Have you ever experienced a storm in your life that has left you feeling hopeless—some trial that has tempted you to despair, such despair that you are convinced you won’t survive? Perhaps it was brought about by the death of a loved one, and the grief seemed unbearable. Perhaps you experienced betrayal in a relationship and you seriously questioned whether you could ever love, let alone forgive, again. Perhaps you faced a financial storm in which you were certain that you would drown.
As serious as these are, the worst storms are those caused by our sinful failure to do what is right. We feel overwhelmed by our guilt, and are tempted to lose all hope of a better day. Such storms can tempt us to such despair that we just give up. We throw in the towel and quit.
We may walk away from a stormy relationship, even to the point of creating another storm of unbiblical divorce. Some storms can be so severe that you might be tempted to walk away from your faith, to walk away from Christ. After all, things are not going as you thought they would when you began to follow Jesus. Some people can become so hopeless that they want to quit life itself. Suicide, worldwide, is at an all-time high.
What lies behind such despair? Failure to believe the promises—the word—of God.
In the scene before us, this is precisely where the disciples were. They felt hopeless. They believed they were going to be destroyed. They had no confidence they would get to the other side. They thought they wouldn’t survive. But they were wrong. And, despairing Christian, so are you.
In this scene, Mark wants us to focus, not on the chaos of the storm, or on the consternation of the disciples, but rather on Jesus—his contentment, his composure, his confidence, his character. Mark wants us to correctly answer the rhetorical question at the end of the scene: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Mark wants us to place our full confidence in the one and only Lord Jesus Christ. For it is only through him that we may survive the storms of life. It is only by trusting him that we will survive the storm of life, the judgement of God. As the hymn appeals, “Only trust him, only trust him, only trust him, now.”
In this stormy scene we see both the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. The latter is revealed in this miracle of nature, a demonstration of his powerful authority over the natural realm. This is important, for along with his manifest authority over the spiritual realm (demons, forgiveness of sins, healing—chapters 1–3), here we see Jesus exercising authority over the fallen creation itself (Romans 8:18–22).
Taken together, these implicitly demonstrate Jesus’ all-encompassing authority, which he would explicitly declare after his resurrection (Matthew 28:18). Mark wants his readers to firmly grasp that Jesus Christ is King over all. He is therefore the King who is to be trusted and who must be obeyed. He is the King who will carry his subjects through their storms.
Jesus truly is the God-Man. He is God incarnate—God with us—and therefore, Christian, he is God for us.
The Most Vulnerable of Times
In vv. 35–36, we see that it was the most vulnerable of times: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him” (Mark 4:35–36).
Having heard several parables assuring success of the King and his kingdom, the disciples were placed in a situation in which they had opportunity to apply the sermon. They did not do too well, yet they experienced a wonderful revelation of the authority of the one they were following. So it can be for you and me as we face various storms. The original audience needed this encouragement. So do we.
“On that day” refers to the day on which the preceding parables were spoken. It may even include the events of 3:20–35. It had been a long and tiring day of ministry for Jesus. He was maligned by his enemies, misunderstood by his family, misapprehended by his disciples (4:10–13), and ministering to the crowds. Having laboured to the point of exhaustion (is this where Paul learned his ministerial work ethic?), evening arrived, and with it, perhaps an opportunity for a reprieve. Jesus was a man, and therefore he would have felt emotional, physical, mental and even spiritual fatigue. He needed a break. He planned to board a boat to travel across Galilee.
And so, as seems to have been his pattern, having ministered to the gathering crowds, Jesus sought a brief getaway (cf. 1:35; 2:13; 3:7). This is probably what lay behind the words to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”
The detailed description is clearly that of an eyewitness.
The phrase “just as he was” means “without going to ashore to make preparations” (Swete). In other words, he did not delay. But the term would also include, “as he was at that time” (that is, tired). He was ready for a holiday!
But notice that there were “other boats were with him.” Even on the sea, Jesus could not escape the crowds. His popularity was such that, when others observed his departure, they surrounded his boat with theirs. This testifies to an eyewitness account.
Mark is making clear that this event was witnessed, that it is not a make-believe story. And that is helpful for us. This really happened. So, Christian, when you face storms, remember that you are not unique (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). The disciples also faced them, and most importantly, so did Jesus. And he and they survived. So will you.
The Worst of Times
It was also the worst of times: “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (vv. 37–38).
As we know, once they in the boat, and somewhere between shores (which doubtless they could not see), a severe storm broke forth that tested the faith of these brothers in a huge way.
A Risky Reprieve
The sea of Galilee lies some two hundred meters below sea level and is surrounded by mountainous terrain. Its topography makes it vulnerable to sudden and tumultuous storms. The fishermen among the disciples would have known this. But they would also have known that night was the most likely time for calm waters. However, this was not to be the case. A storm broke out and they wondered whether they would survive. This was a mega storm!
The word “windstorm” means “a violent agitation” or “a strong tempestuous wind.” It sometimes refers to the four principle winds from the four corners of the earth. In other words, it refers to a storm attacking from every side (see 6:48–51; Acts 27:4, 7, 14–15). “Intense” would be an understatement, as the description that follows makes clear.
“The waves were breaking into the boat.” These were tumultuous swells or surfs (Acts 27:41), which were battling the boat. If I was there, no doubt I would be in a panic. Imagine pitch darkness, the boat rocking back and forth, no headway being achieved, the spray of water in your face. But that was not all.
“The boat was already filling” with water. Water was coming up over their ankles. I can imagine something of the terror. This storm was relentless. And keep in mind, some of these disciples were landlubbers. Levi (Matthew) probably was. He, and others, may have been paralysed with fear. But it is clear even the storm-experienced were fearful. And when it comes to the storms of life, perhaps you can relate.
Where Jesus is, storms are to be expected. In coming studies, we will see parallels between what occurred here on the sea and the confrontation with the demoniac on the other side. That episode will be followed by the unexpected death of a child. In each case, the storms were survived. We must not miss the point that various storms—manifold trials—arise in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus Christ is not an assured, easy journey. In fact, it is usually not. To follow Jesus puts us in a vulnerable position.
Becoming a Christian does not deliver us from facing storms. In fact, it usually places us in the middle of storms. Paul experienced a tremendous conversion, but letters like 2 Corinthians show the tremendous storms of life that followed. We know that many of the disciples were martyred for their faith, just as Jesus promised (Matthew 10:34–39). The early Christians faced poverty, as multitudes of the faithful have since then.
Christians get cancer, are hijacked, are robbed, and are raped. Christians are retrenched, and darkness envelopes them as the waters of worry creep over their ankles. Doctors diagnose Christians with cancer, HIV, infertility, and lifelong chronic illnesses. Christians are told that they have only months to live and the waves of hopelessness fill the hull of their heart.
Christians may become aware of malicious lies and the slandering of their reputation. The hollowing winds of deep heartache and disillusionment flood their mind. Christians sometimes can’t think straight. The ship of life seems to sink.
The economy seems to tank, and as single Christian parents wonder how they will ever provide for your precious children. Panic and despair can set in.
A friend or a loved may betray you and dark and hopeless despair rock the boat of your security. The death of a loved one, especially unexpected, may crush your heart and your emotions are at sea. You may feel like you are at the mercies of the elements. The darkness of depression that will not lift may be so thick that you cannot think. How do you, Christian, respond to situations like these?
As horrific as the storms are, the purpose is to point us to Jesus. God puts us in stormy, vulnerable places that we might learn of his steadfast love. His covenant love is both on the shore and in the storm (Psalm 119:64).
Remember, Jesus initiated this journey. He brought the disciples along. As we will see, he faced the same storm as they did. They needed to look to Jesus, who was in the same boat as they were. We need to learn the same lesson in our storms. Remember, Jesus got you into this storm; he can get you out of it. Try not to panic, but rather focus on how Jesus is responding. And he is not panicking!
A Calming Contrast
The response of these disciples was both commendable and condemnable. It was commendable in that they ran to Jesus. In fact, what the storm could not do, they were able to do: awake him.
But it is condemnable that they questioned his goodness and his concern. They questioned his care and his faithfulness, and that is inexcusable. Their pathetic behaviour revealed the humility of our Lord and Saviour.
Tired and Trusting
As the disciples panicked, “he was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.” The contrast is set by that small word “but.” When contrasting our predicament with the person and promises and purpose of God, that little word is huge! Here, the word of contrast is profound. In contrast to the panic of the disciples was the peace of Jesus. This is the focus of the passage.
Reading this paragraph, it is clear from the pronouns, that Mark wants us to focus on Jesus, not on the disciples. They were present, and they matter, but Jesus matters above all. He is central. We are meant to pause and to marvel at his composure amidst this storm.
It is instructive to note that the only time we read of Jesus sleeping in the gospel accounts is in this account—in the middle of storm!
Yes, he was fatigued, no doubt exhausted, and this no doubt is reflected in his deep sleep amidst the storm. But more to the point, it seems that he was asleep because he was personally careless. That is, he was in the habit of casting his care upon his heavenly Father, and therefore he could sleep while his disciples couldn’t (Psalms 121:4; 127:2).
We can feel as though we are being destroyed while the Lord whom we love and serve seems to be careless about our predicament—even, asleep and oblivious to what is happening to us. But he is not. In fact, God is in the storm with you.
The Assaulted Asleep
Amidst the cosmic tumult, we need to remember that God is being opposed by a fallen world as well. And since he will be victorious, we can rest in the fact that we too will be victorious.
It is important to note that this story is more about hostile forces against Jesus than it is about hostile forces against his disciples. This is more about the King and his kingdom facing a storm than it is about his subjects, like you and me, facing a storm. It includes that, but we dare not make ourselves the centre of the story.
In other words, what this teaches us is that Jesus is completely confident about the survival—the success—of his kingdom. Whatever the onslaught against his church, she will prevail. Jesus was completely confident of this. That is why he could sleep (see 4:26–29). So should we.
As Hughes writes, “The keeping power of Christ over his people is a truth that we all need to understand and believe, for it is life-changing.”
Greater than Jonah
In a strange parallel, there was another famous Jewish man who also slept in the middle of a storm. His name was Jonah (Jonah 1:5). Jonah was also careless. But his was of another kind. He was calloused to the concerns of God and so he could sleep amidst God’s chastening. But he would not sleep for long. In contrast, the careless demeanour of Jesus was because of his confidence.
What kind of carelessness do you have? Is it one rooted in faith in God, or one born of unbelief? Christianity is not stoicism. Christianity is not fideism. No, Christianity is about loving trust in our personal God. When we know him, when we know his purpose. When we believe his promises, we can be calm amidst the storms of life. We can be confident that, one way or another (2 Timothy 4:14–18), we will survive the storm.
The disciples, in a panic, did what many of us do: They questioned the concern and therefore the character of our Lord. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Literally this could be translated, “You don’t care that we are perishing, do you?” Ouch! As Cranfield notes, we are observing “the Son of God subject to the rudeness of men.” Shame! Shame on us.
The word “perish” means “to destroy fully” or to “be utterly lost.” It was used by Mark in 3:6 to describe the intentions of the Pharisees to get rid of Jesus. The disciples thought they were being “destroyed,” that they would suffer “utter loss” by the destructive nature of the storm. And they criticised Jesus for not caring. I am sure that, to the God-Man Jesus, this expression of unbelief and denial of his goodness, stung deeply.
A New People, Delivered through Waters
This scene is reminiscent of old covenant Israel. As they faced the Red Sea, they panicked. They were tempted to rebel and turn back. But God delivered them through the waters. The result was that the “people saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD” (Exodus 14:31). Would this new Israel of God do likewise?
It is not without reason that Paul later points Christians to the example of Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Romans 15). Too often the new Israel behaves like old Israel. We respond to challenges with cowardice rather than confidence. We need these stories to comfort us to be more faithful.
The early Christians were tempted to despair and, for this reason, Peter had to remind them, “Cast all your care upon him for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). I wonder if Peter was thinking about this episode when he wrote that? Marvellous encouragement. Peter grew after this storm. As he faced more and more storms, he learned that indeed Jesus cares (see Acts 4, 5, 12).
English notes, “The crux of discipleship is located here. They needed him to do things: he wanted them to trust him. His very presence amongst them was all that they needed to survive.” Let us examine our own discipleship!
The Greater Promise for the Lesser Problems
Since Jesus has saved you from the biggest storm, you can rest amidst all other storms (see John 10:28 with Romans 8:32). His cross provides and fuels our confidence. As a brother in our church this week reminded many of us, John Newton wrote long ago of these mercies:
My soul ask what thou wilt
thou canst not be too bold;
since his own blood for thee he spilt,
what else can he withhold?
We may face very real storms: retrenchment, betrayals, divorce, disease, death, trauma and suffering, spiritual failure, or severe disappointments in ministry. These can be the worst of times. Thankfully, whatever “hell” we face on earth, it is the only hell that the Christian will face!
The Response of the Insulted
Jesus “awoke,” sovereignly responded, and all was calm. Before expounding this scene, let’s pause and marvel at the mercy of our Lord.
Jesus would rebuke his disciples for their unbelief, but only after he rebuked and rebuffed the storm. Truly his mercies are new every morning—great is his faithfulness. “The divine humility of Jesus is made evident by his tolerance of the reproaches of his disciples. That same humility will be evinced later when verbal reproach turns to outright abandonment (14:50)” (James Edwards).
The Best of Times
Verse 39–41 show that it was also the best of times: “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:39–41).
The disciples faced the most vulnerable of times, which, in a moment, became the worst of times. But in the end, it would prove to be the best of times. We see this in these remaining verses, where “divine power iswrit large”(France).
A Remarkable Revelation
Jesus, now rudely awakened, did what only God can do: controlled the winds and the waters. He “rebuked” the wind. Literally, he “admonished severely.” The wind heard and “ceased.” In response to the authoritative word of Jesus, the wind ceased its raging. He commanded the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Literally, he “muzzled” the roaring sea with the result that “there was a great calm.” Things went from a torrent to utter tranquillity—all because of a word from Jesus.
Consider also the collateral blessings experienced by the other boats. When Jesus calms your storm, others will be blessed: family, fellow church members. This is one reason that it is helpful to share testimonies of God working in your life.
Verse 41 ends with what is a rhetorical question for the informed reader: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It is rhetorical because we know the answer: This man is God! As Ferguson so helpfully puts it, “They had taken Jesus ‘just as he was’ (v. 36), and now they were awed to discover who he really was!”
As noted above, the opening verses of this section highlight the humanity of Jesus, but now, in these closing verses, we see the deity of Jesus. As Lane comments, ‘The subduing of the sea and the wind was not merely a demonstration of power; it was an epiphany, through which Jesus was unveiled to his disciples as the Savior in the midst of intense peril.’
At the end of Jesus’ earthly sojourn, just before his ascension, Jesus would declare his deity with the powerful words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). But here we see this truth demonstrated in what is up until now the most significant manifestation that Jesus is God.
Yes, he preached with unmatched authority, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored the lame, and cured lepers. All of these were manifestations of his deity, of his Godhood. But now, for the first time, we have the manifestation of his sovereign rule over the natural realm. We have a pre-resurrection demonstration of Jesus’ authority over all things on the earth.
There seems to be a parallel in Mark’s mind between what he records here and in the next scene in chapter 5—a parallel between the natural storm and its calming and the demonic storm and its calming. This may very well be the case. But it is not true to identify the physical, natural realm as being under the sway of demons. Rather, Mark is highlighting Jesus’ authority over all realms, even death (5:21–43). Mark wants the reader early on to understand that Jesus Christ is God. The disciples were obviously confused about this, but Mark’s readers—post-resurrection readers—have no excuse!
O that Men Would Praise the Lord
Only God can still the wind and the storms. It is for this reason that we prayed for a long time rain in the Cape—and I was recently able to scratch this request off my prayer list. At the time of writing, the dams are 76% full because God filled them. Jesus filled them! The one who features as central in this story filled those dams.
When I recently stood in Durban, watching the waves beat against the Prominade, I was watching the handiwork of Jesus. He was controlling them. There is little doubt that, when Mark penned these words, Psalm 107:23–32 was on his mind.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s rule over the waters is a dominant motif designed to reveal God’s power and sovereign rule over all. It was God who delivered Israel through the Red Sea. It was God who gave them water in the desert. It was God who parted the Jordan River. It was God who closed the rain clouds and who then opened them again during Elijah’s ministry. It is the Lord “who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (Psalm 65:7). As another psalm tells us, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Psalm 89:9).
When God sought to comfort his beleaguered people, he had Isaiah write,
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you.”
God then reminds them, “‘I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’ Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (vv. 15–16). This is a powerful and precious revelation of the nature of Jesus. He is God, but this must be a personal revelation. We need to believe this!
We too need this revelation. Jesus rules over all. Whatever storm you are in, he is in it too. But, most importantly, he is over it as well. When all seems to be sinking, meditate on the words of Psalm 124.
A Necessary Rebuke
This is the first of many rebukes by Jesus of the disciples’ unbelief (see 7:18; 8:17–18, 21, 32–33; 9:19). Jesus expected trust, not terror.
Yes, we get it, while they didn’t. But, on second thought, do we get it? Is it not true that the same rebuke could be aimed at us, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
The word “afraid” speaks of being cowardly (Revelation 21:8). This is a cowardice that draws us back from obedience. That is, a cowardice that replaces confidence. Rather than acting on what we know about God, we shrink back and trust in our self or on our circumstances or in others. Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be!
Practicing the Parables!
Despite all our Bible knowledge—despite all we have experienced of our Lord’s faithfulness and ability—we still find ourselves wondering whether or not we will survive the storm. We too experience panic attacks. And, like these disciples, we often experience them in “the evening” when things are at their darkest. But also like them, we need not be afraid. You see, like them, we have the promises of God.
Jesus had just spoken several parables whose theme was the certainty of the kingdom of God. If God’s kingdom is certain, if Jesus will rule and reign and they along with him, they must survive this storm! Since Jesus came to establish his kingdom, there was no way that he was going to drown! Further, there was no way he would let the original members of that kingdom perish.
I Will Build My Church
As Edwards says, “This story assured them, as it assures us, that even seismic revolt against God’s Son cannot swamp the boat in which he is gathered with his disciples.”
Think about the original audience of Mark’s Gospel. It was persecuted believers in the Roman Empire. It is interesting to note that, in the early church, artwork often depicted the church as a boat driven upon a tumultuous, perilous sea. What an encouragement this would be to them: They were in a storm, but Jesus their Saviour, whom they lovingly followed, is God. They would survive their violent storms.
Beware of treating God’s word theoretically. Be prepared for setbacks. God’s word will be fulfilled but not usually in the way that we think.
A Reverent Response
Jesus had just rebuked them for being “afraid” and immediately they were “filled with great fear.” Literally this could be translated “filled with fear fear,” with “fearful fear.” The same word appears side by side, though one is a noun and the other is a verb.
Earlier, we noted their storm-related fear due to lack of faith. But this second kind of fear is different. It too was the result of a storm, but of another kind. This was the storm of realising they were in the presence of a power way beyond themselves.
They had some inkling that they were in the presence of deity. They realised that they were in the presence of the strong Son of God. And when this is the case, then fearful awe is the only right response.
This concept of reverent fear is prevalent in Mark’s Gospel (See 5:15, 33, 36; 6:20, 50; 9:32; 10:32; 11:18, 32; 12:12; 16:8). The last reference is most likely the last verse, and the last word in Mark. It really is the final word when it comes to the disciple’s response to Jesus Christ.
Our response to Jesus must be one of deeply loyal, character-shaping and conduct-determining reverence. Jesus, when properly appreciated, will put the fear of God in us: fearful dread because of his holiness and our sinfulness (Luke 5:7; Isaiah 6); fearful devotion because of his grace in showing us mercy and saving us; fearful dedication because of his sovereign authority proven by overcoming death (Matthew 28:18–20).
We need this fear of the Lord. John Murray said, “The fear of the Lord is the soul [heart] of godliness.” It was then, and it remains so today. Let us do all we can to fill our minds and our hearts with the knowledge of God in Christ, producing holiness for our good, for God’s glory (Ephesians 1:15ff).
A Rhetorical Realisation
This, as we have seen, is meant to be a rhetorical question. The light was dawning on the disciples. They were beginning to see that there was more to Jesus than him being merely a “teacher” (v. 38). But sadly, like you and me, they would soon forget—again and again. When storms arose, their faith would sink (6:45–52).
Brothers and sisters, let us learn from this the need to keep “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Stay focused during the day while he is teaching (vv. 1–34) so that you can apply his truth when night falls with its winds and storms. Meditate upon truth. Talk to one another about truth. Pray to God about this truth. Gather together to learn his truth. Gather to encourage one another.
Knowing and trusting the character of Christ is key to living as Christians for Christ. That is, it is key to you surviving the storm.
Fast forward to the next chapter. They made it through the storm and the outcome was glorious. Fast forward to the end of the book, and we see the ultimate deliverance from the mother of all storms. Witherington is correct, “Miracles raise the question about Jesus but do not give the answer or key to his identity.” Only the cross work of Christ can fully reveal him.
You see, the cross reveals Jesus as the one who delivers us from the most serious of storms: the storm of God’s judgement. There is coming a day when all who have ever lived will stand before God to give an account of whether they were fearfully cowardly when it came to Christ (rejecting him) or whether they placed their full confidence in him.
Those who will not confide in him will not survive the storm of God’s wrath, while those who do confide in him for forgiveness of sins will survive the storm and will get to the other side. It’s not our faith or our confidence that saves us. No, it is Christ who experienced the storm of God’s wrath that will get us to the other side. Our confidence is in him. And we have every reason to be confident in him.
Jesus lived a perfect life and therefore he is God’s acceptable sacrificial substitute for us. He died the death we deserved thereby releasing us from our guilt and providing forgiveness—a clean slate—for us. This was proven by his resurrection from the dead. His resurrection meant that he had come out on the other side of the storm of God’s righteous wrath against our sins. Those who turn from their sins, trusting Jesus Christ alone for deliverance from God’s wrath will find themselves also on the other side of that wrath. On the other side, forever, “for they will never perish” (John 10:28). So, “Only trust him, only trust him, only trust him now!”