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Picture it: Jesus has just been teaching a vast crowd of people by the sea; so vast that he has to get into a boat to avoid being crushed by them. It’s been a very long day and so he suggests that as they’re in the boat they should cross to the other side of the lake to get away from the crowd. It seems sensible to the fishermen who have started following him, and so they set off and Jesus gets some rest on the seat. However, a storm blows up and threatens to sink them. The disciples panic – they’ve not been listening to Jesus’ teaching about faith. Jesus wakes up, shouts a few words at the storm and it stops, and then in the same breath rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith! No wonder Mark saw fit to write such an amazing event down, but what can it tell us about Mark’s theology and his views on Jesus? What other stories was Mark thinking of when he wrote down this story, and who did he consider Jesus to be?
Probably one of the first interpretations of this story that we can rule out is that which has been voiced by many over the centuries, although is first known to us from Tertullian is that of the story being about the church surviving through difficult times. This is based on the fact that in the parallels in Matthew (8:23-27) and Luke (8:22-25) omit the phrase και αλλα πλοια ην μετ’ αυτου (“and there were other boats with him”). This could thus seem to make the phrase a Marcan addition to the story to emphasise the church because it is unknown why Mark would have added it. However, it seems more likely that because the other accounts give less space to the story, they would have cut out sections which did not seem relevant, including the fact that there were other boats with them. There is not really anything else in this passage (apart from its’ emphasis on faith) that would suggest an ecclesiological interpretation should be given and’ in the light of this it is probably better to take it as a simple story with several main themes in it. Perhaps Mark saw the other boats as showing Jesus’ compassion on other people by not allowing those boats to sink.
There has also been much discussion in the past few centuries of interpretation which try to understand the passage by means of form criticism. There have been many attempts to show that this was originally in a different style and linked with other miracle stories elsewhere in the gospel. However, even if this were the case, it is obvious that Mark put it at this point for a reason. The main theme of this teaching chapter seems to be faith, and as we shall see later in this essay, faith is the main theme within this passage. Not that form criticism doesn’t matter, but rather that Mark very definitely placed this story in its current position for a reason and wants us to interpret it in the light of being here.
Before discussing the themes within this passage, we should note that much of the story is very similar to that found in the opening chapter of Jonah. The connection between the two stories may not seem particularly obvious as in one, a storm arises because someone commissioned by God is trying to flee away from his calling; whereas in the other the Son of God acts in accordance with His. However, there are numerous parallels: in both stories, God causes a fierce storm to blow up (Jonah 1:4, Mark 4:37), which panics the sailors (Jonah 1:5, Mark 4:37). This causes them to accuse the main person of dereliction of duty because they are fast asleep (Jonah 1:6, Mark 4:38). In both cases, only God can stop the storm (Jonah 1:15, Mark 4:39) and because of this the chorus of sailors is awestruck (Jonah 1:16, Mark 4:41). The main point to be drawn out from these parallels is that Jesus is greater than Jonah, for in Jonah’s case he had to be thrown overboard so that God might stop the storm, whereas in Jesus’ case, he merely needs to talk sternly to the storm.
We see similar parallels with Psalm 107, verses 23 to 32. The opening of the psalm talks about YHWH saving those whom he has redeemed from earthly troubles. It then goes on to give 4 specific examples of salvific acts and widens these out into general application. In the fourth example, God’s people go on the sea in ships to do business. God “commanded and raised up the stormy wind” (Ps 107:25) and the sailors were scared (:26-27). However, when they cried out to YHWH “he bought them out from their distress” (:28) by stilling the storm. They were then glad and praised Him (:30-31). Again, this is so similar to the story of Mark that we can take that Mark was alluding to this. Because of this, we can read “they cried to YHWH in their trouble” (:28) as being changed to the disciples’ cry to Jesus in Mark 4:38. It may seem unlikely that Mark is working from this passage, because of the differences in ending. In the psalm, the saved give thanks to God whereas in Mark’s account they are rebuked for having no faith. However, Mark writes εφοβηθησαν φοβον μεγαν (“They were filled with a great fear”) which probably means the fear of YHWH rather than being scared of Jesus, or afraid that they almost died.
Whether or not this allusion is correct, it is undeniable that Mark thinks of Jesus as being God in this story. As we look through the Bible, we see numerous texts which show that only God is in control of nature. Starting with God creating the weather (Gen 1:6-8), we proceed to see that only God could stop the flood on the earth (Gen 8:1). Moses calls on God to open up the Jordan so that His people can cross, but subsequently drowns the Egyptians (Ex 14:21-29). In the Psalms, we see that “at your [YHWH’s] rebuke they [the seas] flee” and that God “set a boundary for them (Ps 104:5-9). It is clear from all this that only God can control the weather, even when a human calls on Him, the Bible shows it is always God’s action. Mark knows full well this tradition of thought, and knows exactly what he is doing when he portrays Jesus as rebuking the wind and pacifying the sea. In fact, the language which Jesus uses is more reminiscent of an exorcism, causing much debate amongst form critics as to whether this pericope is an epiphany or nature miracle, or an exorcism. The word translated “rebuked” (4:39) is επετιμησεν. This exact same word is used in an exorcism story earlier in Mark (1:25). According to Maclear, this word has connotations of a judicial type rebuke, meaning that Mark’s Jesus is in a sense ordering the wind to stop, as a judge might order a company to stop producing a product. The words said to the sea are σιωπα πεφιμωσο (NRSV: “Peace! Be Still” but perhaps better translated “Silence! Be muzzled!”). The latter word is a perfect imperative, which implies that the result is expected to be instantaneous. These phrases might be quite hard to understand, but if someone were putting these words in the mouth of someone today, it would be a schoolteacher rebuking a rowdy class. Anyone can say this to the weather, but to have it obeyed instantaneously as Mark records must imply that this person is divine. It cannot mean that the person was simply a prophet of God, because a prophet would have to ask God rather than simply issue the command. No wonder the disciples were left asking “Who then is this?”.
The fact that Jesus is able to command the wind and sea with such effectiveness shows more than just his divinity; it shows that the kingdom of God is breaking in to the realm of nature. In Jewish thought, the sea appears to represent a struggle between the evil forces of the elements and mankind (eg, 4 Ezra 6:41-42). It is into this that Jesus speaks his command of “Silence! Be muzzled!”. The fact that the sea obeyed him shows that the rule of the kingdom of God is breaking into the world of mankind, reversing the effect of the fall and reestablishing God’s rule over the earth. We see hints of this at the beginning of the gospel in Jesus’ proclamation (1:15) and then the healings, exorcisms, transfiguration and eventually the cross and resurrection continue this theme. One of the best places to see this theme is in this story as Jesus conquers the classical struggle between mankind and the sea.
The main theme of this passage however, is faith and trust in God to protect his faithful ones. Again, this theme is found throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the stories of Abraham. We see in this passage, highlighted by Mark by using the contrast between Jesus and his disciples in their reactions to the storm. As the “great storm of wind arose and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling” (4:37), Jesus was “in the stern, sleeping on a cushion” (4:38). For such a short story of 5 verses, this is a very graphic description of both the storm and Jesus being asleep, emphasising his humanity and frailty. Mark uses this extended image of Jesus sleeping peacefully to contrast to the disciples rousing him and saying “Do you not care if we die?!” (4:38). This shows Jesus trusting in God for his deliverance whereas the disciples think in purely human terms of “all hands on deck” and try to fight the storm. In case the reader did not get this contrast immediately, Mark shows Jesus rebuking the disciples later with the words “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (4:40). Many people have asked what this reference to “faith” means, as Jesus has not really talked about faith in this story. However, it is recalling the whole of the past chapter: Jesus has been teaching about the seed that starts to grow but is killed by the lack of good earth, or the thorns which grow up with it and choke it (4:5-7); the sower who does not worry about how the seed grows but simply gets on with his task of tending to it (4:26-29) and finally the parable of the mustard seed which grows “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (4:32) (ie rest in God’s kingdom). This is the meaning of faith that Jesus is rebuking the disciples for: lack of trust in God and his sovereignty.
Mark then shows the disciples being fearful and asking one another “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” (4:41). This ends the story as Mark records it, and also forces the reader to think about the same question. This is a person who has healed people, exorcised demons, and now controlled nature. He is an amazing teacher and is full of the Holy Spirit. Already he has split Israel in half; the “crowds” love him but those in charge hate him and are plotting of how they can kill him. With this rhetorical question, Mark is forcing the reader to remember all of this and it is quite clear that he is forcing everyone who reads or hears his story up to this point to evaluate which of those two camps they are in; although there is obviously a clear bias in putting such a question at the end of Jesus’ greatest miracle yet.
In conclusion, this story shows that the kingdom of heaven is breaking into earth as the age old battle between the evil forces and man (as represented by the sea) is being won by a human. However, this human also seems to be divine as he is the only person in history to be able to shout at the wind and sea and have them obey him instantaneously. The story is very much linked with that in Psalm 107 in which God rescues his people when they are in danger at sea, meaning that Jesus is in some way God. It is also linked to that of Jonah where God stops the storm when he is thrown overboard, although in Jesus’ case, he is greater than Jonah as he can stop the storm by himself. The main message of the story is that Jesus’ disciples should have faith in God, however they are left asking the question “Who is Jesus?”. As the rest of the story unfolds, Mark’s ideas of who Jesus is become even clearer; and once they have been answered, the question turns into “What type of Messiah is Jesus?”.