Miracles on the Water

            Each of the synoptic gospels recounts two miracles Christ performed on the Sea of Galilee. The first is Jesus calming the storm while the second is the Savior walking on the waters.

Jesus Calms the Storm

            After a long day of teaching people near the shores of Galilee, Jesus proposed to his disciples that they cross over to the other side and continue their work there on the morrow. So they all piled into their boat and began what they thought would be an uneventful trip. But then the weather suddenly changed.

37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” 

Mark 4:37-41 (NRSV)

Walking on the Waters

            After teaching a multitude of people in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee and then feeding them (The Five Thousand), Christ instructed his disciples to take their boat and head to the opposite shore, to the city of Bethsaida. He then dispersed the crowd and retired to a nearby hill where he could pray in solitude. When he finished and returned to the point from which his companions had departed, it was very late, probably around 3:00 a.m.[1]  There Jesus discovered that his disciples, far out on the waters, were in a spot of trouble, and he rushed to help them.

48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded. 

Mark 6:48-51 (NRSV)

          The lessons we commonly derive from these stories—have faith and trust in the Lord, for he can be a calming influence in our lives[2]—are both obvious and don’t seem to require the performance of a miracle. But reading them in context with an eye towards the Old Testament yields a more complex and richer understanding of the evangelist’s message.

            In numerous ancient texts, including the Old Testament, the sea is often associated with evil powers and the Lord is portrayed as combatting the monstrous forces of the deep. For example, when Israel was coping with the storms of war and persecution, it pleaded with God to do to its enemies what he had previously done to the elements:

O Lord God of hosts,
 who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
 Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
  when its waves rise, you still them.
10 
You crushed Rahab [common name for sea monster] like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

Psalm 89:8-10 (NRSVACE)

            The second miracle relates more particularly to several Old Testament passages that reference Yahweh’s power to walk on or through the waves. As Catholic scholar Jeffrey John explains: “Here the writers have in mind both the creation myth of God’s wrestling with the waters of chaos and the Exodus story in which he went ahead of his people to lead them through the sea to freedom.”[3]

16 Thus says the Lord,
    who makes a way in the sea,
    a path in the mighty waters …

Isaiah 43:16 (NRSVACE)

19 Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.

Psalm 77:19 (NRSVACE)

            In both of these miracles, the most essential message Mark is trying to convey is that God—and only God—rules the waves and walks on the waters. It was Yahweh who defeated the primal sea monster and he alone has the capacity to conquer the powers of chaos and evil. And in some miraculous, ineffable way, that same powerful deity is now incarnate and present on earth. 

            In the second miracle—Jesus Walks on Water—Mark tries to drive this point home further, though he does so with great subtlety.

            The most curious line in this story is the statement that Christ, when he ventured on the waters towards his disciples, “intended to pass them by.” (v. 48) This makes little sense since his stated purpose was to join them and help them battle the head wind. But this actually makes a great deal of sense when considered in the context of several Old Testament passages where God reveals himself in “passing by” his people or his prophets, especially where the Lord “passes by” Moses, and discloses to him his glory:

18 Moses said, “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’ [YHWH]

Exodus 33:18-19 (NRSVACE)

            The name that is disclosed to Moses is Yahweh, I AM. And just as with Moses, when Jesus “passes by” the disciples on the water, what he says to his frightened followers is not “It is I,” as most English Bibles mistranslate it, but literally in Greek, “Take heart: I AM (ergõ eimi); have no fear.” This is an unmistakable allusion to the name of the divine used in Exodus 3:14.[4] Christ is subtly revealing to his disciples that he, indeed, is the promised Messiah with the power to calm the seas.

            As Jeffrey John notes, the primary purpose of these two miracles is clear: they, like the Transfiguration, are theophanies, manifestations of Christ’s divinity and his status as God of the Old Testament. But in each instance, the reaction of the disciples is the same. They are astounded and left asking: “Who is this man?” They fail to connect the dots and ultimately prove incapable of solving this mystery until Jesus’s resurrection.

            There are two other valuable messages embedded in the first miracle—the Calming of the Seas—one of which seems obvious once it is brought to your attention; the other, however, is generally overlooked.

            There are striking similarities, as noted by biblical scholar N.T. Wright, between this story and the satirical Old Testament tale of Jonah and the Big Fish.[5] Just like Jonah, Jesus sleeps in the midst of the storm. But unlike Jonah, he succeeds in calming the tempest. Christ also addresses the storm directly while Jonah utters a fruitless prayer.[6] Lastly, Christ’s objective in traversing the Sea of Galilee was to reach Bethsaida, a region with a substantial Gentile (Syrian) population, where he sought to bring, for the first time, his gospel to a non-Jewish audience. Jonah, by contrast, was on a boat for the express purpose of avoiding his obligation to preach to the Gentiles in Nineveh. In this manner, Jesus foreshadows his intent to take his message to the entire world.

            The second noteworthy feature of this story is the use of the word “obey” in the last sentence (“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”) The word “obedience” appears nowhere in the four gospels and the word “obey” is used just a handful of times and only when raging winds and seas are made to yield to the Savior’s will or unclean spirits are compelled to depart upon his command.[7] By contrast, when he taught his gospel, Christ’s tone and language were different. He invited his listeners to “come, follow me,” to “observe all things,” “preach my gospel,” and “keep my commandments.” His message is clear: the elements and Lucifer’s angels are compelled to obey; the children of men are not.

            The ancient Greek word for “obey,” in the few places where it appears in the gospels, is hupakouo, which means to submit; to conform to a command or authority; to listen as a subordinate.[8] By contrast, the Greek word for “keep”—as in “keep my commandments”—is tereo, which means: to hold, watch over, observe, give heed to; to honor.[9] Missing from this definition is any element of compulsion, abuse of authority, or the exercise of unrighteous dominion.  

            Christ wanted people to embrace his teachings because they loved him (“If ye love me, …”), not because they feared damnation. If such love for the Savior is absent, a testimony cannot grow and the individual will lack the ability to discern when to depart from the letter of the law in order to live its spirit, as Jesus did on countless occasions. 

            Further, we are enjoined to love the Lord not just with our hearts but also with our minds. This cannot be done unless we constantly study, probe and question—“seek,” as the scriptures say—and jealously guard what I believe is our most precious gift from God: our agency, without which the atonement is ineffectual. 


[1] According to Matthew, Christ ventured upon the waters during the fourth watch of the night (Matt. 14:25), which, under the four-watch system used by the Roman military, would have been between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Arnold, Clinton E., Editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Volume I. Zondveran, 2002, p. 92.

[2] New Testament: Come Follow Me—For Sunday School. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2019, p. 29.

[3] John, Jeffrey. The Meaning in the Miracles. Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids Michigan, 2004, p. 75.

[4] Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 2007, p. 50.

[5] Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone. West Minster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 87.

[6] See Barton, John and John Muddiman, Editors. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 857.

[7] Mark 1:27; Luke 8:25; Luke 17:6 (NRSV).

[8] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Thompson Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, 1996, p. 438.

[9] Vine’s Complete Expository, pp. 340, 752.

6 thoughts on “Miracles on the Water”

  1. You are quite welcome, Karen. Glad you were able to “endure to the end” of my essay. There was quite a bit of good stuff to harvest from these stories, and I’m confident I only scratched the surface.

  2. Your last two paragraphs are indeed special and with an important emphasis on the WHY Questions that often haunt us. I like the juxtaposition of acting out of love which, in a way, is self interest since all love emanates from self love, but also using your mind to examine, ponder and learn. Ahh the wonderful dichotomy of heart (spirit or soul) and mind that define our adventures on earth. Now if I can only control emotion.

    Christ wanted people to embrace his teachings because they loved him (“If ye love me, …”), not because they feared damnation. If such love for the Savior is absent, a testimony cannot grow and the individual will lack the ability to discern when to depart from the letter of the law in order to live its spirit, as Jesus did on countless occasions.

    Further, we are enjoined to love the Lord not just with our hearts but also with our minds. This cannot be done unless we constantly study, probe and question—“seek,” as the scriptures say—and jealously guard what I believe is our most precious gift from God: our agency, without which the atonement is ineffectual.

  3. These days, Karen, controlling emotion is a constant challenge. But even in normal times, keeping our anger and pride in check is inordinately tricky.

    Thanks, as always, for your perceptive comments.

  4. “Christ wanted people to embrace his teachings because they loved him (“If ye love me, …”), not because they feared damnation.”

    If only we could teach this way. I believe this is true in so many aspects of life. Parenting, the workplace and religion. People, when motivated by love, will do far more for far longer than when motivated by fear. Living in fear of damnation or being fired will only produce minimal results and only for a short period of time until the person just says ‘screw it, I would rather be damned than live in fear.’ At least in my opinion. 🙂

  5. Danielle, I couldn’t agree more. Threatening people with a lesser kingdom or eternal separation from loved ones if they fail to tick every box on the “checklist gospel,” is not a successful retention strategy. More to the point, it’s not very Christ-like.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *