Have you ever felt like God was pointing you straight into the heart of the unknown, across an abyss of as-yet-unseen perils?
Maybe you saw the dreaded place from afar on your life’s journey, as you descended into a valley or traversed a hillside. Maybe from that vantage point it even looked less like a brooding sea and more like an easy plain where you could catch your breath after endless climbing, or across which you could breeze on to the next mountaintop of spiritual enlightenment or accomplishment.
Or maybe you were oblivious that things were about to change. Maybe you were trekking along, minding your own business, only to stumble suddenly out of the woods onto the murky shore, or crested a hill only to see it spread out before you as far as the eye could see – and your road leading straight into it.
Either way, you’re not alone. I think many of us have been there. Probably quite a few are there now.
In today’s post, we’re going to look at two occasions on which Jesus directed His earliest followers to literally cross an abyss – a place of mortal danger they’d likely skirted their entire lives. We’ll see how each venture turned out, and what we can learn from them.
“What Kind of Man Is This?”
One evening early in His ministry, Jesus got into a boat with His twelve closest disciples and directed them to sail across the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake near which they lived in Roman-controlled Palestine.
No big deal, we modern readers think. Some of these guys are fishermen. They’re used to this sort of thing.
Except it was a big deal. A very big deal.
As I recently learned in a very insightful study (which I highly recommend for anyone wanting to better understand Jesus’s life and teaching by looking at their geographical context), the ancient Jews were terrified of open water. They associated it with “the abyss”, a place of chaos and doom. Their Scriptures connected it with such things as man-eating fish, drowned enemies, sea monsters, and the earliest days of creation. Even fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James, and John normally stayed in shallow water within sight of shore.
Add to this cultural dread the volatile weather on the Sea of Galilee – where storms came and went without warning – and even a seasoned Jewish fisherman had every reason to hesitate.
Yet they obeyed. They had already left families and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and had witnessed His authority to perform miracles. He had earned their trust and respect. Granted, this was the first time He’d asked them to do something so daring. But hey, this is Jesus asking – and who can argue with Jesus?
So, hearts pounding and hands trembling, they pointed the prow across the abyss. Maybe they consoled themselves with the idea that, with Jesus in tow – that prophet whom God so clearly favored and who surely had foreseen a safe passage – their worst fear might not happen. After all, Jesus was actually comfortable enough to fall asleep in the stern.
And then their worst fear did happen. Or very nearly.
Across the dark expanse around them, there swept a roaring Galilean gale in all its boat-smashing fury.
I’ve been caught on a lake in a thunderstorm myself once before (and don’t plan to be so again). One minute the sky was blue and full of puffy white clouds. About fifteen minutes later, said clouds were congealing, graying, and finally let loose a warning rumble before bursting.
Looking out across the lake as we hightailed to shore, everything was gray – gray sky, gray water, gray rain coming down so thick it looked like fog. And the wind – gusty wind that ensured the rain reached every part of your body, so that you might as well have gone swimming.
If a daytime thunderstorm on a little North Carolina lake scared someone like me, who normally loves water, I can only imagine those early disciples on night-shrouded Galilee coming close to a nervous breakdown.
I can hear the panic in their voices as they shake Jesus awake and plead for Him to save them. I wonder if there was some betrayal, too: We swallowed our fear and did what You said. We thought You’d keep us safe!
His response? Essentially, Why are you so worried?
Sighing and shaking off sleep, He turns to face the howling, churning abyss:
“Peace! Be still!”
The wind stops as though it’s hit a brick wall. The water drops like an overexcited puppy suddenly remembering its manners. Everything is still.
Jesus looks at His disciples.
And suddenly they realize something that arouses a new kind of fear.
This Man is more than a prophet. He knows everything about past, present, and future. He knows all about the dangers His followers are facing and will face.
But that knowledge doesn’t limit Him. He doesn’t base His directions on whether they point through dangerous territory. In fact, He will direct His followers through dangerous territory if that is what His mission requires.
Not because He doesn’t care about them. But because He knows He can handle everything that threatens them. Everything that scares them.
They’re safer than they ever realized.
Even in the abyss.
Sometime after returning from that first adventure across the sea, Jesus and His disciples retreated by boat to a remote area for some much-needed rest – only to be followed (on foot) by the Jesus-hungry masses.
Putting His quiet time on hold, Jesus spent a long day teaching and healing, topping it off by miraculously multiplying a meager supper to feed the 5,000+ people present.
Now, having overseen cleanup, He sent His disciples off in the boat without Him (partly to catch that much-needed private time, partly to throw the ever-watchful and increasingly overzealous throngs off His trail).
Having at this point crossed the abyss three times (twice with no recorded mishaps), His disciples were probably starting to get the hang of it.
Still, a lifelong aversion is hard to shake. And this time, they would be going it alone – a boatful of reluctant travelers without the one Person who actually wanted to go and made it all work out.
But again they did as He said. Teeth clenched, they cast off into the gathering night.
No storm this time, they must have prayed. Jesus won’t be here to save us. In fact – if all went well – they might have to wait for Him when they reach the other shore.
They sail late into the night on gentle waves. They sail until they are three or four miles from land.
And then it happens. Again.
The wind picks up. The sea begins to boil. Wind and water push at them, thwarting headway and making their small vessel shudder and skip.
And Jesus isn’t with them.
At this point they must have wondered if Jesus wanted to kill them. Sending them alone on the sea with a storm scheduled for the middle of the night! Or maybe He really didn’t know as much as they thought He did. Or maybe He forgot to tell the elements to behave that night. Or maybe His authority only applies ex post facto. Or maybe…
They heave at the oars for all they’re worth. They strain and sweat and pray for what feels like eternity.
And then, very early in the morning, between 3 and 6 a.m., they receive a horrible shock. Glancing up – perhaps in prayer, perhaps to check for any glimmer of progress – they see through the flying spray a human figure crossing the sea as though it were a meadow. And it’s walking towards them – set to pass right alongside their beleaguered vessel.
Nerves already frayed, bodies exhausted, visions of impending watery death dancing in their heads, this apparition is too much. The spirits of those drowned before them are coming to meet them!
And then He speaks:
“Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
They can’t believe their ears. It’s Jesus’s voice.
Only the Gospel of Matthew records what happens immediately after:
Peter – bold, Jesus-loving, head-full-of-rocks Peter – speaks up. “Lord, if it’s You, command me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” is the answer. And to the other disciples’ shock, Peter clambers over the lurching bulwark and steps onto the choppy face of the deep.
If Peter thought he was dreaming before (as well he might), he couldn’t have thought so now. The icy water soaking his sandaled feet and slapping his shins would have dispelled any doubts.
And yet here he was, sloshing through the waves (or did he step over them like moving hummocks? or scramble from wave-crest to wave-crest?) toward the Lord of his life. In the dead predawn, in the middle of the most terrible place in this world imaginable to a first-century Jew. On it, with only the surface of the water between him and death.
At first Peter made good progress. As long as he fixed his eyes on Jesus, standing calmly amidst the waves, he could fight his way through the wind and ignore the wide-open, seemingly bottomless expanse around them. It must have been both terrifying and thrilling, like doing a zip line for the first time.
But oh, that wind…
He stole a glance around. And with that, terror won out, taking thrill and Peter’s balance with it.
As he sank into the abyss, he cried out to Jesus. And in response, Jesus’s very solid, very real hand grasped him and pulled him up, half-lifting him into the boat.
As soon as Jesus’s own feet touched the boat’s floor, the waves stilled. The wind sighed. And, according to the Gospel of John, the boat was suddenly, inexplicably at their destined shore.
And they knew what kind of Man this was.
This Man isn’t bound by the laws of nature, time, or space. He can do anything, anywhere, from any vantage point.
And He doesn’t refrain from surprises. In fact, He puts surprise to good use. He rattles our assumptions to give us a fresh perspective. He lets us experience fear so He can show His authority over fearsome things. He brings us into the middle of stormy seas so He can invite us to walk on water with Him.
And even in the midst of heart-stopping terror, He offers the heart-healing, life-giving good news of His presence, love, and care.
He might not be there (in ways we can discern) when we want Him. But He is there when we need Him.
And He is always watching over us. According to the Gospel of Mark, even while Jesus was resting and praying on the mountain before setting out after His disciples, His eye was on them.
“Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” (Matthew 14:33, CSB)
After these episodes, you would think the disciples would never doubt Jesus again. That they would live joy-filled, courageous, obedient lives for the rest of their days, secure in the hard-earned knowledge of His love, wisdom, and authority.
Jesus would echo His words to Peter as they climbed into the boat many times in days to come. His disciples would continue to doubt, misunderstand, and fail Him. Peter himself would say and do many stupid things, right up to the worst night of his life, when he would say something not merely stupid but outright cowardly and disloyal regarding the very Man whom he loved most, who had invited him to walk on the abyss and then pulled him out of it.
I think many of us can relate. Sometimes we experience something that strengthens and deepens our faith in a special way, and for a while afterward we overflow with peace and power. But over time, out minds turn to other things, or we drift into complacency. Or we encounter some new, completely different challenge that makes us wonder: Is this, at last, the point where God’s love and authority fail?
The good news? It isn’t, and never will be. God’s love and authority over our lives will continue forever, in good times and bad, regardless of whether we believe they will. God doesn’t withhold them just because we doubt. He responds to our faithlessness with faithfulness – because He is who He is, and always will be.
To be clear, God does desire – even require – faith. Faith is how we take up our end of the God-human relationship and practice it.
It’s how, at the start of our journey with God, we accept the grace He has shown us in Christ and are saved from the eternal consequences of sin. And throughout that lifelong journey, He will ask us to do things that require us to trust He is who He says He is and has done what He says He has done, in order to improve the strength and quality of our trust. That’s what the Christian life is all about – living in trusting obedience to God, as though we not only believe in Him but believe Him.
Yet when we fail to live like that, He’s there to redeem us. If, in the middle of a stormy sea, we start to sink and cry out to our only Savior, He’s there to pull us back up. He might gently chastise, but He never abandons. “I do believe; help my unbelief!” – words addressed to Him by one desperate man and prayed by millions since – is a plea that never goes unheard.
Because, ultimately, He wants to redeem us. His goal from the creation of the world has always been, and always will be, to have a loving, unhindered, reciprocal relationship with all His creatures – including you and me. A relationship based on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and what He accomplished for us through His life, death, and resurrection.
So persevere across the abyss. Fix your eyes on the one Certainty in the expanse of unknowns. If you find yourself faltering or sinking, cry for help to Him who is “very present” in trouble. Even when He seems asleep or far away.
He might not calm the storm. But He will get you through it to wherever you’re meant to go.
Remember you are safer and more loved than you ever realize.
Even in the abyss.
“God is our refuge and strength,
a helper who is always found
in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid,
though the earth trembles
and the mountains topple
into the depths of the seas,
though its water roars and foams
and the mountains quake with its turmoil. Selah”
–Psalm 46:1-3 (CSB)