And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But 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 heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
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. (matthew 14:25–29 esv)
That night was a dark and stormy night. Surely the disciples were weary. Will we ever make it to the other side? They had been rowing for nine hours, mostly in the darkness. Surely they just wanted to get home to their families and their beds, but with only arms and oars against the raging wind and water, they could make no headway at all. Neither could they give up. To stop rowing meant the boat would be sideways to the waves, which would sink them. Yet they had no strength to continue. Even the most intrepid of sailors may have sunk on a night like this.
Then, the gospel of Matthew tells us that out of the storm a man appeared, walking toward them on the water. Or was it a ghost? The men, already tipping on the edge of fear, plummeted into terror. But it was Jesus of course. He called out and identified himself to calm them. Then, the story takes a strange turn. Peter does the unthinkable: he asks to walk on the water like Jesus. Invited, he splashes overboard into the raging waves. Peter wants to imitate Jesus in this miraculous feat. But he can’t do it. The story in Matthew ends like this:
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?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. (14:30–32 esv)
We often see Peter’s leap into the waters as an example of great faith. After all, he walked on the water! But we may be missing the bigger picture. Jesus rebuked Peter for his small faith. So why do we see this episode as exemplary faith?
Jesus had reassured the terrified disciples with each of his statements from the stormy sea: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Peter asked for proof. Perhaps the rest of the disciples were too terrified to speak, but Scripture records that it was Peter who asked Jesus to back up his claim. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28 esv, emphasis added).
It wasn’t Jesus’s idea for Peter to get out of the boat. Christ didn’t ask him to walk on water. Once Peter asked, yes, Jesus gave permission—and power. But Jesus asked Peter and the other disciples to do something a little quieter, a little less dramatic: He asked them to have courage. He asked them to believe that he was indeed there with them. He asked them not to be afraid.
Jesus was inviting them to believe and trust in his power and presence, even in the midst of the howling winds, high seas, and the unknown—and they thought he was a ghost. Jesus wanted those twelve men—and us—to know that our all-powerful, all-loving God is bigger than whatever storm we’re in. He wants his presence to comfort us and calm our fears. He wants us to know that nothing—not wind or waves or storm or fear—will stop him from coming to us.
In Isaiah 43, God speaks similar words of comfort to his people:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (vv. 2–3 esv)
In their confused exhaustion from battling wind and waves, the disciples failed to recognize Jesus. As he approached them, they saw only another threat to their safety.
Perhaps your circumstances have led you to a similar place: “Oh no, what’s next?” Remember, Jesus is master of the wind and the waves. He strolls through the waters that threaten to sink us. He walks through the winds that would overturn us. From your own boat, listen for the voice that is calling out, “Take courage.” Jesus approaches in the darkness telling you “It is I.” Jesus walks on top of the waves comforting you, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid.