After the dramatic feeding miracle, Jesus goes alone to pray. The disciples are on their own in a storm on the lake and Jesus comes to them walking on the water. Peter also walks on the water.
After the dramatic feeding miracle, Jesus goes alone to pray. The disciples are on their own in a storm on the lake and Jesus comes to them walking on the water. Peter also walks on the water.
Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 6, in which 'Jesus walks on the water'. We're going to look at Matthew 14: 24 - 36, but this incident is also recounted in Mark's and John's Gospels.
Introduction and Recap
We've just finished looking at that amazing miracle, the feeding of the five thousand. Let's now set the context, clearly, for this remarkable event that takes place in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Let's go back to Series 3 to quickly remind ourselves: Series 3 gave the story of Jesus' opening ministry - his first tour of Galilee; Series 4, the Sermon on the Mount; Series 5, the second tour with his Apostles appointed and travelling with him; and now, in Series 6, he's travelling around in what we call the third tour of Galilee. Three very dramatic things have happened immediately before the event that is described in this episode. The first thing is the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew chapter 10 (and other passages) that we looked at quite closely at the beginning of this series. The ministry of Jesus is expanding, the word is getting out to more and more places; all the far reaches of Galilee are being reached as pairs of Apostles travel from village to village and place to place, far beyond where Jesus could have travelled if he was just travelling and ministering on his own - so that's the first major thing that's happened. A quite different event took place, running in the opposite direction, which is that John the Baptist was suddenly executed by King Herod Antipas at this time. This sent shock waves throughout Galilee. This news reached Jesus and caused him to reflect - because Herod had made this decisive move against the prophet whose ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus - and so the question arose what would happen next? What would happen to Jesus? Would Herod Antipas turn his attention to Jesus and send his own soldiers after him? It was really an unknown question at the time. That was the second dramatic event that happened that we've looked at in Series 6.
In the last episode, we saw that Jesus, very specifically chose, at the time when he heard great news from his Apostles travelling around and preaching and he heard the tragic news about John the Baptist (linking all the Gospels together we see that he had those bits of information at a similar time) to go for a kind of a retreat. He travelled from the west of the north-east side of the Sea of Galilee by boat with his disciples, and the aim was to get away from the crowds and to get some rest. We saw, in the last episode, that did not happen - quite the opposite! The crowd, seeing them travelling by boat quite near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee simply walked, or ran, all the way around the northern shore to get to the place where the boat landed and they could see where the boat was going to land near the town of Bethsaida. By the time they arrived, there was a vast crowd and this led to teaching, healing, and as they gathered on a mountainside outside Bethsaida, the feeding of the five thousand took place. We noted in the last episode that it was a lot more than 5000 people because only the men were numbered and so that crowd could easily have been 10,000 or more. It was a dramatic event - the biggest crowd ever recorded by number in Jesus' ministry - and that's the event that immediately precedes the situation that we describe here and the remarkable miracle that takes place.
The thing to remember is that, when Jesus travelled across the lake with his disciples, his purpose was to get some rest, to get some solitude and to get some time to pray. This had not yet happened because the crowd intervened. The crowd was dismissed after the feeding of the five thousand and went to their homes. Jesus was able, for a moment, to get the solitude that he wanted and that's the context we're now going to look at as we read together this passage.
We're going to read from Matthew 14: 22 - 36:
‘Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It's a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.”28“Lord, if it's you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29“Come,” he said.Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and (began) to sink (and) cried out, “Lord, save me!”31Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”32And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”34When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’Matthew 14:22-36, NIV
Alone to Pray
The Gospels are filled with dramatic stories, and here's another very dramatic story - a story of contrasts and a story of sudden things happening and a story of a steep learning curve for the disciples. It's a story that lives in the imagination very easily, doesn't it? First of all, Jesus dismisses the crowd and he puts the disciples in the boat and tells them to go back over to the western side, towards Capernaum and Gennesaret and the area where they came from and worked, and his purpose was to get away from everybody. There's a huge contrast here: within a short period of time, Jesus went from being surrounded by the largest recorded crowd in his ministry to being totally alone. Having sent his disciples away, so that he was separated from them and separated from the crowd, and quite a long way away from his home base in Capernaum, he was literally alone. He was praying; he was talking to his Father and we can imagine that the reason for this was the fact that his ministry was going to be changing soon and the fact that John the Baptist's death signalled, symbolically and also at an emotional level, the real opposition that Jesus was going to be facing in the future. Jesus knew that he wouldn't be touring around Galilee forever; there would come a time when he would need to take his ministry to Jerusalem - his claims to Jerusalem - in a fuller sense than he'd done already by just an occasional fleeting visit. He knew that the time of confrontation with the authorities would come. He knew that his popularity would not last and would be tested by the reality of what it is to follow Jesus. All these things would be known to him. He would also, at a human level, probably be feeling tired and emotionally exhausted. The sheer amount of giving that Jesus did in his ministry is almost beyond our comprehension, humanly speaking, just thinking of the hundreds and thousands of people that Jesus encountered - the sheer pressure of numbers. We had a very interesting insight into that just before they left the western side of the lake to come over to Bethsaida before the feeding of the five thousand, when the writers recorded that there were so many people that they could not find even time to eat because people were there all the time. The emotional exhaustion that Jesus must have felt, at a human level, is a real factor that lies beneath the words of our text: the human reality that we need to engage with. He found refreshment and strengthening and empowering in solitude, in fellowship with his Father and with the Holy Spirit, as the Holy Spirit came and re-energised him at a human level. We imagine these are the things that were happening on that mountainside as Jesus was praying alone during the night.
Jesus Walking on Water
Then something happened on the lake. It is known that the Sea of Galilee, although often very calm, can experience sudden strong winds and storms - we've already seen a severe storm on the lake when the disciples and Jesus were caught travelling across the lake in a storm on an earlier occasion. We'll refer back to that at the end of this talk. Here's a second occasion where the wind really gets strong. They're going against the wind; the progress is very slow and they're sailing in the night-time. Fishermen, as many of them were, were used to travelling and sailing at night because they often fished at night; that wasn't unusual but dealing with a storm in the night-time is difficult with so little visibility. This must have gone on for several hours and the disciples must have felt that sense of sadness: Where's Jesus? You know, he put us on the boat. As soon as we got on the journey, a huge storm blew up and he isn't here to help us! Last time there was a storm on the lake he was in the boat - admittedly he was asleep - but he was in the boat and he could command the storm and the winds and the waves and they obeyed him and the storm ended, almost immediately, and they were amazed. That's what they remember but now they're on their own. Then comes this very remarkable thing: Jesus was walking on the water, shortly before dawn - more literally, during the fourth watch of the night, which means between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. That was the time that Jesus was walking. He'd spent the night praying to his Father, on a remote hill near Bethsaida, very quietly on his own but, in the course of that night, he decided to catch up with the disciples. He could have waited till the next morning and caught another boat. He could have walked round the north shore of the lake (like the crowds had done in the earlier episode that we mentioned last time). But no, Jesus approaches the boat with very limited visibility. Being between 3 and 6 a.m., early light may be appearing as the sun begins to rise, or even before it rises. That early light, that pre-dawn light may be there and there's a great shock when they see somebody, an indistinct figure in the distance, and they cry out, “It's a ghost!” They're terrified; they're spooked; they're very anxious at this point.
Jesus speaks unmistakably and clearly: “Take courage! (It's) I. Don't be afraid.” That message, “Don't be afraid,” is such a common communication of God to man as he is beginning to work in their lives - fear is a very common response that we have - and frequently Jesus says, “Don't be afraid.” Similarly, the angel Gabriel said to Mary, when he announced the coming birth of Jesus, the forthcoming virgin birth through Mary, “Don't be afraid.” Frequently, that call comes, “Don't be afraid,” and here it is again. Then comes a really remarkable and unusual occurrence: Peter's response to Jesus. Peter we know as impulsive, quick to act, quick to speak, quick to respond; we see that characteristic through his life on a number of different occasions and here's a very good example. I wonder what really motivated him? I think he was so inspired and reassured by the presence of Jesus that he wanted to engage in the reality of Jesus' presence coming and, sort of, go out to greet him and welcome him and experience that extraordinary reality of Jesus walking on the water. But (as is clearly stated in the text) although he starts out well, he looks down, sees the waves, gets a bit anxious, begins to sink and then Jesus reaches out to him and rescues him, reaches his hand out to him and takes him back to the boat. This is an amazing situation, where further revelation comes to the disciples about Jesus when they say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” It's not often, up until this point in the Gospels, that such a clear statement of their faith in his divinity as the Son of God is made. John tells us that as soon as they connect with Jesus, they immediately find themselves at the lake side and then the crowd gathers very quickly when they arrive back on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
A Physical Reality
Those are the main elements in this story. Again, what I'm seeking to do in this episode (like in so many - like the feeding of the five thousand, like Jesus calming the storm and others) is to raise our awareness of it from the level of a story that's exciting for children to engage in - which of course it is, it's a wonderful story for children - but it's a very real story for us. You see, this walking on the water wasn't a mirage; it wasn't an illusion; it wasn't a dream; it wasn't an apparition; and it wasn't a ghost. The Gospel writers, unashamedly, describe physical realities that are miraculous; time and again, they simply state that something miraculous happens for which there is no natural explanation. We've just had the feeding of the five thousand. We've had numerous occasions of physical healing miracles, where there's no natural explanation for the sudden change that takes place in human bodies. The Gospel writers are unashamed in this and so, as they describe Jesus coming to the disciples. They are not describing anything mystical; they're not describing anything that is just a dream or an apparition; they're describing a physical reality and Peter saw it as such and physically got out of the boat because he believed that Jesus had the power to help him walk on the water, the same way that he was doing. Let's take the event in a very solid, concrete, physical way - this actually happened. Eyewitness accounts feed into the Gospel narratives all the time, in ways that are described in the beginning of Series 1. Eyewitness testimony is the foundation for everything in the Gospels and, of course, all the disciples are here in the boat. They're all eyewitnesses of this particular event. Having said those things, let's take a step back from the immediate events and think, what can we learn?
What reflections can we draw from this remarkable story? The first one is something quite extraordinary about Jesus. I've mentioned it before, and I'll have cause to mention it again but it's a key theme of this passage: Jesus had a real, vigorous, ongoing, sacrificial life of prayer. He depended on having time where he could pray to his heavenly Father in a personal, vivid, real way and he sought uninterrupted time for prayer in the midst of what can only be described as one of the busiest lives you could ever imagine. Constantly surrounded by people and by human need, to have this opportunity to pray and to get away and find solitude took courage and determination, planning and decision-making and strategic thinking. The thing we've learned about Jesus is, he made time to pray amidst intense busyness and pressure. For many years, I've lived a life which I would describe as quite intense, quite pressurised and quite busy, with many responsibilities in many areas and this is a real challenge to me. It probably is to you as well because for most people life is busy. Sometimes it's a struggle for survival, sometimes it's a huge family responsibility, sometimes it's very big job responsibilities, sometimes it's just the huge amount of time that it takes to do all the things that need to be done in life as we travel around and do things. There are all sorts of reasons. We might be very busy because of church ministry that we are engaged with but we can learn from Jesus because he was busier than we are - and yet he found time to pray even when he was tired and even when there was pressure from other people. Even when he was popular and successful, he knew that he needed to withdraw and to pray.
We're reading from Matthew's account and I want to draw a lesson by comparing Matthew and Luke in the discussion of Jesus' prayer life because Luke, more than any other of the Gospel writers, makes a point of identifying the times when Jesus seeks solitude to pray. This occasion, as recorded here, is just one of a number. What I'm going to do now - I have referred to some of these before, and probably will do again - but I'm going to read five different verses from Luke which describe, in five different contexts, how Jesus chose time to pray.
Luke 4: 42:
‘At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.’Luke 4:42, NIV
Notice that, at daybreak, he got up really early and went out of the village to find a solitary place.
Luke 5: 16 is a summary statement:
‘But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’Luke 5:16, NIV
Luke 6: 12: ‘One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God’ This was the moment when he appointed the twelve Apostles. Notice he spent a whole night praying to God.
Luke 9, verse 18:
‘Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”’Luke 9:18, NIV
And Luke 11: 1,
‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”’Luke 11:1, NIV
This event, on the mountainside near Bethsaida, wasn't an isolated event; this was a regular occurrence: Jesus sought time to pray. I've discussed this topic before, very specifically when we were studying the Sermon on the Mount (Series 4), but I want to again emphasise that one of the keys to Jesus' ministry was his regular times of high quality prayer and fellowship with his heavenly Father which refreshed him, focused him and gave him guidance for the next steps in his ministry.
Another reflection is thinking about Jesus walking on the water. I've already said this was a real physical event - it was a miracle but I want to say that Jesus did this deliberately. He could easily have walked around the shore and let the disciples struggle along; their lives weren't in danger at that particular point; it was just a very rough journey - they were tired; and they were stressed. He did it deliberately because he wanted to reveal something of his power and his glory, and he wanted to give another lesson of faith to his disciples. He had power over nature - he'd calmed the storm back in Matthew 8: 23 - 27 (and parallel passages); Jesus had the power to walk on the water. He did this to reveal something of his power and glory to his disciples.
Think for a moment about Peter's attempt to walk on the water. People have asked lots of questions about this. Should Peter have done this at all? I mean, was there any strict need for Peter to do that? All he had to do was wait, Jesus would come alongside, or come on board, and speak to them and reassure them and deal with the situation they were in - surely that was a logical deduction from seeing Jesus walking towards them. Why did Peter step out of the boat? We don't actually know but I'm supposing that there was a combination of impulsiveness, bravery, excitement and faith. He wanted to connect with what Jesus was doing at that time. I don't think he did anything wrong; Jesus didn't rebuke him for doing anything wrong. What he rebuked him for was lack of faith - and that's interesting. What this event may represent (and we can't be sure of this) is an emerging gift of faith, an ability just to believe God's going to do something remarkable. For Peter this was a learning curve for him because he was, after all, the leading Apostle. He was going to be the leader of the group that formed the Early Church; he was going to shape that process - so his faith, his spiritual stature and his belief in Jesus was essential and it was being tested on a number of occasions during Jesus' earthly ministry. Peter was tested in very specific ways and here is an example. Jesus is encouraging him to keep his focus on Jesus at all times and not allow circumstances to dictate his emotions, his actions, and not to allow difficulties to undermine his faith. What an important lesson that is! I'm sure you can see that that's significant for all of us because, you know, we're all in that same situation. I certainly am - I'm often faced with huge challenges of faith and I'm very tempted to think, “This is impossible! I can't do it. Maybe I need to opt out of this.” I wonder if you've ever had any of those kinds of thoughts? Take heart from this story, put yourself in Peter's position but also notice the ending of the story: Jesus is correcting but encourages him to have stronger faith - not to become more cautious. That's an interesting lesson for us.
In conclusion, God has never left us alone - even when he appears not to be there. This is the emotional experience of the disciples: Jesus had left them; they're on their own; they're in a difficult situation but he hadn't really left them. He was always watching over them and he came to their help. This is an incredibly important thing for us to understand at the very depths of our heart: the God, whom we serve and love as Christians, never leaves his people alone. Apparently he's not active on some occasions, there's no doubt about that. There are times when you don't know what God's doing and you can't feel his immediate activity. Those are the times when our faith needs to get stronger. We need to trust him that he will intervene, he will be there, he will work and that he is sovereign even over the most tremendously difficult circumstances that we face. Many people listening to this message will be facing difficult and dangerous circumstances and I want you to take inspiration from this story in your journey - to put yourself in the picture and to underline your faith in Jesus, even when you don't know what he's doing in your life. Even when you think that things are going wrong, when circumstances have got more difficult - and it certainly got very difficult for the disciples, quite suddenly. Remember, they'd had a very wonderful experience of feeding the five thousand - they must have been exhilarated by being involved in such an incredible miracle and just seeing the bread and the fish multiply before their very eyes - and that only happened a few hours before and now they're totally on their own in a storm. Where's Jesus? What's he doing? This is human experience; this is what happens to Christians. This is when we need to dig deep and remember the God we worship. This is when we need to connect with the Bible. This is when we need to connect with Jesus, through the Gospels and studying his life, and realise this same Jesus, who helped the disciples in that terribly difficult situation in the middle of the lake, is the Jesus who loves you and cares for you and will intervene in your life. Thanks for reading.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- God often says ‘Do not be afraid.’ What are you afraid of?
- Jesus made time to speak to his Father in prayer. When do you make time to speak to God?
- Peter showed incredible faith in stepping out of the boat in the first place! Jesus uses experiences to build us up and encourage us. Can you think of a time when God has used an experience to shape you?
- Jesus looked for times of solitude to be with God during periods of much busyness. Why was this and how did it affect his ministry?