READ : Matthew 14:22-33
Do you know how to walk on water? By faith in Jesus Christians can, at least figuratively, walk on water – true or false? Actually, it’s true and false.
One of the images the early church used to symbolize the Christian faith, in addition to symbols like the cross, the fish, or the Good Shepherd was the picture of a small boat. The boat stands for the church. Its symbolism is based on a real boat, the fishing boat in which Jesus often sailed with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee.
This image suggests the true nature of the church: the church is the company of those who have been gathered out of the world into the fellowship of Jesus’ followers. And it speaks wonderfully of the Lord’s presence and protection. Jesus is with his disciples in the boat, with his church as it sails the world’s stormy sea.
But when we turn to a familiar story in the Gospel of Matthew, something isn’t quite right. In Matthew 14 the disciples are in their small craft sailing across the Sea of Galilee toward Gennesaret near their home on the western shore. But Jesus is not with them. And the disciples are in trouble.
It’s the story of Jesus’ walking on the water. It’s related in Matthew 14:22-33, and it really is a drama in two acts, each act having two scenes. As the curtain rises Jesus and his friends are in the wilderness. They’re on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. He has gone there with them looking for a brief respite from the demands of his public ministry. Jesus wants to be alone, to have an opportunity to pray.
But the crowds of needy, suffering people follow him there, and instead of sending them away he has compassion on them and spends his day healing them. Then he feeds them, multiplying loaves and fish to sustain a multitude. Finally, Jesus dismisses the crowds with a word of blessing and sends them home.
Then he tells his disciples to get into the boat that brought them there and sail it back across the lake to their home territory. But Jesus himself remains behind. As evening comes, and the disciples sail off into the sunset, Jesus, writes Matthew, “went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (v. 23).
Now it’s late, in the depth of the night, and the disciples are struggling, finding the going heavy:
. . . the boat by this time was a long way from land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. (v. 24)
I find it interesting how often the gospels show us the disciples in trouble or unsuccessful on the Sea of Galilee. After all, the core of this little band – the two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John – were all professional fishermen. Yet when Jesus first meets them in the Gospel of Luke, we hear them say, “we have toiled all night and caught nothing.”
These men had grown up on that body of water, the Sea of Galilee, and they had been handling boats on it since they were boys. Yet on another occasion they cry out to Jesus to save them in a storm, as he lies sleeping peacefully on a cushion in the stern.
It’s as if the evangelists want to underscore what Jesus says in the fourth Gospel: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Whenever we rely on our own strength in ministry, on our own skill and professional experience, we flounder and fail. That’s the lesson, I think, of the Galilean fishermen and their little boats.
So there the disciples are, all alone, struggling against wind and waves, and then suddenly Jesus appears, and appears in the most dramatic way possible. Listen to Matthew:
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus comes to his friends, “walking on the sea.” It’s an act that has become proverbial. “He can walk on water,” we sometimes say of some extremely gifted person. Or, less flatteringly, “he thinks he can walk on water.” Did Jesus really do that?
While traveling in India recently, I visited Varanasi, one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that Jesus had come to India and lived there between the ages of twelve and thirty, the years about which the Bible is silent. He studied with various swamis and gurus, and practiced yoga, which is how he was able to walk on water!
But actually this miracle is neither a legend nor a magic trick; nor yet a stunt. When Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple to prove that he was God, Jesus refused to defy the laws of nature. But when his disciples are struggling in the storm, he will come to them in his full deity, on the water, bringing help.
But the really important thing about this scene is not how Jesus got out to the disciples in the middle of the sea, but what he said to them when he arrived. They were terrified, understandably so, because they thought he was a ghost. They cried out in fear. But Jesus said to them, “Have courage; it is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Do you know how often the Lord says to us, “Don’t be afraid”? Actually, “Fear not” is the most frequently repeated command that God gives us in the Bible. We need not fear, whatever our circumstances, because Jesus the Lord is with us, and he is God. At the very heart of this scene is Jesus’ announcement to his frightened disciples, “It is I.” That’s how it is usually translated in the English version. But it’s far more than a mere greeting. Jesus isn’t just saying hello to his friends.
He isn’t identifying himself to them in the sense of, “Hey, guys, look – it’s me, Jesus!” No, Jesus is revealing in these words his true identity. In the original language Jesus speaks only two words: ego eimi, “I am!” There is an unmistakable echo of the great “I am” statements from the Gospel of John: “I am the Bread of Life . . . I am the Light of the world” and so on. And behind all these is the revelation of God’s personal name to Moses at the burning bush: “I am who I am; tell Pharaoh, ‘I am’ has sent you.” When Jesus comes to the disciples, he comes as the great “I am.”
With that dramatic statement the curtain falls on Act 1 of the drama, and Act 2 begins. In the second part of the story the focus of attention shifts from Jesus to Peter. Peter, always the impulsive one. He blurts out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28).
Was this a rash request? Was Peter wrong to ask for such a miracle? But Peter didn’t ask, “Lord, make me walk on water, like you.” He asked, “Lord, let me come to you on the water.” Yes, it was a bold request, but it was born of great faith in the power of Jesus, great confidence in the authority of Jesus, and great love for the person of Jesus. It’s never wrong to ask to come to Jesus. So as Peter prays boldly, Jesus answers him. “He says, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus” (v. 29).
Peter prays boldly, and then acts boldly. But his bold faith soon turns to panic and confusion. For just a moment Peter is actually walking on water; and then just as quickly he is sinking.
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (vv. 30-31)
Peter’s faith is fleeting, and he soon finds himself in danger of drowning. He prays again, desperately. And “Lord, command me” turns into, “Lord, save me!” But “Lord, save me!” is a prayer that Jesus always answers. He immediately reached down and rescued Peter from the wind and the waves.
So what is the point of this dramatic story? I’ve often heard it used as a challenge to bold faith. Preachers sometimes tell us we need to get out of the boat, like Peter did. We ought to be willing to take risks for the Lord, to step out of our safe environment, to stretch our comfort zone and exercise bold faith. Christians ought to be taking steps of faith so daring, so far beyond our natural abilities, that only God can keep us afloat. Well, that’s true, I’m sure. We do tend to be too timid, too risk-averse, in our Christian discipleship. I know I am. We need to be willing, in William Carey’s phrase, “to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.”
But I think there is also another lesson to be drawn from Peter’s example. When it comes to daring acts of faith, Peter says to us, “Yes, we can do it!” But he also tells us, “No, we can’t!” We are all like Peter in both ways, one minute walking on water, the next sinking. We can, but we can’t; we are bold and confident and we are desperate and needy; we are Great-faith and Little-faith, all at the same time. I like what the great old commentator Matthew Henry says about Peter here.
Christ bid him come, not only that he might walk upon the water and know Christ’s power, but that he might sink and so know his own weakness; for as [the Lord] would encourage [Peter’s] faith, so he would check his self-confidence.
The drama of Jesus walking on the water ends this way:
And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (vv. 32-33)
When we recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and know that he is with us, then however small our boat, we can pray, “Lord, command me!” and “Lord, save me!” And know that he does both.