Why Does Peter Ask to Walk on the Water?  Matthew 14:28-30

In a previous post, I suggested walking on the water alluded to descriptions of God in the Exodus. Whether or not Isaiah 43 was in Matthew’s mind when he shaped this story, Jesus’s words emboldened Peter, who will ask Jesus to command him to also walk on the water. Peter’s attempt to walk on water to Jesus is only found in Matthew. When Peter walks on the water, is this a faithful act or bravado?

Peter Walks on Water Otto Runge

In some ancient texts, only the arrogant to think they can walk on the water. For example, Caligula building a bridge over the gulf of Puteoli “as he was lord of the sea” (Josephus, Antiq., 19:5-6). 2 Maccabees 5:21 describes Antiochus as arrogantly thinking he could “walk on the sea.”

2 Maccabees 5:21 So Antiochus carried off eighteen hundred talents from the temple, and hurried away to Antioch, thinking in his arrogance that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea, because his mind was elated.

The fourth Sibylline Oracle describes the arrogance of Xerxes:

Sib. Or. 4.76-79 A king will come from Asia, brandishing a great spear, with countless ships. He will walk the watery paths of the deep and will cut through a lofty mountain as he sails. Him will wretched Asia receive as a fugitive from war.

Among the Son of Lawlessness’s deceptive signs in the Apocalypse of Elijah is walking on the water:

Apoc. El. 3.5-8 But the son of lawlessness will begin to stand again in the holy places. He will say to the sun, “Fall,” and it will fall. He will say, “Shine,” and it will do it. He will say, “Darken,” and it will do it. He will say to the moon, “Become bloody,” and it will do it. He will go forth with them from the sky. He will walk upon the sea and the rivers as upon dry land.

Was Peter arrogant when he asked to walk on the walker with Jesus? Perhaps not. He is the only disciple who expresses faith in Jesus. The rest are cowering in the boat terrified of the storm and the ghostly figure walking toward them. Whether Peter is faithful or not, the rest of the disciples remain in the boat, they are the “ones of little faith.”

Yet it may be the case Peter doubted the one walking on the water is Jesus. He says, “if it is you.”  For some, the phrase could be read, “if you are the Lord” (ἐγώ εἰμι), but it is probably the case Peter only means, “if it is you Jesus, and not a ghost.”

When Peter walks on the water, he sees the storm and begins to sink, crying out “Lord, save me!” As he sinks into the water Jesus reaches out to him and lifts him into the boat. This may anticipate Peter’s reaction to another theophany in Matthew 17. When Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration, they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my son, listen to him.” When all three disciples fall to the ground and are terrified by this voice, Jesus touches them and says “rise, have no fear.” In both cases Peter is terrified, falls, Jesus touches him and lifts him up.

When Peter walks on water he demonstrates his belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but he does not fully understand what that means yet. This anticipates Matthew 16:16, Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Loving God. After than expression of faith, Jesus tells Peter the Messiah is going to Jerusalem to die and Peter rebukes Jesus (16:22). Jesus says “Get thee behind me Satan” and calls Peter a stumbling block who does not have in mind the things of God (16:23).

Jesus then asks Peter “Why did you doubt?” (14:32) When Jesus calmed the sea, he asked why the disciples had little faith (vocative, ὀλιγόπιστος; 8:26). The word appears in Matthew 16:8 (the disciples arguing about what Jesus meant by yeast) and Luke 12:28. Even if Peter is “little faith” he is better than Nazareth 13:53-58 and Herod Antipas (14:1-12) who had no faith at all in Jesus (Wilkins, Matthew, 517). Peter doubted (διστάζω). After the resurrection, some disciples will believe Jesus was raised from the dead and will worship him, but some doubted (28:17).

When Jesus and Peter enter the boat, storm stops and disciples worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the son of God” (14:33). The disciples now understand who Jesus us and confess Jesus is the Son of God. Peter will confess this again in 16:16, and the centurion uses same phrase in 27:54 as he witnesses Jesus’s final breath.

If the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water answer the question asked in Matthew 13:54, where did Jesus get his wisdom and miraculous powers, then the answer is that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who walks on the water and subdues the chaos of the seas (as in the Exodus) and provides for his people in the wilderness. We might expect a scene evoking Mount Sinai next, but Matthew will hold the revelation from Heaven declaring Jesus is the Son of God until Matthew 17.

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