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13-7 Walking On Water

The Lord’s teaching style continually revolved around posing explicit and implicit questions to His hearers. John’s Gospel contains a total of 161 questions(1) ; and one brief passage in Mark (Mk. 8:14-21) records how the Lord asked seven questions in quick succession. In this sense, the Lord Jesus intended to be intrusive into human life; He penetrates the depths of our being. His call to pick up a cross and follow Him was radical- so radical, that His hearers both then and now tended to [even unconsciously] negate the totally radical import of His demands.

The Challenge Of The Cross

The rich young man would fain have followed Jesus. But he was told that he must sell all that he had, give to the poor, and take up the cross to follow Christ (Mk. 10:21). Notice how the ideas of following Christ and taking up the cross are linked. The man went away, unable to carry that cross, that sacrifice of those material things that were dearest to him. Peter responds with the strong implication that he had done all these things, he was following the Master, and by implication he felt he was carrying the cross. Notice the parallels between the Lord’s demand of the young man, and Peter’s comment (Lk. 18:22 cp. 28; Mk. 10:21 cp. 28): 

“Sell all that thou hast and distribute to the poor

“We have left all

…and come, take up the cross

[no comment by Peter]

and follow me”

…and have followed thee”

Peter seems to have subconsciously bypassed the thing about taking up the cross. But he was sure that he was really following the Lord. He blinded himself to the inevitable link between following Christ and self-crucifixion; for the path of the man Jesus lead to Golgotha. We have this same tendency, in that we can break bread week after week, read the records of the crucifixion at least eight times / year, and yet not let ourselves grasp the most basic message: that we as followers of this man must likewise follow in our self-sacrifice to that same end. 

The Gospel records, Luke especially, often record how the Lord turned and spoke to His followers- as if He was in the habit of walking ahead of them, with them following (Lk. 7:9,44,55; 10:23; 14:25; 23:28; Mt. 9:22; Jn. 1:38). As we saw above, Peter thought that following the Lord was not so hard, because he was literally following Jesus around first century Israel, and identifying himself with His cause. But he simply failed to make the connection between following and cross carrying. And we too can agree to follow the Lord without realizing that it means laying down our lives. The Lord brought Peter to face this with a jolt in Mt. 16:22-25. Peter was following Jesus, after He had predicted His crucifixion (for Jesus “turned, and said unto Peter”). He thought he was following Jesus. But he was told: “Get thee behind me…if any man will come after me (s.w. ‘behind me’), let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (s.w.)”. The italicized words are all the same in the original. Peter didn’t want the Lord to die by crucifixion at Jerusalem, because he saw that as a follower of Jesus this required that he too must die a like death. Peter needed to get behind Jesus in reality and really follow, in the sense of following to the cross, although he was there physically behind Jesus, physically following at that time. The Lord was saying: ‘Don’t think of trying to stop me dying. I will, of course. But concentrate instead on really getting behind me in the sense of carrying my cross’. John’s record stresses that the key to following Jesus to the cross is to hear His word, which beckons us onwards (Jn. 10:4,27). All our Bible study must lead us onwards in the life of self-sacrifice. But Peter loved the Lord’s words; yet, as pointed out to him at the transfiguration, he didn’t hear those words of Christ deeply. And so he missed the call to the cross. He had just stated that Jesus was Messiah; but soon afterwards he is recorded as saying that it was intrinsic within Jesus’ Messiahship that He mustn’t die or suffer. The confession of Messiahship and this incident of trying to stop the Lord dying are juxtaposed in Mark’s Gospel, which seems to be Mark’s transcript of the Gospel account Peter usually preached [note, e.g., how Peter defines the termini if the Lord’s life in Acts 1:21,22; 10:36-42- just as Mark does in his gospel].  Surely Peter is saying that yes, he had grasped the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was Messiah; but the import of Messiahship was totally lost upon him. For he had utterly failed to see the connection between Messianic kingship and suffering the death of the cross. The Lord’s comment ‘Get behind me’ was exactly the same phrase He had earlier used to the ‘satan’ in the wilderness when the same temptation to take the Kingdom without the cross had been suggested. 

All this explains why we find it so hard to stop our mind from wandering at the breaking of bread. It explains why we struggle with the records of the crucifixion, which we read several times / year. Who He was there, what He was there, is a powerful imperative to us to do and be likewise. For we are brethren in Christ, in Him, the crucified Christ. In our deep subconscious, it seems to me, we know how we ought to live in Him. We don’t respond so well to merely being told how we ought to live by well meaning brethren. The final motivation must be a real person we know, a man, a human, a more than man, a hero who inspires. And in the cross we have just that Man.  

The Radical Life

In the account of Peter walking on water, we have a cameo of what it means to walk out of our comfort zone. Peter asked the man on the water to invite him to walk on the water; for Peter knew that only Jesus would be that demanding (2). He’s a demanding Lord for us too. Peter didn’t have to get out of the boat. But He realized that following the Lord Jesus involves this stepping out of our comfort zone. For us, it may be making a radical donation of our money, our time, a donation that really hurts, that is significant, not a giving that is well within our comfort zone. Or it may be a radical forgiveness, a radical refusal to answer slander, to not fight back, to day after day after day live amidst provocation. This may be our walking out on the water. Picture Peter as he stood by the side of the boat, wind blowing his hair back and forth, rain driving into his forehead, his brethren muttering “You’re absolutely crazy , there’s no need for this…we’re only going to have to save you ourselves”. He must have felt so alone. There was no human encouragement. Probably his thoughts went back to the wife and kids he had left behind on the other side of the lake, in that humble home in that quaint fishing village. But his focus was upon one Man, the same Lord and Master whom we look out to from the sides of our ships.  

The sheer bravery of Peter's walking on water stands out. Was he afraid to walk on water? Of course he was. But he focused all his faith into the word of Jesus: “Come!”. He overcame his fear to the point that he climbed over the sides of the boat. Picture him there, with one leg over the side and on the water, and the other still in the boat. He couldn’t stay like that. He had to go only forward. The only thing that kept him back was fear. And it is basically fear which holds us within our comfort zones. Fear, fear, fear…that’s all it is. To know ‘truth’ in its experiential sense should free us from fear; for fear is related to the unknown. God appeals to Israel: “Of whom has thou been afraid or feared, that thou hast lied?” (Is. 57:11). Fear leads to our abdicating from the responsibility of making choices; and this is why humanity has such a dearth of truly creative imagination, and why genuinely new ideas are so rare. But the true life in Christ is a life of repeatedly overcoming that fear, the fear which paralyzes, which holds you back. Let the widow woman of 1 Kings 17:13 be our heroine; she had totally nothing, just some flour; and she was hunting around in a parched land for two sticks with which to make a fire to bake it and eat her last meal, then to lie down in the dust of death. She must have been literally on her last legs. But then god through Elijah asked her to give Him even what terribly little she had. And Elijah encourages the frightened, wide-eyed woman: “Fear not!”. And she went forward in faith and gave him her very last hope of life. Living at such an animal level would have made her very self-centred; but she stepped out of it in response to the Lord’s challenge. 

Fear is, to my mind, the greatest single barrier to faith and true spirituality. It is fear alone which stops us from keeping commitments, from not entering into covenant relationship as deeply as we are bidden. This is why people shy away from covenant relationships, be they with the Father through baptism, or to another person through marriage or having children. Fear holds us back. We fear even ourselves, our own spiritual capacity, our standing before the Father. Our inner anxieties, our unconscious inner conflicts as we stand with Peter on the edge of the boat, contemplating what walking on water concretely meant, often lead us to criticize others or to speak and act with a hypocritical bravado. Yet true faith asks us to risk. As a psychotherapist friend of mine once jotted to me:

“We are asked to risk all we believe ourselves to be, we may find we're not what we thought ourselves to be, our constructs of the self will be pushed to the limit and we're afraid of what we may find of ourselves, that we may not be what we imagine ourselves to be in the construct upon which we have built our theories of the self. Obeying rules, staying within the construct, is much easier, much safer.  We may have never tested ourselves in the real world  To launch off into the unknown, into a future that contains or may contain unknown risk, where our worst fears are realised, the greatest fear may be that we are failures....most of us, it would seem,  don't have enough faith in there even being a God to risk even getting out of the boat let alone walking on the water”. 

The Power Of Fear

Don’t underestimate the power of fear when it comes to walking on water. Nor let us fail to appreciate that the fearful are listed alongside the unrepentant whores and idolators who shall remain outside the city of God (Rev. 21:8). Our thirst for love, our fear of death and spiritual failure before a perfect God, the fear of displeasing or misunderstanding the infinite God…these fears should all be taken away for the man or woman who is truly clothed with the imputed righteousness of Christ. Yet they have a way of persisting in our weakness of faith. And so there develops a conflict between our true conscience and the false suggestions of our faithless fears. All this can lead to neurotic behaviour and a repression of conscience. The only way out of this is to boldly step forward as Peter did, albeit bricking ourselves as we do so. 

Murderers often reveal that their psychological motivation was not merely hatred, but often fear- fear of what that person might do, or who they might show them up to be. Fear, therefore, is at the root of all lack of love and respect for our brethren. We fear the poor image of ourselves which they reveal by their actions or examples; and so slander and hatred of them in the heart [Biblical murder] develops. If only we can cast away this kind of fear, then love will take its place; for perfect love comes when fear has been cast out (1 Jn. 4:18).The Greek for 'drive out' is that used in Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30 to describe how the wicked are driven out into darkness at the last day. If we now in this life can cast out or condemn our own fear of rejection, then we will not live in fear...because fear has, or is, its own condemnation (1 Jn. 4:18 Gk.). If we are still consumed by fear, in whatever way, in this life- then this, according to John's logic, appears to be a sign that we will not be accepted in the last day. Fear as a purely nervous reaction is not what he is speaking of. Rather is it the crippling moral fear of which we have spoken in this study.  

Do not fear but  believe (Lk. 8:50) shows this power of fear- it is fear which stops faith, fear is the opposite of faith. If we know the love that casts out fear, then a whole new style of relationships becomes possible. In so many relationships there is a balance of power which is more realistically a balance of fear- a fear of losing, of being made to look small, a fighting back with self-affirmation against the fear of being subsumed by the other. Be it parents and kids, teachers and students, pastor and flock, so often both sides fear the other. Yet if we are truly affirmed in Christ, no longer seeking victory because we have found victory in Him, His victories become ours… then our whole positioning in relationships becomes so different. For example, our fear of rejection becomes less significant if we believe firmly in our acceptance in the eyes of the Lord, the only one whose judgment has ultimate value. If we can say with Paul that for us the judgment of others has very little value, because we only have one judge… then we will no longer worrying about acting in such a way as to impress others. No longer will it be so important to not express our inner thoughts about people or situations for fear of not using the constant ‘nicespeak’ which results in judgment from others unless it’s used. There will be a congruence between what we feel and think within us, and what we actually show. And thus we will avoid the dysfunction which is so apparent in so many, as they forever struggle to control their outward expressions, hiding their real self, with the real self and the external self struggling against each other in a painful dis-ease.

It seems to me that we have over intellectualized our ‘faith’, until we almost obsessively seek to understand at every point what God’s plan is for us. But the life of faith is an abandoning of ourselves to the Lord, asking Him to guide us and invite us, as Peter did. It is our fear which leads us to ‘chose not to chose any more’, to resign responsibility for our choices. Human beings tend to allow themselves to be carried along by their instincts, desires and fears. Perhaps this, for some, is rooted in a childhood background where they never knew the carefree life of a child, but had to calculate in detail the result of every detail of behaviour. Even if this were happily not the case with us, society has groomed us to do just this in later life. And this militates against the life of true choice, which is the life of faith- chosing to walk out of our comfort zones into the challenge of the Lord’s protection and grace. It is in this that Peter’s climbing over the sides of the boat sets us such an inspirational example. 

Living a life that has come out and ongoingly comes out of the comfort zone is not the same as making occasional forays out of it. There is a tendency in all of us to make such temporary, ultimately insignificant forays out. To write a cheque for an amount well within our total wealth. To occasionally rise up to the challenge of forgiving others. We are in those moments like the Moslem who occasionally glances over an internet site about Jesus, gets a little bit interested, and then runs back into the safety of tradition. Like the well behaved, submissive adolescent who occasionally does something just a little bit ‘naughty’. Yet the call of Christ is far more radical than that. It is a call to live permanently on the edge, permanently risking ourselves, and stepping out of line with all that seems humanly sensible and safe. Decent living, nice habits, occasional kindness, doing no harm to our neighbour…all these things can be seen in the lives of some who make no claim to Christianity. Personal, real repentance, the shattering personal encounter with the real Jesus and His real demands…this is a life of an altogether different order.  

Walking On Water: God Manifestation

So how exactly was Peter motivated to walk on water? We want to know, because it’s the motivation that we so urgently need. We read that the Lord “passed by”. This is the very language used in the Old Testament concerning theophanies, i.e. those times when God ‘passed by’ before His people, accompanied by earthquake, rain, wind, fire etc. These ideas all recur here in the account of Jesus ‘passing by’ before the fearful disciples. In Mt. 14:27 the Lord tells them: “It is I”. This was a reference to the “I am” of the Yahweh Name. Peter  knew that it was Yahweh who walks upon the waves of the sea (Job 9:8), and so he asks that if Jesus is really “I am”, God manifest in flesh, then He will bid Peter also walk on the water. It was Yahweh whose way was upon the sea (Ps. 77:19 Heb.; Ps. 29:3). Indeed, the whole incident on the lake is almost prophesied in Ps. 107. The people are hungry in desolate places (:4,5), they are filled by Yahweh with good things, as the Lord Jesus fed the multitude (:9); some go down to the sea in ships (:23); a storm arises, sent from God (:25); they are troubled and cry out (:27,28); and then Yahweh delivers them, bringing them to their desired haven (:28-30). Peter, I think, perceived all this. He saw that this Man from Nazareth was indeed manifesting Yahweh, and he is asking that he too will be a part of God’s manifestation; he perceived that what was true of Jesus really could be true for us. If Jesus, manifesting Yahweh, walked upon the sea, then so could Peter. When Peter asks Jesus to “bid me come unto thee”, the Greek word translated “come” is also translated “to accompany”. He wanted to walk with Jesus on the water. He wanted to do what Jesus was doing. This of itself explains how the fact Jesus did what God did [e.g. walk on waves] doesn’t mean He is “very God of very gods”- for Peter realized that he too could have a part in that manifestation. If Jesus was a man of our nature and yet God manifest, then, Peter reasoned, I too can manifest the Father. And the same is true for us, today. The reality of God’s manifestation in the human Jesus should inspire us too to leave our comfort zones and enter the adventure of living Godly- living like God- in this present world.  

Peter “came down” out of the ship to go walking on water (Mt. 14:29). He is described as “coming down” [s.w.] in Acts 10:21, where he came down from the roof top and said: “Behold I am he whom ye seek; what is the cause wherefore ye are come?”. “I am he” uses the same two Greek words as in Mt. 14:27, when the Lord says “It is I”. Three Greek words occurring together like this is surely not incidental. Peter recalls when he ‘came down’ out of the ship- and now, he really is Christ-manifest. He speaks as Jesus did; and further, “I am he whom ye seek” and “wherefore [are ye] come” are the very phrases of Jesus in Gethsemane. The record is showing us that consciously or subconsciously, Peter is Christ-manifest now. The words and person of Jesus have all had such impact upon him that now for him, “to live is Christ”. To ‘come down’ and manifest Him is what life is all about; Peter’s coming down out of the ship is a cameo of a life lived like this, time and again manifesting Him, overcoming the fear, the cowardice of our brethren, the distractions of the life and world which surrounds us…to walk out unto Him.  

The Lord “stretched forth his hand” to save Peter (Mt. 14:31); and this is the very phrase used by Peter in Acts 4:30, speaking of how the Lord’s hand is “stretched forth to heal”. Peter saw himself on the lake as typical of all whom the Lord saves. Yet, it was Peter , not the Lord Himself, who stretched forth his hand to do the Lord’s healing work  on the lame man (Acts 3:7). Again, Peter is thinking back to the incident on the lake and perceiving that he is now Christ manifest as he had intended to be then. Thus it was the principle of God manifestation which inspired Peter to reach out of his comfort zone so dramatically; and properly appreciated, it can motivate us likewise.  

When Peter was sinking, he was living out the picture we have of condemnation at the last day. Mt. 14:30 says that he began to “sink” into the sea of Galilee. This is exactly the image we find in Mt. 18:6, where the Lord says, in response to the question ‘Who will be the greatest?’, that he who offends one of the little ones will be drowned [s.w. “sink”] in the midst of the sea- and his audience would have immediately associated this with the midst of the sea of Galilee, just where the storm had occurred. Peter seems to have realized that this warning was pertinent to him, for it is he who then interrupts the Lord to ask how often he should forgive his brother (Mt. 18:21). Peter sinking into Galilee, giving up swimming but desperately throwing up his hand to the Lord [you don’t swim with a hand outstretched], is the position of each person who truly comes to Christ. This is the extent of our desperation; baptism, conversion to Him, is most definitely not a painless living out of parental expectations. Note how they were “tossed” or ‘tormented’ (Gk.) by the raging waves (Mt. 14:24)- the very same word is used about how the rejected will be “tormented” in condemnation (Rev. 14:10; 20:10). Peter’s salvation by the hand of the Lord was representative of us all. As he drowned there in the lake, he was effectively living out the condemnation of the last day. But he appealed urgently to the Lord: “Save me!”. Later, Peter was to use the same words in his preaching, when he appealed to his nation to “save [themselves]” by calling on the name of the Lord, just as he had done on the lake (Acts 2:40). He saw that those people were in just the position which he had been in on the lake. 

And thus we come to a gripping piece of logic. Peter is set up as our example. All who will be saved will have called desperately upon the name of the Lord. They will have stepped out of their comfort zones. For all true conversion to Him involves a stepping out of the boat and walking to Him over the waves. If we didn’t go through this at our baptism, be assured that you will. For there are various stages to conversion; hence the Lord could tell the already-converted Peter: “When you are converted, strengthen your brethren”. My own community has been deeply shocked at the fact that some of our young converts in Iran and Afghanistan have recently been murdered for their faith; others have been tortured and imprisoned. We find it shocking and disturbing. And yet when I have commended those who endure these things with such devotion and joy, their response is basically: “But this is what we signed up for in baptism. We agreed to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We expect no less”. And we should all have this attitude; that we have been called to give, to sacrifice, to give out, to risk, called to the life of bravery in the face of loss, suffering and death- the life and living which characterized that of the Lord Jesus.  

Life On The Water

Try to imagine how Peter felt as he walked on the water. It must have been an exhilarating life to lead, for those seconds or minutes that he lived life just as his Lord would have him live it. Mark’s account of this incident omits all reference to Peter walking on the water (Mk. 6:45-51). Yet there is good reason to think that Mark is really Peter’s gospel; in characteristic humility, he emphasizes his failures and downplays his achievements in his Gospel record. Hence this omission of any reference to Peter’s bravery may indicate that this incident places Peter in a positive light; it was a tremendous achievement, and he humbly declines to mention it. Peter walking on the water is how we each can live life, walking with Jesus amidst every discouragement and distraction. This life of excitement, of adventure, of continual risk, living outside the comfort zone, this is the life which there is in Christ. We don’t need to live under Islamic persecution to live this life. In suburban Sydney or central Riga or rural Zimbabwe, the call to this radical life is just as clear- if only we will perceive it. We may die in our beds, cared for in a loving Christian old peoples’ home until our last breath, but this doesn’t mean that we aren’t living the life of risk, the brave life, the dangerous life, with all the loneliness and creativity that arises from a life outside the comfort zone.  

Following A Demanding Lord

At Peter’s initial conversion, he had also been in his ship on the sea of Galilee, and had seen Jesus walking [s.w.] near the sea shore (Mt. 4:18). He left his boat, and responded to the call to follow Jesus. Now it’s the same basic scene, but this time Jesus is walking not “by” the sea but “on” the sea. The similarity is perhaps to teach Peter that the Lord’s real call may be repeated throughout our lives; the initial response may be relatively painless, but through the storms of life, the Lord teaches us as He did Peter how radical is the response required. To follow Him meant not merely walking away from the cares of this life, the boat, the nets, the fishing…but if Jesus walks on water, then those who follow Him must do likewise. And Peter, to his immense credit, perceived this; he saw his Lord walking on water as an imperative that demanded he do likewise. For him, Jesus wasn’t just a Saviour on whose back he could ride to salvation in God’s Kingdom. Yes, He is of course our saviour wherein we sink and drown in our weaknesses. But He is more than that; He is an inspiring example. His offer to walk on water wasn’t motivated, therefore, by any form of inquisitiveness or daredeviling; the offer to walk on the water was rooted in his grasp that if this is where the Lord walks, then axiomatically, we must do likewise. When the Lord walked “by” the sea, Peter had come out of the boat and followed Him; now the Lord walks “on” the sea, Peter perceives that he must follow Him even there. For “he that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, as he walked” (1 Jn. 2:6- the same word is used as in the record of Peter’s walking on water with Jesus, making it possible that John is upholding Peter’s example for us all). For many, our conversions were relatively painless; indeed, for those raised in the faith, it may have been easier to get baptized than to walk away from it. But the essentially radical invitation to follow Jesus is repeated in later life; and the validity of our earlier choice to follow is put to the test by our later response to the same invitation.  

2 Cor. 5:7 further applies the lesson of Peter to us all: “we walk by faith not by sight”. It was when Peter “saw the wind”, when he took his mental and physical focus off the Lord Jesus and looked to something else which was being blown by the wind, that he faltered. When he walked upon the water initially, he was walking by faith. When he walked by sight, he started to drown. And the lesson for us is clear- our focus must be upon the man Christ Jesus. Weighing up the costs, looking around at how strong the wind is, all this is taking our attention away from the One upon whom it must be focused. Believe Him. Take Jesus at His word. The Lord’s mini-parable suggests that we should totally surrender to His word rather than count the cost of building the tower, or weigh up the chances of defeating the oncoming army. There are opportunities galore in these last days to walk out of your comfort zone, not counting the cost, into the real life as God intended. I and many others are trying to do this, very falteringly. You’re surrounded by your brethren who in ways great and small, private and public, are living this life. Come out and join us. 


(1) Listed in John Wijngaards, The Gospel Of John (Wilmington: Glazier, 1986) pp. 35-46.

(2) But consider too: Peter's request to be bidden walk on the water was (typically) both full of faith and yet also tinged by an element of unspirituality. His words as recorded in Mt. 14:28 ("If it is you, bid me come unto you on the water") appear strikingly similar to the LXX of 2 Kings 5:13, where a spiritually limited Naaman is rebuked for expecting to be asked to do something "demanding"- also connected with going into water!