The following story is drawn from Matthew 14:13–33 and John 6:1–21.
The day had been another mind-blower for the disciples.
As they rowed toward Capernaum it was hard to stop talking about what they had seen. Five thousand men, plus women and children, and Jesus had fed them all! With one boy’s lunch! The power Jesus commanded both thrilled and unnerved them.
And they had felt the heady momentum of surging public support when the massive picnic turned into a “Jesus for king” rally. The people had begun to understand! The Messiah had arrived! The kingdom was beginning to emerge right before their eyes.
And then it had all ended so strangely. Surprisingly, Jesus was visibly disturbed by the crowd’s enthusiasm and he moved quickly to douse it with hard, confusing words. The people’s support soured to disillusionment.
Jesus could be so hard to figure out.
And why had he been in such a hurry for them to get to Capernaum that he had them row by night? And why were they to leave without him? They had taken the last boat on the shore. If Jesus intended to join them in Capernaum by morning, it was going to be one whale of a walk.
Then the wind picked up and the waves grew stronger, pushing against every pull of the oars. This was going to add hours to the trip. Adrenaline-fueled discussion was replaced by fatigue-fueled irritability. One of them commented that at this speed, Jesus would probably beat them there on foot.
Just then another shouted, “What’s that?” All eyes strained sternward. A form was approaching in the murky dark. Peter stood up on the small rear deck and looked hard. It could not possibly be what it looked like. But soon it was unmistakable. Someone — or something — was walking toward them across the water! An unearthly fear seized the men. One spoke in a hushed panic: “It is a ghost!” The rowers found new energy.
But a familiar voice called to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus? It sounded like Jesus. But he was walking on top the water! Maybe a spirit could do that, but not a human! Peter motioned to the rowers to stop. It was Jesus. Mouths hung open but no one had words.
Except Peter. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Every astonished face turned to Peter. No one else had even thought of that yet. Jesus responded, “Come.”
So Peter sat on the gunwale, swung his legs over the side, and carefully put his weight on what should have engulfed him. Then stood up. There was a collective gasp from the boat. One degree of surreal to another. Then he began to take tentative steps toward Jesus. The others held their breath.
Suddenly Peter froze. He looked down at the waves drenching his legs. There was panic in his eyes. Then he began to sink, as if into mud. He reached out toward Jesus and cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus stepped forward, reached out, grabbed his arm, and pulled him up. Peter, looking intensely at Jesus, was breathing hard.
Jesus said to him with affectionate firmness said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Peter showed remarkable faith in asking to follow Jesus out on to the water. No one else did.
But when he began walking, what held him up? We might quickly assume it was his faith. But that’s not accurate. Peter’s faith wasn’t keeping him afloat. Jesus was. Peter knew that. That’s why he didn’t just leap out of the boat on his own. He asked Jesus to command him to come. What Jesus did was honor Peter’s faith by commanding the water to bear his weight.
Lesson #1: faith is not faith in our faith in Jesus, it’s faith in the power of Jesus’ word.
But once Peter was outside the safety of the boat, on uncharted waters, everything started feeling precarious. Why? Well, because people don’t actually walk on water. We may be so familiar to the story that the ridiculousness of walking on water doesn’t strike us. But it struck Peter at that moment.
And he started to sink.
But have you ever noticed that Peter the Rock didn’t sink like a rock? The last time you jumped into a pool, how gradually did you sink? There’s something profound going on here.
Peter began to sink when his faith shifted from the firmness of Jesus’ word to the instability of his circumstance. And when he did, it was Jesus letting him sink — slowly. And for Peter that was a grace.
Why? Because Peter’s sinking produced his cry to Jesus. It quickly got Peter to stop looking to the world or himself as the source of truth and salvation and got his focus back on his Savior. When he did that Jesus pulled him back up.
Lesson #2: Jesus’ word is truer and stronger than what we see or feel, and when we doubt that, sometimes he graciously lets us sink to help us refocus.
Trusting in Jesus and his word over our perceptions is difficult to learn. That’s why the Lord takes us through so many different faith-testing, faith-building experiences.
And when he does, it is never for just our own benefit. He’s displaying his power so others’ faith will be strengthened too. And, like the rest of the disciples, once Jesus and Peter were back in the boat, we end up saying to the Lord, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33).
This meditation is included in the book Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith.
Trusting Jesus is hard. It requires following the unseen into an unknown, and believing Jesus’s words over and against the threats we see or the fears we feel. Through the imaginative retelling of 35 Bible stories, Not by Sight gives us glimpses of what it means to walk by faith, counsel for how to trust God’s promises more than our perceptions, and the way to find rest in the faithfulness of God.