Oh, the difference a preposition makes.
I learned to tread water in swim lessons when I was a little girl (pool water cold so early in the morning, parents watching from outside the chain-link fence). They said it was easy, but I never thought so. Treading water means constantly kicking your feet and constantly sweeping your arms back and forth in order to keep your head above the water. Floating, on the other hand…floating was the way to go. But you don’t get anywhere floating, at least not anywhere you want to go. Treading water isn’t very mobile either, but at least you can see what’s around you.
Of course I’ve never walked on water. Apart from the fact that it takes a miracle, seems like it would be easy: no rocks on which to stub your toe, no holes in which to turn your ankle. Yes, treading on water would be way easier than treading water. That’s the difference a preposition makes.
Peter found that out the hard way.
Matthew 14:25-33. It was windy, and the rolling waves made the boat rock roughly back and forth. No big deal for Peter, though. He was a fisherman, and he’d surely seen worse than this. The waves and wind weren’t what frightened Peter and the other disciples. It was the “ghost” coming toward them on top of the water. Still too far away to recognize, Jesus knew their fear, and his voice carried across the wind (or maybe it was a miracle), “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
Walking on water was
Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.
Rather than “Rock” (for which Petros is the Greek), Jesus should have named Simon Peter whatever the Greek word is for “Impulsive!” Peter decided to go meet Jesus out there on the water. He was not afraid to jump out of the boat and into the water (see also John 21:7). But walking on water was Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.
Treading on Water
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be like Jesus. I wish I were as kind and patient as Jesus. I wish I had the authority with which He spoke to crowds. I wish I could do a miracle or two, just to get people’s attention. All these, however, are external aspects of Jesus’ identity, and I think this is where Peter found his motivation. Peter wanted so much to be close to Jesus, to be like Jesus, that he longed to do what Jesus did. In this case, to tread on water. These external things, however, are not the essence of Jesus’ character. The central characteristic of Jesus was (and still is) His relationship with the Father. That relationship constitutes the source of everything tangible that Peter tried to emulate. Jesus’ actions were just the by-product of His essence.
Actions are the
by-product of essence.
Copying the actions without the essence is like putting on a mask. It doesn’t change who you are. Yes, “emulation is the highest form of flattery,” but Jesus wasn’t looking for flatterers. He wanted followers. He wanted people who knew Him intimately and obeyed Him unceasingly.
So why didn’t Jesus tell Peter “No”? Instead, Jesus tells him, “Come” (14:29). Knowing he would falter, why did Jesus let him do it? I don’t really know, but perhaps…
- Peter needed to learn the limits of his budding faith (14:31).
- The other disciples needed a passive (i.e. safe) push to their own faith (14:33).
- Jesus knew how important this story would be down through the centuries, and so He permitted Peter’s embarrassment for our benefit. (How many sermons, lessons, even songs have you heard from this passage? I loose count. Thanks, Peter!)
When Peter “came to his senses,” we might say, fear set in. He was like me, during that same set of swimming lessons, when I strolled onto the high dive like it wasn’t a big deal only to freeze in terror there at the end, with the diving board bouncing and the chill bumps spreading over my body. Maybe his legs locked up, or maybe Peter kept striding forward, thinking, “I can do this. I can do this.” Even as the water covered his ankles, his calves, his knees….
You see, because Peter’s desire was his own, not Jesus’, Peter operated in the strength of his own faith. That was no shabby faith. Doubtless, he walked further than most of us would walk today. But when Peter reached the limits of his faith, when he began to compare his strength to that of the waves and wind, he sank. Then he just hung there, treading water where he had been treading on water.
Faith and Power
Our faith is not the fuel for
obedience. His power is.
As Christ-followers, we cannot live according to what we think is a good idea or what we think Jesus wants. We cannot depend on our faith to fulfill His will. Don’t misunderstand me here. We need faith, and our faith increases as we grow in Him, but our faith is not the fuel for obedience. It’s His power that gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Peter 1:3). It’s His power, which raised Jesus from the dead, that works in us (Ephesians 1:19). It’s His power that makes us witnesses (Acts 1:8). It’s His power that will finish what He has started in us (Philippians 1:6).
We can’t dig into Peter’s mind that windy evening when he so rashly jumped out of the boat. It’s safe to say, however, that “his mouth was writing checks his faith couldn’t cash.” It’s quite possible that he was operating in his own strength, depending on his own faith. (Compare Acts 3:12.) Be careful not to put too much faith in your faith. It’s limited and its power is derivative.
Do you know whose faith is limitless and whose power is unmatched? Jesus’.
Can you tread water easily? I’m still no good at it. I’m trying to get a little better at keeping my faith properly centered, though. What about you? How does Peter’s sinking scene influence your faith? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!