In Western culture, we often describe people with significant talent and capacity as being able to walk on water. For generations, we have used walking on water as a metaphor for accomplishing great things.
Even many non-Christians may know that this metaphor originates from the Biblical account of Jesus walking on water.
But those not familiar with the gospels might be surprised to learn that Jesus wasn’t the only one to walk on water. So who was it that joined Jesus for a stroll on the surface of the water? Peter was the disciple who walked to Jesus on the water.
In this article, we take a closer look at Peter’s involvement in this story, and why it matters.
First, What Happened?
The story of Jesus walking on water is recorded in three of the four gospels (Matthew 14:22-36, Mark 6:45-56, and John 6:16-24). Each account records this event as taking place on the Sea of Galilee on the night immediately following Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5000 people.
The Common Details
Certain other details are common to all three narratives as well. In each account, Jesus stayed behind on the shores of Galilee while the disciples got into their boat and made their way across the sea. At some point during the night, the wind grew stronger, making the journey more difficult for the disciples.
During this time, Jesus walked across the surface of the lake to the disciples. Upon seeing Jesus, the disciples thought he was a ghost, and cried out in fear. But Jesus assured them of who he was, and they let him into the boat. After Jesus joined the disciples in the boat, the wind calmed down and they completed their journey across the lake without further incident.
A Notable Distinction
Matthew’s account of this event, by far the longest and most detailed of the three, includes a scene that is not recorded by Mark or John. After Jesus assuaged the disciples’ fear by announcing himself, Peter asked Jesus to prove it was really him by commanding Peter to walk on the water. Jesus obliged and called Peter out onto the water. So Peter stepped out of the boat and walked across the lake surface toward Jesus.
Matthew also tells us that Peter’s trek did not last. While walking, Peter turned his attention to the wind, became afraid, and began to sink. Jesus reached out and caught Peter, and afterward, they both climbed into the boat.
Why are the Stories Different?
When comparing the three gospel accounts, one might wonder why only Matthew records Peter walking on the water. Should we take this to mean that it didn’t happen, since neither John nor Mark include this portion of the story?
Of course not.
Just as in modern journalism, writers recounting the same event include or emphasize different details according to their journalistic objectives, their audience, or their perspective.
The same thing happens throughout the gospel narratives.
Each writer has a specific purpose for recording their gospel narrative. When we examine the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water against the backdrop of the overarching thread of each gospel, it makes sense that only Matthew would record Peter’s particular involvement in this story.
Matthew’s gospel is written specifically for a Jewish audience. As such, he places the greatest emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ teachings on Hebrew law, and Jesus’ miraculous signs.
While all of the gospel writers record Jesus’ miracles, Matthew places particular emphasis on the miracles that demonstrate Jesus’ authority over nature, and the rescue of his people from natural forces.
By including Peter’s walk on the water, as well as his failure, Matthew’s gospel resonates with an audience whose identity is rooted in their rescue from bondage by crossing the Red Sea. Both the hand of God and a physics-defying passage across the water are evident in Matthew’s account.
Why not Mark?
Those familiar with New Testament studies know that Mark’s gospel is sourced primarily from Peter’s account of the events. Both Acts 12:12 and 1 Peter 5:13 attest that Mark is a close associate of Peter. And early church writings affirm that Mark, acting as Peter’s scribe, recorded the events taught to him by Peter.
Perhaps because Mark’s gospel originated with Peter’s eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry, Peter’s personal involvement in the events is deemphasized in Mark’s gospel. The most plausible explanation for this is that Peter chose to draw attention away from himself and toward Jesus when recounting his experiences.
Where more prominent attention is given by Mark to Peter, such attention is directed toward Peter’s shortcomings. For example, only Mark mentions Peter by name when Jesus admonishes the disciples for falling asleep during their vigil in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:37).
Why not John?
John’s choice to exclude Peter’s walking on water is likely based more on the purpose of his gospel than on his understanding or recollection of the particular details. John’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ divine nature. John highlights Jesus’ prayers and his teachings, particularly those shared privately with his disciples, more than Jesus’ actions.
Also, writing later than the other evangelists, John uses brief references to the stories already recorded in other gospels as a means of establishing the chronology, setting, or key players of his own account. For example, John refer to ‘the twelve,’ (John 6:67) without naming or identifying the disciples. And he refers to John the Baptist in a way that assumes the reader already knows his story (John 3:24).
Similarly, John has no need to include Peter’s involvement in the water-walking scene, because in John’s gospel this scene only serves as a bridge between the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ teachings on the bread of life (a lengthy teaching that is unique to John’s gospel).
Peter’s trek across the water is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel, but we can still count on it as reliable scriptural truth. This detail provides the right material for Matthew’s particular purpose and objective as an evangelist. And further, it provides valuable insight and inspiration for Christians today as we take bold and daring steps on our own faith journeys.