Jesus walking on water
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Jesus Walks on the Water
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[d] and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I;[e] do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
It is very good to be here this evening and to have the challenge of preaching upon this extraordinary text from John’s Gospel, Jesus’ walking on water The event is recorded in Mtt and Mark and here it is in John’s gospel : after feeding of the 5,000: Jesus had withdrawn from the crowds attention to pray and the disciples were dispatched back across the lake where they proceeded with great difficulty until Jesus came to them walking on water.
Just the idea of walking on water catches the imagination – who has not nursed some desire to do the same? Wouldn’t it be so amazing? And with the floods you have experienced here in Oxford, how useful would it have been? But I must say when Jonathan told me the text for this evening I took a deep breath.
Jesus the great teacher, yes! Jesus the compassionate one who heals, yes! And who feeds the hungry, yes! But Jesus the man who walks on water who walks on water?? Really? You can just imagine a credulous theology student being torn to shreds about this one, a sceptic laughing all the way to the library. Surely, if you will excuse the pun, this is one step too far.
Indeed some scholars have argued that the disciples must have been mistaken: they were really near the shore all along and when they saw Jesus walking on the sea, this might also be translated by the sea . But this does not fit so well with the use of this particular phrase elsewhere in the NT nor with the narrative details: – the fear of the disciples, recorded in more detail in Matthew and Mark, and the fact that these fishermen would have been working the lake since childhood and would be well used to its geography would also need to be explained away. The simple fact is that each of the 3 Gospel accounts record it as a miracle, an example of Jesus authority over natural forces that shook the disciples to the core.
So what is the purpose of this miracle in John’s gospel?
It is about revelation: a revelation that both proclaims Jesus’ identity and provokes response , a recognition of God’s presence on earth. For John, Jesus’ walking on water was one of the seven signs They were written, as he says in chapter 20, that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing , have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Tucked in between the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ consequent conference with the crowds who had flocked to him back in Capernaum the other side of the lake (v. 22-25), and then his discourse with his disciples, the miracle that unfolds acts as a prism which refracts the great themes of the chapter and of his whole Gospel. John intends that this miracle should help us in turn recognize who Jesus is, and move us from ignorance and unbelief to faith
He notes, vs17 and it is never just by the by with John, that as the disciples embarked It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The event takes us from absence to presence, from darkness, when the disciples set off, to light the next morning and like each of the seven signs, the miracle is a foretaste of the resurrection, of the new spiritual reality of the Kingdom which is shaped by faith.
I want to draw out both the proclamatory and provocative and nature of this sign.
Unlike Matthew’s Gospel which includes Peters tentative steps to meet Jesus, John’s focus is primarily on the identity of Jesus. When they saw Jesus coming towards them the disciples were frightened but he said, It is I, or literally in the Greek, I am: do not be afraid.
It is these two words that ring out across the dark sea of uncertainty and fear.
This phrase I am was none other than the name of God, Jahweh, revealed to Moses
I am had seen the affliction of his people and sent Moses to lead them out to the promised land. In this chapter, the season of Passover, the feeding of the 5000, the walking across the water , and the discourse about manna in the wilderness recall the Exodus and all point to one who was greater than Moses being amongst his people . Jesus did not just part the waters but walked on them. This phrase I am echoes the other great I am statements of John’s Gospel but here it stands alone rather than predicating titles such as the bread of life, or the light of the world. It simply proclaims Jesus as none other than God himself; the one who is present, who truly is, and who will be, who is lord of all creation, who is with us even before we recognize him.
But then, as now, the miracle both provokes and polarizes people’s response to Jesus. We get this from where it is paced in the unfolding sequence of Jesus encounters and the way it heightens the contrast between those who did and did not receive him, between worldly and spiritual vision, between temporal and eternal concerns. (The words eternal and life appear repeatedly in the chapter. This is what is at stake.)
Much of the discourse is about the crowd misunderstanding Jesus. After he had fed them, they had wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king and he had been obliged to withdraw. The miracle offers a deliberate contrast between the revelation to the disciples in the boat and to the crowds baffled by Jesus sudden arrival back in Capernaum. Intrigued, the crowds requested yet another sign, but objected to Jesus claiming himself to be the bread of life, their eternal spiritual sustenance.
Jesus rebuked his would be followers for seeking him, not because they had seen the signs and wonders, but because they wanted more bread. They were laboring for perishable things rather than eternal life. As Augustine observed, Jesus is usually sought after for something else, not for his own sake. They were missing the big picture. Margaret Thatcher once said,
If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.
If, like the crowd, we have our own agendas we can miss the point about Jesus.
Eventually, we read in vs 66 after considerable muttering, many of his followers drew back and wld not follow him. Jesus could hardly be accused of orchestrating a PR coup, of doing party tricks to win support.
And what about the disciples? What would they have been thinking out there on the water? – 5000 fed and now Jesus was not with them. As Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned a concentration camp in the war, in the once said, that if this was how God treated his friends no wonder he had so few.
There are times when the Christian life is tough: the disciples caught in the storm for much of the night, had simply to keep on rowing , heading painfully, as best they could in the right direction for, as John puts it: Jesus had not yet come to them. They were laboring hard in their own strength; they could not know that he was praying for them and how much they were on his heart. But, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said, God wonderfully accepts the persevering faith that knows God to be present yet feels him to be absent. The key thing was what would they do when they eventually saw Jesus coming towards them? Would they recognize him and invite him into their boat or keep on rowing in fear, (listening to their own imaginings, that he could be a ghost as Matthew tells us). This is the provocation of the miracle.
Do we recognize Jesus presence?
James Galway the brilliant flautist was due to play in a big concert in his native Belfast. He decided to busk near the concert hall on the penny whistle on which he had learned to play as a boy. People hurried by to the box office to buy tickets and get their seats, recognizing neither the man nor the consummate skill with which he was playing. How much of our life is spent hurrying past, ignoring the God is with us, because we are in pursuit of what we want him to give us?
The disciples however were glad to take Jesus into their boat. I love that translation in the RSV – it sounds to me like a bit of an understatement. They wanted him with them.
That the disciples suddenly reached the shore seems to emphasize that they had found their spiritual destination. They were now with God. It was a foretaste of the abiding resurrection presence. The dwelling of god was with men and they beheld his glory.
So the purpose of this sign is to proclaim the presence of God in our midst and provoke faith and
(If you want an image that helps to expresses this Johannine mystery, think perhaps of
Piero Della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ: provoked by the gospel, some characters are scurrying away while others are preparing to be baptized for the message of John the Baptist had polarized responses. Christ, seemingly standing both in the Jordan and yet on solid ground, is still yet stepping forward to us. And if we could hear it, the voice proclaiming from heaven this is my beloved son listen to him.)
At the end of the chapter Jesus asks his closest disciples: do you also wish to go away? Is it all just too much? Peter replies, Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and come to know you are the holy one of God. Yes, that is it. That is the point of this miraculous sign; this is the knowledge to which we too are invited this evening.
J Chaffey 23.2.14