To say it had been a long day is an understatement. A small group of friends had spent several hours distributing food to a very large group of very hungry people. Not because the people were poor and couldn’t buy food, but because no one—except for a young boy—thought to bring dinner into the desert. After hours of distributing food, these friends were tired. No, they were exhausted.
Their exhaustion wasn’t just because of distributing food, however, they were also tired because one of their friends had just recently passed away. In fact, they had traveled into the wilderness to mourn his death, and yet somehow the crowds found them. Soon, what was supposed to be a time of reflection and mourning became a time to give, give, give!
Finally, after the food was distributed, the group of friends saw their chance to escape the crowds. They would do what the majority of them were good at, go for a boat ride across the Sea. They got in the boat and pushed off from shore. All of them took a deep breath nearly simultaneously, which made them all laugh for the first time in two days. Of course, the air smelled like fish, but somehow even that smell was a relief.
“I’ll take the sheets (sails)!” John declared, “and Peter, you grab the tiller. The rest of you take nap, and we will take turns until we reach the other side of the Sea.”
John wanted to be first because it meant he could sleep the rest of the night, once he was finished. Peter also appreciated the opportunity to go first. Although they were tired, they both knew they would get the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep. Everyone else was too tired to argue, and soon only John and Peter were awake in the boat.
After about an hour or so, it became time to wake up the second shift. John and Peter decided that the two James’s should go next. They woke them up—which was more difficult that they thought it would be—and one James stumbled around the sheets, and the other grabbed the tiller.
John and Peter closed their eyes. They did not sleep long, however. Within a few minutes of closing their eyes, the wind caught the spray of a cold wave, and brought it over the side of the boat onto the two sleeping men. They both awoke abruptly and in anger.
“What is going on?” Peter yelled. He soon found out.
Nearly immediately after the two men had fallen asleep, a slight breeze began moving over the starboard bow. It slowly grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, the breeze grew strong enough to begin bringing cold water over the side of the boat. John and Peter were the last two to wake up.
Most of the men had spent enough time on the water to know that a wind like this was pushing them far off course. More than that, the wind was strong enough that even the oars would be of no use. As the evening began to fade into morning, the exhausted group of friends became more tired. Worse, they were also drenched.
“I forgot I could get this wet!” John declared with a smirk.
No one laughed. The water was cold. The wind made it feel colder. And there was no hope of reaching the other side of the sea until the wind died down.
Just then, James saw something off the port side. At first, he didn’t say anything because he assumed it was a hallucination. After all, he was that tired. But then he saw it again. The other James saw it too, and yelled out,
All 12 guys turned and looked. Their faces melted in fear. Many of them had spent much of their lives fishing. They had heard other fisherman talk about the strange creatures that lived in the water. They had also heard about the ghosts of fisherman who had died in storms like this one.
“It’s a ghost!” Peter yelled, “coming to take us down into the deep!”
That was it! The exhausted men freaked out. One or two of them began crying. Another man started praying. The rest of them stood staring—unable to move because fear gripped their ice-cold muscles.
“Don’t be afraid, my friends!” The ghost yelled back, “It’s me. Jesus.”
The voice was familiar, but Peter had heard stories of ghosts who take on the form of someone familiar to trick the person they were about to kill. How could he be sure?
“If it’s really you,” he looked at John, and then back at the ghost, “command me to come to you on the water, and I’ll do it.”
“Come on,” Jesus said.
Peter gulped. He hadn’t expected that answer, but he was confident it was Jesus. It was the same voice that months earlier had calmed the storm on the lake. On that particular day, Peter thought he was dead. He had never seen a storm like that, and was amazed when Jesus told the wind and waves to cease.
“If Jesus could do that,” he said aloud, “he can make it so I can walk on water.”
“He can do what?” John asked.
But Peter didn’t hear John’s question. He stepped out of the boat onto the moving surface, and began to walk toward Jesus. His uncertainty quickly gave way to enthusiasm. He had been exhausted, but now the adrenaline of walking on water was coursing through his veins. His faith grew. His confidence in Jesus grew. He smiled at Jesus. Even here, on the midst of a stormy sea, Jesus had given him solid ground to stand on.
Just then, a burst of wind blew the sea spray into Peter’s eyes. When he opened them, he looked around and began to notice how stormy the sea really was. He looked at Jesus—who was now right in front of him—and yelled,
“Master! Save me!”
Peter sank under the water. He knew how to swim, but the fear of drowning—and the turbulent cold water—made him freeze. He went under and took in a deep breath of water. He panicked. But someone caught his arm, and—with superhuman strength—pulled him to his feet.
“Peter,” Jesus said, “Peter, are you okay? Why did you doubt me? Look how far you had come.”
Peter turned around shivering in the cold wind. He had walked over 100 yards on a turbulent sea. “If only his mom could have seen this,” he thought to himself. He looked at Jesus. There wasn’t condemnation in Jesus’ eyes, but compassion.
Jesus continued, “There will be so many times in your life, Peter, when you will be caught in a situation that is bigger than you. You will be exhausted. You will be afraid. But I’m not going to leave you. Do you believe me, Peter? I’m not going to leave you. I will walk through the storm with you.”
And with that, Jesus and Peter began to walk back to the boat. As soon as Jesus and Peter stepped into the boat, the wind ceased just like it had on the lake months earlier. It was the second time that Jesus had used a scary storm, to show his disciples that he was in control.
I don’t know where you are in life right now. I don’t know if you’ve just come out of a hard time, you’re in a hard time or you’re reading this knowing that a hard time is coming. I also don’t know which character you relate to.
Are you like Peter? Brave enough to get out of the boat, but distracted by unexpected gusts of wind.
Are you like the other disciples? They were quiet. Some of them were probably still wondering if it was Jesus or a ghost. Others were too scared to get out of the boat. I think of John as the mature one—the one who didn’t need to get out of the boat because he knew Jesus’ voice. But that probably wasn’t true either. I bet he was scared too.
Or maybe you’re in the crowd. You haven’t started walking with Jesus yet, and you’re on the shore with a full stomach wishing you were in the boat.
In my life, I’ve been in many seasons and I can relate with almost everyone. Just this morning, I was going to write an article on a different topic, but I happened to open a journal and see my notes on this story—notes from a desperate time in my own life. Specifically, there were two lines in my notebook that stuck out to me:
- First, I noticed questions: Where is God asking me to get out of the boat? Where is God asking me to trust him—to keep my eyes on him while chaos surrounds me? Where is God directing my steps?
- Secondly, I noticed a statement by my mentor about this story: “We are a broken people in absolute need and complete desperation for the work and influence of the Holy Spirit.” Without the Holy Spirit, none of us are getting out of the boat. Or we will get out of the boat at the wrong time, thinking that we see Jesus, and sink in disaster. We need God to both prompt us to step out, and then give us the ability to follow him. In other words, this is not a challenge to do better. This is a challenge to trust Jesus more. We can only do that through the Holy Spirit.
Finally, I think this story is an important reminder to keep looking back. Jesus has been faithful to us in the past. God has led our steps in the past. He can—and will—do it again. In the story, the disciples had already experienced the miraculous—they had seen God calm the storm (Matthew 8). We also see a progression in this story—Peter makes it all the way to Jesus before he loses faith. Peter had already grown in his faith. This isn’t only a story about Peter’s failure. It’s also a story that shows how far Peter has come since the last stormy sea.
You and I are growing too. When bad things come up in our lives, we can look back and see where God has been faithful. As a result, we will hopefully be able to walk a little closer to Jesus this time before we cry out in desperate need of help. But even then—even when we sink and fail—Jesus is there to grab us by the hand and pull us up out of the water. Notice, he didn’t stop the storm right away—Jesus and Peter still walked back over the waves. But that’s just it, Jesus walked with him.
Today, regardless of what you’re walking through, God the Holy Spirit is walking with you. My prayer, is that he will give you and I a tangible sense of his presence, so that we too can get out of the boat in confidence and obedience to whatever he is calling us to do.