What is the significance of the account of Peter walking on the water?
June 1984

“What is the significance of the account of Peter walking on the water?” Tambuli, June 1984, 15–17

Question: Can you help me understand the significance of the account of Peter walking on the water?

F. David Lee, counselor in the stake Sunday School presidency and Gospel Doctrine teacher, Annandale Virginia Stake.

To more fully understand the event of Peter walking on the water, we must first look at the setting in which it took place.

Following the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus instructed his disciples to board a ship and cross the Sea of Galilee while he remained behind to send away the multitude and to pray. A windstorm arose on the sea during the voyage, and the small ship was tossed among the waves. To add to their distress, the disciples were confronted with what they thought was a spirit, and they cried out in fear. What they saw was Jesus walking on the water. Although the Savior announced that it was he, that they need not fear, some on the ship were skeptical. Peter challenged, “If it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” And Jesus responded, “Come.” (Matt. 14:28–29.)

Peter left the boat and, like Jesus, walked on the water. But when Peter’s attention was diverted from his Master to the buffeting winds around him, his faith began to weaken, and he began to sink helplessly into the water. He cried out, appealing to Jesus for help. After clasping Peter’s hand and assuring his safety, the Master mildly chastised Peter: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Then, “when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.” (Matt. 14:31–32.)

This was indeed an impressive event, once again demonstrating to the Lord’s disciples his power over the elements of nature. A year earlier he had stilled a storm on the same Sea of Galilee. (See Matt. 8:23–27.) If his purpose now was to implant within the hearts of his disciples an even stronger conviction that he was indeed the Chosen One sent with power and authority from the Father, he succeeded; for we read, “Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying: Of a truth thou art the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:33.)

I like to think, too, that he was teaching an important concept concerning our relationship with him as our Savior. Jesus spent much of his ministry teaching through parables: “And he spake many things unto them in parables … and without a parable spake he not unto them.” (Matt. 13:3, 34.) Perhaps we can learn much by treating the experience of Christ and Peter walking on the water as a kind of dramatized parable. As in Christ’s spoken parables, there is more than one level of meaning in this incident. At the surface we have an exciting adventure at sea, where the Lord with supernatural power saves a disciple from drowning and also possibly saves the ship from capsizing.

At another level we contemplate authority, power, and the nature of miracles. We stand in awe of the Son of God as he commands the responsive forces of nature.

At still another level we may see additional significance in what took place that day on the Sea of Galilee, a symbolism that can teach us much about our own experience in life.

Peter and the other disciples embarked upon their journey in response to their master’s request. We, too, embarked upon our journey through mortality in willing response to divine will. And, like the disciples on the ship, who were aware of the dangers of traveling on the Sea of Galilee, with its sudden storms, we began our journey with an understanding that there would be perils along the way.

Like Peter, we in this life learn that temporal supports sometimes crumble—or sink—in the face of life’s tempests. We find that there are forces capable of upsetting our most carefully improvised plans. But we, like Peter, can discover that our Savior stands nearby, though perhaps dimly seen, ready to help us if we will but reach out to him and accept his divine assistance. We need not struggle alone.

Imagine Peter leaving the boat alone and walking by faith on the water. He is successful in this “impossible” endeavor because his eyes are fixed steadfastly upon Christ. If we would come to Jesus, we also must forego an inviting reliance on worldly supports. We must determine whether our best opportunity lies in the storm-tossed—though still floating—ship or whether it lies out on the waves with the Savior.

The scriptures speak of the “trial of faith” (Ether 12:6) through which we must pass, indicating that the faith-building process is not automatic. Instead, it is a learning process—a mandatory sequence for all who would inherit eternal life. Each step Peter took away from the ship was a trial of his faith; each step toward Jesus took him a step farther from his accustomed means of survival. And each step was a voluntary one; he was under no compulsion to leave the ship and respond to the Lord’s call to “Come.”

At one point Peter’s attention was drawn from Jesus, the object of his faith, to the boisterous wind and waves around him. In a moment of confusion, fear overpowered his faith, and Peter started to fall.

So like our lives! As we learn the gospel and develop our faith, we reach the point where we feel strong enough to leave the boat; we determine to stand free from worldly supports and voluntarily walk by faith through the tempest toward our Savior. Each step for us may be a trial. The waves around us are as real in their way as Peter’s waves were to him. And, like Peter, we may slip! We may feel the awful descent toward destruction and, in confused desperation, consider the safety of the ship.

But wait! Our efforts to meet the trials of our faith—our footsteps over life’s treacherous waters—have somehow reoriented us, and we reach out for safety, not to the boat, as we would have done in earlier times, but to the outstretched hand of the Savior. Hand grasps hand, and we are pulled to the Master of wind and water. No more is he seen vaguely through the storm; no more is his voice indistinct in the roar of the gale. Now we are home; now the trial is over.

And Jesus calms the storm.

Illustration courtesy of H. Armstrong Roberts