TEXT: Matthew 16:13-20
“You of little faith, why did you doubt? … You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matt. 14:31; 16:18)
For Peter, the path of discipleship must have seemed like a roller-coaster ride—marked by low points, followed by high points … heights, and depths.
In Scripture, Peter is portrayed as the brash one of the Twelve. We saw that demonstrated earlier in Matthew’s gospel (14:22-33). Remember the “walking on water” story? With great confidence, Peter attempts what the others in the boat will not: he steps out onto the water’s surface, and begins to walk toward Jesus … only to falter and fail, and hear his master say: “Why did you doubt?”
Not long afterward—and with equal enthusiasm—Peter is the one who makes the bold declaration: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus heaps praise upon him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah … you are the rock on which I’ll build my church … and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
First a low point, then a high one. Peter almost sinks to the bottom of the sea—and then he is raised almost to the heights of heaven. First he stumbles, then he soars.
And it’s a pattern that continues. If we keep reading in Matthew past verse 20 of chapter 16, what we find is this:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matt. 16:21-23).
Ouch. In three or four verses, he goes from “keeper of the keys of heaven” to “mouthpiece of Satan.” Peter must have had a really thick skin! Because Jesus always seems to be taking him down a notch.
On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, after their last Passover meal together, Peter declares that he will never abandon Jesus—even if he has to die with him. And we all remember Jesus’ response: “Peter, tonight—before the rooster crows—you will deny me three times” (see Matt. 26:30-35).
Yet—even though his prediction about the rooster comes all too terribly true—Jesus, after his death and rising, reconciles with Peter and entrusts him with the care of his flock: “Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep …” (see John 21:15-19). And he does. It’s not clear that everyone in the early church appreciated Peter’s leadership, but we do know that he persisted in spreading the gospel of Christ, finally dying a martyr’s death in Rome around 64 A.D.
Even if he was sometimes bumbling, Peter was, in the end, faithful. Sometimes his faith was weak. Sometimes his faith was strong. When Peter’s faith was strong, he was like a speedboat with a full tank of fuel and the throttle wide open. When Peter’s faith was weak …
Well, when Peter’s faith was weak—when he took his hand off the throttle and he began to stall, and then to sink—he still knew enough to grasp the outstretched hand of his Lord, who would pull him up to safety.
Here’s something I think is true of all believers: all of us, to varying degrees, sometimes lose the power of God in our lives. Sometimes the power is lost because of our disobedience to the Lord. At other times, we just plain forget about the power that’s available to us, and we try to “go it on our own,” without God’s help.
But here’s the thing: the fuel of the Christian life is nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would be with us forever (John 14:16).
In chapter 14 of John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him [but] you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:17). The Spirit keeps our gas tanks full.
Make no mistake about it: if you are a believer, the Holy Spirit keeps you constantly supplied with the highest-octane fuel in the universe. Faith is how we access that power supply. Faith can be compared to the accelerator that we use to apply the power of God.
I’ll say it again: for the Christian, it is never a matter of having an empty tank, because we have the power of God in our lives. The problem is that we let go of the throttle. We pull back on the controls by not trusting in the Lord. That’s when we begin to waver in our faith. That’s when we begin to falter … and stall … and sink.
Even so, Jesus’ hand is extended to rescue us. We have Christ’s own assurance that we will arrive safely in heaven.
“This is the will of him who sent me,” Jesus said, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me … This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life …” (John 6:39-40).
Of course, that does not mean that the voyage to our final destination will be uneventful. All of us experience storms and rough seas. It would be wonderful if we did not have to endure trials and problems in life. We all want to avoid suffering and sorrow and misfortune—circumstances that drag us down and make us anxious.
However, Jesus never promised us smooth sailing. In fact, he said just the opposite: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
Realistically, no one can promise we will not encounter troubles in our lives.
However, Scripture tells us that—even in the midst of a storm—we can be at peace with God and with ourselves. The apostle Paul—who endured enormous suffering in his life—was able to write:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
The consolation of which Paul speaks points to a life lived with God’s power continually applied—the power of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. Power which is accelerated by faith.
Oh, I know … believe me, I know … it’s easier said than done. Sometimes that leap of faith seems like a very long jump. Sometimes doubts arise. Even if we have no doubts about God, we may have grave doubts about ourselves—about our own abilities, our own strength of character, our own comprehension.
Sometimes nothing appears to make sense and our grip on the throttle seems weak. But look: the Bible and human history both teach us that even the greatest saints have, at times, struggled with this issue of doubt and faith.
Augustine of Hippo—the fourth century North African scholar who is regarded as one of the church’s greatest thinkers, confessed: “I wish I could be made just as certain of things I cannot see as I am certain that seven plus three make ten” (Confessions, VI.iv.6). Yet he never found that certainty.
The great Reformer Martin Luther battled constantly against doubt and depression. He once wrote: “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.” *
We see this same struggle played out in the pages of the Bible. Adam, Sarah, Jacob, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Jonah, Thomas, Martha, Peter … these are all people who question, who falter, who doubt … and yet, in the end, they remain faithful. I think that, for many of them—and for many of us—the experience is summed up by the words of a father in chapter nine of Mark’s gospel (9:23-24). This man’s son is gravely ill, and he begs Jesus, “Do something if you can.” Jesus replies, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
And immediately the father exclaims, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
I can relate to that father, can’t you? We do believe, but sometimes we struggle. And we’re not peculiar because of that. You know, it’s ironic: in the gospels, we frequently see a reversal of what you might expect with regard to who has faith and who does not. Often those who should have much faith, have very little—while those with little reason for faith somehow come up with it.
For example, in chapter seven of Luke (7:1-10), we read about a Centurion—a Roman officer, a Gentile—who said to Jesus, “Lord, you don’t even have to come to my house to heal my servant. Just say the word here and he will be healed.”
Jesus is amazed, and he declares: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith as this man has.”
Or think of that Canaanite woman in last week’s gospel lesson (Matt. 15:21-28). Remember? She sought Jesus out because her daughter needed healing, and he tried to put her off. But she was so persistent—and so confident in his ability to help—that she won him over. “Woman,” he said, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
It’s surprising (isn’t it?) that a Roman soldier and a Canaanite—both of whom lacked Jewish roots—would put their trust in a Jewish Messiah. And contrast that with those who should have trusted him!
Jesus’ own neighbours and family doubted him. John the Baptist—his cousin, who had called him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) … even John began to doubt him, and sent his own disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3)
And among those closest to him—his 12 disciples—Judas would betray him, Peter would deny him, Thomas would doubt him, and all would abandon him.
But look, here’s the exciting thing, the thing that should give us hope: whatever grain of faith people have—whatever speck of faith we can muster—God is able to use. Even through the faintest glimmer of faith, God is able to work.
Whether it was the bold Centurion with his absolute trust, or the distraught father who cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief” … or Peter’s terrified cry as he began to sink: “Lord, save me!” … Jesus always embraced their faith, no matter how great or how little.
Here’s another exciting truth: struggles and doubts—and even suffering—can lead us into mature faith. We often look back on difficult times with a fond remembrance because those were the times when we grew the most.
Sometimes, in hindsight, we realize that God used our seasons of doubt and difficulty to increase our faith and deepen our understanding —to motivate us to read and explore and pray … and to reach out. And we grew to maturity as a result.
What a blessing! I hope our growth never ceases until—as the apostle Paul also said—”until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
May it be so—for you, for me, for each of us and all of us. Amen.
* Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 374.