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.

Why Does Jesus Walk on the Water? Matthew 14:22-33

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.

Christ Walking on the Waters Julius Sergius Von Klever

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 themTake 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.

What is the Point of the Feeding of the 5000?

Although the story of Jesus feeding a large crowd in the wilderness is well-known, what was the point of the miracle? How does Matthew use the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the overall story of his gospel?

Ethiopic Feeding of the 5000

For some scholars, this meal foreshadows the Last Supper. There are several phrases which appear here and in Matthew 26:26 (when it got late, he took bread and broke it, he gave thanks, the disciples reclined at the table). But there are serious differences. As Robert Gundry pointed out, the disciples do not eat with Jesus (Mark, 330) although there is nothing in Matthew which says they did not eat the plentiful food.  Is this a proto-eucharist? Sometimes blessing and breaking bread is just that. There is nothing equivalent to wine distributed, and this is not a ceremonial meal, people are genuinely hungry and need to eat. Nolland summarizes, “the link between the feeding and the Last Supper is at the same time important and obscure” (Matthew, 592).

In the context of Matthew 13, is the feeding of the 5000 a fulfillment of the parables of the kingdom? Something small becomes enough to satisfy a huge crowd (like the mustard seed and hidden leaven?) In the miraculous feeding, Jesus begins to reveal who he really is, answering the question asked in the Nazareth synagogue: “Where did this man get wisdom and miraculous powers?” (13:54).

Many scholars point out the importance of eating together in the ancient world. Eating with others was more than just fellowship at the time of Jesus, it was an indication of where you fit into society, and there were social rules for who ate with who. Pharisees would not eat with many of the common people because they were not ceremonially clean. Even the common people had a sort of “pecking order” that was followed at communal meals.

By inviting all the crowds to sit and eat, Jesus is saying that they are all worth to sit and eat with him. This is a huge thing in that culture, since the average teacher of the law would not eat with the people that followed Jesus. This may be why Matthew leaves out the reference to the smaller groups. If he is writing to a Jew, they might assume that the smaller groups are groups of similar classes, which they were not.

The feeding of the 5000 evokes the Exodus and Wilderness period in Israel’s history. With this miracle, Jesus is gathering a new Israel about himself. In the original Exodus, God provided food for the people of Israel in the wilderness after the first Passover.

If Jesus is intentionally patterning this miracle after the events of the original Passover, then he is a new Moses at the very least (fulfilling the messianic expectation of a prophet coming after Moses), or he is claiming to be God, the one who provided the food in the wilderness and satisfied the people with bread from heaven. The Gospel of John makes the allusion explicit and there is a long dialogue between Jesus and the people about manna as bread from heaven. The people even “murmur” in John 6:41, recalling the frequent murmurings of Israel in the wilderness.

Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea. God demonstrated his power and authority over the chaos of the seas (described as walking on the waters in the Psalms). The next story in Mark and Matthew is walking on the water, a miracle revealing Jesus as the Son of God. His disciples worship him as the Son of God (14:33). In Matthew16:16 Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of the living God.” Jesus then predicts his death (16:21), explaining the true mission of the Messiah is to defeat sin and death at the cross. A week later, Jesus is confirmed as the Son of God at the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13).

Just as God provided food for Israel in the wilderness, now Jesus provides food for his followers in the wilderness. As John Nolland observes, this is the same perspective as Emmanuel in Matthew 1:23, “in the ministry of Jesus God is with us” (Matthew, 587).

The Feeding of the 5000 – Matthew 14:15-21

The feeding of the 5000 appears in all four Gospels (Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13). In Mark, the feeding of the 5000 also follows the death of John the Baptist; Luke does not have the walking on the water immediately after the feeding of the 5000. As usual, Matthew has seriously abbreviated Mark’s narrative, but John’s version is expanded. In John we learn that the miracle happens around the time of Passover

Jesus Feeds the 5000

After an unspecified time of teaching and healing, the disciples want to dismiss the crowd so they can get something to eat (14:15). The crowd is very large and there is no village nearby to get something to eat. It simply makes good sense to send them away to get food. Why does the crowd not have sufficient food for themselves? If they were planning on going to follow Jesus for a long time, they ought to have brought some supplies. Maybe they dropped everything and followed Jesus as the disciples had. They have traveled light as the disciples did on their mission, relying on God to supply their needs.

“You Give Them Something To Eat”

Jesus tells the disciples to give them something to eat, but they have very little food, five loaves and two fish (14:16-17).  Matthew alone has “they do not need to go away,” followed by Mark’s “you give them something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat” echoes Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In that story a man has twenty barley loaves but must feed one hundred men. After Elisha tells the man to give them something to eat” they will all eat and there is food left over. This is what happened “according to the word of the Lord.” Nolland calls this a “how much more” comparison with Elisha (Matthew, 593). Jesus’s miracle is better than Elisha’s in every way: he makes more bread from less original good for more people who eat and are satisfied, and more is left over.

One possible explanation offered for who Jesus is in Matthew 16:14 is  Jesus is one of the prophets or Elijah. In Mark’s version of the death of John, Herod’s advisors suggest Jesus is one of the prophets (Mark 6:15, omitted in Matthew’s version of the story). The feeding of more than 5000 people from five small loaves and two small, dried fish indicates Jesus is far more than one of the prophets, he is something even greater than the greatest of the prophets.

The disciples have only a little food which is not enough for even a few people, let alone five thousand. In Mark 6 an unknown disciple complains that it would take more than a half year’s wages (200 denarii) to buy enough food, in John 6 Philip is identified as the complainer. John also mentions Andrew brought forward a boy with five loaves and two fish. In Mark and Matthew, the disciples have the food without specifying where they got it.

Is the complaint an allusion to Israel’s murmuring for food in the wilderness (Exod 16:1-3)? They long for the meat-pots of Egypt, so God promises to rain bread from heaven on them (16:4). Here the disciples initially mention the lack of food and then complain that they cannot possibly feed the crowd themselves before Jesus provides bread and fish for everyone (and in John the extended discussion is about the Exodus passage and the meaning of bread from heaven).

The food is insignificant. Five small loaves are not modern loaves of bread. If John is right and this miracle happens at Passover, then it is possible the bread is unleavened (or the child might have been given the last leftover leavened rolls in the house). The fish (ἰχθύς) are likely little dried fish (like dried sardines or a kipper). On the other hand, even of these were five full sized loaves of bread and two of the largest fish freshly caught from the Sea of Galilee, it is still insufficient to feed the large crowd.

Jesus Multiplies the Fish and Bread

Jesus first orders the people to sit in the grass. Although this seems natural enough if he is about to feed them, it is an allusion to the image of God leading his people in the wilderness like sheep. Mark has them seated in hundreds and fifties, which may allude to the way Israel was sorted into hundreds and fifties in the wilderness (Exod 18:21, 25). The verb is ἀνακλίνω, which is used regularly for sitting down at a meal as a guest (BDAG). In Matthew 8:11 Jesus said many will come from the east and west to recline at the table with Abraham, an allusion to the eschatological banquet.

Jesus then blesses the food and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Although some commentators see an allusion to the Last Supper here, looking to heaven and blessing the food are part of normal Jewish meals.  Baskets? Who brings baskets with them? These baskets are from the fishing boats Jesus and the disciples arrived in (not picnic baskets!). “The word for “basketfuls” (kophinos) describes a distinctively Jewish basket for carrying kosher food” (Blomberg, Matthew, 233).

Everyone is Satisfied

Everyone eats their fill and is satisfied, and there is plenty of food leftover! The verb translated “satisfied” (χορτάζω) is uses in classical Greek for leading an animal to pasturage but when it is used for humans it refers to eating enough food to be satisfied. In Exodus 16:12 God says he will fill the people with bread, and in 16:18 the people took all the manna they need. This verb appears in Psalm 81:16 (LXX 80:17, “And he fed them from the fat of wheat, and from a rock of honey he satisfied them”).

The crowd does not really know where the food came from, they were handed bread and fish and they ate in large groups. The disciples know the food is a miracle revealing who Jesus is, much like the next miracle when Jesus walks on the water.

Why does Jesus Go into the Wilderness? Matthew 14:13-14

After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus goes into the wilderness. Why does Jesus retreat to a “desolate place” (ESV)?

Jesus Praying Alone

The verb in verse 13 (ἀναχωρέω) does in fact have the nuance of a retreat from danger, an army retreating, and sometimes to “withdraw from public affairs” (BrillDAG). Jesus has retreated in response to danger before in Matthew. In Matthew 2:22 Jesus leaves Bethlehem because Herod the Great threatened to kill the infant Jesus. In Matthew 4:12 Jesus withdrew to Galilee because Herod Antipas arrested John. Luke 9:9 indicates Antipas “sought to see Jesus” and in Luke 13:31 the Pharisees warn Jesus to “get away from here because Herod wants to kill you.”

It is not as though Jesus is afraid of Antipas. He does not want to provoke a confrontation with the authorities yet. His intention is to go to the cross, but at the time of the Passover to make the imagery of the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” more clear.

Even though Jesus goes to a desolate place, the crowds follow him (14:13). He went by boat, they followed on shore. Remember the Sea of Galilee is not that large!

The word translate “desolate place” in the ESV (ἔρημος) is traditionally “the wilderness.” John the Baptist was active in the wilderness and Jesus was tempted in the wilderness of Judea. Most Bible readers hear the word wilderness and think of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the deserts of the Negev. But Jesus is in Galilee, so wilderness here does not refer to a desert location, but rather an unpopulated area.  In the context of Galilee, they are in an area where people do not live, between villages and farms.

The traditional location is Tabgha, only about two miles west of Capernaum. The place was known as Heptapegon because it had seven springs, Tabgha is a corruption of this ancient name. According to Todd Bolen, the spring water is warmer than the Sea of Galilee so there are algae in the water, attracting fish. There is a Byzantine church on the site with a traditional rock on which the fish and bread were blessed, along with a famous mosaic which appears in every gift shop in Israel. This location is on most tourist itineraries. The Church of Peter’s Primacy near Tabgha is also worth visiting for its lovely garden on the short of the Sea of Galilee.

The location does evoke scriptural connections. The wilderness is associated with Israel after they were rescued from Egypt. Jesus as a new Moses leading his people into the wilderness where he will care for them like sheep in the wilderness, caring for their sickness and providing them food. One of the reasons Jesus goes into the wilderness is to evoke the images from the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus has compassion on the crowd and healed their sick (14:14). This is the second time Jesus has had compassion on a great crowd (9:36) and in 20:34 he has compassion on a blind man. The verb σπλαγχνίζομαι appears only in the Gospels with Jesus as the subject, With the except of the good Samaritan and father of the prodigal (Luke 10:33; 15:20). In Mark 6:34, Jesus teaches the crowd, here in Matthew he heals.

This also may allude to the wilderness tradition. In Numbers 27:15-23 Moses realizes he is near death He prays for God to appoint a new leader so that the people will not be “like sheep without a shepherd.” The sick (ἄρρωστος) is a rare word in the New Testament that can refer to the sick, weak, or “powerless.” In 1 Cor 11:30, those who were abusing the Lord’s Supper are “sick and weak” and the verb is used sickness associated with sin in Sirach 18:21.

This gathering of a large crowd in the wilderness set up one of the most important miracles in the Gospels the feeding of the 5000.