"Walking on Water with Jesus"
(Delivered Sunday, February 25, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; 8copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
As a pastor, I've been called upon to be with people during some very difficult and trying times. Everyone reacts to such times differently. But I've noticed something that is unique to my brothers and sisters in Christ at those times.
Perhaps it was because of the tragic death of a loved one. Perhaps it was because of the painful disappointment of a son or daughter who was going astray. Perhaps it was because of a loss of a job, or some crushing financial need. Perhaps it was because of unexpectedly bad news from the doctor. But whatever the nature of the particular trial, I have very often heard my brothers or sisters in Christ say: “I don't know what I would do in all of this if I didn't have the Lord Jesus in my life. What do people who don't have Him do?”
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I can't count how many times I've heard a brother or sister in pain say something like that. And when I hear them say it, it make me really appreciate how much of a blessing it is to claim Jesus Christ as my Savior, my Lord, and my greatest Friend.
I'm just one little person; and a very weak and frail little person at that. No matter how hard I may try, I simply can't control every detail of what happens in my world. Around every corner, on the other side of the many twists and turns of life, there's the potential for situations that exceed my coping capabilities; situations where the normal resources for life will not see me through; situations that can quickly cause the floor to drop from under me, and send me plummeting down in a free-fall.
And yet, in spite of the fact that those situations may come, I know Someone who is always all-powerful, always infinitely wise, and always immeasurably good. He loves me and knows me by name. I don't have any promise from my heavenly Father that my life will always be easy. But I know that He controls all things; and I have His promise that He will see to it that all things will work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). His Son Jesus has been honest and has told those who follow Him, “In the world you will have tribulation”; so I don't have any delusions about avoiding the tough times of life. But I also have hope in those tough times; because Jesus went on to say, “[B]ut be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Jesus walks high above the circumstances of life. And so long as I keep my eyes on Him during those tough times, He lifts me up to where He is—far above them all.
I'm reminded of this when I come to this morning's passage. It's a passage that tells the story of how Jesus walked upon the water. And I believe that one of the reasons the Holy Spirit included it in the Scriptures is to teaches us just how “above it all” our Lord Jesus is; and how crucial it is that we keep our focus on Him.
Let's look through this passage together; and as we do, let's be reminded that the only way for us to rise above the crisis-times of life is by keeping our focus on the One who loves us infinitely, and who truly dwells in a victorious realm far above the circumstances.
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As we remember from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus had just proven something of the greatness of His power. He had fed five-thousand men, and their wives and children, with just five small loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:14-21).
To appreciate the context of this story; please take a look at what the apostle John said when he wrote about this same story in his Gospel. After Jesus had fed the multitudes, John says, “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone. Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and went over the sea toward Capernaum” (John 6:15-17a).
The people thought that they had found in Jesus a perfect political leader; someone who could provide them with whatever earthly thing they needed. Perhaps they thought that, through Him, they could replace the wicked King Herod—and perhaps even drive the occupying Roman empire from their land. But though Jesus truly was the King of the Jews, that's not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to establish. Later on, He rebuked these people; telling them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (John 6:26-27).
Many people try to use Jesus for earthly purposes even today—that is, to seek through Him a comfortable and easy life on earth for themselves. But Jesus won't allow Himself to be used by people in that way. He isn't about filling bellies with goodies. He's about saving souls from eternal loss.
I believe that this is behind the very first words that we read in our passage this morning. We read in it that Jesus “made” His disciples get into the boat. The text uses a word in the original language that has a sense of urgency to it. He had to “force” them, or “compel” them, or “urge” them “strongly” to go. This was, I believe, in part because of the mob that was about to make Him king1. It may even have been that the disciples were tempted to join in on their cause!
Now; with all of that in mind, let me read this morning's passage to you. And as I do, just consider the ways Jesus is shown to be “above” the trials of life; and how we rise above those trials as we keep our eyes on Him.
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Jesus is far above the trials and crises of life; and we rise above them so long as we keep our focus on Him.
Please notice how He is above it all . . .
1. IN TIMES OF FRUSTRATION (vv. 22-25).
We're told that Jesus was very urgent in compelling His disciples to get into a boat and go ahead of Him to the other side of the lake. Jesus had to “urge” the disciples and “compel” them to go was because they themselves were hesitant to make such a trip.
You see; several of the disciples were very experienced fishermen. They knew the Sea of Galilee very, very well. They knew that, at this time of year (probably around mid-spring), the Sea of Galilee was subject to strong gusts of wind; and the late afternoon and evening at that time of year was not a good time to be out in the middle of the lake.2 Nevertheless, Jesus compelled them; and off they went in obedience to Him—perhaps bewildered that He would make them go at such an unfavorable time and in spite of their protests.
Once Jesus sent the disciples to the other side of the lake, and after He had sent the multitudes away, Jesus went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. And if I may, isn't it wonderful that Jesus sets such an example for us? Jesus took time out, after a remarkably busy day, to pray.
We read in verse 13 that He originally intended to get away with the disciples to a deserted place, before the hungry multitudes came to Him. No doubt, He intended to spend some time in prayer. Perhaps He needed that time because of the threats He was feeling from King Herod (vv. 1-12). And even after all that had happened—even after His plans were interrupted, and He performed a notable miracle in feeding the multitudes—He still made sure He got alone with His Father and spent some time in prayer. Perhaps He felt the need for prayer even more; having heard the cry of the mobs to make Him King.
Whatever the reasons may be, there's an important lesson for us in this. If the Son of God needed to take time to get away and pray, how much more do we?
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Now; imagine Jesus as He sat high up on the mountain. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that Jesus “saw” the disciples “straining at rowing, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48). Do you realize that as the Son of God sat on the mountain, at any time He wished, He could have shifted the wind for them? Matthew has already told us a story of how Jesus was in a boat with His disciples during a fierce storm; and of how “He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:26). Even the winds and the sea obey Him (v. 27).
Jesus sat upon the mountain in prayer for hours—perhaps occasionally looking up to see how, off in the distance, the disciples were rowing frantically and fighting against the winds; and yet, did nothing to change the winds in their favor. Matthew tells us that it grew to be the fourth watch of the night—which would have made it about three or four in the morning. John, in his Gospel, tells us that in all that time—perhaps as much as six to seven hours of time—they had only managed to row out about three to three-and-a-half miles from the shore (John 6:19). Plus, Matthew tells us that the boat was in a dangerous situation—“in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves”. I can't help but imagine that, by that time, the disciples were not only physically exhausted, but also emotionally on edge.
Jesus, it seems, had deliberately sent them off on a journey that He knew would prove very frustrating to them, and that would drain them of all their own personal resources. And we're told that it was at that time that Jesus—the Son of God, who exercises perfect control of the winds and the waves—chose to walk out on to the sea to them.
Why then? Why did He not come to them sooner? As remarkable as it may seem, I believe it was because Jesus wanted them to first exhaust themselves of every resource of their own. He did this so He could then illustrate to them—and to us—that He is far above those things that frustrate us.
This reminds me of a story I heard once about a life-guard. Someone was standing on the shore next to this life-guard, while another person was out struggling in the water. The swimmer was shouting desperately for help; but the life-guard just stood there—watching the drowning swimmer carefully, but doing nothing to help them. Finally, it became apparent that the swimmer was wearing himself to exhaustion. He grew so weak and tired that he began to sink. Then, finally, the life-guard jumped in, swam swiftly to him, wrapped an arm around him, and brought him to shore alive.
Now when it was all over, the onlooker had a question for that life-guard. Why did the life-guard take so long to go to the rescue? Why did he stand there watching this poor, helpless swimmer struggle for life? It seemed cruel and uncaring. But the life-guard explained that if he had jumped into the water to save the swimmer at the first moment of trouble, the swimmer would have been in such a state of physical panic that he would have nearly beaten the life-guard to death trying to hang on to him. As a result, they both would have very likely drowned. The life-guard had to wait until the swimmer had thrashed around and exhausted all of his strength; and then, he would be helpless, and would have had no choice but to rely exclusively on the strength of the life-guard.
I believe that's what Jesus was doing with the disciples. And I believe that's what He often does with us. In order to teach us about His own sufficiency in our lives, He will often send us off in a direction that He knows will frustrate us—into a situation that will make us work and work; and yet, leave us feeling as if we're getting nowhere. And then—at long last—He comes, walking above it all. He does this to us because He loves us, and knows how bad it is for us to rely on our own strength and resources. He wants to wean us of our trust in ourselves, and to learn to lean on Him alone.
Jesus shows Himself to be far above the circumstances in our times of frustration. We get nowhere so long as we rely on ourselves. But we rise above our frustrations when we learn to keep our focus on Him.
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And this leads us to another demonstration of how far above our circumstances He is . . .
2. IN TIMES OF FEAR (vv. 26-27).
Place yourself in the position of the disciples for a moment. Think of how it would feel to be sent into a boat to row across the lake after an already exhausting day. Think of what it would be like to row for hour after exhausting hour against the wind; making almost no progress to speak of; fearful of the small boat being turned over in the storm at any moment; drained to the point of emotional fatigue! (Maybe you don't have to work very hard to think of such a thing. Perhaps you're in a situation that makes you feel like that right now!)
Now; in my imagination, I think of one of the disciples raising his tired eyes and looking off in the distance—squinting under the moonlight. And then, he laughs, rubs his eyes, and tries to shake the cobwebs from his head. “Wow; it must be late, and I must be going nuts”, he says, turning to one of the others next to him. “I could swear I see a man out there, walking on the water toward us.”
The other looks up and squints. Then he laughs. “Yeah. You must really be nuts; because it's starting to rub off onto me. I see him too.”
Then they stop laughing. Soon, all the others see the figure of a man walking on the water between the rising and falling of the waves.
Matthew tells us that they were “troubled”; but I suspect that was something of an understatement. It didn't register to them that it was Jesus walking toward them. Rather, as Matthew tells us, they were saying, “It's a phantasma”—a ghost; some unearthly, inhuman apparition. No man could do what they were seeing. And if it isn't a man, what is it? Matthew tells us that “they cried out for fear”.
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Now; think of Jesus. I may be speculating a bit; but I don't imagine Jesus walking upon the water with great difficulty—as if He were struggling to keep His balance. Nor do I imagine Him having to leap from wave to wave like a broad-jumper. Rather, I imagine that, as the wind was blowing and the waves were raging all around Him, He Himself walks in the midst of it all with perfect calmness and peace. We can be sure that He, Himself, was at peace; because He detected the fear in His disciples over the sight of Him coming, and immediately spoke to them and said, “Be of good cheer! It is I: do not be afraid.” Mark, in his Gospel, even adds that Jesus came to them, walking on the sea, “and would have passed them by” (Mark 6:48). Imagine that! He was so calm in the midst of it all that He was even intending to walk right past them and keep on going to the shore.
And may I suggest to you that that's yet another way that Jesus shows Himself to be above the crises we face in life? We may be troubled; but He isn't troubled in the least. We may cry out in fear; but He doesn't exhibit fear at all. Instead—in the midst of the circumstances that cause us to be troubled and in which we cry out in fear—He strolls up and calmly speaks three wonderful things to us.
First, He says, “Be of good cheer”—that is, be happy. We can be happy—no matter what the troubling circumstances—because of what He says next; “It is I”. We could never be of good cheer if it wasn't Him; but because He is always at hand, we can always be of good cheer—even in the most fearful of circumstances. And finally, He commands us, “Do not be afraid.” We can truly abandon all fear. We can truly be at peace. The circumstances are all in His mighty hand.
This reminds us of what Paul affirms in the Book of Romans,
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Now when Mark and John wrote about this in their Gospels, the Holy Spirit led them to end the story with Jesus entering the boat. But Matthew goes on to tell us about something else that happened before then. And it illustrates to us how Jesus also walks far above our circumstances . . .
3. IN TIMES OF WEAKNESS (vv. 28-31).
It involves Peter. One of the remarkable things you'll discover about Peter as you read the Bible is that he could never tolerate the least little bit of distance between himself and Jesus. If Jesus was nearby, Peter wanted to move from where he was to where Jesus was—even if that meant walking on water in order to get to Him.
Matthew tells us that Peter said, “Lord, if it is You . . .”. Isn't that interesting? Was Peter unsure? Perhaps he was unsure. He was seeing a man walking on the water, after all. But I suspect that Peter thought there was one way to be sure it was Jesus; and that was by walking on water to Him at His command. And so, he said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”
Peter had spent a lot of time in boats out at sea. He may not have known too many things, but he knew better than to try stepping out of the boat unless Jesus commanded him to do so! And so, the Lord said, “Come”; and Peter threw one leg over and on to the water, then the other, and soon he was walking on the water toward Jesus. We may be tempted to criticize Peter a bit for his lack of faith in this story; but it's important to point out that—at least—he got out of the boat while the others stayed in! That took more faith than most of us would exercise. Most of us would stay in the boat and wait for Jesus to come to us!
Now; as long as Peter's eyes were fixed on Jesus, he did fine. He walked on water. But the fact is that Peter turned his gaze from Jesus. The moment he began to focus instead on the wind that was blowing, and on the waves that were thrashing around him—in other words, the moment he focused on the circumstances rather than on Him who walked above them all—Peter began to sink.
He prayed a prayer that is on my personal list of the greatest prayers in the Bible: “Lord, save me!” And we're told that Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him. Jesus gently rebuked him; saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And one of the details that I love the most about this story is found in the fact that Matthew tells us that “they” got back to the boat. Jesus didn't just leave Peter in the water; nor did Jesus walk back to the boat, 'trolling' Peter under the water behind Him. I believe that Jesus raised Peter up and they walked together.
And this, again, underscores another way that Jesus is above our circumstances—even above the circumstance of our weakness and failing faith. He may rebuke us and say, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”; but He still takes us by the hand and saves us. He still lifts us up and carries us to where we need to be.
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As soon as our Lord and Peter got back into the boat, “the wind ceased”. Once again, Jesus confirmed to them who He is—that He is the Lord who has authority over even the winds and the waves.
Matthew tells us of another time when Jesus demonstrated the greatness of His power in a boat—that time when He stood up in the midst of a storm and rebuked the wind and the sea. Instantly, the wind and the sea was calm. And the disciples marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:27).
Back then, they asked, “Who can this be?” But Matthew tells us that, now, they knew who He was. “Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, 'Truly, You are the Son of God'” (v. 33). How wonderfully He proves Himself to be the Son of God in the times of crisis!
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Let's remember who Jesus is. Let's remember that, in our times of frustration, in our times of fear, and even in our times of great weakness of faith, He is the Son of God. He comes to us walking above the circumstances. Let's listen to His voice, lovingly, compassionately calling out to us in those tough time—in the times of frustration, or fear, or weakness of faith—and saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I: do not be afraid.” Let's be very sure that we keep our focus on this One who walks above it all.
As we do, we will be 'walking on the water' with Him.
1Apparently, Jesus went up to the mountain with His disciples first; and then came down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee with Him later that night, from where He sent them away to cross over to the other side (John 6:16).
2John A. Boadus, A Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1888), p. 327n.
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