The Romans had a way to divide the times of the night into four watches. They are 3-hour divisions:
1st watch – 6pm to 9pm
2nd watch – 9pm to 12am
3rd watch – 12am to 3am
4th watch – 3am to 6am
Those who ever worked the night shift would be familiar with this in some ways. The Romans who were well known for their battles and wars, knew that the effectiveness of any watch during the night would be good only within a 3-hour period. I assume the soldiers were switched at every watch to provide high alert guards throughout the night. Otherwise, it could mean the loss of one of their areas of control to the enemy.
I have experienced working the night shift and personally, the “dead of night” would be around the fourth watch. Why I call it the “dead of the night”? Well, at such times the ‘Z’ (sleep) monster will be at its strongest and your eyelids feel like it weighed a ton. Sometimes we might ‘see’ (hallucinate) things. Perhaps this provides a clue as to why ghost stories are often told by people who ‘experienced’ it at such hours.
This brings me to the Fourth Watch from Matthew 14:22-27 (ESV):
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.”
More often than not, the parts that captured our attention would be about Jesus walking on water to the boat, Peter walking on water towards Jesus but sinking in the process, the statement made by Jesus to Peter on why he doubted and had little faith, and when the winds stopped the moment Jesus stepped into the boat. I am not saying that these were insignificant. In fact, these were spectacular, very visual and appealing to our senses. A miraculous story.
However, when I tried to put myself in the shoes of the disciples on the boat, rowing across the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) which was 13 kilometers wide, with the winds and waves against them for hours in the night trying to get to the other side, I found it hard to fully understand what they were going through. The closest I experienced was a grueling physical and mental test in the past. It was on land with a group of friends carrying heavy backpacks trekking to the final campsite before reaching the summit of a mountain. We were lost and seemed to be walking in circles and it lasted through the 1st watch. Some of us began to hallucinate as we ran out of water and our torchlights were out too. I was mad at the person who had caused us to get lost, also at the guide who had abandoned us and the other half of the group ahead of us for not searching for us. We were beginning to talk stuff that made no sense… we were delirious and exhausted. Obviously, I survived the ordeal but it gave me a sense of the state of mind of the disciples on that boat.
Before the disciples went on the boat, they just witnessed Jesus miraculously feeding 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus probably sent them off at the 1st watch to go across the lake. They must have left on a high note and felt invincible being sent by the one whom they KNOW as the Son of God. With a number of rowers on a boat to cover 13 km, it was a simple task but it turned out to be a har-rowing nightmare against the wind and strong waves which lasted hours passing through the 2nd and 3rd watch! How far did they go? Perhaps three quarters of the journey, like 9 or 10 km. They should be exhausted, angry and bewildered at their situation, likely questioning why Jesus sent them on such a route. They could be thinking or saying, “He must have known the weather and winds and yet he sent us.”, “Why is he torturing us?” or “Did we do something wrong that we have to suffer like this?”
At the fourth watch, Jesus went to the disciples by walking on the water towards the boat. Their response was understandable as seeing the shadow coming towards them, they cried, “It is a ghost!” It was perhaps the toughest time of the night for them and being physically drained, it was hard to SEE that Jesus had come to save them. Probably a testing of their faith at such times and a kind of training that would build them up.
Then we read further on the passage about Peter in Matthew 14:28-31 (ESV):
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?”
Peter became an example when he tried to act on that faith by asking to walk towards Jesus. He did walk on water but turned his FOCUS on the wind and began to sink. What was described of Peter’s action? He had little faith and he doubted.
Then it ended with Matthew 14:32-33 (ESV):
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.”
Was it the stopping of the winds that made the disciples respond to Jesus like this? The disciples had already experienced Jesus calming a stormy sea (see Matthew 8:23-27). This was clearly different. I believe it was the personal experience they had in their heart, soul and mind that made them acknowledge that He is truly the Son of God. It was no longer just knowing, it was experiencing, believing and growing.
I pray that at whatever times, especially the Fourth Watch, I will SEE the steadfast love of God guiding me in every step and FOCUS on Jesus that I may be found faithful to fulfill the assignment that he has given me, such that I will:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 ESV