Does walking on water show that Jesus is God?
It’s an iconic moment in the gospel narratives. In the dead of night, in the middle of the sea of Galilee under a ferocious storm, Jesus appears walking on the waves towards his disciples. He calms the sea and the boat is immediately at land and safety. It’s no wonder that the disciples were amazed at this. What did this mean? If Jesus could control creation by walking on the raging sea, does that make him divine? Does walking on water show that Jesus is God?
Do the gospels claim that Jesus is God?
This is a conclusion that many have arrived at. For example:
“Jesus proved Himself to be in command of the elements, something only God can do. He revealed this truth to the disciples who recognized His divinity and responded with a confession of faith in Jesus as God”gotquestions.org
However, it’s curious that the narratives in each of the accounts don’t make that claim explicitly. Instead, we’re invited by proponents of this view to read between the lines.
Turning to Old Testament passages such as Psalm 77 and Job 9:8, where Yahweh himself is said to have a “way through the sea…through the great waters” (Psalm 77:19), they suggest that the gospel writers are hinting at this conclusion in their allusions to these earlier passages. If God is the only one to walk over the waves in the Old Testament, and now Jesus shows up in the New Testament doing the same thing, surely that’s a tell tale sign?
This is most definitely a popular interpretation. The third season finale of The Chosen, (which, I would be the first to say, mostly does a really good job of being faithful to the gospel portrayals of Jesus), dramatically overlays a reading of Psalm 77 onto a portrayal of Jesus walking on the water and its immediate aftermath. The intention is clear: Jesus is understood to be the one and the same divine being who rules creation.
So, are these connections valid? And if so, do they prove that Jesus is God according to the writers of the gospel narratives?
Who is Jesus according to the text?
The first thing to notice is the evidence of the text.
Matthew’s account, as already noted, describes the disciples exclaiming “Truly you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33). That title comes up only a few times in this gospel. In two other occasions it is tied directly to the term “Christ”, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Messiah”, or the anointed king of Israel. Firstly in Matthew 16:16, (“Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.””), and then in Matthew 26:63, (“But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.””).
Matthew has also been clear to emphasise that Jesus is the Son of David, (Matthew 1:1 and 9:27), which is a direct claim that Jesus is a human descendant in the kingly line of David, of the tribe of Judah, and this is comparable to the term “Christ”, the anointed king of Israel. So when the disciples saw Jesus walking on water and called him the Son of God, this wasn’t them claiming that he was also God himself. Instead, this event made the disciples realise that he was the real Messiah, the Son of God and Son of David who would rule as king over God’s kingdom.
Mark doesn’t record the disciples making any claims about Jesus after his walk over the water, but instead links the events directly to the previous miracle when Jesus fed 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
“And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”Mark 6:51-52
Jesus is clearly demonstrating that he wields power and authority over elements of creation, from the sustenance of food and the chaotic weather, but there is no direct interpretation of what that means. John’s account of Jesus walking on the water is very brief and again makes no direct claim. If anything, it’s in context of Jesus claiming to be the bread of heaven, given by God. It’s not a claim to be God himself, but to be the means by which God gives life.
Old Testament echoes
But absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and it may be that these narratives are hinting at this conclusion. What do we make of these parallels to Old Testament poetry that depict God himself walking on water? Here are the main passages:
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.Psalm 77:16-20
Who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.Job 9:6-8
It does seem likely that a parallel to this imagery is intentional. The chaotic water is a powerful metaphor that begins all the way back in Genesis 1:2, and appears in a multitude of different places. God commands the waters in the story of the flood in Genesis 7-9, he controls the storm and the great fish in Jonah 1, and Isaiah 57:20-21 likens the wicked to “the tossing sea” that “cannot be quiet…its waters toss up mire and dirt”. In that way, The Chosen does a great job of bringing to the audience’s attention the rich scriptural imagery that lies behind the New Testament.
But just because Jesus is now walking on water in the New Testament, does that actually equate him with God as the same divine being? There are several other examples of Old Testament passages being reapplied in the New Testament. Characters and events are described with deliberate allusions to things that have been written about before. For example, Jesus spoke extensively about John the Baptist, concluding with this: “All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:13-14). Is John actually Elijah? That would seem a problematic conclusion. Elsewhere it says that John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), and clearly this is what Jesus means.
There are other examples:
- Jesus isn’t actually “Israel” even though Matthew 2:15 quotes Hosea 11:1 applying the passage about Israel’s rescue from Egypt to the experience Jesus was going through.
- Different passages invoke Isaiah 49:6 applying it to both Jesus and Paul, saying that they are “the light for the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47). Does that make Jesus and Paul the same being, seeing as the same Old Testament prophecy has been applied to both of them? Obviously not.
But perhaps when Jesus walked on water this is different? It’s something only God can do, right? Surely that means that we should equate Jesus with the God of the Old Testament who possessed control over the chaos waters?
Given power and authority
Let’s explore that idea by turning back to Psalm 77. It’s originally about the Exodus event and it even recalls that this incredible miracle was performed “by the hand of Moses and Aaron”. Exodus 14:21 tells us that “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Moses performed a miracle, and it demonstrated God’s control over the sea. That doesn’t make Moses God himself. God did a sign and wonder through him.
Crucially, this is how the Israelites understood what had happened. “Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” (Exodus 14:31). They believed in the LORD because he had demonstrated his control over the water, but they also believed in Moses the servant of God. This act established Moses’ credibility as the servant and agent of Yahweh. They saw that God had granted authority and power to this man, and therefore they believed in him.
It turns out that this is a feature of the gospel narratives as well. Jesus is granted authority to forgive sins, (Matthew 9:6-8), showing that he didn’t posses that authority innately. Jesus has been granted the power to have life in himself, (John 5:26), and God has given him authority to execute judgement (John 5:27). Into the New Testament letters, a famous passage in Philippians states that Jesus was bestowed with the name that is above every name. God elevates Jesus into a position of authority, and when every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord, it is all to the glory of God, (Philippians 2:9-11).
So in the context of the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, when Jesus performs something that only God can do, we ought to understand it as God granting him the authority and the power to act on his behalf. The New Testament doesn’t lead us towards the conclusion that this is God himself, but that Jesus is approved by God by the things he is enabled to do. Just as Peter said on the day of Pentecost:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know…Acts 2:22
Others walk on water too
Back to the Exodus, it’s worth noting that it’s Moses, a man, who demonstrates control over the water. Of course, it was God who performed the miracle, but God gave Moses authority. So when Jesus comes across the sea of Galilee, it is indeed unusual, but not so much to be outside the worldview of a mind steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. It doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus is God, not least because God had previously empowered human beings, (including Moses), to exercise the same control over the sea and the waves. Indeed, the disciple Peter walks out onto the waves and for some time walks along the water to Jesus! Back into the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah prayed for rain to end the drought and it came, (1 Kings 18:41-46). We noted earlier how Jesus was granted authority to forgive sins, which is something that ordinarily only God can do, but notice how his disciples are given that same authority, (John 20:23). None of these people, (Moses, Peter, Elijah, nor any of the other 12 disciples), make any claims to be God, despite being granted power by God to do remarkable things. When anyone does something that normally only God can do, it’s a sign that they have been granted power and authority by God. It doesn’t mean that they are God himself.
But remember, Jesus is indeed special
To conclude, there is nothing in the dramatic events on the sea of Galilee that stake a claim about Jesus being part of the deity. But it’s really important to note that this doesn’t suddenly mean that Jesus is just an ordinary man. This stormy night on the sea of Galilee was indeed dramatic. It was powerful evidence to the disciples that they were following a man approved by God. Jesus remains unique and worthy of all our honour and devotion. He is the Son of God and the Son of David, the anointed King of Israel. And when we bow the knee to him, it is all to the glory of God who has enabled and elevated him.
- If you’re interested in hearing more about how the gospels teach us about Jesus, we did a series of six episodes on Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, including Part 5: Who is Jesus?
- We’ve looked at some famous passages about Jesus in the gospel of John including “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and the prologue.
- Several blog posts and episodes touch on aspects of the trinity, opening the conversation about whether or not it is biblical, including “Let us make man in our image”, and a review of some statistics about whether Christians believe Jesus existed before he was born.