We were given three representative miracles at the beginning of chapter 8 and now, after an introductory section in vv. 18-22, we are given three more (counting the one that begins chapter 9).
v.23 Here, of course, “disciples” refers to the inner group, the twelve, not the larger group of disciples represented by the two men of the previous few verses. And note: Matthew makes a point of saying that the disciples “followed” Jesus into the boat. He is using the discipleship word from the previous verse.
v.24 Remember, we said last week that the way Matthew uses vv. 18-22 to introduce the account of this miracle indicates that the lesson to be drawn from it concerns the disciples and the nature of discipleship. What we have in the account is a test of the faith of these men; a test they fail and from which failure they and we learn an important lesson about what it means to follow Christ.
In calm weather a journey across the lake would normally take an hour or two. But the Sea of Galilee is notorious for sudden and severe squalls. The surface of the lake is about 700 feet below sea level and on several sides bordered by steep hills, including the famous Golan Heights to which the newspapers often make reference nowadays. The winds sweep down through ravines and whip up terrific waves for a lake that size. That Jesus was so fast asleep that the uproar did not awaken him is both a testimony to his exhaustion and how completely he spent his energy on his ministry and to the peace that his faith in his heavenly Father gave him. He was, as we say, sleeping the sleep of the just. The fact that the disciples, some of whom made their living fishing on the Sea of Galilee, were so afraid indicates how severe the storm was.
v.25 Mark tells us that the Lord was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. Cyril of Alexandria notes that their crying out to Jesus, “save us,” shows some faith, but adding, “we’re going to drown,” shows how little faith it was since, in their danger, they did not take courage from the fact of Christ’s being with them. [Matthew, ACCS, i, 169]
v.26 Obviously, no matter the waves breaking over the gunwales of the boat, they should not have been afraid. Jesus was present with them. “Completely calm” means that the storm did not simply blow itself out, but that there was a supernatural calm that came over the waters as soon as the Lord spoke. It was the immediacy of the calm that made the disciples realize that Christ had, in fact, exercised sovereign control over the weather.
v.27 This is the first nature miracle recorded in Matthew. By the way, it was a sermon on this text that brought John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, to a firm assurance of salvation. May the Lord use it to great effect in our lives also.
As you may know, for the church fathers, this miracle was a picture of the situation of the church in the world. The boat symbolizes the church, as it carries the disciples, and the storm represents whatever evils threaten the church at the time. There are artistic representations of a boat on a storm-tossed sea which you find already in the catacombs. Sometimes the apostles are rowing the boat; sometimes the Apostle Paul is standing in the stern preaching. It is very interesting, by the way, that the main body of a church sanctuary, the place where the worshippers sit, was from early days called the nave. Nave comes from the Latin word navis, meaning “ship.” [Cf. T.A. Stafford, Christian Symbolism in the Evangelical Churches, 110] As one church father writes on our text: “So Christ today calms the waves surrounding the vessel of the church, so as to provide an anticipatory signal that he will finally calm the crisis of the shipwreck of the whole of fallen human history.” [Peter Chrysologus in Matthew ACCS, i, 168]
Now the early Christians weren’t denying that the miracle had actually occurred. They weren’t saying that Matthew’s account was merely a parable about the church weathering the storm of life. Far from it. But they were taking it as a lesson in both the dangers and difficulties that face those who follow Christ and the certainty of Christ’s presence with them to deliver and help them. And there is no doubt that the Lord himself intended such a lesson in the miracle. He drew attention to the disciples’ lack of faith in him, to their utterly unnecessary fear, and Matthew makes a point of tying the miracle to the nature of discipleship by using both “disciple” and “follow” in the introduction in v. 23, drawing attention to the statements that Jesus had just made about what it means to follow him.
And, of course, it is a perfect picture. The Bible often represents the trials and the temptations of life under the figures of storms and waves, and the Lord promises his help and care by saying that “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you.” [Isa. 43:2]
So what is the lesson? What are we here told and shown about true discipleship, the kind of following the Lord that does not merit his rebuke and correction? Well, it is this: that amid the difficulties of life, the disciples of the Lord are to realize that Christ, who loves them and is powerful to save them, is with them and then act accordingly with courage and with aplomb. After all, Christ is with us as surely as he was with his disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee. His last word in this Gospel of Matthew is “surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Christ makes no bones about what the disciples should have done: they should have ridden out the storm in the sure and certain conviction that they could not sink with the Lord Christ in the boat.
Winston Churchill, as a young soldier, without any intention of expressing Christian conviction, got this right when he wrote home to his mother after battle action in Cuba: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result!” Pascal, of course, put it in more solidly Christian terms: “There is some pleasure in being on board a ship battered by storms when one is certain of not perishing. The persecutions buffeting the church are like this.” [Pensées]
And what is our confidence that we will not sink and not perish? Christ himself is with us. As you may remember, after the death of Blaise Pascal – one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen – his servant discovered, sewn into his coat, a scrap of parchment which, apparently, he had always carried with him. It was his record, in his own compressed and inimitable style and written in his own hand, of an overwhelming experience of the presence of God and Christ when he was converted. Part of it reads:
“The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November…from about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Forgetfulness of the world and everything except God.”
“Not the God of the philosophers or the intellectuals…” said by one of the greatest of all philosophers and intellectuals. Pascal meant that God was no longer an idea to him, but a person, a person of infinite majesty and immeasurable love, and he had himself now met this God! He knew him! Meeting him had brought overwhelming joy flooding into his soul. And for the rest of his life he wore his own account of that first meeting, those two unforgettable hours close to his heart. I suspect that it was so with the disciples for the rest of their lives. They never forgot that night on the lake, never forgot how the storm had suddenly quieted in obedience to the voice of their Master, never forgot his kindly but stern rebuke – “You of little faith” – and never forgot, but kept in their hearts the lesson of those few hours of terror followed by perfect calm. That Christ was with them in the prison, was with them when they were confronted by mobs, was with them in their own private hardships and with them when each one faced death in his turn. “Why are you so afraid?” they would ask themselves, and, remembering that night on the Sea of Galilee their hearts would calm and they would find peace and courage again.
A contemporary of Blaise Pascal, an unlearned man, in terms of worldly attainment and accomplishment almost the opposite of the great French mathematician, philosopher, and Christian apologist, was Nicholas Herman of Lorraine, known to Christian history by his monk’s name, Brother Lawrence. He was born in 1610, the son of a peasant. He was converted to Christ at 18 years of age. He became a soldier. Wounded in battle, he was lame for the rest of his life. At the age of 40 he entered a monastery as a lay brother and was put to work in the kitchen. Here, in kitchen work, he spent the remaining 40 years of his life. The sheer beauty and quality of his Christian life brought many through the years to seek his guidance. One of these set down an account of four conversations that he had with Brother Lawrence in 1666 and 1667 and this was later published under the title The Practice of the Presence of God. That was the principle of his life, the practice of Christ’s presence with him. And there is something very charming and very encouraging about being taught that lesson by a man who “did nothing more sensational than to walk with God about a monastery kitchen for nearly forty years.” [Hugh Martin, Great Christian Books, 52] In one memorable passage Brother Lawrence describes his life in these terms:
“…I make it my business only to persevere in His Holy presence, wherein I keep myself by a simple attention, and a general fond regard to God, which I may call an actual presence of God; or, to speak better, an habitual, silent and secret conversation of the soul with God, which often causes in me joys and raptures inwardly and sometimes also outwardly… In short, I am assured beyond all doubt that my soul has been with God these thirty years.” 
And we catch some sense of what that conversation was like between Brother Lawrence and the Almighty when we read a passage like this.
“I consider myself as the most wretched of men, full of sores and corruption, who has committed all sorts of crimes against his King; touched with a sensible regret I confess to Him all my wickedness, I ask His forgiveness, I abandon myself in His hands, that He may do what He pleases with me. This King full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastising me, embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as His favourite. It is thus I consider myself from time to time in His holy presence.
And what is the secret of such a life? He tells us again and again: practice the presence of God. In one passage he writes, “The presence of God; a subject which in my opinion contains the whole spiritual life.” “Were I a preacher, I should above all other things preach the practice of the presence of God…” “We cannot escape the dangers which abound in life without the actual and continual help of God; let us then pray to Him for it continually. How can we pray to Him without being with Him? How can we be with Him but in thinking of Him often? And how can we often think of Him, but by a holy habit which we should form of it? [Martin, 54-55]
Well, is this not precisely the lesson of this miracle as it is given in the Gospel of Matthew. The Lord was present with his disciples. He tells them that his presence should have calmed all their fears. But they behaved, at least when the winds came up, as if Christ were not with them or, worse, as if his presence with them meant nothing. They knew better and learned better, but their failing was precisely this: they did not practice the presence of Jesus Christ and in that failing, the Lord told them, they were not acting like his disciples and were not being his true followers. They were not acknowledging the difference that being with Jesus Christ makes and must make in life! They were afraid for their lives as if they knew nothing about Christ and his sovereign power and as if they had no inkling that he was with them. It is for this want of faith and the practice of faith that he rebuked them and it was this lesson, I’m sure, that stuck with them for the rest of their lives.
And, when Jesus says at the very end of the Gospel, “And, surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” he is saying that whether in an actual storm at sea or working in a kitchen, his disciples will live rightly and truly if they remember that he is with them – the conqueror of the winds and waves – and behave accordingly. When parents leave home for an evening they save their most important instructions for last – how to reach them, what to do in an emergency – well so with Christ. He left his most important instruction for last – “Remember, I am with you always!” he said, just before he left the world. It matters not what circumstances we face, after all. He is the ruler of those as well. After all, here, in this case, the crossing of the lake was his idea. They wouldn’t have been in the boat or in the midst of the storm if it hadn’t been for Christ wanting to cross the lake and bring them along. And, surely, if he could calm a raging storm by the mere utterance of a word, he could have summoned up a calm sea and a brisk wind to speed them across the water in comfort. So when we are conscious that Christ is with us, we are conscious that he was with us when the decision was made, with us when we stepped into the boat, with us when all seemed well, and still with us when the winds came up and the waves began to break over the sides of the ship. “Remember, I am with you always!”
Now, if you could see Christ with you, it would be easier to practice his presence. That is the difficulty of faith. But that is precisely the point the Lord makes here. He rebukes them for their lack of faith, as if he were speaking to us instead of to them. We might think, from our vantage point, that they scarcely had to have faith at all. They, after all, could see the Lord Christ sleeping in the boat. They had only to glance aft to see the Son of Man resting peacefully in the midst of the storm. Silly men, we think. But, then, we know and understand more about Jesus than they did at that time. We know of all his miracles, most of which had not yet happened by this time. We know of his death, his resurrection, his ascension to the Right Hand. We know about Pentecost. So we are in no position to look down on these men whose faith was small because they didn’t yet fully realize what a difference it makes to have Christ with them. At least they had the good sense to go to him and plead with him to wake up and save them. Sometimes, I say this to our shame, we don’t do even that much!
But they should have laughed at their troubles and we should too. Do you remember the journalist, CNN bureau chief in Beirut, Jeremy Levin, who was kidnapped and held as a hostage by a militant Muslim group in March of 1984? He was eventually released after 11 months in captivity. During his imprisonment, through the witness of another captive, Levin forsook his atheism and became a Christian. Speaking of the effect that his new faith had upon him during his captivity, he wrote, “This meant that despite the chains on my ankles, a lock on the door, and guards with guns, I was free. I joked to myself that all God and I had left to discuss was the exact date.” What is that, once again, but a man of faith practicing the presence of Christ. The Lord was there, to talk to, to appeal to, to see to his situation, to trust in and count on.
Or, think of this classic illustration of the point. You remember, many of you will, the two Margarets, Covenanter women executed by drowning in the Solway Firth on 2, 1685. Margaret Lauchlison was an elderly widow; Margaret Wilson was 18 years of age, but both were condemned to death in that cruel time, in effect, for refusing to forsake their Covenanter principles. Government commissions had been instructed by the crown that any persons not forsaking those principles were to be hanged immediately, but that women were to be drowned. Such were those terrible times. The two Margarets were staked in the sand at low tide to be drowned by the incoming tide and so made a spectacle and a lesson to the population. The younger Margaret was staked nearer to the shore, the older woman farther out in hopes, perhaps, that the older woman’s struggle would convince the younger to take the oath forsaking her loyalty to the Reformation of the church. The brutality and inhumanity of this execution prompted defenders of the crown and enemies of Covenanter principles in the 19th century to attack the veracity of this often repeated history, but that attack had the effect of causing scholars to examine more carefully the historical evidence for the martyrdom of the two Margarets and the result of that examination was that its historicity was settled beyond dispute.
When the waters began to rise up to the mouth of the first, the older Margaret, and she began to struggle, the soldiers asked the young Margaret what she thought about what she was seeing. She replied, “What do I see but Christ wrestling there?” And she remained steadfast and drowned together with her older Christian sister.
“I see Christ wrestling there!” There are some immortal words uttered by an 18-year-old Christian and a perfect expression of the meaning of this miracle that Matthew has described in our text. Christ is with us in the deep waters, the storms of life. We are never alone to face those trials by ourselves, even and especially the greatest trials of our lives. He is always with us, as he said. And being with us, we have nothing to fear. He will take us safely where he desires that we should go.
It matters not if you are in your kitchen, as Brother Lawrence often was, in some unknown locked room in Beirut, or staked to the sand with the onrushing tide rising about your legs, it is both your duty and your privilege to practice the presence of the Lord Jesus. That is how you follow him in this world and how you live faithfully as his disciple. That is how you can be as much his disciple as were those men who accompanied him on his ministry for those three matchless years. In your happiness of course, and in your success; but even more in your labor, your frustration, your disappointment, and your fear, Christ is with you and you are to practice his presence. Imagine him with the sight of your faith, standing there beside you and ask yourself what that must mean and how it must change the way you think and act. He is with you in your lonely room, with you at your job as you find yourself being slowly buried under that pile of work or finding your boss so difficult to deal with, with you in your struggles with your children, with you in your uncertainties about your future. Whatever seas you find yourself sailing through, however high the waves and dark the sky, however much water seems already to have collected in the bottom of the boat, I say, open your eyes. The Lord Christ is never further from you than he was from those disciples as he slept in the stern that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. And you may turn to him and ask him for help as surely as they.
And if you will not forget but always remember to practice Christ’s presence with you – to remember it, believe it, and act accordingly – I tell you on the Lord’s behalf that many, many times it will be your pleasure and privilege to say, with a thrill in your heart:
“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”