John’s account of this miracle is highly compressed. We don’t learn here that the Lord had sent his disciples away across the lake ahead of him, or that he was alone praying on a mountainside above the lake while his disciples struggled at the oars, or that Peter walked on the water as well at the Lord’s invitation and then, his faith being weak, began to sink. But John has told us in v. 15 that Jesus went off to be alone and he has told us of the pressures that would have sent the Lord to his knees and to his Father in heaven in prayer.
v.18 Matthew and Mark tell us that it was a contrary wind. The surface of the Sea lies some six hundred feet below sea level and up to two thousand feet below the summits of the surrounding hills. The difference in temperature at the top and bottom of the hills is considerable and causes air to rush downhill through the ravines that lead to the water. Storms can come quickly and can be quite fierce for a lake as small as the Sea of Galilee is.
v.19 Literally 25 or 30 stadia (a stadion was approx. 600 feet). At its greatest width the Sea of Galilee is 61 stadia in length, so they were somewhere in the middle of the lake.
v.21 It is not clear whether we are to understand v. 21 to mean that there was a second miraculous effect in the speed with which the boat came to land after the Lord was brought into it, or if John simply means that after Jesus got into the boat the wind died down and the sea became calm, as Mark tells us happened, and then quickly they brought the boat to shore.
It was night and you remember that darkness, in the Bible, is a symbol of evil, ignorance, trouble, and sorrow. The Bible speaks of the powers of darkness. And, in an age before electric lights, no wonder. Darkness was palpable. The author of Hebrews speaks of darkness in a catalog of things that can be touched (12:18). You may remember also that in the Bible the sea and its storms and its waves are symbols of chaos and disorder in general and of the tribulations of life in particular. “All your waves and breakers have swept over me,” the psalmist says in 42:7 as a way of describing his woe. “I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.” [69:2] And, of course, in Jonah’s case, the sea and its waves were both his literal peril and the symbol of the trouble God had visited upon his life on account of Jonah’s sins. “You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me… The engulfing waters threatened me…” [2:3-5]
Of course, these powers were subject to the Lord and his rule and control. “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?” [Job 38:8-11] Or, in Ps. 29: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters…the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. … The Lord sits enthroned over the flood…” Or Ps. 89:9: “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” And a great many texts like that.
So, it is no surprise that, from the very beginning, this account of the Lord walking on the water and bringing deliverance to his disciples in a storm at night was taken by Christians as a lesson in the Lord’s presence with his people and deliverance of his people from the trials of life.
Here is one church father:
“The labour of the disciples in rowing against the contrary wind is a type of the various labours of the holy Church, which amid the waves of an opposing world…struggles to attain to the quiet of the heavenly country… But the Lord, though himself stationed on the land, beholds the toilers on the sea; for although He may seem to defer for a season the bestowal of his help on those in tribulation, none the less, that they faint not in their trials, He strengthens them with the thought of his love, and at times even by an open [display] of his aid (treading under, as it were, and allaying the surging waves), he overcomes their adversities and sets them free.” [Bede, cited in Trench, Miracles, 299n]
It was not long before Christians were singing a hymn reflecting that same view of the Lord’s walking on the water. We used to sing it, but it didn’t make it into the second edition of Trinity Hymnal.
Jesus, Deliverer, Come thou to me;
Soothe thou my voyaging over life’s sea:
Thou, when the storm of death roars, sweeping by,
Whisper, O Truth of Truth, ‘Peace! It is I.’
And it is not hard to see in how many ways this lovely incident, this miraculous and marvelous demonstration of Christ’s care for his disciples and his power to intervene on their behalf in any and every circumstance, is a picture of the life of Christian folk in the world.
- Think first of the disciples themselves. How like all of us they are. How short their memories, how weak their faith.
They had just witnessed perhaps the most stupendous display of the Lord’s supernatural power they would ever witness. Perhaps it took no more divine power to multiply the bread and fish than it did to raise the dead, but the feeding of the 5,000 was a great mystery done in full view of everyone. We cannot imagine how, but the bread and the fish continued to multiply as they were distributed. The dead wake up, the blind see, but in such cases they saw only the effect of the Lord’s power not its actual working. But the feeding of the 5,000 set the Lord’s divine power before the eyes of everyone that all might wonder at it.
But, a few hours later they found themselves on the lake. The waves were rough, they were weary from rowing for hours against the wind. The Synoptic gospels tell us that the Lord came to them in the fourth watch of the night – on toward morning, in other words, sometimes between three to six a.m. – so they had been rowing a long while. There is no suggestion that they feared for their lives, as on a previous occasion when the waves began breaking over the boat and filling it. The Lord was with them then and when he woke he stilled the storm. But here, apparently, they were just weary from the hours of pulling on their oars against a contrary wind.
And then came the Lord Jesus walking on the water. And all of the gospel writers tell us that they were all terrified by the sight. They thought he was a ghost. Now, tell me. Hasn’t it occurred to you to think: what is wrong with these men? They just saw the Lord feed a vast multitude with a few scraps of food. They had seen miracle upon miracle by this time in the ministry: water turned to wine, the sick healed, lepers cleansed, and they had just seen one that put all of the others in the shade. “Why,” we think, “if I had been in that boat, I would have shouted, ‘There’s the Lord! Walking on the Water! What will he do next!’”
But, of course, you wouldn’t have done any such thing. You would have been terrified just like the rest of them. And the proof of that is that your memory of what the Lord has done for you and what he has shown you of himself is just as poor as theirs was. Time and time again you have found yourself rowing and getting nowhere and worrying about the winds and the waves because you have completely forgotten the feeding of the 5,000 you saw the previous afternoon.
We find ourselves in some trial, some darkness, some storm in our lives, and we feel ourselves entirely alone, left to our own rowing. We are unaided, so we think, by his grace, and uncheered by his presence. And the longer we make no progress against the wind that is blowing against us in the world – whatever that might be in our particular case – the more we despair of help, no matter how wonderfully the Lord has helped us in the past, no matter how much of his power we have seen, no matter that he has in the past made us wait for him but always came in time, no matter that he was the one who told us to get into the boat in the first place!
And how often we do not recognize the Lord in the circumstances from which our help eventually comes! It is not until later that we realize that all of that help, that solution was from him. He was there all the while and it was his hand, unrecognized until later, that held us up and pointed the way.
- But, then, think of the Lord as well. How like his way with all his children, this way he took with his disciples that night.
See how he left them, or seemed to leave them to their own devices. And see how he left them so long to their rowing against the contrary wind. What is the complaint that we hear of God over and again in the Psalms. Is it not just this: that God has hidden his face from his child, has become the “hidden God.” He or she has been pleading for help, but he has not come, he has not answered, he has not shown himself. How often God’s people are in such a state. Late into the night they row, getting nowhere, so it seems. And Christ cannot be found. How often the Lord embodied this very way with his disciples. He waited until Lazarus had already died before coming to help. He told the parable of the unjust judge and the widow who had to pester him unmercifully until finally he relented and heard her cry.
Christ often does not hasten to the side of his people. He makes them wait for him. But, then, suddenly, in the nick of time, he is there! And when he arrives, suddenly the winds and the seas are calm and we get to the shore, so it seems, with scarcely any more rowing at all. When the Lord comes to help, we receive help indeed!
The Lord’s ways with us are so endlessly interesting. He could, of course, have simply calmed the seas for his disciples while he stood on the hillside far away. But he wanted them to see Him delivering them. He wanted to strengthen their faith in Him. And he wanted them to remember, in the years that followed, in the days after he had ascended to heaven and they would see him no more, that he would be present with them no matter where they were, no matter what they were doing, no matter how much they were suffering for his sake. And how often do you suppose those same disciples thought back to that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee, when they faced trials of various kinds in the years to come. And if they did not yet have von Schlegel’s great hymn to sing, how often they must have thought similar sentiments, if not in such beautiful verse:
Be still my soul: your God will undertake
To guide the future as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still my soul: the waves and winds still know his voice
Who ruled them while he dwelt below.
Do you remember that powerful passage in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe? Crusoe, you remember, had been shipwrecked on that desert island. The first weeks and months of his sojourn were taken up with building shelter for himself, providing food to eat, protection from wild animals or men, should they appear. After some time several circumstances led him to consider God and Christ and his own sins. He had taken a Bible from the shipwreck and began to read it and came to a living faith in Jesus Christ. All of that is wonderfully and wisely told in Defoe’s great novel, some would say the first great novel in the English language.
But as time passed, remember Crusoe was on the island for twenty-eight years, his lonely, lost, hopeless circumstances would press in on his mind and heart as understandably they would.
“…as I walked about, either on my hunting or for viewing the country, the anguish of my soul at my condition would break out upon me on a sudden, and my very heart would die within me to think of the woods, the mountains, the deserts I was in; and how I was a prisoner locked up with the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness, without redemption. In the midst of the greatest composures of my mind, this would break out upon me like a storm and make me wring my hands and weep like a child.
“One morning, being very sad, I opened the Bible upon these words, ‘I will never, never leave thee, nor forsake thee’; immediately it occurred that these words were to me; why else should they be directed in such a manner, just at the moment when I was mourning over my condition, as one forsaken of God and man? ‘Well, then,’ said I, ‘if God does not forsake me, of what ill consequence can it be, or what matters it, though the world should all forsake me; seeing on the other hand, if I had all the world and should lose the favour and blessing of God, there would be no comparison in the loss?
“From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world…” [102-103]
Now what is that, really, but the Lord Jesus, once more, after seeing his disciple rowing all night against a contrary wind, coming across the water to help him and to put everything right.
Or, take one of my favorites stories from the life of Charles Simeon, the great English preacher. When he came as a young bachelor to Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, he was appointed by a bishop against the will of the congregation – the bishop knew what that church needed – and that congregation made Simeon’s life as miserable as they could through those early years. They made it obvious at every turn that they didn’t like him and didn’t want him. He was an eccentric, sensitive young man, tall and gangling, and they laughed at him in the street. They were unreceptive to his ministry and he accomplished between little and nothing. He was rowing all by himself against a stiff contrary wind.
“When I was an object of much derision in the university, I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand. I prayed earnestly to my God that he would comfort me with some cordial from His Word, and that on opening the book I might find some text which would sustain me… The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to bear his cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was here – what a blessed hint for my encouragement! To have the Cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honouring with a participation in his sufferings… I henceforth bound persecution as a wreath of glory round my brow.” [Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 81]
What was that but Christ coming across the waves to help his weary disciple to the shore?
But not only in loneliness, not only in persecution. In the afflictions of the body, in ill-health. How many of the Lord’s saints, when being battered by the storms of sickness and disease have found the Lord coming to their rescue through the storm and lifting them up, if not by healing, then by granting the soul a sense of peace, even joy.
I think of a man like Thomas Halyburton, the great Scot theologian and pastor, who lay on his deathbed with painfully swollen limbs. “Lame hands, lame legs; but see a lame man leaping and rejoicing.” I think of my sister’s case, when the Lord came walking across the water to her, at the very end of her life, and gave her a sight of the heavenly country and breath to say so – though by that time her lungs were filled up with fluid so that she had been hardly able to breathe much less to speak. Hard rowing it had been for her; then suddenly to the shore!
Or, what of those contemplating death. I will always love that letter that the Covenanter martyr, Archibald Campbell, the earl of Argyle, wrote to his daughter-in-law, the day of his execution in Edinburgh.
“What shall I say in this great day of the Lord, wherein in the midst of a cloud, I have found a fair sunshine. I can wish no more for you, but that the Lord may comfort you, and shine upon you as he does upon me, and give you that same sense of His love in staying in the world, as I have in going out of it.”
What is that but the Lord coming over the waves at the end of a long night and bringing the relief that his disciple needed?
I have seen the Lord walking across the waves to me and I know that many of you have as well. A long night of hard rowing, weariness, discouragement at lack of progress, and, then, suddenly, he was there!
And, let me tell you something, my brethren. Once he is there, all the rowing is forgotten, all the waves, all the weariness, all the fear. Not only forgotten, even appreciated.
No one ever said it better than Samuel Rutherford:
“Nay, whether God come to his children with a rod or a crown, if He come Himself with it, it is well. Welcome, welcome, Jesus, what way soever Thou come, if we can get a sight of Thee! And sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside and draw by the curtains, and say, ‘Courage, I am Thy salvation,’ than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong, and never to be visited of God.” [Letter XI, p. 52]
Do you think the disciples regretted all that night of rowing after they saw the Lord Christ walking on the water, took him into their boat and made it immediately to the shore? When the sun began to rise and they greeted the dawn, do you think they heaved a sigh of relief that the night was finally over? Do you think they ever once thought to themselves that, if the Lord were going to help them, why didn’t he just calm the sea and the wind before they set out across the lake? No! There must be the storm for the Lord to come through it to deliver his disciples. No storm, no walking on the water! Everyone of them would have said to the end of his life that he would row through any number of nights just to have the Lord Jesus come walking across the lake to help them. To know that he could do it and would do it I’m sure sustained them throughout the rest of their difficult and dangerous lives. How many times do you imagine they thought back to that night on the Sea of Galilee – sitting in a prison where they were thrown for preaching Christ or, even like Paul, in some other terrible storm at sea.
How many times did they remind themselves:
Be still my soul: the waves and winds still know his voice
Who ruled them while he dwelt below.
And what then for us from this text? Well, what else but this? When you find yourself in that storm, the wind blowing against you, oars laboring heavily, you keep on rowing. Pull a little longer, that is all, however weary your arms. The Lord is on the hillside, interceding for you. If he wanted you to have calm seas you would have them. But he will not let you sink. He will come across the water at precisely the right time. And when you see him walking on the water, coming to help you, you will think all the rowing a small price to pay. “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
Or, in the lovely words of Clement of Alexandria,
“Christ turns all our sunsets into dawns.”
Believing that and remembering that is a very large part of being Christ’s faithful disciple. Keep looking for the Lord Christ across the tops of the waves. Before long you will see him as vast multitudes of storm tossed Christians have before you!