“The boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.“ (Matthew 14: 24)
We know what happens next. It was the middle of the night; the disciples were struggling in the boat; Jesus came walking across the sea towards them, and Peter said: “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.“ (Matt 14:28) And then follows the paradigm of the disciple who steps out on the boat and walks on the water.
This is the story of “stepping out in faith.“ We tend to think of it in terms such as: moving out on mission, giving on God’s command when we seem to have nothing to give, trusting God for miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit, believing for supernatural provision, sharing the gospel, etcetera. The “spiritual” works that we walk in (Eph 2:10) that are the exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the time we probably see ourselves in the boat, rowing across the water. But since Romans 14:23 tells us that “whatever it’s not from faith is sin,” it follows that actually every step of the walk of discipleship has to involve stepping out of the boat. Our life in Christ begins when we die to self, and we only “walk after the spirit and not after the flesh,“ (Gal 5:16) when it is the Holy Spirit and not the carnal self that is leading us. Seen from this angle, the boat, quite simply, is self.
In Matthew’s account, the wind is “contrary,” and they were “in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves.“ They weren’t about to sink; it wasn’t a storm that was blowing. They just weren’t getting anywhere, they weren’t comfortable, and they couldn’t see where they were going. In John’s account they had rowed “three or four miles” and “a great wind was blowing.” (John 6: 18-19) They had lost their peace and their direction. It wasn’t necessarily a time of life-threatening danger, but it was definitely a time of discomfort and frustration. Instead of Peace, there was turmoil.
What do we do when the wind is contrary? When we can’t make ourselves understood? Or can’t grasp what someone else is asking us? When we just aren’t making headway with the task in hand, or when circumstances just seem to be conspiring to cause the waves to rise and the wind to blow against us? Do we grip the oars even tighter, put our heads down and battle on – or do we recognise that we have lost our peace, rest the oars and look out for Jesus?
John writes: “So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid.” (John 6:19)
John doesn’t say that they were afraid of the weather conditions; he says they were afraid when they saw Jesus. How often do we find ourselves like those disciples? The wind and the waves may be alarming, but it’s much less alarming to grip the oars that we know and feel that we control, than it is to let go of them and reach out to Jesus. We may not feel we are in danger, but in truth we will be directionless and there is no peace in a wave tossed boat. And when God is not in control of the boat, who knows what waves might be building up.
The flesh is always contrary to the spirit. (See Galatians 5:17.) And if we are not walking after the spirit and following Jesus, the wind is always contrary, whether we feel the boat is being tossed by the waves or whether we are being deceived into believing that all is well. The kingdom of heaven is where Jesus rules, the one whom the wind and the waves obey (Matt 8:27). Stepping out of the boat isn’t just a matter of the miraculous, but it is a model of everyday discipleship. We cannot walk after the spirit if we are hunkered down in the boat of the flesh.
When Jesus got back into the boat with Peter the wind was stilled and they arrived at the shore. Jesus promises peace and it is an evidence of His kingdom rule, but we have to step out of the boat to receive it from Him. When we do, we find our direction. He is always there, waiting on the water.
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