MARK 4-8. THE CONTEXT
Jesus’ role as teacher is important in this Gospel. Chapter 4 opens with a series of parables (the sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the mustard seed). Speaking to the disciples, Jesus explains the purpose of the parables, saying, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables, that ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest perhaps they should turn again, and their sins should be forgiven them'” (4:11-12).
This will seem ironic when we look at the story of the storm at sea. The disciples are insiders, but they still don’t “get it”—not even close. In Matthew and Luke, the disciples won’t “get it” until after the resurrection. In this Gospel, the original ending (16:8) closes with the women at the tomb being seized with terror and amazement—end of story—the disciples never do “get it.” Even the longer ending (16:20) presents the disciples as unbelieving until the very last verse.
Mark 4:35 – 8:26 recounts a series of miracles: Jesus stills the storm; heals the Gerasene demoniac; restores a girl to life and heals a woman with a hemorrhage (after which his hometown people reject him—unbelievable unbelief!); feeds the five thousand; walks on water; heals the sick in Gennesaret; exorcises a demon from the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter; cures a deaf man; feeds the four thousand (after which the Pharisees ask for a sign from heaven—and the disciples worry about their inadequate supply of bread—unbelievable unbelief!); and cures a blind man at Bethsaida.
Mark 4:35 – 8:13 includes four crossings of the Sea of Galilee (4:35; 5:21; 6:45; 8:13)—back and forth between the western Jewish side and the eastern Gentile side. Jesus performs miracles of healing and exorcism among Jews and Gentiles alike.
Mark 4:35 – 8:21 includes three boat stories, all of which present the disciples in an unfavorable light. The other two stories are:
• Jesus walking on water to the disciples’ boat in a windstorm—and their fear and hardness of heart (6:45-52).
• The disciples worrying about having only one loaf of bread, in spite of having recently witnessed the feedings of the five thousand and the four thousand (unbelievable unbelief!) (8:14-21).
MARK 4:35-36. LET’S GO TO THE OTHER SIDE
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let’s go over to the other side.” 36Leaving the multitude, they took him with them, even as he was, in the boat. Other small boats were also with him.
“Let’s go over to the other side” (v. 35b). The other side is the Gentile side.
“Leaving the multitude” (v. 36a). It is easy to be seduced by popularity and difficult to walk away from a favorable crowd. Jesus, however, could walk away from the crowd to pray or to carry on his work elsewhere.
The church today needs to learn from Jesus. We love crowds, especially those that fill our pews and coffers. We are tempted to follow wherever the crowd would lead. But we need to evaluate popular opinion carefully and walk away when it isn’t faithful to Biblical teaching. We also need to walk away from crowds so that we might spend time alone with God in prayer.
“They took him, even as he was, in the boat” (v. 36b). In 1986, the hull of a fishing boat was excavated from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Carbon dating shows that it was from Jesus’ time. The boat was 26.9 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 3.9 feet high—was decked fore and aft—and would have held approximately 15 persons—four of them rowing. Presumably, it is in a boat very much like this that Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee—Jesus taking shelter under the stern deck (v. 38) (Wachsmann, 237).
“Other small boats were also with him” (v. 36c). There has been much speculation regarding the meaning of these other boats, none of it convincing.
MARK 4:37-39. TEACHER, DON’T YOU CARE THAT WE ARE DYING?
37A big wind storm (Greek: lailaps megale) arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so much that the boat was already filled. 38He himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they woke him up, and told him, “Teacher (Greek: didaskale), don’t you care that we are dying?” 39He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
“A big (megale—we will see this word again in verses 37 and 41) windstorm (lailaps) arose” (v. 37). The Greek word lailaps refers to a violent storm—a whirlwind or tempest. Mark takes it a step further by telling us that it was a megale (big or great) storm.
The Sea of Galilee is in the deepest part of the Northern Jordan rift—700 feet below sea level—surrounded by steep cliffs and mountains except in its southern extremities. Hot air rises and cool air falls, so the cool air in the higher elevations is always wanting to swap places with the warmer air near the water. This often results in high winds—and waves that can top thirty feet (Lockyer, 402).
On a map of Israel the sea looks like a large lake, but from a small fishing boat it would look enormous, especially in a storm. At least four of Jesus’ disciples are fishermen, have surely survived storms on this sea, and have also surely known fishermen who were lost at sea. They are strong, self-reliant men who would handle moderate danger as a matter of course. The danger on this evening is not moderate, but deadly.
Sebastian Junger’s book, The Perfect Storm (also made into a movie), helped us to appreciate the danger of a small boat during a storm. “There comes a point when physics takes over. If a boat heads into a wave that is higher than the boat is long, it will get pitchpoled end to end to its doom. Or if a wave that is higher than the boat is wide hits from the side, it will capsize” (Hoezee, 206). Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t have understood the physics, but they would be all too familiar with the danger.
“He himself was in the stern, asleep on a cushion” (v. 38a). Sleeping through danger can be a sign of great faith. The Psalmist says, “In peace I will both lay myself down and sleep, for you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety” (Psalm 4:8). However, sleep can also represent passivity in a moment that cries out for an active response. The disciples interpret Jesus’ sleep as evidence that he does not care enough to save them (and himself) from impending death.
“Teacher” (didaskale—related to our word “didactic”) (v. 38b). We would expect that the disciples, in crisis, would address Jesus as Lord instead of Teacher. It is his power rather than his teaching that they need in this particular moment. In this Gospel, however, teaching and authority are closely related. Jesus teaches “as having authority” (1:22), and amazes the people of Capernaum, who say, “What is this? A new teaching? For with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27).
“don’t you care that we are dying?” (v. 38b). The disciples panic and want Jesus, their leader, to share their concern—to show a sense of urgency that might lead to a remedy. “Help us! Do something!” A great leader can often help people to solve great problems, but Jesus’ casual attitude seems to insure that he will be no help in this urgent crisis. How can he help if he will not even rouse from his slumber?
Matthew and Luke, both of whom use Mark as one of their primary sources, change the disciples’ rebuke to an appeal—presumably because of their discomfort at the disciples rebuking Jesus. In Matthew, they say, “Save us, Lord! We are dying!” (Matthew 8:25). In Luke, they say, “Master, master, we are dying!” (Luke 8:24).
Like those early disciples, we pray panicked prayers to a God who appears to have abandoned us. “God, don’t you care that we are dying?” But the Father knows our needs and loves us enough even to send his own son to save us. When life is difficult, we need to insure that our faith prevails over our fears.
“He awoke and rebuked (epetimesen) the wind” (v. 39). Earlier, Jesus rebuked (epetimesen) a demon, ordering it to be silent and to come out of the afflicted man. This storm represents a demonic force.
“Peace! Be still” (v. 39). Jesus’ calm voice and brief commands reflect his authority over the elements.
“Then the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (v. 39). The great storm of verse 37 is replaced by a great calm in verse 39.
Jesus’ words, “Peace! Be still!” have a God-like quality to them, in that the Hebrew Scriptures portray God as exercising power over the waters of the earth. The creation story presents a picture of “God’s Spirit…hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). But God created “an expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse” (Genesis 1:7)—and God gathered the waters under the sky into one place so that dry land would appear (Genesis 1:9).
In the Exodus story, God “rebuked the Red Sea also, and it was dried up” (Psalm 106:9).
The Psalms portray God as silencing “the roaring of the seas” (Psalm 65:7)—and ruling “the pride of the sea” (Psalm 89:9)—and making “its waves (be) still” (Psalm 107:29).
So when Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” he is acting as God acts—invoking Godly powers—doing a Godly work.
There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Jonah (Marcus, 337-340 and Edwards, 149-151). The first readers of this Gospel—at least the Jewish ones—would be intimately familiar with the Old Testament, and would not fail to note the similarities, which include:
• A journey by boat toward Gentile territory for the purpose of redeeming Gentile lives
• A great storm at sea that threatens to sink the boat and drown the occupants
• Great fear
• The principal characters (Jonah and Jesus) asleep during the storm
• A rebuke of the principal characters
• The principle characters take an action that results in the stilling of the storm
• Wonderment on the part of the sailors
• Similar language between Mark’s story and the Septuagint (Greek) version of Jonah—i.e, a variant of the Greek word, apollymi for “perishing” and “drowning.”
However, while Jesus is like Jonah, he is greater than Jonah. Note these dissimilarities between these two stories:
• Jonah sailed for Tarshish to avoid his God-given call to save the Ninevite Gentiles. Jesus is being obedient to his call.
• Jonah did not quiet the storm but only accepted responsibility for his disobedience—God quieted the storm. Jesus personally quiets the storm, demonstrating that he is greater than Jonah and equal to God, who alone has power over seas, storms, chaos, and evil.
MARK 4:40-41. WHO THEN IS THIS?
40He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith” 41They were greatly afraid (Greek: phoban megan—great fear), and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
“Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?” (v. 40). The disciples fail the faith test. They were afraid of the storm, and now they are afraid of Jesus. They should believe—they have heard Jesus teach and have seen him work miracles—but they allow their fears to trump their faith.
“They were greatly afraid” (v. 41a). We would expect the disciples to rejoice at the calming of the sea, but instead they are still afraid—greatly afraid—as afraid of Jesus’ Godly power as they were afraid of the storm.
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41b). Their question provides the clue to the answer. Only God has power over seas and storms (Psalm 107:29). Their question also provides the key to this story, which does more than to reveal Jesus’ power. This is an epiphany story that reveals Jesus as either God’s agent or God incarnate. His identity will gradually become clearer until Peter’s confession (8:29). However, Peter’s vision will dim, and the disciples will continue to fear. At the cross, however, the Roman centurion who oversees the crucifixion (a Gentile), provides a clear answer. Whether due to apocalyptic signs (darkness and a torn temple veil) or something that he sees in Jesus, the centurion says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
This story would have encouraged the early church, which experienced persecution—and serves to encourage Christians suffering difficulties today.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan