Mark’s action-oriented story paused for a few kingdom parables. Those parables painted a dramatic picture of the kingdom of God. They offer some perspective on the ministry of Jesus. The kingdom ministry of Jesus is sowing seed of the kingdom for an assured future harvest.
As Mark returns to the dramatic acts of Jesus and the dramatic events of his life–acts and events that reveal the presence of the kingdom of God in the person and ministry of Jesus, Mark begins to focus on the question Jesus’ identity in the next several pericopes (4:35-5:43). This first story ends with the question, “Who is this?” Jesus demonstrates his power over the sea, the demons, sickness and death. These events clarify the identity of Jesus.
The first story is the calming of the sea. The Sea of Galilee lies in a basin about 700 feet below sea level with the Jordan River pouring into from the north and flowing out its southern end. It is thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. On the east and west are high ridges (some reaching 2000 feet above sea level) with sharp wadis (gorges) that cut through the mountains from both the east and west (but especially the west). When hot high winds blow off the desert through these wadis and sweep over the ridges to encounter cool air on the lake, white tips quickly appear as the wadis function as funnels and the lake becomes a dangerous place.
This is probably the sort of storm Jesus and his disciples experienced. Avoiding the crowds, Jesus requested transit to the “other side” of the lake. This moved Jesus from the predominately Jewish regions of the lake (around Capernaum presumably) to the predominately Gentile regions of the sea (in the Decapolis). During this evening maneuver a “furious squall” whipped up that frightened even the experienced fishermen in the boat (and other boats with them). The waves were high enough to swamp the boat. It appeared to the disciples that the boats might sink and everyone drown. But Jesus was asleep…at rest…even during the storm.
In 1986, when the lake was low, a wooden structure was discovered in the revealed part of the lake. It was a first century fishing (or ferry) boat–27 feet long and about 8 feet wide. The picture is a reconstruction. The discovered boat now resides in a museum.
The fear of the disciples awoke Jesus. The faith of Jesus calmed the sea. And the disciples wondered in whose presence they found themselves.
Mark’s story is not simply about an isolated incident in the life of Jesus. The historical incident has “mythic” proportions. It is a theological tale as well as a historical one. Sea storm stories conjure up images of the chaotic seas threatening God’s creation and the history of Israel. Yet, God manages the chaos and is sovereign over the waters (cf. Psalm 33:7). The Psalmist praises the God of Israel “who still[s] the roaring of the seas” (Psalm 65:7). The waters obey God (Psalm 77:16).
Psalm 107:23-32, in particular, parallels Mark’s story. On the “mighty waters” the sailors see the “wonderful deeds in the deep” as God whips up a storm at his command: “he spoke and stirred up a tempest.” The “courage” of the sailors “melted away,” and “they cried out to the Yahweh” in their “distress.” God saved them as he “stilled the storm to a whisper” and the “waves of the sea were hushed.” The sailors responded with joy, thanksgiving and praise. They carried that praise to the “assembly of the people” and celebrated their redemption. They moved from fear to faith; from terror to thanksgiving.
The disciples experience the storm and its calming against this backdrop. Throughout their lives they have praised Yahweh who calms the storms and commands the chaos. Now, in their very presence, is one who does the same. “Who is this?” they ask, “Even the wind and the waves obey him?” The praises of Israel provide the answer to that question. It is Yahweh.
Jesus rebukes the wind and waves just as he had earlier rebuked the demons (Mark uses the same word in 4:39 as he did in 1:25). Jesus is sovereign over both chaos and evil, over both “natural evil” and “moral evil” as the philosophers identify the categories. The kingdom of God in the person of Jesus brings peace to chaos and conquers demonic powers.
Fear is perhaps understandable but Jesus questions it. “Why are you afraid?” he asks the disciples. Jesus seems to think that their apprenticeship to this point should have developed their faith. Given their experience of the kingdom of God to this point, they should have trusted God in the storm rather than fearing the storm. This is the kind of faith found in Psalm 46. “Though the waters roar and foam,” the Psalmist confesses, “we will not fear” because “Yahweh Almighty is immanu,” that is “with us” (Psalm 46:2-3, 7, 11).
Jesus is Immanuel, that is, God with us. The disciples were afraid because they did not recognize who was with them. They have not yet come to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is the presence of God among them. As yet they had no faith. Fear hinders faith but faith dispels fear.
But the disciples are learning; they are asking questions. It is beginning to dawn on them perhaps. Who can rebuke winds and waves? The Psalmists know. The praises of Israel know. And the disciples are beginning to believe that the Holy One of Israel is in their midst which itself creates its own kind of fear. They were afraid (literally, cowards) during the storm and now in the presence of the one who stilled it they are fearful (distressed) for a different reason.
We, too, are ever learning. We often live in fear, especially as the storms of life enwrap us. Learning to live in faith means we do not fear the storms (cf. Psalm 112:7) . Learning to live in faith means we trust in Jesus who commands the storms, calms them, and embodies the peace of God. Though the storms engulf us, we confess in faith; we will not fear. But that is something it take time to learn just as it did for the Twelve.