What should we learn from the account of Peter walking on water?
Three of the Gospels record Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45–53; John 6:15–21). This took place after He'd fed the crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children. Jesus sent the disciples ahead of Him while He went to pray. Then He caught up to the boat by walking across the water. All three accounts record that the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus and Jesus tells them who He is so that they will not be afraid. Matthew and Mark add that when they saw Jesus walking to them on the water, they thought He was a ghost. Ghost, as used here, does not necessarily mean what the word means today, that is, the spirit of a dead human being. The Greek word is phantasma which might be translated as "a ghostly apparition." The disciples thought that Jesus was some sort of spirit being coming to them, and it frightened them. Only Matthew includes that Peter asked Jesus to "prove" it was Him by enabling Peter to walk out to Him. Matthew's account is reproduced below.
"Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, 'It is a ghost!' and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.' And Peter answered him, 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.' He said, 'Come.' So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, 'Lord, save me.' Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?' And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God'" (Matthew 14:22–33).
We can learn several things from this account. The first lesson really has to do with who Jesus is. The fact that Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the water is a demonstration of His deity. It shows that He has power over the laws of nature. Not only did He walk on water, but He walked a "long way" over rough seas to a boat that was in a storm, buffeted by the wind and waves. John says the disciples had rowed three or four miles. The sea here is the Sea of Galilee, which is really a large lake. It is approximately thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, and it is subject to severe weather. It is certainly large enough to endanger the lives of fishermen on a boat in foul weather. When Jesus got into the boat, the winds ceased. The disciples understand this demonstration of who Jesus is as noted in Matthew 14:33: "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'"
The second lesson that is highlighted in the text has to do with faith. When Jesus tells the disciples not to fear, Peter asks for Jesus to "prove" that it is really Him by allowing Peter to walk on the water too. Perhaps this was a real test, or perhaps Peter just wanted the experience of walking on water as well. As a lifelong fisherman who had spent much time on the sea, walking on water would certainly have been the experience of a lifetime. Jesus does not object or rebuke Peter for issuing this challenge. In fact, Jesus just says "come."
Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water to meet Jesus. At first everything was alright, but then Peter began to focus on the danger around him, and he began to sink. The implication is that as he lost his focus on Jesus, he lost the ability to walk on water as well. Whether or not Peter knew how to swim, the sea was rough enough to make him fear for his life. Even though Peter was focused on the wrong things for a short time, he instinctively knew what to do. He cried out, "Lord, save me." With that "Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him" (Matthew 14:31). Then Jesus asked him why he doubted.
Peter demonstrated in a very short time the way that perhaps most Christians typically respond to fear and uncertainty. First, they are afraid. Then, they sense that God is there taking care of them, so they become emboldened and take a step of faith. Then, as they progress through the trial, they begin to take their focus off the Lord and focus on the perils around them, and they start to be overwhelmed. Then, they turn their focus back to the Lord and cry out for help. This is a demonstration of the fickle nature of our faith and the need for continually turning back to the Lord for help. The Christian life is a step-by-step process which requires our focus remain upon Christ. If we start looking around and becoming distracted by worldly things, we will fall. And often, it does not take very long, sometimes just a matter of seconds, to go from confident faith to overwhelming doubt. In the end though, Jesus is always there.
Peter did sink, but he was the only disciple who had the courage to get out of the boat. And when he began to sink, he knew who to call. Therefore, Peter's faith, imperfect as it was, is a good example for us, imperfect as we are.
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