Updated: Jan 17
Dr. RB McFee
“But when he (Peter) 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 until him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
Matthew 14:30 – 31 KJV
Having just enjoyed the privilege of leading a six week Bible study focused on Jesus, Peter and walking on water, based in part on Matthew 14, the experience has taken me on an interesting journey. In fact that venerable Gospel scripture has taken a life of its own for me. If you haven’t read it in its entirety may I recommend doing so, because it is packed with powerful life lessons that go beyond walking on water, with each verse offering an insight that can enhance your spiritual journey.
Sadly, and too often Matthew 14 has become almost a caricature drawn upon “oh ye of little faith,” as the only take home message. Or it is boiled down to a sort of Cliff Notes Bible tale – ‘Disciples on boat, bad storm appears, all but Peter cower in fear, Jesus appears, Peter walks on water, then falls, Jesus saves him but counsels him about faith.’ The ensuing sermon invariable focuses on the “oh little faith” statement Jesus says to Peter. The implied or explicit message being ‘we all need more faith and all will be well,’ depending upon the minister’s perspective. Really?
Let’s step back and think about this for a second. In fact let’s step onto the boat as one of the crew.
First off, it would be uncharacteristic for fishermen or boaters to set out to sea as nightfall approaches. Recall among the Disciples there were four seasoned seamen – Andrew, Peter, James and John, who no doubt raised some issues with Jesus about being sent on the Sea of Galilee to meet Him on the other side. It is, by ancient Judean standards a large body of water, and known for severe, sudden storms. Nevertheless they went. Question – Didn’t that show faith?
Now you are on the boat, it is in the late watch of the night, and you have been helping the crew with all the tasks required to handle a vessel in the midst of a raging storm. All of a sudden an apparition arrives out of the waves. Peter thinks it is Jesus, and goes to the rail saying to the man “Lord if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” (Matthew 14:28). That didn’t take faith? How much faith does it take to ask someone you think is Jesus, to command you to jump overboard? How much faith does it take to go over the side of a pitching, swaying boat after you have been rowing or sailing it for hours in a storm? How much faith does it take to believe the man you have asked to join really is more than a man, but is Divinity incarnate?
Peter starts walking toward Jesus, on the water. Peter is the only non Divine man in history, at least that we know of, who has ever walked on water. That very act, according to multiple Old Testament verses, is reserved to God, and God alone. But Peter recognizes before the others that Jesus’ act of walking on water means He has Divine Power. And for a while – we don’t know exactly how long – Peter has that Power channeling through him, as he walks on water, in spite of a raging storm continuing all around him. That didn’t require some faith?
But then a strong gust on top of the already heavy winds blows Peter into a reality check. He loses focus on Jesus, and pays more attention to the storm. Peter recognizes what he is doing is well beyond his skills. In boxing it would be referred to as “punching above your weight.”
Think of it this way. You’ve taken skiing lessons. You have started to parallel ski pretty well for a beginner, and your instructor graduates you from the bunny hill to an advanced trail. And in the beginning you are doing well. You marvel at how easy it is to carve your way down, and wondered why you ever doubted yourself. Then all of a sudden you see in front of you the trail has a steep, a VERY steep drop. You lose focus, and soon you are a colorful snowball, skis akimbo. You’re praying for a gentle stop. That’s probably how Peter felt.
But did he truly lack faith? And is that really the point of the story? Because if you read a bit further in Matthew 14, you notice that Jesus and Peter go back to the boat together. How did Peter do that? No mention that Jesus carried him back. No mention Peter was swimming along side of Jesus. It is very likely Jesus continued the lesson, and Peter walked on water again. Did he all of a sudden get his faith back? Or was it something else?
And what was Jesus trying to teach Peter, the Disciples, and us?
Let’s go back a couple thousand years, because that is Jesus’ initial audience; a first century Jewish audience. These are people who grew up hearing, singing, studying, and memorizing what we refer to as the Old Testament. Jesus, and His followers were practicing Jews, and it is in that context that His actions and teachings were interpreted. For example, when Jesus was on the Cross His words and actions referred to the prophecies about Him in the Psalms. We as 21st century Christians often miss out on the important nuances of His lessons because we may not be familiar with the Jewish texts Jesus is referencing, or the initial linguistic meanings that may get lost in translation in our modern Bibles.
So let’s consider what Jesus may have been saying to Peter through the lens of Jewish scholarship.
In the book God of me; imaging God throughout your lifetime by Rabbi David Lyon, he talks about faith from a Jewish perspective. Referencing Exodus 24:7 he notes Jews’ propensity for action, and talks about the Israelites at Mount Sinai, where they pledged their commitment to God, saying in one voice “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which loosely translated is “we will faithfully do.” But the true Hebrew meaning of this concept in faith goes like this: “Na’aseh” means “we will do.” And “Nishma” means “we will obey and understand.” In essence they pledged to do everything God commanded first, to obey, and then to understand it later. In Judaism this is a declaration and act of extraordinary, unequivocal faith.
I think that is what Jesus was referencing. Peter stopped doing, and started to try and understand. Jesus wanted Peter to stay focused, to keep on going, the “we will do” in spite of the distractions the storm was placing. Just follow what Jesus commanded – “Come, join me.”
I also think Jesus was using the walk on water as a classroom to prepare Peter for a more dangerous task that lay ahead – one that would require His protégé to remain focused on God in the most trying of times. Jesus was relying on Peter to help build His church, and to lead His Disciples. Peter needed to learn how to stay in God’s Power, and to stay on the path of obedience to Christ – faith in action (the “we will do”).
If that doesn’t convince you Peter had enough faith, but he had stopped applying it, stopped obeying Jesus on the walk, stopped “doing,” as would have been implied in the reprimand, consider Jesus’ words. Jesus told us all we needed was the faith of a mustard seed to move a mountain. Not a date pit or avocado pit, but the tiniest seed in the region. Do we really think Peter had less faith than that?
What about us? Do we have the kind of faith that allows us to persist, or just enough to get started?
And that is why I think Jesus allowed Peter to walk again with Him. Because obeying God is about staying power, outcomes, not just the bumps in the road. It is about having the faith and trust to get up when life or spiritual storms knock you down. Jesus needed Peter to recognize that. When Jesus was talking to Peter about faith – it was about having enough faith in action to stay the course, not about having enough to embark on the journey. It was about “we will do.”
”Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Jesus gave Peter an experience designed to give him spiritual muscle memory. If you have ever taken up a sport, to do it well, you have to practice long enough so that your muscles remember the tasks almost reflexively. Peter got to experience Divine Power while looking straight at it in the form of Jesus. But Jesus knew there’d be a time when Peter would have to lead the others, and grow a movement in Christ, often relying on Divine Power he could no longer see. It would have to be the spiritual muscle memory Jesus was helping him form walking on water.
How are we doing with our spiritual muscle memory? How are we doing in our “we will do” form of faith? Are we applying it in a trust in the Lord kind of way? Are we asking Jesus to command us to do something akin to spiritually walking on water?
Thinking back to Laity Sunday, many of our Bible fellowship community did just that. They went over the side of the boat to serve God in a manner that was scary and required a spirit of “Na’aseh v’nishma.” But they all pledged “we will do.” That is the faith of a mustard seed, and the faith of a mere mortal asking our Savior to command that we, too, walk on water.
In the book God Wink Christmas, by SQuire Rushnell and Louise Duart, the authors make interesting observations: “Faith is not a feeling but a divine gift from God. Faith is taking God at His word and obeying His commands even though your life is a series of twists and turns.”
Faith – how much is enough? If you can ask Jesus to command you, and are willing to follow Him, to stay in prayer with Him, to ask for His guidance and help, and are willing to get up when you fall, and have the spirit of “we will do” then you probably have enough.