Stay in the Boat: Rereading Peter’s Walk on Water

Here is a fact from scripture that is relatively well known because it is often discussed: Jesus was not the only one to walk on water. Famously, Peter did, too, for the span of what would appear to have been a few halting steps. The scene is familiar to many, as it is practically a staple in contemporary writings and teaching aimed at Christians. And (in my view) the scene is widely misconstrued.

Specifically, when Peter walked on water, it is widely held that he did something laudable and important, something you and I ought to emulate. There is a Christian book whose title makes this suggestion: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg). Yet if we do indeed desire to “walk on water”—whether in reality or in the symbolic equivalent of stepping out into some similarly great action—is this a desire we should act upon?

In examining the details of this passage of scripture, I would like to point out that we are in fact not called by this passage to attempt to walk on water the way Peter did. And therefore we also are not called by this passage to pursue some symbolic equivalent of this act in our lives.

We are not called to do what Peter did, because in this story, Peter was disobedient.

I’ll develop this. First, here is the complete passage of scripture describing the scene:

Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning, he came toward them walking on the sea.  When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 

Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come!” he said.

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

—Matthew 14:22-33

This incident occurs only once in time and once in the Bible. After the scene above, never again in scripture do we hear of Peter or any other disciple attempting to walk on water. And only thanks to one gospel writer do we learn of this scene. While Matthew, Mark, and John all recount the same incident of Jesus walking out across the sea, Matthew alone mentions Peter’s similar act. In all this, we see that the people who were witness to Peter’s act and knowledgeable about it do not seem to have responded as though Peter did something exemplary or even significant. Why?

I believe it helps to highlight seven points:

(1) At the start of the passage above, Jesus gave his men a command. He wanted them to get into the boat; he wanted them to travel to the other side of the lake.

(2) When Jesus walked out onto the water to meet the boat a mile from shore, his disciples thought he was a ghost. When they heard their Lord’s voice say, “It is I,” they knew differently.

The text does not state explicitly they knew differently, but we hear no more about their fear after this point. And Peter knows, because he now addresses Jesus as “Lord” and he asks something of him, a call and an empowerment, that he could only expect Jesus to grant.


(3) Peter apparently chose to forsake this knowledge, not accepting Jesus’ statement of identification. In the hope of something more, some special treatment, he asked the Lord to prove himself. If it is you, Peter asked, then give special notice to me.

Again, Peter knew this was Jesus. And Jesus had already given a command (point 1) that Peter now chose to ignore.

And yet....

(4) God honors our choice to be disobedient. He does not wreak vengeance when we go our own way. He even sustains us through the peril of the way we have chosen. Thus, Peter asked the Lord, “Command me to come.” And as requested, though it was contrary to what Jesus had previously commanded, he gave Peter this new command.

But look what happens:

(5) As soon as Peter found himself in perceivable danger, he embraced what he knew all along. That is, as soon as he was sinking, his words were no longer, “If it is you.” All of a sudden, his words became, “Lord, save me!” The truth of Peter’s willfulness was revealed.

(6) Look who gets rebuked in this story. Once the rescue has been made and the story is done, who gets scolded? Answer: Just one person. Contrary to the premise of the book title mentioned earlier, Jesus has no criticism for the people who stayed in the boat.

(7) At last, when Jesus got into the boat—that is, when Jesus joined his disciples in the place where he asked them to be—there was peace. As scripture says, the wind ceased.

Peter in this scene was disobedient. He sought to practice something like the power of Jesus for the sake of his personal glory or thrill. We are not called to this personal exaltation. Peter fell. Jesus saved him. Thereafter, Peter was never seen to attempt something like walking on water again. Much later, when Peter was at sea and he saw the risen Jesus on shore, Peter jumped into the water and swam (John 21:7).

We consider Peter’s action to have been exemplary because he performed a miracle. However, Jesus cares nothing for miracles, at least not in and of themselves. To the ones who claim to belong to him because of the miracles they have done in his name, Jesus says, “I never knew you; away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). In the incident of walking on water, Peter’s miracle was self-aggrandizing and vain. The call of the Lord is not like this. The Lord calls us into faith because of the power our transformed lives will have in advancing his kingdom, whether that happens by miracle or not.

Thus, the way of Jesus is potentially very simple. It might even be peaceful in the midst of the storm. The Lord has work that he leads us through. He has places he assigns us and he has roles for us to perform. Our time within these places and roles is brief, amounting to just a short journey, a little time within a boat. If the Lord calls you into such a vessel, how do you come to believe the better choice is to step out of it?