Book 3, Chapter 30. The Night of Miracles on the Lake of Gennesaret.

(Mat_14:22-36; Mar_6:45-56; Joh_6:15-21)

The last question of the Baptist, spoken in public, had been: ‘Art Thou the Coming One, or look we for another?’ It had, in part, been answered, as the murmur had passed through the ranks: ‘This One is truly the Prophet, the Coming One!’ So, then, they had no longer to wait, nor to look for another! And this ‘Prophet’ was Israel’s long expected Messiah. What this would imply to the people, in the intensity and longing of the great hope which, for centuries, nay, far beyond the time of Ezra, had swayed their hearts, it is impossible fully to conceive. Here, then, was the Great Reality at last before them. He, on Whose teaching they had hung entranced, was ‘the Prophet,’ nay, more, ‘the Coming One:’ He Who was coming all those many centuries, and yet had not come till now. Then, also, was He more than a Prophet – a King: Israel’s King, the King of the world. An irresistible impulse seized the people. They would proclaim Him King, then and there; and as they knew, probably from previous utterances, perhaps when similar movements had to be checked, that He would resist, they would constrain Him to declare Himself, or at least to be proclaimed by them. Can we wonder at this; or that thoughts of a Messianic worldly kingdom should have filled, moved, and influenced to discipleship a Judas; or that, with such a representative of their own thoughts among the disciples, the rising waves of popular excitement should have swollen into the mighty billows?

‘Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come, and to take Him by force, that they might make Him King, withdrew again into the mountain, Himself alone,’ or, as it might be rendered, though not quite in the modern usage of the expression, ‘became an anchorite again… Himself alone.’ This is another of those sublime, contrasts, which render it well-nigh inconceivable to regard this history otherwise than as true and Divine. Yet another is the manner in which He stilled the multitude, and the purpose for which He became the lonely Anchorite on the mountain-top. He withdrew to pray; and He stilled the people, and sent them, no doubt solemnised, to their homes, by telling them that He withdrew to pray. And He did pray till far on, ‘when the (second) evening had come,’ and the first stars shone out in the deep blue sky over the Lake of Galilee, with the far lights twinkling and trembling on the other side. And yet another sublime contrast – as He constrained the disciples to enter the ship, and that ship, which bore those who had been sharers in the miracle, could not make way against storm and waves, and was at last driven out of its course. And yet another contrast – as He walked on the storm-tossed waves and subdued them. And yet another, and another – for is not all this history one sublime contrast to the seen and the thought of by men, but withal most true and Divine in the sublimeness of these contrasts?

For whom and for what He prayed, alone on that mountain, we dare not, even in deepest reverence, inquire. Yet we think, in connection with it, of the Passover, the Manna, the Wilderness, the Lost Sheep, the Holy Supper, the Bread which is His Flesh, and the remnant in the Baskets to be carried to those afar off, and then also of the attempt to make Him a King, in all its spiritual unreality, ending in His View with the betrayal, the denial, and the cry: ‘We have no King but Caesar.’ And as He prayed, the faithful stars in the heavens shone out. But there on the Lake, where the bark which bore His disciples made for the other shore, ‘a great wind’ ‘contrary to them’ was rising. And still He was ‘alone on the land,’ but looking out into the evening after them, as the ship was ‘in the midst of the sea,’ and they toiling and ‘distressed in rowing.’

Thus far, to the utmost verge of their need, but not farther. The Lake is altogether about forty furlongs or stadia (about six miles) wide, and they had as yet reached little more than half the distance (twenty-five or thirty furlongs). Already it was ‘the fourth watch of the night.’ There was some difference of opinion among the Jews, whether the night should be divided into three, or (as among the Romans) into four watches. The latter (which would count the night at twelve instead of nine hours) was adopted by many. In any case it would be what might be termed the morning-watch, when the well-known Form seemed to be passing them, ‘walking upon the sea.’ There can, at least, be no question that such was the impression, not only of one or another, but that all saw Him. Nor yet can there be here question of any natural explanation. Once more the truth of the event must be either absolutely admitted, or absolutely rejected. The difficulties of the latter hypothesis, which truly cuts the knot, would be very formidable. Not only would the origination of this narrative, as given by two of the Synoptists and by John, be utterly unaccountable – neither meeting Jewish expectancy, nor yet supposed Old Testament precedent – but, if legend it be, it seems purposeless and irrational. Moreover, there is this noticeable about it, as about so many of the records of the miraculous in the New Testament, that the writers by no means disguise from themselves or their readers the obvious difficulties involved. In the present instance they tell us, that they regarded His Form moving on the water as ‘a spirit,’ and cried out for fear; and again, that the impression produced by the whole scene, even on them that had witnessed the miracle of the previous evening, was one of overwhelming astonishment. This walking on the water, then, was even to them within the domain of the truly miraculous, and it affected their minds equally, perhaps even more than ours, from the fact that in their view so much, which to us seems miraculous, lay within the sphere of what might be expected in the course of such a history.

On the other hand, this miracle stands not isolated, but forms one of a series of similar manifestations. It is closely connected both with what had passed on the previous evening, and what was to follow; it is told with a minuteness of detail, and with such marked absence of any attempt at gloss, adornment, apology, or self-glorification, as to give the narrative (considered simply as such) the stamp of truth; while, lastly, it contains much that lifts the story from the merely miraculous into the domain of the sublime and deeply spiritual. As regards what may be termed its credibility, this at least may again be stated, that this and similar instances of ‘dominion over the creature,’ are not beyond the range of what God had originally assigned to man, when He made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honour, made him to have dominion over the works of His Hands, and all things were put under his feet. Indeed, this ‘dominion over the sea’ seems to exhibit the Divinely human rather than the humanly Divine aspect of His Person, if such distinction may be lawfully made. Of the physical possibility of such a miracle – not to speak of the contradiction in terms which this implies – no explanation can be attempted, if it were only on the ground that we are utterly ignorant of the conditions under which it took place.

This much, however, deserves special notice, that there is one marked point of difference between the account of this miracle and what will be found a general characteristic in legendary narratives. In the latter, the miraculous, however extraordinary, is the expected; it creates no surprise, and it is never mistaken for something that might have occurred in the ordinary course of events. For, it is characteristic of the mythical that the miraculous is not only introduced in the most realistic manner, but forms the essential element in the conception of things. This is the very raison d’être of the myth or legend, when it attaches itself to the real and historically true. Now the opposite is the case in the present narrative. Had it been mythical or legendary, we should have expected that the disciples would have been described as immediately recognising the Master as He walked on the sea, and worshipping Him. Instead of this, they ‘are troubled’ and ‘afraid.’ ‘They supposed it was an apparition, (this in accordance with popular Jewish notions), and ‘cried out for fear.’ Even afterwards, when they had received Him into the ship, ‘they were sore amazed in themselves,’ and ‘understood not,’ while those in the ship (in contradistinction to the disciples), burst forth into an act of worship. This much then is evident, that the disciples expected not the miraculous; that they were unprepared for it; that they had explained it on what to them seemed natural grounds; and that, even when convinced of its reality, the impression of wonder, which it made, was of the deepest. And this also follows is a corollary, that, when they recorded it, it was not in ignorance that they were writing that which sounded strangest, and which would affect those who should read it with even much greater wonderment – we had almost written, unbelief – than those who themselves had witnessed it.

Nor let it be forgotten, that what has just been remarked about this narrative holds equally true in regard to other miracles recorded in the New Testament. Thus, even so fundamental an article of the faith as the resurrection of Christ is described as having come upon the disciples themselves as a surprise – not only wholly unexpected, but so incredible, that it required repeated and indisputable evidence to command their acknowledgment. And nothing can be more plain, than that Paul himself was not only aware of the general resistance which the announcement of such an event would raise, but that he felt to the full the difficulties of what he so firmly believed, and made the foundation of all his preaching. Indeed, the elaborate exposition of the historical grounds, on which he had arrived at the conviction of reality, affords an insight into the mental difficulties which it must at first have presented to him. And a similar inference may be drawn from the reference of Peter to the difficulties connected with the Biblical predictions about the end of the world. 

It is not necessary to pursue this subject further. Its bearing on the miracle of Christ’s walking on the Sea of Galilee will be sufficiently manifest. Yet other confirmatory evidence may be gathered from a closer study of the details of the narrative. When Jesus ‘constrained the disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before Him unto the other side,’ they must have thought, that His purpose was to join them by land, since there was no other boat there, save that in which they crossed the Lake. And possibly such had been his intention, till He saw their difficulty, if not danger, from the contrary wind. This must have determined Him to come to their help. And so this miracle also was not a mere display of power, but, being caused by their need, had a moral object. And when it is asked, how from the mountain-height by the Lake He could have seen at night where the ship was labouring so far on the Lake, it must surely have been forgotten that the scene is laid quite shortly before the Passover (the 15th of Nisan), when, of course, the moon would shine on an unclouded sky, all the more brightly on a windy spring-night, and light up the waters far across.

We can almost picture to ourselves the weird scene. The Christ is on that hill-top in solitary converse with His Father – praying after that miraculous breaking of bread: fully realising all that it implied to Him of self-surrender, of suffering, and of giving Himself as the Food of the World, and all that it implied to us of blessing and nourishment; praying also – with that scene fresh on His mind, of their seeking to make Him, even by force, their King – that the carnal might become spiritual reality (as in symbol it would be with the Breaking of Bread). Then, as He rises from His knees, knowing that, alas, it could not and would not be so to the many, He looks out over the Lake after that little company, which embodied and represented all there yet was of His Church, all that would really feed on the Bread from Heaven, and own Him their true King. Without presumption, we may venture to say, that there must have been indescribable sorrow and longing in His Heart, as His gaze was bent across the track which the little boat would follow. As we view it, it seems all symbolical: the night, the moonlight, the little boat, the contrary wind, and then also the lonely Saviour after prayer looking across to where the boatmen vainly labour to gain the other shore. As in the clear moonlight just that piece of water stands out, almost like burnished silver, with all else in shadows around, the sail-less mast is now rocking to and fro, without moving forward. They are in difficulty, in danger: and the Saviour cannot pursue His journey on foot by land; He must come to their help, though it be across the water. It is needful, and therefore it shall be upon the water; and so the storm and unsuccessful toil shall not prevent their reaching the shore, but shall also be to them for teaching concerning Him and His great power, and concerning His great deliverance; such teaching as, in another aspect of it, had been given them in symbol in the miraculous supply of food, with all that it implied (and not to them only, but to us also) of precious comfort and assurance, and as will for ever keep the Church from being overwhelmed by fear in the stormy night on the Lake of Galilee, when the labour of our oars cannot make way for us.

And they also who were in the boat must have been agitated by peculiar feelings. Against their will they had been ‘constrained’ by the Lord to embark and quit the scene; just as the multitude, under the influence of the great miracle, were surrounding their Master, with violent insistence to proclaim him the Messianic King of Israel. Not only a Judas Iscariot, but all of them, must have been under the strongest excitement: first of the great miracle, and then of the popular movement. It was the crisis in the history of the Messiah and of His Kingdom. Can we wonder, that, when the Lord in very mercy bade them quit a scene which could only have misled them, they were reluctant, nay, that it almost needed violence on His part? And yet – the more we consider it – was it not most truly needful for them, that they should leave? But, on the other hand, in this respect also, does there seem a ‘need be’ for His walking upon the sea, that they might learn not only His Almighty Power, and (symbolically) that He ruled the rising waves; but that, in their disappointment at His not being a King, they might learn that He was a, King – only in a far higher, truer sense than the excited multitude would have proclaimed Him.

Thus we can imagine the feelings with which they had pushed the boat from the shore, and then eagerly looked back to descry what passed there. But soon the shadows of night were enwrapping all objects at a distance, and only the bright moon overhead shone on the track behind and before. And now the breeze from the other side of the Lake, of which they may have been unaware when they embarked on the eastern shore, had freshened into violent, contrary wind. All energies must have been engaged to keep the boat’s head towards the shore. Even so it seemed as if they could make no progress, when all at once, in the track that lay behind them, a Figure appeared. As it passed onwards over the water, seemingly upborne by the waves as they rose, not disappearing as they fell, but carried on as they rolled, the silvery moon laid upon the trembling waters the shadows of that Form as it moved, long and dark, on their track. John uses an expression, which shows us in the pale light, those in the boat, intently, fixedly, fearfully, gazing at the Apparition as It neared still closer and closer. We must remember their previous excitement, as also the presence, and, no doubt, the superstitious suggestions of the boatman, when we think how they cried out for fear, and deemed It an Apparition. And ‘He would have passed by them,’ as He so often does in our case – bringing them, indeed, deliverance, pointing and smoothing their way, but not giving them His known Presence, if they had not cried out. But their fear, which made them almost hesitate to receive Him into the boat, even though the outcome of error and superstition, brought His ready sympathy and comfort, in language which has so often, and in all ages, converted foolish fears of misapprehension into gladsome, thankful assurance: ‘It is I, be not afraid!’

And they were no longer afraid, though truly His walking upon the waters might seem more awesome than any ‘apparition.’ The storm in their hearts, like that on the Lake, was commanded by His Presence. We must still bear in mind their former excitement, now greatly intensified by what they had just witnessed, in order to understand the request of Peter: ‘Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come to Thee on the water.’ They are the words of a man, whom the excitement of the moment has carried beyond all reflection. And yet this combination of doubt (‘if it be Thou’), with presumption (‘bid me come on the water’), is peculiarly characteristic of Peter. He is the Apostle of Hope – and hope is a combination of doubt and presumption, but also their transformation. With reverence be it said, Christ could not have left the request ungranted, even though it was the outcome of yet unreconciled and untransformed doubt and presumption. He would not have done so – or doubt would have remained doubt untransformed; and He could not have done so, without also correcting it, or presumption would have remained presumption untransformed, which is only upward growth, without deeper rooting in inward spiritual experience. And so He bade him come upon the water, to transform his doubt, but left him, unassured from without, to his own feelings as he saw the wind, to transform his presumption; while by stretching out His Hand to save him from sinking, and by the words of correction which He spake, He did actually so point to their transformation in that hope, of which Peter is the special representative, and the preacher in the Church.

And presently, as they two came into the boat, the wind ceased, and immediately the ship was at the land. But ‘they that were in the boat’ – apparently in contradistinction to the disciples, though the latter must have stood around in sympathetic reverence – worshipped Him, saying, Of a truth Thou art the Son of God.’ The first full public confession this of the fact, and made not by the disciples, but by others. With the disciples it would have meant something far deeper. But as from the lips of these men, it seems like the echo of what had passed between them on that memorable passage across the Lake. They also must have mingled in the conversation, as the boat had pushed off from the shore on the previous evening, when they spake of the miracle of the feeding, and then of the popular attempt to proclaim Him Messianic King, of which they knew not yet the final issue, since they had been ‘constrained to get into the boat,’ while the Master remained behind. They would speak of all that He was and had done, and how the very devils had proclaimed Him to be the ‘Son of God,’ on that other shore, close by where the miracle of feeding had taken place. Perhaps, having been somewhat driven out of their course, they may have passed close to the very spot, and, as they pointed to it recalled the incident. And this designation of ‘Son of God,’ with the worship which followed, would come much more readily, because with much more superficial meaning, to the boatmen than to the disciples. But in them, also, the thought was striking deep root; and presently, by the Mount of Transfiguration, would it be spoken in the name of all by Peter, not as demon- nor as man-taught, but as taught of Christ’s Father Who is in Heaven.

Yet another question suggests itself. The events of the night are not recorded by Luke – perhaps because they did not come within his general view-plan of that Life; perhaps from reverence, because neither he, nor his teacher Paul, were within that inner circle, with which the events of that night were connected rather in the way of reproof than otherwise. At any rate, even negative criticism cannot legitimately draw any adverse inference from it, in view of its record not only by two of the Synoptists, but in the Fourth Gospel. Mark also does not mention the incident concerning Peter; and this we can readily understand from his connection with that Apostle. Of the two eye-witnesses, John, and Matthew, the former also is silent on that incident. On any view of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, it could not have been from ignorance, either of its occurrence, or else of its record by Matthew. Was it among those ‘many other things which Jesus did,’ which were not written by him, since their complete chronicle would have rendered a Gospel-sketch impossible? Or did it lie outside that special conception of his Gospel, which, as regards its details, determined the insertion or else the omission of certain incidents? Or was there some reason for this omission connected with the special relation of John to Peter? And, lastly, why was Matthew in this instance more detailed than the others, and alone told it with such circumstantiality? Was it that it had made such deep impression on his own mind; had he somehow any personal connection with it; or did he feel, as if this bidding of Peter to come to Christ out of the ship and on the water had some close inner analogy with his own call to leave the custom-house and follow Christ? Such, and other suggestions which may arise can only be put in the form of questions. Their answer awaits the morning and the other shore.