“Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.” (Matthew 14:25)
Like the events immediately preceding this episode of Christ walking on water, namely, His feeding of the 5,000 men plus women and children with five loaves of bread and two fish, we have to look beyond the literal, historical details to realize the true significance of what Christ did in and for His disciples. In the feeding of the 5,000 in a material way, Jesus simply provided food for hungry followers with leftovers to spare (Matt. 14:13-21). Later, however, Jesus asked His disciples: “How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?” (Matt. 16:11). Specifically as explained at length in John chapter 6, the people wanting to make Jesus an earthly provider-king having seen what He did (Jn. 6:15), the feeding of the multitude was a sign of a more essential food the Lord came to give – His own flesh and blood for eternal life. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (Jn. 6:63).
So we need to understand what happens next likewise in a spiritual manner, especially because they involve not just the general multitude, but the disciples in particular. Jesus “made His disciples get into the boat” while He dismissed the crowd and “went up on the mountain by Himself to pray,” and while praying all night privately, the disciples struggled in the boat against the wind only to get halfway across the sea of Galilee by the “fourth watch of the night,” that is, just before dawn somewhere between 3:00 and 6:00 A.M.
It is then that Jesus came walking on the water by the boat (Matt. 14:22-25). What is the spiritual meaning? Prayer is the pre-eminent activity of a godly life. Praying quietly in communion with God produces greater progress through life than struggling together with others at some mundane task, even if that task seems necessary to advance through life. The waters churned up by the wind is an image of the world and its people through which the followers of Christ journey (Ps. 76:17-21; Dan. 7:2f.; Rev. 17:1, 15). Yet Christ has no need of a vehicle (boat) to cross the turbulent sea of life, just as He has no need for merely physical food to sustain Him. “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (Jn. 4:34). Faith and devotion to God’s will enable us to journey over the cares, difficulties, and opponents in this life to the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus walks on water revealing Himself not only as God who has power over all the forces of nature, but He enjoins us disciples to participate in that same power. Jesus “went to them” who had struggled all night, and in their bewilderment at seeing Him walking on water, immediately Jesus spoke to them: “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” Thus in a spiritual manner of faith, Peter responded: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water”; and, after giving the command, Peter got out of the boat and also “walked on the water to go to Jesus” (Matt. 14:25-29).
Peter actually walked on water just as Jesus was walking on the water! This is the ultimate spiritual lesson for us all: what Christ does for the salvation of the world, He enjoins us to do as well. “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Lk. 10:16). “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 14:12-13). “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:21-22).
Peter walked on water just as Jesus did! The spiritual lesson is incredibly real and possible. “But when [Peter] saw the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased” (Matt. 14:30-32).
Our journey through this world is a work in progress, our Lord giving us communion in the ultimate, brilliant grace of the Kingdom, but at the same time condescending to our level (getting in the boat with us) in order to spur us forward according to our ability to believe when we waver. In the midst of all the successes and failures, we disciples must continue to confess the truth we have witnessed as we worship Jesus Christ: “Truly You are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Our confession only becomes more sure as we cling to Christ in faith and love following Him to the Cross and Resurrection, learning His commandments of the Kingdom of heaven, and drawing nearer to God in the communion of prayer.