We see the next step in Jesus’ teaching when He walks on the Sea of Galilee and allows Peter to walk on the water too (Matthew 14.22-36). This is a story about the disciples’ slow growth in faith. Peter began in faith, but his faith wavered, and he began to sink. The story teaches that we will only grow strong in faith when we keep our eyes on Jesus, the source of our faith, and do not turn aside to fret over threatening circumstances.
The story of Peter walking on the water is unique to Matthew. Mark and John tell about Jesus walking on the water, but their stories do not include the incident with Peter.
The story does not begin with Jesus walking on the water. It begins with Jesus sending the disciples away in a boat while He dismisses the crowds and goes up a mountain by Himself to pray. Taken together, the Gospels give three reasons why Jesus stayed behind and dismissed His disciples: (1) He wanted to be alone to pray (Mt.14.23; Mk.6.46), (2) He wanted to escape the crowds and get some rest Mk.6.31-32), and (3) He wanted to defuse the popular movement that would have made Him a king by force (Jn.6.15).
These fit together nicely and are obviously all part of one picture. If the people were beginning to talk about making Jesus a king, which is what John specifically reports, it was likely that the disciples would have been swayed by the grassroots movement. Jesus sent them off to isolate them from these popular sentiments and at the same time dismissed the crowds to keep this demand from growing.
It was a critical moment in His ministry, and Jesus must also have felt a need for serious prayer. The people were offering a smaller version of what the devil had offered in the wilderness: “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” All Jesus had to do was bow to popular opinion, as earlier He had been asked to worship Satan. In the first case Jesus had spent forty days in prayer before the devil came to Him. Here He needed to spend at least a few hours.
Jesus sent the disciples away and dismissed the crowds before it got dark, perhaps by 7:00 or 8:00 at night, and Jesus prayed from that hour until He came to the disciples during the fourth watch of the night. Early in their history, the Jews had divided the night into three watches. At this point, however, they were following the Roman system, which included four watches and assigned to the fourth the hours between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. This suggests that Jesus had been praying for six or seven hours and that the disciples had been rowing for the same length of time. Crossing the lake would normally not have taken that long, but a storm had come up suddenly, and the boat was being buffeted by waves and wind.
Jesus must have seen all this from the mountain. He did not need some supernatural insight to know what was happening. But Jesus did exercise His divine power when He went to them walking on the waves. The disciples were terrified when they saw Him. They thought they were seeing a ghost, but that was probably not their only reason for being afraid. Most likely they took the apparition for an omen warning them that they were doomed men and were going to drown.
When Jesus came walking on the water, He was filling a role that in the Old Testament was reserved for God alone. An example is Job 9.8, which says, “[God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” It may be too much to suggest that a verse such as this was on Matthew’s mind as he recorded this story, even less that he expected his readers to make this connection. But there may be something to be said for this connection. For one thing, in Mark’s parallel account he says that Jesus seemed to be about “to pass by them,” using a verb that occurs in Job 9:11. Again, when Jesus calms the disciples’ fear, using the words “It is I,” what He utters is actually the personal name of God, Jehovah, which means “I am.” “I am” is the literal rendering of Matthew’s quotation. The thought that Jesus was demonstrating His deity by walking on the water may have been a part of the oral tradition that both Matthew and Mark knew and were using.
As soon as the disciples understood that the figure they saw walking on the water was Jesus, Peter asked to come to Him, walking on the water himself. “Lord, if it is you,” he cried, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
Charles H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, believed that Peter was out of line to make this request. “What did Peter want with walking on the waters?” Spurgeon queried. Spurgeon suggested that his name, Peter, which means “rock,” might have warned him that “like a stone he would go to the bottom.… Surely, he wist not what he said.” Spurgeon reasoned that when Jesus told Peter to walk toward him, knowing he would sink, it was to teach him a practical lesson. He was not to do anything as foolish as this in the future.
Such an interpretation is probably a bit too harsh, since Jesus’ rebuke is not for Peter’s impetuous faith but for his vacillating faith once he had started out. Most people see Peter’s request as brave and faithful, and they are probably right to understand the story that way. Whatever the case, we are sometimes too presumptuous. We do ask to do what we are not called to do and often flounder in our attempts.