IN THE HOUR OF TROUBLE
Immediately he compelled his disciples to embark in the boat and to go on ahead to the other side, until he should send away the crowds. When he had sent away the crowds, he went up into a mountain by himself to pray. When it was late, he was there alone. The boat was by this time in the middle of the sea, battered by the waves, for the wind was contrary. About three o’clock in the morning, he came to them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were alarmed. “This is an apparition,” they said, and they cried out from fear. Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Courage!” he said. “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
The lesson of this passage is abundantly clear but what actually happened is not. First of all, let us set the scene.
After the feeding of the multitude Jesus sent his disciples away. Matthew says that he compelled them to embark on the boat and go on ahead. At first sight the word compelled sounds strange; but if we turn to John’s account of the incident we will most likely find the explanation. John tells us that after the feeding of the multitude, the crowd wished to come and to make him a king by force (Jn.6:15). There was a surge of popular acclamation, and in the excited state of Palestine a revolution might well have there and then begun. It was a dangerous situation, and the disciples might well have complicated it, for they, too, were still thinking of Jesus in terms of earthly power. Jesus sent away his disciples because a situation had arisen with which he could best deal alone, and in which he did not wish them to become involved.
When he was alone, he went up into a mountain to pray; and by this time the night had come. The disciples had set out back across the lake. One of the sudden storms, for which the lake was notorious, had come down, and they were struggling against the winds and the waves, and making little progress. As the night wore on, Jesus began to walk round the head of the lake to reach the other side. Matthew has already told us that, when Jesus fed the crowds, he made them sit down on the green grass. By that we know it must have been the springtime. Very likely it was near the Passover time, which was in the middle of April. If that is so, the moon would be full. In ancient times the night was divided into four watches–6 p.m. to 9 p.m., 9 p.m. to 12 midnight, 12 midnight to 3 a.m., and 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. So at three o’clock in the morning, Jesus, walking on the high ground at the north of the lake, clearly saw the boat fighting with the waves, and came down to the shore to help.
It is then that there is a real difficulty in knowing what happened. In Matt. 14:25-26 we read twice about Jesus walking on the sea, and the curious thing is that the two phrases in the Greek for on the sea are different. In Matt. 14:25 it is epi (GSN1909), ten (GSN3588), thalassan (GSN2281), which can equally mean over the sea, and towards the sea. In Matt. 14:26 it is epi (GSN1909), tes (GSN3588), thalasses (GSN2281), which can mean on the sea, and which is actually the very same phrase which is used in Jn.21:1 for at the sea, that is by the sea-shore, of Tiberias. Still further, the word which is used for walking in both Matt. 14:25-26 is peripatein (GSN4043), which means to walk about.
The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage, so far as the actual Greek goes. It may describe a miracle in which Jesus actually walked on the water. Or, it may equally mean that the disciples’ boat was driven by the wind to the northern shore of the lake, that Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when he saw them struggling in the moonlight, and that he came walking through the surf and the waves towards the boat, and came so suddenly upon them that they were terrified when they saw him. Both of these interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one, and some the other.
But, whatever interpretation of the Greek we choose, the significance is perfectly clear. In the hour of the disciples’ need Jesus came to them. When the wind was contrary and life was a struggle, Jesus was there to help. No sooner had a need arisen, than Jesus was there to help and to save.
In life the wind is often contrary. There are times when we are up against it and life is a desperate struggle with ourselves, with our circumstances, with our temptations, with our sorrows, with our decisions. At such a time no man need struggle alone, for Jesus comes to him across the storms of life, with hand stretched out to save, and with his calm clear voice bidding us take heart and–have no fear.
It does not really matter how we take this incident; it is in any event far more than the story of what Jesus once did in a storm in far-off Palestine; it is the sign and the symbol of what he always does for his people, when the wind is contrary and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by the storms of life.
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