The Possibility of the Impossible
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. A well-known conference speaker, he is also a visiting lecturer at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
Scripture reading: Matthew 14:22-36.
Many years ago L.S. Rao, a noted exponent of yoga, tried to live up to an announcement that he would walk on water, without even getting his feet wet. Some 600 spectators from as far as New Delhi paid $20 to $100 each to watch him do it in Bombay. Rao warmed up by swallowing what he said were steel tacks and nitric acid and walking over hot embers. Then he walked up to a steel tank filled with water. He placed a foot on the surface of the water—and sank straight to the bottom. As angry spectators demanded their money back, Rao explained that he had slipped on the Saturday previous and, because of the injury, could not achieve a state of levitation. He invited them to come back and watch him try again. No doubt few accepted the invitation.
In one of the national magazines at about the same time there appeared a cartoon of a man walking on water in a swimming pool of a luxury hotel, hands outstretched balancing himself. The caption under the cartoon came from a person sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella to another person by the side of the table, “Amazing! It’s been years since that’s been done really well!” So it has. In fact, it has only been done twice, once by the Lord Jesus and once by Peter. The first instance was not really surprising, considering the identity of the Person who performed the feat, but the second instance was truly amazing.
Can you walk on the land? Of course, that’s easy, for the land is your natural habitat, your proper element. The real test of metal is this: Can you walk on the water? Well, no, only the Lord can do that. But did not Peter do it also? Not in his own strength, that’s true, but did he not walk on the sea also? Yes, he did, through the enabling power of the Lord Jesus. And does not that tell us something important about the Christian life? I think it does, as we shall see in the following study.
The Christian life is the impossible life. That can stand some emphasis. The Christian life is not hard and difficult; it is impossible, just as impossible as Peter’s walking on the sea. In fact, that great feat is a beautiful and instructive illustration of the life of union with Christ.
Men have ways of reducing the Christian life, the humanly impossible life, to the insipidly possible. For example, there are those who identify it with the religious life. Public prayers uttered primarily with the lips alone, church attendance, human good works, being kind (or just sickeningly sweet), giving (that may make the minister do handstands, but apart from the divine motivation it is largely worthless), teaching Sunday School classes, ushering at the services, and similar things are equated with the Christian life. But anyone can do these things, even those without a changed heart issuing from the new birth.
Still others identify the Christian life with the legalistic Christian life, characterized by its negatives, or even its positives. The taboos become the important things in the negative stress that is often made prominent in these views. We are exhorted concerning smoking, drinking, dancing, wearing apparel, and other activities. Occasionally the positive things become the important things. Bible study, prayer and witnessing are made the keys to the Christian life, but these good things are emphasized in such a way that the impression is conveyed that they are to be followed in order to obtain merit before God. One makes points with God by means of the activities and, in fact, a kind of spirituality by good works is taught.
The genuine Christian life has a distinctive element about it, the element of the supernatural, for it is produced and sustained by the life of the risen Lord, as it flows through disciples united to Him in the Spirit (cf. Rom. 6:1-14). We see this kind of life in the saints of the Old and the New Testaments. There is scheming Jacob who learns to rest in faith, a supernatural achievement for the supplanter, made possible only by the power of God. There is the Apostle John who is transformed from a son of thunder to an apostle of love. And there is Paul, a persecutor of the faithful, who becomes a preacher of the faith he once sought to stamp out. These are genuine portraits of the life that may be called Christian.
It was the day of the feeding of the five thousand, and the Lord Jesus “constrained” His disciples to get into a boat and go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It seems clear from the Johannine account (cf. 6:14-15) that He hurried them away from the multitude that had just been fed in order that they might not catch the contagion of the crowd, which sought to make Him their kind of political king.
After He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into a mountain by Himself to pray. When the evening came, He found Himself there alone. It is a beautiful picture of the “man, Jesus Christ,” as Paul puts it (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). Someone has said, “No great discovery was ever made on a crowded street.” That is true. And it was characteristic of the Lord Jesus to spend much of His time in prayerful communion with the Father, and it is out of these experiences that there came the mighty events and the telling teaching of His ministry. How much more it ought to be true of us.
Is it not interesting also that the Lord Jesus never prays with His disciples, although he prays much for them. The model prayer of the Sermon on the Mount was given by Him, but it was never used by Him. Even in His prayer life He is the unique Son of God.
As the disciples made their way across the water, the light breezes turned to heavier ones. The stars had been shining, for it was night, but soon they were gone behind the clouds. As the winds became stronger and more blustery Peter took command, and one can imagine him, holding the tiller with his powerful arm, his beard annointed with the white foam of the raging waves, issuing commands to lower the sail, trim the ship, and make ready the oars. The earlier calm had become confusion, and, as was often the case, the Sea of Galilee had become a boiling caldron. As Matthew puts it, “But the boat was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves, for the wind was contrary” (v. 24). Peter and the others were learning the important lesson that storms come, even in the path of duty (cf. v. 22). Like a loving mother-bird thrusts her fledglings from the nest, so they were being thrust from their spiritual nests by His side that they might learn to fly.
The Sight of the Lord
In the fourth watch of the night, which was from three o’clock in the morning to six o’clock, the Lord, looking out over the lake, saw the disciples “toiling in rowing,” as Mark puts it. So, He came to them, walking upon the sea. The disciples, however, would no doubt have claimed that His coming to them was worse than His delay in coming, for they were troubled and cried out in fear. I can imagine Peter, seeing Him coming, saying, “Look! what is that?” And they shrieked (as the Greek text has it) “It’s a ghost!” (14:26).
We who live in the twentieth century smile when we read an account like this, for we do not believe in ghosts. It is doubtful, however, if that other invisible, hidden world has ever lost its power over this world. Our rationalism, our scientism, our infidelity and unbelief do not seem to matter. In the times of stress there are many who still believe in ghosts.
The disciples had been worried about perishing in the storm, although they were seasoned and experienced fishermen. Now, something worse than the storm was coming to them. After all, fisherman can fight a storm and have some hope of success, but what can one do against a water-demon, a ghost? Their next destination surely would be Davey Jones’ locker!
Jewish popular belief often recounted the appearances of unusual apparitions on the sea, for the Jews were people of the land, not the water, so the idea of water-ghosts was one that was common in the speech and thought of the ordinary people.1 But, instead of some ancient evil and familiar spirit it was the Lord! And is it not often true that God’s answers to our trials and tragedies seem to be as bad as ghosts, when really they are ministrations from a loving heavenly Father. His delays are not denials; they are part of His loving discipline. “It is the belief that God cares,” J.W.C. Wand wrote, “that marks off Christianity from all other religions, which under all varieties of form are occupied with the task of MAKING GOD CARE.”2
The liberal view of the walking on the water is that Jesus was really walking on the sea shore and the disciples mistook Him for walking on the water when really He was wading through the surf near the hidden shore.3 Would not our Lord have corrected their mistake?4 Why, then, were they “sore afraid”? Did Peter, when he walked on the water and sank into its depths, really sink down into the sand? John may be interpreted in this fashion more easily than the other gospels. Matthew and Mark make it plain that they understood the event as a miracle, a real walking on the water (cf. 14:25-26; Mark 6:48). That is what it was.5
It is said, “All good sermons have three points.” By this questionable standard our Lord’s sermon to the disciples, which He preached upon the water, was a good one. It had three points. The first was, “Be of good cheer.” That is an excellent exhortation and, coming from Him, needs little shoring up, but ordinarily exhortations are only as good as the enabling foundation of them. This one has the soundest foundations and offers the greatest of hopes, for it rests upon the second point of the sermon, the affirmation of His deity. The words, “it is I,” are sufficient to uphold us in any of the circumstances of life. It is the equivalent of the Old Testament affirmation by which Jehovah encouraged Israel in her deepest moments of need, “I am He” (cf. Isa. 43:2; Deut. 32:39, etc.). That was the great theophanic formula, used at the important feasts of Jehovah, and it was used in the Passover liturgy. This event occurred at the time of the Passover (cf. John 6:4), and the Passover liturgy glorified God as the God who rules the waters. It is as if His coming on the water is to remind them that He is that God, the Old Testament convenant-keeping Sovereign who makes good all His Word to His own. It said, in effect, where I am, there God is, there God lives, speaks, calls, acts, loves, forgives and helps. Nothing bolder or more significant can be said.
Therefore, the third point of the sermon follows naturally, “be not afraid.” How can they be afraid, when this profoundest of divine declarations has fallen upon their ears to encourage them. Another historical epiphany of God, the final one, has taken place in Jesus Christ, and He has pledged Himself to care for His people. What comfort!
The Sinking of Peter
We are not surprised to hear Peter speak up amidst the storm, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (14:28).
The answer of the Lord to Peter’s request is, “Come” (v. 29). And Peter climbed out of the boat, put his feet upon the water and began to walk towards Jesus. His walking, an amazing thing in itself, illustrates both man’s strength and weakness. Peter’s walking illustrates his strength when in harmony with the mind of the Lord, or when acting in communion with Him. Evidently Peter walked quite a distance on the water before he, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me” (v. 30), for the Lord had only to put forth his hand to catch the sinking fisherman. Then they walked back to the boat together! Now observe that, while Peter kept his eye on the Lord Jesus, he did just what Jesus did. He walked on the water. The moment, however, that he took his eye off the Lord and saw the boisterous wind and the raging waves, he lost all power to walk on the water and began to sink. Here, then, is both the strength and weakness of redeemed man.
“Holy living,” Arthur T. Pierson has noted, “is as much a miracle to the natural man as is walking on the water, which presents no proper foundation for our feet, having neither stability nor equilibrium, and especially when tossed up and down and driven to and fro by the wind. The secret of Peter’s power to triumph over what was otherwise impossible was this, that he was in touch with Jesus by faith and had Christ’s power in him: and the secret of his sinking is equally plain—he lost touch with Jesus and became as any other impotent mortal, unable to cope with the difficulties of the situation. But what we need to emphasize is that one moment he was strong TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE and the next moment UTTERLY WEAK and sinking. So a human soul can be strong one moment and weak the next, omnipotent or impotent, and it all depends on the touch of faith which brings virtue out of Christ.”6 That is the point of verse 31.
One wonders if this incident is the source of the great statement of the Apostle in 1 Peter 1:5, “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
The brevity of Peter’s prayer for deliverance should not be overlooked, and it is a lesson to us. Long and flowery prayers are not always proper, and, if Peter had been disposed to offer one of them, he would have been six feet under water before he reached the heart of his petition!
The Sequel to the Storm
Matthew continues his account of the incident by writing, “And when they were come into the boat, the wind ceased” (v. 32). The historical facts described here seem to point beyond the literal event to spiritual principles. The solution to the riddles and troubles of life lies in the relationship of communion with the Lord Jesus. Contrary elements yield to the divine presence; to receive Him into the ship is to find the answer to our questions and needs.
He is, by the feeding of the five thousand, the Lord of bread, and now, by the walking on the water, He demonstrates that He is also Lord of the billows. He can multiply the one and mollify the other.
When He entered the boat with Peter, the others came and worshipped HIM (not Peter, who also had walked on the sea). It is fitting that this incident should end in worship, for the highest function of the redeemed soul is just that—worship, not service. Life is a relationship which, through supernatural experiences, leads to Him.
The expression of their worship centers in the confession that Jesus is, “the Son of God” (v. 33). This is the first time that men call Him the Son of God and, no doubt, this is one of the reasons that Matthew has given us this incident. The consciousness of the Messianic position and the divine nature of the Lord Jesus is gradually being developed in the minds of the apostles by the Holy Spirit. He is the Messiah, they had come to see, but now that vision is broadening to embrace the concept of a divine Messiah, a Messiah who is also Son of God.
Thus, again, in the account we are face to face with the mystery of the divine Son, possessed of two natures, one human and one divine, a Son of God who prays (v. 23) and commands the elements (vv. 25, 32). The combination of utter lowliness and transcendent loftiness pervades the entire life and history of our Lord Jesus Christ. This strange combination of elements could never have been invented and portrayed through a lengthy series of events so harmoniously by poets of the greatest genius or authors with the skills of an Aeschylus or a Shakespeare. The only explanation of the riddle of the composition of the four gospels, in which the total lowliness and absolute loftiness of the Son of God are so beautifully blended, is that the “gospel writers” were in reality only reporters, who originated nothing and imagined nothing, but simply observed everything and described what they saw. The reconciliation of the two things found its explanation in the One who was both the Man of Sorrows and at the same time the Eternal Son of God.
The Significance of The Sign
The event may be considered from three standpoints: (1) history; (2) prophecy; (3) parable.
1. First, from the standpoint of history the walking on the water is another of the mighty Messianic signs which identify the Lord Jesus as the Davidic Messiah.
2. From the standpoint of prophecy the incident is a revealing event that provides us with some insight into the present ministry of the Son of God. While the disciples are toiling away on the Sea of Galilee in obedience to His commands, He is in the mountain praying. The picture is suggestive of the present high priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus at the right hand of the Father where “He ever lives to make intercession for them” (cf. Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34).
3. Third, from the standpoint of parable, remembering that all our Lord’s miracles are in measure parables in the sense that they illustrate truth, we have here an example of how He meets the needs of serving and suffering saints. Storms are often in the path of duty, but there is always safety in our Immanuel, who amid the storms comes with His sovereign and calming presence, “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:6). That great promise rests upon an equally great one, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (13:5).
So then, in conclusion, let me ask the question again, “Can you walk on the sea?” You said, “no,” in your heart. But I ask it again, pointing you to Peter and to the Lord for the answer. Peter told us a great truth. With eyes upon Christ, we can walk on the sea, and He invites us do to so, and this is the glory of the Christian life—life from the virtue, from the power of the risen Son to whom we are united. In the final analysis only Christ can live the Christian life (cf. Phil. 1:21; Heb. 12:1-3).
1 Strack and Billerbeck, I, 691.
2 J.W.C. Wand, The General Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude, p. 125.
3 Taylor, Mark, p. 327.
4 Cranfield, Mark, p. 226.
5 R.H. Strachan, The Fourth Gospel (London, 1955), p. 182.
6 Arthur T. Pierson, Shall We Continue in Sin?, pp. 42-43.