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”.