Lessons for Anchored Discipleship

The Life of Jesus is mostly recorded in the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament). Many of the stories overlap. Sometimes the authors, led by the Spirit of God, tell the same story for different reasons. I think such is the case this morning.

Today we are going to look at two of the most familiar stories in the Bible: the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. I believe Matthew is not only telling us what happened, he is also giving us an idea of why it happened as it did. I believe Matthew is showing us how Jesus was training his disciples.

Just before this account we are told the story of how John the Baptist was killed. Keep that in mind as we re-read Matthew 14:13-21,

13 As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. 14 Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 That evening the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

16 But Jesus said, “That isn’t necessary—you feed them.”

17 “But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish!” they answered.

18 “Bring them here,” he said. 19 Then he told the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he gave the bread to the disciples, who distributed it to the people. 20 They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. 21 About 5,000 men were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children!

The Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle in all four gospels showing it must have had great significance. As I said, Matthew wants us to see the power and authority of Jesus but he also is teaching us as he was teaching the disciples.

I have a theory (which means it could very well be wrong). Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist and was reminded that time was short. It was time to give the disciples some advanced classes. It was time to make sure the disciples were ready for the giant task that was ahead of them. In these miracles Jesus teaches his followers things that are just as important for us to remember.

First, compassion is seldom convenient; it must take priority over comfort. Jesus seems to have intended to take His disciples on a little retreat. Perhaps he even wanted to spend some time mourning his cousin and faithful forerunner, John the Baptist. They took the boat to the other side of the lake for some R & R and when they get there the crowds are waiting for Him.

I don’t know what Jesus’ first thought was. I know what mine would have been. I would have been frustrated, angry, and tempted to shout, “Could you just leave me alone for one night!” I would have likely seen the people as an interruption because of my own exhaustion. Jesus saw them differently. He saw them as hurting people who were crying out for help. He saw them as the people He had come to save.

James Montgomery Boice wrote,

The first clear lesson of this story, therefore, is that Jesus cares for you, even though most of the other people in the world, especially the great and powerful people, do not. Most people who have power, prestige, or money do not care about others at all, even though they may pretend to, unless they have been saved and changed by Jesus himself.[1]

I think the lesson to the disciples is this: you have to be ready to meet the needs of real people. It is draining. It is inconvenient. Sometimes it will break your heart. But if you want to care with the heart of Christ you don’t turn people away, because you care for them the way Jesus cares for you.

Let me add a caution here. There are some people who will drain the life out of you. Many of them aren’t needy . . . some are lazy. Others are “users”. Some just enjoy beating people up. I’m not suggesting that you let the public control your private life. That would be foolish. Sometimes you need to erect barriers, block people on your phone or Facebook, and refer people to others. However, when there are truly people in need, that is the time to roll up your sleeves and do what you can to help.

Second, we learn: to do anything significant we need Jesus. Jesus healed people and then He taught them from early in the morning until later in the day. When the disciples became concerned about hunger (theirs and everyone else’s) they felt they should call it a day. Jesus told them to feed the people.

Have you ever been asked to do something for which you had no idea how to get the job done? I imagine the disciples standing in front of Jesus completely stupefied. I suspect they looked at each other, shrugged, and waited for Jesus to tell them that He was joking. When they concluded He was serious they set out to see if they could figure out a way to do what He said.

They returned to Jesus with the five loaves and two fish. I think it was there way of saying, “Lord, we tried but we’ve got nothing!”

Later on the road to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stated the principle: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Of course, Jesus meant nothing of any lasting value. At the feeding of the 5000 the disciples were learning this by example. Once again, let me quote Boice,

What seems to have stuck out most clearly in the minds of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that Jesus told the disciples to do something to improve the situation. He said, “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:16; Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13). The emphasis does not come across as forcefully in the English translation as it does in Greek. In Greek there is the added and usually unnecessary pronoun you. The emphasis seems to have been, “You, you do it; why do you come to me?” Since Jesus knew the nature of the problem and was already aware of what he was going to do, the only reason he said what he did was to impress on the disciples that they could do nothing by themselves.[2]

This is important to remember. We are frequently guilty of reading God’s Word and concluding that God is expecting us to do all of these things in our strength, He wants us to rest in Him. When our strength fails we question our salvation or God’s faithfulness. The commands of God were NOT designed to get us to try harder. They are designed to show us how much we need Him! God is showing us what He wants to build in and through us! We move toward holiness, purity, compassion, love, and grace, when God fills our heart with more and more of Him.

Third, God works most of the time through people. Jesus could have fed these people all on His own but He chose to work through the disciples.

When you are working on a project and you encourage or let your child help you, why do you do that? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply do it yourself? You have them help you so they can learn and grow and benefit from your knowledge and abilities. Jesus was teaching the disciples how to handle these kinds of situations without panicking. He wants to teach us the same thing.  Consequently, we will seldom be told to “just stand there” while God works. God calls us to be involved in His work. Be ready and available. Bring Him what you have and then watch to see what He does. Matthew West sings a song that reminds us that God called us to “do something”. God wants us to trust Him, but that trust should take an active form. We should be ready to go wherever He sends us.

A Night on the Lake

22 Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. 23 After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone.

24 Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. 25 About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!”

27 But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”

28 Then Peter called to him, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.”

29 “Yes, come,” Jesus said.

So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he was terrified and began to sink. “Save me, Lord!” he shouted.

31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. “You have so little faith,” Jesus said. “Why did you doubt me?”

32 When they climbed back into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 Then the disciples worshiped him. “You really are the Son of God!” they exclaimed.

34 After they had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 When the people recognized Jesus, the news of his arrival spread quickly throughout the whole area, and soon people were bringing all their sick to be healed. 36 They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed.

I believe Jesus was still training His disciples. If you remember the whole point of coming to the area was to get some rest and some time to recharge. Jesus sent the disciples on ahead so He could spend time in quiet with the Father.

The trip across the lake should not have taken a long time. The storm kept them at a standstill. They apparently hadn’t gone very far because Mark tells us,

48 He saw that they were in serious trouble, rowing hard and struggling against the wind and waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. (Mark 6:48)

Don’t miss this! Jesus saw they were in trouble and it appears He waited to go rescue them! Why? It was another teachable moment.

When Jesus came to them walking on the water He was giving a powerful demonstration of His deity and His authority over nature itself. The disciples, finding it hard to process what was going on, concluded they must be seeing a ghost. Jesus told them He wasn’t a ghost and they should relax and be courageous.

Peter, the ever impulsive disciple, asked Jesus to call for him. Notice some important things here: first, for a few steps Peter DID walk on the water. Peter was fine as long as he stayed focused on Jesus. When he looked at the waves, he lost his courage and began to sink. Jesus saved him.

The whole incident had a profound effect on the disciples. Their faith was deepening. Their commitment was strengthening. They were going to need that faith in the weeks ahead.

Here are a few lessons we can learn from Jesus’ walking on the water.

First, Jesus is present and aware of your circumstances. The disciples felt alone but they were not. The Lord’s eye was on them and He was praying for them.

Do you feel all alone? Do you feel God has forgotten you or is out to get you because of the circumstances you face? He has not forgotten you! If He is delaying in meeting your need it is a purposeful delay. There is something He is doing or teaching through this situation . . . trust what you know about Him and not what you feel from circumstances.

Second, Jesus is greater than anything (or anyone) that comes against you. He is bigger than the storm that terrified experienced fishermen. He is bigger than cancer, leukemia, loneliness, debt, persecution, and death. He is bigger than the critics who attack your character. He is bigger than those who condemn you because you have failed. These things do not hinder Him! As He walked on the water, He showed Hew is superior to nature.

Third, the only way you will walk on water is if you are willing to get out of the boat. Author John Ortberg has changed the way I view this passage forever. He points out that we tend to criticize Peter because he started to sink. Ortberg observed that by the same token, Peter was the only one who ever got to walk on water. Why? Because He had the faith to get out of the boat.

We think it is more rational to stay in the boat! It is safer. However, we will not grow in faith as long as safety is our goal. If we want to experience the power and love of Christ we must be willing to take a step(or more) outside of our comfort zone.

This might involve

  • Asking friends for help and prayer (we resist vulnerability).
  • Beginning a conversation with a stranger.
  • Daring to try your hand at a new ministry.
  • Giving a donation that is a little larger than is comfortable.
  • Offering to pray with a friend or stranger.
  • Giving your testimony to a friend or family member.
  • Taking your family in a new and godly direction.
  • Going on a mission trip or even attending a Sunday School class.

The point is: we will never know victory if we never dare to get out of the boat. 

Fourth, What matters is not the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith. Peter was fine while he kept his focus on Jesus. He began to sink when we focused on the waves. This is such an important lesson for our lives. There are many scary things in the world. There are lots of things of which we can be afraid. We can focus on the potential problems, the disease, the mountains, the barriers, and the size of a task, or . . . we can focus on the size of our God!

When you and I start to feel anxiety and fear, it is because we are looking at the problems or potential problems and not at the one who solves problems and moves mountains. The times when the situation seems most impossible are the very times when God can show Himself most clearly and powerfully.

When life seems most overwhelming, how do we change our focus?

  • Immerse yourself in God’s Word. Listen to what He is telling us and stand on those truths.
  • Fill your mind with songs of praise rather than the predictions of men. Turn off the television, stop frantically searching the Internet, and focus instead on the Lord!
  • Worship and rest in Him rather than try to run faster.
  • Live generously rather than hoard more feverishly.
  • Set your mind on what God can do instead of on the bad things that can happen.

The disciples discovered that when Jesus is in the boat, His peace reigns and the storms cease. Christians ever since then have found the same thing. They have discovered a calm even in the midst of the storm. While other panicked they remained confident. They had peace in trials, persecution and even when facing torture and death. What was their secret? They kept their eyes on Jesus.

The disciples learned well. May God help us to do the same. Listen carefully.  Learn the lessons that are here. And if you do so, you will grow deeper and you will be ready to trust Him whatever comes your way. You will know peace, courage, and a life that nothing and no one can take away from you.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 265.

[2] Boice, 266–267.

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