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A transforming event

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many stadia [stadia = 200 yards] from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a phantasma!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; I am.   Don’t be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if you are   , command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “Little-faith-person, why did you double-think?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14: 22-33

The extract (in bold above) from Matthew’s eye-witness biography of Jesus begins with the word “Immediately...” What had just happened? Jesus had been bereaved. His 30 year old cousin, John the Baptist, had been decapitated one night whilst King Herod’s birthday dinner party was going on in another part of Herod’s palace fortress. John had upset Herod’s latest wife by speaking out against his adultery with her. Back there in AD 30 Jesus then knew that that his own life was under threat. More – he knew it was moving inexorably towards a similar death by execution....

Nevertheless, at that time, he feeds the needy crowd of 5,000 in a deserted area. Immediately after he does something very strange. Can you fathom it?

Matthew, Jesus’ first century biographer, twice records that Jesus makes his disciples go into a boat – without him – and go to the other side. Twice. Matthew then twice records that Jesus dismisses the crowd. He sends the crowd away. Recorded twice.

‘We should never see the stars if God did not sometimes take away the day.’ (Kenneth MacRae, pastor, 1883-1964)

Matthew records twice that Jesus is then alone. First, he’s alone praying. Then he’s alone in the evening hours. Then it’s 3 in the morning.

Matthew records that the boat is then many hundreds of yards away from land. He uses a word which emphasises that they’re separated from land-based help by using the Greek word ge which means separate from earth.

What’s all this about? Has Jesus really arranged for his followers – no-one else – only his followers – to be out on a limb without a paddle – and alone with a strong adversarial wind whipping up high seas?

Has Jesus really organised this – at night – for his own followers? And with nothing on earth to help? And what is this strong adversarial wind (invisible, arising from nowhere and going nowhere) which is making the sea turbulent and against them? Did he send that – or did he allow it to be sent?

Around 3 in the morning is the lowest time for human strength. Jesus came to his disciples at that hour, walking upon the sea. Twice Matthew writes that he’s walking upon the sea. And he faithfully records that they were terrified and said, “It’s a Phantasma!” Not only is their entire world in turmoil against them – but all unseen unearthly powers as well....

Jesus says to them, “Take heart. I am    . Don’t fear.” Would you be helped by Jesus’ instructions? “Take heart. I am     . Don’t fear.” Peter, one of the disciples, is helped. He says to Jesus, “Lord, if you are   , if you truly are     , command me to come to you upon the water.” Jesus says “Come.” 

‘The grand design of God in all the afflictions that befall his people is to bring them nearer and closer to himself.’ (Thomas Brooks, writer and preacher, 1608-1660)

Peter does get out of the boat, does walk upon the water, does come to Jesus. But, focussing on the violent wind, he becomes afraid. Starting to sink down, he cries out, saying, “Lord, save me.” Immediately Jesus’ hand reaches out. Matthew then uses the Greek verb epi-lambano-mai. It literally means that Jesus “more than takes hold of him”.

Then, he asks a searching question of Peter. “Little-faith-person,” he says, “why did you double-think?”

What were the two ways that Peter fluctuated between? Was one of them the possibility of going it alone in this tempestuous world, fearful too of heaven above? Was the other a transforming event?

Richard Syvret

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