During the summer of 2015, I took part in a course held at my church called Understanding God's Story. Its goal was to teach the basics of biblical hermeneutics, a fancy word for understanding what a passage of the Bible means and how to apply it to our lives. As an assignment, we were given a short story from the Gospel of Mark and were asked to prepare a Bible study or talk unpacking the passage's context, message, and application.
It was satisfying to take a passage of Scripture I have heard or read a hundred times and get under its skin and better understand what it was trying to say. I thought it would be fun to post the finished results here. (The picture I included because it's kind of epic and comes from my childhood picture Bible.)
“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. 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?” 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 4:35-41 (English Standard Version)
From the very first phrase of this story, “on that day, when evening came”, we are forced tounderstand its context. Which day is Mark referring to? The author, in his quick-paced, fast-cut storytelling, makes it tricky to discern when exactly this day began, but a glance back through Mark 4 tells us that Jesus, after a busy season of miracles and interactions, had spent the day teaching to a very large crowd gathered around the sea of Galilee, followed by private explanations of these teachings to his disciples. That day has now ended and Jesus is clearly exhausted, so he asks his disciples to take him across the sea in their boat. As professional boatsmen, the disciples set about this ordinary task, allowing the exhausted Jesus time for some much-needed sleep on the boat's cushion (probably a heavy basalt-type bag).
Sudden windstorms are common on the Sea of Galilee and one quickly appears. The disciples would have been used to such waves, but this storm quickly grows beyond their control. They are now fearing for their lives. Waking Jesus from his deep sleep, they accost him in verse 38 (“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”) There is sense of irony to this accusation. Isn’t Jesus a guest in their boat? Aren't they the professional sailors? Yet here they are, demanding from their passenger perhaps not a solution, but least some wakeful sympathy.
Jesus wakes up and “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!” The word “rebuke” is an odd one to use in this context. One rebukes a child who is acting immature in front of dinner guests, not the wind and the sea for showing their power. The word used here means to “express strong disapproval of someone; to warn.” It is as if Jesus were the master of an estate chiding his dogs after they’ve terrified his guests. “Be quite! That will do!”. Once ferocious, the animals are now in submissive control. And indeed, at Christ’s command "the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.”
“Calm” is an appropriate phrase to describe what must have followed. One can almost picture the silence in that moment; the crashing waters slowly returning to an evening ripple, the boat’s wild plunging replaced by a gentle rocking; the disciples catching their breaths and then staring wide eyed at their master who now asks a simple question. “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
By asking these two questions Jesus seems to imply that the disciples should have known that he had this power and should have trusted who he is. Why should the disciples have known this? Specifically, why does Jesus use the word “still”? Flipping back through the earlier chapters of Mark, we see that Jesus had already revealed his wisdom and authority through his preached word, by healing many who were sick, and by casting out many demons (whom he warned not to reveal his true nature). And regularly Jesus would hint at his identity, most clearly in the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2. We are still four chapters away from Peter’s definite statement that Jesus is “the Christ, Son of the Living God”. But Jesus has already revealed his power.
Jesus’ rebuke in verse 40 implies that the disciples were missing something. Taking a closer look at the long portion of Jesus' words that precedes this story, we see Jesus explaining to the crowd, then in fuller detail to his disciples, the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Again and again he talks about hearing; “listen!” in verse 3, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” in verse 9, “hear the word” in verses 16, 18, 20, and “pay attention to what you hear” in verse 24. The definitive statement is to his disciples in verses 11 and 12: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
With this context in mind, how can we interpret the disciples's behaviour? They have been around Jesus enough to see his power and authority. They have been chosen by him and are committed to following him. During their time of teaching on the shore of Galilee they were warned to pay attention, but when on the surface of that sea they did not see, or remember, in Whose presence they were in. They saw but they did not perceive.
This awakened realization is driven home by the next sentence. “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?’” Earlier the disciples were described as “afraid”, using a word which means “lacking confidence, cowardly, timid.” Now, in the safety of the tamed environment they are filled with “great fear” (meaning “the product of an intimidating/ alarming force”) because of their new understanding that this man in their presence rules and controls the wind and the sea.
Later the disciples and those around Jesus would learn more reasons to fear him. There will also be more examples of how the disciples would continue to “see but not perceive” whom they were with and the purpose for which he was amongst them. But in this story, Mark’s point is clear. The disciples who spent time with Jesus heard but did not understand. It wasn't until they saw his supernatural power their eyes were opened and they were very afraid.
What application is there for us today? I think we learn to believe, fear, and trust.
We see that belief requires more than just hearing. The disciples were exposed to Jesus day in and day out, yet even after his teaching they failed to understand who he was. Do we, who are exposed to Jesus’ words again and again, believe and understand? Do we recognize this distinction and how it applies to both our lives and the lives of those with whom we share God's Word?
We also see that the proper response to the presence of God amongst us is fear. Do we fear the God who rules this world more than we fear this world that he rules?
Despite his followers's lack of faith and despite his power, Jesus cared for his disciples and calmed the storm. As his followers, do we trust him in ways the disciples did not? Since he has opened our eyes and given us a new nature enabling believe, let us trust him and fear not. As it says in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear [the same word used in Mark 4], but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”