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Life of Peter

Walking on Water

Matthew 14:22-34

Lesson audio

World View

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.

Natural World

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.

Murphy's Law

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 way.

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 correct concept.

Miracles

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.

Spiritual World

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.

Ghosts

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.

Dreams

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?

God

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.

 

 

Background

A look at a map will be useful to understanding what happens this night.

Map of the Lake of Galilee

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.

Christ's Actions

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

Peter

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.

Christ

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 points:

·         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 storm?

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.

 

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