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Peter Sinks, Jesus Saves!

The story of Jesus walking on water

Bible Background and Lesson Objectives




Matthew 14:22-33 

(Mark 6:46-52 and John 6:15-21 also tell the story of Jesus walking on water, but they do not include the story of Peter sinking.)

Memory Verse: "Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid!"  Matthew 14:27

Learning Objectives

After completing this rotation, students will:

  • Be able to re-tell the story of Peter Sinks, Jesus Saves!
  • Understand that miracles are signs revealing the identity of Jesus.
  • Know that their doubts and fears will not keep Jesus from reaching out to save them.
  • Hear Jesus' words and actions in the story as compassionate and comforting.
  • Understand the symbolism of boat and storm in the Christian faith.

The Meaning of the Story

The water in this story isn't the only thing that's deep.
The more you look into this story, the more God reveals.

If you're like most people, you were raised to focus on Peter in the story of his attempt to walk on water, ...what made him sink, how we should have more faith and focus on Jesus so we don't sink. But this miracle, like most Jesus miracles, isn't about us, it's about Jesus.

We sink. That's what we do. Jesus saves. That's what he does.

Miracles are primarily about what God is doing, and in the case of Jesus, who he really is. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke's versions of this story, when they see Jesus walking on the water, they were afraid and think he's a ghost.  In Mark and John's versions of this story's ending, the disciples are "astonished" and their declaration of Jesus' identity is left to another time. But according to Matthew, when Peter is saved, " those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  

Miracles are revelations. They tell us who Jesus is, and they revel a heart full of love and compassion for those who sink —which is all of us.   To put it in theological terms, it's radical grace.

According to Matthew, Peter sees Jesus on the water and decides to test if it really is him.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  "IF?"  I can think of a hundred responses Jesus might have said, but he just looks at Peter and says, "Come."  What happens next tells us who Jesus really is, and who Peter is not. Jesus is the One come to save the world. We cannot do it on our own.

Matthew teaches us that.... disciples sink and Jesus saves.

That it's not about our faith, power, or worthiness, but about Jesus.

We also learn that our fear and doubts do not stand in the way of becoming a disciple, or of being saved. That's the real miracle here: that we don't earn God's saving. It is a gift.

Many of us have grown up with "different" interpretations of this story.

(1) "If Peter had only kept his eyes on Jesus, then he wouldn't have sunk. You can conquer your fears and doubts if you keep your focus on Jesus. Don't be distracted by the wind and waves either. Keep your eyes on Jesus!"

(2) "'We of little faith' just need more of faith, then we won't doubt or sink."

These are good thoughts. Distractions are a problem, and who doesn't want more faith!  But the point of every miracle story is primarily this: "God Saves, and there's nothing we can do about it." It's not dependent on your faith, or lack thereof. I don't know about you, but to me that's a HUGE relief.  —That Salvation depends on who Jesus is, not who I am.

The eye-opening thing about miracles is that they didn't always open eyes.  Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus performed signs and wonders, but not everyone who saw them believed. Some declared him Lord, while others were dumbfounded or unimpressed. This fact should not be lost on teachers who want to use this story as "proof" that Jesus was the Son of God. Indeed, rescued Peter will later deny ever knowing Jesus. Believing Judas will betray him. Thomas will doubt.  This is why Jesus must save us. Because we can't even trust our own eyes when he's standing right in front of us on the water. The only miracle we really need is unearned rescuing.

When Jesus lifts Peter into the boat, he utters the famous line, "O Ye of Little Faith," Most of us grew up hearing that as a "judgment." We have been raised to think, "if only Peter would have had more faith." "If only he wouldn't have been distracted by waves of fear."  But in light of what we know is the greater truth of the story, it's time to change how we hear Jesus speak to Peter. They are words of compassion and comfort, not judgment and "get your act together."  Jesus knows we're sheep who will always need a Good Shepherd.  Yes, having "more faith" is a good idea, but it's not a condition for our salvation. 

And then there's the boat and the storm...

Since the early days of Christianity, the Church has seen itself as that boat in the storm. For centuries this understanding was represented in church windows, art, and architecture. To those of us IN the boat, the message is clear: the world is full of storms, winds and waves, but do not be afraid. Jesus saves us and puts us in his boat. 

But the miracle in this story is not primarily about a boat or storm. The miracle is grace.

It's not about his "stepping out in faith," though that's a nice sentiment. The problem in the story is that Peter said, "IF." But real faith does not say "if." It does not test. It does not ask for proof. Jesus, in full teaching mode, said, "Come," knowing full well what was about to happen.

The story isn't not really about "keeping our eyes on Jesus so we don't sink," though that's a great thing too –if you can pull it off.  Without the sinking, we don't "see" what's really there in front of us and that is: the One who saves. Focusing , perseverance, or being unafraid —Peter couldn't do it. Thank God our salvation does not depend on our abilities, but upon Jesus.  

Laying here in the boat half-drowned and soaking wet, and already rescued, his words, "O Ye of Little Faith," are comfort beyond measure.

Laying here, I don't want to hear a sermon about what I need to do the next time to walk on water. 

Right now, I'm focusing on the One who is focused on me.

Faith is not the absence of fear and doubts.
It is not a power we can summon to save ourselves from the storm.
Faith is knowing that when our fears, doubts, and sins DO overwhelm us,
...that God has hold of us, and will not let go.

We cannot exhaust this story's meaning. That is why our first goal is to help our students remember it —so that it can continue to grab hold of us and them.

Additional Background and Thoughts

In Matthew, the story of Jesus walking on water immediately follows the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 —another miracle revealing Jesus' identity, but not necessarily turning every doubter into a believer.

After sending the disciples off in a boat and dismissing the crowds, Jesus went off alone to the mountain to pray through the night. It was something he often seems to have done, a return to the wilderness for rest, refueling, and re-focusing. 

It was very early in the morning when Jesus approached the boat in the storm. The King James version uses the old phrase, "in the fourth watch of the night." The Romans divided the night hours into four periods called “watches” with the first beginning at sunset or 6:00 p.m. (6:00-9:00 p.m., 9:00-12:00, 12:00-3:00 a.m. and 3:00-6:00 a.m.)  Jesus came to the disciples during the fourth watch (between 3:00-6:00 a.m.), literally before the dawn.

The disciples didn't expect Jesus. (Do any of us when he comes?) They think he's a ghost. Then Peter thinks to join Jesus. Was it an act of testing? bravery? foolishness? or faith? Peter's words in Mt 14:28 are, "IF it is you, then command me to come to you on the water." That sounds like a test, and we know how Jesus feels about tempting the Lord in Matthew 4:7. "Thou shalt not test the Lord."   Interestingly, Jesus simply tells him to come. 

At first, Peter seems to be walking on water!  How many of us have had the same experience. We are doing well and think we've got it made. But then Peter's fears and doubts overtake him. If you've ever walked on a tightrope or along the edge of something, as they say, "don't look down!" One wonders what Jesus was thinking through all of this. Surely he knew the outcome. 

Peter sinks, Jesus saves. You knew he would. But then what will he say about it?  Every child dreads this moment, ...the moment of JUDGMENT when a mother or father starts to make their point.  The moment when you come off the field after having fumbled the ball, and the coach is standing there with her arms folded. The look in the eyes of the person you have just let down. The ridicule of those who didn't go with you and can't wait to say, "I told you so." And worst of all, that nagging self doubt that you aren't good enough.  Well, guess what. None of us are good enough. Not even Peter.

How do you respond to this lesson?  Peter and the disciples responded by worshiping Jesus. 

That's what faith often feels like — you all wet and on your knees thanking God.

Do you believe in miracles?

Some people don't. Some people say they do, but who knows until you're really tested.

Peter saw plenty of miracles, but judging by his denial of Jesus, wasn't convinced by any of them, including the one he starred in out on the Sea that day. You'd like to think that if Jesus saved you from drowning that it would be a singularly life-changing, faith-producing moment. But it's not necessarily so.

Hand-of-JesusFast forward to John 21, and there's Peter jumping off the boat again, this time in shallower water. He runs to see the resurrected Jesus who has appeared on the shore and brought breakfast.  Jesus has saved Peter a second time  -from guilt and devastation. Down the road Peter will do great things, but there will be other failures. He's human.  To me, the greatest miracle is that Jesus doesn't let go even when we deserve to sink.

Some Additional Questions:

  • What scares you?
  • What are the waves that threaten our lives?  our faith?
  • Does Jesus tell us that our fears are silly?
  • What caused Peter to sink?
  • Why did Jesus rescue Peter?
  • Did Peter grab hold of Jesus? Or did Jesus grab hold of Peter?  
  • Did all the other disciples need to try and walk on water in order to learn the lesson?
  • What did Jesus "save" or "rescue" Peter from?
  • Why didn't this "saving" and miracle keep Peter from denying Jesus?   
  • When we are saved, can we still be unfaithful?  What is Jesus' response to unfaithfulness/sinking?
  • What is the right response to being saved?


Written for the Writing Team by Neil MacQueen
with contributions from Jaymie Derden


Images (2)
  • PeterSinks-Logo
  • Hand-of-Jesus
Last edited by CathyWalz
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