There is a book sitting on my bookshelf entitled If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat. It is a book that is centered around the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water as found in Matthew 14:22-33. My understanding of the story, shaped by years of learning, has always been the same. Last night I heard a different angle to the story that substantially changes the lesson to be learned.
What I have known to be the teaching of this story is that Peter took a great leap of faith to get out of the boat in order to join Jesus in doing the miraculous. Peter took those initial steps of faith and was able to walk on the water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. Peter then started to doubt the power of Jesus when he focused on the waves. Jesus then rebuked Peter for not having enough faith to continue to walk on the water.
The moral of the story is that if we have faith in Christ we can "walk on water." In other words faith can overcome all obstacles and doubt brings disaster. This message fits in well in our current American culture of individualism and exceptionalism. Yet I think that there are people all over the world and throughout history that would take exception to this understanding of faith. It makes faith out to be the magic potion found in the "Name it and Claim it" perversion of Christianity.
Now calm down. Don't start beating me over the head with your "Through faith all things are possible" club. Remember that faith isn't the battery that runs the Energizer Holy Spirit that plays the drum for us. John states: "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." And James states: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." All the faith in the world does not overcome something that falls outside of God's will–even if it is something that we think is good and should be within God's will.
My point here is not to engage in a discussion on the nature of faith. Rather I would like to take a fresh look at what happened in the story of Peter walking on water. What was it that Peter did not have faith in?
My pastor spent two weeks last month in Israel on a tour led by Marlin and Sally Vis. As they were on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Marlin started to teach on this passage. We watched the video of his teaching last night at small group and everything that I am going to share next is from his teaching.
The mountain on which the tour group was standing could very well have been the mountain upon which Jesus was praying just prior to walking on the water. The Disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee heading towards the other side. They were really struggling because of the high winds and strong waves. Jesus comes down from the mountain and starts to walk on the water coming towards them. At first the disciples think that it is a ghost but Jesus said: "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." Peter then said: "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."
Peter, according to Marlin, is not content like the rest of the Disciples trusting the with the word of Jesus. He is actually testing Jesus and saying in effect: "If it is you, show me a sign." When Jesus rebukes Peter it is not because Peter sank into the water but rather it is because Peter needed to get out of the boat. Peter doubted the word of Jesus and needed further proof.
Marlin concludes by saying that the only one rebuked here is Peter. The other Disciples were not rebuked for not having enough faith to get out of the boat. This changes the meaning of the story from us needing to do miraculous and spectacular things in order to please God. Instead it means that God is pleased with us when we are trusting him and we are doing the ordinary things that we are supposed to do. Marlin argues that this is the more culturally correct way of understanding Matthew 14:22-33.
While Marlin's teaching may fly in the face of our traditional understanding it does sounds like a reasonable interpretation. It will be interesting to see if his interpretation has any traction. I would have loved to bring this up to a couple of different professors in seminary to get their input.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.