And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31)
I confess: I have no idea what was running through Peter’s mind when he told Jesus to command him to walk on the water. In Matthew 14:26 we saw that the disciples were afraid because they thought Jesus was a ghost or evil spirit come to harm them. If that was the case, wouldn’t the spirit have just commanded Peter to walk on the water so he would plummet to his death? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Of course, considering how impetuous Peter could be, it might not have made any sense to him either.
Whatever the reason why Peter decided to do this, the fact is that he did it so the issue then becomes whether he was right to do so or not. Christians haven’t always been in agreement on this. John Calvin for one, in his commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, chides Peter for being rash and not having complete faith (see Mt 14:31). There is also the thought that since, in Matthew 14:27, Jesus had claimed divinity (“It is I” or “I AM”), Peter was essentially asking for a sign, which Jesus had condemned repeatedly when the Pharisees and others had done so.
I tend to think Peter’s request (however odd it seems to me) was a positive act of faith, and I do so for 2 reasons:
- Jesus doesn’t condemn him for it; instead, he bids him come; and,
- Peter actually walked on the water.
Reread the passage if you have to. As J. Vernon McGee put it:
I hear people say that Peter failed to walk on the water, but that is not the way my Bible reads. My Bible says that Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus. This is not failure! Peter asked a tremendous thing of God. No wonder God used him in such a wonderful way during the days that followed. No wonder he was chosen to preach the sermon on the Day of Pentecost.
Peter’s actions here remind me of the famous quote by William Carey, the father of modern missions: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” How many of us would have had enough faith to even attempt to walk on a stormy sea?
So why does Peter eventually sink? Simply put, he switched his focus from Jesus to his circumstances. He was walking toward Jesus (again, on the water!) when he started to notice the waves and storm around him. And as he began to focus on the storm, he stopped focusing on Jesus and began to sink. It is for this (not the original request) that Jesus rebukes him: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The word doubt literally means “to be of a divided mind.” Peter’s mind was divided between his goal (Jesus) and the circumstances around him (the waves and storm). As we’ve seen elsewhere in this gospel (see Mt 6:24; 8:18-22), Jesus is not content to be one concern among life’s many. He is to be our only concern, our only goal, our only focus. When we put other things in place of Jesus (including our circumstances) we drown in the worries of life instead of accomplishing great things for God. Think about it: Peter went from walking on water with Jesus to being rebuked by him in just a moment, all because he lost his focus.
Peter’s failure, however, leads to a passage of great encouragement for us. Peter “began then to sink and cried out in desperation: ‘Lord, save me.’ … There is undeniably a paradigmatic character to this cry for salvation. In the moment of most dire human need, there is but one cry, just as there is but one source of salvation.” (Word Biblical Commentary) And at the moment Peter cries out in utter dependence, Jesus does not hesitate to save: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him.”
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I take risks for God? Do I step out in faith, with my eyes on Jesus, trusting him to keep me afloat? Or do I sit in the relative safety of the boat and just watch as others take risks of faith?
2. Have I taken my focus off Jesus and put it on myself, my circumstances, or any other of life’s distractions?
3. When I lose faith or focus and start to sink, do I desperately cry out, “Lord, save me!” or do I stubbornly try and fix things on my own?