WHAT DID PETER DOUBT?

The Greek word translated 'doubt' in Matthew 14:31 gives interesting insight into Peter's thoughts as he walked on the water towards Jesus.

The verb is distazo which is related to the adverb dis (which means 'twice') which comes from duo (which means 'two'). So distazo, which is translated 'doubt', means to have second thoughts, to think again, to 'waver' or 'hesitate'.

This word is used only twice in the New Testament - here, and in Matthew 28:17. In both texts it is related to people's opinion about the divine identity of Jesus.

In Matthew 14:26 it is clear that it was not the storm that the disciples were terrified of on this occasion, but this 'ghost' which was walking towards them on the water - 'When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear.' And it is this fear that Jesus' answer addressed: 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.'

Then Peter, seeking assurance that this was really Jesus, not a ghost, said 'Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water.'

Peter, walking on the water, and looking away from Jesus and focusing on the storm, is then afraid of the wind. Jesus' words 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?' refer to the minimal confidence Peter had, and the second thoughts he had, about whether or not Jesus actually was the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer, who actually had power and authority over the natural elements. [Remember that the calming of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) made them ask 'What kind of man is this?' and the feeding of the 5000 should have made them realize that Jesus was the Creator God, if they had understood its significance (see Mark's record of Jesus' walking on water - 'They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened' - Mark 8:51, 52).]

The conclusion recorded in Matthew 14:33 indicates that by the end of this second incident on the lake, the disciples confidence in Jesus' divine identity had become stronger: they 'worshipped him, saying "Truly you are the Son of God."'

But even after the confession 'You are the Son of God' reported by Matthew 14:33, these same disciples found it difficult to hold on to that faith - see Mark 8:17 - 21 where Jesus rebukes them for their on-going hardness of heart and failure to understand the radical, potentially blasphemous, and totally amazing truth, that this man Jesus is actually the almighty Creator God - the one in authority over nature, and the one who can create all things out of nothing.

It is this that Peter had second thoughts about, when he started to sink. But unless Jesus actually is the Almighty God, then Peter's prayer 'Lord, save me' is pointless and powerless. It is only if Jesus actually is who he is, that he can do anything to save Peter. The fact the Peter prayed to him, addressing him as 'Lord', indicates that his faith, although 'little', is still there, despite his hesitation to believe this unbelievable truth about Jesus.

The punch line of this incident is not primarily do we trust Jesus to do this or that for us, but do we believe that he is the one he claimed to be? It recounts the disciples' growing awareness of the truth about Jesus' identity.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020