Commentary on Matthew 14:22-33
For perfectly legitimate reasons, Peter walking on water has been the subject of countless sermons. If Jesus’ preeminent disciple—the one on whom he builds his church (Matthew 16:18)—can sink due to a lack of faith, then this can happen to anyone. Peter becomes a symbol for any believer who has ever had a moment of doubt. Yet we can be safe in the knowledge that Christ will reach out and save us when we call out to him (14:30-31). All of this is true, but it also makes for a self-facing sermon; the episode on the water becomes all about us and the benefits that come from being in relationship with Jesus.
But when readers of this passage focus on Jesus rather than on Peter, more interesting and impactful insights emerge. Throughout the pericope, the evangelist alludes to Old Testament precedents that present Jesus doing “God acts”—words and deeds that the Most High had said and done according to Israel’s Scriptures. Moreover, the Gospel passage uses language that foreshadows the salvation from sin that will occur when Jesus dies on the cross. In this way, the story of Jesus walking on water becomes a bridge between what God had done in the past and what God will accomplish through Christ.
When a storm arises while the disciples are on the sea of Galilee, Jesus resolves to meet them exactly where they are: “And in the fourth watch of the night, he went to them, walking on the sea” (Matthew 14:25). At first glance, it’s not clear why Jesus feels the need to traverse the tempestuous waters. Not long before this night, Jesus had calmed the raging sea with no more than a word (see Matthew 8:23-27)—why not do the same again? In this case, the Gospel highlights Jesus’ choice to walk on the waves as a deliberate recollection of what God did at creation.
Matthew states that Jesus “went (elthen) to them, walking upon the sea (peripaton epi tes thālassa)” (14:25). Each of the highlighted terms also appears when God questions Job about the cosmos. According to the Greek translation of the text, God asks Job if he ever “went upon (elthes… epi) the springs of the sea (thalāsses) or walked (periepātesas) in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16 Septuagint). Earlier in the book, Job affirms that the Creator had traversed the oceans before the dawn of humanity, saying that God “stretched out the heavens and trampled on the waves of the sea” (9:8).
Every description of Jesus’ life in the Gospels has theological meaning related to the God and people of Israel. Jesus decides to walk on water because this is what God had done at the creation of the world. The disciples, of course, do not make the connection—to the contrary, they’re terrified because they think they’ve seen a “ghost” (Matthew 14:26). However, the attuned Bible reader can know what the disciples missed in the moment; namely, that the Lord has given Jesus authority over the created order.
Christ’s words to his worried students underscore his divine identity. As he approaches the boat, he declares, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). The common English translation of “it is I” obscures what the Greek really says, which is “I am” (egō eimi)—the same thing God says to Moses at the burning bush according to the Septuagint: “And God said to Moses, ‘I am’ (egō eimi)” (Exodus 3:14 Septuagint). If walking on water weren’t enough to reflect his divine status, Matthew’s Jesus repeats the very words of God.
Every churchgoer knows what happens next: Peter begins to walk to Jesus “but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (Matthew 14:30). Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand, pulls Peter into the boat, and the wind ceases (14:32). Seeing this miraculous event, the rest of the disciples say to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God” (14:33). Based on the divine display that they’ve just seen, their appellation is appropriate.
The disciples’ proclamation after Jesus saves Peter’s life will reemerge at the moment of Jesus’ death. When Christ yields up his spirit and an earthquake ensues, a centurion and his associates at the cross declare, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).¹ The disciples had used this title after Jesus rescued Peter as he called out, “Save me!” (14:30). During the Passion, the chief priests, scribes, and elders unknowingly recall this moment when they say of a crucified Jesus, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (27:42a). Yet, the exclamation of divine sonship at the cross confirms that by not saving himself from crucifixion Jesus continues to save others—not from death by drowning, as he did for Peter, but from the death-dealing power of sin. The Gospel begins by saying that the goal of Jesus’ life would be to “save his people from their sins” (1:21), and the reiteration of Jesus’ status as “Son of God” at the cross indicates that he has accomplished this salvation through his death.
While it is common to preach on Peter when this passage appears in the lectionary—and this Petrine focus is fine—turning attention to Jesus can enrich our understanding of him as the Son of God whose recapitulation of his Father’s activities anticipate the divine objective of salvation from sin.
- The Greek statement lacks the definite article, and thus could be translated, “Truly this was a son of God.” Hence several English translations obviating the issue by rendering the exclamation, “Truly this was God’s Son” (e.g., CEB; LEB; NET; NRSVUE). However, this translation weakens the parallelism with Matt 14:33, in which the definite article is similarly absent. It may be better to render the phrases in both verses as conferring a title: “Truly your are/this was ‘Son of God.’”