Pastor Scott L. Harris
December 26, 1993
Keeping Your Eyes on Jesus
Merry day after Christmas. I hope you will take the time to read the back of your bulletin at some point today – after the sermon. While our society may put Christmas behind them as soon as that day is over, those of us who are Christians know that the Birth of the Savior has meaning everyday of the year, not just one. Even so, we do find after Christmas our thoughts start turning to the beginning of a New Year. It is a time of reflection on the year that is about to end and contemplation about what the future might hold.
There have been a lot of joys this past year, marriages celebrated, babies born, people saved, special times with friends and family. Yet, many people have expressed to me in one way or another that 1993 will not be a year that they will remember as one of “the good old days.”
Admittedly it has been a hard year for many, especially in our region. Losing your job or even just having it threatened is very unsettling. Our church alone has seen many precious friends move to other places because of employment. Some friends and loved ones we have lost to death. For others, health problems made the year a difficult one. That was certainly true in our home.
The coming year may not look much better for some. Job concerns are still an issue for many. We wish health problems would come and go, but sometimes they hang on for a long time. Problems in interpersonal relationships are not always easily solved either. All that being true, how do we keep from becoming cynical about the future? I believe the passage of Scripture we are going to examine today holds the answer for us.
We have been studying the book of Matthew now for two years. Remember that in this book, Matthew is documenting that Jesus is the promised Messiah, He is the Christ. Matthew has proved that point in many ways including Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and in Jesus’ authority over the natural and supernatural. Jesus even has authority to forgive sins and raise the dead. (See: Jesus’ Authority Over Sin & Jesus’ Authority Over Death). A small band of men have committed themselves to following Jesus, but things are not going all that well at the moment. There are many people who are curious about Jesus and follow Him about so that they might see Him perform a miracle, but the crowds are fickle. In chapter 12, we found them fearful of the Scribes and Pharisees who have proclaimed that Jesus’ power comes from Satan. The antagonism between Jesus and these religious leaders has escalated because of that. (See: Exposing The Heart) It is becoming more difficult for the people to follow what they have been taught about being a good Jew and also follow Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus returned to His home town of Nazareth, He was again rejected and their unbelief was of such a nature that Jesus did not even do many miracles there. (See: The Tragedy of Unbelief)
The political scene is also becoming more hostile. Cruel Herod Antipas the Tetrarch has just killed John the Baptist, (See: The Death of John the Baptist), and if John was supposed to be the forerunner of the Messiah as he had claimed (Matthew 2), then what does that mean about Jesus? Are He and those who follow Him also in danger?
Jesus has retreated with His disciples to a lonely place on a mountain near the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and as we learned two weeks ago, a multitude of people has followed Him there. Jesus has had compassion on them and healed their sick, and then He performed the miracle of feeding well over 5,000 people with just five small loaves of barley bread and two small fish. (See: Feeding the Multitudes)
For the disciples, things are beginning to look up for we find in John 6:14, 15 that as a result of this the people said, “This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world,” and they sought to make Jesus king. This could have been the beginning of the culmination of why they were following Jesus. They were waiting for the day when Jesus would assert His authority over the ruler ship of Israel and retake David’s throne. What better time could there be than now. It was just before Passover when many people would travel to Jerusalem, and the enthusiasm of this crowd could easily be transferred to those in Jerusalem. But then Jesus did a strange thing.
Turn to Matthew 14:22. “And immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side (Mark says to Bethsaida), while He sent the multitudes away.” What were the disciples to make of this? This was not what they were expecting.
Verse 23 tells us why Jesus did this. “And after He had sent the multitudes away, He went up the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, he was there alone.” Jesus had originally come to this lonely place to get away from the crowds. The crowds had followed Him and in His compassion He had both healed their sick and fed them, but now it was time to be alone and to pray. It was now dark and Jesus would spend uninterrupted time with His Father in prayer.
But the disciples were not aware of what was going on. Jesus had sent them ahead so that is what they were doing. They did not understand all that Jesus did, but they had learned to trust Him and follow His directions. The Scriptures do not say whether they knew that Jesus was praying, but even if they did they may not have thought much about it because they were quite occupied with another concern at the moment.
Verse 24, “But the boat was already many stadia away from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.” They had left in a boat in the early evening to go back to Capernaum (John 6:17) which was only about five miles away by boat. It should have been an easy journey, especially since several of the disciples were experienced fishermen and were well acquainted with traveling that area by boat at night, but they have run into a storm. The Scriptures describe the storm as a strong one. The wind in contrary to them so they have been rowing hard and it is now late, verse 25 says it is the fourth watch, which would be between 3-6 a.m., and yet they have only traveled 25-30 stadia or about three to four miles. The waves are “battering” the boat. The Greek word here is also used to describe “torment,” “distress,” and “torture.” These are sizeable waves crashing against the boat.
So you now get the picture of what these twelve men where going through. How would you feel if you were in their situation? It is late at night and you are tired. You are perplexed by the events of the day. Things had been going so well earlier, but now you have been sent away and you find yourself rowing very hard but not going much of anywhere. The waves are crashing against your boat making it creak and groan with the strain – almost as loudly as you do as you strain in pulling on the oars trying to reach shore and safety. You are wet and cold and it seemed a long time ago that you ate of the bread and the fish. You are also alone for your leader has sent you ahead without Him. Now add another element of fear.
Verse 25, 26, “And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were frightened, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out for fear.”
They already had enough to be afraid of just with being in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm, yet now we find them very frightened by something that they simply cannot comprehend. The word here for being fearful is a strong word with a literal meaning of being “shaken” and a figurative meaning of being “upset,” “thrown into confusion and alarm“. The men saw something that was beyond their ability to understand. It was Jesus coming to them in a manner that they would not have expected in their wildest dreams.
They had been sent ahead and they did not expect to see Jesus until sometime later after they had reached Capernaum. They did not expect Jesus to meet them in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in any case by any means, and even more so on such a stormy night. What would you think and how would you react if you had been in their situation?
You are already scared to at least some degree because of the storm, and then through the shadowy light given off by the moon, a moon that would have been nearly full as Passover approached. The moon light may or may not have been broken up by the clouds passing overhead and you see the figure of a man apparently walking on top of the water. You cannot be sure of what you are seeing for you are being tossed about the boat with each wave and the figure you see is going up and down too. You cannot see any sort of boat and men do not walk on water so it cannot be a man, therefore, it must be something else. But what? All that is left is something from the supernatural – a Greek “phantasm” – a phantom of some sort. Wouldn’t you be afraid? Of course you would regardless of how much you might say you would not. The hair on the back of your head would be standing straight out, the adrenalin would be pumping, and your heart would be pounding just like theirs did.
But isn’t this whole scenario like the way it often is in our lives. We think things are starting to look like they are going pretty well when God does something we do not understand why, but we submit and do what He says only to find ourselves in the midst of another big problem of some sort, and then in the middle of that something else comes at us which we do not even comprehend, and we become afraid of what the future might hold. That is true when it is something relatively simple like our complex lives being made more complex and difficult by things breaking down like cars, roofs, heating systems, major appliances, or our bones, and we cry out in frustration, “God this isn’t fair.” It is also true when more serious things happen such as when our job is threatened or we lose it, or there is a health or financial crisis or some combination of them, we start questioning if God knows what He is doing and wondering why He has left us alone?
We do fine as long as everything is going well, but when troubles and trials start and bad things happen and we do not understand the reason why, then we find our faith is not as large as we thought. We become fearful and may even start questioning God. How does God respond to us and how should we respond to God at those times? Let’s continue in our text.
The disciples had just cried out in fear, then verse 27, “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.'” This is the way Jesus so often responded to those that were afraid. He sought to give them courage and called them to stop being afraid for He was with them.
Actually, the disciples really never had a reason to be afraid and they would not have been afraid if they had understood Jesus better. Jesus had been praying the whole time that the storm had been raging. And from the various prayers of Jesus that are recorded, we know that a frequent element in His prayers was intercession for His followers. In fact, that is one of His continuing ministries now in making intercession to the Father for us (Hebrews 7:25). What better position could they or we be in that having Jesus Christ praying for us?
But Jesus did not just pray, He also responded to the need for which He was praying, and He went to be with the disciples. Jesus is still the same. Jesus’ promise to the apostles in Matthew 28 is still true for us. He is still with those of us that have placed our faith in Him and have believed in His name. We may not understand all that is going on or why it is happening, but we do not need to when we have the Lord Jesus Christ with us. It is enough to be entrusted to His care.
Some have tried to discount Jesus walking on the water saying it was either the hallucination of the disciples or Jesus only appeared to be walking on the water but was actually walking on a sandbar or along the shore. First, twelve men do not all hallucinate the same thing at the same time. Second, every text indicates that the storm was still raging while Jesus was walking on the sea. That means that Jesus was rising and falling with each wave. Sandbars and the shoreline do not do that. Third, we have the account of what happened to Peter to attest to the depth of the water.
Verse 28. “And Peter answered Him and said, ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ And He said, ‘Come!’ And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind stopped.”
Notice first that the wind did not stop until they got into the boat. Jesus and Peter both were walking on top of the waves. Second, notice that Peter began to sink. The word here literally means to “plunge down into the sea.” Peter did not step off a sandbar; he began to sink into the water. The boat is three to four miles out and there are no sandbars there. The miracle is a real one, and what is more astounding by it is that not just Jesus, but Peter as well, walked on the water.
Peter has received a lot of criticism for this episode in his life. Some say he did what he did because he was a showoff. Other say he was rash and careless. Many spend a lot of time detailing how small his faith was. I think all those criticisms are unfounded. True, Jesus mildly rebuked Peter for having little faith, but Peter was the only one of the disciples to get out of the boat, and I dare say that all of us would have also stayed in the boat. What does that say about the amount of faith the other disciples or we have?
Peter loved the Lord and we often see him as close as he can get to the Lord. Even when Peter denied the Lord at His trial, Peter was in the courtyard as close as he could get. The rest of the disciples were no where to be found. Imperfect and weak as it was, Peter’s love for Jesus was real. We can well imagine Peter staying so close to Jesus as they walked from place to place that when Jesus stopped Peter ran into him. That is what we see here in Peter’s desire to get out of the boat and go to Jesus.
Peter was an experienced fisherman. He knew the danger of getting out of a boat in the middle of a storm. It was not bravado or rashness that prompted him, but simply his desire to be with Jesus. The “if” in Peter’s request is not questioning that it was Jesus. The last thing Peter would want to do is join an unidentified ghost in the middle of the sea during a storm. The Greek grammar here is the condition of reality -, i.e., “since you are Jesus.” Peter understood something of what Jesus had been teaching. His thought here in his request would be, “If Jesus can walk on water, then with the power He can give me I can walk on water and join Him.”
Jesus invites him to come and Peter does great until He takes his eyes off Jesus and notices his circumstances. Possibly he finds that even though he is walking on top of the water, it is hard to keep his balance with the waves going up and down under his feet. Then he notices the wind again. The text says he was “seeing the wind.” You do not see the wind itself, but its effect on other things. Peter feels it against his face and he sees how big the waves are that the wind has kicked up. That is the point when doubt enters, faith departs, and he begins to sink.
Is that not the way it is with us? We understand something of the nature of Christ and step out in faith to obey him and we do great until we start examining our circumstances and begin doubting.
You’re doing great at witnessing until you notice they are not responding as favorably as you had hoped, maybe they are frowning or asking tough questions and soon you doubt your life is pure enough and your speaking ability is good enough to convince them. Fear comes in and faith departs. Witnessing is not about your ability rather than God using you in your weakness.
Your spiritual life is going great. You really are learning to seek the Lord and His righteousness first. Then a financial crisis looms. How do you respond? Will the Lord really provide for your needs or do you need to do business in the shady way other companies are doing it? Do you take on so much extra work that you compromise your family? Do you justify cheating on your taxes or get involved in an insurance fraud?
Your devotional life was just getting on track. You are taking time to not only read your Bible, but really study it as well as entering into earnest prayer. Then something happens that changes your schedule of activities so you have less free time. Now, if your devotional life is to continue it must come out of the time you had set aside for entertainment and leisure or maybe even sleep. What do you do then? Are your eyes fixed on Jesus or on the things you think you deserve? Has doubt about the purpose and meaning of life entered so that your faith is compromised or do you keep walking on top of the water to meet Jesus?
You see we are no different than Peter in the smallness of our faith, except that it maybe is even less. But it is not our faith that is important, it is the one in whom we have placed that faith. Notice that when Peter starts sinking He calls out for help, which is the same thing we should do. And we find the Lord graciously reaching out to him, lifting him up, and taking him to safety. We can and should do the same thing when we find ourselves in trouble with our faith failing and our lives sinking. Jesus is there and He will help.
But there is one problem we encounter here that keeps many people from calling for help. They do not want to be rebuked. They do not want to be told that they failed. People let their pride get in the way. God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, so humble yourselves under His mighty hand and He will exalt you at the proper time (1 Peter 5:5, 6). God will lift you up and restore you. Jesus did that with Peter on several occasions. He will do so for you as well.
The last thing I want to point out from this story is the response of all the disciples when Jesus and Peter got back into the boat. Verse 33. “And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘You are certainly God’s Son.'”
Matthew’s point has been made once again. Jesus is the promised Messiah and the disciples once again recognize and declare His deity. There is no other way possible that Jesus could have done what He did because it was more than just a demonstration of His divine power, but also of His divine love and care for the disciples. The proper response to Jesus is to worship Him.
Was 1993 a tough year? For many it was. It was for my family. But having a lot of troubles and trials is no reason to become a cynic and despair of the coming year. It really is no reason to complain about the year passing by. Cynicism, despair, and complaint come when we take our eyes off Jesus and place them on the circumstances around us we cannot control. We start doubting the Lord’s promises, our faith departs, and we try to work things out in our own power. That is when we start to sink into the gloom of depression. Yet the sooner we learn that we cannot control our circumstances and that the key to overcoming them is keeping our eyes on Jesus, the better off we will be. It is only when we remember that the goal of our lives is to draw close to Him and to do His will can we hope to live a joyful life in the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Many have gone before us and set the example to follow in the life of faith. You can read about some of them in Hebrews 11, the great cloud of witnesses that surround us, so “let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Let us learn a lesson from Peter. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus and let us quickly cry out for help when we fail.
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