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More of Jesus' Kingdom Miracles and Teaching, Part 3: Jesus Walks on Water

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 26, 1998

Matthew 14:22-36

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 14. This chapter records the final days of Jesus' great Galilean ministry, which ran from somewhere around December of AD 27, to April of AD 29. William Hendriksen says of this stage in Christ's career and ministry, "One more year, and the Lamb of God will by means of His death on the cross, render satisfaction for the sins of all who trust in Him.” And so the Lord Jesus' ministry is drawing close to the very last year of His life on this earth amongst His disciples. And at this significant point, we said that Jesus performs this tremendous miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. It is the most famous of His miracles. It's recorded in all four of the gospels. And in the passage we are going to study today, we are going to see another significant miracle of our Lord. There's going to be one major difference. Whereas the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was done in broad daylight, in the midst of multitudes, including many who really did not believe the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. They wanted to be healed. They wanted to see His miracles. But they didn't necessarily believe the claims that He was making, to being the fulfillment of old testament prophecy, and the Messiah sent by God. But the miracle we will study in this text was not done in broad daylight, but in the very pitch of night; and only with and for His own disciples who believed and trusted in Him. So let's read God's holy word in Matthew 14. We'll begin in verse 22.  

Matthew 14:22-36 

Our heavenly Father, we ask that by Your Spirit we would not only read and hear and understand, but embrace in our hearts the truth of Your word. By your Spirit make us willing hearers, that we might become doers of the truth. We ask these things in Jesus name. Amen.  

This passage focuses our attention on the powerful, providential protection of the Lord Jesus Christ for His people. And because we are amazed at the lengths to which the Lord Jesus Christ will do to assure the safety of His people, we are bid to contemplate His person, and ask, "who is this man?"  And our answer will be the same as the disciples, "Surely this is the son of God.” Look with me as we look at this passage and learn 2 or 3 things together today.  

I.  Christ intercedes for His people.
First of all in verses 22 through 24, we see Jesus' solitary prayer. He is on the mountainside praying, as the multitudes have been dismissed, and as His disciples are making their way across the lake. And the first thing we learn in this passage, we find in those verses. Christians ought always to remember that Christ intercedes for us in our trials. In this passage, we have a beautiful picture of Christ interceding for His people, in the midst of their trials. Christ had done a mighty miracle that day. And it was already into the evening, maybe dark enough to be black, at night. The disciples were dispatched, and now the crowds had to be sent away. Many people had come from the other side of the lake to hear Jesus speak, and to see the miracles that He was doing, and perhaps to be healed by Him. And so the Lord Jesus says to the disciples, "You go first.  You leave. I'll catch up with you. I'll dismiss the crowds."  And you may be wondering first, "Why did He need to dismiss these crowds?”  And you may be wondering, "Why did He send the disciples ahead before He dismissed these crowds?”  Well, let me give you an attempt at an answer to those questions, without getting into too much speculation. First of all, remember that these people had come, many of them, from a long way away. Some of them had come all the way around the horn of the top of the lake to find Jesus on that northeastern shore. And so they were a long way from their homes. These people were determined. They had been determined enough to leave their towns, their villages in the countryside, and find Him on the other side of the lake. These weren't going to be easy people to shake. And so the Lord Jesus, literally, needed to dismiss them with a benediction to indicate that 'my ministry of healing and preaching is over for this time and for this place.' He needed to dismiss them back to their homes.

Notice also, that we are already told earlier in this passage that darkness was coming upon them. Perhaps it was already there, and they needed to find a shelter of the local towns, instead of being in the open countryside. Notice also, that these folks had just experienced a tremendous miracle. It would not have been their tendency to easily leave this miracle worker, who had just fed 5000 plus people. They needed some incentive. And the Lord Jesus was going to provide that incentive by saying, "I am finished with the ministry here,” pronouncing a benediction on them, and dismissing them to their homes. But you may still be wondering, "Why, then, would the Lord Jesus send His disciples away before He sends the multitudes away?”  Well, John chapter 6, verse 15, gives you a hint at the answer. You may want to turn with me to that passage. You know that John 6 provides the parallel passage to this account of the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew. And in John 6:15 we read this: "So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself alone.” Jesus did not want to be declared an earthly king by the multitudes. In fact Jesus did not want to be declared an earthly king by His own disciples. Because Jesus didn't want to be declared an earthly king by anyone. The kingdom that He was preaching, the kingdom that He was bringing, was a kingdom unlike that which the people of His time were expecting. He was setting up a spiritual kingdom that would extend to the whole earth. It would transcend nation and ethnic boundaries. And therefore, He not want to be taken in to this plot on the part of the people to set Him up as some sort of king in Israel. And we know that the disciples were tempted to do just that. In fact, even after His resurrection, immediately prior to His ascension, in acts chapter 1 verse 6, we still find His disciples saying to Him these words, "Lord, is it now that you are going to set up your kingdom?”  See, the disciples kept waiting for some sort of an earthly manifestation of His kingdom to be established where He would rule, and they would rule with Him and judge the nations. The Lord Jesus wanted to make sure that His disciples didn't fall in with the multitudes with their plans. And so He sends His disciples away, lest the disciples gather impetus from the multitudes, and join in with their plans to try and establish Him some sort of an earthly king.

But maybe the most important reason that He sends His disciples away is told for you right in the passage in verse 23. The Lord Jesus wanted to be alone to pray. The Lord Jesus sought a solitary place where, apart from the crowds, and apart from the disciples, He would intercede. And we are going to see how important, in just a few moments, it was that the Lord gave Himself to intercession that night. For the passage indicates that for most of the night, our Lord Jesus was on the mountain, in prayer with His heavenly father. Now in the gospels, Jesus’ prayer life is shown to us, at least in little snippets. We are told, for instance, that He often sought a quiet place to pray. We are told that He prayed by himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. In numerous places we are told that He would pray on a hill by Himself. We are told that He prayed in the morning. We are told that He prayed in the evening. And on more than one occasion, we are told that He prayed all night long. Fortunately, the gospels also record for us some of what Jesus prayed. And when Jesus prayed, the gospels always make it clear that He not only prayed for Himself, but He prayed for His disciples; He prayed for the Lord's will for their lives; He prayed for God's grace to be displayed to the nations. In other words Jesus' intercessions were not simply for Himself. Jesus did not merely seek solitude so that He could commune with the heavenly father, drawing strength from the Father for Himself, and for His own task, though He did that.

But He also prayed for the disciples. The great example of that is, of course, John chapter 17 in the high priestly prayer. Yes, in the first five verses the Lord Jesus Christ does pray that the Lord would do certain things with and for and because of Him. But the remainder of that prayer is for the disciples, and ultimately for the world. That prayer gives you a picture of how Jesus not only prays and intercedes for himself, but He prays on behalf of His disciples. And so it is not going too far for us to say that the Lord Jesus was on that hillside praying for the Lord's will. Not only for Himself, but for the disciples that night as they went out to sea.

Now meanwhile, as the Lord Jesus is praying by Himself, the disciples are already in the midst of a stormy sea. The text tells us that they were being battered by waves. The boat that they were in was really having a rough going. They were several miles from the shore. They were perhaps at the very middle of the lake. How could Jesus have sent them on alone?  Didn't He know what they were facing?  What was Jesus doing sending them out into this stormy weather?  Or this weather that was going to become stormy?  Were they safe?  What was Jesus doing?  He was praying for them. Were they safe?  Jesus was praying for them. They were in the midst of a storm. Jesus was praying for them. Our Lord Jesus Christ sends His disciples ahead of Him on the lake. They face a great storm, but He is in the midst of intercession to His God and Father on their behalf. They couldn't have been more safe if they were in their mother's arms, because the Lord was interceding for them.

When we face trials ourselves, it is well for us to remember that Jesus knows what is happening. And He is not taken by surprise by it. And He is, even now, interceding for us. Listen to these beautiful words of Matthew Henry: "When the disciples went to sea, their Master went to prayer. Now the same thing can be said of you, everyone of you who believes and trusts on the Lord Jesus Christ, that in every trial of life, when she goes into her trial, her Master goes into prayer.” There is, of course, one difference. The Lord Jesus this night, as He intercedes on behalf of the disciples, humbly lifts up His prayer to the Lord God, and asks Him on the basis of the merits of His work on their behalf, to hear His prayer, to spare their lives, to strengthen their faith.

Now Christ, having finished His saving work, from the throne of the universe, commands for our good all things to be done for our salvation and for our life. The Lord God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, still protects His people. And it is the Lord Jesus' intercession which helps us in our trials. Now even we ourselves partake of the privilege of interceding for one another in times of trial. And sometimes we feel especially burdened to pray for one another. Perhaps you know of the many instances in our congregation where a member has been burdened, knowing not why, to pray for another member. And then later finds out that that was a time of a special need for that particular member.

Not many months ago my wife had gone to a grocery store to buy formula for Sarah Kennedy. And as she approached the grocery store, she saw a police car pass with its flashing lights on. And immediately she felt burdened to pray for a member and his wife in our congregation. And she began to pray. And she didn't tell me about it. The next day I came to the office and was greeted by one of the members of our pastoral care staff saying, "Did you know that so-and-so was broken into last night, that they were in the apartment when the thief attempted to break in; that he attempted to kick the door in, then he attempted to kick the windows in, and finally, when the husband got up in the house, it scared the thief away? The thief broke in next door and really injured someone in the apartment next door, and finally the police came.”  I said, "My heavens.  That's terrible.” And I found more information out about it, and I sought to call and counsel and comfort those folks. I came home that night and told Anne. Anne said, "What time was that?”  I told her the time. She said, "I was praying for them at that time.” The Lord sometimes burdens us to pray for one another in time of need.  Even so, the Lord Jesus always intercedes for His people in the time of their trials.

This passage teaches us to remember that there is never a difficulty that we enter in life, when the Lord Jesus' sovereign intercession from the throne of grace is not active on our behalf. Now wouldn't that change the way we would look at our trials if we thought of it that way?  Let's remember that these disciples are in this trial precisely because they are being obedient to the Lord. They are not like Jonah. You remember Jonah?  Once He was in a storm in a boat because of his disobedience. But these disciples have done exactly what the Lord told them to do. They are in the way of duty. They are in the way of obedience. And yet, they meet trials. Sometimes we meet trials in our lives and we think, "Well this must mean that the Lord doesn't approve of what we are doing.” Or we say, "Well, this must mean that we have done something wrong.” Now that may happen sometimes. That may be the Lord's hint to us to turn our way from the direction that we are going. But many times, my friends, precisely because we are doing what the Lord has called us to do, we meet trials. It's important for us to know, in those times, that the Lord has not left us alone. He is interceding for us.  

II.  Christians ought to learn encouragement from Christ in time of trial.
We learn another thing in this passage, and you'll see it in verses 25 through 32. Christians ought to draw encouragement from Christ in time of trial. For perhaps 6 to 10 hours, the disciples had been apart from Christ. The storm may have lasted as long as 6 to 10 hours. We don't know.  We do know that they had been fighting their way across the sea for some time. And we are told that Christ comes to them at the fourth watch. That would have been sometime between 3 and 6 a.m. The Lord Jesus would have come to them. Now the disciples’ first reaction to the Lord's appearance is to fear. I mean, when someone comes walking on the water to you between 3 and 6 a.m. in the morning in the middle of a storm, it's usually not good news. And these disciples cry out, "It's a ghost.  It's a phantasm!”  They're scared to death. And then, they realize that it's the Lord Jesus when He speaks His words of peace to them. "Don't be afraid.  It is I.” The Lord Jesus speaks His word of peace, and suddenly again they realize His sheer power over nature. They had seen Him command the wind to stop on this lake. They had seen Him do it: "Stop.” They had seen Him earlier that day turn 5 loaves and 2 fishes into a meal for 5,000 plus people and have 12 baskets left over. They had seen His command, His power over nature. Now, they were watching Him walk on water. Philip Doddridge says that “The Egyptian sign, the hieroglyph, for an impossible thing, is two feet on water.”  I don't know. I don't read Egyptian hieroglyphics. But if that is, I couldn't think of a better sign of something impossible then two feet on water. And our Lord has walked to His disciples on the sea. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ, neither height nor depth, nor death. So don't think that a little water can separate the Lord Jesus Christ from His disciples in the time of need.

Peter impulsively responds. He says, "Lord, let me come to You on the water.”  I want you to see that Peter's response was not arrogant, it was now showy, he wasn't trying to show off.  In fact, Peter's response was instinctive. It was an act of faith. The opposite of the fear, which he and all the other members of that boat had been expressing a few minutes ago. It was an act of recognition. He saw that it was his Lord. The word "if” there should be translated "since it is you, Lord, let me come to you.”  The Lord Jesus had evoked recognition in Peter. And Peter was devoted to Him, and he wanted to come to Him. And his act was an act of trust. He was utterly dependent on Christ. He knew that only Christ could enable him to come to Him. William Hendriksen says, "Peter grasped something of the significance of Christ's constant teaching, with respect to the very close relationship existing between the Lord, and those whom He calls His own.” And Bishop Ryle says this, "There is a deep meaning in this event.  It shows us what great things our Lord can do for those who hear His voice and follow Him.”  He can enable them to do things which at one time they would have thought impossible. He can carry them through difficulties and trials which, without Him, they would never have dared to face.  He can give them strength to walk through fire and water unharmed, and to get the better of every foe.” The Lord Jesus is able and powerful and mighty, and comes to His people in the time of their need. And, of course, the response of the disciples to all this is to fall down and worship Him. They do what no Jew, no good, believing Jew, would ever do to a mere man. They fall down and they worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and they acknowledge Him to be God's own Son.

Now there are so many applications of this passage alone, that we could spend the whole morning talking of it. But let me just direct your attention to two things. The first thing I want you to note is, the Lord Jesus let those disciples go a long time in the storm before He came to them. I think very often in the midst of our trials, we keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. And in some of our trials that light never shows up. We feel like we keep going further and further and further in the tunnel. And we can't see the Lord's presence, and we can't see the Lord's hand, and we can't make sense of it, and we feel as if the Lord has abandoned us. The Lord Jesus let those disciples go a long time before He came to them. And He did it, not out of spite, but He did it to build them up in faith in Him. To see their own weakness, to see their own need, and then to see the sheer power at His disposal to answer that need. The Lord Jesus may put us in a trial for that precise reason. And will not we say with the hymnist, "What e're my God ordains is right”?  Surely the disciples learned that lesson on this night.

There is another thing I want you to see. Peter's response to Jesus provides a beautiful picture of what saving faith is. Notice that as long as Peter's focus is on the Lord Jesus, he is upheld. The minute Peter's attention is shifted to the circumstances around him, the waves and the wind, he begins to sink.  Does that not teach us something about how faith works?  It is not the strength of faith that saves us, it is the object of faith that saves us - the Lord Jesus Christ. It's not the strength of our faith in Christ that saves us. It's Christ that saves us. And when our focus is taken off of Him, our faith falters. As Peter becomes more aware of his circumstances and less aware of Christ, he begins to sink into doubt. And the Lord Jesus has to pull His doubting servant up with the words, "O you of little faith.  Why did you doubt?”  You see, if our faith is grounded in our circumstances, it will always be like Peter's faith at that moment. Going up and down depending on how the circumstances are. But if our faith is on the proper object, the Lord Jesus Christ, it will be constant. Why?  Because He is constant. He never changes.

Of course, this passage also teaches us about the imperfection of faith. Many times we ask ourselves, "Was our faith pure when we first trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Did we have a perfect faith in Him?”  And of course, the implication is that 'if we say we didn't have a perfect faith in Him, or if our faith wasn't perfectly pure when we first trusted in Him, then, maybe we are not Christians.'  Well, the passage has an answer for you. No.  Your faith wasn't perfect when you first trusted in Him. No, it wasn't perfectly pure. Because it is not the quality of faith that saves you. Faith is always imperfect.  In this life our faith is always mixed with doubts to a certain extent. But it is not the quality or the quantity of our faith which saves us. It is the object of our faith who saves us. The Lord Jesus Christ. Was Peter's faith perfect?  No. Was it imperfect?  Yes.  Did Christ save Him? Yes.  Because of his faith?  No. Because of His own love for Peter. Peter truly had faith in Christ. That faith was imperfect.  And the Lord, out of His love and His goodness, saved him yet.  

III.  Christ has power and love which stagger our imagination.
One last thing we see in this passage.  You'll see it in verses 34 to 36. Jesus’ mercy and might are set forth again. And we Christians can never reflect too often on the compassion and power of Jesus Christ. Jesus arrives in the plain of Gennesaret. And as soon as He gets there, the people see who He is, and they call another multitude. So He leaves one multitude on one side of the lake. He gets to the other side of the lake looking for, perhaps, a time of respite. And there's another multitude waiting for Him to minister to them. In fact, it is very clear again that these people did not come to Him because they wanted to hear Him preach. They didn't want to hear Him preach. They didn't want to hear His claims. They wanted Him to heal. And yet our Lord, in His mercy, heals them. Though He knows that they do not trust in Him as a disciple, yet in His mercy He heals these multitudes that come to Him. The main point of this account is not to emphasize that they had some sort of saving trust in the Lord Jesus. The continuation of this passage in the next few chapters will indicate that more and more the crowds doubt Christ's claims, even though they are amazed by His powers. The point is that Christ has power and love which stagger our imagination. And Jesus' mercy to these undeserving multitudes is a call, an emphatic call, to us to show the same kind of mercy to those who are undeserving, in our experience.

Has God called you to trial right now?  If He has, then He has called you to remember that Christ is above, interceding from the throne of God, for you; and that He is never far from you.  Waters cannot separate you from Him. Death cannot separate you from Him. Hell cannot separate the Lord Jesus from His people. The Lord God comes to His people's aid.

And of course, this passage calls us to emulate Him in mercy and love. May the Lord make that a reality in our experience as a congregation. Let's look to Him in prayer.  

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the glorious power of Jesus. We pray that You would enable us to trust more in Him in time of trouble, recognizing in our trials, so often, the hand of a loving God, using our tribulation as a stepping-stone to the glory. Help us to believe that in the midst. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

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