After a lengthy section recording the Lord’s teaching about the kingdom of God, we return to the narrative. Now follow some striking episodes in which the Lord demonstrated divine power and witnesses of his actions were called to a decision about him.
Each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke includes an account of the miracle of the stilling of the tempest. It is an important miracle, not least because it recollects the power God displayed over nature in some of the great miracles of the OT epoch, for example, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea. It provides another demonstration, of which we have already had several in the early chapters of Mark, of the identity of Jesus with Yahweh.
Mark’s account is vivid with eyewitness details. Here is the first: the curious detail that “they took Jesus along”, which apparently means that Jesus was taken directly from the boat from which he had been teaching the crowds along the lakeshore without returning him to the shore. Something an eyewitness would remember but no one else would think to add. A similar detail, not picked up again in the account, is that there were other boats with them as they began their crossing of the lake. We are left to wonder what happened to the other boats in the storm, but Mark says nothing about that. Eyewitness detail.
“In 1986 the hull of a fishing boat was recovered from the mud on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, about five miles south of Capernaum. The boat – 26 ½ feet long, 7 ½ feet wide, and 4 ½ feet high – corresponds in design to a first-century mosaic of a Galilean boat preserved in Migdal only a mile from the discovery site… Carbon 14 technology dates the boat between 120 B.C. and A.D. 40. Both fore and aft sections of the boat appear to have been covered with a deck, providing space on which to sit or lie. The boat was propelled by four rowers (two per side) and has a total capacity of about fifteen persons.” [Edwards, 148] It seems very likely that this would have been the sort of boat the Lord and his disciples crossed the lake in that night. With such low sides such a boat would be vulnerable to foundering in a storm.
In calm weather a journey across the lake, depending upon one’s destination along the far shore, could take an hour or several hours. But the lake is notorious for sudden and severe squalls. The surface of the Sea of Galilee is about 700 feet below Sea Level and on several sides bordered by steep hills, including the famous Golan Heights. Mt. Hermon, thirty miles to the northeast, rises to 9,200 feet. The interchange between cooler air from the heights and the warmer air rising from the surface of the lake creates conditions in which winds sweep down the ravines and whip up unusually large waves for a lake that size.
That Jesus was so fast asleep that the uproar had not wakened him is a testimony to his exhaustion and to the peace that ruled his heart. He was, as we say, sleeping the sleep of the just! This is, by the way, the only passage in the Gospels, where we read of the Lord sleeping. The fact that the disciples, who make their living on the waters of the lake, were so afraid indicates the severity of the storm. The desperate and, we might think, disrespectful rebuke of Jesus is almost certainly a verbatim recollection of what was said. That is the way people speak when they are terrified. Interestingly, in both Matthew and Luke’s account of this same episode, the disciples’ remark is toned down into a summary. We get from Mark the actual words as they were blurted out.
The word for “rebuke” is the same used earlier in regard to the Lord’s rebuke or censure of evil spirits (1:25; 3:12). The Lord speaks to the lake as if it were an unruly heckler: “Quiet! Shut Up!” [France, 224] Whether evil spirits or the forces of nature, they are all subject to his command. But power over nature even more starkly reveals Jesus’ divine authority. There are remarkable parallels between this verse and Psalm 107:23-32, but there the one who stills the tempest is Yahweh himself.
The Lord’s demonstrations of his divine power and authority are always made with a view to the faith of his followers. Knowing who Jesus is and what he can do is to alter the disciples’ view of their own life and calling. In the Gospel of Mark characteristically, Christology – the knowledge of the Christ – leads to discipleship, the life of faith. [Edwards, 151]
It is painfully obvious that the disciples still had a lot to learn!
The presence of the supernatural terrifies them just as and even more than the storm had. Even the prospect of their own death was not as discomfiting to them as the presence of God. Vv. 40 and 41 leave us with the question: will these men put their faith, their trust in Jesus? [Edwards, 152] The concluding verse of the next section, 5:20 will do the same, as will the concluding verse of the following section, 5:42.
I think it is entirely proper to treat this brief historical narrative as a lesson for us regarding the trials of our lives, the sorrows, fears, and confusions which we must endure in this world. It is, of course, in the first place, a revelation of Jesus himself and a demonstration of his divine authority. But that revelation is given with a view to the life and faith of his disciples. He himself asks them, immediately after calming the lake, “Do you still have no faith?” He is interested not only in the facts about himself, but in the implication of those facts for his disciples.
It has long been observed that Mark’s interest in discipleship, in the Christian life, in how it is to be lived, is a distinguishing characteristic of his narrative. And what is shown us of Christ here is shown in the context of what, for these men, was a trial, sharp and terrifying, and so the lesson which the Lord draws for these men is a lesson about faith in him and in his power in the midst of trial. Mark, remember, is not writing simply for the pleasure of the few who were still alive and could recollect their being present at the same event. He is writing for the church of his day, for the Christians of the mid-first century who were facing trials of their own, not least active persecution from their pagan culture and government.
The Lord himself turns this miracle into a lesson about faith in trial. These things, as the Scripture says – whatever else may have also been their purpose – also happened as an example for us.
What is more, waves and the storms of the sea, are throughout the Bible an image or picture of the storms of life which human beings must pass through. When the author of Psalm 42 wants to give expression to the greatness of his woe – in the midst of circumstances which were very painful but had nothing to do with an actual storm at sea – he said in prayer to the Lord: “all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”
When the author of Psalm 46 wished to describe his confidence in the Lord in the midst of the troubles of life he wrote that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble…though the waters roar and foam…” God’s power is often put in terms of his ruling of the waves of the sea. From the creation in which he set the waters in their bounds to Psalm 65 we read that he “stilled the roaring of the seas and the roaring of their waves.”
From the earliest years of the Christian church in the new epoch this event, late at night on a storm-tossed lake, was regarded as a picture of the Lord ready and able to help the church in the midst of persecution and trouble. In early Christian art, the church was frequently depicted as a boat driven upon a perilous sea with Jesus in the midst to save her.
If there is a single and simple lesson to be learned from this narrative of the stilling of the tempest it is this lesson. It is the lesson which Bishop Ryle puts this way in his commentary on Luke’s account of this same incident: “sight, sense, and feeling, make even believers very poor theologians.” The size of the waves and the fury of the wind, the sight of the water accumulating in the bottom of the boat and of the boat sinking deeper into the waters of the lake made the disciples forget almost everything they had already learned about Jesus. Not everything, for they at least knew enough to wake up the Lord and cry out to him, but they did so after the manner of a desperate appeal to their last resort and in a spirit of despairing fear. ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’
Sitting here, dry and undisturbed, we may well think poorly of the disciples. Why didn’t they put two and two together? The one who had miraculously healed a leper and driven demons out of men obviously was not going to drown in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. “Not to worry. Let’s just sit here and see what happens!” we might well imagine one of them saying. But no one thought that or said that.
And far too often you and I are just like them, just as forgetful, just as mesmerized by the waves, when our trials come. We see the waves and hear the wind and sense the danger and our trouble consumes us in the same way and, though we are Christians, we appeal to the Lord only as a kind of desperate after-thought. We can’t hear our theology, our Christology – what we know to be true about Christ – that can’t be heard in our souls over the moaning of the wind and the crashing of the waves.
And there is a theology for Christians in suffering to be remembered and not forgotten. It is depicted for us in this account of the stilling of the tempest and is perhaps summed up in this single sentence: “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] This is true in three particular respects, all of which are highlighted in this account of the stilling of the storm.
- First, the troubles which so much distressed them were the Lord’s doing.
This point is made explicitly here in v. 35. It was the Lord’s idea to take a boat across the lake. It wasn’t Peter’s or John’s; it was the Lord’s. They never would have been on that lake that night but for the Lord’s decision. And, when the storm struck he was dead to the world, asleep as only a completely exhausted man can sleep. No doubt that was the reason he suggested the trip by boat in the first place. Matthew makes it clearer that he was intending, in this way, to escape the crowds, those immense crowds of people who had followed him everywhere he went, often, as the Gospel writers make clear, leaving the Lord almost no time to eat or sleep. In order to maintain his life and ministry, which depended upon his communion in prayer with his Father in heaven, he had had to shorten his already too short nights of sleep, rise early and go off into the fields alone to pray. After weeks of this he needed relief, he had to have it, and so the boat trip across the lake. And he was so weary that once fast asleep in the stern of that boat no mere storm, however severe, could wake him. His disciples had to shake him and shout in his ear before he stirred.
It was the Lord’s needs and the Lord’s purposes that had put the disciples in this peril. And, had they had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, these disciples would have come to Jesus in the boat and said — not, Master, Master, we’re going to drown — but just what the author of Psalm 42 had said to the Lord in his distress: ‘All your waves and breakers have swept over us.’ The psalm writer knew that his troubles had been ordered for him by the Lord and these men should have known that too.
Think! If the Lord could still a great storm by merely rebuking the wind and waves, is it not obvious that he could have prevented the storm from rising in the first place? He could have ordered up glassy smooth waters and a bit of a tail wind. If you find yourself in a storm, your merciful Savior has had a hand in that! Faith knows that, sight forgets it. But knowing that is a very large part of the hope and the peace and the strength that we need in the storms of our lives. It is a large part of our deliverance from our trials just to know that this is the Lord’s plan and purpose, that it was his plan for us to pass through these waters. He who loves us with an everlasting and invincible love could have kept us from every one of our heartbreaks and dangers. That he has not is the clearest indication that he intends for us to face this trouble or that. And he knows best! To deny that he does is to cease to be Christian!
As Thomas Boston beautifully put it,
“…nothing do [we] meet with but what comes through [our] Lord’s fingers; how he weighs [our] troubles to the least grain, that no more falls to [our] share than [we] need…” [Memoir, 98]
- Second, the troubles which so frightened the disciples posed no real danger to them at all with Christ present with them as he was.
In the aftermath it is clear enough what a blunder the disciples made and why they had nothing to say when the Lord effectively rebuked them for their lack of faith. They had been terrified for their lives while the Maker of heaven and earth lay a few feet away! How could they fear for their lives when the prince of life was sleeping peacefully at their feet? They knew enough by now to know that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the long-promised King sent from God. They had considered it the most sensible thing to leave their livelihoods to serve him. They had witnessed the extraordinary works of power that he did effortlessly almost every day. Did they really suppose that God’s plan for the world would come to an end because of an unforeseen accident, the Messiah himself drowning while crossing the Sea of Galilee? Couldn’t they see that no boat ferrying the Son of God, no boat carrying the Savior of the world was going to sink! Couldn’t they see that, high as those waves were, deep as the water was getting in the bottom of the boat, and wild as the winds were, there was no safer spot in all of this great universe than in that boat on that lake that night?
No, they couldn’t see any of that because, while the eyes of their bodies were wide opened and terror struck by the sight of the waves, the eyes of their souls — their faith — were shut tight.
And we can far too often be just like the disciples on the lake that night. What we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears mesmerizes us. We forget that our Savior promised that he would never leave us or forsake us and that he will be with us to the end of the world, that he will always provide us a way of escape from our tests and trials, and that he knows how to deliver the godly from their troubles. God forgive us, we can sometimes think and behave as if the Lord Christ were in some other universe far away, unaware of our circumstances, instead of in the stern of the very boat in which we are rowing through the storm.
What a difference it would have made if the disciples had exercised their faith that night on the lake. I tell you they would have felt alive! It would have been vitality, not fear that would have filled their hearts. They would have excitedly watched the waves and felt the wind and gloried in the power of the storm. They would have felt, as Pascal once put it, that there is something wonderfully exhilarating about being on the deck of a ship, battered by a storm, when you are absolutely certain that you will not drown. They would have written home saying what Churchill told his mother from Cuba after participating in a battle in 1895: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”
The stronger our faith becomes — the clearer the Lord’s word is heard in the soul and the more sharply the soul catches sight of the invisible world and of the Lord himself — the more it is true that a believer can face any trial with aplomb and poise. What enabled Moses to endure his trials and triumph in them? We read in Hebrews 11 that in the midst of his troubles he saw him who is invisible. How can a martyr like Archibald Campbell, speaking of the axe which would in a few moments end his life, say with perfect calmness and even a lightness of spirit which struck all who saw and heard him: ‘this is the sweetest maiden I ever kissed.’ It was because he could see just on the other side of the gallows, the ladder Jacob saw, stretching up into heaven and Christ Jesus at the top to welcome him. He was practicing the presence of Christ as Brother Lawrence would have put it.
Whatever your troubles and sorrows and dangers may be, see the Lord at your side, see heaven before your face, see the angels camped about you, and suddenly instead of fear and creeping despair you discover that there is a certain exhilaration in being shot at without result!
- Third, the troubles and dangers which so distressed the disciples were, in fact, primarily opportunities for Christ to manifest himself and reveal his glory among his people.
You cannot tell me that afterward, with the lake calm and the wind now a gentle breeze, with their hearts still racing from what they had just experienced, that even one of those disciples would rather have stayed behind, stayed ashore and missed out on what they had experienced and seen. Not on your life. What they had seen would stay with them, vivid in their memories, to strengthen and encourage them to their graves. But, don’t you see? No great demonstration of divine power stilling a tempest can be given without a tempest to still. They would never have seen what they saw had there not been waves and wind for the Savior to rebuke.
This is what Samuel Rutherford was speaking of 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.”
It is, you see, a completely different, wonderfully different way to look at the troubles we face: to see them as opportunities for the Lord to show himself to us as our deliverer and savior and friend and all-powerful protector. And it is no psychological ploy when the believer does that. It is nothing neither more nor less than the practice of the truth!
John Bunyan saw this as clearly as anyone. Once speaking about a time in his life when troubles mounted on every hand and when he was, at last, cast into prison for his faith in Christ, he wrote:
“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 also was never more real and apparent than now; here I have seen him and felt him indeed…”
So much was it the case that the Lord revealed himself most gloriously to Bunyan in the times of adversity that the great man once wrote: “Were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake…” [Grace Abounding, paragraphs 321-327]
And Rutherford, who endured many hardships and disappointments in his life, said a similar thing:
“…sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside, and draw aside the curtains, and say, ‘Courage, I am thy salvation,’ than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong, and never to be visited of God.” [Letters, No. 11, p. 52]
All of the disciples’ straining at the oars, all of their worry and fear was nothing but a setting of the stage for the Lord Christ to thrill them with his power and glory, to show them what a Savior and what a salvation they had got in the Son of God. And our troubles are the same and will have the same thrilling effect, if we practice faith in the midst of them and see the Lord rising up to help us.
Jesus is God! Let sorrow come,
And pain, and every ill;
All are worth while, for all are means
His glory to fulfill.
Now in conclusion I want you to notice that the Lord does not simply encourage us here. He rebukes us. Because of our modern therapeutic thinking about the proper way of dealing with people – especially people who have failed or who are troubled – we are inclined to miss this in the Lord’s words. But he reproaches these men for their lack of faith. We might have thought he would put his arm around Peter or John, or tousle James’ soaking wet hair and say with a smile: “Guys; what do you think I am chopped liver? You fellows crack me up. You didn’t have to worry. Sorry I didn’t waken sooner. I could have stopped the storm before it got started.”
But, he did not. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Or, “after all you have seen me do and heard me say, do you still understand nothing at all?”
All of us need encouragement in many ways, and the Lord gives us much of it. But we all need to hear from time to time, that our faithless ways – especially in the light of the Lord’s many demonstrations of his faithfulness to us over the years of our lives – are inexcusable. They are a sin we must repent of and put to death if we have a spark of honor in our hearts. There is no excuse for us not to understand that our troubles are no accident but have been brought to us by the Lord himself, that he is with us in and through them and that we cannot sink so long as he is there to save us, and that our trials are his opportunities to thrill us as he thrilled the disciples that long ago night. We need rebuke and that rebuke is a powerful encouragement in itself.
When we continue to be bowled over by our troubles, when we are so quickly brought to complain, when we despair so easily as if the Lord is not there and we are alone, we are wrong and we are foolish and we are behaving inexcusably. And you and I need to face up to this as nothing more or less than sin and a particularly unworthy sin. It is faithlessness! The Lord is with you just as he was with the disciples in that boat. He is as capable of delivering you as he proved himself capable of delivering them.
He is with you in your loneliness, in your worry about the future or your job; he is with you in the troubles you have with your children, with your husband or wife, he is with you in your sicknesses and those of your loved ones, and he will be with you still on your death-bed. And he who simply spoke and calmed a great storm is fully able to hold you up and deliver you when his waves and breakers sweep over you.
And if you will call this to mind, and keep it in mind – it is, after all, a frequently taught lesson in the Bible – I promise you in the Lord’s name, you will far more often than is now the case have occasion to say, with wonder and exhilaration:
“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him?”