You don't have to live very long on this earth before you experience the personal loss and grieving that comes from the death of a loved one. Even when we know that we will see our loved one again in Heaven someday, the loss of their presence in our lives now is deeply painful. In this time of grief, we're often given time off of work and we spend time alone or with an intimate group of family and friends reflecting on the life of the person who has passed. This is the last time and place that you would want a needy co-worker calling you to cover their shift or for a child to get sick so that you have to care for them. Chapter 14 of Matthew begins with the death of Jesus' cousin and forerunner in ministry, John the Baptist.
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. Matthew 14:1-13
Herod the Tetrarch was the son of Herod the Great whom Jesus' family had fled from to Egypt when he was a toddler. The reason John was arrested was that he was very vocal in calling out the sin of Herod and his wife Herodias. Both had been married before, but after a prolonged affair had divorced their spouses to marry one another. Add to that, that Herodias' previous spouse was Herod's own brother. However, it seems that Herod was more curious about the teachings of John than he was truly angry. It was Herodias who took John's words to heart and exacted her revenge. When Jesus heard of all that had taken place, He did what most of us would do and left to be by Himself, but the crowds followed Him.
Reading this account, it made me angry at the crowds that followed Jesus into the wilderness when He was clearly trying to be alone. They weren't worried about giving their condolences or how Jesus might be mourning for His cousin. In His fame, He had already moved beyond what was tangibly human to them. How many times do we do this to our Pastors or to other figures of prominence and authority in our lives? Does it cross our minds that they might be having a terrible day? Or is our only thought for our own needs?
What amazes me is that Jesus did not respond in anger or withhold Himself from the crowds!
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Matthew 14:14
If you're a parent out there, imagine your toddlers needing you exactly when you get the first moment in the day to sit down or take five minutes to run to the restroom. I had several mothers in the last week share their exhaustion and laughter about these common moments in their parenting. Yet even through their tired expressions of these stories, I could hear how much they loved their children and while sometimes annoyed by never having one moment to themselves, they weren't angry with their children for this. That I think is a wonderful picture of what is going on here, down to the very fact that the people had forgotten all about preparing any food for themselves while journeying so far away from town.
Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Matthew 14:15-21
Instead of sending the people away, Jesus had compassion on them, healed them, and fed them. This whole chapter is reflecting a beautiful comparison between the temporary and the eternal:
John and his Baptism were temporary, he told us that One would come after him with more than the power to point us to repentance but to be our salvation. Now he has died. Jesus has come to fulfill that promise of salvation and we know that while He went into the grave... He did not stay there and His Kingdom will have no end!
Jesus being fully human grieves the death of His cousin and seeks to be alone, but being fully God He has compassion on the crowds that follow Him into the wilderness.
The disciples see an earthly problem in that the people are hungry and there is not enough food to feed them. Jesus divinely provides enough food that everyone there, 5,000 men plus women and children, eat until they are satisfied.
We could even compare the mortal King Herod with all his sinful motivations and tyrannical rule of his people to the King of Kings, Jesus who continued to selflessly shepherd His people even in a time of personal tragedy.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-33
With dinner completed Jesus finally sends not just the crowds away, but His disciples too. He goes up on the nearby mountain to pray alone. The disciples, meanwhile, are having a rough time out on the Sea of Galilee because a storm has come up against them. There is something that I never noticed until only a few years ago when my Pastor at the time pointed it out in his sermon: Jesus does not immediately go out to rescue His disciples from the storm, instead, we see that it is not until the fourth watch of the night or sometime between 3-6 am that Jesus goes out to them walking on the Sea.
Once again an earthly thing is happening (the storm) that is going to fill an eternal purpose (further confirmation to Jesus' disciples and to us that He is the Messiah). Peter's faith in Jesus' power and authority allows him to take a few steps on that stormy sea with Jesus, but when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and lets a little bit of doubt creep in he immediately begins to sink.
In all this we're once again getting the answer to a very important question...
Is Jesus a resurrected John the Baptist? (Matthew 14:2) Is Jesus a ghost? (Matthew 14:26)
No! From the disciples' own proclamation, we have our answer: He is the Son of God! (Matthew 14:33)
In the middle of the storms of life, He had remained steadfast. In the middle of the storm at Sea, He walked unphased. In the middle of the storms, He was in control.
And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. Matthew 14:34-36
With only those few short hours of rest in prayer up on the mountain, Jesus rescued His disciples and returned to the work of His ministry.
What can we take away to apply to our own lives from this chapter?
- We know that we serve the King of Eternity and He is in control in all circumstances.
- We know that we have a Savior who can relate to our loss and who has compassion for our human needs.
We are not Peter and we'll probably never walk on water, at least not in this life, but we can learn from Peter's moment of doubt that when our eyes are on the storm instead of Jesus, we'll sink.