Are We Supposed to Get Out of the Boat?

Get out of the boat.

This phrase is thrown around a lot. It is, of course, a reference to Peter’s brief experience with walking on the water in Matthew 14. Usually, the maritime maxim is referenced in exhortations to trust God enough to step out of our comfort zones and do something we don’t think we can. Or in admonitions to be proactive and stop settling for the status quo.

You can’t walk on water if you don’t get out of the boat!

I don’t mind it so much as a figure of speech. I use it sometimes. And the lessons of faith, trust, courage, and obedience that are usually illustrated with these words are valid. But when we consider the idea of  ‘getting out of the boat’ in light of it’s place in the story, it doesn’t really have much to do with faithfully, courageously, or obediently accomplishing great things for the glory of God. 

In the first place, stepping out on the water was Peter’s idea. Jesus was willing enough to accommodate the request, but it wasn’t his idea. And other than a wet and frightening lesson about trust and perspective, nothing in particular was accomplished by Peter stepping out of the boat. He got back into the boat, and Jesus got in the boat with him. Then they continued on in the boat to where they were headed in the first place.

Would Peter have walked on the water with Jesus all the way across the Sea of Galilee if his faith hadn’t faltered? Maybe. But there is nothing to indicate that such a stroll was high on Christ’s agenda.

We do need to have the kind of faith that is willing to take risks. God can and will use that. But is Peter’s decision to get out of the boat a good parallel for a passionate, reckless pursuit of what God wants to do through us? I don’t think so—not in context anyway.

At the close of a long, wearying day, Jesus wanted some time alone to pray, so he sent the disciples ahead in a boat. Just before dawn he set out across the water himself—on foot. According to Mark, Jesus intended to pass the disciples by, but when they saw him they thought he was a ghost and got scared. Peter, as usual, blurted out something impulsive. Jesus responded. Peter took a few steps on the water, then doubted and sank. Jesus pulled him up and they both got back into the boat. Immediately the wind died down, and they all enjoyed an uneventful journey to their destination on the other side of the sea—where they resumed ministering to the people.

It’s a cool story and there are plenty of things to be gleaned from it. But if you want to be nit-picky (which I clearly do today) the getting out of the boat parallel really doesn’t work out so well. The boat was the vehicle that Jesus told the disciples to use to get to where he wanted them to go, not a place of complacency and false security they built for themselves. Jesus was willing, and he used the opportunity to reveal himself, but Peter’s request to come to him on the water was just that—a request. And after Peter’s soaking, Jesus got into the boat with him. What does the boat represent again?

In the end the disciples got where Jesus told them to go, using the means Jesus told them to use. I’m sure that walking on the water was a memorable experience and it has provided us with a vivid lesson about faith and doubt, but Peter’s exodus from the boat doesn’t seem to have been particularly important for the kingdom work at hand.

I plan to be willing to “get out of a boat” if God asks me too, but I don’t think I need to anticipate him telling me to get into a boat, and then to get out of it, only to have him finally join me in the boat so we can get where he wanted us to go in the first place.

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5 thoughts on “Are We Supposed to Get Out of the Boat?”

  1. Thank you for being Biblical about this. Sometimes the catch phrases become more than the text and this is a good example. Sometimes people even make an historical event into an allegory to push the phrase. I frequently like to use the question: “What does the text say?” that is what you have done. Keep up the good work and the questioning attitude. Blessings on your ministry.

    Rich

    1. Hi Rich. Someone (who is very good at asking, “what does the text say”) pointed this out to me a few years ago. I was thinking about it recently and decided it would make a fun post. Sort of a humorous way to remind us all to pay attention to what we’re bringing to the text and to what’s actually there. I’ve definitely heard one or two “get out of the boat” sermons–and figured I wasn’t the only one. 🙂

  2. I think what you’ve said is important to consider in reading the Bible – that we not get caught up in catch phrases but look at what’s really there – but with this passage we also have to note that Jesus didn’t tell Peter ‘No.’ The fact that this bit of a side track is included in the story is important – for all the details of their daily lives that we don’t get to read, this bit is present. Sometimes we focus on destination, while Jesus focuses on faith journey, and though this was small and didn’t affect their physical journey or destination for the most part, it was important for Peter’s faith and for each one of us, just as the feeding of the 5,000 was an important sign of who Jesus is. Even the apostles seem to take a while figuring this out, and this is one of the episodes that helps them on that path too.

    1. and I just have to reiterate the first part of that comment – as you said we really need to think about what’s there and regarding that, thank you for this post, as it’s gotten me thinking about /why/ what’s there is there!

    2. The fact that this bit of a side track is included in the story is important – for all the details of their daily lives that we don’t get to read, this bit is present.

      I agree. The walking on the water episode is Scripture as much as the rest of the narrative is. God wanted it to be included–we can and should learn from it. No doubt it made a big impact on the disciples, and especially Peter. But that knife cuts both ways. God (and the human author) also saw fit to include all the other details that typically aren’t given much, if any, attention at all. In this case, the fact that they got back into the boat is an obvious example. That detail ought to inform our understanding of the whole story.

      I do not mean to diminish the importance of this passage. I only wish to point out that the popular analogy doesn’t really fit.

      Sometimes we focus on destination, while Jesus focuses on faith journey…

      True enough, but I think sometimes is a very important word here. It is probably equally true that sometimes we try to assign significance and greater meaning to every circumstance along the way when Jesus’ primary agenda is to get us where he wants us to be. He may use the hills, valleys, potholes, weather conditions, and detours that come with a particular path to teach us valuable lessons, but that doesn’t mean that they become the main objective. The purpose for us being on that particular path may very well be that it is the necessary means to get us to an intended destination. He is always intensely concerned with our hearts, to be sure, but he is also mobilizing us for action.

      My two cents. 🙂

      That said, thank you so much for your input. I really enjoy the interaction!

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