In the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John there is recorded for us that familiar story of Jesus’s walking on the water. Recall the general details of the account. Jesus had instructed the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee on their own while he went off on his own and ascended a mountain to pray. Once in the midst of the sea, the disciples began battling a strong headwind, which caused the waves to batter their boat. Against this storm and in the dark they struggled for most of the night until, in the fourth watch, Christ appeared to them. At first, they mistook him for a ghost. Then he spoke. As Matthew records it, Jesus called out: “Trust, I am, be not afraid” (Matt. 14:27). Jesus speaks to his disciples very simply—only four words in the original that amount to a short declaration and two commands. Yet in this utterly economical use of human language lies fathomless depths.
When speaking of the Christian life many things can and ought to be said. It is a life, after all; a history of “a long obedience in the same direction,” (Petersen) and as such there is much to be said about it. But if I were pressed to give a quick account of the Christian life, it is to this event and to this instruction of Christ that I would turn: trust, I Am, and live unafraid.
This first injunction of Christ has been variously translated: “Take heart!” “Take courage!” “Be of good cheer!” I quite like the Church Father Jerome’s Latin rendering: habete fiduciam (lit. “have confidence”). The Protestants of sixteenth century often explained true, saving faith in God by appealing to this Latin term, fiducia. In brief, they argued that in Holy Scripture, faith in God is not simply a bare knowledge of facts. It is also not merely an assent to those facts (acknowledging that they are true). It is knowledge and assent, of course; but also more. Faith is also a leaning with confidence on, a trust in, that truth. Faith includes a disposition of the will to rest in the truth known by the mind. It includes fiducia.
In the midst of the restless winds and relentless waves, Jesus tells his friends to rest, to trust, to be confident: habete fiduciam. He then gives them the foundation for their confidence.
Many translations render this short statement of Jesus’ as “it is I” or, sometimes, “I am here.” But in the original it is simply “I am.” Commenting on this passage, Jerome observed that Jesus “says ‘I am’ without saying who.” This statement can legitimately be translated as “It is I” and it could be, remarks Jerome, that Jesus is simply allowing his disciples to hear his voice and thereby to know that it is not a ghost they perceive but himself. But, Jerome continues, there is in this statement more being revealed. Jesus wants his disciples to perceive not simply that it is Jesus, but still further, who Jesus is. Jesus wants them, Jerome says, “to know that it was He who had spoken to Moses” who now comes to them in the darkness and the wind.
In Exodus 3:14, in response to Moses’s inquiring by what name God would go by, God gives him this name: “I am.” Here Jesus bids his disciples have confidence precisely because He Who Is, the Eternal One, is now with them, and he brings good tidings. And this revelation of Jesus is not merely stated but wonderfully enacted. Job 9:8 declares that “God alone stretches out the heavens and treads upon the waves of the sea.” In the Old Testament God is praised for alone being able to make paths through the deeps (Ps. 77:19; Isa. 43:16), which is most dramatically enacted at the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 14). The sea, which threatens to bar God’s people from God’s promises, which threatens to swallow them up, cannot because I Am is in the midst of his people (Ps. 46:5), and he treads upon her waves.
Be Not Afraid
Therefore, he calls to the disciples, “fear not.” This, we might say, is the ultimate “fear not.” It is the same “fear not” that accompanied that first announcement of the gospel to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem. The angels told the shepherd’s not to fear, for the Savior, Christ the Lord, had that day come to dwell in the world of men and women, to be with them in a new and special way. And when God is with us, whom shall we fear?
The Christian life is often a battle against strong headwinds, both within and without. It is often a journey through darkness, in which our faith is tested, doubt creeps in, and we’re not sure if we really see Jesus anymore.
In our darkness, God is present with us; in our confusion, God speaks. “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” So then, at the heart of the Christian life is the presence of God with us (I Am), in which we rest (trust), and so are enabled to live joyfully and self-sacrificially for others (unafraid).