J.C. Ryle, a faithful English theologian of the 1800s is rightfully well known for one of his hallmark works––Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. As his comments and insights on Matthew 14:22-36 had particular impact on my mind as I read them recently, the scripture, followed by Ryle’s thoughts, are copied further below.
But lest we think warm, comforting applications of scripture exhorting us to take heart in times of trouble are only written by theologians in prosperous times, we should review Ryle’s case. When writing expository thoughts on Matthew, Ryle suffered the loss of his dear wife, struggled to provide for the needs of his young, now motherless, child, sent hardly superfluous money to help pay off an inherited family debt and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ despite the resulting contention by the Lord of the land in that part of old England.
Indeed, these thoughts and gleanings sustained the heart of a suffering man as he was comforted by the grace and mercy of Christ––I suppose it just so happened that he wrote them down.
22 Immediately afterward He compelled the disciples to get into the boat and to go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. 23 After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. 24 But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter responded and said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out with His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are truly God’s Son!”
34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent word into all that surrounding region and brought to Him all who were sick; 36 and they pleaded with Him that they might just touch the border of His cloak; and all who touched it were cured.
The history contained in these verses, is one of singular interest. The miracle here recorded brings out in strong light the character both of Christ and His people. The power and mercy of the Lord Jesus, and the mixture of faith and unbelief in His best disciples, are beautifully illustrated.
We learn, in the first place, from this miracle, what absolute dominion our Savior has over all created things. We see Him “walking on the sea,” as if it was dry land. Those angry waves which tossed the ship of His disciples to and fro, obey the Son of God, and become a solid floor under His feet. That liquid surface, which was agitated by the least breath of wind, bears up the feet of our Redeemer, like a rock. To our poor, weak minds, the whole event is utterly incomprehensible. The picture of two feet walking on the sea, is said by Doddridge to have been the Egyptian emblem of an impossible thing. The man of science will tell us, that for material flesh and blood to walk on water is a physical impossibility. Enough for us to know that it was done. Enough for us to remember, that to Him who created the seas at the beginning, it must have been perfectly easy to walk over their waves when He pleased.
There is encouragement here for all true Christians. Let them know that there is nothing created, which is not under Christ’s control. “All things serve Him.” He may allow His people to be tried for a season, and tossed to and fro by storms of trouble. He may be later than they wish in coming to their aid, and not draw near until the “fourth watch of the night.” But never let them forget that winds, and waves, and storms are all Christ’s servants. They cannot move without Christ’s permission. “The Lord on high is mightier than the voice of many waters, yes than the mighty waves of the sea.” (Psalm 93:4.) Are we ever tempted to cry with Jonah, “the flood was all around me. All your waves and your billows passed over me.” (Jonah 2:3.) Let us remember they are “His” billows. Let us wait patiently. We may yet see Jesus coming to us, and “walking on the sea.”
We learn, in the second place, from this miracle, what power Jesus can bestow on those who believe on Him. We see Simon Peter coming down out of the ship, and walking on the water, like His Lord. What a wonderful proof was this of our Lord’s divinity! To walk on the sea Himself was a mighty miracle. But to enable a poor weak disciple to do the same, was a mightier miracle still.
There is a deep meaning in this part of our history. It shows us what great things our Lord can do for those that hear His voice, and follow Him. He can enable them to do things which at one time they would have thought impossible. He can carry them through difficulties and trials, which without Him they would never have dared to face. He can give them strength to walk through fire and water unharmed, and to get the better of every foe. Moses in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, the saints in Nero’s household, are all examples of His mighty power. Let us fear nothing, if we are in the path of duty. The waters may seem deep. But if Jesus says, “Come,” we have no cause to be afraid. “He who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also, and greater works than these will he do.” (John 14:12.)
Let us learn, in the third place, from this miracle, how much trouble disciples bring on themselves by unbelief. We see Peter walking boldly on the water for a little way. But by and bye, when he sees “the wind was strong,” he is afraid, and begins to sink. The weak flesh gets the better of the willing spirit. He forgets the wonderful proofs of his Lord’s goodness and power, which he had just received. He considered not that the same Savior who had enabled him to walk one step, must be able to hold him up forever. He did not reflect that he was nearer to Christ when once on the water, than he was when he first left the ship. Fear took away his memory. Alarm confused his reason. He thought of nothing but the winds and waves and his immediate danger, and his faith gave way. “Lord,” He cried, “save me.”
What a lively picture we have here of the experience of many a believer! How many there are who have faith enough to take the first step in following Christ, but not faith enough to go on as they begun. They take fright at the trials and dangers which seem to be in their way. They look at the enemies that surround them, and the difficulties that seem likely to beset their path. They dwell on them more than on Jesus, and at once their feet begin to sink. Their hearts faint within them. Their hope vanishes away. Their comforts disappear. And why is all this? Christ is not altered. Their enemies are not greater than they were. It is just because, like Peter, they have ceased to look to Jesus, and have given way to unbelief. They are taken up with thinking about their enemies, instead of thinking about Christ. May we lay this to heart, and learn wisdom.
Let us learn, in the last place, from this miracle, how merciful our Lord Jesus Christ is to weak believers. We see Him stretching forth His hand immediately to save Peter, as soon as Peter cried to Him. He does not leave him to reap the fruit of his own unbelief, and sink in the deep waters. He only seems to consider his trouble, and to think of nothing so much as delivering him from it. The only word He utters, is the gentle reproof, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Behold in this concluding part of the miracle, the exceeding “gentleness of Christ!” He can bear with much, and forgive much, when He sees true grace in a man’s heart. As a mother deals gently with her infant, and does not cast it away because of its little waywardness and frowardness, so does the Lord Jesus deal gently with His people. He loved and pitied them before conversion, and after conversion He loves and pities them still more. He knows their feebleness, and bears long with them. He would have us know that doubting does not prove that a man has no faith, but only that his faith is small. And even when our faith is small, the Lord is ready to help us. “When I said, my foot is slipping, your loving-kindness, O Lord, held me up.” (Psalm. 94:18.)
How much there is in all this to encourage men to serve Christ! Where is the man that ought to be afraid to begin running the Christian race, with such a Savior as Jesus? If we fall, He will raise us again. If we err, He will bring us back. But His mercy shall never be altogether taken from us. He has said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” and He will keep His word. May we only remember, that while we do not despise little faith, we must not sit down content with it. Our prayer must ever be, “Lord, increase our faith.”1
1Ryle, J.C. (1856). Expository Thoughts on Matthew (pp. 134-137). Edinburgh: Banner of Truth.