Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.'"
Jesus' response to Peter's appeal was not to give permission, but to command. "Come!"
No further word did Jesus speak. He gave Peter no verbal assurance that he would, indeed, walk on the water. The disciple must draw his assurance solely from Christ's command. That command, spoken with the confidence of Divinity, was given to inspire Peter with assurance, and to prompt him to obey.
That is frequently the way God acts with us. Often He does not go into much detail when He calls.
"'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you'" (Gen. 22:2). In these words there is only enough information for Abraham to know what God wanted. Nothing more.
"As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'" (Matt. 4: 18, 19). That was all.
"As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, 'Follow me'" (chap. 9:9). Just two words.
For years a paralytic had been brought daily to the Pool of Bethesda in the hope of being healed at the troubling of the waters. "When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be healed?' The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.' Jesus said to him, 'Rise, take up your pallet, and walk'" (John 5:6-9).
Then, it seems, Jesus simply walked away. For a moment later when the man, healed, looked around for his benefactor, He was gone.
"Now as he [Paul] journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' And he said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And he said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do'" (Acts 9:3-6). Not much information for such a startling experience.
In each of these cases Jesus left it with the individual involved to exercise faith in Him and to do His bidding.
As we think about it, it becomes apparent that Jesus demanded great faith of His followers, typified by that required of Peter when He called the disciple to do an impossible act that had no precedent, except that of Jesus Himself.
And, on the surface, the Lord did not make any great effort to ease the way for His followers. As we have seen, He gave Peter no verbal assurance that he would be able to walk on water. He gave Abraham no guarantee that he would not have to take Isaac's life. He gave Peter and Andrew and Matthew no warranty of an adequate income. And we recall that on one occasion He deliberately made such seemingly impossible demands of faith-to be manifested in total commitment-upon a gathering of His would-be followers that most of them left Him (John 6:35-68).
The command is no less explicit today than then. We do not hear Christ's voice ring audibly in our ear. But it does speak through His Word. It does sound in our souls through conscience, that authoritative but still small voice. And we-as did Abraham, and Peter and Andrew, and Matthew, and the paralytic, and Paul-must obey and step from the boat and walk on water.
"Jack, take that profession, that hobby, that practice that you love, and offer it as an offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."
And as He walked down a street He saw Larry and Aileen, his wife, looking over a new piece of real estate they were interested in. And He said, "Leave all that you have. Follow Me."
As Jesus passed on from there He saw ... you? me? And He said, "Follow Me!"
Faith, commitment, obedience. That is what the Lord requires.
Faith and commitment, or surrender, are, in effect, the same thing. Faith is such a total trust in Jesus that you entrust everything to Him-and that is surrender. So if you have faith you will surrender, and if you are surrendered you will have faith. It may need to develop, but you will have faith.
The next step follows naturally. To claim to be surrendered without yielding obedience is a contradiction in terms. Surrender means to be totally submissive to the will of Him to whom surrender is made.
Peter's faith was tested by his obedience; faith is always tested by obedience. In fact, this is the only way it may be tested. Thus, James was quite right when he challenged, "What use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it?" Then he asks the question, "Can that [kind of workless] faith save him?" (James 2:14, N.E.B.). The answer is, No. Later he challenges again: "'Prove to me that this faith you speak of is real though not accompanied by deeds, and by my deeds I will prove to you my faith'" (verse 18, N.E.B.).
James is not here speaking of works as a means of salvation; he is talking about works-obedience-as a result of faith and surrender.
God requires us to have enough confidence in Him to obey without questioning or parleying.
This does not mean that God refuses us evidence. This He gives in abundance, but not always in the immediate area in which He asks us to walk. There are occasions in which evidence can be given only as we obey. What assurance could Peter be given that he could walk on water, until he walked on water? None except the evidence of Jesus' trustworthy word "Come." This is one reason why God sometimes requires us to step on the water in absolute trust. He can give us no other proof than for us to find substance beneath our feet as we walk.
The fourth-century church father Ambrose was right, then, when he said, "God does not expect us to subject our faith to Him without reason, but the very limits of reason make faith a necessity."
It has been observed that Jesus called people to visible acts of obedience, not just a mere assent in the heart. It might be further observed that those acts required faith-they demanded a walking on the water. The doing, or not doing, of them demonstrated the state of the individual's faith in Christ. We have been considering some of those who walked on water. The rich young ruler is an example of those who do not obey, because they do not have that strong a faith in Jesus.
Christ called the wealthy young man who came to enquire the way to eternal life by calling him to walk on water, but he misunderstood.
"How do I do that?" he asked.
"'Keep the commandments,'" Jesus responded (Matt. 19: 17).
"I have been doing that," was his reply.
But he hadn't. He had been living by his own, and the Pharisees', understanding of what the law required. He had depended upon human ideas of law-keeping, and was trying to float against the tide of sin and human nature, to God. In reality, he was being carried farther away.
He hadn't been keeping the commandments. He couldn't. The only way it is possible to keep the law is by walking on water, which is impossible for a person to do on his own. But it is no more impossible than keeping the law on one's own.
Eugene Nida tells us that in several of the Indian languages of Mexico there is no difference between the words for to believe and to obey. And the people who speak those languages are surprised by the distinction we make between the ideas. "If you believe, do you not obey?" they ask incredulously. Are we surprised at their question? Might we think them naive?
Yet that concept, which those Indians take for granted, but which is likely to surprise us, is precisely the Biblical idea of belief. Let us look at a Bible text that illustrates this.
In Acts 5:37 we have a reference to a certain rebel leader, Judas of Galilee, whose movement came to nothing. As a result he was killed, "and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed" (K.J.V.).
It is interesting to note that some King James Bibles have a marginal reading "believed" as an alternate reading for "obeyed," because the Greek word contains both ideas.
Many modern translations wed the two ideas and refer to those who "followed" him, implying that they believed him and so obeyed.
The close relationship between the two ideas may be further illustrated by reference to other texts. In Acts 28:24 (K.J.V.) we read that some of the Jews "believed" the message Paul preached to them. In Hebrews 13: 17 is the exhortation to "obey your leaders." The same verb is used in both instances, indicating the close relationship of the two ideas.
We may conclude that if we do not obey God we really do not believe, in the Bible sense.
We sometimes meet Christians who constantly express the desire to have victory over their sins, who want peace, faith, and other similar imperatives in their lives, but who somehow never seem to have them.
The problem may be that they call, "Master, bid me come to You on the water," but they do not respond to the command "Come."
They hear, but they stand in the boat uncertainly, fearfully, doubting. They look within themselves for the resources to obey, and find they are not there. In fact, they never can be. Obedience to Jesus' call never lies in our own power . We will never be able to walk on water on our own. Nor does the call come on that basis. It comes on the ground of our trusting in Him to provide the resources to obey the command. "All His biddings are enablings." -Christ's Object Lessons, p. 333.
Our faith is tested by obedience. The one who does not obey simply does not believe, no matter what he says. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
"Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." - The Cost of Discipleship, p. 69.
God requires faith manifested in obedience, because He requires a kind of obedience only faith can supply. At the time of the Exodus, only the obedience of the faith of Moses and the priests made the waters of the Red Sea separate as they stepped into it. Without such faith the waves would have mocked them, and the Israelites would have marched back to Egyptian bondage.
Only the obedience of faith made it possible for Elijah to stride boldly into the presence of King Ahab and announce that there would be no rain in Israel for three years. Without that faith events would not have been as he predicted. Only the obedience of faith made it possible for him to summon all Israel to Carmel for a spectacular vindication of the God of heaven, and the subsequent coming of rain. Had he not demonstrated that faith he would have failed before the altar-and been torn to pieces by the infuriated priests of Baal.
And only the obedience of faith made it possible for Peter to walk on the water. Without such faith he would never have trusted himself to the waves, for he would have seen it as a foolhardy act. But if he had not obeyed he would have demonstrated that he really did not believe in Jesus. Likewise, only the obedience of faith can make it possible for us to have victory-complete victory-over our sins.
Paraphrasing Romans 8:2-4, we express the obedience of faith this way: For the law of higher, spiritual dynamics in Christ Jesus has set me free from the lower law of hydrodynamics, which made it impossible for me to walk on water. For God has done what that law, hampered by the flesh, could not do; sending His own Son in human flesh, He walked on water in that flesh, in order that the law, which required us also to walk on water, might be fulfilled by us, who accomplish this, not according to the law of physical hydrodynamics, but according to the higher law of faith, which makes it possible for us to do the impossible.
We are inclined to take God's commands too lightly; we limit the Holy One of Israel, and place our own interpretation, subconsciously or otherwise, upon His biddings. Thus, when He says, "Go, and sin no more," we tend to understand it, "Go, and sin as little as possible."
With such an attitude our faith is too weak to permit us to step out of the boat and walk on water. Or we may leave the boat from a conviction that we ought. But immediately we are struggling in the water of our sin because our faith is not strong enough to enable us to surmount it. And when this happens we think, This demonstrates that it is not possible to walk on water (to fully overcome my sins). I stepped out, and sank. But, "'according to your faith be it done to you.'"
Two ideas are implicit in what we have been saying: We must obey God, but we cannot obey-of ourselves. This serves to thrust home the fact that, all the responsibility to obey rests on us, but all the power to obey comes from God. When Peter walked on the water Christ did everything Peter couldn't do, but He would not do anything Peter could do. Peter could climb out of the boat, and he could take one step after another. He could do nothing about the buoyancy of the water. Because he had faith, Jesus looked after that.
"Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act" (Ps. 37:5).