St. Peter Sinking (Faith, Doubt, and Jesus’ Expectations)

St. Peter Sinking (Faith, Doubt, and Jesus’ Expectations) September 12, 2015


Peter sinking in the water after walking on it [Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license]

From an old Facebook post (dated 11 August 2014)

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Matthew 14:28-31 (RSV) And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” [29] He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; [30] but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” [31] Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The point Jesus was making was that Peter was walking on the water. The miracle was already there (and was “proven”). Peter both anticipated the possibility by asking Jesus to let him walk to Him, and then experienced it himself.

Thus, whether miracles are rare (they certainly are, and it’s not a lack of faith to observe that) is irrelevant to that scenario, I would contend. Peter had faith to do it for a while, then he doubted and lacked faith. So Jesus asked him why he did.

Peter had the faith and expectation, but became afraid due to the wind. I think it is intended as a commentary on our lack of perseverance. We manage to believe and have faith by God’s grace, but find it tough to continue doing so over time (particularly when suffering and other difficulties arise).

A variation of this theme occurs here:

Matthew 8:24-26 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. [25] And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” [26] And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

I’ve always taken this to mean that Jesus was saying, in effect, “You have seen Me perform many miracles; you know I am the Messiah, so why are you worrying about these things having to do with the elements and provisions? Do you not believe that I can take care of all that, based on what you have often seen Me do?”

We can say that they lacked discernment before the Spirit came at Pentecost, etc. (and that’s true, too), but Jesus still seems to expect more from them; hence, several times He refers to them having “little faith.” And He rebukes the demand for more signs and for physical proofs. This was the case with Doubting Thomas. That also occurred before Pentecost, yet Jesus expected him to have enough faith to believe without the necessity of empirical evidence:

John 20:27-29 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” [28] Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” [29] Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

This also reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke 16:31, citing Abraham: “He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”

In a nutshell: “you guys have enough evidence to believe; even extraordinary miracles will not convince you if you reject that which is already revealed and manifest.” The lack of faith is already a rebellion; it seems to me to be Jesus’ point. It’s not mere lack of assent on a rational basis, due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

Some might say that Peter acted as he did because miracles are a rare thing, and as such, difficult to accept and believe (in particular cases). But the rarity of a miracle was irrelevant if Peter was doing the miraculous thing at the time. He was already there; he already believed. The defect came in perseverance or doubting how long the miracle could last, or in thinking that a stronger wind could overcome it. These are quite human and understandable responses.

No one denies that faith is difficult and that miracles are rare and difficult to accept even when they are right in front of us. Nevertheless, Jesus expects them to “get” it far more than they do, even before Pentecost (i.e., the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all Christian believers). He is rebuking doubt; not mere lack of ability to believe, due to not yet having the fullness of the Spirit. The same dynamic is also present in John 6.

Jesus expected both the Jews in general and His disciples to know Who He was, based on the revelation that already existed (even prior to miracles). As one of many examples of this theme, we have recorded what Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:

Luke 24:25-27 “And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” [27] And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Yes, grace and faith are required (all agree on that). Jesus is rebuking them for not accepting this grace and faith, which would enable them to understand these things that they do not, which leads Jesus to call them “foolish” and “slow” to “believe.”

Jesus thought slowness to believe and to have faith was quite culpable, even before Pentecost, as we see by His reactions many times to it. If there was no (or little) culpability, then there would have been no rebuke from Him. He would have just said, I think, “Okay guys, I know this is very difficult to accept. No sweat. No problem . . . ” Instead He rebukes for lack of faith, for rebellion, for inability to accept what He says is fairly plain in Old Testament Scripture.

He didn’t act that way in John 6. After they complained that it was a “hard saying” (6:60), He didn’t respond by softening or sympathizing that it is so difficult to believe, as if that is normal and expected. Rather, He said, “Do you take offense at this?” (6:61) and “there are some of you that do not believe.” (6:64).

He also notes the absolute necessity of prior enabling grace: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (6:65). But what I find most interesting is that He still rebukes them: implying that they have guilt for not accepting the grace that would enable them to believe. They are still at fault, and so is anyone who rejects His grace and revealed teaching.

They were culpable every time, it seems to me (i.e. educated Jews of the first century, and Jesus’ disciples who repeatedly witnessed His miracles), there was a lack of faith or belief. If, in fact, Jesus thought they were not culpable in these instances, I really don’t understand why He said what it is recorded that He said (here is more of the same theme):

Matthew 6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? (cf. Lk 12:28)

Matthew 16:8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?”

Matthew 17:20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

John 4:48 Jesus therefore said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

He doesn’t say what it seems to me that He would say if there were little or no culpability: “you don’t understand because you don’t have enough grace / haven’t yet received the Spirit (so it’s way above your pay grade).” Etc. . . .

There is a little of that in a few places (because it’s a both / and scenario), but it doesn’t wipe out many more instances of human culpability and rebuke for same. We can never deny the necessity of faith and grace, but some want to deny almost all human culpability, and I don’t think that can be squared with Scripture. During the entire old covenant period, men were culpable for both sin and lack of faith. It isn’t like all that began with Pentecost, and everyone gets a big pass before that time.

With the disciples it is a weak faith in consideration: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). With the Pharisees it is outright unbelief brought about by pride.

My general point is that Jesus assumes that they should not have merely weak faith (and culpability exists, because they have the weakness). Otherwise, why would Jesus repeatedly rebuke the disciples for having “little faith” when, according to you, He would have understood full well that they could only have a weak faith by the nature of the case, and it couldn’t be otherwise till Pentecost? No one rebukes someone for what they can’t by nature do in the first place; what is impossible.

We don’t say to a five-year-old, “why couldn’t you pass the exam on calculus?” Or to an infant, “Have you read War and Peace?” These are meaningless questions.

But we can say that they had a weak faith and they moved to a position of realizing this and accepting the need for a greater faith by God’s grace. I was contending that Jesus’ comment, “why did you doubt?” presupposes that Peter was at a lower level of faith than he should have been at that time. Therefore, it was a rebuke; therefore he was culpable (since a rebuke presupposes fault and ability to have done better; or else it is, again, meaningless).

Since Jesus kept mentioning “little faith” as a shortcoming, He must have obviously assumed (unspoken premise) that they could and should have more of it than they did (at the time He issued the rebuke).

I readily agree that it would take time to develop such faith (since we all know that from our own experience of being stubborn, prideful sinners). I know that as much as anyone. God had to lay me out for six months with clinical depression and deep existential despair before I would cease my relentless rebellion against Him (or cease my apathy as to whether He had any claim whatever on my life).

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Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, on the other hand (a far more difficult case), not just for spiritual pride, but also for disbelief in Old Testament revelation. He argued with the Pharisees over and over, that His teaching and He Himself as Messiah were manifest in Scripture. That stands alongside His constant rebukes of their hypocrisy. Thus, their fault was for those two things, not just one.

This applies even to a “good Pharisee” like Nicodemus, whom Jesus mildly scolds for being ignorant of basic things: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” (John 3:10)

Jesus thought belief was already quite possible and justified by OT scriptural revelation:

Luke 16:27-31 And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, [28] for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ [29] But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ [30] And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ [31] He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”

I could come up with all kinds of passages about this. Here’s one:

John 5:39-40, 44-47 You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; [40] yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . [44] How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? [45] Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. [46] If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. [47] But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

The Pharisees failed to accept what Jesus sure seems to assume (from what we see Him saying) was clear and manifest. This is much of the point, e.g., in OT prophecies being cited in the NT (esp. in Matthew). The argument there was that it was plain that Jesus was fulfilling these prophecies that all the Pharisees were quite familiar with. Even Herod’s advisors knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. All Jews knew that.

Jews even knew something about a suffering Messiah, from Isaiah. They still did after Jesus (I’ve studied quite a bit about their views of the Messiah). That wasn’t completely unknown. They just didn’t like it or want it, because it’s natural to yearn for the conqueror and not the suffering servant.

Stubbornness and pride adversely affect logic, as anyone who does evangelism and apologetics is surely familiar with from a million examples. The late great Steven Jay Gould (himself an agnostic) used to write whole books about how pride and stubbornness and human bias and party affiliations affected good science and sometimes caused atrocious pseudo-science, like phrenology or the hoax of Piltdown Man.

It works the same way in religious matters! We can all see it in our own lives, in things we’ve had to learn the hard way (very much true in my case, as I am a stubborn Scotsman!).

I would contend that Jesus brings both these themes together, with regard to the Pharisees. He’s saying, in effect, “your stubborn spiritual pride blinds you to what is manifest in Scripture.” So He argues (paraphrase): “all you gotta do is go as far as Moses and He is already speaking about Me. Yet for some odd reason you (who fancy yourselves such masters of Scripture) reject Me.”

Unbelievers today are vastly more ignorant than educated Jews at the time of Jesus. Thus, they get a lot more of a pass for ignorance. For that very different theme, see Romans 2 or St. Paul’s discourse on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-33).

I think there is a lot here in these Bible passages for us to ponder: about human pride, stubbornness, lack of faith, and unbelief.

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