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Do You Not Care That We Are Perishing?

Notes & Transcripts

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 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?” 39 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. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 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?”

It is too easy for Western, American Christians to get comfortable with Jesus. Before long we view him as nothing more than a good friend who is always there for us, ready to help us whenever we need him to do so. But Mark is not willing to leave us with that kind of perception of Jesus. This passage is one way in which Mark wants us to see Jesus more clearly. What we see will shake us, but if we don’t see this we will be left with a fake Jesus, one we have imagined but one who exists only in our mind. We need to put ourselves in the shoes—or, sandals!—of the disciples on this frightful night on the Sea of Galilee, for what happened there happened for their benefit and for the benefit of anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus.

The Disciples’ Plight

What Mark tells us in verse 37 is enough to picture the serious danger these disciples were in that night. First, he tells us “a great windstorm arose.” The Sea of Galilee sits in a basin about 700 feet below sea level and surrounded by steep mountains on the east and towering hills on the west. Windstorms such as Mark describes are common to this day. The cold upper air from Mt Hermon, which lies just to the northeast, collides with the warm air rising from the sea producing frequent severe weather conditions.

The word Mark uses here ("great windstorm") is descriptive of a hurricane. The winds itself are dangerous enough, but add the rolling waves and it’s not hard to imagine how frightening this moment must have been, even for experienced fishermen like many of the disciples were.

Mark’s description continues. He tells us that “the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” It wouldn’t have been a very big boat. It was probably one just like the one discovered in the Sea of Galilee back in 1986, which measures about 26 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 4 feet high.[1] It could hold about 15 people, but it wouldn’t stand much of a chance in a hurricane! Mark tells us that the boat was quickly filling with water. It wouldn’t be long before the boat would sink.

In such a perilous situation it is most amazing to read that Jesus was in the back of the boat asleep.[2] In the Bible, sleeping in the midst of adversity is a symbol for complete trust in God. For example, God tells the Israelites that when they get to the Promised Land,

I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. (Lev 26:6)

And the psalmist said,

In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psa 4:8)

Jesus could sleep through the storm because he knew this would not be the way he would die. He demonstrated total trust in God’s plan for his life.

The Disciples’ Complaint

But the disciples don’t know that! For all they know, the only hope they have of surviving this storm is for everyone to help bail water. All hands on deck! So when they notice that Jesus is still asleep in the back of the boat, they do what anyone would expect them to do. They woke him from his sleep.

While Jesus’ sleep in the storm may signify his trust in God, that’s not what it signified to frightened sailors.[3] To them it indicated that Jesus did not care about their plight. They rebuked him by saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” This is the language of desperate, frustrated people. One commentator paraphrases their rebuke, “Teacher, are we to drown for all you care?”[4]

Again we find this feeling, that God has forsaken his people, expressed elsewhere in the Bible.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O LORD? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? Rise up; come to our help! (Psa 44:23-24, 26a)

Isn’t this how we sometimes feel, that God ignores us in our plight? That he really doesn’t care? The Scripture tells us to cast all of our cares on him, “because he cares” for us (1 Peter 5:7), but it can be so hard to believe that he really does.

Jesus Responds

Clearly the disciples wanted, or at least hoped, that Jesus would do something to help them in their perilous condition, so they awoke him. Indeed Jesus does do something.

He Calms the Storm

The first thing Jesus did after he awoke was he rebuked the wind and he spoke to the sea with the command, “Peace! Be still!” As quickly as the storm came, it was gone. While that in itself is no miracle, the fact that the raging seas were immediately tranquil again is a miracle!

Five other times in Mark’s gospel[5] we see Jesus “rebuking,” and in every case except one (Mark 8:30) it is demonic spirits that he rebukes. Why does Jesus speak to the storm as if it were an enemy?

Perhaps it’s because wind and water are common biblical symbols for forces that are hostile to God. Jesus rebukes the storm just like God rebuked the Red Sea (Psa 106:7-12) which stood in the way of Israel’s escape from Pharaoh in the Exodus. Jesus shows that he has mighty power, mighty enough to calm a storm and a raging sea.

This is a comforting truth indeed, and it is no surprise that from early in church history we find this story has comforted many in the midst of suffering and persecution. And it can have that effect when we see that God is sovereignly in control of everything, even hostile forces.

But Mark does not tell this story mainly to comfort his readers. Before it can comfort us it must trouble us. This is not simply a showing off of Jesus’ power. It is, more importantly an unveiling of Jesus’ identity. For in Jewish understanding, only God possessed the power that could calm storms.

23 Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; 24 they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. 25 For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. 26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; 27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. 28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 29 He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. 30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. (Psalm 107:23-30)

This passage demonstrates that God has power over the forces of nature because God commands (v. 25) the forces of nature. So before we can be comforted by the sovereignty of God, we must be troubled by the sovereignty of God. He does not just calm storms; he also sends them.

He Questions the Disciples’ Faith

So when Jesus calms the storm, he does so because he wants his disciples to see something about him that they haven’t quite seen yet. This is why after he calms the storm, he then turns to his disciples and questions their faith. He says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” Why does Jesus speak so sternly to the disciples?

He is not upbraiding them because they are afraid of the storm. After all, he does calm the storm rather than just rebuke them for their fear. The reason Jesus questions their faith is because the disciples feared the power of the storm more than they feared the power of Jesus.

And why not? The storm is threatening to take their life while Jesus is asleep on a pillow. It is not difficult to see why Jesus appeared meek and mild to them.

Jesus rebukes them by asking, “Why are you so afraid?” The word translated afraid here is not the typical word for fear. In fact, this word and its cognates are found only 5 times in the New Testament. It is perhaps better translated here “cowardly,” as it is in Revelation 21:8.

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

The cowardly are those who, in the moment of persecution choose to save their life rather than lose it for Jesus’ sake. So when Jesus asks, “Have you still no faith?” he is essentially questioning the disciples’ confidence in him. They do not really believe that God’s saving power is present and operative in Jesus of Nazareth.[6]

And this is a big deal. Because this kind of doubt is what is described in the parable of the soils.

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)

The reason those on the “rocky ground” fall away is because at the moment of tribulation or persecution they lose confidence in the power of Jesus. They fear the tribulation and the persecution more than they fear the power of Christ.

Again Jesus does not rebuke them for fearing the storm; he rebukes them for fearing the power of the storm more than they fear the power of Jesus. This had become obvious in their accusation in verse 38. In the sleeping Jesus they see a Savior who is distant from them, unconcerned with the realities of life. This perception, left unchecked, will ultimately destroy their faith, as it will yours and mine. Who can be committed to a God who is disconnected from us?

What the disciples needed to see was that God was in the boat with them! If they go down, he goes down with them. Far from being unconcerned with the plight of humanity, the Christian God identifies himself with our plight and demonstrates his power to overcome even the greatest dangers.

He Demonstrates His Mighty Power

One of the most amazing things about this miracle is how it affected the disciples. You can sense the fear that they had during the “great windstorm.” But it is not until after the miracle, when there was a “great calm,” that Mark explicitly mentions their fear. This is stunning! As fearful as they may have been during the storm, now, during the calm we are told “they were filled with great fear.”

As Jesus lays down to go back to sleep the disciples express this “great fear” by saying to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41). The key word is then, which expresses an inference made from what has just happened.

The disciples are essentially asking one another, “Who are we dealing with here if this Jesus possesses the kind of power that even the wind and the sea do his bidding?” As we have seen, this power belongs only to God. So following Jesus is now much more of a commitment than taking the advice of some Galilean sage.

All of a sudden the disciples come face to face with the implications of who Jesus is. Eventually every disciple of Jesus must come to terms with these implications. This Jesus is no mere mortal for he possesses the awesome  power of God. Concerning this power the psalmist declares,

Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty! (Psa 93:4)

This is not a story about how Jesus can calm the storms in your life, though that may be the case. Before this story can comfort you it must terrify you. Before Jesus can set your life at ease he must terrify you with his power. Because if you do not see him as mightier than the most terrifying thunderstorm or hurricane or tsunami, then you will not see him as more glorious than everything else in life. And if you do not see him as more glorious, then you will succumb to a million fears that will rob you of your professed faith in God.

Our Response to the Power of Jesus

This passage will surely elicit different kinds of responses. Let me close by addressing the two kinds of reactions I think most of us will have to what we have seen today.

Some of you know that you don’t have this kind of faith. But you want to. My prayer for you is that perhaps God will open your eyes to see Christ as glorious, more glorious than your job or your house or your family or your money or your sports team or your dreams. It is only when you see and believe that God is glorious that you will be able to fear nothing. You will know that he is with you in the boat, indicating that he does care about your struggles. And you will follow him above everything else in your life because you know that only he can satisfy you in the midst of terrifying storms.

Others of you wonder if you have this kind of faith. You wonder if you have this kind of resolve or not, the kind that will not abandon faithfulness to Christ no matter the threat. My prayer for you is that you will see that God is gracious, so you don’t have to prove yourselves. These disciples will continue to wrestle with the implications of who Jesus is. In fact, they will eventually all forsake him for a time. But in the end they will persevere in their faith and become bold even in the face of death threats. It is not up to you to “believe more;” rather, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). In spite of threats to our faith, those whom God has caused to be born again (1 Pet 1:3) are “by God’s power being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:5). God will not let you drown in the boat!

NOTES

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[1] More information about the amazing discovery of the so-called “Jesus Boat,” which dates back to the time of Jesus, can be found online at www.jesusboatmuseum.com and at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/29.42.html?start=1.

[2] Mark’s detailed descriptions in this story (such as giving the time of day that it happened; reporting that “other boats were with him;” and telling us that Jesus was asleep “in the stern” and “on the cushion”) are strong indications that he is reporting an eye-witness account.

[3] The similarities in this story to the account in Jonah 1:4-16 are interesting, but there are also notable differences. Most of the similarities may be explained as the normal responses of humans in a desperate situation. (See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974], 175.)

[4] Paraphrase from the James Moffatt translation of the Bible.

[5] Mark 1:25; 3:12; 8:30, 33; 9:25.

[6] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 177.

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