Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell
“Lord, if it’s You, bid me come to You on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
I could not tell you how many times I have read this fascinating story. I have turned to it again and again. But in spite of its familiarity it always grips me. I can never read it thoughtfully without a thrill. I can never expose my soul to the vital truth of it without being helped and made a little bit more hopeful and, I trust, a little bit better.
Look at the picture. Here is a little ship in the middle of a storm at sea. A dozen men are manning the oars, battling with the tempest, fighting through the long hours of the night with the storm-whipped sea, fisticuffing with death, and yet getting nowhere. It has been long hours since they left the shore. It is now three o’clock in the morning, but they have made little progress.
I have a fancy that they have become tired and discouraged. And more than once has one said to the other, “I wish the Master were here. If He were here, He would know what to do.” And then, to add to their terror, they suddenly see their master walking from wave to wave toward them across the sea. But He is not recognized. They take Him for a ghost, and they cry out in fear.
This is not an altogether unique experience. Many times Jesus comes to us in a way that makes us rather dread than welcome His approach. Sometimes He comes with demands for the giving up of certain sins or certain pleasures that we do not wish to give up. Sometimes He asks us for services that we do not wish to render. He demands surrender that we do not at all desire to make. Sometimes He comes to us in the guise of a great disappointment. He comes in the garb of a heartache that wets our faces with tears.
The disciples, I say, were at first afraid. But Jesus calmed their fears by saying, “It is I. Be not afraid” (14:27). The Bible, it seems, was written, in large measure, to still the fears of our timid heart. Over and over again is that message directed to us, “Fear not.” And, at once, fear was driven from these hearts. And in the place of fear came, to one at least, a glorious and buoyant faith.
“Lord, if it’s You,” shouted Peter, “bid me come to You on the water” (14:28). You see the effect the presence of Christ had on Peter. As soon as he recognized Jesus, he ceased to fear and began to hope. As soon as he realized the presence of Christ, he gave up doubt and despair and began to believe. The presence of Christ always inspires faith. Peter was gripped by a firm conviction that now that Christ had come, impossibilities were transmuted into possibilities.
“Bid me come to You on the water.” Peter had no disposition to climb out of that boat before Jesus came. He had no desire to undertake this seemingly mad task while Christ was yonder on the mountainside and the little boat was being battered by the storm. But Christ had inspired in him a beautiful and seemingly utterly reckless faith. That which a moment ago was an impossibility was now altogether capable of being accomplished.
Christ always inspires such faith in the hearts of those who know Him. In such faith He takes the keenest delight. There is nothing that so pleases Him as the most daring and reckless and romantic faith. He is never so joyed as when men trust Him with mad abandon. Never once did He praise a prudent and conservative faith. All His encomiums [high praises] are reserved for those who trust Him with a romantic recklessness.
Did you happen to meet the woman with the issue of blood (Matthew 9:20-26) as she set out to see Jesus? Well, it is good that you did not or you would have done your best to have discouraged her. Of course you would, and so would I.
“Sarah,” I would have said—we do not know her name, but since she was a daughter of Abraham, I think Sarah would be a good name—”Sarah,” I would have said, “are you going to ask Jesus to help you? Are you going to seek him out and fall on your face before Him in prayer?”
“No,” she would have answered, “I am not going to pray. I am not going to ask the Master to do anything for me at all. I am simply going to slip up behind Him when the crowd is thronging Him, and touch His garment. I have a shamefaced disease. I want as little attention as possible. So I am not going to say a single word to Jesus.”
Then, I would have answered with conviction, “You will never be cured. The Master has made no promise that He will honor a mad faith like yours. When did He say He would heal if you merely slipped up in a mob and touched the fringe of His garment?”
But I was not there to throw dashes of cold water on the fire. She went on her reckless way. And wonder of wonders, she was healed.
“Lord, bid me come,” said Peter.
And what was the reply of Jesus? Did He say, “Peter, I am astonished at you. Why do you want to do this foolish and insane and impossible thing? Don’t you know that the storm is against you? Don’t you know that the law of gravitation is against you? Don’t you know that the whole experience of the race is against you? You have been about the sea all your life. When did you ever see anybody walk on the waves? Why do you request, then, to do this absurd and ridiculous and impossible thing?”
But Jesus did not say that. I never read where He told a single trusting heart that his request was impossible. I do read where He said the very opposite. He said, “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). He makes all things possible. That is what He is for. He ever attacks men at the point of their impossibilities. He calls on the selfish man to love his neighbor as himself. He calls on the paralytics to rise and walk. And never does He have a rebuke for the man who dares to fling himself blindly on His power.
And instead of rebuking Peter, He approved him. He encouraged him. He sanctioned his request. He said to him, “Come” (Matthew 14:29). I am sure if you or I had been there, we would have wanted Him to have said far more. We would have wanted Him to explain to us how He would hold us and enable us to walk. But the invitation, “Come,” that one word, was enough for Peter.
“Come,” said Jesus. What would you have done under those circumstances? What would I? I suppose I know. I would have said, “Lord, I’d like to. I wish I could. I’ve always wanted to do something magnificent. It has occurred to me again and again as I have read the record of Your dealings with Your saints that the Christian life is not to be a dull and drab and unromantic thing. I have felt a thousand times that the faith of the saints ought to have far more of buoyancy and enthusiasm and daring and romantic adventure in it than it has. So since You have bid me come, Lord, I’d like to come. I’ll think it over. Who knows but that I may try it someday?”
But Peter was made out of more heroic stuff. The spirit of adventure had not died in him. His faith was full of the finest romance. “Come,” said Jesus, and immediately I see Peter drop his oar and begin to climb down out of the boat to go to Jesus.
Some of the commentators are hard on Peter for his boldness and seeming foolhardiness here. But I am frank to say that I like Peter here very much. I suppose most of the critics would have still been sitting in the boat. I shouldn’t wonder if they would not have put a restraining hand on Peter. In fact, it would not surprise me if some of his fellow disciples did not do that very thing. I can imagine that Andrew might have gripped him and said, “Peter, sit where you are. You can hardly stay on top of the water now.” And Thomas would have said, “Man, are you mad? Nobody ever walked on the water before.” But Peter said, “By the help of Christ I will.” And with the “storm light in his face” and the spray in his hair and with faith in Christ in his heart, he pushed the boat from under his feet.
There is something great about that. There may have been much base alloy in Peter, but there was something fine in him also. He is to be admired if he never took a step. He is worthy of praise if he sank into the sea as a piece of lead. At least he had dreamed of doing the supernatural. At least he had dared in the presence of Christ to undertake what others were afraid to undertake. He had ventured to stake his life on the power of Christ to make good His promise. If he failed utterly, he is still worthy of respect. It is better to make a thousand failures than to be too cowardly to undertake anything.
So he stepped out on a stormy sea. It does look a bit mad, doesn’t it? And yet it only looks mad because of our blindness and dullness and stupid unbelief. What did Peter have under him when he was in the ship? On what were his fellow disciples trusting to keep them from the bottom of the sea? Just two or three planks, that is all. On what was Peter trusting? He was trusting on the sure word of God. When he let himself down from the side of the boat at Christ’s invitation, he did not drop into the sea. He dropped into God’s arms. He dropped into the arms of Him who holds every sea in the hollow of His hand. He dropped into the arms of Him whose power kindled every sun and flung every world into space. Before Peter could sink, he had to break God’s grip. And mad as seemed his act Peter was never so safe in his life. Pile on him, if you will, all the mountain systems of all the worlds, and he would never sink low enough to wet his sandals if he kept his feet planted on the promise of Christ.
Jesus said, “Come.” Peter did the same that you and I may do. He responded in the affirmative. He said, “Yes, Lord,” and made the venture. And what happened? Let me read it to you. “He walked on the water to go to Jesus” (14:29). He did what was humanly impossible. He accomplished what was beyond the reach of any human being except for the power of Christ. He walked. It must have been a thrilling experience. It was a joy to himself. It was a joy to his Master. It was a benediction to his fellows. I can see the terror in their faces give way to wonderment and gladness as they say, “Well, well, well! He is doing it after all.”
Yes, Peter walked. Let us not let any subsequent failure blind us to this blessed fact. I know that he did not walk far. I know, too, that that was his own fault. It was not the fault of his Lord. Peter might have walked the whole distance but for one fatal mistake. He might have won a complete triumph but for one tragic loss.
What happened to Peter? “He saw the wind boisterous” (14:30). What does this mean? It means that Peter ceased giving his attention and his confidence to Christ. He fixed on the difficulties. In other words, he lost his faith. He came to believe in his hindrances more than in his help. He believed in Christ a great deal, but he believed more in waves and wind and lightning and thunder. He believed in Jesus, but he believed more in weakness and death. Looking at the wind, he stepped right off God’s promise and it wasn’t a second till he was up to his neck in the raging water.
There was no failure possible so long as he stood firm on the promise of Christ. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden” (11:28) Jesus is saying to you who are troubled and sin burdened. That means that you can come. That means that He is eager for you to come. And however far you have gone from God and however stiff may be the tempest that blows about you, if you get this promise under your feet, all the storms that hell can let loose against a human soul will leave you unshaken. But you must keep a firm stand on the promise.
If you are here with some great yearning in your heart, some special prayer for usefulness or for deliverance from a peculiar temptation, lay hold on God’s Word and cling to it, and you will “never be put to confusion” (Psalm 71:1).
A saintly old friend of mine told me on one occasion about praying for his child. And he said he got the assurance that his baby was going to recover. She was suffering from membranous croup. That very night he was awakened by the mother and the nurse. And he heard the mother say to the nurse, “Is she dead?” And he turned and went to sleep with never a question and never a doubt. He refused to look at the waves.
Peter got too interested and too absorbed in difficulties. It is so easy to do that. Peter took counsel of his fears. I have done the same, and you have done the same, a thousand times over. We are not going to be harsh and critical with him. By so doing we would be too hard on ourselves. But this I say: It is a great calamity. It is a great shame. Oh, that we might get on the higher ground of the psalmist who said, “Therefore will we not fear though the earth be removed and though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea” (46:2).
But looking at the boisterous wind and taking counsel of our fears—these are not the only things that work our ruin. We might be persuaded, and often are, to take our eyes off Christ as much by our advantages as by our disadvantages. If Peter had said to himself, “The law of gravitation is not so invariable as I thought,” or “I am a much superior man to what I dreamed I was.” If Peter had fixed his confidence in self or in circumstances, he would have gone down just the same. Anything that turns our eyes away from a steadfast gaze of faith on Christ spells disaster.
What happened to Peter when he began to look at the boisterous wind? You know. He began to sink. Peter sinking right in the presence of Christ—that is pathetic. He could help nobody now. He could not have saved his own child if he had been there. Unbelievers seated smugly in the boat said, “Ah! I thought so. I knew something like that would happen.” I do not know that Peter would ever have noticed the boisterous wind unless somebody had called his attention to it. I can imagine Thomas might have shouted to Peter and said, “Look out, Peter. There comes a tremendous wave.” Anyway, Peter was sinking.
Did you ever have that experience? Do you know what it is to feel that soul-sickening sensation that comes to one who is sinking? Do you know what it means to be losing your grip on God, losing your power in prayer, losing your grip of things spiritual? Did you ever sink? Are you sinking today? I think I know something of the experience of Peter. I have an idea that you know something of it.
Young man, away from home for the first time, are you sinking? Little by little are you giving up your faith? Little by little are you flinging away the fine ideals that were the strength of your earlier years? Young woman, are you sinking? Businessman, cumbered with many cares, living your life in the thick of the fight, are you keeping straight and clean or are you losing your vision? Are you sinking? What was the matter with Lot in Sodom? He led a sinking life. That was it, and it cost him everyone that was dear to him. It will prove expensive to you. O Christian worker, you will not count as long as you are living a defeated and failing and sinking life!
But even in his failure Peter has a message for us. In his defeat he is his own straightforward, sincere, and honest self. When Peter realized that he was sinking, he did not try to conceal the matter. He did not say, “I’ll fight it out in my own strength.” He threw himself at once on the infinite strength of Christ. He prayed. That was a wise thing. That was a big and manly thing. Peter prayed. Have you forgotten the art?
And listen to that prayer. It was white hot with earnestness. “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30). It was short, too. Notice that. When you do not want anything, when you have no burden, when you are careless and indifferent and listless, you can get down on your knees and pour out whole hogshead of mere words. When you are spiritually asleep and morally stupid, you can utter platitudes in the form of prayer endlessly. But when the sword of genuine conviction has passed through your soul, when you are doing business in great waters, then you fling aside your platitudinous petitions, and call out in solemn earnestness for help.
That prayer was a confession. It was a confession of failure, a confession of defeat. It was also a confession of need. Some men would have been too proud to have made it. What a terrible thing is pride, that damning pride that makes us unwilling to confess our sin even to God! “He who covers his sin shall not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Peter was different. That was his salvation. He blurted out the whole pitiful story and threw himself on the mercy of Jesus. And what happened? That which always happens when men thus pray. “Immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:31). And Peter, who had walked and had sunk, rose and walked again. And so may you and so may every single sinking and floundering and failing soul here. All you need to do is pray as Peter prayed and to believe as Peter believed.
And now, my brethren, do you not agree that we need more of the faith that made Peter undertake his mad enterprise? Isn’t the tragedy of the Church today just this: that the average Christian is not walking “by faith,” but “by sight” (cf 2 Corinthians 5:7)? That is the reason we have so little of that high spirit of daring that marked the early church. That is the reason that life for many of us is so dull and prosaic. What we need is faith. For faith is not a tame and spineless thing that dares nothing. Real faith dares something, something big and brawny, beyond the human. That is the reason it brings into life the thrill of finest romance.
“Come,” said Jesus, and Peter gave an instant obedience. May you and I be as wise. For our Lord is inviting us as He invited Peter. Are you thirsty? He says, “Come to Me and drink” (John 7:37). Are you hungry? He says, “Come and dine” (John 21:12). Are you tired and burdened? He says, “Come and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). Are you eager to be of service? He says, “Come, and out of your innermost being shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Brethren, all our needs are met in Him. He is our sufficiency. He is summoning us even now to venture on Him. Will you make the venture?
Out of my shameful failure and loss,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into the glorious gain of Thy cross,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of the depths of ruin untold,
Into the peace of Thy sheltering fold,
Ever hereafter Thy face to behold,
Jesus, I come to Thee. ~William T Sleeper (1887)
“Faith is a passionate intuition.” ~William Wordsworth
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Sea at night
*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 3. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.