Thursday, July 28, 2011

Matthew 14:22–33

Matthew 14:22–33 (ESV): Jesus Walks on the Water


In the last passage Jesus fed the 5,000 (plus women and children), and now he dismisses the crowd and has the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. (Verse 22 (ESV) simply says that Jesus was sending his disciples to “the other side,” so I had to look it up to find out what sea they were crossing.) Then, having dismissed the crowds and sent his disciples on their way, he goes up alone on a mountainside to pray.

Later on, in the “fourth watch of the night” (verse 25 (ESV)), meaning sometime between 3:00 and 6:00AM, Jesus starts walking on the water toward the boat carrying the disciples. When the disciples see him they think they’re seeing a ghost and get terrified, but Jesus tells them that it’s him. They don’t seem quite convinced, however:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (verse 28 (ESV))
So Jesus tells Peter to come, and Peter does! He gets out of the boat, and walks on the water to Jesus. But then when he sees the wind (for the wind is very strong), he gets afraid again, and starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus, who grabs hold of him, and says to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31b (ESV)).

Jesus and Peter get into the boat, and immediately the wind ceases. And finally, whether because of the miracle of walking on the water or because of the cessation of the wind, the disciples worship Jesus:

And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (verse 33 (ESV))


As mentioned above, the passage doesn’t name the sea it simply says that Jesus was sending his disciples to “the other side.” Interestingly, according to the ESV Study Bible, “Other side often marks the movement from a Jewish to a Gentile territory and vice versa.”

In the last passage I talked a bit about the fact that Jesus, even though he is God in the flesh, felt the need/compulsion to pray; in this passage that continues to be evident since this entire miracle is made necessary because of Jesus’ want/need to have some time alone to pray. In two passages in a row Jesus wants to pray, and God uses these events to display Jesus’ power to those around him (and to us).

This is an interesting passage in terms of the ups and downs of Peter. (There’s a lot of that in the Gospels, and we should really see that as a lesson about ourselves and our human frailty rather than trying to feel superior to one of the twelve apostles—a man who was one of the central figures in establishing the Church on this earth.) We tend to focus on Peter’s lack of faith when he starts to sink, although I was always struck by the fact that he had enough faith to walk out to Jesus in the first place. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of the other disciples to do so, so in my mind Peter gets points initially for that burst of faith.

However, I can’t go too far in my praise of Peter, or else I’ll end up disagreeing with Jesus himself, who is the one who said “o you of little faith” to Peter, when he started to sink. Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat—probably more than I would have had, in the same circumstances!—but not enough to hold him up when he started to think about the problem they were facing: the strong wind. Or, as so many preachers have put it throughout the centuries, Peter’s problem began when he took his eyes off of Jesus, and focused on his surroundings and his problems instead. Although I’m sure Peter wasn’t consciously articulating it to himself this way, he had enough faith in Jesus to allow him to follow Jesus onto the water, but not enough faith in Jesus to help him against the wind.

And I’m thinking that a big part of why Jesus pointed out Peter’s lack of faith is that Jesus has already demonstrated his mastery over the elements to his disciples, back in 8:23–27 when he calmed a storm. But in the moment, Peter wasn’t remembering that event and trusting in Jesus to protect him from the elements, in the moment Peter was viewing the elements as being bigger than Jesus. I’m sure this was more of an ingrained, emotional response to the situation, rather than a reasoned, logical response; Peter didn’t think things through, remember that Jesus had calmed a previous storm, and then decide that this storm was worse and Jesus wouldn’t be able to do anything. But this ingrained, emotional response is exactly what Jesus was pointing out to Peter: our instinctive response to any situation should always be that God is in control, He knows what He is doing, and He will bring us through the situation.

Aside from the deeper, spiritual aspects of this story, I also often get fascinated with the logistics of it. See the pertinent verse:

But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” (verse 30 (ESV))
It’s the “beginning to sink” part that gets me. It wasn’t an on/off situation; it wasn’t from water to solid back to water. When Peter’s faith started to waver he didn’t just fall into the water—as one would in normal circumstances, if one simply stepped off a boat into water—he began to sink. It wasn’t an instant thing, it was a gradual thing. It would have been so interesting to have been in Peter’s position, and experience that! When he first stepped out of the boat, what did it feel like? Was it like walking on a hard surface? Did it feel like… well, whatever walking on water feels like? Was it more like ice on the surface of the sea? As he was walking toward Jesus could he feel the sea moving underneath him, because of the strong wind and the waves that would have been all around him, or was it still where they were? When he began to sink, did it feel like the sea was turning to jello? There was still enough resistance to at least partially keep him up; he didn’t fall into the water, he simply “began” to sink. It has nothing to do with the spiritual aspects of the story, but it’s still interesting to think about.

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