Matthew 14: The Working of Miracles

by Joel Ramshaw (2008)

The chapter of Matthew 14 is filled with many insights into the person, and power of Christ. It contains His reaction to the death of John the Baptist, helping reveal Christ’s personality. The feeding of the five thousand is also narrated in this chapter. The Biblical miracles such as this raise several questions. Is this power available for Christians today? Was Jesus using His omnipotence, or did He leave that behind when He became a human, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit alone?

This chapter in addition contains Jesus legendary, and culturally idiomized act of walking on water. Because of its unique character this miracle has special significance in the study of the gift of working physical miracles. Within this same miracle is also an important message on the power of faith, as Peter in faith stepped out of the boat but lacked the faith to continue all the way to Jesus.

This expository study will be done in the sequence that the events appear in the chapter, beginning with Herod’s unwise promise, and ending with Christ’s act of walking on water.

Section 1, Matthew 14:1-14 The execution of John the Baptist

The first part of the Chapter of Matthew opens with a brief statement that upon hearing of Jesus miracles, Herod mistook Jesus for John the Baptist. Herod believed that John had risen from the dead and acquired miraculous powers.

            After this, the chapter goes on to tell of how this misperception had taken place. Herod had executed John, because of a promise he made to a dancer. He had been very impressed with her dancing, and told her that she could ask anything she wanted and he would give it to her. The girl was prompted by her mother to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod wanted to refuse this, but he had made an oath in front of several nobles that He would give her anything she wanted. Herod had not wanted to put John to death, but to avoid breaking the oath, and embarrassing himself in front of the nobles, he quickly ordered John’s death. This is an excellent example of the danger of making rash oaths. Jesus said, “. . . do not swear at all: . . . But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”[1]

After hearing of John’s death, Jesus treks off alone to a wilderness. He was in a time of emotional turmoil and He needed to get alone. Jesus was not a distant emotionless being. He was fully human, and He had real emotions that accompanied His life. In another passage, the death of Lazarus, Jesus is recorded as crying out of sadness.[2]

Section 2, Matthew 14:15-21 The Feeding of the Five Thousand

This section opens with Jesus having healed many sick throughout the day, and it being evening. Seeing that it is late, the disciples suggest that Jesus send away the crowd so that they can eat. Jesus has another plan though. He tells his disciples that they do not need to send the crowd away. He then puts the onus on them, asking them to give the crowd something to eat. Throughout Jesus ministry, He had oftentimes expected the disciples to perform miracles on their own. An example of this is the exorcism of the demon possessed boy. The disciples tried to cast the demon out of him, but it would not obey them. Jesus himself had to cast the spirit out of the boy. He had harsh words regarding his disciples failure: “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? . . .”[3]

            The disciples brought five loaves of bread, and two fishes to Jesus. Jesus gave thanks for them, and then passed them out among the people. There was amazingly twelve basketfuls of leftovers gathered after the feeding. Jesus had not worried about whether or not God would help Him, or leave Him hanging. He knew that He had been filled with the Spirit of God; there was no doubt in Him. Throughout His ministry Jesus had been trying to instil this type of faith in His disciples also. The miracle He did next would especially show the importance of faith to the disciples.

Section 3, Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus Walks on the Sea

Jesus first of all sends away the crowd (likely 10,000 - 20,000 people when including women and children), after instructing his disciples to row across to the other side of the sea. Once the crowd is gone, Jesus goes to a mountain alone to pray. By doing this, Jesus illustrates the importance of solitude, in supplement to prayer, as an important spiritual discipline.[4] [5] Most of the times Jesus prays, He is off by Himself alone.

By the time Jesus was done praying, the disciples had sailed somewhere into the middle of the sea. It was the fourth watch, which means the time was somewhere between 3:00 - 6:00am. To add to their immense tiredness they were in the middle of a storm. They suddenly saw a figure walking across the sea towards them. They panicked, thinking it was a ghost. They were quickly assured that it was Jesus though. Peter had evidently picked up some faith from when Jesus multiplied the bread. He asked Jesus to call him to Himself, and Jesus responded by doing so. Peter then stepped out of the boat, initially disregarding the storm, and walked across the water to Jesus. He did good until he lost focus on Jesus, and became distracted by the large waves. As he began to sink, Jesus reached out His arm to save him. Jesus said, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter had more faith though, than the other disciples, being that he was the only one that stepped out of the boat.

            The miracle of walking on water holds many important theological truths on faith and miracles. First of all it shows Peter, a regular human, walking on the water. This brings up the question. Can modern Christians also do miracles such as walking on water, and multiplying bread? Jesus became fully human when He came to earth, and received all the limitations of being a human. He did not have any divine augmentations, and could not do any miracles until He received the Holy Spirit at His baptism. This shows that He left His divine attributes behind when He became a human. This was be so that He could be the perfect example of how we must live our lives. He would not have been a perfect example for us if He was able to do things that we cannot.

Jesus indeed had no power that we cannot have today. He even said, “he who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do because I go to My Father.”[6] The context reveals that the “works” spoken of are not just good works, but rather miraculous works since Jesus uses them to back up His authenticity. “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.”[7] This does not mean that all Christians can go around walking on water, and multiplying bread. Only those who have been given a strong enough share of the gift of miracles can do this. A person must do more than just ask for the Holy Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit, and the gifts that accompany His indwelling, is contingent upon obeying Christ’s commands. He said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever-”

            One of the main reasons that miracles like these don’t happen as much is that the gift of working physical miracles is often ignored, compared to more popular gifts such as healings and tongues. Many people pray for tongues, prophesy, and healing gifts, but God is not petitioned as often for the gift of working physical miracles. Consequently He refrains from handing it out since there is a lack of prayer for it.

            Another reason that this gift is not in use as much as it was in the apostle’s times is that there are simply not enough mature Christians to receive it. Many Christians would be very quickly filled with pride if they received any substantial share of it. The dangerous potential for the gift of working physical miracles can be seen by the disciple’s lack of discernment with it. Regarding an inhospitable town James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” They were intoxicated with their newly found power and needed Jesus to rebuke them. Jesus even told them that they were under the influence of an evil spirit. Christ came into the world to save it, not destroy it. He expected His disciples to do likewise.

The early Christians were not afraid of working miracles. Not only did they use the gift of miraculous healing, but they also used the gift of working general physical miracles. Through it, the Holy Spirit caused them to fly,[8] have their chains miraculously broken,[9] and shine like an angel.[10]

Faith is often misunderstood by modern Christians. It is thought of as simply believing in something. In the Greek though, the word faith (pistis) meant not only to believe in, but also to rely on, trust in, and be faithful to someone.[11] Having enough faith to do something, not only means that the person should believe that God will do that thing, but it also means they should put themselves in a place where they must rely on God alone to get it done. In addition, part of faith is faithfulness. Faithfulness means obedience to God’s commands, and to live like Christ. Without both faith and faithfulness one cannot expect to accomplish much for God, especially in the way of miracles.

Jesus in another part of scripture said that if one has faith like as a mustard seed he can command mountains to lift off the ground and fly into a sea.[12] [13] For most people, the mountain in this verse can represent an insurmountable obstacle in their life. For those with the gift of miracles though, this verse can be taken literally (if God’s work actually requires a mountain lifted off the earth). By analogizing faith with a mustard seed Jesus was not saying that a faithless person can move mountains. He was saying rather, that their faith should be like a mustard seed in that even a small amount of it will cause large effects.

If one needs the gift of miracles he must first make sure that he is obedient to God, and completely submitted to Him. He must also be exceptionally mature. This gift is much more rare than the others for this reason. Many Christians, if given this gift, would send mountains flying all over the place, and use it to impress others, or gather followers. God will not give out the gift of physical miracles, to people who will use it as a toy, rather than for His service.

Entire books could be written on the concepts within Matthew 14. Although more could easily be written, this report here draws to its conclusion; that is that anything Jesus did, modern Christians can do, and even other things that He is not recorded as doing.

The only things that can ever hold us back from anything are ignorance, lack of power, and lack of motivation. We have the same potential as Jesus for righteousness. It is not a lack of power that holds us back from being perfectly like Christ. He empowers us to become like Himself. It is the other two things that hinder us.

Ignorance holds us back. We must therefore study the Bible, and pray for God to illuminate our minds. Jesus had to do this also. He had to study in the temple to learn the scriptures, and He had to pray to God to get to know Him. He no longer had the benefit of omniscience, where He could automatically know things.

The last hindrance is a lack of motivation. Anyone can overcome this obstacle. It does take a renewing of the mind though, and much prayer, before one’s mind can be transformed enough to make one fully motivated for perfect righteousness. Jesus has already given people the power to become like Him. We must get to know God through prayer and Bible reading, thus eliminating the hindrance of ignorance. Also we must focus on becoming zealous for God, thus eliminating lack of motivation. Once this happens Jesus words to His followers will come true, “. . . nothing will be impossible for you.”[14]

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[1] Matthew 5:37 All Bible citations are taken from the NKJV.

[2] John 11:35.

[3] Mark 9:19.

[4] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible by Matthew Henry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan’s Publishing House 1963, 1276.

[5] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs: Navpress 1991, Chapter 10

[6] John 14:12.

[7] John 14:11.

[8] Acts 8:39.

[9] Acts 12:7.

[10] Acts 6:15.

[11] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago.

[12] Matthew 17:20.

[13] Matthew 21:21.

[14] Matthew 17:20.

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