Today’s Reading: Matthew 14
(Context: The death of John the Baptist is followed by a very full day of work for Jesus, as he heals, teaches, and does awesome mind-bending miracles).
The beheading of Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, is recounted in Matthew 14, detailing the power-struggle and proud nature in the Galilean Herod Antipas’ family. Jesus, being fully and entirely human, as Hebrews 2:17 dictates, looked for a time alone to express His sorrow before His Father, and mourn the death of the beloved “Elijah”. The Kingdom message had been rejected, and now its precursor had been killed. The King would have to suffer before entering His glory, as Jesus later explained in Luke 24:26. The only option now was for His death, even death on the wretched and terrible cross. Yet, even with this in His mind, the people still looked for Him, and so He had compassion on them, and healed and taught them.
Finally, late into the evening, Jesus is left to feed some 10,000 starving people, who might have loved Him more for His miracles than for His message. It is late, He is exhausted, He is sorrowful, and He wishes to be completely alone. Jesus here dispatches the disciples in their little Galilean fishing boat, and He heads up to the hills along the coast, looking for solitude and time with His Father. I wonder what the disciples thought: How are we going to meet up again? Do you want us to come back for you in the morning?
Long after the sun had gone down, in the darkness, Jesus has now been spiritually refreshed, and is now empowered to continue on. Some people sleep for rest, others pray for it. Both are necessary.
In the cold shadows and mist of the Galilean Sea, it may have been Peter who first spots a strange figure slowly making its way to the boat. Is that a ghost? He whispers, pointing out the figure to his fellows. Soon, it becomes clear that Jesus, their master, is walking on the water, nonchalantly making His way over the waves as the cold night wind blows in His face. Jesus! Peter exclaims, both in shock and in an amazing realization.
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. (Matthew 14:28-29)
In quick succession, Peter experienced belief, petition, action, doubt, human failure, and salvation. He believed in Christ’s ability to walk on water, and logically deduced he could also experience such a thing. He desired Jesus to command Him to come to Him on the water. His petition was based on Jesus’ will, for he knew he himself could never accomplish such a feat. At the word “Come”, Peter rushed out (action) of the boat in a moment of elation, stepping firmly on the waves, in complete awe at the reality of his experience. Can this be real? Just then, his mind reverts to its natural state of doubt, and disbelief grows in him. He looks at his feet, at the waves, and feels the pulsating wind. I can’t. Faith has become doubt, and the weight of it sinks him violently into the raging water. His own ability had not allowed him to continue walking on water, for he had never had experience with such a thing. He had heard the command, and had been willed to follow such a command, yet when his will naturally took over, he failed hopelessly (human failure). We cannot will ourselves to do the impossibilities which God Almighty commands.
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:30-31)
Salvation comes, not through his ability, but through his renewed faith in Jesus’ ability to rescue him.
Augustine once said the profound words, likely based on his meditation of this very passage in Matthew 14:
“Lord, command what you will, and will what you command.”
This weekend I preached on Augustine, the later proclaimed “Dr. Grace”, as we thanked God for such an example as him. The full and depraved sinner, saved wholly by grace, and kept from relapsing entirely by the arms of grace. We are saved by grace and kept by grace; it is an eternal state that begins at the moment of conversion.
Doubts may give us relapses, and cause us to stumble and have “little faith”, but we must remember that the command to follow Jesus must be a combination of His will and our will, for if He does not will salvation, we cannot attain it. That is why it’s called a gift, because you can’t force someone to give you a gift, but you can will to reject the gift offered. And so we hear the command, “Come”, and so we come to Christ because of His will and ability to save us. Then we cry out, “save me”, for we have forgotten that He must will what He commands. Human effort can only go so far as to realize one’s helplessness and cry for help. He must then will us to complete what He commands us to do.
God tells us: “Be perfect”, and yet we cannot comply alone. He tells us, “Be holy, as I am holy”, and we cannot obey alone. He tells us “Come”, and we falter and fall in the weight of our inability. He has declared His command for us, but we are not able to fulfill it with our sinful will. We must have both His command and His will to accomplish it, be it salvation, or sanctification, or glorification.
By grace you are saved, by grace you are kept, by grace you will receive what is promised to you. All I did was cry out and call out for salvation, and He heard and willed me to fulfill what He commanded. We can have faith, but we cannot attain grace through this faith, unless he wills to give it to us. Human pride may say otherwise, but clearly Peter didn’t walk on water because he wanted to but because he was enabled to.
In conclusion: I call-out to God, and He commands me to come to Him for salvation, and then He wills/enables me to come.
[Note: My purpose is not to affirm or deny the theories expressed in either Calvinism or Armenianism, but simply to state and interpret the passage at hand. I believe the aforementioned debate is most times useless and stereotypical, so I prefer to simply state what this passage in this context teaches us. For the record, Augustine and Calvin were neither “Calvinist” or “Armenianist” because such theological structures did not exist for them, though their theological bent in today’s light is more towards Calvinism.]