The Wildness of Encounter: Will, Worship, and Walking on Water with God

Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. After dismissing the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone. But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning, He came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear.

Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s You,” Peter answered Him, “command me to come to You on the water.”

“Come!” He said.

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out His hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those in the boat worshiped Him and said, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:22–33)

Storm and stillness. Longing and grief. Fear, faith, and transcendence. There may be no more powerful story in the gospels than this — the encounter with Jesus that at long last wrung the confession from his disciples, Truly you are the Son of God.

The story began with Jesus still wanting to be alone after the death of his cousin John. If you recall, in the passage immediately before this one Jesus attempted to get away from the crowds and go away on his own. It’s an instinct many of us can understand — the instinct to grieve, to withdraw, to crumble in weakness and find new strength where the stones bore into our knees.

But he didn’t get to withdraw, because the crowds followed, seeking healing. And even in that moment when he wanted to be alone, Jesus found compassion and virtue enough to heal them and then, miraculously, to feed them — to feed perhaps ten thousand of them with bread and fish.

But he was still human. He needed what he needed; the interruption may only have made his sense of need worse.

So when he had finished feeding the crowds, he hustled his disciples into a boat and sent them out to sea, directing them to go ahead of him to the other side. There’s no indication that he explained when or how he would join them, or why he was rushing them away into the evening, into the darkness of night, rather than waiting for morning. Perhaps they didn’t need an explanation. Jesus wanted to be alone.

With the disciples gone, Jesus dismissed the crowds and “went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.” As always in the gospels, there is a curtain drawn over this prayer; the disciples knew that Jesus often went into wild places to pray, but since they didn’t follow him, we have no record of his prayers — what prayer looked like for him, what it sounded like.

(The exceptions are the long, “high priestly” prayer of John 17, which the disciples did hear, and the agony of Gethsemane, which either someone witnessed or Jesus described to them after the resurrection.)

From Humanity to Transcendence

Few moments in Matthew’s story make Jesus look so human, so urgently occupied by his own need that his actions seemed discourteous and even illogical.

We have all been there: the most unselfish and generous of us, snatched up by grief or pain or pressing need, knows this urgency to withdraw at all costs and seek God or solitude, consequences to be dealt with later.

But few moments make look Jesus look so transcendent either.

While he was praying on the mountain, at last pouring out his heart or having it poured into — we don’t know which, or if it was both — a storm blew up and kept the disciples more or less stalled out on the sea, frantically rowing against the wind and trying to make some progress in the direction Jesus had sent them. They weren’t winning. Hours had passed and they were only about a mile from the shore.

So Jesus, finally relieved of his need to be alone, simply walked out on the water to join them.

He did what no man can do, what no man has ever done. He walked across the sea in a storm, master of the waves, master of the wind, transcendent, calm.

Never had he looked so much like God.

The Place Where Peter Met Him

In that place, where the humanity of Jesus gave way to a wild, ghostly, supernatural transcendence, Peter stepped out to meet the man he’d chosen to follow.

For the disciples, the past day and night had been equally full of sorrow, euphoria, and complete bewilderment. They’d heard the news of John’s murder, felt the sickening shock of it, and the grief and fear. John was on their side; he had been a personal friend to some of them (Andrew was a disciple of John’s before he began following Jesus); he was responsible for clearing the ground for their ministry to begin.

If authorities would murder him with impunity, Jesus and his disciples were not safe either.

That potent mix of sudden loss and fear was interrupted by the arrival of huge crowds and the need to kick into high ministry gear, because Jesus didn’t send the crowds away but decided to help them instead.

The sheer administrative burden of the day began to run things, dropping the disciples into a mechanical carrying-out of duty and responsibility, which grew heavier when they realized the people needed to eat and they might soon have a riot on their hands, or at least a great deal of quasi-justifiable complaint — and then the miracle happened. Jesus broke a few loaves of bread and a few small fish and fed thousands with them.

It was exhilarating. Nothing like it had been seen since the days of Moses.

All that, and then late afternoon came, and Jesus all but pushed his disciples into a boat and sent them packing without a clear plan or much explanation. And then darkness fell, and the storm came. Hours of rowing, sweating and fear, backbreaking futility.

This is the truth of following Jesus: it is not predictable, it is wild. It is mundanity and responsibility, miracles and disorder. It is darkness, storms, and glimpses of overpowering light. There are moments that take your breath away and moments when all you can do is pray for a chance to catch your breath.

Through it all, Jesus becomes familiar and sometimes even aggravating. But then you see him walking on water, and you encounter him as you never have before. You are reminded that this man is a man, but he is more than that; he is something that doesn’t belong to the world as you’ve ever known it. And he makes you feel that you can do things you have never done.

That is where Peter met Jesus: in the wildness of encounter, where nothing makes much sense, but what you see is beautiful and powerful and it calls to you.

A Meeting of Wills

Peter’s call to Jesus reflects the powerful yearning of his soul toward God: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to You on the water.”

Lord, command me to come. It’s not a request — not exactly. Peter knows what he wants and also knows he can’t just volunteer for it; that if he just throws himself overboard, without the Lord’s command to impart to him authority and power, he will sink. But neither is he willing to remain in the boat. He’s not passive in this moment, not in any way; his whole being longs to get out on the water. So he commands the Lord’s command: he tells God what to tell him to do, so that he can obey.

As Christians we know that we’re called to obedience, submission, and surrender, and that can lead us to a passivity or a fatalism in how we relate to God. We imagine he desires our subservience. Yet that’s not the God we see anywhere in Scripture, least of all here.

Jesus, walking on the water, drew a wild desire from Peter. Peter called up the full force of his own will to ask for what he wanted.

And Jesus, hearing Peter’s longing, echoed it back to him. He gave him what he wanted in a single word:


This Is Faith

Faith is not a flaccid thing; it is a thing of will and desire, of power and encounter. Anyone could have told Peter to walk on the water; only God could empower him to do it. The power was in the command itself; when God calls us, his very word of calling creates in us the ability to carry out what we are told to do.

So Peter walked out on the water. He did what no man can do, or had ever done; he strode out into the storm with Jesus.

But the wind was high. The waves were towering and destructive. Peter saw it all, saw himself doing the impossible, feared, and began to sink.

Jesus’s admonition afterward — “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” — begs the question as to what exactly Peter doubted. Jesus’s power? His good will? A little of both? Peter’s fear was a human thing, natural and instinctive. But it didn’t entirely eclipse his faith in Jesus either; he had enough trust left to cry out, “Lord, save me!”

And Jesus, of course, did.

This too is following Jesus. The transcendent victories and failures all tend to be mixed up together. We are filled and glorified by grace and rescued by it too.

You Are the Son of God

The disciples’ confession at the end of this story is a significant and powerful one. When Jesus and Peter got back into the boat, the wind immediately died away, and Jesus’s followers — really seeing him, maybe for the first time — fell at his feet and said, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Their action set them apart. They did what the hungry, restless, miracle-seeking crowds did not, and what the legalistic, hypocritical Pharisees certainly refused to do: they responded to Jesus with a commitment of faith.

“Truly you are the Son of God.” Perhaps surprisingly, this was the first time the disciples ever made such a confession. Maybe they’d never been convinced until now. The Father said it, way back in Matthew 317: “And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son.
I take delight in Him!” The devil himself used it during the temptations of Matthew 4, and demons screamed it in protest — “What do You have to do with us, Son of God?” (Matthew 8:29). But humanity was slow to catch up with what the heavens knew.

Exactly what the disciples meant by their confession, we can’t precisely say. In Jewish dialogue of the day, the title was a messianic one, indicating — by way of Psalm 2 — the promised Davidic king. We will see this most clearly later in Matthew, when the high priest asks of Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” (Matthew 26:63). So they did not necessarily mean to say that Jesus was God.

But then again, they had just seen him walk on water and still a storm. They had seen him be far, far more than human. In the ancient myths of Canaan-land, only gods commanded seas. And the disciples did not merely confess that Jesus was messiah. Matthew tells us that they worshipped him.

The Day of Our Visitation

Jesus no longer walks among us in human form. But he is still among us, still able to be encountered. We are invited, as the disciples were, to know him. He will reach out to us in many ways, in ways that may be common to many or unique to us. He will stir up our longing and call us to respond.

In this particular story, I find the powerful, universal invitation of our incarnational God: to see him in his humanity. To see him in his divinity. And to respond as Peter did, as the disciples did. To reach out in faith. To say, “Lord, command me.” When he says “Come,” to walk out on waters of our own.

And finally, humbled and rescued and receiving, to fall down at his feet and say with the disciples, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

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This is Part 232 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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