A challenge faces us as we make our way through the Bible on Sunday mornings. As we focus on the readings for the day, it is easy to forget that those readings come in a context. If we are not careful, we can focus on the readings in isolation. When we do that, we miss out on some of the teachings that God’s Word has for us.
The account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water has much to teach us. It has even more to teach when we consider why Jesus and the disciples were in separate places at the beginning of today’s reading.
The part of the Gospel account that we heard this morning began by telling us that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. (Matthew 14:22) The original Greek indicates that Jesus was very urgent when He made the disciples get into the boat. The Greek could be translated as Jesus forced or compelled the disciples to get into the boat. Why was Jesus so eager to get the disciples on their way across the Sea of Galilee?
The greater context of the Gospel account constantly teaches us that most people did not understand the true nature of Jesus’ ministry. It was not until Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead that people began to understand the reason He came to earth and took up human flesh. Before the Passion, the crowds were looking for someone who would make life easier here on earth … perhaps drive out the Romans … maybe even restore the earthly kingdom of David and Solomon. They did not understand that Jesus came to save the entire creation from sin, death, and the power of the devil.
From time-to-time this misunderstanding of Jesus’ true mission became a tool for the devil. Recall that when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness he took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8–9) The devil tempted Jesus with the temporary glory of the kingdoms of this world, but Jesus resisted. That does not mean that the devil gave up. The devil often used the misunderstanding of the people to tempt Jesus again and again.
The events we heard about in today’s Gospel happened right after the events in last week’s Gospel … the Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus had just spent a day ministering to people. He healed their diseases, and then, when they got hungry, He converted a couple of sardines and five tortillas into a banquet for 5,000 men and their families. The crowds began to think that someone who could heal diseases and provide free food would make a pretty good king. The Gospel according to John describes the crowd’s response this way: When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:14–15) The people, in their ignorance, simply wanted a king who could provide free food and medical care. They did not know that they were tempting Jesus to be an earthly king.
Jesus needed to deal with the situation. He quickly sent the disciples back across the Sea of Galilee. Then He dismissed the people. After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. (Matthew 14:23) Jesus regularly prayed to His Father … especially after He had endured another temptation from the devil. So it was that Jesus was up on the mountain in prayer while the disciples were struggling to cross the sea against a strong headwind.
Jesus finished His prayers and set out to rejoin the disciples. In the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. (Matthew 14:25) The fourth watch is the last watch of the night. This means that both Jesus and the disciples were up all night. Jesus was praying and the disciples were trying to fight the headwind that prevented them from crossing the sea. Ordinarily, they could cross the sea in a few hours, but this time they struggled all night and got nowhere. The disciples had to be functioning on pure adrenaline.
Imagine, then, what is was like for the disciples to see Jesus walking on the water toward the end of that night. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. (Matthew 14:26)
But then Jesus identified Himself. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27) Because they were troubled, Jesus said, “Take heart.” Because they did not know who Jesus was, He said, “It is I.” Because they were terrified, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” He does not come to bring doom, but salvation. Jesus is there for them. In His reassuring word, He has given them all they need. This should be enough.
Apparently, this was not enough for Peter. Matthew does not give any insight into Peter’s mind, but he does give us Peter’s reply to Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) Peter wanted more proof than the simple word of God. He wanted a personal sign.
This is where we see Jesus do something that is quite consistent with the actions of God throughout the Bible. Sometimes, when God’s people ask for something stupid, God gives it to them as a learning experience. Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Matthew 14:29) At first, everything went well.
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” (Matthew 14:30) Something happened and Peter’s attention shifted from Jesus to the weather. Here is the learning experience for Peter … an experience that is instructive for us as well. We talk a lot about faith, but it is important to talk about faith accurately. It is NOT ENOUGH to have a very powerful and very sincere faith if that faith is in the wrong thing. You can have faith the size of the universe, but if that faith is in the wrong thing, it will do you no good.
Consider the words of our culture. “Ya’ gotta have faith.” The question is, “Faith in what!” Faith in your own faith will do you no good. The world says, “Believe in yourself.” Really! Examine yourself in light of the Ten Commandments. Do you really want to place your faith in yourself? Peter had faith in his experience with the wind. His faith in his experience drew him away from his faith in Jesus.
Thankfully for Peter, and for us, Jesus is patient, gracious, and merciful. Jesus took hold of Peter and brought him back to the boat.
When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32–33) This is one of those times that Jesus accepted praise as God. If Jesus were only a good man, then He should have rebuked the disciples for worshipping Him, for worship only belongs to God. If Jesus were only a man, then accepting the worship of the disciples makes Him a blasphemer. If we believe that Jesus is a good man, then we must believe that He is also the Son of God.
Although today’s Gospel is certainly not a parable, but a real historical event, we can still use it to remind us of Christ’s mercy and grace in our lives. Ever since the days of Noah and the great flood, the boat has been a symbol of Christ’s church. There are times when we are not satisfied with the Word that Jesus gives to us in His boat, the church. Like Peter, we want a bigger experience. We want more emotion. We want more pizazz. We want more pep. So we leave the church in order to find a greater experience … something that is a little more spectacular than the same old, same old. We put our faith in our feelings instead of in God’s promise.
Jesus is patient. Even though we often find ourselves sinking in a situation that we ourselves created, He is always ready to rescue us and haul us back to the place where He restores us with His gifts … His boat, the church.
Jesus did a lot more than walk on water to save His people. The ultimate expression of His desire to save us comes in the cross. For it is on the cross that Jesus became the greatest sinner of all time – not with His own sin, but with your sin, my sin, and the sin of the entire world. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus carried that sin to the cross and sacrificed Himself in order to remove that sin from the world. When Jesus died, that sin died with Him. When Jesus rose, He left that sin in the grave where it can have no power over us.
Now Jesus brings salvation to each of us. He does not come on the water of the sea, but in the water of Baptism. When God’s water is joined with God’s Word according to God’s command, the Old natural man who enslaved us to sin is drowned. He dies with all sins and evil desires. In His place a new holy man arises who lives before God in righteousness and purity forever. As Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism:
Baptizing with water indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Amen
Please quote from my sermons freely. I expect people to copy my sermons or I wouldn't put them on a site like this. I only ask that you quote accurately if you attribute anything to me.
Should you decide to contact me, I would be very interested in knowing where you are. Please include the name of your city, state or province, and country when contacting me.
Send James T. Batchelor an email.