Calvin on Peter walking on the water

Fri, 07/08/2020 - 11:28 -- James Oakley

I most recently preached on Matthew 14:24-33 (the story of Jesus walking on the water) in January 2018. There is a debate with this story as to whether Peter's request to join Jesus on the water reflected his great faith and is something we should emulate (we too need to "get out of the boat"), or whether Peter was being foolish and reckless.

In 2018, I opted for the latter view, for a number of reasons

  • Matthew's interpretation must in part be guided by how he tells the story, and Peter's venture onto the water did not end well.
  • You might argue that Peter was seeking to do one of Jesus' miracles himself, just as Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10 to do. Except Jesus' miracles were never raw displays of power but were there to help others. This is true, in particular, of all of his nature miracles. Jesus helped the disciples by calming the storm in Matthew 8, and he helped them by walking across to them in Matthew 14. Peter was not helping anyone when he stepped onto the lake, so he was not doing as Jesus did.
  • His action stems from a desire to test if this really is Jesus. Better faith would have been to trust Jesus without having to step out himself to see if the water held him up. Indeed, given their first reaction was that this was a ghost, his test was a poor one since a malicious ghost could be enticing him to his death. It's true that grammatically the condition is a real one (more "given it's you, tell me to come to you"), but there's still no reason why Peter should do this.
  • Ultimately, he puts himself in danger needlessly.

So I preached this accordingly. We see here Jesus' divinity, as the one who walks on the waves of the sea. We see his power to stem chaos (water often symbolises chaos in Scripture). We see Jesus caring for his disciples even when he was physically absent at their moment of need. We're invited to trust Jesus similarly, but Peter is a cautionary tale: When Jesus provides the means to provide for us and protect us, his promised care does not mean we should reject the help we're offered or deliberately put ourselves in danger.

As the lectionary again brings this story round, I'm looking at it again, and you know what? I think I've changed my mind. I may write that up shortly when I've finished thinking. But all of this is really preamble to give you John Calvin's comments on Peter's action. I think Calvin is on fine form here, and makes the case brilliantly.

“‘If it is thou,’ he says, ‘bid me come to thee.’ But he had heard Christ speaking. Why then was he doubtful and bewildered? In his small and weak faith there breaks out a thoughtless wish. He should have kept to his proper limits and rather sought from Christ an increase of faith so that by its leading and guidance he might at last rise above all seas and mountains. But as it is he wants to fly without the wings of faith, and without Christ’s voice having a genuine firmness in his heart, to make the waves solid under his feet. There is no doubt that his desire sprang from good principle, but because it degenerated into a faulty excess it ceased to be praiseworthy. This is why Peter quickly suffered for his rashness. By this example believers are taught to beware of over-much rashness. Whithersoever the Lord calls we must energetically run; but anyone who goes too far will experience at last the unhappy outcome of transgressing his limits.

“We might ask why Christ grants Peter’s wish. By doing so He seems to approve it. But the solution is easy. God often looks after us better by denying what we ask. But sometimes He gives way to us so as to convince us of our foolishness by experience. Thus by yielding to them more than is expedient He daily trains His believers in sobriety and moderation for the future. Add that this was profitable for Peter and the rest and is profitable for us today. Christ’s power shines forth more brightly in Peter when He makes him His comrade than if He had walked on water alone. Yet Peter knew, and the others saw plainly, that because he did not abide in a firm faith and rest on the Lord’s Word the secret power of God which had made the water solid failed. But Christ deals kindly with him, for He did not want Him to sink completely. Both these things concern us also. Just as Peter began to sink as soon as he was overtaken by fear, so our frail and transient fleshly ideas sometimes cause us to sink in the course of our activities. Yet the Lord pardons our weakness and stretches out His hand lest the waters should swallow us up. We must also observe that when Peter saw that his temerity had turned out badly, he committed himself to Christ’s mercy. Wherefore we also, even when we are suffering a punishment we deserve, must flee to Him to have mercy on us and give us the help we do not deserve.” (Commentary on Harmony of the Gospels, Volume 2, page 153)

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