Miracles with water

Walking upon the water

Jesus walks on water in three of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John.  With this miracle the gospel accounts turn strongly to Old Testament types involving water.  In particular this miracle harks back to the wonderful passage of water in the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea, as well as further back to Noah’s flood, which is among other things a precursor to the Red Sea crossing, and then forward to the crossings of Jordan by Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha, which are recapitulations or renewals of the Red Sea crossing.

In all three gospel accounts the walking upon water follows the feeding of five thousand.  This proximity of the two miracles strengthens their parallel with Exodus, since in Exodus the hasty Passover meal (Exodus 12:3-34) preceded the departure from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.  The pattern in these four cases (Exodus and the three gospels), then, is a meal of bread followed by a miraculous passage of water.  Furthermore, whether or not the fish of the loaves and fish is seen as symbolic of Christ (see previous section), the lamb in Exodus 12 is clearly interpreted in the New Testament as representing Christ:  cf. John 1:29, 36 & 19:36; I Corinthians 5:7.

The three gospel accounts of walking on water have several other points in common as well.  All involve the lake of Galilee or Gennesaret.  In all cases Jesus is with some of his disciples, there is a strong wind, and the miracle takes place at night.  And in all cases when Jesus is revealed walking on water he applies to himself the Greek form of the divine name, ‘I am’ (Ego eimi), from Exodus 3:14.  That is, the miracle is revelatory and shows the divinity of the Son and his identity with the Lord of Exodus.

In addition to these common features, each of the gospel accounts of the walking on water has unique details and teaching.  Saint Matthew’s account (14:22-36) has a unique incident involving Peter (14:28-33).  Peter asks to come to Jesus on the water, successfully imitates his Lord’s miracle for a moment, but then loses faith and sinks, requiring rescue by Jesus.  This addition in Matthew seems to present Peter as the representative or paradigmatic disciple, in his faith and in his failure and in his dependence on the Lord.  This addition by Matthew concerning Peter carries lessons for all followers of Christ.

Saint Mark’s account (St. Mark 6:45-52) contains a significant detail that is not in Matthew or in John (at least not in John at this point).  That is, Mark says that the astonishment of the disciples as they see Jesus walking on the water occurs because ‘they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened’ (6:52 RSV).  Mark here makes explicit a connection between the meaning of the two miracles, the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on water.  John makes this connection in another ways (see John 6:56-66), while Matthew adds nothing to the mere proximity of the two events.

Otherwise, however, the imitation of the Exodus pattern by the miracle of walking on water is strongest and most explicit in Saint John’s account and its unique elements  In John 6 both the feeding miracle and the walking on water occur, the reader is told, when ‘the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh’ (6:4).  Not only is the Passover context thus made quite explicit, but also the Exodus pattern is further extended by John’s addition of material in 6:22-71 on the day after the walking on water.  This second part of John 6 contains a long discussion concerning the meaning of manna, the living Bread from heaven which is Christ, and the need to eat his flesh.  In Exodus itself the Passover meal (Exodus 12) and the Red Sea passage (Exodus 14) are followed by the gift of manna (Exodus 16), another kind of bread from heaven.  Explicit discussion of manna after the two miracles in John 6 extends the echoes of Exodus past the recapitulation of the Red Sea passage.  While Matthew and Mark tell of bread and then the passage of water, John has a fuller Exodus pattern of unleavened-bread//passage of water//bread-manna.  Here is a summary of the pattern begun in Exodus and extended in these gospels and particularly in John:

Exodus:          Passover meal             Passage of Red Sea                 Giving of manna

Mark:            Feeding of 5000          Walking on water                    Mention of loaves

Matthew:       Feeding of 5000          Walking on water                                —

John:              Feeding of 5000          Walking on water                    Discussion of manna

All three of these gospels show Jesus fulfilling Old Testament types, including types connected with water.  In John the typology seems strongest and most explicit, or at any rate embraces more elements than the other gospels.

Synoptic water miracles: Signs of the power of Christ over death and demons

In addition to the miracle of walking on water, which John shares, with two of the Synoptics, there are two other important miracles in the Synoptic gospels alone which involve water.  First, in all three of the Synoptic gospels Jesus stills the raging of a storm on the lake of Galilee.  And, secondly, in all three of the Synoptic gospels Jesus heals a man of demonic possession by casting the demons into swine which then rush down a steep bank to drown in the waters of the lake.


Stilling the storm

The stilling of the storm occurs in the Galilean ministry of Christ, and the miracle obviously relates to the fishermen’s trade, or at least to their use of boats either for their trade or for transport around the periphery of the lake of Galilee.  The three accounts of the miracles are in Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, and Luke 8:22-25.  Mark’s account is the longest.  Mark and Matthew both have Jesus getting into a ship in the context of ‘great crowds’.  In Luke the occasion seems more casual:  ‘One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”’ (RSV)  In all three cases while Jesus falls asleep on the boat a storm arises and threatens to swamp the boat.  The disciples awake the Lord, saying that they are ‘perishing’.  In all three cases Jesus reproaches the disciples for their faithlessness, but then nonetheless stills the storm.  In all three cases the disciples wonder who Christ is, that even the winds and sea obey him.

This miracle certainly equates Jesus with the Lord of the Old Testament who rules the heavens and the earth.  While the Old Testament does not reduce Israel’s God to the status of a Near Eastern storm deity or sky god, the Psalms and other Old Testament texts do ascribe to the Lord power over nature’s heavens and storms, even while teaching that he transcends nature.  This same power and authority over natural phenomena are shown by Jesus in this miracle.

Insofar as storms suggest one of the core meanings of water in the Old Testament, namely drowning, death, and danger, this miracle shows the power of Jesus over it.  Insofar as the storm is, with the flood of Noah and the death of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, a baptismal type, to that extent its stilling shows the positive side of that aspect of water.  Drowning and death are not the final word, but are a passage to deeper life, namely life through and after and beyond death.  The danger of the storm and the faithlessness of the disciples, like the earlier sinking of Peter when walking on water, show a negative possibility.  The power of Jesus over the waves shows the positive possibility.


The demons and the Gadarene swine

A healing of the demon-possessed is recounted in Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, and Luke 8:26-39.  Matthew’s account is the shortest and describes the healing of two men.  The accounts in Mark and Luke are longer, share material not in Matthew, and describe the healing of one man.  To ancient Jewish audiences this story probably seemed intensely funny:  nasty, unclean pigs in Gentile territory become nasty, suicidal, demon-possessed pigs.

For the purposes of this Bible study we are concerned with a small facet of this particular story, namely the concluding element of drowning.  In its conclusion water features in all three versions of the story:  the demon-possessed swine drown in the lake.  All swine are unclean under Old Testament dietary law, but by this point in this particular gospel story these swine are literally demonic, and so obviously represent the fallen world and spiritual evil.  The death of that world in water involves the typical complex meanings for water in Scripture:  death and drowning (for the swine, representing sin and evil), cleansing (the end of filthy swine), and life and renovation (for the healed, formerly possessed human beings).  This story, then, is another type for baptism.  The drowning of the swine in water represents the death in baptism of that which is evil in fallen men and women.  The swine, of course, are not healed in this story, just drowned.  To a Jewish audience they were probably beyond redemption.  As the corrupt world of Noah’s day or as Pharaoh’s army represent evil in a fairly straightforward way, so with the swine.  Such evil must die through water, through drowning in the healing waters of baptism.  Water in this story, then, carries the standard body of Old Testament meanings:  death, cleansing, and life.

2 thoughts on “Water in Scripture: Part 6 (NT)

  1. Thank you, Olga! I’m interested by the fact that my Bible studies are the least read of my blog posts. The Anglican theory that Scripture study is about the most important thing we do theologically doesn’t seem to describe the reality of what Anglicans do and read. I am reminded of a neophyte member of the Eastern Orthodox Church who asked a well-known theologian what he should read. He was surprised by the answer: ‘Paul and the gospels.’


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