Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4

The lectionary reading for Trinity 3 in Year B is Mark 4.35–41, the account of Jesus calming the storm. It is a fabulous story both full of little eye-witness details, and yet at the same time impossible to read without feeling its symbolic significance. Unlike Matthew, Mark does not bridge the literal story to its symbolic reading, but the story is so vivid he can leave that to us!

Although there is a clear link at the beginning of this story with the teaching in parables that has gone before (‘On that day…’) our chapter divisions hinder rather than help us here. This is the beginning of a quite long section, between the teaching of chapter 4 and the next section of teaching in chapter 7, when Jesus is at the centre of a serious of dramatic and dynamic miracle stories. This section includes six of Jesus’ best-known miracles in the gospels: the calming of the storm; the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’ daughter; the healing of the woman with an issue of blood; the feeding of the 5,000; and Jesus walking on the water.

Together, these stories depict Jesus as dynamic and powerful, the agent of God’s miraculous power.

The general impression that the segment Mark 4.35–6.56 makes is that Jesus is a highly successful worker of deeds, wondrous and beyond normal human ability (Hedrick, quoted in Mary Anne Beavis, Paideia, p 88).

And yet there are two complementary themes that are present throughout. The first is the fear and unbelief of both  the crowds and the disciples. Despite the strong distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the first part of Mark 4, being on the inside does not actually mean that the disciples understand Jesus any better than the crowds. Fear is repeatedly presented as the opposite of faith, and in contrast to this Jesus repeatedly enjoins people to ‘have faith’ or ‘believe’, whilst commending those who have ‘strong faith’ (Mark 5.34).

The second complementary theme is the humanity of Jesus, who is tired from a busy day, frustrated by the disciples’ lack of understanding, and yet is also able to turn from the pressure of the crowds to attend to a particular individual before him.

Like many other stories in this section of the gospel, Mark’s version is longer and more details than either Matthew’s or Luke’s. The account in Matthew 8.24–27 is part of a carefully structured ‘ministry’ section of three sets of three incidents; Jesus’ teaching parables about the kingdom do not appear until Matthew’s third ‘teaching’ section in chapter 13. Luke follows Mark slightly more closely, in having this episode in Luke 8.22–25 following on from the parabolic teaching, but with the episode about Jesus’ true family intervening rather than earlier as it is in Mark (and later in Matthew).

It is worth noting from the outside the range of details that Mark includes, which the other two accounts omit.

  • It is the same day as his parabolic teaching about the kingdom.
  • They set out in the evening.
  • Jesus suggests they go ‘across to the other side’ (which Luke includes, but not Matthew).
  • They left the crowd behind.
  • The disciples took Jesus ‘just as he was’.
  • There were other boats with the boat the disciples were in.
  • The waves were breaking over the side of the boat (mentioned in Matthew but not Luke).
  • Jesus was asleep in the stern and with his head on a cushion (this is one of my favourite eye-witness observations in the gospels: where had the cushion come from? Did someone, perhaps Jesus, think to pick one up as they got in the boat?!)
  • Jesus’ specific words in his ‘rebuke’ to the wind and waves: ‘Peace! Be still!’
  • Jesus’ two questions to the disciples, including ‘Why are you afraid?’

We need to read this short story slowly and carefully in order to notice all these details—which is, of course, another good reason to learn Greek and read the Greek text, since this forces us to slow down! And it is a reason to ensure that whoever does the public reading of this passage does it carefully, slowly, with understanding and with appropriate drama.

The question as we read is whether Mark is including each detail because it just happened, whether he includes it because it appears to be of symbolic significance, and whether the observations here offer material for our reflection and application—or all three!

It appears to be highly significant that Jesus suggests to the disciples that they all ‘go across to the other side of the lake’; this does not mean traversing the whole lake, but involves crossing the top section only. But this takes them out of the territory of Herod Antipas into the territory of (Herod) Philip; although both regions were Jewish-Gentile mixed regions, it represented a move from Jewish territory proper into a Gentile region. There are eight crossings and returns of this section of the lake, and along with the repeated mention of boats, this gives the gospel a nautical feel which squares with the idea of it depending on Peter’s account as an eye witness. And this creates apparent parallels between Jesus’ ministry within Israel and outside it with Gentiles:

EventsJewish sideGentile side
Inaugural exorcism, fameMark 1.21–28Mark 5.1–20
Popular ministryMark 1.29–39Mark 6.54–56
Symbolic healingsMark 5.22–43Mark 7.24–37
Wilderness feedingsMark 6.32–44Mark 8.1–10
Non comprehension of loavesMark 6.51fMark 8.14–21

(All this, incidentally, makes the claim that Jesus was a racist who had to learn inclusion from a Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7.24–30 completely absurd.)

They leave behind ‘the crowd’, which is a consistent feature of the first part of Mark’s gospel, though even then they cannot get away, as other boats follow them. Charles Spurgeon preached at least three recorded sermons on this text, one focussing on Jesus’ apparent lack of care, another on the disciples’ sense of wonder, and a third reflecting on the theme of peace. They are all worth reading as examples of imaginative symbolic readings of the text and for Spurgeon’s dramatic use of extravagant language. In the first, he sees the presence of other boats as symbolic of Jesus’ leadership in the church:

Though today a church may flourish abundantly, in a very short time it may be visited with stern adversities; it may be tried none the less, but all the more, because God is in its midst, and is blessing it. When our Lord took ship the weather appears to have been very fair, and many little boats which scarce would have tempted the sea had its surface been ruffled, put out upon the lake under the convoy of the great Teacher’s vessel. His was the admiral’s flag ship, and they were the happy fleet. They made a gay flotilla sailing softly like sea birds when the ocean is in a gentle mood. All hearts were happy, all spirits were serene, and the sleep of the Master was but a type of the general peace. Nature reposed; the lake was as a molten looking glass, everything was quiet; and yet all on a sudden, as is the custom with these deep-lying inland seas, the storm-fiend rushed from his haunt among the mountains, sweeping everything before it; the little vessel was hard put to it, she was well-nigh filled with water, and ready to sink through the force of the driving hurricane.

The idea of the boat as a symbol of the church has its roots in the story of Noah and the ark, which was a means of salvation for the faithful remnant, and this symbolism is found in early commentators:

For as many as are in the little ship of faith are sailing with the Lord; as many as are in the bark of the holy church will voyage with the Lord across this wave-tossed life… (Origin, Fr Matt 3.3, quoted in Beavis p 90).

It is not a perfect analogy, though, since the disciples in the boat do not yet understand and, according to Mark, do not actually have faith!

I have not found any explanation of what it meant for the disciples to take Jesus ‘just as he was’. I can only assume that fishermen would normally dress in a particular way to sail, and that the usual garb of those on the land was not suitable for being in the boat. If so, this is part of the repeated contrast between Jesus and the disciples; they are the ‘professionals’, yet they are vulnerable, whilst he, the ‘amateur’, knows what he is doing.

Spurgeon’s language of ‘storm-fiend’ above picks up on the idea that different elements of the weather were caused by different spirits or demons, and reflects the fact that Jesus uses personal language to rebuke it—though otherwise this idea is not expressed anywhere in the gospels. Jesus’ power here is over the created order, though it runs in parallel with the power of demonic possession expressed in the following story.

Because Galilee lies in quite a deep depression surrounded by hills, the weather can change quickly, and storms can arise out of the blue (as it were). The evidence of the ‘Jesus boat’ at Nof Ginosar shows that typical fishing vessels of the time were quite low-sided, as they would need to be to haul fish aboard, and so would be vulnerable to a sudden storm and the waves it produced.

We should also note that first century Jews had a deep distrust of the sea and water, since (in the Old Testament) it was the abode of untamed monsters, and (symbolically e.g. in Dan 7) the source of powers arising who were deeply opposed to God and his people.

Like the master storyteller that he is, Mark defers the information that Jesus has fallen asleep till after the mention of the storm (Luke 8.23 reverses the order and eliminates the narrative tension here) and so heightens the contrast between the panic-stricken disciples in fear of death, and Jesus calmly asleep in the stern, on a cushion. Spurgeon, in the third of his sermons, interprets this as illustrating Jesus’ trust in God:

He had perfect confidence in God that all was well. The waves might roar, the winds might rage, but He was not at all disquieted by their fury. He knew that the waters were in the hollow of His Father’s hand, and that every wind was but the breath of His Father’s mouth; and so He was not troubled; nay, He had not even a careful thought, He was as much at ease as on a sunny day. His mind and heart were free from every kind of care, for amid the gathering tempest He deliberately laid Himself down, and slept like a weary child.

But as his last phrase hints, this might simply be a sign of his humanity: after a busy day of teaching, Jesus was tired and needed to rest. In the history of interpretation, a third possibility is raised—that the episode was one designed to test the disciples. These three possibilities (trust in God, humanity, testing of the disciples) might not be in contradiction to one another. The human Jesus needed to both trust God in moments of challenge and difficulty, but also need to trust and rely on those around him, and when we trust someone that always involves a test for them—will they live up to the trust we have placed in them?

As usual, Mark is uncompromising in depicting the disciples’ desperation and lack of faith, which Matthew and Luke both soften. Where in the other gospels they look to Jesus to save them, here they despair at Jesus’ apparent indifference. Again, Spurgeon sees this as an illustration of the life of all disciples:

We are very apt, when we are under a trying dispensation, to judge the laws of nature to be very pitiless ordinances without bowels of mercy, and we say, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”

Much has been made of Jesus’ command ‘Peace! Be still!’ and the idea that Jesus speaks peace to the world around arising from the peace that he has within himself. But we should note that the term here is not the usual one for peace (eirene) but the verb siopao meaning to be silent. The miracle here is not simply that the storm stops blowing, but that the waves immediately became calm, when naturally this would take some time.

There is a wonderful irony in Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples and their subsequent response. He challenges their lack of faith in him—and the result is that they still have neither faith nor understanding. And having been terrified by the storm, they are even more terrified by the calm and the one who has the power to bring it about. We will again see, in the deliverance of the demoniac, a similar response from the gentiles, who see the calm in the man and plead with Jesus to leave. We might hate storms, but at least we they have the comfort of familiarity.

It is hard to miss the parallels with the story of Jonah. In both cases, the boat in a storm is about to disintegrate; the sailors are terrified (‘feared with a great fear’ Jonah 1.10, Mark 4.41); Jonah, like Jesus, is asleep despite the storm; the one sleeping is awoken since they are all about to perish (compare Jonah 1.6 and Mark 4.38); there is a sudden calm and all are amazed at what God has done. The difference, of course, is that the storm is Jonah’s fault, and it is Jesus who exercises the power of God over the forces of nature. There is only one possible implied answer to the disciples’ almost rhetorical question, ‘Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?’

It is worth noting that, compelling though Spurgeon’s poetic and dynamic use of this story is, he is offering no allegorical reading. The application of the story to our situation hinges on the power of Jesus over the forces of nature, and these include the challenges that we will face day by day. ‘With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm…’ only because, in this story, we see the power of Jesus over that the storm revealed, and it is this same Jesus whom we trust today who has power over every storm.

But the final challenge is perhaps directed to us. Even though the miracle points clearly to who Jesus really is, the miracle alone does not lead to faith. That will require something else…

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19 thoughts on “Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4”

  1. Hi Ian,
    There is something strange and parallel between Jesus speaking in the storm and God answering Job out of the storm.
    Both Jesus and Elihu (My God is He) bide their time before acting; deferring to ‘professionals’ to exhaust themselves.
    Elihu’s speech seems to get drowned out by God’s interruption but as Elihu is not castigated like Job’s three friends are afterwards there seems to be something special about Elihu. Perhaps Elihu gets empowered by the Storm of God and the subsequent words of God are Elihu’s voice energised and empowered; Elihu goes all prophetic, filled with the Spirit like a storm.
    Therefore the calming of the storm is when Jesus stops rocking the boat. He addresses His Spirit of Peace: “Be still.”

  2. (ESV) 8 O LORD God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O LORD,
    with your faithfulness all around you?
    9 You rule the raging of the sea;
    when its waves rise, you still them.

  3. I like the bit about the disciples taking Jesus ‘as he was’. It is interesting to picture them changing into suitable clothing before setting off. Perhaps goose greased knitwear? The picture above depicts them all wearing pajamas and dressing gowns which gives the picture a pantomime air.

  4. “Jesus’ power here is over the created order,”

    Isn’t this in danger of being underplayed? Though the Gospels don’t comment directly the parallel with Genesis (God spoke and….) is unmissable. The creator is present in Jesus, taking the incarnate step of servanthood but still the one” through whom all things were made”. Will the disciples have missed this?

    Small boat storms… I’m far from an experienced sailor but even storms on small lakes like Windermere surrounded by hills can be surprisingly rough (all things being relative)…. and moored on the lake at night as disturbed experience. In case you think I’m entirely a landlubber I’ve also been sailing off Portland in the Shambles at force 7-8.. rough didn’t describe it…

  5. First century Jews had a deep distrust of the sea and water, since (in the Old Testament) it was the abode of untamed monsters, and (symbolically e.g. in Dan 7) the source of powers arising who were deeply opposed to God.
    This is a commonplace thought, and entirely the invention of theologians. Some of the disciples were Galilean fishermen, all will have been on a boat before, and all knew that the weather could change quickly and storms arise out of the blue. As if the men read Daniel in their leisure hours and were too stupid to know the difference between visionary metaphor and natural reality! One did not need to have read Daniel to know that the sea could be a dangerous place. In such circumstances we 21st-century Gentiles would have been just as frightened. Are we to suppose that Jonah entrusted to himself to a boat (and slept in it) only because he had not read Daniel?

    The disciples woke Jesus up. Were they simply outraged at his sleeping during the storm? Or did they somehow sense that the Master could help, even if they could not see how?

    • I’m not so sure it’s the invention of theologians. The Jews weren’t a sailing or seafaring nation (unlike, say, the Phoenicians, Egyptians and even the Philistines.) Jonah sails with pagans.

      • If you are not sure it’s the invention of theologians, presumably you have some evidence for a ‘deep distrust of the sea and water’ and the (pagan-like) idea that the sea was a domain of cosmic evil? Stronger evidence than your own uncertainty.

        Israel was not a great ‘seafaring nation’ because in OT times most of the coast was occupied by Philistines and Phoenicians, but Jacob prophesied blessings of the great deep upon Joseph (Gen 49:25), Solomon, benefitting from Phoenician know-how, had a fleet of ships at both Ezion-geber (I Ki 9:26) and Tarshish (I Ki 10:22), Jonah was so unconcerned about sailing that he fell asleep, and many Jews made a living fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

        • great points.

          Re this: “If you are not sure it’s the invention of theologians, presumably you have some evidence for a ‘deep distrust of the sea and water’ and the (pagan-like) idea that the sea was a domain of cosmic evil? Stronger evidence than your own uncertainty.”

          I was thinking of the allusions and etymological roots behind of some words in the Bible. For example Ps 40:5 uses “ravah”, a name of a Canaanite sea monster god. The sea itself is generally seen as fearsome and unstable — often calmed by God’s pacifying action. It harbours unknown terrors (e.g. Leviathan). It’s also a symbol or metonym for primordial chaos out of which comes birth and order.

          As for your second paragraph: yes, Solomon did have a fleet but that is kind of my point — it’s an exception which proves the rule. We don’t meet any Jewish sailors or seafarers in the OT, unlike other trades and occupations. Jonah sails with a pagan crew from many nationalities, despite embarking from an Israelite port (Joppa). There’s no evidence that the Jews were a maritime nation. And, yes, I know that is an argument from silence . . . .

          You say “This is a commonplace thought, and entirely the invention of theologians.” Now that might be true but >9 times out of 10 commonplace thoughts and the consensus of academia is right. It’s always worth checking and challenging the received wisdom but in this case I think it’s right.

          • ‘The sea’ in most OT contexts is the Red Sea, through which the Israelites escaped from their Egyptian pursuers. Accordingly it is rich with symbolic significance. But as part of the created order – sea distinct from ‘land’ or ‘heaven’ – it is inanimate (but filled with life) and non-symbolic. In the pre-Catalysm world it is the subterranean source of fresh water and life-giving.

            That Israel was not a great sea-faring nation is a point I made myself. Egypt also was not. The fact has no bearing on whether the created sea was regarded as a place of cosmic evil. The blog above was an exposition of Mark 4:35ff. Do you really think that was the perception of all the people who were in boats that day?

            I confess I have never heard of a Canaanite god called Ravah, and I don’t see the word in Ps 40:5.

  6. Notice the difference between the “sailors” who accompany Jonah and Jesus. In the Old Testament story they are gentile pagans who immediately assume that the storm is a sign of God’s anger and that someone on board the boat is to blame. As it happens they are right but only by accident; their conclusion is correct but their reasoning is faulty. (One could argue that God used these gentiles’ poor theology to his own ends.) Compare that with the disciples: for them the storm is just one of those things, something that happens from time to time for no reason. It’s not because God is angry and no one has to be sacrificed. Had Jonah sailed with fellow Jews they might not have tossed him to the whale!

    • They don’t immediately assume anything. First they each cry to the god they worship – a common and understandable reaction when in distress. They sought divine aid because they believed that gods had power over nature: that was the normal pagan reasoning. The thought that God, or a god, might be angry came later, and – I suspect – was not an obvious one. Nor do we know that they were right ‘by accident’. There is nothing in the text to indicate that their reasoning was faulty: Jonah – not only a Jew but a prophet – himself endorsed it, and the text endorses it by saying that it was Yahweh that hurled the storm on the sea. The only faulty element was the belief that gods other than Yahweh had power over nature. Jews certainly believed that Yahweh had such power, the wind at the Red Sea crossing being just one such instance.

      The sailors go through quite a complex process of reasoning. Not wanting to sacrifice Jonah, they ask him what is to be done. It is Jonah himself who says he must be sacrificed, while they do what they can to avoid it. But the storm gets only more violent, leaving them no choice. Either Jonah dies, or they will all die (cf. John 11:50). But it turns out that God was not in fact angry and saves him.

      As for the NT passage, we are not told anything about how the disciples explained the storm, though you are probably right in suggesting they did not ascribe it to the anger of God. However, the contrast is not between a pagan and a Jewish theology but between two different situations: in the one, Jonah recognised that God was chasing him by means of the storm and he could not escape, in the other, the issue was not the cause of the storm but the question whether it was right to be afraid.

      Humanly speaking, the disciples were right to be afraid. If the storm was ‘just one of those things’ and God was not willing to intervene (the normal situation), they were on the point of perishing. So you might ask, what was Jesus’s point in saying, “Have you still no faith?”

      In the event, one fear was replaced by another (Mark 4:50, 4:51).

  7. Let’s allegorize for a moment.
    Jesus is resting asleep on the cushion (in the bosom of Abraham; in The Father).
    The Spirit of God who neither slumbers or sleeps is fighting Leviathan and rocking the boat.
    Question: Is Jesus rebuke directed at the impersonal, physical creation or the active, personal force who slumbers not?
    Question to Gregg, Why does it seem the activity of the Spirit goes beyond what we think is reasonable? E.g. all that falling about and laughing.
    I’m not suggesting that the Holy Spirit is like Loki or some other mischievous sprite but the story does seem to imply that when when Jesus dreams his Spirit is more than capable of having a bit of fun.
    Perhaps ther is more to this than we realise: 1 Corinthians 5:3 …with you in spirit…
    Paul was absent in body but present with the corinthians in spirit.

  8. Hello Steve,
    Geoff has been moored in still waters and inattentive: we have an anchor that is steadfast and sure.
    But ro place this scripture in context of Mark- the Kingom of God now in Christ and who Christ is.
    And some thoughts from a Charismatic past float to the surface.
    1 This passage takes me back to creation, God speaking creation into , and order into creation, by his word.
    2 Jesus is the annointed Messianic King and Son, by the Spirit upon him. Mark 1: 11-12
    3 There is immediate Satanic opposition. v13
    4 On Sabbath among the synagague there was demonic, unclean spirit, speaking out; “Have you cime to destroy us?. I know who you are- the Holy Ine of God.” v. 24
    5. ” And Jesus rebuke him saying, Be quiet and come out of him” v25
    6 the authority of Jesus as teacher is demonstrate in authority in the spiritual realm, over the demonic.
    7 ( In some reformed circles it is said that there was an animistic culture at the time of Christ and by implication that there is no demonic activity and opposition to the supernatural Kingdom of God, today.)
    8 Jesus continues to demonstrate the Kingdom of God, and his authority through physical healings and casting out demons, and cleansing v 29 -45
    9 And authority, that resides only in God to forgive sins is demonstrated by Jesus.
    And his ability to see into the hearts of men. 2: 1 -13
    10 Kingdom of God feasting welcomes in sinners. 2: 14-22
    11 He is Lord of the Sabbath
    12 Opposition claims that he cast out demons because he is Lord of the flies, demons, Beelzebub. 3:22
    13 This claim is an unforgivable eternal sin, blaspheming (God) the Holy Spirit. 3:23-30.
    14 Kingdom of God is explored further in chapter 4 what it is, how it is seen, known through the seed, the word.
    15 Jeusus stills the sea, 4: 35-41, demonstrating his, God’s, authority over creation through speaking the, his word. Again this is redolent of Genesis.
    16 But, if you’ve persevered so far, this is where thoughts from charismatic circles float to the surface, Jesus here as he has with the demonic, “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down a great calm occured, became perfectly calm.” 4 : 39 NASV.
    17 Opposition to Jesus and to his Kingdom life continued in the storm, kicked up a storm as it were, in reality. Perhaps with demonic undertones.
    18 Then in chapter 5 there was an encounter with the demonic with Legion.
    19 The spiritual dark forces recognise who Jesus is and his Kingdom, in contrast even to his disciples in the boat.
    20 The battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness, against the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12
    Yours in Christ,

    • I was once in a dead calm on the sea. Looking into its silent depths created in me a sudden sense of fear, the abzu of Sumerian legend. The same panic created by the god Pan to wanderers in his wilderness. And so it must have appeared to all those at sea on the lake. (mostly the Hellenised?)
      I know that ordinarily we see in this passage Jesus as master over the forces of chaos, but looking at it this time I see the God who is able to bring out of chaos something new: a hair raising awe.
      There is no sense that he had battled with evil and won on points, or the bout timed out leaving him still standing. It happened while he was sleeping. As if his Spirit caused it. His dreaming was power enough.
      We shouldn’t try to split God off from the storm in this story to allegorise the storm a evil. I think it should throw us on the ground like Job before the storm. God, wrapped in thick darkness, lightning and hail. This episode is as amazing a revelation as the transfiguration.
      The disciples in that little boat must have felt they were in the chariot of the cherubim.
      Oh yes and BTW about the Toronto blessing. Sometimes we need our boat rocked by the Spirit every now and then. Please God, again!
      That’s wot i think.

  9. I’m a little late here but I would like to ask one question.

    Serial commentator Andrew Godsall has made it clear that he doesn’t think that, in actuality, anything miraculously occurred that day. To quote:

    Was there an event when Jesus was in a boat with his disciples? Yes, it’s highly likely given that some were fishers, and that boats and trains and planes didn’t exist. Was there a storm? Highly likely. Did it die down? Storms generally do. Is that the significance of the story? No it isn’t. Is it a significant story that gives us some information about relationships between the disciples and Jesus and his future followers? Yes, as I have explained before, it is significant. Do I believe in Jesus because he can perform signs and wonders? No, I don’t. I believe in Jesus because he enables me – and you – to have a relationship with the father. Even in the midst of storms.

    So from this it is clear that Mr Godsall thinks that there was probably an incident where Jesus was in the boat with his disciples during a storm; but the details of Jesus commanding the storm to be still, and the wind and the waves obeying him, were invented; made up by the gospel writer to express ‘information about relationships between the disciples and Jesus and his future followers’.

    I would just like to ask: is this (that any actual miraculous events are fictional) the official Church of England doctrine now on the stories of miracles in the gospels? Is this, for example, what is taught in theological colleges?


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