly amazed that the things I learn when reading these blogs! They make me realize just how much there is to always be learning about Jesus and the Bible. I did not know that these two miracles were correlated to Moses and the Exodus. But after reading this, it is so obvious I wonder how I missed it! Strauss says that Jesus’ nature miracles “demonstrate the in-breaking power of the kingdom to those with eyes to see” (557). By walking on water, Jesus is exhibiting his authority over nature, just as God parted the Red Sea. Strauss says that “the coming of the kingdom means peace and protection for God’s people from spiritual and natural dangers” (559). When Jesus walks to the disciples during the storm, then guides them to the other side, He is enacting this peace and protection that Strauss speaks of.
    John 6:21 says that they were immediately brought to shore after He boarded the boat. The notes in my bible say that some consider this another miracle (NIV Study Bible). Is that a possibility or just speculation? It seems to me that if it were a miracle, there would be more written about that instance as well? Another question I have, do you think the disciples realized at the time that these miracles were directly related back to Moses and the Exodus? I always wonder how much of Jesus’ words and actions were made clear to those who were directly experiencing them.

  14. This is one of my personal favorite miracles of Jesus. The scene is filled with so much imagery and excitement. I think it is striking to see the Son of God demonstrate this control over the sea not only in regards to the references to Exodus but also Genesis. In Genesis 9 God creates the sea by ‘gathering the water’. This is the first example of God showing control over the seas. When Jesus shows control over the water he is demonstrating dominion over the sea the same as his Father. Another interesting thing that I have to remember when reading this passage is that the disciples most likely would have feared the sea. Our culture thinks of the sea as the place we vacation but to the original audience, they would have seen the sea as a place of chaos.

  15. When we view Jesus walking on water it is important to keep in mind the parallels to Exodus. They are many similarities that come from the events in Exodus with Moses and Jesus’ ministry. We see this through the giving of food in the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walking on the water, passing by them, and declaring His sacred name and character “I AM.” The phrase “do not be afraid” could also possibly be alluded to in Exodus as this is a common phrase used. These parallels are significant as they show the end of the Exile in His ministry. These events also confirm who Jesus is, He is God. Jesus walking on water, trampling the chaotic waters is a significant metaphor in the Hebrew Bible (Long, 2011). This also confirms and shows that God has not abandoned the people of Israel. Jesus does not reinvent the wheel but uses previous Passover traditions to show who He is. This is interesting to see and study because it is easy to look at this powerful story and think of Jesus’ greatness, but there are so many deeper meanings and parallels that would help those in this time to see Him differently.

  16. As long as I have been taught this story and studied it for myself, no one ever explained to me the connection to the Exodus. Now that it has been made clear though, there are multiple connections to be made. Unlike Moses, Jesus controls the waves and the storm that surround him. Moses was a man God used in his ultimate plan for the people of Israel and then eventually all of humanity. One connection that could be made is the people of Israel to Peter. They left Egypt and Peter stepped out of the boat. Both in faith that Jesus would lead them out of troubling waters or bondage. Like Peter looking down to the water and falling in fear, the people of Israel turned to other gods and idols when it got too hard. They fell of their own lack of faith, but like the merciful God that he is, he always pulled them back out of their doubt and fear. Like the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus showed his authority over even the toughest forces of nature (Strauss, 466). It’s easy to see ourselves in Peter’s failings. We learn not to doubt God from Peter’s mistake but one thing that is important to remember is that Peter stepped out of the boat in the first place. By faith he looked to Jesus as he made left the comfort of the boat underneath his feet. I think of myself in this, often too afraid to even step out of the boat in fear of failure. I find myself doubting God in the comfort, not just in the storm.

  17. When I see this passage, I am reminded not only of the Exodus, but also of Jonah. In the storm that rose in Jonah 1, the solution was to throw a man overboard. In John 6, the solution was to take a man aboard. There may have been a precedent in the ancient world that if one was caught in a storm it was because God was displeased with someone aboard. Like Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John 9, Jesus shakes this notion of misfortune always being caused by sin and instead uses the situation to display the works of God. Interestingly though, just as God was displeased with one in the boat in Jonah’s case, Jesus points out that there was one who had been in that boat that had chosen to oppose God in John 6:70. The parallelism between Jonah and Jesus is mentioned explicitly in Mathew and Luke regarding his three day burial, and the contrast is made in Luke 11:29 that while the people of Nineveh accepted the sign of Jonah, Jesus was rejected by the people of Israel (John 6:66).

  18. I never thought of the story about when Jesus walked on water connecting to the wilderness period. Whenever I heard the story, I always thought about how the story is told in Matthew. That the story was about faith and keeping your eyes on Jesus. However, the story is about much more than that. When Jesus walked on water it was as if He was walking on dry land like the Israelites did. Jesus came for the disciples like God provided a way for the Israelites to cross the read sea. This connection between Jesus’ ministry and the Exodus period is important because it symbolizes that Jesus is creating a new Israel. Jesus is leading the disciples and His followers into a new exodus. “If Jesus is announcing the end of the Exile in his ministry, then his disciples ought to have anticipating the coming of the new covenant as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the dawning of the new age” (Long). I cannot think of any other ways that this story connects Jesus to the God of the Hebrew Bible, but someone commented that they noticed that both God and Jesus had control over natural elements. In Exodus, God parted the Read Sea so that the Israelites could escape on dry land. Jesus was able to walk on the water. I think that this is a really good point and can be supported in other passages as well. For example, in the synoptic gospels there is a story about Jesus calming a storm. In 1 Kings 18 when Elijah prayed to God and asked Him to set fire to an offering that was placed on soaking wet would God sent fire that not only burnt the offering but the wood, stones, dust, and water that was in the trench.

  19. I think the purpose for Jesus’ walking on water as you said and after reading this post is “By walking on the water and leading his twelve disciples through the storm to the other side, Jesus is consciously evoking the Exodus and Wilderness traditions being celebrated at Passover, but he places himself in the center of the story. Just as God led Israel in the past, now Jesus leads Israel at the end of the exile.” (P.Long) Also, this is exciting to know that this confirms and shows that God has not abandoned or turned his back on the people of Israel. Jesus uses previous Passover traditions to show who He is to the people as well. This sight is very amazing from reading and as a reader we can picture this and study because it is easy to look at this powerful story and think of Jesus’ greatness.

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