Jesus Near at Hand
This post is a little late in coming, but I wanted to write a few thoughts down about my most recent lesson at the Transformation House before I forgot them forever! I teach Bible studies at a rehab center for men who come to the house understanding that they are helpless to break free of the destructive addictions that have ruined their lives. Together we seek their freedom from and persevering victory over these things through the gospel, the Christian teaching that Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins and that through faith in that fact we are freed from sins here and now in increasing measure and ultimately forever in heaven. Unfortunately, often times these truths are afterthoughts following a relapse or distant in times of trouble. Our lesson last Tuesday looks at the reality of the situation... Jesus' nearness in trial to save us in spite of weak faith and hearts that cower when tempted to fall again into drug use, alcoholism, sexual immorality, and really any sort of sin that may ensnare a man.
The text for the lesson was the story of Jesus' demonstration of power in Matthew 14:22-33 as he walked on the water in the midst of a great storm to rejoin his disciples whom he had sent ahead of him the evening before the miracle. The story also includes Peter's failed attempt to walk on the water to Jesus which was followed by his immediate salvation as Jesus took him by the hand and led him back to the safety of the boat. Nothing like having hard wood beneath your feet in the middle of a sea in turmoil from a rough storm! Feel free to read the account in your Bible before reading further to make sure I don't lead you to any wrong conclusions.
I opened up the lesson by reminding the guys of a theme we've talked about in the past that we see throughout Matthew (and all the Gospels, really), namely Jesus' authority. I've read before, perhaps in a commentary by Craig Blomberg, that the entire book of Matthew serves as the evidence that proves Jesus' last words in chapter 28. "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth." This isn't hard to see, as so many stories about Jesus show his authority to teach (7:29), heal (10:1, cf. 8:16), forgive sins (9:6), command demons (10:1, cf. 8:16), and even command the winds and the seas (8:27). Throughout the book of Matthew we see Jesus refer to himself most often as the Son of Man, a title that is a veiled reference to his authority and not merely a description of his humanity as is often assumed. I taught on the origin of this title in my previous lesson at the T-House, looking into Daniel's vision in Daniel 7:13-14 where (surprise, surprise) one like a son of man approaches the Ancient of Days and is given among other things authority to rule. It would be a stretch to say that the stories of Jesus' authority and his deliberate self-titling are coincidental! Jesus, and Matthew as he tells us about his life, is intentionally ministering in a way to assure the world that he has authority to do everything he is doing, say everything he says, and demand of us everything he demands.
I started the lesson of Jesus walking on the water this way, because it was my purpose to convince them (and now you) of Jesus' power and authority on display in the story. Further, I would intended (and intend) to apply this truth by showing how Jesus wields this authority in defense of believers. We are often in need of a power greater than ourselves to save us from trials and temptations, and that power is not distant but near at hand.
In order to get the big picture of any story we study, I like to take the guys through a verse by verse examination of the passage. We're looking for observations about places, people, words, and actions. I don't want us to miss anything, so I ask plenty of questions as we go, and the guys usually humor me with ready answers for even the simplest questions. For the passage here in Matthew, I followed a rough outline of the three uses of the word immediately. I realize this is different for each translation, but the HCSB starts off three sentences with the adverb front loaded in the sentence. For continuity's sake, I'll reiterate them here below as I repeat the rough outline.
At the very beginning of the story, we see that after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus immediately sends the disciples off in a boat to go before him to the other side of the sea they're near. As he does elsewhere in the Gospels, I believe that Jesus sends them ahead into a storm intentionally so that he can reveal himself in the ways he does in the story. After sending them away, the great teacher practices what he preaches by praying in solitude for a time (cf. Mt. 6:6). All the while, the disciples are plugging away getting their boat across the storm-tossed sea. I found it interesting here to note that this storm isn't scary to them. I think I used to wrongly inject elements of the tale in Matthew 8:23-27 into this account when I didn't have chapter 14 open before me. This is interesting, because Jesus doesn't decide to march out to the boat to save them from the storm. We can read in Mark 6:48 that he probably meant to keep on going. It wasn't until they saw Jesus and mistook him for a ghost that they started to get afraid!
I think I waited a little too long on Tuesday to meditate on the wonder of Jesus' feat here. Just think about it... he's actually walking on water! This is a miracle and to a student of the Old Testament (the most likely target audience of Matthew's book were the Jews) a clear pointer to Jesus' divinity. A commentary I read (the International Critical Commentary) was particularly helpful in pointing to many passages and themes in the Old Testament that make this point. For example, consider Job 9:1-8, particularly verse 8, where Job describes the power of God. "He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea." God alone treads on the waves of the sea. Consider as well Psalm 77:16-20 as we're reminded of God's deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea. "Your way went through the sea, and Your path through the great waters, but Your footprints were unseen." God is the master of the seas, and He even chose to deliver Israel with a mighty hand by his mastery of the Red Sea. The Psalms often use the imagery of God saving the psalmist from drowning, a salvation which is again depicted by Jesus in our current passage. Yes, in every aspect of Jesus' relation to the seas, walking on them included, Jesus is proving that he has the same power and authority that God alone has, indicating that he is indeed divine.
Of course, at the time, he seemed more like a ghost than God, and so his disciples cried out in fear. At this time, Jesus immediately speaks to them, "Have courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." I've heard it said that the command to not be afraid is the most common command in the Bible. We certainly see it throughout the Gospels coming from Jesus' lips, and his manner of speaking is peculiarly similar to that of the Lord throughout the Old Testament (cf. Dt. 31:6, Js. 1:9). "Don't be afraid. Take courage. I am with you." No surprise that this is a theme developed here in Matthew who is proving the authority of Jesus that is derived from his divinity. I've read before, I believe in Blomberg again, that Matthew begins and ends with this very same truth... "and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated 'God is with us.'" (1:23b) "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (28:20) So, Jesus' presence is not a reason for his disciples to be afraid. They should instead be encouraged as though God himself were standing in their midst... which is precisely the point.
I get the sense in verse 28 that Peter may not be fully convinced. "If it's You..." But I won't dwell on that too much since the words may as well be translated "Since it's You." Regardless, Peter asks Jesus to command him to do something impossible, and he'll do it. "Command me to come to You on the water." Again, I don't want to read into this too much, but it is interesting that Peter, seeking to make sure that he is indeed seeing Jesus, asks to be commanded by him. Could there be something about Jesus that would be instantly recognizable in his commands? When the Shepherd speaks, will his sheep not know his voice? (Jn. 10:27) So, Jesus commands Peter, and Peter obeys. He actually steps out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea and begins to walk toward Jesus.
I stopped here on Tuesday to meditate on the simple fact that these guys, these men, were actually walking on water. It is still incredible. Not only does Jesus have the power to tread on the waves of the sea himself, he can share this authority with whomever he pleases. (For another example of Jesus granting authority in a like manner refer back to 10:1, mentioned above.) And so, though he could never accomplish the feat by himself, Peter actually walks on the water. He could only do this through the power of God, and here that power is wielded and granted by Jesus himself.
John Calvin in his commentary on the passage muses that perhaps Peter has here overstepped his bounds and didn't fully consider the task before making his request. Why could this be true? Well, look at what happens next. "When he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid." Peter starts to sink! Why? He sees the strength of the wind. I think it's an oversimplification to say that Peter started to sink because he stopped looking at Jesus. The text specifically says it was "when he saw the strength of the wind." And I just want to ask... did he not know it was windy? I can't believe that's true. He had been helping the other disciples get the boat across the sea all night, and it had been rough! Reading verse 24, we saw that the disciples were "battered by the waves, because the wind was against them." The strength of the wind wasn't news to Peter, and it shouldn't have been a sudden cause for alarm. However, for one reason or another, he starts to fear and cries out to Jesus, "Lord, save me."
We see here no hesitation on the part of Jesus. Immediately Jesus reaches out and takes hold of Peter. In desperation, Peter did the only thing he could think of doing. He uttered a weak prayer for Jesus' help, and he receives it. Jesus isn't a long way off, coaxing Peter to keep on coming. He's near at hand. He simply has to reach out and he catches Peter, stopping him from sinking and drowning. Taking him back to the boat, Jesus chastises Peter for his weak faith. But we took special notice of the fact that Jesus is near at hand to save in spite of Peter's weak faith. This should encourage us all, for not many of us are strong, and those who falsely believe they are may indeed be the closest to drowning among us.
Verse 32 proves that Peter's fear was far from justified. Once they enter the boat, the wind ceases. We can only assume that Jesus is repeating his miracle of stilling the sea in Matthew 8:26. Once again, the winds are subject to the authority of Jesus who proves that there was no reason for Peter to fear the winds. They were under Jesus' authority the entire time Peter was out on the water, and there was no chance of them ever overcoming Jesus or Peter.
In response to Jesus stilling the winds, the disciples start to worship Jesus. Whereas before they wondered, "What kind of man is this?--even the winds and the sea obey Him!" (8:27), they now declare, "Truly You are the Son of God!" (14:33). And so the tale of Jesus walking on the water ends. His power and authority have been on display. He has revealed a hint of his glory by demonstrating his mastery over the seas. He has proven his ability to save a man from drowning in the middle of the sea from even the strongest winds. Therefore, he is rightly worshiped as the Son of God. As with the Son of Man, this is no general description in the sense that all the descendants of Adam may be referred to as sons of God. It is a title that Jesus alone bears as the holy Son of God, one part in three of the eternal Trinity who is the LORD.
Throughout his life on earth, Jesus' divinity has been cloaked in manhood and alternately hidden from men's understanding (cf. Mk 8:17) and revealed in glory (as in the story of the Transfiguration, Peter's confession, or his death on the cross). This story of Jesus walking on the water is one of the latter, a revelation of Jesus power and authority derived from his divinity. The disciples did not miss the point, and neither should we.
So, what can we take away from this as we go about our days? Beyond believing that Jesus is the Son of God and submitting to the authority that he proves he has (as he does over and over), how can we be spurred onto further obedience?
First, I would simply say that we shouldn't be surprised by storms. This story shows how obedience to a command of Jesus sends the disciples into a difficult situation. Further, Peter's obedience to Jesus' command to "Come!" puts him into an even more difficult situation. We, too, when we simply obey the commands of Jesus are sure to run into difficult situations. Are our own storms and tests of faith seen in our temptations? Our trials? The discipline of the Lord? I'm not exactly sure, but I do know that in all of these things there are real, strong winds blowing against us that tempt us to despair. Elsewhere Jesus prepares his disciples for hard time by assuring them of persecutions to come. Peter himself reminds believers of that in 1 Pt. 4:12. Storms will come, and in the middle of our obedience (in simple and great things) our faith will be tried by the strength of the winds. For my brothers at the T-house I can almost see with them the winds of crack dealers, liquor stores, and prostitutes in our neighborhood, and I encouraged them not to be surprised. Perhaps if Peter had taken stock of the wind before stepping out of the boat he would not have been overcome by doubt...
Second, in the middle of storms, we should focus on Jesus and his authority. In any situation, no matter how fierce the opposition to our faithfulness is, we are not in peril. Believers are united to Christ. Jesus is with us always (Mt. 28:20), and so we can never find ourselves in a situation where the one who has absolute authority over this world is not near at hand. We don't need to focus on the strength of winds, and we don't even need to fret over our own strength to resist them. Peter didn't need authority of winds and seas, because he was walking with Jesus who already mastered them. I don't know what this looks like for any particular person. For one it may be meditating on the nearness and authority of Christ so that he is able to turn down the drug dealer he used to know one more time. For another it may mean believing that Jesus is in charge of a trial. For another it may be acknowledging Jesus' right to command him not to look at a woman with lust in his heart. If we're honest, anything that is tempts us to sin or provides us with an opportunity to walk according to the flesh (particularly when we're alone) is a "strong wind." Don't imitate Peter by focusing on the strength of any of these winds... a greater power is at hand willing you to obedience.
Third (and encouraging to any of us who have started sinking), let distress lead you to prayer instead of despair. Despair doesn't acknowledge the power of Jesus to save. It really looks to nothing for salvation and just bemoans the situation. Notice that Peter cried out to Jesus, "Lord, save me!" when he started sinking. In the middle of any temptation or trial, even as we feel our feet leading us back to the liquor store, or our eyes turning on that passing woman, or our hearts building themselves up in pride, we can in weakness of faith repeat Peter's prayer for salvation. Don't doubt that Jesus has control of the situations you face, and don't hesitate to admit your weakness to save yourself from strong winds and tempting situations. Depend on Jesus who is near at hand to save you.
(I'm happy to discuss the legitimacy of the account of this miracle or the question of why Jesus would ever send us into situations where we might compromise ourselves at all. That wasn't really the point of the lesson, so I didn't address these concerns, but it's not something I haven't wondered myself. Feel free to e-mail or comment about these aspects if you'd like, or feel free to interact with anything else I've written! I love teaching at the T-house precisely because I have the opportunity to draw a dozen men into a discussion about the Bible who might otherwise never do so at all... there it's alright to ramble a bit and drift off topic, and I apologize if some of that has made it into this blog post and made it hard for you to follow me. :))