Jesus had spent the afternoon feeding the five thousand. He was hoping to spend it alone away from the crowds. Verse 13 tells us Jesus “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” But upon reaching the shore, Jesus realized that there was not going to be any alone time. At least not today. Jesus spent the afternoon healing those who were sick, and then to top it all off, he miraculously feeds the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish.
You can understand then why, at the end of it all, Jesus dismissed not only the crowds but his disciples as well. He was in desperate need of some alone time. Verse 22 reads, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” And then Matthew writes, “When evening came, he was there alone…” (v. 23).
Do you ever feel like being alone? My wife will sometimes say to me, “I’m done with the kids tonight. You tend to them and put them to bed.” And then she goes downstairs and checks out.
I like being alone. Especially when I am able to be alone just with God, with my Bible open and prayer on my lips—there are no mountains to escape to in Illinois, but each one of us needs that secret place where we can get away from it all and just be with God.
On the other hand, being alone without God is a terrifying thought. Turn your attention now to the disciples. They too had experienced a long day of travel and crowds. But where Jesus had what we assume to be a relaxing evening, the disciples were in for a very taxing evening. Matthew describes the scene on the lake as one of “torment”. You say, “I don’t see the word “torment” in the text, but that is the actual word that Matthew uses. In Greek he writes that the boat was “tormented” by the waves.
Of course, the storm was also tormenting the disciples who were in the boat. Not only were the waves buffeting the boat, but the wind was also “contrary to” or “against” the boat. So, they would have had to take down any sails they may have had and resort to oars. Which was hard work. They had sailed all night and hadn’t made a lot of headway.
We can deduce this because verse 25 informs us that it was the fourth watch of the night when Jesus went out to them. So, it was somewhere between 3 am and 6 am. Just think of that. They got into the boat when the sun was setting, and now it’s after 3 in the morning, and they are still on the water. What a long and tiring day! That’s when it all seems to go south. When our physical energy and emotional stamina are spent. My mother used to say, “Everything seems worse at night.” I think that is true. Most of the time we want to give up in life, it is really because we’re just tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of waiting. Tired of the pain. That’s when we doubt. We’re tired.
The answer to doubt is always Jesus. So, where is Jesus? Well, he’s there. Mark’s account says that “[Jesus] saw the disciples straining at the oars” (6:48). Whether he saw them in his mind’s eye from the shore, or as he was walking out on the water, we don’t know. What we do know is that although the disciples didn’t see Jesus, Jesus saw them. And, loved ones, when Christ has his eyes on those that are his, they are safe, no matter how great the dangers are surrounding them. Yes, when trouble seems greatest, Christ is closest at hand. Even though he waits until the fourth watch of the night, still he will come when necessary. The reason he tarries is because he is strengthening our faith. Remember what I said last week: the main issue of life is always our faith.
We think the real issue is our loneliness, our sadness, our discontentment, our scarcity, and our self-worth. No, the real issue is the maturity level of our faith in God. Sometimes we think we have more faith than we really do, and we become a bit careless with ourselves. In his early years as a Christian Peter always thought his faith was stronger than it actually was. “Even though all fall away on account of you, I will never will” (Matthew 26:33). Well, we know how that turned out for Peter. He ended up denying Jesus three times.
But how do you get someone to understand that their faith really isn’t as strong as they think it is? And more importantly, that it’s not as strong as it needs to be in order to overcome the great tests of life? Well, God’s way of bringing this self-awareness to us is that he lets us sink. Really, he lets us sink.
The disciples were in danger of sinking. They see Jesus, but they think he is a ghost. But Jesus calls out to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (v. 27). Then Peter, thinking himself as the most courageous of all of them says, “Lord, if it’s you...tell me to come to you on the water” (v. 28).
Well, here is the problem. Peter was a fiery and impetuous person. Peter suffered from a severe case of false bravado. And Peter was eventually going to have to give his life for Jesus. Jesus actually tells him that before he ascends into heaven (John 21:18). And Peter wasn’t ready for that yet. Peter's faith in Jesus was nowhere close to where it needed to be.
In the same way, you may think that your faith is of such and such a nature, but only God is able to determine whether it is strong enough to face the tests of life. You say, “Well, I have faced trials, and I still believe.” Very well. Peter could have said the same thing. But is your faith ready to overcome the future tests of life? Is it able to overcome the greatest test of them all, death? For there is no greater test than when the end of life comes and you can see quite clearly that the sun is setting. Are you ready for that?
Well, God knows. And rather than be afraid of death, be assured that God is going to get you where you need to be for when that moment comes. He will strengthen you. But how is he going to do it? Through tests! Through trials! Through storms! Through problems!
So, he lets Peter sink. He doesn’t let him sink right away, but he is teaching Peter the most important lesson we can learn in life: with Christ I can; without Christ I can’t. As long as Peter’s gaze is fixed firmly on Jesus he walks. The moment Peter's gaze is distracted from Jesus, he begins to drown.
Where is your gaze in life? Is it still on yourself? Or have you sunk enough times to realize that it is better to focus your energy in keeping it on Jesus.
Realize that it’s not that Peter lost his faith. He still believed that Jesus was his Savior. That much is evident in that he cries out to Jesus to save him. “Lord, save me!” That’s a prayer of faith! But the danger for Peter is that he became distracted. Verse 30, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out. “Lord, save me!”
And the Lord did save him. He always saves those who cry out to him for help. You see, faith in yourself will sink you. Faith in Jesus will save you. Peter’s cry for help was a confession of his own failure. He had undertaken more than he was able to carry out. He had overestimated the strength of his own faith. Fact was, that he was not a man of great faith—yet. Daring faith is not great faith. His faith was still weak.
That is why we don’t depend on our faith in and of itself. Our faith rises and falls like the waves on the sea. So, we put our trust in Jesus, the object of our faith. He is where our rescue lies. And the overarching purpose of God for your life is to get you to the point of Peter: not completely drowned, but to the point where life has humbled you to the point of admitting your own failure. For some it takes longer than others, but everyone needs to arrive at the conviction that “I am a failure!” “When it comes to what God has created me to be. I am a failure. But Jesus is everything that I am not. He is the perfect child of God. He is the perfect human being. And he is my Substitute!”
I don’t know precisely how God is doing that with you, but that is what he’s doing with you. He is bringing you to an end of yourself, so that you cry out to him, “Lord save me!”
And he does. Like Jesus on the lake with his disciples he says to you and me in Scripture, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” No matter what storm you may be facing. Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” I have saved you. I am saving you. And I will save you. But only I can do it.”
Once you get there in your relationship with Jesus, you will worship him too. Like the disciples in the boat, they worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (v. 32).
And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”