v.22 “Made” is a strong term. “Compelled” is more like it. John, in his Gospel, also records this episode as following immediately upon the feeding of the 5,000. But he adds that such was the enthusiasm of the crowd after that great miracle that an effort was made to make Jesus king – who would not want a king who could provide his people with an unending supply of food! Apparently, it was to separate his disciples from the crowd, who were at this point all to ready to join in such sentiments, that the Lord demanded that they take to the boat and cross the lake. It was important to quash this proposal as quickly as possible as it entirely mistook the Lord’s real identity and purpose.
v.23 Matthew makes a simple summary of what John suggests was no easy task, for Jesus to extricate himself from crowds of people that were madly excited about what they had seen him do. Our Lord was a man of prayer and he lived and worked by the grace and help he received through prayer. After an exhausting day his first thought was for communion with his Father.
For none so lone on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,
Beyond the clamour of the crowd,
Moving where Jesus trod,
In the lone walk with God.
That is, if this entire episode is something of a study in living by faith, as it clearly is, this first part is also part of that lesson. Jesus was a man of faith, he lived by faith; the proof of that is that he was a man of prayer. Prayer is what people do who believe but who do not see.
v.24 Matthew’s Greek literally reads that the boat was “many stadia” from land. A stadion was approximately 600 feet. John, who was also there, says that the disciples had, by this time, traveled about 25 to 30 stadia, 3 to 31/2 miles. The lake at its widest is 61 stadia, but they would not have been crossing at its widest point. The point is that they were out in the middle of the lake, far from shore. And the weather being as rough as it was, the rowing was made all the more difficult. Having left after the miraculous supper, served as evening fell, they had been crossing at night and, as we now learn, had been rowing all night.
v.26 The fourth watch is 3-6 a.m. In such circumstances – on a stormy sea, in the pre-dawn darkness, after a long night of grueling work rowing the boat – the Lord’s appearance terrified them. All they could think of was that they were seeing a ghost, a spirit, an apparition.
v.27 The “It is I”, literally “I am”, has overtones of deity. It is an echo of the divine name as revealed in Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am”). Jesus uses this same expression at other key points of his self-revelation in the Gospels. One commentator suggests that it would be better to translate the phrase not “It is I,” but “‘I AM’, the Living One, master of wind and wave.” [Hill, in Morris, 382n]
v.28 In this Gospel we find that Peter is both impulsive and easily overcome. This rings true to what we learn of him elsewhere. It is also clear that Peter is a representative disciple. He tends to speak and act for the rest. And as the disciples together are the church in miniature, Peter is our representative in such a scene. We are to see ourselves in him. The church was in that boat and Peter represents the church in what he did, in what he failed to do, and in what he should have done.
v.29 Remember, Peter had just a few hours before participated in another of the Lord’s great miracles. He was ready to participate in this one as well. And, at first he was successful. He too walked upon the water.
v.30 Suddenly conscious again of the storm and realizing where he was, Peter panicked.
v.33 What the disciples meant by worshipping Jesus as the Son of God they themselves probably couldn’t have explained. But they are surely saying that there is something that places Jesus with God and apart from all other men. Slowly but surely the disciples are being brought to the realization that Jesus is not simply a prophet sent from God, not even simply the Messiah, the promised king, but God himself incarnate, the second person of the Triune God now in human nature. They surely did not have that complete understanding at this point, but these experiences are forcing them to believe more and more about Jesus.
This episode in the life of Jesus has left its impression on the mind of the world. Still today we describe someone who is very gifted or successful as “able to walk on water.” But we mean the phrase only metaphorically. No one can actually walk on water. But Jesus did as he did so many other things that cannot be done by human beings. But, then, accept that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, sent from heaven for the world’s salvation; accept that he had at his disposal the power of God who made the world and all the water in the world; accept that the Lord’s miracles were intended to demonstrate that this man spoke and acted for the living God himself; and, then, at last, accept that, unlike even Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, who also worked miracles, who also overcame the force of gravity, Jesus was no one less than God the Son now come in human nature, and the fact that he walked on water is no longer a problem, no longer an obstacle to belief in the veracity of the Gospel accounts. Surely the God who made water and who rules over water, can walk on water if he chooses to and can enable someone else to walk on water as well.
But this miracle is important really for another reason. This was not a miracle performed before great crowds of people, as was the feeding of the 5,000 that immediately preceded it. This miracle was performed before the Lord’s disciples and before them only. It was a lesson for them and, in particular, it was a lesson in faith.
We know that for several reasons. First, the Lord himself draws attention to the place of faith in this episode when, after Peter panicked, the Lord gently rebuked his disciple for his too small faith. Second, it is surely a striking fact that Peter began to sink when he began to doubt. It is not obvious that a man who was walking on water precisely because Jesus was there to enable him to do so would sink because he suddenly realized where he was and what he was doing. Jesus could have rebuked his little faith without Peter actually sinking. Obviously there is no physical connection between faith and walking on water, because no Christian – even the Christian of the sturdiest conceivable faith – has ever walked on water again through all the ages of church history. This connection between Peter’s faith and either his walking upon or sinking into the water was something that Jesus himself contrived to teach his disciples a lesson about faith.
Now in the history of the interpretation of this text there are two broad approaches taken to this episode. One view is that Peter was in error from the outset. His desire to imitate Jesus was presumptuous and wrong-spirited, a case of testing God. On this reading, Peter does what Satan had unsuccessfully tempted Jesus to do, that is, put on a display of divine power just to demonstrate that he had it. In this case, then, Peter would be a bad example of discipleship. He was someone who had the wrong approach to following Jesus. The Lord’s invitation to Peter was designed precisely to teach him his mistake, to remind him of the difference between master and servant. The Lord intended Peter to sink and to learn a lesson from his sinking. Interpreters who take this approach generally argue that Peter began to sink as soon as he left the boat.
But the text seems, rather clearly, to take a different approach. In v. 29 Peter seems clearly to have succeeded in walking on the water toward Jesus and v. 31 seems clearly to say that Peter’s fault was his loss of confidence, not his having tried to walk on the water in the first place.
The importance of this is that, if the latter interpretation is true, as I’m sure it is, this episode is a lesson in the nature of true faith. It is taught, to be sure, primarily, in the negative. We see faith failing in a crisis. But in that failure we learn what real faith is and, so, to what we are to aspire as believers in and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was no mistake in Peter’s leaving the boat; the mistake was in his beginning to doubt.
And what is the lesson then? It is that faith is concentration on Jesus Christ. Luther once defined faith as “nothing else but a sure and steadfast looking to Christ.” And Robert McCheyne once recommended to his congregation that “for every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ.” Now, to be sure, this language of “looking” at Christ is metaphorical. We can’t see Jesus Christ. Would that we could. But we must live for now without the physical sight of the Lord. But, nevertheless, we are to look at him.
Sometimes we are given rather precise and even technical definitions of true and living faith in the Bible. For example, in John 4:50, we are told that the royal official in Cana, whose son was ill, took Jesus at his word and departed in the confidence that his son was already healed. The text reads literally that “he believed the word that Jesus spoke to him.” Faith, we are taught there, is believing to be true what Jesus says and acting accordingly. Or, in Hebrews 11:1 we read this definition: “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is a confidence in the truth of what cannot be seen with the eye or heard with the ear. Faith is that certainty that I have that what has been said in God’s Word to me about Jesus is true, a certainly that compels me to act on the truth.
But very often in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, faith is described not in these more precise ways but in various descriptive metaphors or pictures. Faith is likened to “receiving” Jesus – that is taking him to ourselves, welcoming him. But it is also described as a matter of “coming to” Jesus. Whoever “comes” to me, Jesus said, I will not drive away. And “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” In Hebrews 12:2 faith is “fixing our eyes on Jesus.” In Deut. 4:4 faith is “holding fast” to God, holding on and refusing to let go, as in Jacob’s long night of wrestling with the Lord at Peniel or, more timidly, the poor sick woman with the issue of blood who pressed through the crowd simply to grab the Lord’s clothes. Or faith can be described, as it is in Micah 6:8 as “walking with God,” that is, living your life in the active awareness of his presence, as the spiritual classic has it, “practicing the presence of God.”
All of these metaphors and many more have been taken up into the heart and the song of the Christian church.
“Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace…
Faith is walking over to Jesus, it is grabbing his arm or hand and not letting go, walking beside him ever after.
So when the Lord turns this episode on the waters of Galilee into a lesson in faith, he is following in a grand tradition of teaching his people the meaning of faith with a picture, with an illustration. And what does this picture tell us about faith? What is the lesson here? Well, it is very simple and emphatically taught: faith is concentration, concentration on Jesus Christ.
This is very plain in the narrative. When Peter was concentrating on the Lord, the fact that human beings can’t walk on water, the fact of the high waves and winds, the fact that he had, together with his fellows, just been terrified by what they thought to be a ghost, all of this disappears from his view. He sees the Lord standing on the water, he hears his master invite him to come to him across the water, and he steps out of the boat on to the deep and starts walking toward the Lord. (What must that have felt like under Peter’s feet!)
But as soon as he lost his concentration on the Lord, as soon as he got away from the boat and felt himself alone on the water, as soon as he caught sight again of the waves whipped by the wind, as soon as he realized what he was actually doing, he started to sink; he began to be simply an unbelieving person under the control of gravity.
The Lord says two things to Peter. First he says that his faith was small. That is the Lord’s diagnosis of Peter’s problem. He would have been fine if he had continued to exercise the faith that got him out of the boat in the first place. But his faith was small and easily distracted and overcome. The second thing the Lord says to Peter is that he doubted.
One has to be careful about deriving the meaning of words from their etymology. Words often lose their original meaning and, in some cases, never had the original meaning of their parts. You would never have known what a butterfly is by thinking about flying butter. Disaster, which is an astrological word and means “under the wrong star,” does not carry its astrological meaning in ordinary usage today. But some words mean precisely what you imagine they would mean looking at their origin, the components that make them up. And such a word is the verb “to doubt” that Jesus uses here in speaking to Peter. It means to be of a divided mind. A doubting man is divided in two [France, 239]. And that was Peter. He saw the Lord walking on the water, he remembered in a flash the other extraordinary things that Jesus had done which he had witnessed, including the feeding of more than 5,000 people with a few scraps of food some few hours before, he heard the Lord inviting him to step out on the water and he went and walked. That is the one Peter. The other, however, sees the waves, hears the howl of the wind, feels the spray on his face and clothes, sees the distance growing between himself and the boat behind him and the distance that remains between himself and the Lord, senses the great depths of water that lie beneath him, and he panics. He is a man divided in two; he has a divided mind. And that division was the failure of his faith. [France, 239; Hagner, ii, 424] What Peter needed was concentration, single-mindedness, a fixation on the Lord that kept the worrying circumstances safely in the background and largely out of sight.
Now, there are several assumptions or presuppositions here that bear mentioning in respect to this lesson in faith. The first is that life is often a storm. Obviously it is more difficult to concentrate when there is a great deal of noise and turbulence around you. It would be a great deal easier to walk to Jesus across a courtyard than at night, at sea, in a storm. It would be easier by far to concentrate on him if it were not for the spray in your eyes, the wind whipping your clothes, standing in the middle of an angry sea in the darkness of night. But life, as the Bible tells us so many times, is more like a storm than a beautiful calm. Over and again, in fact, the Bible uses the image of a storm at sea, of fierce winds and high waves, to describe the trials, afflictions, sorrows, and disappointments of life.
“All your waves and breakers have gone over me…”
the Psalmist says in Psalm 42 in describing the troubles through which he is passing.
So, the reason faith amounts to a fixed concentration on Jesus and his work and his word is precisely because life will throw us a thousand powerful distractions: sinful desires, the temptations of the world, the deceits of the Evil One, and the seemingly unending sorrows, disappointments, anxieties, troubles, difficulties, and trials of life. We have a nearly perfect picture of life in that scene that Matthew has painted for us. A man standing in a storm with nothing under him but thousands of feet of water, at least nothing that he could feel. No wonder he must concentrate. No wonder he must fix his eyes on Jesus. No wonder he must hold fast to him. Nothing short of that will keep him afloat in his life as a child of God and servant of Jesus Christ.
The second assumption or presupposition is that the storms are sent by the Lord himself precisely to strengthen our faith by testing it and trying it. This entire episode begins with that strong verb “to compel.” Why were the disciples out in the middle of the lake in a storm, in the dead of night, rowing furiously? Well, they were there because Jesus commanded them to get into the boat and cross to the other side. It wasn’t because they were tired of camping out and had foolishly decided to leave him and go back home to the comfort of their own beds. It wasn’t because they were taking control of the Lord’s itinerary and thought it best to go ahead of him back to where most of the people were. No, they were in the storm because Jesus commanded them to set out across the sea in that boat. If anyone was responsible for them being there it was Jesus himself.
In other words, the storms of life are not things that happen to us, willy-nilly. They are not accidents. They are not even troubles we have brought upon ourselves – though they can be that, of course, and are often enough. So long as we are in this world we will find ourselves at sea in the storm. And different storms and different trials for everyone. The fact that Christ calmed the seas as soon as he entered the boat surely means he could easily have given his disciples calm waters and a following wind had he wanted to. But they needed the storm, the hours of grueling rowing against the wind, and the testing of their faith.
Hebrews 11 reminds us of many who “looked” to Christ, who had the concentration on the Lord that Peter lost when he was halfway to the Lord. But how different their lives. Abel looked to Christ and he was murdered. Enoch believed and he never died. Noah believed and everyone else died. But each man lived looking to Christ, each one surmounted the storms of life by concentrating on the Lord, each one has already arrived in the better country and will someday participate in the better resurrection.
And so Peter and so all of us who are believers in Jesus after him. How many of us have stumbled precisely where he did, when we lost sight of Jesus in the tumult of our desires, circumstances, our fears, our disappointments. How much we need to learn his lesson: concentrate, concentrate, concentrate! And on Jesus only. Look at him standing before you.
See him; whether standing before you on the sea, or sitting on his throne in heaven interceding for you and ruling over all things for the church. See him stilling that storm as soon as he got into the boat. John tells us that as soon as he was with them in the boat they got immediately to land. What power he holds in his hand and wields on behalf of his people! Look at him as he raises Lazarus from the dead. See him promising his disciples that he would never leave them, always be with them through his Holy Spirit. See him hanging on the cross and bearing in himself the punishment our sins deserved. See him rising from the dead the third day. See him ascending to the Right Hand. Look at him as he comes again. Look at him judging the living and the dead and separating his sheep from the goats. That is the concentration of faith that we should school our minds and hearts to have more and more, until it is their condition every moment of every day.
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Not just a strong and beautiful ancient hymn; a motto for every earnest Christian. A coat of arms, with St. Patrick’s words surrounding a picture of Christ reaching out to take Peter’s hand on a storm-tossed sea.
The point the Lord was at pains to make at this remarkable moment was that to the extent that his disciples concentrate on him, to the extent that he becomes a fixation to us, to the extent that we remember what he has said and act on the truth of it; to the extent that we know Jesus to be with us; to the extent that we remember that he has called us to serve him and promised us the grace necessary to do so; to that extent we will stand on the water and not sink. And if we still fear to sink, it is the greatest conceivable gift that in the midst of the storm we have someone to look at who is not only in complete control of the weather, but who loves and cares for us as only a dying redeemer can.
There is one more thing worth our always remembering in this episode. Christ lets Peter sink, but he does not let him drown. He teaches him to have a stronger faith, he does not desert him because his faith is weak. [Trench, 303, n.]