“Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” Matthew 14:27
Recorded in Matthew 14 is the story of the storm on the lake, an event straightforward in its simplicity, interesting in its drama, and powerful in its exhortation value. There can be no more frightening experience than to be in a tiny boat afloat on the vastness of a great deep, utterly at the mercy of the raging elements. The record of the storm on the lake is a story about faithful perseverance, about redemption from and triumph over the storm.
The incident arose directly after the miraculous feeding of five thousand, a story of breaking bread, representing the sacrifice of Christ, and the provision of food to a multitude. Following that event, we read that “straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship” (Matt 14:22). The word constrained means to compel. The gospel of Mark refers to Jesus sending them away (6:46). Christ’s influence was compelling, and this little boat was launched at his command. We are told that they were headed for Capernaum (John 6:17). It was the city Christ was using as his base, and its name means ‘the city of comfort, or consolation’.
In this little story we have a symbolic picture or type of Christ and the saints, the disciples of all ages who have followed Christ, who have been associated with him in the breaking of bread, and have been conducted by him down to the shore. One by one, each of us has commenced that journey, compelled by the words of Christ, out across the wide dark sea towards the city of consolation. Remember the words of Paul, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb 13:14).
In Matthew we are told that after Christ had sent the disciples away, he went into a mountain apart to pray (14:23). He ascended to a place where he could enjoy uninterrupted communication with the Father. We find from the John record that evening was come when they set sail (6:16), and in verse 17, that it was now dark and Jesus was not come unto them.
Our Journey Prefigured
The disciples were setting out onto the Sea of Galilee. As we know, seas are used in Scripture to represent peoples and nations (cp Rev 17:15; Isa 57:20). The sea they were embarking on was of Galilee, a region sometimes known as Galilee of the Gentiles. It was a fitting symbol for the journey of faith that all disciples embark on across the Gentile sea.
Down throughout the ages, as centuries have ebbed and flowed, rolling like tides across the oceans of time, countless thousands of our brothers and sisters have faithfully launched their boats, compelled by the Gospel of Christ. In the absence of our Lord, whilst he is apart from us in communication with the Father, we journey across a sea in the grip of Gentile darkness, in the absence of “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
But when we set out on that journey, how are we going to travel? Obviously we can’t swim to Capernaum—we need a boat. The boat that appears so frequently in the Gospel record is worthy of careful analysis. It was a means of transport, and all the disciples were in it together. A ship was used as a platform from which to preach the gospel (Matt 13:2); it was a means of transport to bring the work of preaching to new parts (Mark 8:10,13); it was the platform from which nets were cast and many fishes were gathered into the net (Luke 5:3–11); and it was a place of refuge for those who were under pressure (Mark 3:9).
This ship is clearly a graphic representation of the ecclesia of God—all of us together in the ecclesia, sailing towards the city of consolation. The ecclesia is the vehicle provided by God for us all to travel together and to help each other. When we are in a boat together, there is a lot of common interest. The world even has an expression—“we’re all in the same boat”. We are all vitally interested in the well-being of this boat.
When we are baptised we set off homewards, sailing in our ship of faith, resolute and refreshed, with our course set, with the instructions of our Lord ringing in our ears, and with the destination clear before us. We are blessed with a boat, fellow sailors, a destination and route. We have received our instructions—compelling instructions from our Master.
However, as we embark enthusiastically upon the journey, we have no idea what conditions we will experience on the lake, or what lies before us on our journey. We know not what joys or sorrows, happiness or tears may await us as we sail onwards in faith, across that lake. And that is the power of the story of the storm on the lake. It is not just a symbol of a voyage, it is a story about a storm on that voyage—a dreadful frightening storm, when the disciples were all alone and their Lord had not come. But it is a story about a storm that was overcome, about faithful men who triumphed over the storm, who safely reached the other side because their Lord redeemed them.
You could not have chosen a more apparently inappropriate time for the disciples to have to face a storm. We are told that they had earlier sought a desert place to “rest a while” (Mark 6:30–32). We read that there had been so many coming and going that they had no leisure so much as to eat. However the people saw where they were going and outran them, and the disciples became engaged in the process of the feeding of the 5,000. So, earlier that day they had been in need of rest, of refreshment, of space, and food. They had still had no break, and by now would have been utterly exhausted, wrung out. It was no doubt a group of silent and weary men who set sail on that lake, headed home for bed. But these hapless men, enfeebled and weary, sailed straight into the teeth of a raging tempest.
Isn’t that a graphic depiction of life! For some reason, trials and challenges don’t come when we are feeling refreshed and vigorous, able to cope with anything. The storms of life descend upon us when we could do without them, when they are the last things we need. Our faith is put to the test when we haven’t got much left to give, when the well of human resourcefulness and ingenuity has run dry.
The Fury of the Storm
When the disciples set sail across the lake, the journey looked so straightforward. The lake of Galilee is not huge—they could see their destination on the side of the lake. As the evening shades fell they could no doubt see the twinkling lights of the little city ahead of them, beckoning to them. The weather conditions were fine—they expected a lovely cruise across the stillness of the lake as the gentle evening shades fell. It’s like that for us too—when we commence that journey, the kingdom seems so real, so close, so tangible we can almost touch it!
But as the disciples head into the body of the lake, they notice the stars have been blotted out by gathering clouds. Out of the gathering gloom fitful gusts of wind come bursting across the lake, wrenching violently at the sails, causing the boat to suddenly roll and pitch. The strength of the wind begins to mount, moaning at first through the rigging in gusts, then developing a crescendo as it begins to beat upon them in full fury. Hurriedly they reef the sails, take them down, and in concern take up their oars. In a matter of moments the tranquil journey is fraught with anxiety, with discomfort and fear. John says that the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew (6:18).
Imagine their little boat, thrust to dizzy heights by the force of massive waves, plunged down into the troughs of the mighty swells. Huge waves crashed over the bows of the boat, half swamping it. Men, desperately bailing, tried to point the little boat into the waves, flung to and fro in the blackness of the night. We are told that this great wind was “contrary” to them (Matt 14:24). The word contrary means an adversary, hostile, antagonistic. This wind was a force beating down upon them in their journey, trying to stop their progress to the place of Comfort, to their Lord’s city. It’s a stark representation of all the pressures of this life that the world can bring upon us.
The disciples set out at “even”, the Jewish phrase for the end of the day at approximately 6pm. Yet in Matthew we are told that Jesus came to them in the fourth watch of the night—between 3am and 6am (14:25). This equates to nine endless hours of rowing on that lake! These men laboured without ceasing to bring their boat to shore. Despite the lack of progress, they resolutely continued that work. They knew that the only rest lay ahead in the city of comfort. They knew they had to keep that boat pointed in the right direction to stop it being swamped. Inch by painful inch they clawed their way forward across the raging surface of the lake. In John we are told they rowed about 30 furlongs— that’s about 5 kilometres (6:19). They didn’t give up—they put their backs to the work and they rowed and rowed through the midst of the storm.
Working Together in Adversity
Mark says they were “toiling” in rowing (6:48). These men were being put to the test, or tried, and they laboured without ceasing, rowing their hearts out, all night. Our ecclesial world needs men and woman who row without ceasing, who continue faithfully in that labour, in the teeth of the storm, keeping the boat pointed in the right direction and avoiding the rocks. Yet despite their labours, it seemed obvious to a casual observer, and to those in the boat, they made no progress. They were still in the midst of the sea (Mark 6:47).
Can you imagine yourself in that situation? You were exhausted before you started this wretched journey. For nine hours you’ve been straining at the oars. Your little boat has been wrenched to and fro, you’ve been swamped by waves, you’re soaking wet and cold, your hands are blistered, your muscles aching, every bone in your body crying out for rest, gasping for breath, tossed to and fro in the gross darkness of that merciless night, with the wind and the waves beating upon you…and you seem to have made no progress, you are still only half way, still in the middle of the lake. Can you imagine a more desolate scene? Can you picture a more dismal state of affairs? That’s what it can be like when we experience storms on the lake.
Once before those men had experienced a dreadful storm on the lake, but on that occasion their Lord had been with them. At their desperate cry, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” he had risen and calmed the sea. This time he was not there—they were alone. How more isolated could you feel—out alone in the middle of a raging sea! But were they alone? Are we ever alone as we battle against the storms that rage upon us in life? Mark records the remarkable statement that the Lord “saw them” (6:48). Humanly this was not possible—consider the gross darkness of a storm, in the blackness of night, in the midst of a lake, and he was on a mountain! Yet across the miles of those inhospitable seas, he saw them toiling in rowing and he understood. As we sail steadfastly in the storms of life, as we row our hearts out in our little boats, he always sees. No matter how isolated the lake, no matter how black the night, the Master sees. He’s not physically in the boat with us, but he knows about the storm that frightens and threatens to overwhelm us.
In the darkest part of the night, in the hours just before the dawn, when hope seemed at its lowest ebb, our Lord came to those men, walking over the top of the raging seas (Mark 6:48). What better proof do we need that our God is powerful, that He is more powerful than all the conflicts and troubles of this life, and that Christ is ruler over all, supreme over the raging waves, calm, unaffected, unmoved, and immutable! We will never arrive at the city of consolation in our own strength, making our own progress. We will not arrive there before our Lord comes. He will come in the blackness of the night, in the fury of the raging storm; and he will come to our boat in the midst of that storm.
“Be of good cheer: it is I”
When the disciples saw him they cried out, supposing it was a spirit, but that fear was swiftly assuaged for “immediately he talked with them” (Mark 6:49–50). It was an immediate response; the Lord was conscious of their fear, he felt for them and said, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.” Those were wonderful words of reassurance—the one thing that gave them stability was the proof of his personal presence.
Brothers and sisters, when we meet with Christ face to face and we are amazed and fearful, and those words are repeated to us, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid”, will those words console us, or terrify us more? Will those words allay all our fears or create a plethora of new ones? That is the litmus test of our relationship with Christ. These were men who loved their Lord and his appearing, for “they willingly received him into the ship” (John 6:21). Will we be willing to receive the Lord into our ship, our reassurance being that it really is him, our Master helmsman? For when the Master enters that ship, our journey is over. Mark says: “And he went up unto them into the ship and the wind ceased” (6:51). John records: “They willingly received him into the ship and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went” (John 6:21).
These simple words convey a remarkable message. Out there on the lake, when the seas threaten to swamp us, the shore seems on the other side of eternity, and all hope seems lost. But when the Lord returns, and is willingly received into his ship, the journey is over, the battle won, the storm gone. It helps us to realise that the battles before us are but part of the process. We need to keep our sights firmly set on that goal and toil away in rowing that ecclesial boat, because in a moment, in an instant of time, we will suddenly be there at journey’s end when the Master returns.
So let us take hold with full assurance of faith the great and precious promises, and believe in our Lord—believe in his power to see us out alone on the lake, believe in his ability to walk triumphant over the waves, believe in his ability to redeem us from the storms of life, and bring us into the city of comfort. Let us renew our journey, refreshed and resolute, to steer our boats across that lake, longing for the words, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid”.