Peter on Water: The Lesson Is Bigger Than We Think
You have probably read the story of Peter on water walking toward Jesus. But what’s really going on in this story? And is there a bigger takeaway than simply that we should take big steps of faith?
Stop rolling your eyes, Megan. It’s rude. The voice in my head was stern–yet warm–like a mother who was correcting her child, but obviously not too concerned about the issue. I always try to maintain composure and be polite, but this incident had pushed me to my limit. You may be wondering what had brought me to that moment in time; well, here you go:
I was watching an online Bible study where the teacher told a looong story about how she rescued a cold and wet dog who did not want to be rescued. Now, let’s be clear: online Bible studies are good. Rescuing dogs is good. But it was hard to keep myself from rolling my eyes. Was it the 45 minutes of useless details in the dog story? Was it the mood-manipulating sappiness so common in women’s ministry? Okay, maybe I was just in a snarky mood that day. But I kept watching hoping for–I don’t know–maybe some Bible study in the Bible study? Didn’t happen. And, don’t worry; I’ll spare you the dog details and skip to the end. She ended the story and concluded happily that Jesus rescued her at the age of 6.
“…nothing mentioned of sin, repentance, or even of the death and resurrection of Christ…”
Please do not misunderstand. I love a good story, and to her credit, she is a good storyteller. But if I’m being honest, this wasn’t really that great of a story. Not just because the main character was unrelatable or the details too dull, but mainly because it was unduly cliche and lacking. In unveiling her testimony, there was nothing mentioned of sin, repentance, or even of the death and resurrection of Christ.
It was simply a feel-good story where she compared herself to Jesus (and us to a dog). There is a time and place for feel-good stories. I mean, if we lived in the dreary depths of Tolstoy in every thought, we would be depleted to the point of exhaustion. But the gospel is so much bigger than a feel-good story about us.
“The gospel is so much bigger than a feel-good story about us.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Within Christianity, these me-centered “testimonies” comprise the lion’s share of faith-based interaction. We eagerly divulge our illustrations that allude to the “big picture,” but we somehow forget that the gospel isn’t just about us. This attitude even segues into the way we read the Word of God. Let me give you an example.
Out of four Gospels, three narrate the account of Jesus walking on water. This story is often taught through the lens of the overarching theme that, like Peter, we also need to step out of the boat and into faith. Let’s be clear: faith to the degree you are willing to walk on water is not something to scoff at. But if we study the text, we’ll see there is a much more profound scene taking place that is often remarkably overshadowed.
“…a much more profound scene taking place that is often remarkably overshadowed…”
Let’s begin with an incredibly obvious clue of the point we’re often missing. Peter climbing out of the boat is only mentioned in one Gospel. The other two do not reference him at all. I think the fact that this story, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is told three times, but the reference to Peter is found in only in one account, shows that Peter’s faith is not the point. Indeed, when we read Matthew’s narrative closely (the one which actually brings Peter into the narrative), we find the main conclusion from the story stated very clearly. Matthew 14:25-30 says,
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
“Truly you are the Son of God.”
Job 9:8 characterizes God as one who “… alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” When Jesus was walking on the water, He was showing Himself to be God. Jesus asked Peter, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” It’s easy to assume that Jesus is asking Peter simply why he doubted His ability to keep him on top of the water. Yet from the context, it looks like Jesus is expecting Peter to have a bigger takeaway than just Jesus’ miraculous abilities. I believe Jesus is asking Peter why he doubted that He was God.
Another reason I believe Jesus was going for a bigger application is that, earlier that day, there had been a general lack of belief and hardness of heart among the disciples. In the parallel story in the Gospel of Mark, we are told, “Then he [Jesus] climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52, NIV). To give context, leading up to this event, Jesus fed 5,000 people (possibly more) with five loaves of bread and two fish. This miracle already showed who He is, but Peter and the other disciples were still doubting.
“…there had been a general lack of belief and hardness of heart…”
It was not until Peter and Jesus were back in the boat that the disciples worshiped and said, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Despite the hardening of their hearts earlier that day (Mark 6:51-52), they knew the act of Jesus walking on water was a fulfillment of the true Messiah. And don’t miss the significance of them worshiping Jesus. These were Jewish men who knew from their earliest memories that there is only One whom you worship: God. They were starting to realize who it was who was in the boat with them. That’s the real takeaway from this story.
All of this history and richness is lost when we settle for the easy and obvious. We miss out on such richness when we reach for the quick, me-centered application.
We miss out on such richness when we reach for the quick, me-centered application.
It is easy to read this story and think, “I need faith like Peter.” Sure, there is an element of intense faith with this disciple (although sometimes it’s irrational confidence) which we ought to pursue in our own lives. There is an incredible amount of beauty and depth and substance to be found when we dig deeper in our Bibles. Making the Bible primarily about us cheapens Bible study and keeps us shallow; but when we recognize that the Bible is about God, then Bible study exalts God and deepens us. And even when we find ourselves coming back to basic truths such as “Jesus is God,” or “God is powerful,” let’s remember that astuteness, depth, and significance don’t have to equal complexity. Simple theological truths can be absolutely profound when we take the time to delve into them.