The Meanings of the
Walking on the Water
and Stilling the Sea

Walking on the Water is the nature miracle where Jesus catches up with a boat that has been rowed overnight by the apostles. Whilst known as Walking on the Water, we might assume either great speed on the part of Jesus or an appearance close by followed by his skimming the surface in walking fashion.

Mark 6: 45-51
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.
46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.
48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.
49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out;
50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,

The other account, in Matthew, contains the same basic story but an important addition:

Matthew 14: 22-32
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.
23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,
24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.
26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear.
27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
28 Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."
29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus.
30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

So now the main points of these can be listed, first from Mark:

Here is the variation according to Matthew:

The story being told to the early Christian community is on one level clearly about faith. Jesus' faith is that of communing with God in solitary circumstances. The disciples faith is less secure, and they depend on Jesus just as Jesus depends on God. So Christians are also dependent, and their faith should be trust, and trust brings security even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Faith is also needed for God to do his work. If faith is lacking, the work (as demonstrated by a miracle) cannot happen. This is one reason that Matthew caused Peter to join in.

Having given time to pray, and develop his faith, time and space is no restriction to Jesus. He can catch up. In both accounts the reference to the ghost and his ability to come and go across space and time reflects the resurrection visions. Then he is as the point is made. It is also a device to show that the earthly Jesus and the resurrected Jesus are one and the same. Obviously he does not disappear again. He is with them, in the boat.

First of all Jesus is not recognised. Then he is recognised. A point is made, about faith and dependence. In a resurrection appearance, Jesus is recognised when people "see" the point (eg the place of the eucharist, meaning he is back). When the point is made here, the wind ceases. The ceasing of the wind is like when Jesus disappears again at a resurrection vision.

However, in Matthew's account this resurrection reflecting account is extended (as in the resurrection) into early Church authority. Peter joins in with the miracle. There is a big if. Faith and trust are based on this if. If it is the Lord, then Peter the leader can join in. So Peter too is given authority from Jesus, just as Jesus receives his from God. However, Peter stumbles, as he does in the crucifixion and resurrection drama. As a result, his miracle working fails and he starts to drop into the water. Jesus' miracle working does not fail.

So if the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand and four thousand are about the eucharist, this is about the resurrection. Both need faith. The nature miracle points forwards.

There is a comparison with an earlier miracle in the narrative set in a similar environment, the Stilling of the Sea:

Mark 4: 36-40
36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.
37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.
38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

Matthew 8: 23-26 is sufficiently the same but the other boats are missing. Luke 8: 22-25 does have a slight addition with the last verse:

Luke 8: 25
25 He said to them, "Where is your faith?" They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?"

Putting these together results in these points:

The stress here is on Jesus' authority, so great that he commands both the wind and the sea (whilst the wind dropping is sufficient to calm the waves). Again it about Jesus' superior faith, faith so great that it can command nature. This raises questions about his relationship with God.

This Psalm gives one likely reference point regarding authority and God's representative:

Psalm 89: 8-9; 25-28
8 O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD? Your faithfulness surrounds you.
9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
25 I will set his [David's] hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!'
27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.

Jesus' sleep, and the rise of the wind, just as with the rise of the wind in the Walking on the Water, is as a test of faith. This time the ceasing of the wind does not carry the same pre-echo of the resurrection, but there is a pre-echo of incarnation and redemption. The whole of creation is involved.

Theologically it can be said that Jesus is the Word and the word in the Hebrew Bible is here represented by Elijah:

1 Kings 17: 1
17 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word."

As well as command of such elements, by Jesus' word, there is also a cross reference to exorcism. "Be still" or "Be silent" is an expression used in Jesus' exorcisms (Mark 1: 23-25; Luke 4: 33-35).

Even small but sure faith (trust in God) can lead to great things. Thus Jesus asks the disciples in the boat whether they have no faith. Again the message is equally to the early Christians, passing on here Jesus' likely own centre of teaching: have faith - and sin (causing illness) will be reversed ahead of and ready for the coming Kingdom.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful

Biblical references are for the walking on the water, Mark 6: 45-51; Matthew 14: 22-27, 32; for stilling the storm, Mark 4: 36-40; Matthew 8: 23-36; Luke 8: 22-25. All from the New Revised Standard Version.

Vermes, G. (2003), The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, London: Allen Lane, 7, 13-14.