Who Knew Not Walking on Water was so Controversial! (A Bit of a Response)

My post from earlier in the week about walking on water (or not, as the case may be), has proved to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written, and lots of people have been in touch in various ways either to critique it or ask questions. (To be fair, it's probably also the post that's had the most encouraging feedback as well.) Now, of course in writing a short blog post, I didn’t show all my exegetical working (after all, it’s not a maths exam), but as it’s raised questions, let me show a bit more of the background thinking and respond to some of the objections. This post is really written as a reply to some comments from Chris Anthony which ended up being far too long for the comments section (so that’s why it looks like a response to an individual, because in a sense it is). However, as Chris raised some of the common points brought up by several others elsewhere, I thought it would be helpful to post this reply in its own right. You can see Chris’ comments at the bottom of the original post, and I’ve replied to some issues there already (like the text of Job 9:8).

Peter may have walked on water for a moment. I’ve been aware of that all along as it (seems to be) stated explicitly in the text. (In fact, it may well be an inceptive aorist here, meaning that he stepped onto the water to begin to walk, but without any implication that he succeeded in walking at all. But for the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just read it as ‘walked’ here.) So my claim from Job 9 has always been in the full consciousness of Peter walking on the water. Which means that I’m convinced that Peter doesn’t contradict or undermine that argument. Why not?

Well, first of all, there is a very big difference between Peter’s (momentary) walking on water, and Jesus’. The boat was ‘in the middle of the sea’ (v.24), so Jesus had to walk a considerable distance across the sea by Himself. Peter doesn’t walk any distance at all – Jesus is already there close to the boat by that stage (they can both see Him and hear what He says above the howl of the wind and waves) – and Peter doesn’t even make it all the way to Jesus. Peter walks ‘to go to Jesus’ (v.29 - ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν); he doesn’t succeed in walking even as far as those few steps.

But yet he must manage a few steps, as the text does indeed say he ‘walked’ (v.29 – providing we ignore the inceptive aorist point above). So he walked, but not hugely successfully and no distance at all. His walking is in complete contrast to the way Jesus walked out to the middle of the sea, unaided, by Himself. You see, that’s the other thing about Peter’s walking; he doesn’t walk by himself. He doesn’t walk unaided. He must rely on Jesus for his walking.

So, Jesus independently and without difficulty walks across the sea. Peter dependently takes a few faltering steps. In no way can we say that Peter did what Jesus did. Jesus showed who He is by walking in His own power. Peter was completely dependent on Christ’s power. Both sets of walking fit together with the fact that only the God-Man has the power to walk upon the waves. So Peter’s walking is a subsidiary of Christ’s walking. It is only in and through Christ that Peter, even for that brief moment, walks. And the complete contrast between his walking and Jesus’ walking highlights that. Jesus is the true walker on water.

Yet, just because Peter does walk for a moment on the water, doesn’t mean that his response was the right response. You seem to want to set up a contrast between the other disciples thinking it’s a ghost and Peter who believes it’s Jesus, but that ignores the fact that verse 27 comes in the middle. When we’re told of the disciples in verse 26 thinking that it was a ghost, that includes Peter. He doesn’t stand in contrast to them. Then in verse 27 Jesus speaks and identifies Himself by saying ‘It is I’ (ἐγώ εἰμι – I AM – the very name of God), thus dispelling their notions of a ghost. Yes, Peter’s the only one who speaks now, but he’s not the only one who has heard the Lord’s voice, and if there’s anything we should know about Peter in the Gospels it’s that he has a terrible tendency to act rashly (in the wrong way).

And when he acts here, he explicitly questions Christ’s Word. Christ says ‘It is I’; Peter says ‘if it is you.’ Christ has given a sure word. Peter doubts it and wants further proof. You argue that here ‘Peter does the "biblical" thing and consults the Word personified (Jesus) about His specific will in this case’, but that isn’t the case at all (and in two ways, for two reasons.) Firstly, he isn’t consulting Jesus about His specific will in this case. Far from it! He doesn’t say ‘if it is your will, command me to come to You on the water’, but rather ‘if it is You.’ That’s a huge difference. He’s not seeking Christ’s will, but rather the opposite: he’s doubting Christ’s word and imposing his will on Christ! Secondly, you make the assertion that the ‘biblical’ thing to do is consult ‘the Word personified (Jesus) about His specific will in this case.’ I’m somewhat confused by this point, as I don’t see how it is the ‘biblical’ thing to do. When the LORD revealed Himself to Moses or Ezekiel or Isaiah, they fell down in worship, they didn’t stop first and enquire about His specific will in this situation.

I agree that Peter (momentarily) acted in faith upon the Word of the Lord when Jesus said ‘Come’ (otherwise he could never have walked even a step on the water). But that doesn’t remove his questioning/doubting from the text in the previous verse. And it doesn’t prove that Peter’s reaction was right. In fact, what Peter is doing is putting the Lord His God to the test. Rather than trusting the Word, He seeks a miraculous sign! You shift the emphasis onto Christ’s word ‘Come’, but to do so you’re taking the emphasis off His Word ‘ἐγώ εἰμι – I AM’ and His self-revelation through the walking on water. Peter might obey Christ’s word to come, but he only received that word because he didn’t trust the word Christ had already spoken. (By the way, the reference to Luke 1:37 is a red herring, and does nothing more than make a few theological presuppositions explicit.)

Anyway, you say that ‘reading this episode as a reason for not having to do what Christ does in this case is dangerously close to supporting a passive approach to Christianity and to responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.’ However, first of all, the text never says that Peter was prompted by the Spirit. To suggest that he was is simply reading into the text what isn’t there. This pericope just isn’t about the prompting of the Spirit; it’s about the identity of Jesus.

Secondly, I’m not reading it as a reason for not having to do what Christ does; rather, I’m responding to the (false) assumption that it tells us we must do what Christ does. You see, if we read every Gospel text as if it tells us that we must do everything that Christ does, then where is the uniqueness of Christ? What have we done to His pre-eminence? And very worryingly, what have we done to the gospel? For the gospel is not the message of ‘Do what Jesus does!’ No! The Gospel is the message of what Jesus has done for us, in our place. That He has done what we cannot do, and so salvation comes, not from ourselves, but entirely from Christ. The cry of the Four Evangelists is not ‘Copy Christ’, but ‘Trust in Christ.’

And that’s exactly what Matthew is getting at as he records this incident. Peter doesn’t trust Jesus’ self-revelation. He questions the Word of the Lord, and, if it’s really Jesus, he wants to DO something to get to Him. (Remember, they’re in the middle of the storm, and Peter doesn’t say ‘If it’s really you Lord, calm the storm.’ No, he wants to get to DO something. He wants to play his part.)

So, Jesus teaches him an important lesson by saying come. Either it’s an inceptive aorist and Peter sinks the moment he steps into the water or Christ’s Word brings with it faith by which Peter takes a few steps, before turning his trust back to himself and seeing his inability in the face of the strong wind. Either way, before long he’s trusting in what he can do himself to get to Jesus.

Essentially it’s a law-gospel demonstration. Peter very vividly sees his own inability and helplessness and so all he can do is cry out to the Lord for salvation. And Jesus saves.

Which brings us to the issue of union with Christ. The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ through faith. So if Peter did take a few steps in faith, then when he walked on the water, he did so in union with Christ (the only one who can truly walk upon the waves of the sea). Only the God-Man walks on the waters, but we walk on them in Him. Only, I’ve never walked on water. And neither have you. So how do we walk on the waters in Him?

Well, you see, there’s still a bit more going on here. When does Jesus walk on the water? Matthew doesn’t tell us, but John does. It was at Passover. The Passover before the Cross. In John’s Gospel, all 3 Passovers point to the ultimate fulfilment of Passover on Good Friday at the Cross. This is the middle Passover, and Jesus feeds the 5000 and walks on the water.

But this post is already long enough, so let me come back to that next time…