The way people think about the world around them has changed
quite a bit since the first century. This incident rarely bothered the early
church fathers with its facts; today, however, modern man finds it more difficult
to understand the reaction of Peter and the disciples to what happened. We need
to take a trip back to the first century to see how they thought about things.
The first thing to understand is that the world of the first
century had no understanding of what we call science. Indeed, the idea that
science will someday solve all our problems would have been a very strange one
to them. The concept that "someone will invent something" really
dates to Thomas Edison. They subscribe instead to what used to be called
"natural philosophy." It means simply that one observes what goes on
in nature and then reasons upon it in a logically correct manner. The idea of
constructing an artificial experiment on this reality is really a later development.
Peter and the other disciples would not have called natural philosophy; they
would probably use the term "common sense."
One construct that they would have which modern man might
not is that of the order of the universe. They would see the Fact that the universe
continues to behave in an orderly way (the laws of nature) as a reflection of
the character of God, the creator. Since God is eternal, they would logically
reason that the laws of nature remained the same. Curiously, modern man rejects
the notion of God but retains the concept of the laws of nature. This is a
logical inconsistency — but it is a modern one.
Geometry and Arithmetic
The disciples would certainly have an understanding of
geometry and arithmetic. Arithmetic, of course, would be in common use for
commercial transactions. We know from tax records that the people of this time
were quite capable of dealing with all the concepts of arithmetic that we have.
Geometry was a legacy of the Greek conquest of the area some 400 years earlier.
The disciples would have had a rough working knowledge of Euclid's geometry,
particularly as it applied to the construction of homes and other small
buildings. One particular thing of interest to us in the story would be their
abilities at navigation. It is unlikely that any of the disciples had a
detailed knowledge of Ptolemy's Almagest. The reason is simple: the Sea of
Galilee is just too small for such navigation to be of any importance.
One thing in which they would not share our ideas would be
in the matter of why bad things happen, and why they happen to you. They would
see bad things happening because this is a fallen world. If anyone was to be at
fault, the man's name would be Adam. The concept of original sin had not yet
been devised (thank you, Saint Augustine), but they would see the actions of
Satan and Adam as being primarily responsible for why things go wrong in a bad
The question of why bad things happen to you, in particular,
they would see like this:
Bad luck would always be a factor. Being in the wrong place at
the wrong time would be seen as bad luck.
Most commonly with the Jews, if the consequences were severe then
obviously you deserved them. You sinned; you earned what happened to you.
What might strike you as really unusual is this: it could also be
that your nation or tribe earned it. This sense of national sin is almost
unknown in our world today — even though it is quite clearly a biblically
We should remember that the disciples have seen several miracles
by this point. Moreover, they are familiar with the miracles of the Old
Testament — particularly those associated with Moses. So the existence of
miracles would not be something which they would automatically doubt, but
accept. As far as I can tell, they would have no particular theory about why
miracles should or should not occur. They would see them as being personal to
God — and God need not explain anything to them.
Demons and Angels
The disciples would have no particular problem with the
existence of demons and angels. They would you angels as messengers of God, not
independent spirits like Greek gods. Angels were, in their view, both rare and
fearsome. Demons, on the other hand, are angels in rebellion against God — and
are therefore independent spirits. It's important for us to distinguish between
the Jewish view and the Greek view. The Jewish view is that Greek gods are
demons, not myths as we would see them today. In addition, they would know that
demons are common — everyone in their society has seen someone who is demon
possessed, so they have no reason to doubt their existence. If you'd like to
see the same view, talk to a missionary who works in the Third World. You will
find that demons are very real and very active. Satan is the father of lies —
and his lie to us is that neither he nor his demons exist.
The concept of a ghost was quite common in those days. They
are the spirits of those who are dead. It was not unusual to have an encounter
with a ghost — usually a terrifying encounter. The Jew was strictly warned
against consulting the dead. Therefore, the disciples would flee from a ghost,
and certainly be frightened of it.
Today, most of us would attempt to interpret our dreams in
some sort of pseudo-Freudian way. The disciples would not have done this; they
would have seen dreams as being significant. Dreams, and their culture, were
often considered to be prophetic. If you want a humorous interpretation of
this, remember the dream sequence from Fiddler on the Roof. The reaction
that everyone had to that dream would have been typical for the disciples of
this time. Dreams were often presume to come from God to give you guidance;
remember that the Wise Men were warned in a dream about Herod. Most important
of all, they would've seen dreams as something to which great attention need be
paid. Remember Pilate's wife?
The disciples’ view of God stems from the fact that they
would consider the Jews to be the chosen people of God. I once met such a Jew
in an elevator at UCLA. Without even speaking to him, he opened up and
proclaimed to me that as a Gentile I was fit only as fodder for the fires of
hell. He told me that only the Jews would go to heaven and that the rest of us
were worthless people who should not even be touched. I looked at the yarmulke,
the tassels, the prayer shawl and the rest of it – and got off the elevator as
quickly as possible. What possessed him to talk to me at all I do not know. But
his attitude would've been typical of the Jews of the first century.
In their view all the Gentiles — anyone who was not a Jew —
were people to be shunned. A good Jew would have nothing to do with him — and
frankly would not care what happened to them.
The two aspects of the Old Testament that would be important
for them would be the law and the prophets. The Law of Moses they would
understand fairly well, at least in a rough working sense. Prophecy, on the
other hand, was rather murky. They knew the Messiah was coming, they do some of
the details, but the entire picture was not necessarily clear to them.
So here’s what happened:
Matthew 14:22-34 NASB
Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the
other side, while He sent the crowds away. (23)
After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to
pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. (24)
But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves;
for the wind was contrary. (25) And in the
fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. (26) When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea,
they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in
fear. (27) But immediately Jesus spoke to
them, saying, "Take courage, it is I; do not be
afraid." (28) Peter said to Him,
"Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." (29) And He said, "Come!"
And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (30) But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and
beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" (31) Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and
took hold of him, and *said to him, "You of little
faith, why did you doubt?" (32)
When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. (33)
And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, "You are certainly
God's Son!" (34) When they had crossed
over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
A look at a map will be useful to understanding what happens
As you can see from the scale on the map, the Sea of Galilee
is not really that large. It's a good size lake, but not much more. What you
might not notice is that the Sea of Galilee is situated in the Jordan River
Valley. That valley channels the winds so that a storm blows almost due south. The
last recorded location we have for Jesus and the disciples is at Nazareth.
Depending on whose account you read, the disciples’ destination is one of the
cities at the north end of the lake. Since Nazareth is to the south, it makes
sense that the disciples would be rowing upwind.
Understanding that, we can see how the disciples must've
been puzzled by Christ's instructions. By all accounts he had to order them
into the boat. They were then sent ahead into the storm. This of course raises
the question of how Jesus — who was going up onto a mountain to pray alone —
was going to get to the north end of the lake. Sensible people go by boat; it's
much faster under normal circumstances. Jesus doesn't have a boat — but he does
have a long path around the lake. So it is logical to suspect that the
disciples knew that Jesus had something else in mind — but it stretches the
imagination a bit too much to think that they expected him to walk on water.
This points up a common difficulty with Christ: he seldom, if ever, explains
his future plans. When you are God, you can do that.
Christ Doesn't Make It Easy for Them
You must remember that the sailing technology of the time
did not include anything like the sails we have today. At this time they
would've used a square, Roman sail. This means they could not attack upwind. So
they either sail a very indirect course, or they row a lot. If Luke's account
is of the same incident, the boat was in distress at the time. Either way, they
were at it all night.
Why does Christ do this? There are a number of reasons:
First, times of trial awaken the hardened heart. C. S. Lewis once
said that God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pains. We seldom
asked what we're doing right when things are going well. It's obvious that we
should ask what's going wrong when things are not.
There is also the question of memory. Pleasant times are vaguely
remembered, but our troubles are sharp in our mind even years later. If our
troubles are sharp, then usually the comfortably get from him remains sharp in
our memories too.
If we experience enough of these trials, we will develop the
habit of longing for the comfort of Christ in such times. He wants us to
develop such a habit.
Peter and Christ
Perhaps the first thing we should point out is that Peter is
in an exceptional situation. He's not really sure that it's Jesus he is seeing.
He's not sure it's Jesus; but he is sure of Jesus. Moreover, he
is willing to find out if it's Jesus — that is, he's not willing to wait upon
events. He wants to know if it's really him. Note, please, that Peter is not
trying to learn how to walk on water.
The issue is the Lordship of Jesus. Peter does not have a
buddy-buddy relationship with Christ. That's why he will not leave the boat
without a command. At first this sounds like he doesn't have the
confidence or courage needed. That's not the problem at all. So he has the guts
to ask to be commanded. The issue is not, "can Jesus do this?" The
issue is, "is this Jesus?" There is a lesson here for us. Sometimes
we need the command of Christ. We should have the guts to ask for it. The
reason most of us don't is that were afraid we may have to follow it.
So what went wrong? We often think of doubt as the enemy of
faith; here we see something different. Fear is the enemy of faith. Note that
the fear in question is caused by rather ordinary events – things like wind and
waves. Not only are these ordinary events, they are well within the commonplace
experience of a fisherman like Peter. He is not confronted with something new
in the way of physical events. He is letting the ordinary get in the way of the
extraordinary power of Christ. Think how often that happens to you; do the
little things of each day bar you from doing the great things Christ wants you
to do each day? Fear and faith are both decisions.
May I point out one thing first? The first reaction Christ
has is to pull Peter out of the water. I conclude from this two important
It is in the very nature of Christ that all who call upon his
name shall be saved — in this case, physically. Christ could've told him,
"Swim back to the boat."
It is also quite the case that the theology comes after the
storm. When we are in the midst of crisis, should we not refrain from
criticizing? Help first; lessons later.
Of course, Christ does expect Peter's faith to be prepared —
which it was not. For this, Christ chides Peter. Interestingly, he does not
criticize Peter for his fears, but for his lack of faith.
Reading the parallel accounts, it is clear that Christ
enters the boat and then calms the storm. By John's account, we know that just
after he does that the boat arrives at its destination. The test of faith is
often followed by the calm after the storm. Sometimes being a hero means just
lasting a little longer in the storm.
The Other Disciples
I suppose we can't really criticize them for this, but did
you notice that the worship of the son of God comes only after the calm in the
There are some personal notes here as well. All four Gospels
contain some account of this incident, though Luke's account may be of the
second, separate instance. Only Matthew tells the story of Peter walking on the
waves. It's particularly interesting that Mark does not — for Mark is a student
of Peter's. It's as if he doesn't want to embarrass Peter. Luke and John are
quite discreet about it; perhaps we might conclude that Peter objected to
Matthews account. As it does not present him in a very favorable light, this
may be seen as a normal human reaction.
Mark does share one thing with this: he tells us that the
disciples had not gained any insight from the miracle of the loaves and the
fishes (which immediately preceded this instance.) We may conclude from this
that Christ wants our hearts open to his lessons in every circumstance — and
that perhaps the reason we don't understand what's going on today is that we
did not try to draw any lessons from what went on yesterday.
Perhaps we can best summarize it this way: Peter is a leader
who falters at the last moment. That should not take away from the fact that he
dared to ask for the Lord's command when the others were silent. That's the
mark of a leader who needs just a little work. It's surprising how many people
don't think you need courage to be a leader. And, it's sad. As for the
disciples, they saw what God did but they failed to read the lesson in the
events. Perhaps that's the biggest difference between our world and theirs:
they knew that they should have been reading those lessons. We seem to think
there are no lessons to be found.