23 October 2019Matthew 14:22-33
When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (vs. 32-33)
Psalm: Psalm 85
All of the synoptic Gospels record stories of Jesus having power over the sea as he calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Gennesaret; see Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25) and walks on water. The story of Jesus and Peter conquering the waves is unique to Matthew.
If, like the story of Jesus feeding the masses, we get ignore attempts to rationalise this story and accept that Matthew intended it to demonstrate the power of God in Jesus Christ over natural forces, then we can explore what meaning the text may have for Jesus’ followers. Commentators on the text suggest at least two ways to approach the story.
The first is to understand it as a theophany – it is an event that reveals Jesus’ identity as God in human flesh. An audience of gentiles from a Hellenistic (Greek cultural) background in the outward mission of Jesus’ disciples might have heard the story as a revelation of a divine nature in Jesus. Greek mythology had many stories of heroes who were the offspring of an encounter between gods and humans. These heroic characters often discovered their unusual, divine-like powers during their adult lives. For Hellenistic readers or hearers, the idea of a god-man who has power over the natural world was familiar.
Scholars believe that the community for whom Matthew wrote was rooted in Jewish tradition and not of a Gentile background. In the Jewish tradition, a theophany reveals the presence of the one, almighty God. We might think of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush. When Moses asks for God’s name, the response he receives is, “I am” (also translated as “I am that I am”). In Greek, the words are “ego eimi”. In the Matthean story of Jesus walking on water, the disciples cry out in fear because they think the figure moving over the waves is a ghost. Jesus responds to their cries saying, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The words, “It is I”, are a translation of the Greek “ego eimi”. Once Jesus is actually in the boat, the disciples fall down and worship him and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
That Matthew intends the story as a theophany is one possibility. Another interpretation has more direct application to the lives of Jesus’ followers. Perhaps Matthew intends “ego eimi” to be taken as face value. Jesus is simply telling the disciples not to be afraid because, “It is I, Jesus”. Peter then asks to walk on water as Jesus is doing. Jesus invites him to get out of the boat with the simple command, “Come” (the same command that calls the first disciples to follow Jesus). Peter descends from the boat on to the waves and begins to walk on the water, until he falters with fear and is saved by Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Messiah, the anointed one of God come to save his people. His power to do miraculous things is given to him from God in order to reveal his identity as the saviour and bring the Kingdom of God close to those who meet him. In this text, Jesus the Messiah empowers Peter to walk on water. Through faith, Jesus Christ empowers his followers to do what he is capable of doing, even having power over the wind and waves. It is significant that Peter falters and begins to sink when he becomes fearful and takes his eyes off of Jesus. At the precise moment when Peter fears he will drown, Jesus reaches out to save him.
If Matthew’s original community experienced difficulties, persecution, and faltering faith, this message would remind them that the role of Jesus the Messiah is to empower them and save them. The followers of Jesus, who are struggling with all the struggles that may challenge their faith, must keep their focus forward, looking to Jesus to empower them and ultimately come to their aid.
- Have you experienced times when your faith really faltered because of the struggles you were facing? Where did you find God in the midst of difficult times?
- Does doubting or becoming fearful mean that we don’t also have faith?