What is biblical faith? How does the story of Peter and Jesus walking on water relate to your life today? What is our purpose in life?
Matthew 14: 22-33
22 Then He directed the disciples to get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent away the crowds.23 And after He had dismissed the multitudes, He went up into the hills by Himself to pray. When it was evening, He was still there alone.24 But the boat was by this time out on the sea, many furlongs [a furlong is one-eighth of a mile] distant from the land, beaten and tossed by the waves, for the wind was against them.25 And in the fourth watch [between 3:00—6:00 a.m.] of the night, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified and said, It is a ghost! And they screamed out with fright.27 But instantly He spoke to them, saying, Take courage! I Am! Stop being afraid!28 And Peter answered Him, Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.29 He said, Come! So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and he came toward Jesus.30 But when he perceived and felt the strong wind, he was frightened, and as he began to sink, he cried out, Lord, save me [from death]!31 Instantly Jesus reached out His hand and caught and held him, saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.33 And those in the boat knelt and worshiped Him, saying, Truly You are the Son of God!
Now that we have seen the exegetical breakdown of this passage, what can we learn from it? Today I want to talk about faith. You would think that “faith” would be an easy topic to talk about since not only Christianity, but any religion, even Atheism, talks about faith. It is the reference to believing in something, maybe even how much we believe in something. But what does faith truly mean? What is faith and how does it apply to me? I discussed some of this dynamic in Mustard Seed, but I think that this passage encompasses the three pillars upon which faith is defined.
In a class we recently had studying the book of John, our instructor walked us through the three elements of faith that make it real and whole: Intellectual, Emotional, and Physical. He called it “biblical faith.” Until then, I had a difficult time understanding it all. We read in James that “faith without works is dead” yet we also read that “our faith comes from God,” so which is it? In the Gospels, we see Jesus continually telling people that they have to have faith, that their faith has made them well; he scoffs at even the disciples for having little faith and those of little faith cry out for God to give them more faith. Faith is so important, yet it seems so elusive. I believe that if we can understand exactly what it means to have faith, we can not only know if we have it or not, but we can tell others about it and relate to those who are without.
Our pastor just recently did a sermon series on faith based on Hebrews 11, which is relied upon as the defining chapter in the bible on faith. As many of you probably already know, it starts out with the definition, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This “simple” definition is plainly exercised in this story through Peter.
Before I get into my explanation of faith, I’d like to introduce Peter in relation to faith. I want to expose one more passage that for us seems common, but is often misunderstood. Mathew 16:13-19, “ 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” 15 He *said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, SimonBarjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” We tend to read this passage and link it to the book of Acts when Peter begins explaining the day of Pentecost, the relationship between Jesus and The Law, and that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was to save the people. Throughout the scriptures, Peter is the most zealous for Jesus and because his name means “rock,” we assume that Jesus was saying He will build His church on Peter. However, we see that Jesus does not say “upon you, the rock, I will build my church.” Rather, He is referencing what Peter proclaimed: that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” So, what is Jesus saying here? He is saying that Jesus will build the church on faith in Jesus as the Christ. God is not dependent upon our existence, regardless of the meaning of our name. In fact, this very story shows us that Peter, representing a rock, sinks for lack of faith.
One element of faith is knowledge. In verse 28, Peter knows that if the person or spirit they see out on the water really is Jesus, then He will be able to do something as ridiculous as make Peter walk on water. At first, I thought, “who thinks of things like this?” but then again, Jesus was already doing it, so it seemed like an easy request. We should also take note that Jesus was an out of the box thinker and so His disciples were becoming. This exchange between Peter in the boat and Jesus on the water seems peculiar. Generally, if we challenge someone, we do it with all the facts, or at least most of them. This is almost like the challenge/answer protocol we use in the military for approaching a guard post late at night. Anyone who has watched the Band of Brothers series will recall the first jump and the debacle with clickers and challenge words. This is used so that the guard will really know if the one approaching is someone worth trusting. Likewise, Peter challenges Jesus to prove it is really Him.
I’d also like to add my thoughts on questioning the words of Jesus. I am learning more and more about different sects of Christianity that instruct their congregation not to question what they are taught. I have written about this before and it is mind-blowing to me. Why can’t people question? The disciples questioned Jesus all the time! Throughout the Old Testament, prophets and followers of God questioned Him all the time because they didn’t have a clue what was happening. Some may say that this is a sign of weakness, not trusting in God’s Will. I say it is a sign of desiring to know what God’s Will is!
In Romans 10:17, we read a common verse used in Christian circles regarding faith, “ 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” How do we hear if we don’t ask a question to be answered? I mean, our faith starts with a question: who is God? What does God want for my life? What is my purpose in life? Am I going to hell? What is hell? Is heaven for real? The list goes on but we cannot ignore the simple fact that our search for truth starts with a question. So how they can anyone insist that asking questions is wrong? Asking questions and searching for answers is exactly how we gain the knowledge portion of our faith. Anyone who tells you differently clearly has something to hide.
I struggle with this pillar the most. I don’t want my faith to be based on emotions, however I cannot ignore the fact that emotion is a part of being human. I struggle with my emotions; I’ve battled them since I can remember. Only recently have I been able to admit it and begin to handle them in a healthy and life-giving way instead of letting them rule destruction in different areas of my life. The definition of emotion I found is: “an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness.” “Affective” means it affects you, whether in a positive or negative way.
In thinking about examples in the bible, my mind recalls a good handful of times the term “stirred up” is mentioned. Sometimes it refers to people stirring up a crowd against the disciples. Other times it refers to an unsettled feeling. In John 6, a retelling of this very story, John tells us the waters of the lake were “stirred up.”
The emotional pillar of faith refers to a feeling. It isn’t necessarily a specific feeling, but feeling in general. It might be a feeling of fear, realizing that your sinful past has put you in a place of condemnation. It could be a feeling of joy, being content in any situation. It could be a feeling of security, knowing that your future rests in God’s hands and that He has plans to prosper and not harm you. It can even be a feeling of unsurety, distrust, and apprehension that this is really God. Whatever the feeling is, it is our inward human reaction to something we have learned about God and our relationship with Him. Whenever I hear a story about God moving in someone’s life, there is usually some sort of emotion associated with it. Our emotional faith is the unseen and usually indescribable part of our faith experience. While we know that we cannot act on emotions alone, it is an element that accents the process, adding part of the wonder to our relationship with God.
We see in this story that Peter “takes courage” and boldly asks Jesus to call him out onto the water. He courageously takes the step and then later becomes frightened. These elements are Peter’s emotional reaction to the events. They are indicators of his faith in those very moments and also they are reactions based on what he is experiencing. We can also note that the others in the boat experienced emotions as a result of this encounter. They screamed in terror when they first saw Jesus. We also see that at the end of the encounter, something caused them to worship Jesus. Was it that He walked on water? Was it that Peter walked on water with Him? Was it that Peter sank and Jesus didn’t? Was it that once Jesus entered the boat, the winds calmed down?
The rollercoaster of emotions we see in this story is an example of our emotions every day. As we continue to experience life and more importantly, our relationship with God, our emotions go back and forth just like the boat tossed in the sea. They are indicators of our human reaction, yet we know they are only a part of our experience. If we let our emotions alone control our decisions, we won’t ever stick around long enough to experience the glory of God.
I have recently been referring to the physical pillar of our faith as “activating your faith.” The most common verse about this is found in James where he tells us “faith without works is dead.” I feel as though I am constantly trying to remind myself that the way into heaven isn’t about doing things. Rather our faith increases by acting upon what we know and feel (collectively). I believe acting in faith is the hardest aspect of faith. It is easy to study and research. It is easy to be in touch with our emotions and analyze how we feel about things and why we feel it. It is most difficult to take a step or leap of faith, not knowing what is going to happen.
Why is this necessary? Why does God require us to act in faith? It makes faith real. It makes faith tangible and belief seeable. If Peter didn’t step out of the boat, could we say he really had faith that Jesus was out there on the water? If he just yelled out, “Ok, I believe you now!” and just kept floating in the boat, would this even be a story worth reading? I’m sure it wouldn’t have been recorded because it wouldn’t prove anything! Not only would it not have proved Peter’s faith, but it wouldn’t have proved God’s power and faithfulness.
Our purpose in life, given by God our Creator, is to serve Him and bring Him glory. The creation is created to serve the creator. It is the activation of our faith that serves His purpose. It not only serves Him, but it actually serves us in return because we grow and learn from it. We read throughout Jesus’ ministry about Him healing others. Jesus always ends the healing experience with, “your faith has made you well.” They acted in faith. Each and every person healed that we read about in the New Testament is healed because they acted on what they knew and what they felt; they put it to use and were fruitful as a result. Many times, the people had nothing to lose. A sick woman, a dying child, a blind man: if Jesus couldn’t heal them, then they would just continue life as is. However, it isn’t just being at “rock bottom” that saved them. Rather, it was believing that Jesus could heal. Why did they believe? Because they had seen and heard. Likewise, people learn about Jesus because of us activating our faith. It is exactly how we are called to serve God. We activate our faith so others can see.
Our latest instructor, who is also the director of our school, made a very clear point about the bible and the story of Jesus. One of the things that make it very real was the death of the disciples. They proclaimed to see and experience all these things. From Jesus walking on water, the healing of the sick, turning water into wine, all the way to His resurrection and ascension into heaven. As they were martyred one-by-one, they were encouraged to renounce their faith. They were given an opportunity to admit that it was all a lie, that the stories were made up, that the books and letters they had written were a fallacy. Why would they be willing to die for a false story? What gain is there in dying for something you know is wrong? These guys weren’t like you and me, going off of the stories of someone else. Rather, they were there, they saw, they experienced, they knew, they felt, they acted. Would you die for a false story? It is hard for me to fathom that not just one, but many men died for this lie. It would be more conceivable if it were one or two guys who came up with this great idea and made a pact to die for a legacy. But these men didn’t even die for their own sake! Peter was crucified upside down to preserve the honor of Jesus. Acting on our faith seals the deal and makes it real so others can heal.
A big science experiment
These three elements are not a list of steps. Rather, they are all encompassing and revolving around each other. This is why I called them pillars because I imagine them holding the platform we stand on known as faith. If one of them is cracked, our faith is compromised. If one of them is nonexistent, our faith is not a stable platform upon which to stand. The way we build our faith (make the platform more stable and secure) is to put these three elements to the test. After we act upon the faith we have, even if it is a mustard seed, we are able to regroup with the new knowledge we have and act once again, this time in a bigger way.
I’ve always enjoyed science. The scientific method is a clear, succinct, and proven model for testing a hypothesis. Without getting too geeky on you, it consists of first asking a question, then gathering information about the elements involved, figuring out a way to test for the truthful answer, performing the test, and then analyzing the results. Usually, the analysis of results evolves into another hypothesis and eventual test. Certainly, there are times when the testing of a specific area or hypothesis ends and the tester runs out of questions and is satisfied. It is then that an outside observer comes up with more questions and the process continues.
In the process of faith, it doesn’t necessarily start with any particular element. It could begin with something we read or learn. It could start with how we suddenly feel about something we experienced. It could be initiated with something we did and were pleasantly surprised or utterly disappointed with the outcome. Whatever starts the process, the fullness of faith isn’t realized until we commit to continuing the process. Peter explains this process in the first chapter of his second letter, “4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.” It is by our continual testing and questioning and action based on what we learn that helps us recognize our faith (or lack thereof) and builds upon it.
Are you of little faith?
We tend to look at Jesus’ assertion of Peter having little faith as ridicule. He was actually pointing out that the reason for Peter’s situation was that his faith wavered, that he doubted without good reason. Jesus’ question is a very good one that He asks us all the time, “Why did you doubt?” Using Peter’s example, we see that he knew, he felt, and he acted. His perfect faith in those few minutes of walking on water is what most Christians claim to strive for: Christlikeness. However, his humanity got the best of him and suddenly he was distracted. He was distracted by the turbulence around him. Likewise, we let the noises and distractions around us pull our attention away from God and then we begin sinking. Suddenly, we don’t know what is happening. We think about the fact we are beginning to sink and then console ourselves, trusting in our own swimming abilities even though they don’t amount to walking on water. It isn’t until we start taking on water that we ask for God’s help, since we know that He can help us up.
Some of us are too prideful to even do that. We’d rather sink pridefully knowing we “did our best.” Whether or not you did your best, you are still dead. Peter knew better. He recognized at just the right time that it was Jesus who not only made him walk on water, but that was still walking on water and could save him. We don’t read that he called for a life preserver from the boat of disciples, but rather he called out for Jesus Himself. We should also be careful to note that Jesus didn’t reach in to save Peter until Peter asked for help.
What stage are you at in this story? It applies to all of us. Are we in the boat contemplating if Jesus is really standing there in the distance? Have we done our research, knowing that if it is Jesus, He will call us out to Him? Are we getting ready to take that step onto the water, not knowing if we will stand or sink? Are we currently walking on water, eyes fixed on Jesus? Have we begun to let the distractions pull our attention away? Have we begun to sink, trying to figure out how to stand on the water again? Are we flailing in the water, wondering who to call out to in desperation? Is Jesus grasping your hand, saving your life and teaching you a lesson? Maybe we are one of the other disciples in the boat just watching, continuing to gather information about this Jesus guy, wondering if He can really be trusted the way Peter trusts Him. Regardless of where you are in the story, know that Jesus is there with you, whether you acknowledge Him or not.