For a long time, the story of Peter walking on water recorded in the New Testament book of Matthew has always been one that I knew about but did not give much attention to. It seemed to me to be a pretty basic story with really obvious lessons. Jesus is the Son of God and has command over the elements, to the point of having seemingly supernatural powers. Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat and walk but began to be afraid and sunk into the water, only to rescued by Jesus. Lesson to be learned? Have enough faith to start on the course of discipleship but be careful to not let the cares of the world frighten you to the point that you take your eyes off of Jesus. Don’t be like Peter. Have enough faith to stay the course.
You know, those sort of interpretations.
However, while working for the Especially For Youth program this year I have been taught to look deeper into this story and learn lessons that may not be as readily apparent with a cursory reading. Over the past few weeks, this has become one of my favorite New Testament stories.
We all know the story. After a long day of preaching, Jesus Christ leaves to the shores to probably commune with his Father and receive strength to continue his activities in preaching the gospel. As the disciples are on the sea later that night amidst the waves and wind they see a person approaching the boat, and immediately assume it is a spirit. As with most of us if we were in that situation, they start freaking out.
Jesus, seeing their fear declares:
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
Immediately the point of the action seems to make sense. Is Jesus just showing off to the disciples? No, of course not. He is powerfully declaring his nature as the Son of God. Not only that, I think that it is telling that the disciples first thought that he was a spirit before they learned that it is Jesus Christ. It makes sense that an incorporeal being would be able to travel across water, but Jesus has a body of flesh and bone. Not only are the disciples reminded that he is the Son of God in the flesh, they are also reminded that his powers are beyond the physical. Jesus Christ’s mission is not just a physical one, and he is not constrained by what we would consider normal laws.
And then Peter wants to walk on the water. This is where we tend to lose the nuance behind the story. Notice Peter’s request to the Lord:
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.
What is his question? Peter is essentially saying: “Jesus, if you really are the Son of God, and that really is you doing these miracles, give me to power to beat these waves and wind.” It is a statement that leads to a testimony. All of us have the same moments in our lives. When we sin and use the atonement, we are doing so with faith. “Lord, if you really are the Lord, take this sin away from me, make me whole.” That is what Peter’s request is. He wants to feel the power of God in him, and know that he is really is serving the Lord. It is a statement of a desire to have a testimony of Jesus Christ. Which is one of the most important things that we can have.
Of course, Peter is able to walk on the water after this statement. His desire to gain a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ is what has given him the power to be on the water, to step into the unknown and acted for himself. A desire to know of Jesus Christ is extremely powerful as Gordon B. Hinckley explained:
This thing which we call testimony is the great strength of the Church. It is the wellspring of faith and activity. It is difficult to explain. It is difficult to quantify. It is an elusive and mysterious thing, and yet it is as real and powerful as any force on the earth.
That is what Peter is experiencing and what the scriptures are telling us. Even having a desire to know of the divine role of Jesus Christ will give us the power to go forward with faith.
We laud Peter for his actions at first, but then condemn him for what follows. As Peter looked around him and saw the wind and the waves, he was afraid and fell in the water. Usually, people will look at that and say: “Well Peter tried his hardest, but he was too afraid that he lost his focus on the Savoir, and then he fell apart.”
What a ridiculous way to look at this story! Read what Peter does the instant he falls in the water:
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
It does not say that Peter tried to swim to the boat, or treaded water for a bit trying to stay afloat, or tried to float on his back. Remember that Peter is a fisherman. His life has been spent on the water, in boats, and in dangerous circumstances. If he wanted too, he probably could have made headway back. Knowing how to swim would have been a prerequisite to his line of work.
But does he try it? No. He immediately asks Jesus Christ to save him.
I want to be like that in my life. When I am in trouble or times are tough, I want my first reflex to be to look to Jesus Christ for help. Peter has more faith than I have. When I am sinking I usually try to swim on my own for shore, and only when I realize it is pointless do I try to involve Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. That is what I do. But Peter knows better. He knows that the only person that can truly save him is Jesus Christ.
If we are thinking about this story as partly a story about about testimony, we can see what happened. Peter started off wanting to know of Jesus Christ’s divinity and ended up needing to be saved by him. Jumping forward a few verses we read the apostle’s reaction to Peter being saved:
Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.
They learned that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, because they saw his power. But what do we make of Jesus Christ telling Peter that he had little faith? I do not know, because I was not there. However, to me it seems that this was in reference to Peter wondering if Jesus Christ was the Son of God in the first place, and less about him falling in the water. In Jesus’s statement I see a tender admonition: “Did you really doubt that I was the Son of God? Did you doubt that I could make this happen? Did you doubt that I could save you.”
Even as we focus on Peter, we must not ignore what this story teaches us about the nature of Jesus Christ. What did he do when Peter began to fall and cried out for him?
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him…
Once Peter realized that he needed Jesus to save him, Jesus did not wait, he immediately grabbed him and saved him. This is a powerful lesson. Jesus Christ will not infringe on our agency. He is not going to force us to be saved by him. He is infinitely patient and will wait until we call out for him. Then he immediately runs to us, and brings us out of the water.
We also need to remember that Jesus Christ was out on the water as well. He was out in the same wind and waves that Peter was out in. He knew exactly what Peter was going through and knew exactly what he needed to do to save him. This is the same as us. Through the atonement, Jesus Christ knows exactly the pains and afflictions that beset us. He is not off on the side giving us counsel. He has been through the worst of it with us. He knows how it feels. As the prophet Alma powerfully taught:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Those are the lessons that I learn from this story. I am grateful for Peter’s great example of faith, showing me how I should rely on the Savior and I am grateful for Jesus Christ’s example, that he will always be there to save me.