When Jesus walks on water in Matthew 14:22-33 he answers the question asked in the Nazareth synagogue, “Where did Jesus get his authority to teach and do miracles?” In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus revealed he was the one who provides food in the wilderness, and in this story, he reveals he is the one who walks upon the waters as if they were dry land. Both miracles use biblical imagery to declare Jesus is the Son of God, and the only response is to worship him as the Son of God.
After compelling his disciples to go to the other side of the lake, Jesus dismisses the crowd after the miraculous feeding miracle (Matt 14:22-23). He made the disciples cross the lake in a boat, or better, he ‘compelled” them to go. The verb (ἀναγκάζω) has the sense of force (Judaizers compel Gentiles to be circumcised), but most commentators see this as strongly urging the disciples to begin crossing the sea. (Consider a mom telling her child to take the trash out: the tone of voice might be enough to force the child into action!)
After Jesus dismissed the crowd, he spent time alone on a mountain to pray. Is this an anticipation of the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-42)? It is the next time in Matthew Jesus goes away from his disciples to pray in private.
The disciples try to cross the lake, but they are moving against the wind and make little progress. The boat was a long way from shore. This smooths out the “many stadia” in Greek. A στάδιον was one eighth of a mile, a little more than 600 feet (192 meters). John 6:19 translates the phrase as “three or four miles.”
It was the fourth watch of the night when they see Jesus, or just before dawn. If the disciples left at dusk, about 8PM and dawn was about 5:30AM, then they have been fighting against the wind for more than nine hours!
They are going against the wind and are “beaten by the waves.” Usually the verb beaten (βασανίζω) has the sense of harassment and torture (Mark 6:48 in the ESV, they were “making progress painfully”). The classical usage of the verb has the sense of being put to the text (usually through torture, BrillDAG). Perhaps this long night of rowing against the wind was like physical torture, but there might be a hint the disciples are being tested with respect to their understanding of who Jesus is. Since they end up at Gennesaret. From Tagbha to Tel Kinneret is about 14 miles (23 km) south, near the southern tip of the lake. In Mark 6:45 Jesus told them to go to Bethsaida, about seven miles from Tabgha, although the winds blow them south to Gennesaret.
Several disciples are fishermen who are used to being on the Sea of Galilee at night. They know what they are doing! But like the previous lake-miracle (Matthew 8:23-27), the disciples are in a dangerous place and are terrified when they see Jesus walking toward them.
Jesus walks on the water of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 14:25-27). In the Old Testament, walking on the water is associated with God. “In antiquity walking on water was of great interest to people—not only and not primarily the Jews. It was a dream, a fascinating idea. It is impossible for human beings and is reserved for God, unless humans are in a special way sons of God or achieve divine powers by magic” (Luz, Matthew, 320).
Matthew intended the story of Jesus walking on the water to intentionally call to mind the Exodus. This would then build on the Exodus imagery in the feeding of the 5000 as similar to God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. Mark 6:52 connects the two stories more clearly. The reason the disciples were afraid is “they did not understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.”
The Old Testament describes God as walking on the Sea when retelling the Exodus story. Isaiah 43:2-3 and 43:16-17 use the imagery to describe the return of Judah from Exile in a new Exodus. Psalm 77:19 describes God making a path through the sea to lead Moses, Aaron, and the people like a flock. Only God can walk on the seas. In Job 9:8, God is described as the one “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” The Septuagint is closer to Matthew, Job 9:8 reads “walks about upon the sea as upon the ground.”
Seeing Jesus, the disciples are terrified and think he is a ghost (14:26). In any circumstance, the disciples do not expect to see someone walking on the water towards them. The Greek (φάντασμα) is only used here and in Mark 6:49 and Luke 24:37 (again, the disciples think Jesus is a ghost after the crucifixion). In the ancient world, a ghost was always a bad thing, in LXX Isaiah 28:7 a related word (φάσμα) is translated “a bad omen” (LES).
Jesus calls out to the disciples and tells them “Take heart!” θαρσεῖτε (imperative from θαρσέω) means “to be firm or resolute in the face of danger or adverse circumstances” (BDAG). He adds to this, “do not be afraid,” often associated with an angelic appearance (Dan 10:12, 19, for example).
Jesus identifies himself, “It is I” (ἐγώ εἰμι). This is usually associated with the name of God in the Old Testament For example, the name of God in Exodus 3:14 is ἐγώ εἰμι in the Septuagint. Isaiah 43:10-11 is in the context of the Lord walking on the waters in the Exodus. The Lord declares he is the only God and there is no savior besides him. In Matthew, Peter will cry out for the one walking on the water to save him.
Isaiah 43:10–11 (ESV) “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he (ἐγώ εἰμι). Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior (participle from σῴζω).
Why does Jesus walk on water? In order to reveal to his disciples that he is more than a miracle worker or charismatic teacher. He is demonstrating to his disciples he is the God of the Exodus.