Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).

When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain.  At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water.  It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder.  How did it do that?

My brother Scott explained:  “Surface tension,” he said.  Something about the way the water molecules held together.  If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other.  I was fascinated.  I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”

On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us.  Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water.  I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing.  That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water.  It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air.  But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.

This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water.  For some people that’s a problem.  Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did.  Luke may have been one of them.  Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke.  Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it?  There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading.  They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.

They gag on a story too big to swallow.

I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more.  If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about.  Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes.  “All of it?”  Yes.  “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?”  Yes.  “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?”  Um…maybe.  “Aha!  An unbeliever!”  Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts?  “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church.  If you’re not sure, sit over there.  If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back.  If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”

We could do that.  In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship.  But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief?  I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable!  Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other.  What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others?  Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest?  And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith?  I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive.  Does that mean their faith is strong?  Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?

Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way.  When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.  To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave.  But even before that the Bible is the Word of God.  It is how God talks to us.  Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

Did it actually happen this way? but,

What on earth is God trying to say? 

What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too?  Let’s take a closer look…


This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture.  If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.

10 thoughts on “Did Jesus Really Walk on Water?

  1. Since you mention me by name in the story, Jim, I’ll pop in with two small comments.

    First, although I think it does Christians no good to fight over who has the most faith, it DOES matter what kind of faith we have.

    When Jesus said, “Be it unto you according to your faith,” He certainly knew that there would be folks who just couldn’t believe in mountain-moving miracles. I’d rather be the kind of person who builds up the faith to walk on water with Jesus (and Peter) than the kind of person who explains away the many miracles (then and now) that God so gladly and so continuously performs.

    My second comment is a more personal note on my answer to the question. For me, asking “Did Jesus really walk on water” includes taking a deeper look at science. I was a full-blown geek when I said “surface tension” (at age 7 or so), and I’m even geekier now. The more I learn about 21st century science, the less I doubt the Gospel stories. There are top-notch quantum physicists who insist that the laws of nature allow literally ANYTHING to happen–up to and including hiking across the Sea of Galilee. If the scientists have withdrawn their objections to the Gospel story, my doubts about it are really doubts about the goodness and power of God, not about the reality or consistency of science.

  2. I don’t recall who said it but I go along with the quotation (this is a paraphrase), “I believe everything the Bible says is true, and that some of it actually happened.” For example, the truth revealed in the story of Adam and Eve in my opinion is absolutely true. Whether God created man out of dirt or via evolution, there had to be a first man and a first woman. I’ve no doubt the first man and woman exercised free will, because that’s what humans as opposed to animals do, and in doing so they did as the pleased and probably did not consult the Spirit within, i.e., God. Then they suffered the consequences. But did the episode with the actually happen as told in the story? Does it really matter?

    Did the sun actually stand still? Seems a bit farfetched, and anyway it would have to have been the earth that stood still — not the sun. Did Jesus walk on water? I believe he actually might have done so. I’m convinced the power of belief can be awesome. If Jesus truly believed he could, which I imagine he did, then, yes, he walked on water.

  3. Technically, the sun DID stand still… but then, it always does. The way I see the Joshua and the sun story, God gave Joshua what he asked for AND what he said: the sun stood still (as usual) and the day also lasted much longer (which was very UNUSUAL).

  4. ” Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

    Did it actually happen this way? but,

    What on earth is God trying to say? ”

    It did happen this way AND God is saying that Jesus is his Son; God-Man; fully God and fully Man. Therefore, as God, he can suspend nature’s laws and he can do whatever he wills. If you can’t believe that Jesus, the God-Man, walked on water and allowed Peter to do the same, then you certainly can’t believe the Gospel, that Jesus was born of a Virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross and was bodily resurrected after being dead three days…just so we pitiful sinners could have our sins forgiven and live with God forever. Which part of that sentence is the harder to believe? If you can believe the second half then you should have no trouble believing the first half. If you can’t believe the first half, then there is NO WAY you can believe the second.

  5. Sally, there are lots of people who say, “I believe, help my unbelief!” My heart goes out to Christians who KNOW that “God so loved the world,” but just can’t trust that He actually loves them. My heart ALSO goes out to people who put their hope in Jesus but can’t imagine water turning into wine.

    We could all sit around and “argue about who believes the Bible more,” but it would be kinder and humbler to encourage some people who are fainthearted (I Thess. 5:14) rather than admonishing them for being unruly (also I Thess. 5:14). If a brother or sister says “I know more than God and I don’t believe the Bible!) then they deserve our loving rebuke. If somebody says, “How can these things be?” (like Mary) they may need all the help we can give them to build up a mustard seed’s worth of faith.

  6. When I was taking Biology, at Bristol Tennessee High School(“Go Vikings!”;>), I used to go over to the King College woods to do biology observations and to conduct some experiments. I was always fascinated by the water striders in a walled in spring they had there. Somehow they made the story of Jesus walking on water more believable. Even so, back then I did have some struggles with my faith. However, those struggles were caused not by what the Bible said but by the way people in church treated me like, for example, when some fellow, high school Sunday School students told me, one Sunday, that they felt like my family was not good enough to attend our church, as if the church was a country club whose membership was based on income and appearance and so forth. I think that the churches should continue to say that miracle stories, told in the Bible are true (personally, I think that they are true), however, that all of the Biblical truths should be shared in love and kindness in order that the person questioning them can be attracted to our loving God Who created the world and provided for the miracles to happen for our good.By the way, I first heard of the great Richmond Preacher Rev. John Jasper from your predecessor Dr. Luther Joe Thompson. I found Rev. Jasper’s sermon, “De Sun Do Move” to be very touching and I look forward to meeting him in heaven some day. http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/vbha/6th5.html

  7. I love it that God is always, always one step ahead of us. I love it that God is smarter than we are, more glorious than anything we could dream of, that God can do more than we think possible. He was here before Adam and Eve took their first breaths. I just love that. Walking on water is not a defiance, but an affirmation of faith ~~~ to step out and trust that God will not let us go. He is our Father, afterall.

  8. Who wrote the Bible? All of it was written by Jews. Jesus was a Jew. Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul were all Jews. So how did Jews write scriptures? They did not do documentaries. They told stories. Moses was a great person. If another great person came along the Moses’ stories were repeated about the new great person. There are four stories about the separation of waters to allow people to cross a stream. But when Jesus came on the scene, he was so great, he split the Heavens after John baptised him. So Jesus walking on the water is another story like the Jordan River being split so a great person could cross it safely. Did Jesus walk on water? No. It is another story (fish tale) in the Bible. What was the purpose of the Jesus walking on the water? I don’t know, maybe the disciples needed a show and tell story.

  9. Jesus walking on water may be hard to believe for you Mason, but we need
    to look at the entire life span of Jesus , what he teaching and performed, there
    were countless miracles just as hard to believe as walking on water, to name
    a few, Jesus resurrection , Lazaro , Jesus expel the unclean spirit, etc…
    then I don’t think Jesus walked on water is something not possible to believe.
    For God has said , we human do not think like he does, we are basically God’s creatures, our intelligent is definitely limited in what science and real miracles will always be in contracdiction and never be justify..

  10. Jesus did not walk on water comon sense duh if you are stupid
    Enough to believe in god with all his alleged powerhe has not made
    A single amputees limbs grow back.but he is good at killing
    And helping baseball players hit home runs

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