The miracle of 'walking on water' is one of those hallmark miracles that has caught the attention even of the secular public. Yet if one follows the account closely in Mark 6 and the other gospels one will find at least 4 different miracles take place in a short period of time. Further the walking on water is not given a particularly prominent place; at least in the account in Mark. I therefore believe that whilst the walking on water is a clear indication of the Lord's omnipotence; there is a deeper and more compelling message to be gleaned from this passage. In this essay I shall attempt to show that, at least in picture, the Lord was preparing His disciples for His departure and eventual return.
The setting for this miracle is the feeding of the five thousand. John informs us that the multitude were now preparing to take Him by force to make Him king. The disciples are then sent ahead in a boat and the Lord deals with the multitude and then departs to a mountain to pray. For the disciples this must have been a tremendous let down: from miraculous service to isolation in the space of a few minutes. Mark in particular adds an extra note that by evening the boat was in the middle of the sea and yet the Lord was alone in the mountain.
However a comparison of this ship excursion to the earlier one in Mark 4 shows some impressive contrasts. Once again a great storm arises yet on this occasion we do not read of the disciples panicking. The Lord is not with them and yet they are prepared to keep working at their task even though the going gets rough. We are even told they make some progress having managed to travel some 3 to 4 miles. This is an impressive distance to row until you notice another fragment of information that is often overlooked.
Mark records that the Lord went to them in the fourth watch of the night. The Jewish system had three watches so this notation must be using the Roman system which would imply the fourth watch is somewhere between 3 & 6 in the morning. Thus the disciples had been rowing for somewhere in the 9 to 12 hour range. We now begin to see the gravity of the situation; the disciples had been laboring for an age; they must have been exhausted; they were at least 3 miles from shore and the Lord wasn't anywhere in sight.
But they were within the Lord's sight; which is the first miracle. Mark 6:48 says He saw that they were distressed in rowing. I believe this is a note of assurance to the believer: even though the Lord is well out of our sight, we are still in His and He sees the distress we are going through. So whilst His later miracle may show omnipotence we see first a miracle of omniscience. Being all powerful is most useful when wielded by one who is all knowing too. Of course we don't feel that He is empathizing because nothing appears to be happening. The disciples were in exactly the same position, although He almost certainly saw their distress immediately, the night was at least three quarters of the way through before He actually went to them.
The second miracle is of course that of walking upon the water. This miracle shows the control the Lord has over the ocean and indeed Job attributes the ability to walk upon the sea as a divine quality. However to me the most fascinating aspect is the direction of His walk. In the same verse that Mark uniquely records we are both told that the Lord was going to them; but also that He was going to pass them by. It is almost as if the Lord, whilst cognizant of their need and willing to perform miracles to be with them, wanted to test them to see if they were looking for Him or too intent upon their own task.
The Lord actually receives a mixed reaction, whilst they certainly notice Him the immediate response is one of fear rather than relief. Again there is an interesting contrast with Mark 6. Here the Lord immediately responds to their fear with assurance that it is Him. In Mark 4 they had been castigated for lack of faith. I believe that in this we have a glimmer of the response the Lord will get from believers upon His return and also what His response to them will be. Be of good cheer; it is I.
Matthew records a third miracle here, Peter's walking upon the water. In some ways this is strange as it appears to be a direct contradiction of the notion that doing so is an indicator of divine origin. How can a regular human being perform a divine act? The answer is: "In the power of God." Peter clearly had an inkling of this as he did not presume to walk upon the waters himself. Instead he asked the Lord to call him. Then once called he was able to perform the miracle with divine sanction; until his faith faltered.
The fourth miracle is recorded only by John. The moment the Lord gets into the ship it reaches the further shore. Matthew and Mark simply record that the wind had ceased, the work was over. John however went the extra step: it wasn't simply the work that was over, the journey was over too.
Thus viewed practically we see the disciples getting a lesson in independence. The Lord leaves them alone for maybe twelve hours. They get themselves into trouble but apply themselves to the task. The Lord knows of their plight through omniscience and responds in omnipotence. The disciples are aware of His coming even if a little shaky at the last moment. The Lord demonstrates that He can work through others and that eventually His presence brings peace.
Viewed pictorially, or even typologically we see the same lesson but on a grander scale. The Lord was not ready to be made king and thus he departs to be with the father whilst His disciples are sent out into the world, pictured by the seas. Darkness sets in and the disciples have to labor against a headwind. All the while the church, pictured in the disciples, works the Lord is watching them. Then in the final watch he comes to His own. But He has a purpose that involves them but is beyond them. They have to be watchful to recognize Him when He comes. Then once He arrives their labors cease and their journey is at an end. The Lord Himself has further work to do; but the church has completed the race set before it.
We thus see that the miracle of walking on water is not a traditional sign miracle. It is just the more readily pictured part of a sequence of divine actions that were both a lesson to the disciples at the time and a picture of the church age and return of our Lord. Even as we move from day to day struggling against adverse circumstance the Lord is with His father praying for us daily. And one day he shall cross the heavens to end our work for us. Even so come Lord Jesus. Amen.