The scene of the apostle Peter walking on the water is one that makes our jaws drop, and rightly so. It remains one of the most beloved stories in all of the Gospels, not to mention the entire Bible, with a resonance that attracts and pulsates with no signs of dilution despite how familiar it is to us. To set the stage, Jesus has just put the finishing touches on his miraculous feeding of the 5,000, a bonafide supernatural phenomenon that gets everyone talking (Matt. 14:13–21). In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that the crowd was so struck by this miracle that they tried to force Jesus into becoming their king on the spot (John 6:15). This isn’t a minor contextual detail; this is the key to understanding much of what follows.
After manifesting something only one from heaven should be able to do, Jesus is prevailed upon by the masses who see him as their ideal political leader. But because his mission wasn’t about fixing Israel’s political situation nor was he interested in being the new face of Jewish politics, Jesus shoves his followers into a boat and sends them “to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, shoos away the crowd and isolates himself in prayer (Matt. 14:22–23). This seeming overreaction was quite necessary considering the Jews’ misguided notions of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. Jesus’s purpose, however, involved liberating far more than just Israel from far worse than just the oppressive tyranny of Rome.
For what it’s worth, the disciples likely agreed with the crowd. I mean, could there be a better campaign starter than miraculously feeding 5,000 people at once? Before they had time to talk that through, they were in a boat rowing to “the other side.” The plan was to meet up with Jesus on the opposite shore. But, as it happened, they found themselves caught in a torrential storm (Matt. 14:24). This was a normal occurrence on the Sea of Galilee, a body of water that’s known for suffering sudden severe storms. The disciples are taking a beating, so much so that they’ve barely made it halfway when they see something. “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” (Matt. 14:25–26).
At approximately three in the morning, they spot a shadowy figure trudging toward them, “walking on the sea.” Naturally, the disciples are paralyzed with fear. A cold sensation ran down their spine that had nothing to do with the rain. They’re petrified. Not only are they rowing for their lives in the middle of a raging body of water, but now a mysterious specter approaches them. And whether it was their exhaustion or their superstition, who’s to say, but all they can come up with is, “It’s a ghost!” Whoever or whatever this apparition is, he’s not friendly. Half of me imagines they might’ve even started rowing backward to get away from it.
But in the middle of all that chaos, in the symphonic din of wind and thunder, a familiar voice is heard: “Hey, it’s me, it’s Jesus.” “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’” (Matt. 14:27). The words of Jesus are piercing yet comforting at the same time. His voice booms so that he is heard above all the noise of the storm. And yet, that booming voice speaks the most tender, reassuring words imaginable. He comes up beside them in the middle of a monsoon and addresses them personally, demonstrating once again just how attentive he is to the things that torment those he loves. Christ speaks to us “in the deepest of our sorrows, in the darkest of our nights,” affirms Rev. Alexander Maclaren, “and when we hear of His voice, and with wonder and joy cry out, ‘It is the Lord,’ our sorrow is soothed, and the darkness is light about us” (7:1.303).
This is part of the story that is included in the other Gospels, showing us that ours is a God who is “mindful” of us (Ps. 8:4). The God of the Bible pays attention to all the events that grieve you. He knows about your crisis, your affliction, your struggle, and your storm. And not only does he know about it, he shows up right in the middle of it. Christ Jesus reveals that ours is not a God who stands idly on the beach, uninvolved and disinterested in our suffering. He doesn’t position himself on the shoreline and shout to us motivation to row hard or scream instructions on how to swim better. Christ shows up in the middle of our storms and our nightmares. That’s where he sets up shop. That’s where he positions himself. That’s where he reveals himself and reminds us that he is the incarnate Word of God. Jesus himself is the Word that assures us that God himself is with us in the middle of our adversity and affliction.
I wonder, though, what the disciples were thinking when they finally realized that the ghost “walking on the sea” was none other than their beloved Teacher, Mentor, and Friend. Leave it to Peter to speak up first: “And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water’” (Matt. 14:28). We should pause and think about how crazy Peter must’ve sounded to his fellow disciples. His first instinct when seeing his Lord walk on water is to ask if he can join him on the water. Who else but impetuous Peter would think to ask for something like this? I doubt this would be anyone’s first inclination!
This, however, fits Peter’s personality as portrayed in the Gospels, where he’s shown to be a man who acts on impulse, on gut instinct, often saying out loud what the rest of the group was only thinking. And while I doubt the other disciples were thinking about walking on the water themselves, I’d wager they thought, “Man, why didn’t I think of that,” especially after Jesus grants his request. With wind and rain pelting his face, Peter is told to go for it, to join Jesus on the water. I’d also wager that Peter wasn’t anticipating that response. But since he can’t really back down now, he gets out of the boat. “So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus” (Matt. 14:29).
As he made his way to Jesus, he suddenly remembered the storm. “But when he saw the wind he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’” (Matt. 14:30). His focus shifts from Jesus to the tidal waves all around them. The torrential conditions suddenly become more real to him than the Lord standing in front of him, and that’s when he begins to sink. The water that was like pavement before now becomes liquid and he starts to drown.
Preachers and commentators from all different theological persuasions ambush this point, going to great lengths to point out Peter’s failure and all the lessons we ought to glean from it. If you examine any number of commentaries, more than likely they will say that Peter’s request was made in haste and overconfidence. Some even argue that this was a moment of arrogance for Peter and that’s why Jesus allowed him to sink, so that he’d be brought face-to-face with his own weakness and failure. And while that last part might be true, I don’t think we have to diminish this moment to get there. This scene isn’t preserved in Scripture in order to put Peter to shame. Actually, if it shames anyone it’s the other eleven who stayed in the boat.
When our grip of faith loosens, Christ’s does not. Even when we can’t hold fast, Christ always holds fast.
We often get so focused on Peter sinking that we forget that he is the only other person in the history of humanity, other than Jesus, who walked on water. Twice! Don’t forget that after Jesus raises Peter up, embraces him, and makes him stand on the sea again, they both walk back to the boat together (Matt. 14:31–33). If Jesus wasn’t a fan of Peter’s initial request, I doubt he would’ve let it happen twice. Furthermore, after he’s rescued, Peter doesn’t get scolded for daring to ask to walk on the water. Instead, Jesus rebukes his faith. “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?’” (Matt. 14:30–31).
It’s worth noting that when Jesus calls out Peter for his “little faith,” he’s not insinuating that Peter’s faith was too small. “O you of little faith” is not a rebuke of the size of Peter’s faith, it is a rebuke of its duration. To be sure, it takes a heaping pile of faith to ask for what Peter asked for — but his problem was his faith couldn’t endure long enough. You see, if the size of our faith is what mattered most then Jesus never would have said what he said about faith the size of a “mustard seed” being able to move mountains (Matt. 17:20). Peter’s feat of walking on water wasn’t accomplished because his faith was so big, strapping, and seasoned. He only walked on water because of who his faith was in — namely, Jesus Christ. The good news is that it’s “not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you,” as the late Tim Keller so eloquently put it (234).
The story of Peter (almost) drowning is not one that teaches us to “stay in the boat.” Rather, it’s a story that shows us what faith looks like and tells us the good news for when faith fails. What does faith look like? Faith is a confidence that dares to step out of the boat because it trusts in who God is. Or, as Martin Luther attests, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (xvii). Peter dared to get out of the boat and his only failure was he couldn’t hold fast long enough. And that’s precisely the point Jesus wanted to impress upon him: when our grip of faith loosens, Christ’s does not. Even when we can’t hold fast, Christ always holds fast.
Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is the divine demonstration that God loves us even while we are drowning. He dies for us even “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). And even when we stumble and fall, and start to sink, he’s right there. When we’re drowning, God in Christ comes treading “on the waves of the sea” in order to rescue and redeem us (Job 9:8). Wherever we are, whatever storm surrounds us, the Christ of God is there. The Lord of all watches over us and, more than that, he approaches us, he comes close to us. This is no phantom hope. This is no specter or ghost. The gospel announces that the Christ of God — God in the flesh — has ventured to our side and positioned himself right next to us in the middle of our storms and in the mess of our sins.
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