Are you undergoing a fiery trial? Are you in the midst of a storm and the waves around you are lashing at your boat and it seems you will drown? Have you been rowing with all your might and you are on the verge of tapping out? Your energy is spent, your resolve has dwindled and you are on the precipice of defeat, ready to give up: convinced the Lord is not going to deliver you?
Recently the Holy Spirit revealed something in a Bible story I had heard a hundred times that I had never noticed before. As I meditated on each line and compared the notes between the Matthew, Mark and John accounts of the storm where Peter walks on the water, I was amazed to see how the Lord orchestrated the entire situation for His glory. He sets up a test of faith, not to glorify them so that they could prove how tough or holy they were, but to magnify Himself in their eyes. He wanted them to truly understand who He was.
The account begins with Jesus having just fed a crowd of about 5,000 men (plus women and children) with only five loaves and two fishes. This miracle was so incredible that the next day throngs of people will have followed him because of it. “Jesus answered them [the crowd] and said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled’.” (John 6:26). But that is what happens the next day. For now, the disciples must endure the storm. They must be prepared. Jesus, rather than being interested in the multitude who wanted to make Him king right then and there (John 6:15), turned his attention back to his disciples and the Father’s business.
Matthew 14:22 says that Jesus immediately commanded His disciples to get into a boat and go ahead of Him to the other side of the sea of Galilee. I found this odd when I really considered it. Why did Jesus send them ahead? Why didn’t He just have them wait for Him? Why didn’t He have them attend to the crowd? He sends the crowd away and sends His disciples across the sea alone. While they embark on the seas in their boat, “he [Jesus] went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23)
Consider the scene: the disciples have just witnessed a miracle of epic proportions you and I have never seen the likes of. They would have been on the spiritual cloud-9 high. There was no delay, there was no celebration, there was no fan mail signing. Jesus sends the crowd away and sends the disciples ahead. This is a warning: there is often a fiery trial after a great victory or great blessing to test our faith. What does Jesus do as they set out, not knowing that their faith is about to be tested? He goes into the mountain to pray. Sure enough, out in the middle of the sea the wind is so boisterous they cannot row to shore. They have seen His glory and how He provided food for the multitudes. Would they trust God to keep them safe through the storm?
If you recall from an earlier account in Mark chapter 4, Jesus had gone with them in the boat across the Sea. Just like they again encounter a storm on the sea the second time, in this first account there arose a great storm of wind (Mark 4:37). That time He was with them in the boat. He had fallen asleep and was resting peacefully in the midst of the storm. They, however, were panicked and afraid and woke Him, “…and [said] unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? 39And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm’.” (Mark 4:38-39). So, they have seen Him calm the wind and the waves before. But now they are alone, in the dark, in the midst of the sea. Where is Jesus? What is He doing? Have you ever asked that? Have you ever felt like He just doesn’t care or that He is too busy minding other matters?
Remember, He had gone into the mountains to pray. I believe He went to pray for them, to intercede for them that they would have faith.
When Jesus goes into the mountain, He leaves them and ascends above them to pray for them rather than physically going with them. They can’t see Him or hear Him, and they don’t even realize He is watching over them. At its widest point, the sea of Galilee is only eight miles wide. They are at the northern end, likely only 4-6 miles across. The human eye can see about 12 miles across the water at sea level. He is up above them and could likely easily see them across the water.
When He first goes up into the mountain to pray, we are told the evening had come (Matthew 14:23). So, this story begins at nearly 6pm in the evening. The next thing we know, “…the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.” (Matthew 14:24). We do not have any other information until Jesus goes to them in the fourth watch of the night, which would have been between 3-6am. Mark tells us that “…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 6:48). That means Jesus allowed them to toil, struggling fruitlessly, tossed about by the waves for nearly twelve hours!
Twelve hours may not seem like a lot when compared to some of the trials we face that linger for years. However, consider the circumstances.
- They were rowing across the sea
- They were being tossed about by waves (consider how your body feels in a small boat tossed by the waves)
- They were likely exhausted after feeding thousands of people
- And now they have been rowing for hours (imagine getting on a rowing machine for 9-12 hours!)
They would have spent every last ounce of energy they had with nothing to show for it. They had to have been frustrated and defeated. It was only a few miles across from Bethsaida to the land of Genessaret near Capernaum where Jesus had sent them. They were really only crossing the northern most part of the Sea from the Northeast side to the Northwest side. They should have been able to complete the journey in a couple of hours. Instead, they have been at it far longer than they had expected to be. In fact, by my best estimate according to Google maps, they likely could have walked it on foot in about two hours. It was approximately 3.5 – 6 miles around the northern shore.
The fourth watch of the night is when the night is the darkest, just before dawn. I imagine they were beginning to feel hopeless, stuck in the middle of the sea going nowhere. Where was Jesus?? Why had He abandoned them? What’s interesting is that in all three gospel accounts of this story (Matthew, Mark and John), not one of them mentions the disciples being afraid of the storm. They had been terrified in the earlier account in Mark 4 where Jesus was with them in the boat. But now, they had been through this before. They felt alone, they felt hopeless, but deep down they knew they could trust God.
But then something interesting happens: Jesus shows up in an unexpected way. He shows up far later than they thought they needed Him, but He comes to them in a miraculous way, in the midst of the storm. They saw Him walking on the water and were afraid that He was a spirit. Now they are afraid. They’re afraid of what they don’t understand.
What is Jesus’s first response? Does He worry that they will drown and immediately calm the storm? No, He simply calms them in the storm. He says unto them, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.” (Matthew 14:27). Notice what He says: even before He calms their fear He says “Be of good cheer”. Friends, even in the midst of a trial, we should be of good cheer because Jesus is with us. No matter what chaos is around us, He says to us, “be of good cheer, it is I”. We miss something so beautiful in the English translation. The Holy Spirit prompted me to look at the Greek Interlinear Bible. Even with no knowledge of Greek it is plain to see, when Jesus says “it is I” [ἐγώ “I” εἰμι: “I-be,”], it is the exact words we are all familiar with where He says in John 8:58 “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. [ἐγὼ “I” εἰμί. “I-be.”]”. WOW!! Jesus, standing right in the middle of the storm with them calls Himself the name God gave to Moses at the burning bush, the name of the self-existent true and only God: the I AM.
While the storm is still raging, the wind lashing at the sides of the boat, “Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come…” (Matthew 14:28-29). Peter gets out of the ship and steps out onto the water. We don’t know how far he walked on the sea, but we know “he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.” (Matthew 14:29). And as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, he walked on the water. The storm around him was furious, and the waves could have washed over him at any moment, drowning him in the depths of the sea. But there was no fear until he took his eyes off of Jesus. “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.” (Matthew 14:30). This is why we must hold fast to the Word of God as our anchor and not our feelings, not our circumstances. Not anything but Jesus and His Word can be the anchor of our soul. Look at the Lord’s grace in his moment of failure: “And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). “And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.” (Matthew 14:32).
Peter never answers Jesus’s question: why did he doubt? Was it because of the wind? Did his circumstances make him doubt? No, the circumstances hadn’t changed all night and they hadn’t changed when he stepped out of the boat. What changed? He took his eyes off of Jesus. That is when he doubted, and that is when he began to sink.
In His timing, Jesus stepped into the boat and the storm ceased. There are times that Jesus may seem far away in the midst of our storm. We may not see Him, and we may feel like He doesn’t know our struggles. The disciples remembered how He had brought them safely through before. I think they wanted to trust they would be safe. But what did they do? They spent ALL NIGHT toiling away rowing in their own strength and got nowhere. In fact, John tells us after Jesus calmed the storm, the ship was immediately at land. Perhaps because of the fierce winds, they had not even realized they were almost to the other shore. But instead of simply stopping and crying out for Jesus, they toiled away in their own strength until they had nothing left. They were so exhausted and weary and unexpectant for Him to save them they were afraid once they actually saw Him and didn’t even recognize Him. They had never even realized He could reach them in the midst of the storm. It was different when He had been in the boat, He was there beside them. But they had not even fathomed that He could walk on the water and reach them where they were at.
But the part that really blew me away was a little gem that Matthew and Mark tell us together: they lets us in on a treasure to keep in our hearts. “51 And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. 52 For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened.” (Mark 6:51-52). “Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33). You see they, like the crowd, were likely on a spiritual high from the incredible miracle of God’s provision. He had fed thousands of people and it made them feel good and it filled their bellies. They were praising God for how He had blessed them. But they weren’t praising Him while the storm roared around them and tossed them about. They weren’t filled with joy as they toiled all night long in the darkness. Yet, it was the calm and peace He brought them in the midst of the storm when they had completely spent themselves that made them realize in awe and wonder that He was the Son of God.
If you are currently in a trial, if you have a prodigal child in your life that is causing you more grief than you can bear—be encouraged! Jesus has ascended above you and is interceding for you. He has not left you even though you can’t see Him. He is waiting for you to stop fighting and trying to solve it in your own strength and He is waiting for you to fully surrender it all to Him. No matter how much distance is left in the journey, He will bring you peace wherever you are at. And He will give you a measure of faith so exceedingly above what you have known that, like Peter, you will be able to walk on water.
I leave you with this encouragement: “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the [d]proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-9)
I would also highly recommend Keith & Kristin Getty’s song, “He Will Hold Me Fast”. Click the image of the video to play.