|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
Jesus walking on the water follows the miraculous feeding in Matthew, Mark, and John. However, the addition of Peter walking on the water is found only in Matthew, thus Matthew expands the purpose of this event to say something about Peter and his faith.
Why did the disciples cross the lake? To get to the other side. What's on the other side of the lake? What's so important on the other side, that Jesus, literally, "immediately" (eutheos) "forces" (anagkazo in 14:20, "made" in NRSV -- both words come from Mark 6:45) the disciples to get into the boat and head that direction?
In Mark, the lake-crossing episodes illustrate the great problems in the early (Jewish) church of including the Gentiles. When they are in a boat crossing the sea from Jewish to Gentile territories, there are storms (Mk 4:35-41; 6:45-52). Most of this is also present in Matthew's accounts (8:23-27; 14:22-33) Besides the storms, these stories in Matthew are connected by the cry, "Lord, save us/me" (8:25; 14:30) and the critique about the disciples' "little faith" (8:26; 14:31).
Concerning "little faith": of the six times the phrase (two related Greek words) occurs in the NT, five are in Matthew: oligopistia -- 6:30 (par. Lk 12:28); 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; oligopistos -- 17:20). They are always descriptions of the disciples! Where there are parallels to Mark, Matthew has added the phrase thus presenting the disciples as slightly better than Mark does. For example, in Mark 4:40 the disciples are described as having "no faith". The parallel in Mt 8:26 describe them has having "little faith." In Mk 8:17-18 the disciples are described as not perceiving or understanding and having hard hearts. The parallel in Mt 16:8 they have "little faith".
Mark Allen Powell (Loving Jesus) summarizes this difference between Mark and Matthew:
In Mark's account, Jesus wonders whether the disciples have any faith at all. In Matthew's version, he is certain that they have a little, but only a little. ... Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his disciples a little bit differently than Mark does, and I suspect that Matthew does this because he wants to teach a different lesson. [p. 110]
He also writes about the lack of a cure:
I notice something else: although Jesus calls attention to the fact that his disciples are people of little faith, he never indicates that there is anything that they can do about this. He doesn't offer to increase their faith, nor does he give them any guidance as to what they might do to increase it themselves. One would think that if "little faith" is what's holding these disciples back, them Jesus would tell them what to do about this problem. But he doesn't. He points out their little faith as an explanation for why they are not making progress as quickly as they would like, but he never tells them how they can get more faith to remedy that situation.
I think that our struggles to reach people on the "other side" are signs of our little faith. When disciples first cross the lake through a storm, they land on the Gentile/unclean side (Mt 8:23-34). With this boat trip, Jesus had sent them to "the other side" (14:22, see also 16:5), was that meant to be the Gentile side? In Mark, Jesus had sent the disciples to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45), which is in Gentile side of the Jordan, but they don't make it. They end up in Gennesaret (Mk 6:53; Mt 14:34) which is on the Jewish side of Lake Galilee. Can storms at sea (and "little faith") keep disciples from reaching the destinations where Jesus has sent them? Is that also true for storms in congregations?
Many of our congregations have had discussions about liturgies that can escalate into "worship wars." Storms rage between those entrenched in the established liturgical traditions and those who stress the need to reach out to the unchurched. (Perhaps what the unchurched, and many within the church, need to hear is that they are to be a part of something bigger than themselves -- bigger than their own likes and dislikes -- such as a tradition that has been part of the life of believers for thousands of years.)
The people on "the other side" may be the unchurched, or minorities, or single adults, or people with AIDS, or the physically and mentally challenged, or people whose first language is not English, or loud, noisy, running children, or, hard-of-hearing elderly, or homosexuals, etc. They are people who are not quite like "us". They are people whom we might consider unclean. They are people for whom Jesus "forces" or "compels" us to go to. They are people for whom our going to will likely cause a storm in the church.
We may want to remind our hearers, they are sitting in the "nave" of the building -- a word whose origins come from the Latin navis which means "boat" or "ship". The "ship" we are in was not intended to stay tied up to the dock.
This text is not just about the disciples, but about the early church. This is emphasized in Matthew where the boat is "being tortured or tormented" (basanizo) by the wind (v. 24). This verb is normally used of people (Mt 8:6, 29) rather than a boat. Mt has adapted Mk's account where this verb describes the disciples: "When he sees them [the disciples] being tormented (or straining) in their rowing. . . ." (6:48).
Matthew's addition of Peter's walking on the sea also supports the ecclesiastical aspect of the story. It is no longer just a story about what Jesus alone can do. Courageous disciples can also walk on the sea -- and Peter both illustrates the faith to do this and the doubts that sank him.
If we take the boat to symbolize the church, then the sea, as it often does, can symbolize chaos -- something that occasionally creeps into congregations <g>. Eugene Boring (Matthew, The New Interpreters' Bible) writes:
The sea itself in biblical thought connotes the forces of chaos, held at bay in the creative act of God, but always threatening (Gen 1:1-10; 7:11; Pss 18:15-16; 69:1-3; 107:23-32; 144:5-8). To the biblical mind, being on the sea is itself a threat, representing all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of the created order. To be at sea evokes images of death, the active power that threatens the goodness of life. The sea is here a barrier that separates the disciples from Jesus, who represents the presence of God. In the midst of the chaos of the world, they are left alone in the boat/church, with only their fragile craft preserving them from its threat, buffeted by the stormy winds of conflict and persecution, mentioned three times (vv. 24, 30, 32).
... Whereas the modern mind thinks of defying the law of gravity, the biblical mind thinks of the one who overcomes the power of chaos ("walking on" = conquest; "sea" = anti-creation chaos monster). From the Epic of Gilgamesh onward, it was a commonplace of ancient thought that no human being could perform this feat, reserved for deity. In biblical thought, only God walks on the sea (Job 9:8; 38:16; Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16; 51:9-10; Hab 3:5; Sirach 24:5-6, of Divine Wisdom). Precisely in the midst of this symmetrically constructed story, Jesus does what only God can do, and speaks with the voice of God, "I am." [pp.327-8]
A question that the first part of our text raises is, "Can we believe that Jesus is with us always (Emmanuel), even when all evidence suggests he is not?" Can congregations in the midst of their own persecutions and struggles and chaos and storms believe that Jesus, with all his authority, is with them, even though unseen?
I note that Jesus' presence did not bring an instant miracle -- the stilling of the storm -- but his assuring word: "Be courageous. I am he. Do not be afraid."
I wonder how many of our congregational struggles are the result of struggling in the boat without Jesus (or without his word)? How many people or congregations would be "terrified" at Jesus' desire to (miraculously) come to them, because they have become comfortable living without Jesus' in their midst? Thinking and hoping and praying for some way that they -- by themselves -- can solve the stormy waters?
Peter is the first disciples, and the typical one, but he can become the agent and voice of Satan (16:33). Is Peter's walking on the sea a sign of faith or lack of faith? Is he being like the Tempter who asked, "If you are the Son of God, ...." when he asks, "If it is you, ...." and he seeks proof that Jesus is really present? Is he putting God to the test?
For Matthew, Peter's problem was not only that he took his eyes off Jesus, but that he wanted proof of the presence of Christ, and so left the boat in the first place. . . . The gentle rebuke identifies Peter as the typical disciple in Matthew; 'little faith' is the dialectical mixture of courage and anxiety, of hearing the word of the Lord and looking at the terror of the storm, of trust and doubt, which is always an ingredient of Christian existence, even after the resurrection. The last point is underscored by the peculiar word used here for 'doubt' (distazo), which connotes vacillation, not skepticism. It is used elsewhere in the NT only in Matthew 28:17 of the disciples in the presence of the risen Lord. [p. 328]
So the typical "lesson" derived from this text often borders on the demonic misunderstanding of the nature of faith, which Matthew wants to warn us against. The message is not "If he had enough faith, he could have walked on the water," just as the message to us is not "If we had enough faith, we could overcome all our problems in spectacular ways." This interpretation is wrong in that it identifies faith with spectacular exceptions to the warp and woof of our ordinary days, days that are all subject to the laws of physics and biology. This is wrong because when our fantasies of overcoming this web are shattered by the realities of accident, disease, aging, and circumstance and we begin to sink, this view encourages us to feel guilt because of our "lack of faith."
What if the message of this text were "If he had had enough faith, he would have believed the word of Jesus that came to him in the boat as mediating the presence and reality of God"? Faith is not being able to walk on the water -- only God can do that -- but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves. [p. 329-30]
For a slightly different interpretation, Douglas Hare (Matthew of the Interpretation commentaries) writes:
[The story about Peter] graphically depicts what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, take their first steps in confidence that he is able to sustain them, and then forget to keep their gaze fixed on him instead of on the towering waves that threaten to engulf them. In the depth of crisis, when all seems lost, they remember to call on the Savior, and find his grace sufficient for their needs, whose power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). [pp. 169-70]
What happened to Peter (the "Rock") with his little faith and his doubts? One answer is, "He sank into the sea." Another answer is, "He was saved by Jesus." For most of us whose faith is unable to move mountains and thus must be smaller than mustard seeds (see Mt 17:20); we are assured that even our microscopic faith is sufficient for salvation. In fact, Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) states: "The person of faith is the one who cries out to Jesus in time of need." [p. 132]
Jensen goes on to comment on "little faith:"
Our rational minds push for one or the other. Either the disciples are men of unbelief or they are men of great faith. That's logical. Logical, perhaps, but not true to life. We think of our own lives. Sometimes we believe. Sometimes we have "little faith." Matthew paints a true picture. Simul justus et peccator ["simultaneously saint and sinner" from M. Luther] is a wise analysis of the Christian person. [pp. 132-3]
Disciples, in Matthew, are people who worship and doubt at the same time. Both times this word for "doubt" (distazo) is used in the NT (Mt 14:31; 28:17, the worship of Jesus is also present. (The sentence in Mt 28:17 could read: "They worshiped him and they doubted." "Some" is not in the Greek.)
The ecclesiastical aspect of this text is also conveyed by Matthew's rewriting of the Markan ending of the story. In Mark the disciples are "utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (6:51b-52). [Perhaps Mark could be accused of disciple-bashing.]
Matthew, who generally gives a more positive picture of the disciples, has them "bowing to the ground and worshiping" (the meanings of proskuneo) and confessing, "Truly you are the Son of God." While such actions may or may not have happened by the disciples in a small boat on a lake in Galilee, such responses should happen in every generation from a grateful church that experiences the impossible presence of Christ with it in its mission.
This confession comes as part of a longer discourse about Jesus' identity that begins in 13:54. (V. 53 contains the Matthean formula: "When Jesus had finished these parables..." -- see also 7:28; 11:1; 19:1; 26:1 -- that ends a section.) In vv. 54-58 Jesus is in his hometown and they understand him to be "the carpenter's son." Ch. 14 begins with Herod wondering if Jesus is John the B raised from the dead. However, 14:33 indicates that those who properly worship Jesus identify him as the Son of God, see also 16:16).
The confession about Jesus "truly" being the "Son of God" also occurs at his death by the centurion (Mk 15:39; Mt 27:54). Up until this time in Mark, "Son of God" is spoken only by unclean spirits (3:11; 5:7; also "Son of the Blessed One" spoken by the judging high priest, 14:61).
Similarly, in Matthew "Son of God" is usually spoken by Jesus' enemies: the Tempter (4:3, 6); demoniacs (8:92); the judging high priest (26:63) and the mockers (27:40, 43). Besides the positive confession by the centurion at Jesus' death, it is spoken by the disciples in our text and later by Peter at his confession, (16:16) which God had revealed to him, which makes it sound like he wasn't aware of that title earlier. However, one might conclude that God revealed this truth to Peter through the sinking/saving event in our text.
The proper confession of Jesus as "Son of God" comes at his death and through revelations of God. It is not something that the disciples (neither then nor now) come up with on their own.
There are aspects of this story that suggest a post-Easter event. It is similar to John 21:1-14, where the resurrected Jesus is first unrecognized and when the disciples know who he is, Peter gets out of the boat and comes to Jesus. When the disciples are on the shore, Jesus takes bread and fish and gives it to them -- the same elements in the feeding story before our text (vv. 13-21).
The only other occurrence of the disciples' worshiping Jesus is on the mountain after the resurrection (28:17). As I mentioned earlier, that is also the only other use of distazo = "doubt" in the NT.
Since there are number of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of God walking on the sea (e.g., Job 9:8; Hab. 3:15; Ps. 77:19), it has been argued that this is a theophany: Jesus reveals himself to his disciples (or Matthew reveals to the readers) as God. This is supported by Jesus' reply (14:27), ego eimi = "I am," which could be an allusion to the divine name. However, if this were the only message Matthew intended, he wouldn't need Peter walking on the sea.
In addition, given our theology of the cross, it is safer, I think, to closely relate Jesus being the Son of God with his death than with his mighty acts of power.
There is also an interesting relationship between Matthew's three uses of alethos = "truly". Twice it is used in declarations about Jesus being God's Son (by disciples, 14:33; by the centurion, 27:54). The other time bystanders state to Peter, "Truly you are one of them, for your accent betrays you" (27:73), which Peter denies. Possible sermonic applications, what do our actions (like Jesus) and our words (like Peter) lead others to confess about us? Would they declare: "Truly you are a disciple of Jesus" or have some other declaration about us? If they conclude that we belong to Christ, would we humbly accept their confession (like Jesus) or deny it to protect ourselves (like Peter)?
There are many ways of "sinking" in our faith -- and being saved in spite of our "little faith" -- which only happens because we have a powerful and gracious God
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