When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll


Luke 8:22-25

All three of the synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the “synoptic” Gospels, you remember, because they relate the Lord’s life and ministry in a similar way – all three include the account of the Lord’s quieting the storm on the Sea of Galilee. It obviously made a huge impression on the disciples who were present and, among all the other miracles, was important because it demonstrated that the Lord Jesus had the same authority over nature that had been revealed in the great miracles of Moses in Egypt or of Elijah and Elisha who divided the waters of the Jordan River, made an ax head float, and commanded the weather. The creator of heaven and earth was the ruler of heaven and earth! This isn’t, if you remember, the first such nature miracle. We have already witnessed the miracle of the great catch of fish in chapter 5 (vv. 1-11).

Mark suggests that this all occurred on the evening of the same day the Lord told the parable of the sower or the soils (“on that day”).
Text Comment
v.23     The great lake we know as the Sea of Galilee is subject to sudden storms, located as it is 700 feet below sea level with mountain heights rising from its eastern shore. Those mountains are cut with gorges down which the cooler air from higher elevations rushes downward to whip up the waters into waves that can threaten to swamp a small boat. Storms can develop very quickly and be quite severe. Hence the boat “filling with water” and being in “danger.”
            The Lord’s days were exhausting as he was in constant demand from early morning to late evening. The gentle rock of the boat would have put him immediately to sleep and into a sleep sufficiently sound that the storm had not awakened him. We are not told how many were in the boat presumably the twelve, perhaps some others. I have seen the remains and a reproduction of such a boat as this might have been and it could have carried a small crowd. It may have been rowed, but there may well have been a sail.
v.24     Matthew records the disciples pleading with the Lord to “save” them.  You remember the word “save” occurs not infrequently in the accounts of the Lord’s miracles and reminds us that they are pictures of the Lord’s powers to save us from sin and death. Given the fact that at least some of these men were professional fishermen, well used to storms on the Sea of Galilee, the impression is that this was a particularly severe storm. But upon the word of the Lord there was immediately great calm.
v.25     The Lord took the occasion to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith in him and so fix in their minds and in the mind of the church ever after the lesson that with Christ together with us in the boat, we need have no fear of the storms of life.
            As we have seen, faith is an important theme in the Gospel of Luke, both the necessity of faith and the power of faith. Faith is what the Lord is looking for in us and faith is what we must invest in him that we might receive the blessing and benefit of his power. One preacher defines faith this way. “Faith is confidence in Christ as able and willing to act suitably to the occasion.” [F.L. Wiseman in Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, 187]
            As so often before, the miracle causes the disciples to ponder just who and what Jesus is! He is a great prophet; they already know that; everybody seems to understand that Jesus is a prophet like Elijah and Elisha and perhaps even Moses; but it is beginning to dawn on them that he is more, much more than a prophet. [Bock, i, 764]
This miracle, like all the miracles, was first and foremost a revelation of Jesus Christ, the demonstration that he was a man sent from God, possessing divine power and authority, who uses that power on behalf of those who trust in him. In that way salvation itself, salvation from sin and death, salvation as the gift of eternal life is also depicted in all of the Lord’s miracles, whether miracles of healing, or of the provision of the necessities of life, or, as here, of deliverance from a storm that put the lives of his disciples in peril. Some of the Lord’s miracles, we have also seen, are demonstrations of the necessity and power of faith in him. The paralyzed man who was let down to Jesus through the roof was healed on account of his faith and the faith of his friends who brought him to the Lord. The centurion’s servant was healed because of that Gentile soldier’s faith in the power of the Lord Jesus to affect the healing. We see all of the great lessons of the Lord’s miracles here as well.
But precisely because the miracles and this miracle are demonstrations of the divine glory of the Lord, his compassion and power, of salvation as a work of divine mercy combined with divine power, and of faith as the instrument by which that salvation is received by men and women, I say, precisely because the Lord’s miracles reveal all of this in the most unmistakable way, they are also lessons in the Christian way of life.
The Lord himself turned this astonishing moment into such a lesson when he rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith. They were already his followers. They had already identified him as the Messiah. They had already in various ways put their faith in him and practiced their faith in him. But in a time of testing, a time of danger, of fear, their faith wavered. They knew enough to appeal to him in their danger – they woke him up, shook him awake, yelled in his ear, they thought it important to turn to him, that’s faith of a kind; they pled with him to do something, that was faith of a kind – but their craven fear, their terrified state of mind was demonstration that their faith was weak. A stronger, firmer faith would have calmed their hearts in knowledge of the Lord’s presence in the boat. If they had been thinking straight they would have, they should have known that no boat with the Son of God in it was going to sink and none of them was going to drown so long as Jesus was with them.
But, as J.C. Ryle observed: “Sight, sense, and feeling, make even believers very poor theologians.” The church has from the very beginning gathered this lesson from this remarkable incident in the life of the Lord’s disciples. In early Christian art, the church was frequently depicted as a boat being driven by the winds on a perilous sea with Jesus standing in the midst to protect her. An early hymn, drawn from this text and others like it, reads:
Jesus, Deliverer, Come thou to me,
Soothe thou my voyaging over life’s sea…

In fact, thousands of preachers through the ages have drawn from this text and its parallels in Matthew and Mark a theology of Christian faith in the trials of life. If you remember, in the Old Testament storms at sea, waves and winds were regularly employed as metaphors for the trials and troubles of life. The man of faith who wrote Psalm 42 describes his troubles – which had nothing to do with an actual storm at sea – by saying that all of the Lord’s “waves and breakers” had swept over him. And when the author of Psalm 46 wanted to describe his confidence in the Lord in the midst of his trials, he wrote that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though…its waters roar and foam…” In Psalm 65 we read of the Lord’s power on behalf of his people: “By awesome deeds you answer us…O God of our salvation…who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves…” The sea is very powerful and its waves irresistible to mere human beings; so Christ’s power over them is proof that he is able to help us no matter the danger or trouble we face.
Well that summons to trust the Lord in times of trial is all here in this account of that remarkable evening on the Sea of Galilee. There is here, in fact, an entire theology of trial and suffering in a believer’s life, for that is what this was, of course, a trial and a time of fear and suffering on the part of these believers in Jesus. And that theology has three parts, or amounts to three propositions or assertions of fact.

  1. The first is that the Lord is sovereign in appointing the trials and troubles through which you must pass.

It is a point we might miss here, but it is clear enough for all that. It was the Lord’s own idea to get in that boat and cross the lake that night. As we read at the outset:
“…and he said to them, ‘Let’s go across to the other side of the lake.’”
It wasn’t their idea to cross the lake, it was his. And when the storm struck he was dead to the world, asleep as only an exhausted man can be asleep. No doubt that was the reason he suggested the boat trip in the first place. He needed rest and the lake-crossing would provide it. Matthew makes it clear that he was escaping the crowds who, otherwise, would give him no rest day or night. After weeks of this he was so tired that once he had fallen asleep, even a severe storm didn’t wake him; his disciples had to shake him and shout in his ear! Master! We’re sinking!
But take the point. It was the Lord’s need that had put his disciples in danger. And if they had had faith as a grain of mustard seed, they would have realized that. The Lord put them in that boat, what he needed and his plan to secure what he needed had brought them into the middle of the lake in a great storm. This was the Lord’s doing. And so are all the troubles of a believer’s life. “All your waves and breakers have swept over me.” [Ps. 42:7] The Psalmist knew that the Lord was also Lord of his troubles. Whatever the seeming cause of them might be, behind those causes lay ultimately the will, the plan, the purpose, shall we say it, even the needs of the Living God.
Look, if the Lord could quiet a great storm by the mere utterance of a word or two, he could have prevented the storm from arising in the first place. He could have ordered up glassy smooth waters and a gentle wind to carry the boat safely and comfortably across. If you find yourself in a storm, the first thing to realize is that your Savior has had a hand in putting you there. Your life in all its circumstances is at his disposal.

  1. The second of these three propositions or pieces of a theology of trial in a Christian’s life is that the presence of the Lord with his people in their trials protects them from any real danger.

From our vantage point we are inclined to smile condescendingly at the disciples: terrified for their lives as they were while the maker of heaven and earth slept a few feet away. They knew enough by now to know that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-promised Messiah sent from God. Did they really suppose that God’s plan for the Messiah would come to nothing because of a an accident on the sea, because of a storm nobody anticipated, because of them all sinking and drowning in the middle of the lake? Couldn’t they see that no boat carrying the Savior of the world was going to sink? Didn’t they realize that high as the waves might be, fierce as the wind, even deep as the water accumulating in the bottom of the boat, there was no safer spot in all of this great universe than in that boat in that storm on that lake that night? Surely the worker of so many miracles wasn’t to end his life in a storm on the lake!
No; they couldn’t see any of that because while the eyes of their bodies were wide open and terror-struck, the eyes of their souls – that is their faith – were shut tight. They were like Gehazi, Elisha’s servant who could see with his 20-20 vision the Aramean soldiers surrounding Dothan, but he couldn’t see – until Elisha prayed for him – the horses and chariots of fire the Lord had sent to protect his prophet. [2 Kgs. 6:17]
And so it is far too often in our case. What we see with our eyes and hear with our ears frightens us and depresses us so only because we have forgotten what else is true: that the Lord is with us always, will never forsake us, promises to hear our prayers, to give us a way of escape from our temptations and our trials, and knows how to deliver the godly from their trials.
The disciples missed an opportunity that night. I’m sure they reddened in the face afterwards again and again as they thought about it. Winston Churchill experienced combat for the first time as a young soldier in Cuba in 1895. He wrote home to his mother: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” Pascal, who had real faith in Christ, put it much better: “There is some pleasure being on board a ship battered by storms when one is certain of not perishing.” That was their situation that night. They could have reveled in the storm because they should have been certain they were not to perish. And that is our situation as Christians in the trials, troubles, and dangers of our lives!
What enabled Moses to stand fast in his many trials and dangers and to glorify God in and through them and to get all the good of them but not to be undone by them? We read in Hebrews 11 that it was because “he saw him who is invisible.” How do you see God who is invisible? By faith; the eyesight of your soul. The Lord was visible to his disciples; he was right there in the boat. They could rouse him with a shake. But he is no less present with us who trust in him.
Whatever your troubles, sorrows, or fears may be, see the Lord at your side (as you can by faith), see the angel of the Lord camped around you, and you’ll feel that exhilaration that comes from being shot at without result. You can exult in the storm when you know you are not going to drown!

  1. Third, the trials and troubles of life are only so many opportunities for the Lord to manifest himself to you and for you to learn of his grace and power.

You can’t tell me that afterward, with the lake supernaturally calm, the wind now a soft breeze, with their hearts still racing from first the stress and then the thrill they had just experienced, that a single one of those disciples ever once thought that he would rather have stayed behind on the shore rather than see what he had just seen. That moment, the Lord rebuking the wind, the sea growing suddenly calm, the splendid but shattering realization that they had just beheld the power of God itself, would remain with them, etched indelibly in their memories until their dying day.  I suspect every one of those men remembered that night the day of their death. No doubt in times of difficulty and trial they would often return to that scene in the boat on the lake and remind themselves just who it was and what he was who then later said to them, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
But, of course, there can be no demonstration of the power of God to still a tempest unless there is first a tempest to still. There had first to be winds and waves before there could be the Savior’s rebuke and the storm’s immediate obedience.
That is what Samuel Rutherford meant when he wrote that the Lord
“…ties terrible knots just to have the pleasure of loosing them off from those he loves. He lays nets and sets traps only that he may get a chance of healing broken bones and setting the terrified free.”
John Bunyan said that this was a lesson he had learned in following Christ. Speaking about a time when troubles mounted on every hand and when, finally, he was thrown in prison for his faith in Christ,
“I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now; those Scriptures that I saw nothing in before, are made in this place and state to shine upon me; Jesus Christ…was never more real and apparent than now; here I have seen him and felt him indeed…” [Grace Abounding, paragraphs 321-327]
It is, surely you would agree, a very different and much happier way to look at the troubles and trials of our lives: to see them as opportunities for the Lord to prove himself to us, to reveal his presence and his power, and for us to enjoy the vindication of our faith in him.
Put these three propositions together:

  1. The Lord is sovereign over our lives and so, ultimately, our troubles are his will;
  2. His presence with us is a guarantee of our safety;
  3. Our trials are the Lord’s opportunity to reveal himself to us;

In those three propositions you have the Bible’s doctrine or theology of a believer’s trials. But this truth must be embraced before it will do us the great good it should. You may not have noticed this point – it isn’t congenial to an early 21st century American way of thinking – but it is clear enough in the text. The Lord didn’t put his arms around his disciples, give them a noogie, or tousle James’ soaking-wet hair, smile and say, “Guys, you slay me! You didn’t need to worry. I was here.” No, what he said was, “Where is your faith?” which is to say, “What is wrong with you?” It is a rebuke. They should have known better. They had no excuse. Let’s take the truth revealed in this incident and the Lord’s rebuke to heart and not make the same mistake they did. I’m sure subsequently many times in their lives they didn’t make that mistake precisely because they remembered not only what happened on the lake that night but what he had said to them afterward. “Where is your faith?”

Remember he is with you and turn to him in faith, open wide the eyes of your soul and see him there with you – in your loneliness, your discouragement, your fear – and I promise you, in his name, that far more often than has been the case you will have cause to say,

“Who is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”

You know, of course, from all the attention paid to the anniversary in the press that last Sunday, April 15th, was the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. You know the story: some 2,227 people embarked, only 705 survived the sinking. It is, as you know, an iconic event in modern world history, some say the defining event of the 20th century, a century that began in such promise and ended as the century of all centuries for human catastrophe caused by human foolishness and pride.

Perhaps you have wondered as I have what the Christians on board did as the ship began to sink. Well, let me tell you the story of one of them. John Harper was a 39 year old London Baptist pastor. He was a Scot, a powerful preacher, and an effective minister. He had founded two churches that became quite substantial in size; one in Glasgow and then one in London. The previous year, in the autumn of 1910, he had preached a series of what were in those days called revival meetings at the Moody church in Chicago. So successful had those meetings been that he had been asked back and so it was that he found himself on the Titanic making the crossing to America in April 1912. He was not alone. His wife had died a few years before but he had brought with him his six year old daughter, Annie, usually called “Nana” or “Nan,” and a relative, 31 year-old Jessie Leitch, who was along to care for Nana. John Harper was a gifted evangelist and one of those Christian ministers — perhaps you have met some of them — who really had the gift of evangelism, who lived for the opportunity to tell the good news to the lost, and seized every opportunity to do so. He had done a great deal of street preaching in his day and was, so it is said, particularly skillful in dealing with hecklers as street preachers have to do. He was by all accounts relentless in his proclamation of the Good News.

Jessie Leitch, in her description of their last day together on the Titanic reminds us of this:

"The last day we spent on the Titanic was Sunday. Mr. Harper asked me to read the chapter at our morning family prayers, and later we went to the Sunday morning services. The day was quietly and pleasantly spent, and when Nana and I went to look for Mr. Harper at about 6 o’clock to go to dinner I found him earnestly talking to a young Englishman whom he was seeking to lead to Christ. That evening before we retired we went on deck, and there was still a glint of red in the west. I remember Mr. Harper saying, "It will be beautiful in the morning." We then went down to the staterooms. He read from the Bible and prayed, and so he left us.”

When the great ship struck the iceberg, before midnight on the 14th of April, the three of them went, as they were directed, up to the lifeboats. They were second class passengers, but made it in plenty of time to lifeboat No. 11. Mr. Harper deposited his daughter and Jessie in the lifeboat, kissed Nana goodbye, and turned back to the ship. There has been some discussion as to whether he might have been allowed a space in the lifeboat, given that his young daughter had already lost her mother and should her father die she would be an orphan.  I checked the manifest of lifeboat No. 11, as one can do nowadays. Of the 37 people who left the ship in that boat, there were four adult men who were not members of the crew. Perhaps he would have made a fifth, but Jessie says that there was no thought of his leaving the ship with them. It was understood: women and children first. Of course, at that time there may have been little thought in the minds of many who were still on the ship that they were going to die. They were still being told that there were plenty of boats, that a rescue ship was soon to arrive, and even that the ship could not sink. However, according to Jessie’s account, they were only away from Titanic for half an hour before the great ship went down. She learned only when she failed to find Mr. Harper among the survivors picked up by the Carpathia that he had been lost with the more than 1500 others who perished.

What is known is that John Harper used the time that remained to him to evangelize the lost. The recollection of several survivors was that they heard him press upon others the message of Acts 16:31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Some even say he was calling out, “Women, children, and the unsaved into the lifeboats!”

There are several stories that have circulated about his last few minutes of ministry. One is that having been rebuffed by one man to whom Harper had made the offer of salvation in Christ, he gave the man his life-jacket saying, “You need this more than I do.” Another is that several years later a man identified himself as a convert of Mr. Harper’s that very night, Mr. Harper’s last convert, a man who was one of the very few to have been plucked alive from the icy water shortly after responding to Mr. Harper’s pleas that he put his faith in Jesus Christ and shortly before Harper himself died in the water of hypothermia. It is perhaps a story too good to be true – who can say? – but whether or not that part of the story is true, there is no reason to doubt that John Harper died as he had lived, sharing the good news with the spiritually dead and dying.

There is something very true to life about that scene, John Harper moving among the terrified, calmly but forcefully urging them in the hour of death, before it was too late, to find forgiveness from Jesus Christ and gain entrance to eternal life. Surely before very long he knew he was going to die. We are all going to die. But with Christ with him there on the ship, and heaven before him, there was vital work to do in the few moments that remained. His faith was not weak in the moment of danger; the eyes of his soul were wide awake. He could see the Lord with him as the ship sank under him and so it was he remained about his Savior’s business to the very end, maintaining great calm in the midst of what we can all think must have been one of the greatest conceivable storms of human life.

It is certainly hard to imagine a more terrifying scene: a sinking ship, frigid waters, the screams of terrified passengers now facing the fact that they will not survive. But picture if you can a man walking among them, talking earnestly to them, as if there were nothing else that really mattered in that moment. That is what Jesus Christ can make of a Christian’s trials and dangers! And that is what he will make of them as his people open the eyes of their souls  – and that is what faith is, the eye-sight of the soul – and see him there, the ruler of heaven and earth, right beside them. That is what comes of having Jesus in the boat with you!