As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good idea for us to explore some characters from the Bible to see how their lives and their experiences could help us in our walk with God. The first character I chose for us to explore was a man named Simon, who Jesus nicknamed Peter. We explored Peter’s first encounter with Jesus along the River Jordan and Peter’s first words of the New Testament when Peter asked Jesus to fish on the Sea of Galilee.
Today, we have a chance to join Jesus and Peter, again on the Sea of Galilee. The scene we are going to look at is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. It was an important event in Peter’s life but as powerful a moment that it turned out to be, Peter never spoke of it. Peter is never quoted as telling the story to others except to say that in all he experienced with Jesus, Peter became convinced Jesus was the Son of God. Sometimes, I think we get more interested in the details of the miracles described in the Gospels than to recognize the central point of the miracles and the entirety of the Gospels was to have us see that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Gospel of Matthew, a Roman officer at the crucifixion of Jesus summed up Jesus’ life this way, “Surely, he was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel says this, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The ending of the Gospel of John says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30). Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers came to believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God. They believed God exists. They believed that God sent Jesus, his Son, with a message of hope for all people. They believed Jesus was different from all other people in part because of what they saw Jesus do but primarily they believed in the specialness of Jesus because he was raised from the dead. Because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, they believed Jesus’ claims that he was the Son of God. They trusted Jesus’ words that in believing in him they would be freed from the penalty of sin because he, Jesus, paid that penalty. None of Jesus’ followers could prove to an atheist that God existed. They believed God existed based upon faith. None of Jesus’ followers could prove to those who believed in God that Jesus was God’s Son. They believed Jesus was the Son of God based upon faith. How someone comes to believe in God or Jesus has never changed over the centuries. We only believe in Jesus because we have faith. We cannot argue or force anyone else to believe either in God or in Jesus as his Son. These are faith decisions. So in this regard we are very much the same as those who saw Jesus in person, including Peter. A life with God is based on faith.
In one way though, we, at least in the United States, are very different from those who saw Jesus in person. The original believers in Jesus believed by faith who Jesus was by overcoming their fear in believing. For the early Christians, to believe in Jesus as the Son of God was a risky decision. Believing in Jesus put their livelihood and life at risk. If the religious leaders of the day did not attack you for your beliefs, the governmental authorities, the Romans, would and did attack. The original believers had to deal with their fear. We are a little different because we can believe, we can have faith in Jesus, without fear to life and limb. And yet, for many people today, fear still prevents faith. Fear of being different, or thought to be strange, or uneducated, and the list goes on keeps many from believing in God and Jesus.
So we know, faith and fear have a relationship. Faith and fear are opposite sides of the same coin. In a coin toss, only one side of the coin can be showing. If we are in fear, then faith is not present. If faith is revealed, then fear is covered. Peter had to deal with fear and faith. Even though we can believe without fear that someone will arrest us or harm us for believing, we too must deal with our own fear and faith equation. Let’s begin with the faith and fear of the disciples and Peter with words from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.
As we enter this scene, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some fish. Verse 22, “Immediately [after the miraculous feeding] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” The Jesus and his disciples were traveling back and forth and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee by boat. Jesus told his disciples to leave by boat for the other side of the sea and he would join them later. Verse 23, “23 After he [Jesus] had dismissed them [the disciples and the crowds], he [Jesus] went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” Jesus took time to be alone to pray. He did not want the distractions of people and noise to interfere with his time with God. We should keep in our minds the image of Jesus praying alone and quiet as an example of we should be doing as well. The story continued, “Later that night, he [Jesus] was there alone, 24 and the boat [with his disciples] was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them [the disciples in the boat], walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.”
And the disciples cried out in fear. Our story begins with fear. Fear is something we all know about. No one had to teach us to express fear; we know what fear is from the day we are born. In fear, a newborn will cry out. We later learn how to apply fear to different circumstances than just the discomforts of a newborn. So fear is part instinct, part learned, and part taught. Fear comes when we believe there is a threat to us. Think for a moment that you are alone one night in a neighborhood that looks rough. You are not sure where you are, how you got there, or where exactly to go. You have no phone. So you begin to walk cautiously down the street in the hopes you are heading toward safety. You are anxious, you are fearful of the unknown, and then across the street from you stands a dark building. Every little noise seems like a very large noise. Suddenly, the door to the building across the street bursts open and there stands, six large teenage boys who shout words at you that you did not understand. The six large boys start running toward you yelling and screaming that you should not to move. Do you perceive them threat? I suspect everyone here would feel threatened. In response to the threat, you are in fear and you begin to prepare yourself to deal with this threat. Your body tightens up. Your heart starts beating faster. You are listening more intently. The boys come up to you and encircle you from all sides. Now that they are only inches away from you, they seem much bigger and stronger looking. They are laughing; not with you but at you. You are in fear. Finally, one of them speaks to you and tells you they saw you walking down their street alone. They know you are not from here. The boy speaking then says, “We decided we needed to leave our Bible Study to see if you needed some help in getting home.” What did they say? They left their Bible study to help you to get home safely. I suspect everyone here would breathe a sigh of relief because you believe, you trust, you have faith, that these boys are not a threat; they are, in fact, going to provide you safety. This little story teaches us that fear and faith have a relationship. It also teaches us that being we believe being a Christian matters and that just saying, “You are a Christian” should be the source of comfort to others. So we should be telling others we are Christians more often than we do.
So fear is something we know and Jesus’ disciples were in fear because they believed Jesus was a ghost. Who else could walk on water than a spirit? Certainly, a man could not walk on the surface of the water. The disciples believed Jesus to be a ghost or a spirit. Historians tell us that people in Jesus’ day believed that the bottom of the Sea of Galilee was a portal, a doorway, to the underworld of the dead. The disciples may have perceived a spirit had escaped the underworld and was now threating the lives of the disciples; just like we might have perceived those 6 teenage boys presented a threat in our story from a couple of minutes ago.
The screams and cries of the disciples altered Jesus that the men were afraid. Verse 27, “But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Fear cannot exist when trust or faith is in play. Jesus’ words, at this point, changes nothing of the very real circumstances his disciples face. It was dark. The wind was howling. The waves were rough. The men were tired. And they were afraid. But Jesus said, “Take courage. It is I. There is no reason for fear.” In a reassuring manner, Jesus was inviting his disciples to calm their bodies (Take Courage), to control their thoughts (It is I), and to confront their fears (Do not be afraid). Reality had not changed but trust or faith is being brought into play. By example, a child may be in bed asleep, but a disturbing dream scares them, and they scream out. A parent enters the room and soothes the child reassuring them it was all just a bad dream. The parent tucks the child back into bed, rubs the child’s head, and says, “It is OK, everything will be all right.” The child goes back to sleep because they trust the comforting reassurances of the parent. The parent has invited the child to calm their body, control their thoughts, and confront their fears. Trust or faith in the parent is being brought into play. We can understand that scene. The same is occurring here between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was inviting all his disciples to bring trust or faith into play.
Now we come to the lesson about trust, faith, and fear uniquely from the disciple, Peter. In verse 28, we read, “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter wanted to trust Jesus even further, but he wanted to extend himself only if Jesus invited him to do so. 29 “Come,” he [Jesus] said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Peter was doing so well. He stepped out of the boat. This is a wonderful illustration of faith replacing fear. Peter charged with faith walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus. But then Peter looked away. Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his focus. Peter switched his attention to the wind and waves. Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but his purpose became avoiding the winds and waves. Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water. When Peter acted in faith, when he trusted what Jesus told him to do, Peter became more and more like Jesus, even being able to walk on water. But when Peter went back to his old ways of being concerned about the winds and waves, all was lost, and Peter sank.
Now came a crucial moment in the story. Peter was sinking under the waves. His life was at risk. He had only time enough to make one choice for safety. He could either ask for help from his fellow shipmates or he could call for help from Jesus. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. In Peter’s most desperate moment of fear, Peter placed his faith in Jesus to save him – and Jesus did so. “32 And when they [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Fear and faith had a relationship in Peter’s life, and it has a relationship in your life and in mine. This causes us to ask ourselves, “What do I fear? Who do I fear?” Think about those questions for a moment. With those thoughts of fearful things in our minds, I am going to invite you to calm your bodies, control your thoughts, and confront your fears with these words from a man named Jesus who stands beside you at this moment. “Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.” The man Jesus knows about your fears and mine. This man Jesus knows we worry about living, pain, uncertainty, loneliness, disease, strife, and that these winds and waves of human life toss about and make life difficult, frustrating, and even pointless. This man Jesus knows that God is above all these things and like a loving parent wants us to know, “It’s OK. Everything will be all right.” This man Jesus knows that our fear can eased and replaced by faith; not faith in ourselves or others who are in the same boat as we are in. But by placing our faith or trust in God for our lives in the present and for all eternity, the winds and waves of life that toss us in fear will be stilled. All we need to do to replace our fear with faith is say the words of Peter, “Lord, save me!” Immediately, this man Jesus will reach out to you and grab hold of you. Why will Jesus do so? Because this man, Jesus, is the Son of God. Have faith.