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Walking on Water and the Divinity of Jesus

by Brant Pitre October 02, 2020 0 Comments

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Now, most of the Gospel accounts end there, but Matthew gives us something important.  He gives us an additional episode.  He is the Gospel who tells us that not only did Jesus walk on the water, but he invited Peter to come and walk on the water as well.  So in this context, Matthew went on to give an account of Peter walking on the sea where he said “Lord, if it's you, let me come to you on the water.”  So Jesus tells him to “come,” and sure enough this is a classic example, by the way, of impetuous Peter.  Peter is always sticking his foot in his mouth, saying the wrong thing and kind of acting before he thinks.  So Peter says “if it is really you, let me come and I will walk on the water too.”  He wants to share in that.  Just like he will say elsewhere, “everyone else might abandon you, but I'll go to Jerusalem with you, I will die for you.”  So Peter often over estimates his own power, his own faith, and so Jesus says to him “come to me.”  So Peter gets out of the boat and sure enough he actually does walk on the water, and he walks far enough to actually get to Jesus.  But then it says that “when Peter sees the wind, he gets to be afraid.”  In other words, when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to look at the storm and the wind that's raging around him, that's when his faith starts to shrink, that's when his faith starts to fail and he starts to sink into the water.  And so he cries out “Lord, save me.”  And Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him and says these powerful words, he says “oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

These are really powerful words from Jesus there.  I don’t know about you, but I would think that Peter’s faith was pretty great when you think about the fact that he made it from the boat all the way to Jesus before he started to sink.  So he did believe, but even though he was able to believe enough to walk on water, his faith was still small.  It was too small for him to remain there in the face of the storm raging about him, in the face of the wind blowing all about him.  So what was Peter's problem?  He began to doubt, and when he began to doubt he began to sink and Jesus had to save him from that and take him into the boat.  And when he took him into the boat, notice what happens, the wind stopped, the storm ceased, the sea became calm.  And once the Apostles see that, notice their response, this is very important, “those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

There are two elements there that are important to highlight.  First, notice their response, when they see Jesus not just walk on water, but calm the storm, they fall on their knees.  The Greek word here is proskyneō, it literally means to get down prostrate, they prostrated themselves before him.  And it is true that that word can be use to describe the kind of veneration and honor that would be given to kings, for example, like in the pagan world.  But if you look at the Gospel of Matthew, this is important, the word proskyneō, to worship or to fall prostrate, is only ever used for the kind of worship that you give to God and to God alone.  Exhibit A here is from Matthew 4, the famous account of Jesus's temptation by the devil in the desert.  You might recall that in that account the devil says to Jesus “I'll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you simply bow down and worship me,” proskyneō, same word.  And Jesus's response is to quote the Scriptures and say “the Lord is God, him alone shall you serve.”  In other words, him alone shall you worship.  So when the devil asked Jesus to worship him, Jesus says “no, you can only worship God alone” in Matthew 4.  By the time you get to Matthew 14 though, the Apostles fall down and worship Jesus and what is Jesus' response to that?  Does he say “no, no, no, guys, you have me all wrong.  I am just the Messiah.  I am just the king of Israel.  I am just a prophet.  I’m just a great rabbi. I'm just a great teacher.”  Does he deny the worship that they give to him?  No.  He accepts it and he also accepts their title, their confession of faith that they join to their worship.  When they're on their faces they say “truly you are the Son of God.” 

Now in a first century Jewish context, it is true that the expression Son of God was something that could be used for the King.  So for example, in Psalm 2 or 2 Samuel 7, the son of David, the king of Israel, would be also referred to as the son of God, the adopted son of God.  By virtue of his coronation as King, the King would become the adopted son of God and the ruler of the people.  So son of God was an expression to use for the royal son of God, the King of Israel.  But in the context of them falling on their face and worshiping him, they clearly mean something more than just “you're the Messiah.”  They also seem to be worshiping him as if he's a divine king, as if he's the divine Messiah, as if he is the divine Son of God.  And that's your final clue here that this is a theophany, that this is a revelation of Jesus' divinity.  He is not only fully human, he is also fully divine.  You might also call it a Christophany, a revelation of his identity as the Christ, the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  This is a fantastic story from the New Testament, a fantastic account of this miracle in Matthew's Gospel.

Now in order to corroborate or confirm what I'm suggesting here about the miracle being a theophany, all we need to do is go back to the Old Testament and look at the reading that the Church has selected for the first reading.  In this case, surprise, surprise, the first reading is also a theophany.  It is the account of God's appearance to Elijah on Mount Sinai.  This is in 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13.  This is a pretty famous story too, the lectionary gives us the story on more than one occasion, but here it's coupling it with the account of Jesus walking on the water, so let's highlights some elements that are important for that.  1 Kings 19:9 says:

And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Eli’jah?”  And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  And when Eli'jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

So what is going on in this first reading?  A couple of quick points about the context.  First and foremost, the broader context of the story is Elijah’s flight from the wicked Queen Jezebel.  Jezebel was an ancient queen of Israel and she was a wicked queen.  She was completely opposed, especially to Elijah and to the prophets of God, and she had many of them slaughtered.  So Elijah flees from the land of Israel and he goes down to Sinai, he goes down to Mount Sinai, the very mountain where God had appeared to Moses in the deserts of Sinai.  So the second part of the context that is important, is what mountain he's on.  He is in a cave on the mountain of Moses.  So that already is a clue to you that when the book of Kings says that “the Lord passed by,” it is describing a theophany.  When the book of Kings uses the expression the “Lord passed by,” it means that he appeared to him, that he visited Elijah, that he came down from heaven to be with Elijah.  There is a cajun expression, cajun people will say “I'll make a pass by your house.”  What does that mean?  It means I want to come and visit you.  It actually has the same kind of connotation in Hebrew.  When the Lord passed by, he visits Elijah, he appears to him in a theophany.

Now, this theophany is a little interesting though because God comes to visit Elijah not in the ways that you might expect.  So there is a strong wind, but God is not in the wind.  There is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  There is fire that appears.  We are not sure exactly what that meant, it might have meant that lightning strikes or something like that, or it might mean something like the supernatural fire of the glory cloud in the Old Testament, or the fire that consumed the burning bush on Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.  You have all these visible manifestations, but interestingly the book of Kings says that God wasn't in any of those visible manifestations.  Rather, he appeared to Elijah in a still, small voice.  The New American Bible has here “a tiny, whispering sound.”  Either one of those translations works, although the Hebrew there is the word qōl, which can mean sound, but frequently means voice.  It's the voice of the Lord, but it is like a whispering voice.  It is in the quiet, it's in the stillness that God manifests himself, that he passes by Elijah.  Now notice this, even though God comes to him in that intimacy, Elijah knows that he cannot look upon God.  He can't see the face of God and live, that's a basic Old Testament teaching.  So when comes out of the cave to encounter God, he wraps his cloak, he wraps his mantle around his face and he goes out to meet the Lord.

So what's going on here?  Why is this passage chosen as the Old Testament reading for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time?  Well because it's like in anticipation of what's going to happen in the New Testament.  Just as God appears on occasion to his prophets and his people, his chosen people in the Old Testament in the form of theophanies, so too Christ is now going to reveal God to his people, to the apostles, in the Christophanies of the New Testament.  He's going to show his power over the wind and the waves and the sea when he walks on the water and takes the divine name as his own.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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