We have here the story of another miracle which Christ wrought for the relief of his friends and followers, his walking upon the water to his disciples. In the foregoing miracle he acted as the Lord of nature, improving its powers for the supply of those who were in want; in this, he acted as the Lord of nature, correcting and controlling its powers for the succour of those who were in danger and distress. Observe,
I. Christ’s dismissing of his disciples and the multitude, after he had fed them miraculously. He constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, Matt. 14:22. St. John gives a particular reason for the hasty breaking up of this assembly, because the people were so affected with the miracle of the loaves, that they were about to take him by force, and make him a king (John 6:15); to avoid which, he immediately scattered the people, sent away the disciples, lest they should join with them, and he himself withdrew, John 6:15.
When they had sat down to eat and drink, they did not rise up to play, but each went to his business.
1. Christ sent the people away. It intimates somewhat of solemnity in the dismissing of them; he sent them away with a blessing, with some parting words of caution, counsel, and comfort, which might abide with them.
2. He constrained the disciples to go into a ship first, for till they were gone the people would not stir. The disciples were loth to go, and would not have gone, if he had not constrained them. They were loth to go to sea without him. If thy presence go not with us, carry us not up hence. Exod. 33:15. They were loth to leave him alone, without any attendance, or any ship to wait for him; but they did it in pure obedience.
II. Christ’s retirement hereupon (Matt. 14:23); He went up into a mountain apart to pray. Observe here,
1. That he was alone; he went apart into a solitary place, and was there all alone. Though he had so much work to do with others, yet he chose sometimes to be alone, to set us an example. Those are not Christ’s followers that do not care for being alone; that cannot enjoy themselves in solitude, when they have none else to converse with, none else to enjoy, but God and their own hearts.
2. That he was alone at prayer; that was his business in this solitude, to pray. Though Christ, as God, was Lord of all, and was prayed to, yet Christ, as Man, had the form of a servant, of a beggar, and prayed. Christ has herein set before us an example of secret prayer, and the performance of it secretly, according to the rule he gave, Matt. 6:6. Perhaps in this mountain there was some private oratory or convenience, provided for such an occasion; it was usual among the Jews to have such. Observe, When the disciples went to sea, their Master went to prayer; when Peter was to be sifted as wheat, Christ prayed for him.
3. That he was long alone; there he was when the evening was come, and, for aught that appears, there he was till towards morning, the fourth watch of the night. The night came on, and it was a stormy, tempestuous night, yet he continued instant in prayer. Note, It is good, at least sometimes, upon special occasions, and when we find our hearts enlarged, to continue long in secret prayer, and to take full scope in pouring out our hearts before the Lord. We must not restrain prayer, Job 15:4.
III. The condition that the poor disciples were in at this time: Their ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves, Matt. 14:24. We may observe here,
1. That they were got into the midst of the sea when the storm rose. We may have fair weather at the beginning of our voyage, and yet meet with storms before we arrive at the port we are bound for. Therefore, let not him that girdeth on the harness boast as he that puts it off, but after a long calm expect some storm or other.
2. The disciples were now where Christ sent them, and yet met with this storm. Had they been flying from their Master, and their work, as Jonah was, when he was arrested by the storm, it had been a dreadful one indeed; but they had a special command from their Master to go to sea at this time, and were going about their work. Note, It is no new thing for Christ’s disciples to meet with storms in the way of their duty, and to be sent to sea then when their Master foresees a storm; but let them not take it unkindly; what he does they know not now, but they shall know hereafter, that Christ designs hereby to manifest himself with the more wonderful grace to them and for them. 3. It was a great discouragement to them now that they had not Christ with them, as they had formerly when they were in a storm; though he was then asleep indeed, yet he was soon awaked (Matt. 8:24), but now he was not with them at all. Thus Christ used his disciples first to less difficulties, and then to greater, and so trains them up by degrees to live by faith, and not by sense.
4. Though the wind was contrary, and they were tossed with waves, yet being ordered by their Master to the other side, they did not tack about and come back again, but made the best of their way forward. Note, Though troubles and difficulties may disturb us in our duty, they must not drive us from it; but through the midst of them we must press forwards.
IV. Christ’s approach to them in this condition (Matt. 14:25); and in this we have an instance,
1. Of his goodness, that he went unto them, as one that took cognizance of their case, and was under a concern about them, as a father about his children. Note, The extremity of the church and people of God is Christ’s opportunity to visit them and appear for them: but he came not till the fourth watch, toward three o’clock in the morning, for then the fourth watch began. It was in the morning-watch that the Lord appeared for Israel in the Red sea (Exod. 14:24), so was this. He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, but, when there is occasion, walks in darkness for their succour; helps, and that right early.
2. Of his power, that he went unto them, walking on the sea. This is a great instance of Christ’s sovereign dominion over all the creatures; they are all under his feet, and at his command; they forget their natures, and change the qualities that we call essential. We need not enquire how this was done, whether by condensing the surface of the water (when God pleases, the depths are congealed in the heart of the sea, Exod. 15:8), or by suspending the gravitation of his body, which was transfigured as he pleased; it is sufficient that it proves his divine power, for it is God’s prerogative to tread upon the waves of the sea (Job 9:8), as it is to ride upon the wings of the wind. He that made the waters of the sea a wall for the redeemed of the Lord (Isa. 51:10), here makes them a walk for the Redeemer himself, who, as Lord of all, appears with one foot on the sea and the other on dry land, Rev. 10:2. The same power that made iron to swim (2 Kgs. 6:6), did this. What ailed thee, O thou sea? Ps. 114:5. It was at the presence of the Lord. Thy way, O God, is in the sea, (Ps. 77:19). Note, Christ can take what way he pleases to save his people.
V. Here is an account of what passed between Christ and his distressed friends upon his approach.
1. Between him and all the disciples. We are here told,
(1.) How their fears were raised (Matt. 14:26); When they saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; phantasma esti—It is an apparition; so it might much better be rendered. It seems, the existence and appearance of spirits were generally believed in by all except the Sadducees, whose doctrine Christ had warned his disciples against; yet, doubtless, many supposed apparitions have been merely the creatures of men’s own fear and fancy. These disciples said, It is the Lord; it can be no other. Note, [1.] Even the appearances and approaches of deliverance are sometimes the occasions of trouble and perplexity to God’s people, who are sometimes most frightened when they are least hurt; nay, when they are most favoured, as the Virgin Mary, Luke 1:29; Exod. 3:6, 7. The comforts of the Spirit of adoption are introduced by the terrors of the spirit of bondage, Rom. 8:15. [2.] The appearance of a spirit, or the fancy of it, cannot but be frightful, and strike a terror upon us, because of the distance of the world of spirits from us, the just quarrel good spirits have with us, and the inveterate enmity evil spirits have against us: see Job 4:14, 15. The more acquaintance we have with God, the Father of spirits, and the more careful we are to keep ourselves in his love, the better able we shall be to deal with those fears. [3.] The perplexing, disquieting fears of good people, arise from their mistakes and misapprehensions concerning Christ, his person, offices, and undertaking; the more clearly and fully we know his name, with the more assurance we shall trust in him, Ps. 9:10. [4.] A little thing frightens us in a storm. When without are fightings, no marvel that within are fears. Perhaps the disciples fancied it was some evil spirit that raised the storm. Note, Most of our danger from outward troubles arises from the occasion they give for inward trouble.
(2.) How these fears were silenced, Matt. 14:27. He straightway relieved them, by showing them their mistake; when they were wrestling with the waves, he delayed his succour for some time; but he hastened his succour against their fright, as much the more dangerous; he straightway laid that storm with his word, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
[1.] He rectified their mistake, by making himself known to them, as Joseph to his brethren; It is I. He does not name himself, as he did to Paul, I am Jesus; for Paul as yet knew him not: but to these disciples it was enough to say, It is I; they knew his voice, as his sheep (John 10:4), as Mary Magdalene, John 20:16. They need not ask, Who art thou, Lord? Art thou for us or for our adversaries? They could say with the spouse, It is the voice of my beloved, Song 2:8. True believers know it by a good token. It was enough to make them easy, to understand who it was they saw. Note, A right knowledge opens the door to true comfort, especially the knowledge of Christ.
[2.] He encouraged them against their fright; It is I, and therefore, First, Be of good cheer; tharseite—“Be courageous; pluck up your spirits, and be courageous.” If Christ’s disciples be not cheerful in a storm, it is their own fault, he would have them so. Secondly, Be not afraid; 1. “Be not afraid of me, now that you know it is I; surely you will not fear, for you know I mean you no hurt.” Note, Christ will not be a terror to those to whom he manifests himself; when they come to understand him aright, the terror will be over. 2. “Be not afraid of the tempest, of the winds and waves, though noisy and very threatening; fear them not, while I am so near you. I am he that concerns himself for you, and will not stand by and see you perish.” Note, Nothing needs be a terror to those that have Christ near them, and know he is theirs; no, not death itself.
2. Between him and Peter, Matt. 14:28-31, where observe,
(1.) Peter’s courage, and Christ’s countenancing that.
[1.] It was very bold in Peter, that he would venture to come to Christ upon the water (Matt. 14:28); Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee. Courage was Peter’s master grace; and that made him so forward above the rest to express his love to Christ, though others perhaps loved him as well.
First, It is an instance of Peter’s affection to Christ, that he desired to come to him. When he sees Christ, whom, doubtless, during the storm, he had many a time wished for, he is impatient to be with him. He does not say, Bid me walk on the waters, as desiring it for the miracle sake; but, Bid me come to thee, as desiring it for Christ’s sake; “Let me come to thee, no matter how.” Note, True love will break through fire and water, if duly called to it, to come to Christ. Christ was coming to them, to succour and deliver them. Lord, said Peter, bid me come to thee. Note, When Christ is coming towards us in a way of mercy, we must go forth to meet him in a way of duty; and herein we must be willing and bold to venture with him and venture for him. Those that would have benefit by Christ as a Saviour, must thus by faith come to him. Christ had been now, for some time, absent, and hereby it appears why he absented himself; it was to endear himself so much the more to his disciples at his return, to make it highly seasonable and doubly acceptable. Note, When, for a small amount, Christ has forsaken his people, his returns are welcome, and most affectionately embraced; when gracious souls, after long seeking, find their Beloved at last, they hold him, and will not let him go, Song 3:4.
Secondly, It is an instance of Peter’s caution and due observance of the will of Christ, that he would not come without a warrant. Not, “If it be thou, I will come;” but If it be thou, bid me come. Note, The boldest spirits must wait for a call to hazardous enterprizes, and we must not rashly and presumptuously thrust ourselves upon them. Our will to services and sufferings is interpreted, not willingness, but wilfulness, if it have not a regard to the will of Christ, and be not regulated by his call and command. Such extraordinary warrants as this to Peter we are not now to expect, but must have recourse to the general rules of the word, in the application of which to particular cases, with the help of providential hints, wisdom is profitable to direct..
Thirdly, It is an instance of Peter’s faith and resolution, that he ventured upon the water when Christ bid him. To quit the safety of the ship, and throw himself into the jaws of death, to despise the threatening waves he so lately dreaded, argued a very strong dependence upon the power and word of Christ. What difficulty or danger could stand before such a faith and such a zeal.
[2.] It was very kind and condescending in Christ, that he was pleased to own him in it, Matt. 14:29. He might have condemned the proposal as foolish and rash; nay, and as proud and assuming; “Shall Peter pretend to do as his Master does?” But Christ knew that it came from a sincere and zealous affection to him, and graciously accepted of it. Note, Christ is well pleased with the expressions of his people’s love, though mixed with manifold infirmities, and makes the best of them.
First, He bid him come. When the Pharisees asked a sign, they had not only a repulse, but a reproof, for it, because they did it with a design to tempt Christ; when Peter asked a sign, he had it, because he did it with a resolution to trust Christ. The gospel call is, “Come, come, to Christ; venture all in his hand, and commit the keeping of your souls to him; venture through a stormy sea, a troublesome world, to Jesus Christ.”
Secondly, He bore him out when he did come; Peter walked upon the water. The communion of true believers with Christ is represented by their being quickened with him, raised up with him, made to sit with him, (Eph. 2:5, 6), and being crucified with him, Gal. 2:20. Now, methinks, it is represented in this story by their walking with him on the water. Through the strength of Christ we are borne up above the world, enabled to trample upon it, kept from sinking into it, from being overwhelmed by it, obtain a victory over it (1 John 5:4), by faith in Christ’s victory (John 16:33), and with him are crucified to it, Gal. 6:14. See blessed Paul walking upon the water with Jesus, and more than a conqueror through him, and treading upon all the threatening waves, as not able to separate him from the love of Christ, Rom. 8:35 Thus the sea of the world is become like a sea of glass, congealed so as to bear; and they that have gotten the victory, stand upon it and sing, Rev. 15:2, 3.
He walked upon the water, not for diversion or ostentation, but to go to Jesus; and in that he was thus wonderfully borne up. Note, When our souls are following hard after God, then it is that his right hand upholds us; it was David’s experience, Ps. 63:8. Special supports are promised, and are to be expected, only in spiritual pursuits. When God bears his Israel upon eagles’ wings, it is to bring them to himself (Exod. 19:4); nor can we ever come to Jesus, unless we be upheld by his power; it is in his own strength that we wrestle with him, that we reach after him, that we press forward toward the mark, being kept by the power of God, which power we must depend upon, as Peter when he walked upon the water: and there is no danger of sinking while underneath are the everlasting arms.
(2.) Here is Peter’s cowardice, and Christ’s reproving him and succouring him. Christ bid him come, not only that he might walk upon the water, and so know Christ’s power, but that he might sink, and so know his own weakness; for as he would encourage his faith, so he would check his confidence, and make him ashamed of it. Observe then,
[1.] Peter’s great fear (Matt. 14:30); He was afraid. The strongest faith and the greatest courage have a mixture of fear. Those that can say, Lord, I believe; must say, Lord, help my unbelief. Nothing but perfect love will quite cast out fear. Good men often fail in those graces which they are most eminent for, and which they have then in exercise; to show that they have not yet attained. Peter was very stout at first, but afterwards his heart failed him. The lengthening out of a trial discovers the weakness of faith.
Here is, First, The cause of this fear; He saw the wind boisterous. While Peter kept his eye fixed upon Christ, and upon his word and power, he walked upon the water well enough; but when he took notice withal of the danger he was in, and observed how the floods lift up their waves, then he feared. Note, Looking at difficulties with an eye of sense more than at precepts and promises with an eye of faith is at the bottom of all our inordinate fears, both as to public and personal concerns. Abraham was strong in faith, because he considered not his own body (Rom. 4:19); he minded not the discouraging improbabilities which the promise lay under, but kept his eye on God’s power; and so, against hope, believed in hope, Matt. 14:18. Peter, when he saw the wind boisterous, should have remembered what he had seen (Matt. 8:27), when the winds and the sea obeyed Christ; but therefore we fear continually every day, because we forget the Lord our Maker, Isa. 51:12, 13.
Secondly, The effect of this fear; He began to sink. While faith kept up, he kept up above water: but when faith staggered, he began to sink. Note, The sinking of our spirits is owing to the weakness of our faith; we are upheld (but it is as we are saved) through faith (1 Pet. 1:5); and therefore, when our souls are cast down and disquieted, the sovereign remedy is, to hope in God, Ps. 43:5. It is probable that Peter, being bred a fisherman, could swim very well (John 21:7); and perhaps he trusted in part to that, when he cast himself into the sea; if he could not walk, he could swim; but Christ let him begin to sink, to show him that it was Christ’s right hand and his holy arm, not any skill of his own, that was his security. It was Christ’s great mercy to him, that, upon the failing of his faith, he did not leave him to sink outright, to sink to the bottom as a stone (Exod. 15:5), but gave him time to cry, Lord, save me. Such is the care of Christ concerning true believers; though weak, they do but begin to sink! A man is never sunk, never undone, till he is in hell. Peter walked as he believed; to him, as to others, the rule held good, According to your faith be it unto you..
Thirdly, The remedy he had recourse to in this distress, the old, tried, approved remedy, and that was prayer: he cried, Lord, save me. Observe, 1. The manner of his praying; it is fervent and importunate; He cried. Note, When faith is weak, prayer should be strong. Our Lord Jesus has taught us in the day of our fear to offer up strong cries, Heb. 5:7. Sense of danger will make us cry, sense of duty and dependence on God should make us cry to him. 2. The matter of his prayer was pertinent and to the purpose; He cried, Lord, save me. Christ is the great Saviour, he came to save; those that would be saved, must not only come to him, but cry to him for salvation; but we are never brought to this, till we find ourselves sinking; sense of need will drive us to him.
[2.] Christ’s great favour to Peter, in this fright. Though there was a mixture of presumption with Peter’s faith in his first adventure, and of unbelief with his faith in his after-fainting, yet Christ did not cast him off; for,
First, He saved him; he answered him with the saving strength of his right hand (Ps. 20:6), for immediately he stretched forth his hand, and caught him. Note, Christ’s time to save is, when we sink (Ps. 18:4-7): he helps at a dead lift. Christ’s hand is still stretched out to all believers, to keep them from sinking. Those whom he hath once apprehended as his own, and hath snatched as brands out of the burning, he will catch out of the water too. Though he may seem to have left his hold, he doth but seem to do so, for they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of his hand, John 10:28. Never fear, he will hold his own. Our deliverance from our own fears, which else would overwhelm us, is owing to the hand of his power and grace, Ps. 34:4.
Secondly, He rebuked him; for as many as he loves and saves, he reproves and chides; O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? Note, 1. Faith may be true, and yet weak; at first, like a grain of mustard-seed. Peter had faith enough to bring him upon the water, yet, because not enough to carry him through, Christ tells him he had but little. 2. Our discouraging doubts and fears are all owing to the weakness of our faith: therefore we doubt, because we are but of little faith. It is the business of faith to resolve doubts, the doubts of sense, in a stormy day, so as even then to keep the head above water. Could we but believe more, we should doubt less. 3. The weakness of our faith, and the prevalence of our doubts, are very displeasing to our Lord Jesus. It is true, he doth not cast off weak believers, but it is as true, that he is not pleased with weak faith, no, not in those that are nearest to him. Wherefore didst thou doubt? What reason was there for it? Note, Our doubts and fears would soon vanish before a strict enquiry into the cause of them; for, all things considered, there is no good reason why Christ’s disciples should be of a doubtful mind, no, not in a stormy day, because he is ready to them a very present Help.
VI. The ceasing of the storm, Matt. 14:32. When Christ was come into the ship, they were presently at the shore. Christ walked upon the water till he came to the ship, and then went into that, when he could easily have walked to the shore; but when ordinary means are to be had, miracles are not to be expected. Though Christ needs not instruments for the doing of his work, he is pleased to use them. Observe, when Christ came into the ship, Peter came in with him. Companions with Christ in his patience, shall be companions in his kingdoms, Rev. 1:9. Those that walk with him shall reign with him; those that are exposed, and that suffer with him, shall triumph with him.
When they were come into the ship, immediately the storm ceased, for it had done its work, its trying work. He that has gathered the winds into his fists, and bound the waters in a garment, is the same that ascended and descended; and his word even stormy winds fulfil, Ps. 148:8. When Christ comes into a soul, he makes winds and storms to cease there, and commands peace. Welcome Christ, and the noise of her waves will soon be quelled. The way to be still is, to know that he is God, that he is the Lord with us.
VII. The adoration paid to Christ hereupon (Matt. 14:33); They that were in the ship came and worshipped him, and said, Of a truth, thou art the Son of God. Two good uses they made of this distress, and this deliverance.
1. It was a confirmation of their faith in Christ, and abundantly convinced them that the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in him; for none but the world’s Creator could multiply the loaves, none but its Governor could tread upon the waters of the sea; they therefore yield to the evidence, and make confession of their faith; Thou truly art the Son of God. They knew before that he was the Son of God, but now they know it better. Faith, after a conflict with unbelief, is sometimes the more active, and gets to greater degrees of strength by being exercised. Now they know it of a truth. Note, It is good for us to know more and more of the certainty of those things wherein we have been instructed, Luke 1:4. Faith then grows, when it arrives at a full assurance, when it sees clearly, and saith, Of a truth.
2. They took occasion from it to give him the glory due unto his name. They not only owned that great truth, but were suitable affected by it; they worshiped Christ. Note, When Christ manifests his glory for us, we ought to return it to him (Ps. 50:15); I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. Their worship and adoration of Christ were thus expressed, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. Note, The matter of our creed may and must be made the matter of our praise. Faith is the proper principle of worship, and worship the genuine product of faith. He that comes to God must believe; and he that believes in God, will come, Heb. 9:6.