[September 28, 2008] Last Sunday we began a new section of Matthew. This section is about who Jesus is, and ends with Peter confessing Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God and Jesus revealing (1) the church that He will build on this foundation, (2) His death and resurrection that will accomplish this, and (3) the glory of the kingdom of the heavens that will result from this. This ending reminds us of the book of Exodus, where on Mount Sinai God revealed Himself, His law and the pattern of His dwelling place on earth. We also saw how this section began with One like Moses whom the people of Nazareth would not recognize because He was “from your midst, from among your brothers” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Then we saw a resemblance to Pharaoh with how Herod’s senseless killing of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ own death under Pontius Pilate.
Like Israel in the days of Moses, the people do not repent. Everyone loves Jesus, they flock to Him, He heals them, but they do not own Him as their Lord. Though Jesus withdraws from them, He does not abandon them.
When a large crowd of thousands came to Him in the wilderness, He miraculously fed them with the bread of heaven—like the manna in the wilderness—by multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed them all, with twelve baskets of leftovers. It is a picture of God’s abundant grace.
It is on this basis of grace, not works, that Christ will build His church. We come to Him with nothing, but He abundantly blesses us with who He is, and it is more than enough. He Himself is the bread of heaven and He gives us His body and blood—His human living, His death, resurrection, ascension and indwelling Spirit as food and drink. This picture in Matthew 14:13b-21 is what makes the church come into being. Moved with compassion, on the basis of grace alone and not because of what we deserve, He gathers us, heals us and gives us Himself to eat to satisfy our hunger. “And all ate and were satisfied.”
With this in mind, we come now to the reading today (14:22—15:20).
A Storm at Sea (Matthew 14:22-24)
Jesus has the disciples get into a boat to cross the lake while He goes up on a mountain alone to pray. This is another “enacted parable” that is not difficult to figure out. The boat is the church and the lake (called a sea) is the Gentile world. The wind and the waves that batter them is the persecution and hardship that threaten to sink the boat in the sea. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles we see the church launched into this sea and the storm that was aroused because of it. Jesus on the mountain praying is a picture of Jesus in heaven interceding for us. In Matthew’s day the storm came from zealous Jews who insisted on separation from Gentiles. They insisted that Gentiles who believed in the Messiah and the God of Israel had to become Jews first before Jewish believers could have full fellowship with them. As a result, they undermined the mission to the Gentiles and in several places they violently attacked the church. This is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s epistles, but it is also in other historical records from the first century.
When that storm that Matthew witnessed was over, other storms continued to batter the church. Persecution came from the empire and for centuries Christians were brutally tortured and killed. After the empire adopted the Christianity as its religion, it continued to torture and kill believers who insisted on faithfulness to Jesus and the apostles. This was not the only kind of storm though. History has shown that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” and that the church thrives under persecution.
The storm that most threatens to swamp and sink the church is the pressure to conform to the world, to compromise the message, to accept the philosophy and values of the world, to water down our devotion and commitment, to ignore Jesus and make Christianity a religion of the world. Today we ignore the Jewish Jesus who went boldly to the cross and was crucified by the world, and we have made Christianity a Gentile civil religion that acts as a conscience to society but has no power to save and nothing new to offer. Today the church imagines that it is the agent of social change or social conservatism, but the world only uses the church to carry out its own agenda. The church has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. This insidious “storm” is far more dangerous than persecution.
The mainline protestant church ceased to have any influence on society in the 1970s when it gave up its role as a separate people proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ. Our congregation gathers around the Word of God and Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. We identify ourselves as belonging to Him. He has called us out of the world and made us His own people. We do not identify with any religious organization, even though we practice accountability within a denominational organization. If, however, we cannot remain faithful to Jesus Christ within this organization, we can shed it like an old shirt. It has nothing to do with who we are. We are the church of Jesus Christ because He has called us and made us His own through the power of His word. We give Him and Him alone our allegiance, our commitment, and our faith. We need to ask ourselves a simple question: what kind of faith do we have? The faith that Jesus calls us to have in Him means that He takes first priority in our lives and we will give Him our life and energy, no matter if we have to sacrifice our life and livelihood for Him. Does He have this place in our life?
This is the big picture—talking about the church—but the storm also threatens to overwhelm us individually. Does not this seem to be the case everyday? In the news we are threatened by one crisis after another. One crisis is not over before the next begins. It creates this constant state of anxiety and worry. We can lose everything we have worked for. There are also problems at home—struggles with family, with finances, with tragedy and illness, with failure, disappointment and shame, with anger and depression. We are exhausted. Is not this also the storm against us, that threatens to wash us out of the boat?
Jesus Does Not Leave Us to Brave the Storm Alone (14:25-27)
We can be discouraged when we see the church—and ourselves—being battered by the wind and the waves. Today it often seems like the church will go under. We may find that we no longer have the motivation or the energy to remain with Jesus, to pray, to sit at His feet and learn His word, to gather with His disciples—either because they all fail so miserably or because we do. It all seems so useless. This is the storm.
But Jesus comes to us in this storm. He comes in the “fourth watch.” This is between three and six o’clock in the morning, the darkest time of the night. He lets us suffer a while. But, “Take courage,” He says, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” “It is I,” He says. This means that He is in the storm. He has not left us. Actually, Jesus does not just say “It is I.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke this is the only place where Jesus says—in the Greek translation of His words—ego eimi. He says this frequently in the gospel of John. In Hebrew Jesus says, “I AM,” the name that God gives Himself in Exodus 3 and that identifies God (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 45:18-19; 51:12). So right off Jesus is identifying Himself with God. (See also Genesis 15:1; 26:14; 28:13; 46:3; Isaiah 41:10, 13; 43:1, 3). In the Old Testament God appears in the storm, in the midst of our fears (Exodus 19:16; Ezekiel 1:4; Psalm 107:28-29).
When Jesus says “I AM, do not be afraid,” He means that He is God Himself (human beings, after all, do not walk on water!). This is sufficient for our need, for the danger we are in. But it also means, “I am here, now.” God does not leave us alone. He is present, here, now, in the midst of all our troubles, and He comes to us, and He says that we do not have to be afraid. He will come into the boat with us, and we will be okay, no matter what happens. Even if He does not make the storm go away.
Faith in Jesus (14:28-33)
Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” This is amazing. Peter says, if it is really You, then if You can walk on the water, so can I. This seems incredibly presumptuous, yet this is what Jesus actually wants. He wants us to walk on the water, something that is humanly impossible. But Peter will not do it unless the Lord commands him to. We also cannot walk on water unless we hear the Lord command us through His word. We cannot live the Christian life on our own. We must hear the Lord’s word calling us. Then, because we know it is Him, that His word sustains us. Let us ask Him to call us, to bid us come to Him and walk on the water.
When Jesus says, “Come,” He says the same word that He says when He calls us to follow Him (Matthew 4:19). Walking on water in the midst of the storm is actually the call to discipleship. When He calls us to follow Him, we attempt the impossible, but we do so at His command, not on our own.
Peter “walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” As long as we are responding to the word of Jesus and our eye remains on Jesus, we can walk on the water. But as soon as we take our eye off of Jesus and look at the wind and waves of our situation and circumstances, we become frightened and begin to sink. First, we must hear the Lord’s word. But notice that it is not enough to just hear His word—as if we can learn it like a textbook, as some knowledge that we have acquired and can then use. We need to also keep our eye on Jesus. He is the “I AM.” He is the reality that matters in the midst of the wind and the waves. His presence is the only situation and circumstances that matter. His presence is the practical fact that makes all the difference. If we see this, if we know Jesus as the “I AM,” then no matter what our circumstances, we can walk on the water. This is faith.
As soon as Peter took his eye off of Jesus, he began to sink. Jesus scolds him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” To walk on water at His command, to keep our eye on Him as the “I AM,” this is faith. The storm does not stop, but we are walking on water in the storm.
Actually, Jesus is both in heaven praying for us and on earth in the midst of the storm. Peter’s faith fails and he begins to sink. But Jesus does not let him go under. He immediately takes hold of him and gets him back in the boat. Even though our faith is weak, the Lord does not let us sink. We just cannot walk on the water. He does not abandon us, and the storm does stop. This also should comfort us.
For the first time the disciples say, “Truly You are the Son of God.” They do not fully understand what they are saying. But we see that who Jesus really is is what is at issue here. This is what this section of Matthew is about.
The Success of the Church’s Mission (14:34-36)
Even though a storm attacks the church, the church reaches the shore and many people come to Jesus. They touch the fringe of His garment, the tassels of His shawl that represents His devotion to God, His righteousness and holiness. They touch who He is, and they are completely healed. This may be a picture of Israel and the nations at the end of the age, but it is also a picture of the success of the Gospel going out from the church and bringing people to Jesus for salvation.
The Opposition of Religious Self-Righteousness (15:1-20)
Some Pharisees and scribes come to Jesus and criticize his disciples for not keeping a tradition. Jesus does not attack Judaism or the Law of Moses. In fact, He upholds the Law, and even says it is God’s Word (“God says,” verse 4). Both Jesus (in Matthew 5 for example) and the Pharisees believe that one must build a “fence” around the commandments so that you do not put yourself in danger of violating them. The commandment says, “Do not murder,” but anger can lead to murder so let us not even get angry. The tradition of the elders is probably based on Leviticus 15:11. The Pharisees also tried to enforce on the whole land of Israel the purity rules that pertained to the priests who were serving God in the temple, since the land was an extension of the temple and we should all be serving God in our daily life.
The problem is that you can become so concerned with outward forms that you lose sight of the point or purpose of the command. You can become blind, Jesus says. In the times of the New Testament, certain Pharisees, out of zeal for their traditions, refused to allow Gentile believers to have table fellowship with Jewish believers, because the Gentiles were not kosher. The Law of God did not prevent this, but the traditions that were meant to guard the Law did. As a result, the Law of God could not be fulfilled. If you do not love your neighbor, you have violated the intent of the Law of God.
Jesus’ argument about hand washing per se is of no concern to us but it is an example of how we let our concern for outward righteousness and outward forms get in the way of our doing God’s will. We get our priorities wrong. The problem is that we do not know the sinfulness of our own hearts and we become blind to our own lack of love. The Pharisees are not the only ones guilty of this. The church has always been guilty of it.
If we love those whom we consider sinners, God will be able to work His will, but if we set ourselves up as judges, we may be surprised to discover the evil that resides in our own hearts. The others whom we condemn become a mirror to ourselves. Let us not be part of the storm against the church.