About six months into Jesus’ ministry, he got word that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, during a palace party for the amusement of his guests (Matthew 14:10). “When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities” (Matthew 14:13). John was killed for preaching the kingdom of heaven and calling the people to repentance, while declaring that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If they would kill John for exposing their sins and pointing people to Jesus, what would they do to Jesus himself? He had reason to go into the wilderness and spend time in prayer.
But the people discovered him and began to arrive in large numbers. Jesus could not resist; he “was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14).
He ministered all day, and when it grew late, like any good host, he took it upon himself to feed them. He received one little boy’s sack lunch and multiplied it to feed more than 5,000 men, plus the women and children. Afterward, there were twelve baskets of food left over.
Jesus had not yet had his time alone, so he sent the disciples away in a boat to go to the other side of the lake, and he sent the well-fed people home as well; then alone he went further into the wilderness to pray. “And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land. And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them” (Mark 6:47–48).
The fourth watch would have been between three in the morning and sunrise, which means they had been rowing against the wind for most of the night, “for the wind was contrary unto them.” On the previous occasion when they met with a storm on the water, it was the work of Satan, but this time it was, apparently, just a contrary wind of nature—not overly furious or endangering, but it prevented them from reaching their destination. Sounds like life, doesn’t it? The devil is not always responsible for the hardships of life. Stuff happens.
It says that he was “walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them” (Mark 6:48). This is rather funny. Here they are rowing with all their might for hours and getting nowhere. Then they look out and see a figure just strolling along over the top of the water, up and down with the waves, like a man walking over uneven ground, leaning into the wind. He just ignored them and pretended to stroll on by, leaving them to their struggles. Apparently, if they had not called out, he would indeed have passed by and arrived at shore well before them and had breakfast ready when they finally arrived.
“But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out: For they all saw him, and were troubled” (Mark 6:49–50). Fishermen can come up with bizarre tales of the sea. This would have been one of them had they not identified the “spirit” walking by. As it was, they “cried out” in fear.
“But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (Matthew 14:24–33). This is a beautiful picture of faith. When they didn’t understand what they were seeing, they were afraid—afraid that harm would come to them. Jesus knew the cure for that kind of fear: to make it known that it was he strolling along in the storm. When we discover that Jesus is in all our trials, walking on top of the circumstances, it ceases to be scary. “Be of good cheer; it is I.”
Bold Peter had a brilliant idea! “And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.”
It is common to think Peter worked up faith strong enough to do the miraculous. And it is surmised that if we could just project that kind of faith we could walk on water as well.
Take note once again: Peter’s faith was not something he had when he got in the boat. He didn’t have it in the middle of the storm, nor when he was crying out in fear at a spirit strolling by. Peter’s faith was not a resource he projected. He didn’t get in touch with his inner man to “release” his faith. Rather when Jesus bid him to come take a walk on the water, suddenly he had confidence that Jesus would make it happen. Faith is always trusting another person implicitly. Faith is a gift from God, given here a little and there a little, as the need arises.
Peter knew he could not depend on the power of his faith; for that reason, he asked, “bid me come unto thee on the water.” “And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.” Faith arises in our hearts as we accept Jesus’ invitation “to go where no man has gone before.” I suspect that, years later after Jesus was back in heaven and Peter was a traveling evangelist, on several occasions he walked up to a swollen stream that impeded his progress and stepped out in his faith, only to sink into the turbulence. “His faith” was meaningless unless it was a response to the revealed will of God. Peter couldn’t have faith in his faith. Faith is always our believing response to Jesus bidding us to come. God never issued faith gift cards for us to use at our discretion. When we go to heaven’s storeroom of blessings, it is to pick up a preapproved order made by Jesus himself.
Back to our story where Peter is thrilled to be walking on the water just like Jesus. “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:30–31).
How did his faith fail? Peter started his predawn stroll on stormy waters with his eyes fixed on Jesus and his confidence in the invitation he had received, but when an extra strong gust of wind threatened to knock him over, he took account of the fury of the storm and forgot he was there by the invitation of one who is a “rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Here is the key to understanding. Peter lost confidence in Jesus’ ability to sustain him against this extra fierce onslaught. Peter suddenly remembered he was but flesh and a man of little faith—less than a grain of mustard seed—so he was not up to this moment. In short, Peter stopped looking to the words of God and started looking within to the reality of his human condition.
Jesus is there even in our failed faith, so when Peter cried out that wonderful phrase, “Lord, save me,” Jesus immediately covered the distance between them and “stretched forth his hand, and caught him.” God has long arms and is ready for us to ask for deliverance.
After catching Peter and lifting him back up to continue his stroll on the water, Jesus exclaimed in amazement, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” That is the question. It is a fact that we are people of little faith, but the question remains, “On what grounds did you doubt me?” Jesus was saying, “Why would you think I would let you sink after bidding you come to me?”
When they got to the ship, as first Peter and then Jesus stepped over into the boat, the other disciples “came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.” That is a good reason to believe whatever he says.
There is a practical lesson concealed in the larger picture. Peter had faith to walk on the water. That was extraordinary. What would it have been like to live with Peter if he had confidently completed his stroll on the water with Jesus? Was it a coincidence that after he had successfully walked on the water an extra-strong wind arose, causing him to take his eyes off Jesus and sink, requiring Jesus to save him? The Bible speaks a lot about “the trying of your faith” (James 1:3–4; 1 Peter 1:7). Faith in Jesus grows in proportion to our loss of faith in self. Our best faith is shallow, and it is proven to be the case that God never allows us to take the stage in celebration. Faith grows in failure—our failure—more than in success.
Here is the lesson: Expect the storms of life to try your faith, and when you are triumphant, know you have not graduated; you are just promoted to a more difficult test. You are not in a class where God grades on the curve. Everyone advances at their own pace. If you have little trials, it is a sign that God doesn’t expect much out of you. If you have suffered—or are suffering—great trials, know that you have been promoted to be in God’s special forces—leading the universe in demonstrating God is worthy to be praised and trusted when all of life is a pile of dung. And so it shall be until we stand in his presence.