What is most important in this story (Matthew 14.22-36), is what it teaches about the nature of true faith, which is certainly why Matthew included it. These chapters record the disciples’ first feeble attempts to understand and trust Jesus.
What is faith? Faith is not merely knowing that Jesus is the Son of God and believing that He can save us from sin but actually committing ourselves to Him. True faith is an actual trust in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior. It means that a person actually commits himself or herself to Jesus. To use the image of the story, it means stepping out toward Him in faith.
Peter’s action demonstrates this well. He believed that the figure he saw on the water was Jesus and that Jesus had power to call him and hold him up as he walked toward Him. It is as if Peter had said, using the words of the apostle Paul to the Philippians, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Ph.4.13). And he could! As long as Jesus told him to come and as long as he kept his eyes on the Savior! It was only when he turned his eyes away from Jesus that he began to sink.
When Peter looked around and became aware of the fierce wind and saw the rolling waves, he became afraid and started to sink. His faith faltered at this point. But it is important to recognize that Peter’s faith did not fail utterly. He had lost faith in Jesus’ ability to keep him above the water, but he still trusted Jesus at some level since he immediately called out to Him for help. “Lord, save me,” he said.
This incident is a good illustration of the trusting nature of true faith, but it is also a good illustration of true but faltering faith, which is what the faith of most of us is like. If Peter had no true faith at all, his act of getting out of the boat would have been mere foolishness or bravado, and when he began to sink, he would have started to flail his arms about, desperately trying to get back into the boat. He would not have cried out to Jesus. The fact that he cried out is proof that he really did trust Jesus. On the other hand, his faith was weakened by the waves, just as our faith is often undermined by difficult circumstances or by tragedies in life. When Jesus rebuked him, it was not for having no faith at all but for having little faith. “You of little faith,” Jesus said, “why did you doubt?” (v. 31).
It was when Peter was in trouble that he was driven to Jesus and was closest to Him. Peter was nearer when sinking than when he was walking.
It is exactly the same with us, and it is why Jesus permits storms to come into our lives too. As long as life is going along smoothly, we may be genuinely trusting Jesus for our salvation as true Christians, but our faith can be somewhat distant, abstract, or even peripheral. We trust Jesus, true enough, but if the truth be told, we also trust ourselves and our abilities. We may even trust ourselves more than we trust Jesus. Let trouble come, and suddenly we are confronted with our own lack of ability and weakness, and we are driven to Jesus simply because we have nowhere else to turn. It is in times such as these that faith in Jesus grows strong.
The Jews were not seafaring people, so there are not many stories in the Bible about peril on the sea. But I can think of one! It is the story of Jonah, who tried to run away from the Lord by taking a ship from Joppa to Tarshish on the far side of the Mediterranean. He was not acting in faith as Peter was. He was defiantly disobedient. But when God sent the storm that threatened to sink the ship in which he was sailing and the sailors finally threw him overboard to drown, which he had told them to do, Jonah found himself inside the belly of a great fish and turned to God again in prayer and found salvation.
God heard Jonah from inside the great fish and saved him, just as Jesus saved Peter when he was sinking in the waves. It often takes such things to turn us from disobedience to obedience and change our failing faith into robust faith in the Savior.
Asaph, one of the great psalm writers, was almost thrown off balance by the apparent easy life of the wicked. He knew God had been good to Israel. “But as for me,” he explains in Psalm 73, “my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”
He goes on like that for several stanzas until he explains how his faltering faith was at last restored. It was when he “entered the sanctuary of God.” Then he “understood their final destiny.” The rest of the psalm says that God held him by his right hand, just as Jesus must have reached out to save Peter. The psalmist ends by claiming that from that time on he made the sovereign God his refuge.
If you have been sinking in life because of troubles or because you doubt the wisdom and power of God, stop looking at the waves and look to Jesus. He is the Lord of all circumstances, and he will be there to see you through them.