Matt 14:22-32 Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. 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. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter said to Him, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." And He said, "Come!" And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind stopped.
There is no parallel in life for needing to walking on water. I’ve never found a situation where walking on water would have been a necessary skill. Maybe if I’d been on the Titanic that could have been useful. But it’s not something we should ever expect to be asked to do or feel we need to do. I can hear Johnnie telling Kit that the battery has run down, so get out of the boat and push. Maybe we can get it running again. But other than that, not very useful.
So, why would this story be included in Scripture? Perhaps, to fulfill Paul’s statement: 1Cor 10:6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.
That means there are some things in Scripture that are there so we can learn what not to do as well as what we can do, some things to embrace, some to avoid. This story would seem to fit into that unique category of experiences we should learn from, but never expect to need to do.
Most stories are to help us with situations we might face, like:
- Being asked to do the impossible or what seems impossible.
- Being asked to remain faithful when the stakes are high.
- Being asked to hang on when we don’t understand what’s going on.
Each of these is a category of the kinds of things we might need to do, but not by reliving the exact story. It’s almost certain none of us will ever face a fiery furnace, spend the night with hungry lions or wait fifteen years to understand a couple of visions, but we will face things like these and when we do we are going to need insight for how to do so. Now, walking on water is a rare category. We will never need to do that.
So, why is this story in the Bible?
The other stories are about success in trusting the Lord. This is a story about failure.
In the other stories, there are lessons we can transfer to our own situations, making them useful in other applications – transferable truths. Nothing transfers here except learning from our mistakes. Peter’s experience shows us what happens when we cause our own problems.
First of all, let’s get into the moment. It was an ordinary thing for the disciples to get in a boat and travel across the Sea of Galilee, which isn’t a sea but a large lake. It is 13 miles long and 8 miles across. Its total surface area is twice the size of Lake Conroe. And since it is oblong, you can see the shoreline from almost anywhere around the lake.
But the water is deep, on average 84 feet, going down to 141 feet at its deepest point. That depth, along with the influence of strong wind currents coming down from the mountains surrounding it, can cause quick and furious storms to develop. It is easy to get caught and tossed about by these storms and suddenly be in a dangerous situation. You’ll remember this had happened before with the disciples when Jesus was asleep in the boat with them.
So, you could say, according to the typical way storms happened on the sea, there was nothing extraordinary about the circumstances of being caught in turbulent water. What made it extraordinary was, Jesus walking on the water to join the men in the boat.
Now, when comparing Matthew’s account of this story with the other accounts (both Mark and John record this event), nobody but Matthew mentions Peter getting out of the boat. That would seem to indicate this wasn’t as big a deal to the other disciples as it was to Matthew. They probably wrote it off as typical Peter. Matthew saw it differently.
Most commentaries say the book of Mark was Peter’s story. Mark was a teenager during the time of Jesus and didn’t have sufficient details to write a gospel account, so Peter took him under wing and told Mark his story. Undoubtedly, the part where Peter sank in the water was an embarrassment and Peter left it out when he was telling Mark. Then, in the book of John, it could be John didn’t see it as important to him. But Matthew did.
Matthew thought it a moment to remember. Peter saw it as a failure to forget. See, most of us would rather not have our mistakes make public. We’d rather keep our embarrassing moments private.
How would this be an embarrassment to Peter? Go back into the story. Jesus didn’t call Peter out of the boat to walk on the water to Him, Peter asked permission to come out there and Jesus said come.
Matt 14:28-30 Peter said to Him, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." And He said, "Come!" And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
Now, give Peter credit for getting out of the boat and walking on the water. That took courage. But then, he got distracted by the storm and began to sink. I can hear him screaming like a little girl. That’s probably how it sounded to Peter when he thought back on the moment, or maybe when he read Matthew’s account.
But since this story is about failure and not success, we can’t really find positive things to say about Peter trying to walk on water, so, why did God preserve this part of the story? To show us even disciples fail. To show us failure isn’t final. To make failure a moment for growth. To teach us a simple lesson that if we step out where we don’t belong, even thinking we’re doing the right thing, we will inevitably begin to sink. But the redeeming truth is: regardless of the cause, whenever we begin to sink, we can call out to Jesus.
That makes the story more about Jesus responding to his children’s mistakes than Peter’s boldness to try the impossible.
I’ve read many comments on this passage, wanting to make Peter a hero by his courage to try, his willingness to trust, his faith being greater than the rest of the men who stayed in the boat and never tried, his desire to go out to Jesus. All of them want to make Peter superior to the others, the super spiritual one. What he actually demonstrated was how, even in the failures we cause ourselves, the Lord takes care of even His misguided ones.
We need this story because, in most of the other stories of Jesus helping meet the needs of people, the condition of the lives Jesus touches, the circumstances that brought people to Him for healing or deliverance, were beyond their fault. They didn’t create their need. In this story, Peter created his own problem. And Jesus let him do it.
Peter didn’t need to walk on water. It wasn’t a skill he needed to develop or an ability he needed to learn. It served no purpose other than to set up his failure. Can you imagine what would have happened had he succeeded? It would have inflated an ego already pressing the envelope of arrogance that regularly had to be taken down. Peter had a problem with pride and Jesus needed to expose it.
Pride prevents growth. It leaves us stagnated. Pride gives us a superior sense of accomplishment. We believe we have arrived. We’re done with learning, listening, and opening ourselves to areas in which we need to change. We are above any challenge.
So, the purpose was for Peter to fail.
I can hear some reject this, saying, “Oh, Jesus would never set up circumstances for us to fail.” Really? So, we only learn from when things go right? Does a person learn more from their mistakes or successes?
Michael Jordan said once that he didn’t learn as much by making a basket as he did when he missed.
Bill Cosby said if a child never had a cold, how could he learn how to blow his nose?
Andre Crouch sang, “If I never had a problem, I’d never know God could solve them.”
There are some lessons we’ll never learn unless we’re given the opportunity to fail.
I once worked with a pastor who demanded I not fail. He said it reflected poorly on him. Not unless he set up the failure or caused it. I told him I couldn’t operate in a creative role if I’m not allowed to fail. I’m not choosing to fail. I’m not even planning to fail. But if I do, failing doesn’t make me a failure. It helps make me better.
- Failure gets our attention.
- Failure humbles us and makes us teachable.
- Failure opens our eyes to what we’d shut them from.
- Failure helps overcome our fears.
- Failure makes us try harder.
- Failure gives us things to avoid the next time.
- Failure provides a reality check.
- Failure teaches us there is no “one and done” or “three strikes and we’re out.”
- Failure is usually the result of a moment’s action, not a lifetime crisis.
- Failure reveals something about us that needs changing.
Now, we’re back to Peter. Peter’s failure showed him what he needed to change.
UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden once said, "Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be.”
God will allow me to fail if that exposes an area in my life that I have yet to surrender. How many times had Jesus taught on humility? And yet, Peter never got the message. Peter needed a visual to learn the truth of Prov 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling. We can tell someone what the problem is, but unless they experience it for themselves, they will struggle to accept what we say.
In a book about the Titanic sinking: “The ship was not destroyed by an iceberg alone, it was also destroyed by a state of mind, an unseen force that [would] ultimately lead to its downfall . . . arrogance.” “Even God Himself could not sink this ship.”
The old definition of crazy: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome each time. If we keep doing the same thing the same way, we’ll keep getting the same results every time. We need something to break the routine.
John Gardner says, “One of the reasons mature people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.” Most people want to be absolutely certain that everything will be okay — before they risk. But there are no such guarantees in life; so most people are stuck with old behavior and old results. Understand why Jesus would set up opportunities for failure?
Henry Ford: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
So, what did Peter learn? I’m going to fail whenever I focus on myself rather than on the Lord. Pride is self-worship – an inflated sense of our own importance. Had he had a cell phone, he’d have taken a selfie as soon as he got on the water.
Sinking showed Peter that in a moment of high risk that requires faith and courage, the most important person in the room is Jesus. It also showed him that even if Jesus says, “Come,” you can still sink if you take your eyes off Him. And it reminded him of the purpose of faith: Faith doesn’t make us capable; it makes us able to trust the capability of Jesus.
Then, finally, it showed him when you start to sink, the sooner you cry out to Jesus the sooner He will lift you up out of the water. Did Peter go under? Doesn’t sound like it. "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him.
When we try to do things with more faith in ourselves than in Him, it shouldn’t surprise us when we fail.
Even when we begin in faith, we can suddenly switch to flesh by getting distracted by our circumstances.
But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
Peter had faith. It was just misplaced. It was faith in his own abilities. How do you correct that? By giving him the opportunity to use his misplaced faith to see what happens.
Realize, Peter didn’t get out of the boat expecting to fail. He expected to walk. But when he began to sink, he did the right thing – he transferred his faith in himself over to the One who could save Him.
I doubt Peter ever tried walking on water again. But I’m sure he did try other things that produced equal results. What he learned in failing, though, was the faithfulness of the Lord covers us even when we cause our own problems. That’s a pretty good lesson.
Little eagle watched his mom and dad soar off the nest then up high into the sky. He longed for the day he could do the same. Every morning he’d ask them, “Is this the day I can fly?” They’d say, “Not today but soon.” He grew impatient and one morning, after his parents left, he decided he’d try. He stood on the edge of the nest, spread his little, immature wings and lunged into the clear air. But he wasn’t ready and spiraled to the ground. The landing took the wind out of him. While he lay there trying to get his bearings a group of turkeys came by and asked him what he was doing. He told them what had happened and they said, “Since there’s no way to get you back into the nest, you’ll just have to join us and become a turkey instead.”
He ate what turkeys ate, walked like turkeys walked, slept where turkeys slept. He even tried to gobble like turkeys do. He lived a turkey life.
Then, one day he saw his parents high in the sky. He felt the same urges as before. He spread his wings and began to run around. But the turkey’s discouraged him and said, “Turkey’s don’t soar. They stay on the ground and scratch out their purpose in life.”
A few months later, he was near a mountain ledge and saw his parents again. The urge overwhelmed him and he spread his wings and lunged off the cliff. This time, his wings held the air of the currents and he sailed up into the heavens. He went higher and higher until he disappeared into the intake of a 737.
From the ground, one turkey watching said, “Eagles may soar, but turkeys don't get sucked into jet engines.” But neither do turkeys experience what eagles were made to do.
God would never give us abilities we don’t need, to do things He never expects us to do, just to satisfy our selfish desires. He takes us step by step, infusing us with power to do what He calls us to do. Had Peter successfully walked on water, he could have undermined the whole mission of spreading the gospel through an arrogance inappropriate to a godly man seeking the honor of the Lord. He would have credited himself for the work God did through him. Not a position Jesus would have wanted him to take.
What can this story teach us? We all have areas in our lives that need to change. Areas where we’ve not surrendered to the Lord. Our pride stands in the way. For the Lord to show us that, He may have to expose us to embarrassment. Embarrassment can be a good teaching emotion when it causes us to never want to repeat what caused the problem in the first place.
Do you think Peter ever tried this again? No. Once was enough. Did he learn the lesson? Not completely. A short time later he would boast of how he would never deny the Lord, but he did. Then Jesus had to lift him up from drowning one more time.
- Failure isn’t the problem, not learning from the failure is.
- When God needs to challenge us to change, He’ll use whatever tactic works best.
- Our preference is He not use moments that hurt or embarrass us.
- But unless He gets our attention, we will remain as we are, and if how we are is more dependent on ourselves than Him, He must make us uncomfortable enough to change.