And immediately He made the disciples get into the boat, and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And after He had sent the multitudes away, He went up to the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already many stadia away from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were frightened, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (Matthew 14:22-33)
Like many of the events recorded for us in the Gospel records this incident takes up little space on the written page yet provides a wealth of insight into the Person of Jesus Christ and our relationship to God through Him.
The setting for the event lies at the conclusion of an extraordinary day, one in which the divinity of Jesus is displayed through the feeding of five thousand by means of a small boy’s contribution of five barley loves and two fish. Jesus transformed these meager ingredients into enough food to satisfy all present and the miraculous sign was further evidenced by the collected remnants—enough to fill twelve baskets. (Perhaps one for each of his astonished disciples?) The response of the well-fed multitude was a desire to take Jesus by force and make Him king. Such are the hazards of miracles: signs meant to read one thing are misread by many.
Jesus’ disciples, fresh from direct participation in and witnesses to this miracle, are literally compelled by Him to go down to the Sea of Galilee and cross over by boat without Him to Bethsaida. In the meantime, Jesus sends the crowd on their way and then retreats alone to the mountain to pray. (cf. Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21)
The disciples do as He commands. They enter a boat and begin to cross the sea. And with the doing of the Divine command, the lessons begin.
Darkness had fallen and the disciples were alone as they rowed. Although they were clearly doing His bidding the sea was becoming rough as the result of a strong wind and the boat is being battered by the ensuing waves. They are more than three miles from shore and straining at the oars. They have been at it now for several hours and it is late into the night.
The text offers no insight into their private thoughts. We are left to our own imaginations. Did uncomfortable questions arise in their minds with taunting voices introducing such accusations as Why is this happening to us when we are doing exactly what we have been told by Jesus to do? Why are we alone? Where is Jesus? Does He care? Does He even know what is happening?
Yes, Jesus has sent them and they are doing what He asked. His request must have seemed a simple one at the time: get into a boat and cross over. It was an ordinary, every-day sort of event. They had obeyed the Master and now found themselves in the middle of something they hadn’t anticipated. And they were alone. Or so they may have thought.
But Jesus sees them. He sees them straining at the oars and knows that, like the boat itself, they are being tortured by a wind and sea that is against them. (Mark 6:48) Jesus sees them! He is invisible to the disciples, but they are clearly visible to Him.
Although He went to the mountain to spend time with the Father in prayer, it is of the utmost importance that we recognize that the lives of His children—their perils, hopes, despairs, dreams, and longings are always before Him. There is no moment in time when He is occupied in such a way as to lose sight of them! Jesus’ entire ministry is an unveiling of the Father. His actions are a mirror of what He sees the Father doing. He does nothing on His own but shows the world the Father’s heart by what He does. As the Father in Heaven sees the plight of a few small men in a small boat on an angry sea so does the Son from His place of prayer on the mountain. And as God took notice then, so He takes just as careful notice today in our lives as well.
In the fourth watch of the night, at the right time, the time of His choosing, Jesus comes to them with the intention of passing by them. (Mark 6:48) The disciples catch sight of Him walking on the surface of the sea! And taking Him for some manner of ghostly apparition, they cry out in fear.
The first question that might come to our minds is why Jesus intended to pass them by. At first glance, it seems like an almost callous slight. But isn’t it more probable that Jesus expected that His mere Presence would be enough for them to set matters right? The sight of Him should have been enough to remind them that He was with them always, even to the end of the Age. It is the Lord Jesus Himself, the Person of Christ that is the embodied answer to all of our needs. The Living Answer to every question and concern.
Perhaps if Jesus had come to them in a more expected way, perhaps in another boat rowed by men the same as themselves, His presence would have brought more recognizable and acceptable comfort. But the disciples, like us, must come to grips with the fact that Jesus is much more than a man. He is God incarnate who came down from Heaven to dwell with men and women as one of us. The God-Man who is fully God and fully man, unconstrained as to the means He chooses to employ. Although the very sight of Him should have brought peace to their hearts, the Prince of Peace arouses in them a dreadful fear because of their lack of understanding concerning exactly who He is and the true nature of God Almighty. Although witnesses to a miracle only hours old, they bore in their breasts the hardened hearts of fallen men. (Mark 6:52) Hearts like yours and mine.
I imagine it was with compassionate understanding, yet unavoidable sorrow, that our Lord acknowledged their fear at the sight of Him and sought to reassure them by affirming His true identity. “It is I; do not be afraid.” Would that He was understood then and now when He responds to the countless fears of humankind with the single, resounding, eternal claim that only God can boast. “I AM,” He cries! The depth of meaning of this utterance should alone be sufficient to calm our every fear.
Peter responds to the Lord’s claim by asking for further validation. Proof, I think, that it is not only Jesus in the flesh but God in the flesh as well. If it is, and not just some hopeful, ghostly image conjured up in the minds of weary and frightened men then show it to be so by commanding the disciple to come out to Him by like means; by Peter’s walking on the water just like Jesus. Jesus issues the command and Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Him.
I find Peter’s request to be one of exceptional courage, longing, and faith. I want to applaud, rise to my feet, dance around and cry out, “Bravo! Bravo!” I marvel. I simply marvel. I wonder too what might have been thought of him, or even said aloud by the others who were in the boat with him.
Oh, Peter! Aren’t you being rather hasty? The last thing we knew, people just don’t walk on water! Aren’t you being a little presumptuous here, Peter? Aren’t you getting a little out of balance with this, Peter? PETER, ARE YOU CRAZY?
What was going through Peter’s mind as he rose up from the oars about to step over the side into the raging sea and howling wind? Peter, whose mind and muscles were aching with the fatigue of hard labor but whose heart beat stronger still. Did he wonder, amazed, that his feet stayed upon the surface of the sea? Or did he wonder more, as I truly believe, that the longing in his soul, raging even greater than the sea, was being answered by this Jesus Christ the Son of God? That great, searing longing to know Him unconditionally and completely. To experience not only in Peter’s mind, but also in his entire being, that Jesus was truly the Son of God—the Savior not only of the whole world but also of him, Peter. Small, little, sinful, and utterly lost Peter! That the Jesus to whom he was walking towards on the sea was in reality the eternal God who loved him.
Who also loves you and me.
Oh, Peter. How grateful I am to you! My anxious pounding heart goes with you as you lift your leg over the rail and step onto the sea. I want so much to come too! Just like you, I want to believe with every part of my being. I long for the kind of closeness with God that comes by daring to walk wherever He bids me come.
I am convinced that Jesus was delighted by Peter’s request. Far from being presumptuous, and just as far from craziness, it was a child’s asking to come walk with his Father. An appeal to intimacy. An unselfish asking rooted in unbridled adoration and God-breathed longing. Peter’s faith in the Person of Jesus was justified. He was walking on the sea with his Lord!
But the lesson doesn’t end there. It doesn’t close on the upbeat.
You see, the circumstances hadn’t changed. The wind still roared and the sea still boiled. Peter took note of this… and the moment was lost. He wavered and became frightened and the weight of fear began to sink him. Steadfastly holding to an accurate image of God can prove a hard thing to do when conditions are contrary.
Peter knew how to swim. As a fisherman, he may even have lost his footing once or twice before during rough weather and knew what it was like to take a dunking in an angry sea before being recovered back into the boat. Yet the text tells us that he cried out to Jesus to save him. I am not altogether sure that it was a cry to be saved from drowning.
Just as I believe there was more to the petition to come to Jesus by walking on the sea than mere participation in a flashy miracle, I believe that his cry to be saved came from the same root longing in Peter’s soul. At his core, did Peter recognize—as do we if we are so blessed from above—that try as he might, he did not have the capacity to sustain a right understanding of and relationship with God through his own strength, no matter how much he might wish it? That fallenness, that same fallenness that had sprung from the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden, so permeates our flesh that we are utterly helpless in every aspect of life apart from Jesus?
Jesus’ response is both reassuring and revealing. Once again He both comforts and rescues by His presence. He stretches out a Holy hand and takes hold of Peter! It is a personal rescue, an intimate salvation, not only from the sea but also from fear and from even Peter himself. Although there is a rebuke, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” it is a rebuke meant for us all. It’s as if the Divine Head wonders at how the creature could ever doubt the love for him of the Creator.
Both Peter and Jesus are received into the boat. The wind grows calm at the same time. After all, the wind itself is but a creation and servant of the Lord of the universe and has blown so hard only to serve His purpose. Immediately, says John’s gospel, they arrive at their destination without further delay and without any additional effort on their part. The lessons are, for the moment, coming to a close. Jesus is who He claims to be and eager to have us believe, and act boldly, upon the knowledge. The knowledge that He is the very personification of the Person and Power of God. The only Way, Truth, and Life.
© M.D. Kimball 2001, 2014 (This writing may be freely copied in its entirety without prior permission from the author.)