Lessons in Faith
Scripture: Matthew 14:1–14:36
Synopsis: In this message, we resume our journey through the Gospel of Matthew. In the context of growing rejection and opposition to his ministry, Jesus begins to focus his ministry on his disciples. Matthew 14 describes two powerful miracles of Jesus; one public, the other private. But both are intended to teach Lessons of Faith to his followers. What can we learn from this chapter for times in life when the demands of life and ministry exceed our resources? Or when we follow Jesus’ commands and find ourselves in a storm? Or when we start to “walk on water” in a new faith venture – and we are overwhelmed by fear?
Last week, as most of you know, I announced my intention to retire in November, 2015. This has been in my mind and on my heart for some time. As I began to plan and contemplate these final months of my ministry here and what my priorities need to be in order to “finish well”, the Lord strongly impressed on my heart the words of Scripture which Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13-16.
13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
It was as though the Lord was speaking directly to me. “Until you leave, keep on devoting yourself to the exposition and teaching of Scripture. That is the gift I have given you. Don’t neglect it. Practice it. Persist in it. Immerse yourself in it.” So that is what I am recommitting myself to do. I have 14 months left here at ECC. This is the best and the most important gift I can offer to the church during this time of transition. Let’s enjoy these months together by immersing ourselves in the Scripture.
We are going to do that by returning to our study in the Gospel of Matthew. We started this study a year ago in September. Between September and February, we worked our way through the first half of the book, through Matthew 13. So now we are going to take up the study in chapter 14 and over the next 4 or 5 months, we will work our way through the rest of the book.
Before we do that, let me just take us back over a very brief review of where we have been. Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. His unique perspective and emphasis is to introduce Jesus as the King of the Jews. He begins his book with a royal genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, but with a special mention of the fact that he came through the line of “David the king.” His account of Jesus’ birth includes the fact that he was born in Bethlehem, the royal “city of David.” He also includes the story of the wise men who came asking: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The initial preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus was a simple message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom is at hand because the king has come.
In Matthew 5-7, in what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what we might refer to as his “Kingdom Manifesto”. What kind of kingdom was he offering? What kind of people will enter this kingdom? What are kingdom values and kingdom ethics?
At the conclusion of his great sermon, the people marveled because Jesus taught with such authority. In the next few chapters, Jesus clearly demonstrates his authority through a number of stunning miracles. He demonstrated his authority over disease by healing the sick, over the forces of nature by calming the storm, over the demons by casting them out of the oppressed and even his authority to forgive sins – an authority that belongs to God alone, thus staking his claim to divine authority.
But as Jesus’ teaching and his fame and reputation spread, so did the opposition to his ministry. This opposition was particularly intense among the Jewish leaders. This rejection came to a climax in Matthew 12, when the Jewish leaders accused him of doing his miracles by the power of the devil.
This was a significant turning point in Jesus’ ministry, and one of the marks of that turning point is that Jesus began to teach in parables; stories which were capable of both revealing truth to the receptive while concealing it from those with hardened hearts. The key parable in Matthew 13 is the parable of the sower and the four kinds of soil – as Jesus made it clear that people would respond to the message of his kingdom in different ways. Chapter 13 represents a key transition in the focus of Jesus’ ministry as well. While he will continue to minister to the multitudes and to demonstrate his power and authority through miracles, he now begins to focus his attention and teaching increasingly on his disciples; preparing them for what is to come and the ministry he is equipping them to do.
This is where we pick up the story in Matthew 14. We are going to cover the entire chapter today, although we only read part of the chapter in the Scripture reading. There are three sections in the chapter, narrating three significant events. The first section reminds us of the context of increasing rejection and opposition by telling of the beheading of John the Baptist. This connects with the final paragraph in Matthew 13, where we are told about Jesus’ visit to his own home town in Nazareth, where his own extended family and neighbors rejected him. He was a “prophet without honor in his hometown.” Now the greatest of all the prophets, the Messiah’s forerunner was executed under crude circumstances by a wicked ruler; a grisly story made more real by recent happenings in the Middle East in our own day. Not only that, but this same ruler is now hearing about and beginning to worry about the public preaching and ministry of Jesus.
When Jesus hears this report, we are told he “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” I believe there were two reasons for this. One was a simple and a very human one. Jesus was looking for some solitude; a place and time to grieve and to absorb the loss of his cousin and fellow servant of God; his forerunner, the one who had announced his coming and baptized him in the Jordan River. John’s death was surely a painful, personal loss for Jesus. But there was also a strategic dimension to his withdrawal. From Luke’s gospel, we know that he withdrew to the region of Bethsaida which was on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, and actually outside of Herod’s jurisdiction.
But even there, he could not find the solitude he craved. We are told that the crowds heard about his movements. They probably could actually see the progress of his boat as he crossed the north end of the lake. They hurried around the edge of the lake, and actually arrived ahead of him. When Jesus saw the great crowd, we are told that he “had compassion on them.” Literally, his inner organs were stirred with a deep sympathy and compassion for their needs. And so his compassion for others won out over his own needs, and he reached out to touch and heal the sick among them.
This set the stage for one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. In fact, it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is described in all four gospel accounts. It is the miracle of feeding a multitude of over 5000 people with the contents of a little boy’s lunch, and having food left over. We read the story in the Scripture reading, so we won’t take the time to go over the details again now. But there is a lot going on in this event. There is both a public and private purpose to the miracle. We find this often in Jesus’ ministry. He was a master at “multi-tasking”, using the same event or miracle to demonstrate his credentials and authority to the crowds, while at the same time using it to privately teach important lessons of faith, life and ministry to his inner circle of disciples.
On the public level, this is a miracle of creation; using very little and multiplying it, literally creating new food. Only the Creator could do such a miracle. It was also an object lesson, as we discover in the Gospel of John. Jesus used this miracle to introduce his sermon in which he identified himself as the “bread which came down from heaven.” On a more subtle level, by this miracle Jesus demonstrated that he was greater than Moses, who fed the people with manna from heaven.
But while Jesus was demonstrating his credentials to the multitude, he was also teaching some valuable lessons to his disciples. This is actually where Matthew seems to focus his narration as he includes the details of Jesus’ interaction with the Twelve. As afternoon was shading toward evening, the disciples came to him to tell him it was time to send the crowds away. It was late, and they were in an uninhabited place with nothing for the crowds to eat. In response, Jesus tests their faith. “They don’t need to go away,” he said. “You feed them.”
It was an impossible demand in light of their limited resources, as Jesus himself well knew. In fact, in the more detailed account in the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus was testing them. He knew what he was about to do. The disciples responded predictably, just as you and I would. They took stock of their resources and found them to be totally inadequate: five small loaves of barley bread and two fish. “But what are they among so many?” they asked.
Jesus was setting the stage to teach his disciples an important lesson of faith. It is a lesson which you and I need to learn as well. What do we do when the demand exceeds our supply? When the need is greater than our resources? We find the answer here in Jesus’ words in Matthew 14:18: And he said, “Bring them here to me.” We must bring what we do have in our hands, our meager resources, our sparse supply, and we must bring it to Jesus. Give what we do have to him.
When the disciples did this, look what Jesus did with it. He took the five loaves and the two fish in his hands, he looked up to heaven and said a prayer of blessing and thanks. And I really like what comes next. He broke the loaves and the text says, “He gave them to the disciples and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Jesus did the multiplying. The miracle happened in his hands. Then he passed the pieces to the disciples and all the disciples had to do was to give it out to the crowd. And everyone had enough to eat, with food left over.
It was a miracle. It demonstrated the mighty power of Christ in his earthly manifestation as the Son of God. But it was also a faith lesson for his followers. Jesus is teaching us: “When the demands of your life and ministry exceed your supply, give me what you have. Then as I give it back to you, pass it on to others. And there will always be enough to fulfill my purposes and to meet the need of the day – with some left over.”
When the feeding was complete, we are told that Jesus “Immediately…made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” The language here is strong and may sound rather strange. We could translate it, “He compelled them to get into the boat.” Why such urgency? At least part of the answer is provided by John’s gospel. John tells us that when the crowd witnessed this great miracle, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king! But such precipitous and premature action would have been disastrous to the fulfilling of God’s purposes. Possibly the disciples themselves were caught up in the popular enthusiasm of the moment. So Jesus wanted to get them out of the way. Then he himself dismissed the crowd.
Then, and only then, was Jesus able to do what he originally crossed the lake to do. We are told that he “went up on the mountain by himself to pray.” There is a lesson here for us as well. While Jesus postponed his time of prayer and fellowship with his Father because of the urgent demands of his ministry, he did not postpone it indefinitely. Prayer was important to Jesus. Time alone with his heavenly Father was essential to his ministry. It is important to us as well. We may, of necessity, postpone it for a time. But we must be careful not to neglect it or postpone it too long.
Now we come to the third incident in the chapter. This one is my favorite. In fact it is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. Jesus prayed most of the night. Meanwhile, the disciples were out on the lake in their boat. The wind had come up, and it was a strong head wind. They were a couple of miles from the shore, but unable to make progress against the wind. Now, I haven’t done a lot of rowing in my life. But I have done enough to know that it is physically demanding. I can only imagine what it feels like to row, hour after hour, against the wind.
Let’s pause here for another point of application. Life has its share of storms. Sometimes we have a tendency to interpret storms as an indication that we have done something wrong; that we are out of the will of God. We think of the story of Jonah – how he ran away from God, and God used a storm to discipline him and turn him around. But in this case, it is clear that the disciples were not out of the will of God. In fact it was Jesus himself who literally forced them into the boat and sent them out – into the storm. I wonder if one of the reasons Jesus had to compel them to get into the boat was that they could tell that a storm was coming. I wonder if there might have been a few rebellious comments from the disciples about Jesus that night as they bent their weary backs and contemplated their blistered hands and labored against the wind.
Why would Jesus send his disciples to sea in a storm? Why does Jesus sometimes send us into stormy seas? I think the answer is simple. Jesus is training us. And the truth of the matter is that we learn lessons in the storms of life that we would never learn on calm seas. The Apostle Paul looks back on a season of stormy crisis in his own life and makes this observation in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
Paul learned a lesson of trust and faith in the storm that he would not have learned in the calm.
Now Matthew continues his telling of the story by introducing another time marker. He tells us that it was the fourth watch of the night. In Jewish custom, they only divided the night into four watches. That means it was the last few hours before daylight. In the fourth watch of the night, “Jesus came to them.”
It is a wonderful phrase. “Jesus came to them.” But it raises another question in my mind. Why did Jesus wait so long? Several times in this chapter we are told that Jesus did something “immediately”. Why not this time? Why the fourth watch? Why not the second or the third? Well, there’s one obvious answer. Jesus wasn’t finished praying! But I think there was another reason as well. It is all about timing. Jesus knows when to show up. He knows when we’ve reached the end of our strength. He knows when we have learned our lesson, or when we are ready to learn the lesson he is about to teach. His timing is not our timing. But his timing is always perfect. He is never early, but he’s never late.
“In the fourth watch of the night, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.” It was another miracle. Jesus is God. He is the Creator. He is the Master of his creation. He can set aside the laws of physics any time he chooses. Plainly put, if you don’t believe in the supernatural, you don’t believe the Bible. Jesus walked on the water. This dramatic miracle was performed just for the sake of his followers.
Surprising? You better believe it! It certainly surprised the disciples. It scared them out of their wits! When is the last time you saw someone walking on the water in the middle of a storm? They thought they were seeing a ghost. We are told that they cried out in fear. But Jesus hastened to reassure them. “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”
Now we come to an even more fascinating part of the story. It is rather intriguing that Matthew is the only gospel writer to describe this part of the story. Others describe Jesus walking on the water, but not Peter’s part in the story. When Peter heard Jesus speak, he said: “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I have a great deal of respect for Peter at that moment. He is the only one of the twelve with enough confidence and faith in Jesus to make this request. Peter is often described as being impulsive; speak now and think later. But in this case, he demonstrated boldness but not rashness. He asked for the Lord’s command before he stepped out of the boat. There is a line between boldness and folly, between faith and presumption. In this case, Peter got it right. “Command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus responded with a single word of invitation: “Come!” And Peter did. He clambered over the edge of the boat and he walked on the water! What an incredible moment that must have been! I wonder what the water felt like to his feet. Did it feel wet? Or did it feel solid, like the ground? Did it go up and down as the waves came and went? How many steps did he take? I am going to ask Peter all these questions when I see him!
We don’t know how many steps Peter took, but we do know what happened next. Maybe it was a particularly strong gust of wind that shook his confidence, or maybe an especially high wave passed under his feet. But he made the mistake of taking his eyes off Jesus and looking down at the waves. He got scared, and in his fear, he started to sink.
He cried out, “Lord, save me.” Immediately, Jesus stretched out his hand and grabbed him. As he held him, he spoke to him. His words sound kind of harsh as they appear on paper, but I have a strong feeling that Jesus said these words with great gentleness. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” You were doing so well. You only needed to take a few more steps, and you would have reached me.
And so together they climbed into the boat. Immediately the sea grew calm. In fact, one of the gospel accounts states that they immediately arrived at their destination. But not before the disciples experience another “Aha!” moment in their developing faith. We are told that they worshiped him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.”
The disciples had had an earlier experience with Jesus in a storm. Matthew tells this story back in Matthew 8. That time Jesus was in the boat with them. That time Jesus commanded the sea and the wind to be calm. When they did, the disciples marveled and questioned: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” After this second miracle on the sea, their faith has grown even more. “Truly you are the Son of God.” They learned a lesson in the storm that they would not have learned on calm seas or on dry land. It was a theological lesson as well as a faith lesson. It was a lesson that led them to bow and worship before the Son of God. It is the essential “big picture” lesson and purpose of this chapter. Jesus is the Son of God. Such a realization comes by faith and leads to worship.
And so we come to the end of this marvelous chapter, filled with drama and human interest and also rich in application for us today. I have sprinkled points of application throughout the sermon as they have occurred but let me collect some of them together here in my conclusion. A thought occurred to me as I looked at this passage in one of my Bibles. It is one of those Bibles that renders the words of Jesus in red letters. As I looked at it, it struck me that much of the application truth of this chapter can be captured by simply looking at the words of Jesus.
“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Has Jesus ever given you an impossible task? A task that exceeded your resources of finance or time or wisdom or energy? Maybe you were tempted to “send the crowds away.” But Jesus said, “No. I am assigning this task to you. You give them something to eat.”
Maybe Jesus has been nudging you to take on some new task or assignment and to volunteer for some new or difficult ministry, and you’ve been ducking and dodging because you really just don’t have time or energy to spare. Yet Jesus won’t let it rest. He keeps on tapping you on the shoulder, telling you that this is something he wants you to do. “You give them something to eat.”
What shall we do – when the demand is truly greater than our resources? We find the answer in the next words of Jesus.
“Bring them here to me.”
Bring what? Our resources. Whatever we find in our hands and at our disposal. Bring it to Jesus, even if it seems so pitifully small – like a little boy’s lunch. Bring it to Jesus. Place what you have in Jesus’ hands and see what he will do with it.
I believe this is a principle that has numerous applications in our lives, whether the need of the day is financial, or the resources required are resources of wisdom, time, strength or energy. Give what you have to the Lord, let him multiply it, and then as he gives it back to you, give it away, one broken loaf at a time. It will be enough to fulfill God’s purposes in your life. And don’t forget to bring a basket to pick up the leftovers!
What about the stormy seasons of life, when we are pursuing the will of God, but the wind is strong and the waves are high? Listen for these words of Jesus.
“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Maybe that is the truth that you need to take home with you today. Jesus has come to you in the form of this message and he is speaking to you. “Take courage. I am here. You don’t need to be afraid.”
Now here’s another one. If God is challenging you to take on a new challenge and do something you have never done before – something really big, really drastic, really impossible. Can you hear him saying to you, as he did to Peter:
It is a word of divine invitation. But listen carefully. Be sure he is the one who is leading. Don’t cross the line between boldness and presumption. But if it is Jesus speaking, listen to his word. Take the risk. Get out of the boat!
Maybe that’s where you already are. You’ve taken that new step. You’re moving in that new direction, following the leading of the Spirit into new and uncharted territory. Maybe that’s how you came to be here in Abu Dhabi. And now you’re here – and the waves are high and the wind is strong and it’s all beginning to shake your confidence. You were so sure you heard Jesus’ voice and you came in obedience to his leading. But now you’re not so sure. Now you’re thinking you have made a huge mistake. Maybe you’re starting to sink into the turbulent waters of fear and anxiety. You need to cry out like Peter did: “Lord, save me!” Reach out the hand of faith to him again and listen to these words of gentle rebuke mixed with divine reassurance:
“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I don’t know which of these words of Jesus you needed to hear today. But I do know which ones I needed. One of the favorite kinds of comments I receive after preaching a sermon is the person who says to me on the way out, “That sermon was just for me.”
I don’t need to wait for such a comment today. I know who this sermon is for. It’s for me. I made my announcement last week about our plans for retirement and giving the church time for a succession and transition process. You were all very gracious in the way you received that message and responded to it. But in a way, making that announcement last week was like getting out of the boat, to walk on untested waters. And as the week went on, I began to look around and to feel the wind blowing and to look down at the waves heaving beneath my feet. I began to think about all the challenges that lay ahead and to imagine all the things that could get complicated and go wrong. And I became fearful! I could feel physical symptoms of stress. I began to worry. I could feel myself sinking in waves of anxiety.
But then I began my sermon preparation for this week, and I came face to face with these words of Jesus. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” So I know at least one person who needed this sermon. I suspect there may be others who need it as well.
- Read Matthew 14:1-12 together. Put yourself in the sandals of one of the disciples (maybe John or Andrew who were originally disciples of John the Baptist). How do you think they may have been feeling when they received this news.
- Read Matthew 14:13-21. Consider Jesus’s words in verse 16: You give them something to eat. Has God ever given you an assignment or task that was too big for you? What lessons can we take away from this story?
- Read Matthew 14:22-33. When we read about Jesus spending almost an entire night in prayer – what conclusions should we draw?
- Has Jesus ever sent you out into a storm? How did you respond? Why do you think he did it?
- Consider the following words of Jesus and the context in which he said them – and discuss how they might have relevance in our lives:
• “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (v. 27)
• “Come.” (v. 29)
• “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”