Most Christians are familiar with the account of Peter walking on water. It’s such an iconic story, in fact, that most non-Christians in our society have at least heard of it. But other than recording something that actually happened, why did Matthew include that in his gospel? It’s not meant to inspire us to literally walk on water; in Acts 27, for instance, when Paul’s boat gets shipwrecked, it never occurs to him to get out and walk to shore.
No, the story of Peter walking on water shows us how to continue what we start in faith. That’s as relevant of a lesson for me as it is for someone who has been a Christian for 3 weeks.
1. Initial faith is not enough; we need staying faith.
Can you imagine the courage it took for Peter to step out of his boat and onto the water? Not many of us would be thrilled at the prospect of trying to walk on water, but Peter was a professional fisherman, so he had spent countless hours at sea. He knew as well as anyone that people just don’t walk on water.
Yet when Jesus called him, he stepped out. This must have been a mammoth moment of faith. None of the other disciples ventured to go with him. But just a second later, Peter is sinking. When Jesus says to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” he isn’t talking about the intensity of Peter’s faith, but about its duration.
Peter’s faith, when it started, was incredibly strong. His initial faith was incredible. The problem was that it just didn’t last very long. Without staying faith, it wouldn’t matter how strong that initial faith was. Initial faith is not enough: we need staying faith.
2. We find staying faith at the same place we found initial faith.
Where did Peter get that initial surge of faith? What moved him from the relatively safe confines of the boat to the unpredictable surface of the water? It came from two places:
First, a vision of Jesus. When Jesus approached the boat, the disciples had begun to panic, thinking that he was a ghost. But Jesus replies, “Take heart, it is I” (Matthew 14:27). “It is I” translates the Greek phrase ego eimi—literally, “I am.” The one approaching their boat in the middle of the stormy night was none other than God himself. When Peter saw that the great I Am was standing on top of everything that terrified him, he was filled with faith to follow him.
Second, Jesus’ command. Jesus explicitly called Peter out of the boat. And Peter figured that it was more important to obey Jesus’ command than to focus on the circumstances. The Word of Jesus was larger to Peter than the waves rising up against him. Peter is not so much walking on water as he is walking on the promises of God; he’s not so much standing on the waves as he is standing on the character of Jesus.
3. Ultimately, Jesus’ faithfulness is more important than Peter’s faith.
The point of Peter walking on water is not to demonstrate the greatness or weakness of Peter’s faith. The point is to demonstrate the greatness of God’s grace.
When I read through the parallel accounts of this, I noticed that Matthew is the only one that talks about Peter walking on water. Mark, for instance, has the story of Jesus walking on water, but Peter isn’t even mentioned. Scholars tell us that Mark’s gospel was directly influenced by Peter, so in Peter’s version of this story, he edits himself out.
Why? At first, I thought that Peter might have been ashamed of his wavering faith. But I think it’s more likely that Peter didn’t mention himself precisely because Jesus’ faithfulness is more important than Peter’s faith. This story doesn’t give us an example to emulate, but a Savior to trust.
When we call out to Jesus—even if it’s in fear, even if it’s imperfect, even if it’s from a lack of faith—he hears and he helps. So when we waver, we don’t need to question the quality of our faith. We need to put our eyes back on Jesus. To embrace his character again. To hear his command again. To throw ourselves on his abundant grace, again and again and again.
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