Jesus and the Sea
In the Gospels, there are two incidents where Jesus shows his power over the sea. He calms a raging storm of wind and waves (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:36-41, Luke 8:22-25) and he walks on sea in the midst of a storm (Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-51, John 6:15-21). These are not just simply a “display of power.” Like all of the miracles, these two draw upon some aspect of Yahweh’s activity in the Old Testament and Israel’s messianic expectation.. These two Gospel stories tie into an Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern theme we looked at together a few weeks ago: Yahweh tames the watery chaos. Keeping that theme in mind will help us appreciate more the theological depth of Jesus’ acts that might otherwise be missed.
Jesus makes the wind and waves stop
Up to this point Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by some healings (which were enough to make the people take notice) and some powerful and challenging speeches, such as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. But this act of calming the storm raises the ante: it shows that the healer and teacher also controls the elements of the created order—specifically, the sea. This act is infused with theological significance.
Jesus and his disciples get into their boat, and without warning find themselves surrounded by violent wind and frothy waves that surely signal their doom. They wake the napping Jesus and complain that their end is near. Jesus chides them for their lack of faith—which here means “trust”—and “rebukes” the wind and waves (Matthew 8:26), and returns the sea to utter calm.
Putting the sea back in its place and keeping people from harm is an unmistakable allusion to God’s work in the Old Testament. God tamed the watery chaos in Genesis 1, bringing the swirling, chaotic, primeval waters under control. Psalm 104:7 puts it this way: “At your rebuke, the waters fled.” As we saw in some of my earlier posts, this “defeat of watery chaos” is also seen in the flood story and the crossing of the Red Sea: divine deliverance from a watery threat.
Rebuking the raging sea and saving those on the boat forges a theological connection between Jesus and the mighty acts of Yahweh. The chaos-tamer is among them. This sets Jesus apart as one who truly has the right to be heard. The disciples put it well: “What kind of man is this?”
The disciples knew Jesus well enough to turn to him for help (Matthew 8:25, “Lord, save us!”). But they are only now beginning to understand that he is more than they thought. Their rabbi and companion, napping from exhaustion, can wake up and rebuke the water back to its place.
Jesus Walks on Water
Jesus controls the water in another way, by walking on it in the midst of a storm (see John 6:18). This, too, calls to mind Yahweh’s activity in the Old Testament, and one exchange with Moses in particular.
Note that in the previous passage, Jesus had just fed 5000 people. He told the disciples to go on ahead in the boat and cross the sea. He dismissed the crowd and then went into the hills to pray. Jesus needed to remove himself from the crowd. It is very likely that they intended to make him their king, i.e., their messiah in the sense of a military/religious leader who would rid Jerusalem of the hated Romans. That was the Jewish messianic expectation at the time.
This confusion over the kind of king Jesus would be is a common theme in the Gospels, and much of Jesus’ ministry was taken up with reorienting people’s expectations about his messianic role. It was important that the disciples not be mistaken, and so here Jesus gives them a glimpse of the kind of messiah he is: he walks out to them in the midst of wind and waves, without hesitation, without fear.
Jesus tells them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” On one level Jesus is simply saying, “It’s only me, don’t be afraid.” On another level, however, it is a far more potent declaration. The Greek here is ego eimi, the same phrase translated “I AM” in the so-called “I AM” sayings in John (I am the bread of life, the good shepherd, before Abraham was, I am, etc.).
This self-designation recalls Yahweh’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am…tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” By walking on the water amid the storm and declaring, “I AM,” Jesus is showing the disciples what he says elsewhere in John, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).
The theological power of these episodes is more fully appreciated when we keep before us the Old Testament “taming the water” theme they echo. This helps us see that the purpose of these two episodes was not simply to calm a storm for its own sake or to help the disciples get to the other side of the lake safely. It was to show the disciples what kind of messiah Jesus was. Israel’s God—the chaos tamer who rebukes the water—was here among them. The long-awaited messianic age has dawned, with more power and authority than anyone had expected. As Jesus says in John 8:46-47, to listen to him is to belong to God. Controlling the water shows his disciples—and us—that Jesus is worthy of our attention.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.