In my experience, we Christians tend to be pretty hard on Peter. When we read of his brief walk on water in Matthew 14, and remember how he sank when he realized how hard the wind was blowing, we shake our heads. “There he goes again,” we think, “just like when he reprimanded Jesus for speaking of the cross!” If we were to text our feelings about Peter’s epic fail by faceplant into the Sea of Galilee, it would be OMG! SMH! and maybe even LMAO! The sad thing is that this sort of thinking has made its way into sermons that focus on the lowest hanging fruit and turn Peter into a clown.
It’s easy to think this way of Peter while we’re still in the boat, wearing life preservers and clinging to the gunwales. Or maybe we’ve seen the water is rough and opted to stay in the harbor with the boat tightly moored to the dock. Perhaps we don’t really believe that God can do things that surpass anything we can ask or even imagine (Eph 3:20). When considering Peter, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus restored him to ministry after he denied the Lord (John 21). God used Peter to preach the sermons that launched the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and extended the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Peter also contributed two letters to the New Testament.
Read on to understand why we shouldn’t throw shade on Peter. Sure, Peter began to sink when he saw the wind, but at least he got out of the boat when Jesus told him to. We could use a lot more people like Peter in the church today. Instead of LOL’ing at what we think was his epic fail, we should be PTL’ing for his epic faith. There, FIFY. Peter is us!
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This study of Matthew 14:22-33 is the sequel to our previous post and video on Jesus feeding the multitudes in Matthew 14:13-21.
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Go here for a Zoom video of a recent teaching on Matt 14:22-33 for Genesis Church in Coralville IA. Go here for audio of a teaching on Matt 14:22-33 on September 27 at First Baptist Church, Pentwater MI. Powerpoint for the Pentwater teaching is here.
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Some Background Facts . . .
- In the Bible the sea is a dangerous place, a place where mysterious unseen forces can wreak havoc on helpless humans. Ancient Israel was tempted to ascribe these unseen forces to pagan deities. Today tragic storms continue to challenge belief in God. As Gordon Lightfoot sang, does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? Despite our doubts, God affirms in the Bible that he alone controls the waters. Among many passages, Psalm 107:23-32 gives a clear account of God’s providence over seemingly random storms at sea. Although there is an appearance of chaos, God is still on the throne of the world he created.
- The Bible often uses storms at sea as metaphors for life’s trials and tribulations. In his despair Job spoke of feeling like he was being driven before the wind and tossed about in a storm (Job 30:12). The psalmist spoke similarly and added a reference to the deafening roar of the water in a storm (Ps 42:7). James switched up the metaphor slightly. He described a person who lacks faith as a wave of the sea being driven wildly by the wind (Jas 1:6). See also Psalm 55:8; 69:1-3, 14-15; 124:4-5. Matthew’s association of nautical imagery with discipleship (e.g. Matt 4:19-20; 8:18-23; 14:31-32) makes it clear that walking on water speaks figurally of handling the difficulties of life and ministry in a fallen world.
- The “Sea” of Galilee is an inland lake, about 8 miles from east to west and 13 miles from north to south. Its surface is about 700 feet below sea level, making it the second lowest lake on earth. Guess where the lowest lake on earth is? The maximum depth of Lake Galilee about 140 feet, and it covers over 41,000 acres, holding about a cubic mile of water. Contrast this with the Great Lakes between the USA and Canada. The entire modern state of Israel would fit into the territory covered by Lake Michigan with room to spare. It would take 2900 Lake Galilees to hold as much water as Lake Superior.
- The story of Jesus walking on water is also found in Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:15-21, but only Matthew refers to Peter’s part in the miracle. Jesus has already calmed a storm on Lake Galilee once (Matt 8:18-27). Now he does it again.
- In Matthew 14 Jesus is grieving the loss of John the Baptist, just martyred by Herod Antipas (Matt 14:12-13). After feeding the multitudes he gets away for some time alone with God by sending the disciples ahead “to the other side.” His prayers flow not only from grief over John’s martyrdom but also from anticipation of his own death (Matt 26:36-46).
- Both of Matthew’s “storm stories” speak of the disciples’ inadequate faith. The “little-faith” texts in Matthew are well worth reading and pondering (Matt 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). What makes faith “little”? What makes it “big”?
Comparing Matthew’s Storm Stories
It’s interesting to compare Matthew 14:22-33 to Matthew’s previous storm story in 8:23-27. Although there are a number of obvious similarities between the two stories, there are also significant differences, leading to an even more vivid emphasis on historical storms as acted parables of discipleship:
- Jesus leads the disciples into the boat in story 1; he sends them off alone in story 2.
- Jesus is asleep, yet with the disciples in story 1; he is praying, yet absent from the disciples in story 2.
- In story 1 a great storm is swamping the boat; in story 2 the boat is a long way from land, beaten by waves driven by a contrary wind.
- In story 1 the terrified disciples need to wake Jesus to get help; in story 2 the disciples are terrified not only by the storm but also by Jesus when he comes walking on the water to help them.
- In story 1 none of the disciples are mentioned by name; in story 2 Peter is featured (but only in Matthew) as a model of the tension between faith and fear in the lives of Jesus-followers.
What’s the Take-Away from the Storm Story?
We’ve got a lot to learn about Jesus and the faithfulness of God:
- Jesus is the divine Lord of all Creation, including the sea. Only the creator can control the coming and going of storms on the seas (Ps 77:16-20; 89:8-10; 107:25, 29; Isa 43:11-17; Jonah 1:4, 14-16; Luke 21:25-28). Jesus’ mastery of the winds and waves shows his lordship over the world, even when it seems most chaotic.
- Jesus is human and needs time alone to grieve for his just-martyred forerunner, John (Matt 14:12-13, 22-23). Jesus truly understands all our own human frailties and foibles, not only because of his divine omniscience but also because of his human experience. We are encouraged to pray boldly to a high priest who has been where we are and knows all about our problems (Heb 4:14-16).
- Jesus is faithful to his promises—if he tells us we are going to the other side, we can count on it that we will arrive there, come hell or high water (Matt 8:14, 18, 23; 28:20; 1 Cor 10:13; Phil 4:6-7). The author of Hebrews reminded his struggling audience to hang on to the faithfulness of God with these words, Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promises (Heb 10:23 NLT).
We’ve also got a lot to learn about ourselves and our “little faith“:
- We of little faith tend to have very short memories when it comes to God’s faithfulness. As the storm raged around them in Matthew 14, the disciples evidently forgot that Jesus had already delivered them from a previous storm (Matt 8:23-27). In the first storm they may have been unnerved because Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat, apparently unconcerned about them. In the second storm, Jesus was not even in the boat with them. But before both storms Jesus had told them to get in the boat and go across the lake. Every new storm in life should remind us of how God faithfully navigated us through previous storms.
- We of little faith have very long memories when it comes to our own weaknesses. When Peter realized he could not cope with the wind and waves around him in his own strength, he began to sink. He had forgotten that Jesus had told him to come to him on the water. Peter had also forgotten that he was out there in the storm to begin with because Jesus had insisted he go across the lake (Matt 14:22). God is well aware of our many inadequacies when he calls us to weather a storm. If following Jesus leads us into a storm, Jesus will lead us out of it.
- We of little faith need to constantly remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness as we encounter the storms of life. Our faith may be weak, but he is strong and will do as he promised. Nothing we encounter in life—COVID-19, health crises, broken relationships, blown-up careers, whatever—is outside the providence of God. Faith trumps fear! God has got us, and he will get us through whatever “storm” we may be facing.
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When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. Then the disciples worshiped Him. You really are the Son of God! they exclaimed. (Matt 14:32-33 NLT)
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Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side . . . . . . The winds and waves still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below. (Tune by Jean Sibelius: “Finlandia;” German lyrics by Katharina Von Schlegel; English translation by Jane Borthwick) Go here for an awesome a cappella version by Naturally 7.
For a series of 24 audio lectures on Matthew, go here.