Encouraging Frail Faith

Bible Book: John  6 : 16-21
Subject: Faith
Series: That You May Believe

When I was in sixth grade my grandmother Adams became very ill so my parents packed the car and we all made a quick trip from Dover to Mississippi. Grandmom was in a hospital that was closest to my uncle Jack’s home in Coffeeville and my parents decided to stay with them and make their home our base of operations. That way my uncle and aunt could watch me and my three siblings while mom and dad made trips to the hospital and they would return the favor with Uncle Jack’s kids while he and my aunt made their visits.

Back then children weren’t allowed to visit in the hospital so we Adams cousins had to entertain ourselves—which we did. We went fishing. We talked on the CB radio. Sometimes we just explored the streets of Coffeeville. I remember one evening my cousin Donnie decided it would be fun for all of us to go out in their back yard for a game of hide ‘n’ go seek. We’d played several rounds of the game until I came up with the perfect hiding place. I climbed up about 25 feet into a tree in my Uncle’s back yard and hid within the branches. And it worked—my cousin Donnie was “it” that round and he never found me. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud as I watched him walking around beneath my tree looking for me every where. Finally he gave up and called out “alle—alle—oxen–free” which is Greek for: “I give up. You can all come in now.” I called down to Donnie and said, “I was up here all the time!” And then I took my first step toward the ground but with pride causing me to be careless my foot slipped and I fell. When I landed, other than being a little bit dazed, I felt okay but then I looked at my right arm—and noticed that it was bent in an odd shape. I walked down to the house and showed it to my Uncle Jack. He pronounced it broken, took me to the ER, and they put a cast on it.

I remember the doctor who removed the cast a couple months later told me that the bone in my arm was now stronger at the place where it broke than it ever was before. He said that the stress of the break had actually strengthened my arm and made it literally better than new.

Just curious—how many of you have ever broken an arm or leg? How many of you have ever experienced a “break” of some other kind? For example: How about a broken a relationship? Anyone ever suffer from a broken heart? Anyone ever felt like they had a dream shattered on the rocks of life? As you can see you’re not alone because by definition life in a FALLEN world is full of “FALLS.” We all go through hardships—painful experiences—but if we “treat” them correctly, then just like my arm bone, we can become stronger than we were before. With God’s help, tough “testing times” can make us better—more mature—especially when it comes to being a Christ follower.


This morning we come to a time in Jesus’ ministry when He saw that His disciples’ faith needed the strengthening effect than can come from hardship. But before I read those verses, let me give you the context.

Jesus had just fed those 15,000 - 20,000 people with the contents of a 1st century “happy meal.” You may remember from our study a couple weeks back that the multitude responded to this miracle by wanting to make Jesus king by force. They decided Jesus was the perfect Guy to run the Romans out of Palestine—and were about to put Him up on their shoulders, march Him to Jerusalem, and install Him in the palace.

Well—the story in this morning’s text starts right there. It’s recorded in three of the four gospels. Only Luke leaves this one out. And, by reading the other three we see that the disciples where part of this post-miracle crowd control problem. For example, in Matthew’s account he confesses that Jesus had to “make” or “compel” him and the rest of the twelve to get into the boat and go ahead while Jesus sent the multitude away. Jesus had to do this because His disciples wanted Jesus to be their political messiah as much as the crowd did. In fact, Jesus’ veiled reference to Judas the next day (verses 70-71) suggests that he may have been at the ring leader of the entire thing. Anyway, Jesus had one idea and His followers had another idea—and that’s never good. I mean—their “multitude-like” response to the feeding miracle showed how far they were from where they needed to be. It showed that theirs was a frail faith that needed the proper encouragement to grow.

With this in mind Jesus ordered the twelve into a boat and told them to head out across the lake. He knew that SHIPPING OUT was the best way for them to SHAPE UP! Okay—listen now as I read John 6:15-21.

15 - Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.

16 - When evening came, His disciples went down to the lake,

17 - where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. [remember, according to the other gospel writers Jesus had to compel them to do this.] By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.

18 - A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.

19 - When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified.

20 - But He said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”

21 - Then they were willing to take Him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

Okay—let’s go back and by drawing on all three gospel accounts let me guide you through a closer look at this familiar story. It had been a long day and now with His troublesome disciples gone and the crowd finally dispersed, Jesus was able to go up on a hillside to be alone and pray.

Several hours passed and suddenly a wind storm hit, blowing the disciples’ boat southward, away from the northern shore. Matthew 14:24 says that by this time,“...the boat was already a considerable distance from the land, BUFFETED by the waves because the wind was against it.” But “buffeting” is not a good word because it sounds like a delicate thing and there was nothing delicate going on here.Their boat was in danger of being crushed by the heavy waves. The Greek word here literally says, “the boat was TORMENTED by the waves.”

The Sea of Galilee is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide and is usually a calm body of water. When I was there in 1994, it looked like a huge sheet of glass—especially in the morning. But it is well-known for these wind storms that can very quickly turn it into a dangerous body of water—as Rembrandt depicts it in this painting. You see, the Sea of Galilee sits 686 feet BELOW sea level in a deep rift between the Arabian Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Winds frequently whip down through that gorge turning it into a huge wind tunnel that tosses the lake’s waters into a choppy nightmare, especially for the crude sailing boats of the first century. Even today there are frequent craft advisories warning boaters to remain docked during these wind storms.

Well, that night this storm was so bad that the disciples—many of whom were professional sailors—were fighting for their lives! They rowed and rowed against this horrible headwind until 3:00 AM. They were understandably cold, wet, exhausted—and terrified. As I said, when we combine all three gospel accounts we get a fairly detailed account of what happened next but I want to remind you that this wasn’t John’s purpose. He doesn’t record every detail, because his was the last gospel written and that had already been done by the others. Plus, he was led by God’s Spirit to focus on recording those things that would prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God—the specific SIGNS that would lead readers to believe in Him—and that by believing they would have life in His name. That’s John’s purpose in writing. And that’s his purpose in recording this particular sign the way he did. As you read you can see that John’s account underscores the fact that Jesus is God because He has complete control over the universe that He created.

In any case, when we combine the accounts of this event in Matthew, Mark and John, we can see that there were actually FOUR MIRACLES that took place that night. First, Jesus walked on the water. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do that, but if you have, you will quickly realize that it’s impossible. A man named William Barclay wrote a set of commentaries that are still very popular. I like most of Barclay’s work but you have to be careful because he tends to explain away the miracles of Jesus—and that’s what he does here. In his comments on this passage, Barclay said that Jesus didn’t really walk on the water. The disciples were just rowing their boat really close to the shore. Jesus was walking on the shore, and because it was dark and stormy, they just thought it LOOKED like He was walking on the water. Well, that’s just plain silly.

With hurricane force winds blowing from the north the disciples would have been pushed miles from the shore. With the full Passover moon shining, even in the midst of that wind storm they would have been able to see that. The fact is Jesus defied the laws of gravity that He created in the first place. He defied the principles of buoyancy that He created in the first place. Jesus walked on water. But not only did Jesus walk on water, Matthew records that Jesus called Peter out of the boat to walk on the water as well. And as long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus and not on the waves, he was able to miraculously walk on the surface of that stormy sea. That was the second miracle that happened there. Matthew and Mark both record the third miracle. When Jesus and Peter got back into the boat, the wind immediately stopped. It was such a sudden change that Mark 6:51 says, “They were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.” So, this wasn’t just a slight change in the weather. It wasn’t like things just calmed down as the storm passed by. These guys had never seen a storm stop so suddenly like this and they were familiar with these waters having sailed the Sea of Galilea all their life. No—this was something they had never seen before so they were “sore amazed beyond measure!” The calm was instantaneous. Immediately it went from gale force winds and huge waves to zero wind velocity and a sea of glass.

Have you ever been in the kind of storm that as soon as you go inside and shut the door, your ears are ringing from the noise? I imagine that is what happened to the disciples. I think they were in mid-sentence shouting at the top of their lungs so they could hear each other—and then God turned the storm off and instantly it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I mean, there was no doubt in their mind that another miracle had happened. But one more miracle occurred that night and John is the only one who records this one. We just read it in verse 21. Look at it again. “Then they were willing to take [JESUS] into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.”Remember how far verse 19 says that they had rowed? 3 ½ miles. The disciples had been rowing most of the night into a horrible headwind—probably about nine hours—and had only gotten that far...not quite halfway across the lake at its narrowest point. But as soon as Jesus got in the boat, the wind immediately stopped and they didn’t have to row anymore because they immediately were at the other shore. Not really, really, speedboat fast—IMMEDIATELY—another obvious miracle.

Four in a row—four unmistakable, unexplainable, unrequested miracles! The question is, why? Why did Jesus go through all of that? There wasn’t a crowd of people watching. The only people in the boat were His disciples. Why then would He perform these four great signs? I think it was because Jesus knew that His disciples were newborn believers. They were newborns who needed to grow in their faith. Their behavior after the feeding of the 5,000 proved this. As I said a moment ago, it showed their level of immaturity. In Mark’s account, he writes that after they saw this quartet of miracles...the disciples “...were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”(Mark 6:51-52) In other words, they had just witnessed Jesus feed 15-20,000 people with five loaves and two fish. But their faith was still small. Their hearts were still hardened. Jesus saw this. He knew that their faith still needed to grow. So Jesus encouraged their faith to grow in the best way. He encouraged the growth of their frail faith by putting them through a time of testing—a stormy time that led to these four miracles.

And He does the same thing with us. Our Lord allows us to go through times of testing during which we can see God’s wonderworking power so that our faith will be strengthened in the same way the bone in my right arm was. God puts us through times of testing so our faith will be made stronger than it was before. As Rick Warren puts it, “God is more interested in your character than your comfort.” He wants to grow us spiritually until we are conformed in the image of His Son. And many times the best way to do that is through testing—hardship—a temporary crisis that helps us to understand eternal truth.

In his commentary on this text James Montgomery Boice tells about the process of making silver jewelry in the Near east. He says that in the bazaars held in those nations silversmiths work with coins. They melt them down and then form them into rings or broaches or necklaces. This is done in a primitive way. These craftsmen have small furnaces and they place a pot on top. Then the coins are dropped into the pot and melted. Every so often the silversmith goes over to the pot and then returns to his work. After a while he looks in, finds that the silver is ready, and begins to form it. If you were to ask, “Why do you constantly look into the silver?” The silversmith would answer, “I look into the silver until I find that the dross is all gone and the silver purified. I know when the dross is gone, because when it is I can see myself reflected in the silver as in a fine mirror.” Malachi says that God sits like a “refiner and purifier of silver” allowing His children to go through the fires and testings of life in order to strengthen and purify us. God does this until the dross is gone and Jesus’ image is reflected for all the world to see. As Hebrews 12:6 says “The Lord disciplines those He loves.” He loves us enough to put us through hard times so as to make our faith stronger—and that’s what Jesus did here. He used a time of testing as a way of encouraging the disciple’s frail faith to grow.

With that in mind I want to use this text to point out three ways God works in and through the trials and tribulations of life...three ways He works in even these things for our good.

(1) First, He puts us in PLACES we don’t want to go.

Now—back up a bit and think about where Jesus and the disciples had just been. They had just been on a hillside next to the Sea of Galilee with thousands of people who were as full and happy as they could possibly be. They were ready to make Jesus their king because He had fed them. But look at this miracle from the disciples’ perspective. They were full. They were happy. And they were superstars. They were Jesus’ inner group and Jesus was a hit. They could all puff out their chest a little bit and say, “I’m with Him.” And then what did Jesus do? He ran them all off. Mark says that Jesus “sent away the people.” Matthew says that Jesus “sent the multitudes away.” In short, Jesus ran off the disciples’ fan club. And then, as I said earlier, He ran the disciples off to boot! In fact, Matthew and Mark use the identical words, “And straightway He constrained His disciples to get into a ship.”

So Jesus took them from a place where they wanted to be—and put them in a place where they didn’t want to be. He ran off their fan club and then made them to get into a boat and head to the other side. And He made them go by themselves. The text doesn’t explicitly say, but I’m sure that they didn’t want to leave without taking Jesus with them. But that just shows how much their faith needed to grow.

In any case, Jesus was putting them exactly where He wanted them. Like a skilled gardener putting a seedling into the right soil Jesus was putting His weak-faith followers where they needed to be in order for their faith to blossom. After the disciples rowed away out of sight and the storm came up. I believe that as Creator of the universe, Jesus sent that storm. Jesus put them out there—alone—away from the glare of popularity. He put them in a fragile boat on horribly stormy seas. Jesus put them on the stormy sea instead of up on the peaceful mountaintop. Jesus put the disciples in a place they didn’t want to go—to strengthen their faith—and at times He does that same thing for us. He puts us where we need to be to grow our faith. So, if you’re in a storm right now—if you’re in a stressful, uncomfortable place—remember this story in John’s Gospel and ask yourself this question: “What is God trying to teach me? How does my faith need to mature?”

Listen—the best place for faith to grow is that place where all you have to rely on is Jesus...no cheering crowds...no comfortable mountaintop. The best place to grow spiritually is in the storms of life where all you have to rely on is Jesus because in those times you finally come to understand that Jesus IS enough. Who is it that said, “You can’t learn that Jesus is all you NEED—until Jesus is all you HAVE?” The key to growing to the point that God can use us best—is learning to rely on Jesus. As Hudson Taylor, the great faith-missionary, once wrote, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.” I’ve been through some pretty bad storms in this life—and they have taught me an invaluable lesson—a lesson I don’t think I would have learned any other way—and here it is. You might want to write this down: JESUS IS ENOUGH. If Jesus is all you have—that’s okay.

During WWII Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were imprisoned in a concentration camp because their family hid Jews from the Nazis. Corrie’s father and sister died in that brutal place. So, everything was taken from her: her home, her possessions, her friends...she had little food...no medical care. Even her family was taken. She had nothing—nothing but her faith in Jesus—but in that place she didn’t want to go Corrie learned an invaluable truth. Christ is sufficient. Her faith grew such that for the rest of her life she feared losing nothing—because when you have Jesus, you have everything—and you can’t lose Jesus. Do you remember Paul’s words in Romans 8? He wrote,“I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sometimes the only way we can learn to embrace this comforting, eternal truth, is by being in places we don’t want to go.

(2) A second thing God does to encourage frail faith is to give us COMMANDS we don’t always understand.

Remember? Jesus got His followers in the boat and basically told them to row. Matthew tells us that Jesus told them to “go before Him unto the other side.” Mark fills Jesus’ command out a little more. He records that Jesus said, “get into the ship and go to the other side before unto Bethsaida.” There was no word as to when they would see Him again or why He wasn’t accompanying them...no explanation as to why they had to begin their journey so late in the day...Jesus just commanded them to depart. Perhaps some of them thought Jesus was “firing” them for their behavior. And—I know their behavior after the miraculous feeding left a great deal to be desired—but I will give them this...they obeyed Jesus—even though it didn’t make all that much sense. They obeyed, even when it got really difficult. They obeyed, even when it would have been a whole lot easier to turn back. They obeyed even when it seemed like they were getting nowhere. They obeyed even when every fiber of their beings ached with pain and frustration. They obeyed and kept rowing. They rowed nearly all night long against a terrible headwind, and all the further they got was about 3 ½ miles. All night long and they weren’t even halfway. But Jesus told them to go. And Jesus was their Lord and Master. So they kept rowing. The present made no sense. The future was completely unclear. But Jesus gave a command and they were going to obey His command—whatever it cost.

This is an important FAITH-GROWING principle that we must not miss because there are times when Jesus commands us to do things that don’t make sense...times He assigns us tasks we just don’t understand. Things we don’t feel capable of. There are times when Jesus tells us to do things—without showing us the end...the destination. And maturing disciples learn to obey anyway.

For example: Jesus might command you to befriend a non-Christian neighbor or co-worker—someone you really don’t like—someone who obviously doesn’t like you. He may command you to accept a job at church that you just don’t have the time to do. He may order you to tithe when your checkbook says you should do otherwise. God commands us to do things we don’t understand...things we don’t feel capable of...and we must obey because in obedience we see things about God that we wouldn’t see otherwise....and in that “seeing” our faith grows.

Maturing Christians learn to say as Nelson Mink wrote,

“Lord, I am willing
To receive what You give,
To lack what You withhold,
To relinquish what You take,
To suffer what You inflict,
To be what You require.
And Lord, if others are to be
Your messengers to me,
I am willing to hear and heed
What they have to say. AMEN.”

This past Wednesday was the third session of our study of John Ortberg’s book God is Closer Than You Think. In our study we reviewed one of my favorite movies: The Princess Bride—specifically that scene at the beginning of the film that told of the relationship between Buttercup and the farm boy. Do you remember the story? Buttercup ordered the farm boy around all the time and no matter what she commanded his response was always three words. What were they? Right! He always said, “AS YOU WISH.” In the story there came a point when the farm boy said, “AS YOU WISH” and Buttercup knew what he was really saying was, “I LOVE YOU.” Ortberg pointed out that there is a powerful spiritual parallel in that maturing Christians—believers whose faith has been encouraged to grow...they learn to obey God always—even when He commands us to do things we don’t want to do...things we don’t think we are capable of doing...things we don’t understand. When God commands mature believers say, “AS YOU WISH” and when we say those words we are saying, “I LOVE YOU” for as Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love Me you will obey what I command.”

The heart that learns to say to God, “As you wish” from one moment to the next opens itself to the Power of the Universe. But those that don’t—those that say not “THY will be done” but “MY will be done” — those hearts harden and cease to grow. It’s like the difference between a conductor and a resistor in electricity. Ortberg writes, “The secret of the conductor is that it is not generating its own power. The conductor is not particularly strong or clever. It is simply a conduit. It is open and receptive toe the flow of current that can change the world from darkness to light. The resister’s prayer is ‘leave me alone.’ the Conductor’s is ‘As you wish.’ Each prayer gets answered.”

Let me ask—which prayer would you like to be answered in your life? Do you really want God to leave you alone? Do you want to miss out on joining Him in His work...miss out on being the conduit of His power? If the answer is “no,” then you must learn to obey God whenever He commands—you must learn to say, “As you wish” even when you don’t fully understand.

And this leads to the third thing Jesus does here to encourage His followers frail faith...something else He still does.

(3) He puts us through TRIALS to help us see things about Him we can’t see otherwise.

Back to our text. The disciples are in the middle of the wind-storm of their life. Wave after wave is crashing over their boat. It’s taking on water. They know that at any moment they will sink. And then they notice something—no SOMEONE—coming toward them across the waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. But then they realize it is Jesus. Peter asks the water-walker that if it is JESUS—that He invite him to join him in walking on the waves. Jesus does—and so Peter walks on water for a while. Of course then his faith fails, he sinks, and Jesus gets him in the boat. Then Jesus commands the storm to end—and instantly He transports them to the other side of the lake...because the lesson is over. The time of testing is done.

And, because of that testing...through all their time in the stormy darkness the disciples were able to see things about our Lord that they hadn’t seen before. First, they realized that all the time they were fighting this storm, Jesus was WATCHING. And this should serve to teach us that when we have tough times in life....when “storms” break and we think we are going down.....Jesus IS watching! When we get those phone calls in the middle of the night.....when doctors give us bad news....when our families are falling apart...when we think our world is about to come crumbling down around us....Jesus sees. He knows all about the “storms” we go through. The lyrics to that old song are so true: “His eye IS on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

In fact there is no where that we can go to be out of the sight of God. Remember the words of the Psalmist? “If I ascend to heaven—THOU ART THERE! If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, THOU ART THERE! If I take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, EVEN THERE shall Thy hand lead me and Thy right hand hold me.” But the disciples learned something else through that storm. They learned that Jesus does more than watch....because He didn’t just SEE what they were going through...He ACTED! He came down and walked to them across the surface of those stormy waters. I don’t know about you but I have never felt closer to Jesus than in times of crisis. He doesn’t just NOTICE my problems. He DRAWS NEAR to me and acts to help. I know by experience that the words to that other hymn are also true.... “Just when I need Him Jesus is NEAR....ready to HELP me...ready to cheer...JUST WHEN I NEED HIM MOST!”

And then, Peter and John and the others, learned something else in that dark, stormy classroom of faith. They learned that Jesus was God. Do you remember His words to them as He strode across the stormy seas? In verse 20 He said, “It is I, Don’t be afraid!” Those first three words, “It is I” — they come from two Greek words, “ego ami.” We’re going to see those two words used over and over and over again in the next few chapters of John. Do you know what they literally mean? “Ego ami” literally means, “I AM.” Does that sound familiar? It should! Do you remember way back in the Old Testament when God was speaking to Moses out of the burning bush? When God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go, Moses asked God, “Who shall I tell them sent me?” Do you remember what God said? He said, “Tell them that I AM sent you.” So, Jesus was saying, “Don’t be afraid. I AM is here. GOD is here because I AM GOD. I am the one Who created this wind and water. I am the One Who created you. And as your Creator and Sustainer, I am telling you—fear not.” Then He further proved His claim by calming the storm and transporting them instantly to their destination.


Well, sometimes, God lets us go through storms—because only in the “darkness” of life...only in the trials...only in the BROKEN times...are we able to see God for Who He really is. Only in those times do we learn how much He loves us—and that He is omnipotent—and therefore bigger than any problem we face. Only then to we begin to truly comprehend His sovereignty and wisdom.