In Matthew 14:22 we find ourselves at the conclusion of one of our Lord’s most famous miracles, the feeding of the five thousand, and at the beginning of yet another famous miracle – walking on water. The passage is below:
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 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. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:22-27Immediately, a familiar transition typically used by Mark in his gospel account, is employed here by Matthew to make the connection with events that had just preceded it (Matt. 14:13-21) with the aforementioned miraculous feeding. At this, we find our Lord ushering His disciples into a boat, sending them before Himself to the other side, meanwhile he disperses the recently fed crowds. This is followed by a frequent scene wherein Jesus withdraws alone to pray to the Father. Subsequent to this, we find that the day is now ending and Jesus, still alone, is highlighted as being now far removed from the boat. John 6:19, a parallel passage, mentions that at this point the disciples have rowed three or four miles away from shore. Not only do we find the disciples in their boat out of geographic proximity to Christ, but we find them beaten by the waves and at the mercy of the wind. Then we are given another time marker, the fourth watch of the night, likely between 3:00am and 6:00am, probably indicating that because of the storm they have been rowing much longer and harder than their distance would indicate.
At this, we read of our Lord miraculously walking on the sea towards His disciples and we must conclude that He is either walking in the storm or towards the storm, nevertheless, in contrast to the boat, He is unshaken and undeterred by the wind and waves. The response of the disciples at seeing Him walk on the water is striking and somewhat startling as they mistake Him for a ghost and cry out in fear. In verse 27, we again find the word immediately employed by our author under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, followed by our Lord’s brief response, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” If the response from the disciples was shocking in mistaking our Lord for a spirit or ghost, our Lord’s response must be even more shocking in declaring, “it is I.”
This phrase, a translation of ego eimi, is a profound declaration of Christ as “I am”. Used perhaps more frequently, or at least more familiarly, in John’s “I am” statements, Christ’s use of this little reference carries with it the weight of Exodus 3:14 and the covenantal name of Yahweh given to Moses at the site of the burning bush. In a very real sense, our Lord’s response to His disciple’s fear is, “Take heart; it is I [Yahweh]. Do not be afraid.” I can think of nothing more calming than the Name.
Before we get into our application, let’s not so easily dismiss the humanity of the disciples nor remove ourselves from that same situation by thinking we would’ve somehow responded differently or in a brave display of faith. They were on death’s door, literally. The storms on the Sea of Galilee are legendary for their deadliness. Having been that far from shore and in a storm that powerful, being capsized would certainly result in death. Into that terrifying scene steps our Lord. He says nothing to the wind and waves as He had done earlier when He was present with the disciples during a storm (Matt. 8:23-27). Rather, His attention is specifically on them speaking words of both comfort and exhortation.
Looking back at the beginning of the passage, there are three observations that set this scene for us that we ought not lose sight of nor overlook. First, it was Jesus who placed them in the boat. It was by His leading and direction that they were in the boat to begin with. Unless we are willing to strip omniscience and sovereignty from our Lord (and I’m certainly not), then we must conclude that He knew the storm would come, indeed He had ordained it. Yet into this storm He sent His disciples in their little fishing boat. Second, Jesus sent them ahead of Himself, meaning that there is an implication He would be following behind them. It is indeed one thing to follow our Lord in faith. It is quite another to go before Him at His direction. Yet in either case there is a comfort. On the one hand, following our Lord we can be sure that He has cleared all difficulties from our path, like our Forerunner into the heavenly sanctuary. On the other hand, as in this case, going before Him we can be assured that what ever difficulties we encounter He is coming soon. It is remarkable that even now, we find ourselves following our Lord in this world, yet simultaneously going forward as we wait for His return. Third, we read that Jesus’ goal or destination for them was the other side of the sea. We mustn’t miss this. As Jesus put them in the boat, telling them He would follow (though we aren’t told how), the intention is for them to make it to the other side. Anything less than that is a failure, not of the disciples, but of Jesus, something that is simply an impossibility. Despite this, it was the responsibility of the disciples to row.
In the midst of His sending and His arrival, we have already noted that the disciples were faced with obstacles such as their distance from shore, being beaten by the waves, rowing against the wind, and we might even include being in the midst of darkness (one must wonder if they can even see their course at this point). Yet despite these obstacles, they are closer to their destination than when they began. Further, and more importantly, Christ never abandons them. Now, to be sure, He did not come in the daylight and He did not come before the storm, this provides for us the implication that their faith was purposefully tested. Though they couldn’t see Him, though they may not even thought of Him, and though we have no indication they had the strength to cry out for Him, our Lord did not leave them.
As with the beginning of the scene, so too here at the end we have three observations to make concerning the disciples response. First, they lost their focus on Christ. How easy it was for them and often times for us to forget that Christ is the one who has called us and set us on our course. God has effectually called us in Christ, has called us to holy lives, and Christ has commissioned us to carry forth the gospel. Second, the disciples lost their focus on the plan. Remember that they were to go on ahead, certainly implying that Jesus would be following. In some ways, we are in a more enviable position than the disciples, though they had the promise of Christ’s coming, we have the promise and assurance that Christ will never leave us nor forsake as well as the promise of His return. We have seen how He did not abandon them, and we can rest assured that He will never abandon us either. Third, the disciples lost focus on their goal or destination. For them, they were set on a course to make it to the other side of the sea. For us, we have been set on a destination to heaven; a destination that God Himself will bring us to, but as in this examples with the disciples, we have to “row” (Philippians 2:12).
Finally, with the appearance of our Lord we have three noteworthy observations as well. First, He reestablished their hearts, “Take heart.” Second, He reassured them with His presence, “It is I”. Finally, He redirected their fear, “Do not be afraid”.
The disciples lack of focus gave opportunity to fear. Fear in turn blinded them to the reality of Christ. The account of Christ miraculously walking on water certainly testifies yet again to His control over nature and the perfect exercise of His own faith (humanly speaking). However, there is more here, much more. As we’ve seen there is an example in this passage that is for our benefit as it provides for us a clear reminder to keep our focus on Christ, understanding that He has called us and set us on our path, that the plan is His plan, and that the destination is assured.
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” John 6:39