Jan 27, 2013

The Calming of the Storm

Luke 8:22–25

Terrified by the violent storm that broke against their boat, Jesus’ disciples begged for His help. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, explaining why Christ’s response to their request did not ease their fears but increase them.


We will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are in the eighth chapter, and I will read Luke 8:22–25:

Now it happened, on a certain day, that He got into a boat with His disciples. And He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.” And they launched out. But as they sailed He fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy. And they came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”

Then He arose and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm. But He said to them, “Where is your faith?”

And they were afraid, and marveled, saying to one another, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!”

We have been treated to hearing the very Word of God in the record of this extraordinary experience in the life and ministry of our Lord. I pray that you will receive it with the full authority and sanctity that comes with God’s inspired Word. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, as we contemplate the significance of this episode in the life of Jesus, we know that it is impossible for us, in our fragile state of humanity, to plumb the full depths of this event. But we ask that You visit us this day with the Holy Spirit, that He may illumine the significance of this event for us and our understanding of Jesus. For it is in His name that we pray. Amen.

Enlightenment Enemies of God

In the eighteenth century, a watershed event occurred in Western civilization. This began in Germany and was called the Aufklärung. It then spread rapidly to England and then France, culminating in what we call in Western history the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was not a uniform, monolithic movement where all the thinkers and philosophers agreed on every point. There were many intellectuals who were ardent atheists, but there were also many intellectuals of the Enlightenment period who remained steadfast in their affirmation of belief in God.

Nevertheless, the most militant of the atheists were numbered among the so-called French Encyclopedists. The two most notorious members of the Encyclopedist group were Diderot and d’Holbach. D’Holbach identified himself as, and I quote, “the personal enemy of God.” These atheists believed that the new discoveries of modern science had made the God hypothesis an unnecessary, outdated opinion that science repudiated. They came to this conclusion by saying the God hypothesis was no longer necessary because we now knew that the origin of life, and indeed the origin of the whole universe, had come to pass through the power of spontaneous generation.

Not Science, but Magic

The Enlightenment atheists initially developed the idea of spontaneous generation from observing mud puddles far removed from streams, rivers, oceans, and lakes. They looked at these mud puddles and found that, in a few days after their formation, they could see squiggling tiny little tadpoles that they concluded had come into existence spontaneously. They did not consider birds flying over and dropping tadpole eggs in the water, or something along those lines. They were confident in their assertion of this new view of spontaneous generation, meaning that life and the whole universe came out of nothing, spontaneously.

When we look at the idea of spontaneous generation today, we see that it is not only bad theology and bad philosophy, but it is very bad science, although many continue to cling to this idea. It violates the most fundamental principle of science and philosophy: ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” As I have said many times, if there was ever a time when there was nothing, the only thing that could possibly be here right now would be nothing, because you cannot get something out of nothing.

To declare the doctrine of spontaneous generation as truth was not science, it was magic. It was magic with a vengeance. It was like bringing the rabbit out of the hat, without a rabbit, without a hat, without a wand, and even without a magician. Nevertheless, it made a tremendous impact on the thinking of Western intellectuals.

Homo Religiosus

The atheists of the nineteenth century were convinced that their work had already been accomplished by those in the eighteenth century, whom they believed had refuted the idea of the existence of God. The atheists of the nineteenth century, however, men like Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Frederick Nietzsche, and especially Sigmund Freud, faced a new question: “Since we now know that there is no God, why is it that in our anthropological investigations, no matter how far we go, we find religion? No matter how many foreign elements we explore, be it the aborigines, the Eskimos, or the animistic natives in the jungles of Africa or South America, we still find religion?”

They scratched their heads and asked, “If there is no God, why are human beings not only Homo sapiens, but also seem to be Homo religiosus, incurably religious?” They felt the burden of accounting for the universal appearance of religion in light of what they believed was the proven fact that there is no God. In a word, if there is no God, why is there so much religion?

Virtually all the major atheists of the nineteenth century agreed that religion arose historically out of the psychological needs of human beings, as an antidote to human fears and uncertainty. Marx, although he did not invent the phrase, spoke of religion as “the opiate of the masses,” a drug that dulls our senses to the terrors and unpleasantries that surround us in this world.

Personified and Deified Nature

No one was more inventive and comprehensive in his attempt to account for religion than Sigmund Freud in his work, The Future of Illusion. Freud argued that the biggest problem we face as human beings is the threat of death.

The threat of death comes at us from many angles. With the widespread presence of wars and murders, we learn to fear other human beings. However, we have come to gain a certain assurance of how to deal with hostile people by adopting various and sundry methods. If somebody is angry with me and threatening me, I can beg them for mercy by saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” Maybe that will strike a note of mercy in their souls so they refrain from bringing me harm. Or, I can give them laudatory expressions and say: “Why would you want to harm me? I’m your number one fan in the world. I think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. So, please don’t hurt me.” Or I can try to bribe or negotiate: “I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you spare me.” We have learned techniques to deal with people who are hostile to us. They do not always work, but sometimes they do.

In addition to the threat of violent human beings, we also have the threat of disease and natural catastrophes like earthquakes, floods, and fires. So, the question is this: How do you negotiate with cancer? What good is it to plead with a fire? How do you bribe a flood? All these inanimate forces that threaten to destroy us are immune to all the devices we use to ameliorate hostile people.

According to Freud, we use our imagination to personalize these impersonal forces. Animistic religion supposes that the threatening forces like floods and storms, or animals like the crocodile, are inhabited by living spirits. The animist begins to try to appease these hostile spirits by worshiping them and making idols of them. Even though these idols do not have real ears or real mouths, the animists still speak to them, pray to them, and honor them with worship.

The next step from the personalization of inanimate impersonal forces, Freud said, is the sacralization of them, considering them sacred and divine. Out of all of this comes the beginnings of religion, and then religion gets more abstract and sophisticated. Freud’s theory found many converts in the nineteenth century.

I have said all that to make this point: something I find so interesting about the episode in the life of Jesus in our text is that it seems to belie Freud’s theory.

A Frightening Force of Nature

When we look at the references to Jesus calming the storm in the Gospels, this is what we see taking place. The disciples of Jesus went out onto the lake of Galilee. The lake was placid, tranquil, and calm, and they were going out for a routine attempt at fishing. They were also very much aware that this body of water was subject to unexpected storms and violent winds coming off the Mediterranean Sea through the mountains on the edge of Israel, forming a wind tunnel. The wind might sweep in and instantly turn the calm lake into a maelstrom, creating a horrendous, life-threatening situation.

As the disciples were out on the water, without warning, a violent storm came up. The boat was filling with water, the winds howled, and the waves became so high that they were in danger of capsizing. The Bible tells us that they were afraid. They were afraid for their lives. These forces of nature were about to destroy them.

In the meantime, the biblical writers tell us that Jesus was with them. While the disciples were terrified, Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat, calm as He could be. In their terror, they went over and shook Him, saying, “Master, Master, do something or we perish.” I have no idea what they expected Jesus to do in this situation, but I do know that they certainly did not expect Him to do what He did.

They woke Him up, and He seemed a little bit annoyed. He asked, “Where’s your faith?” Then instead of speaking to them, He started to talk to the wind and water. He gave a command, and the imperative that came from the lips of Jesus was this: “Peace! Be still!” Talk about spontaneous generation in terms of quickness—instantly the wind ceased. There was not the slightest zephyr in the air. Instantly, the sea became as smooth as glass.

The Terror of the Holy

What was the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ actions? What would you expect it to be? You would think they would throw their Sou’westers in the air and say: “Thank you Jesus for saving us again. We’ve seen You do some great things, but this beats them all. That was a wondrous thing—I can’t wait to go home and tell my wife and my kids what You did on the Sea of Galilee.” That is the response that you would expect, but that is not the response the disciples had.

The Scriptures tell us that after the threat of nature was removed by Jesus, instead of eliminating the disciples’ fear, their fear intensified. The Bible tells us, “And they became very much afraid.” Suddenly, they were in the presence of something more terrifying to them than the violence of this storm.

The disciples looked at Jesus in a way they had not seen Him before. They said among themselves: “What manner of Man is this? Who is this Man? What kind of Man is this? We don’t have a category for Him. He is sui generis. He is in a class by Himself. No human being who has ever walked the face of the earth can speak to the wind and make it behave, calm a troubled sea with the mere force of His voice.”

They realized that they were in the presence of something more terrifying than the violent forces of nature. This is what Freud did not expect. You see, the disciples were in the presence of the Holy. They were in the presence of One who had no category, because He was transcendent. He was other. He was different. He was higher. He was holy. Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing on this planet scarier than to be in the presence of the Holy.

Tremble Within the Holy

When I was a boy, before the advent of television, we found our entertainment by listening to the radio. We could not see what was going on, so we had to imagine it in the fertile regions of our own brains. We listened to the adventure stories like Superman, The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow, and mystery stories like Gang Busters, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, and all the rest. Then they had a couple of quite spooky programs. One was called Suspense, and that would hold you on the edge of your chair.

The scariest radio program of all was on Sunday night. It began with the sound of a creaking door that was supposed to be the shutting door of a tomb. The voiceover announced these words: “Inner Sanctum.” It still scares me as I think back to it. I would listen to that voice and tremble before the storyline even started just from the announcement, “Inner Sanctum.”

What does “inner sanctum” mean? It means “within the holy.” Calvin wrote that people are completely fearless in certain circumstances, but the Scriptures uniformly relate that people who previously were self-secure and safe were reduced to trembling every single time God appeared to them in His holiness. This was the experience these fishermen had within the holy. They were in the inner sanctum on that boat on the Sea of Galilee.

The Purpose of Salvation

We must now ask the simple question: So what? What is the significance of this text for us? I do not think it is much of a stretch to go back into the Old Testament for a moment and consider the most important event that precedes the New Testament work of redemption accomplished for us by Jesus.

The Old Testament act of supreme redemption was the Exodus. The Jewish people had been enslaved under the tyranny of Pharaoh and forced to make bricks without straw. They were miserable. They cried, they wept, and they groaned, until finally God said, “I have heard the groaning of My people.”

God then appeared in the Midianite wilderness to Moses, saying, “Moses, take off your shoes from off your feet, for the ground whereon you’re standing is holy ground.” God gave the command to Moses to go to the court of Pharaoh, the most powerful leader on the face of the globe. He went as a Midianite shepherd with a message from God. Moses went to Pharaoh with this simple message: “Let My people go.”

Why did God command that Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go? Was it simply because God was acting to rescue them from the misery of their experience in slavery? Certainly, that was an important element of it, but it is not the whole story.

Moses was commanded to say to Pharaoh, “Let My people go, so that”—that is, for the purpose of—“they may come to My mountain and worship Me there.” This dramatic story of rescue in the Old Testament had the ultimate goal that the people who were rescued might come and worship God.

If we fast forward to the New Testament, we see the elaborate work of redemption that Christ, the new Moses, accomplished for us in saving His people. We know what He saved them from—the wrath of God. The question is, however, What did He save them for? The ultimate answer, beloved, is worship.

Casual Worship: A Contradiction in Terms

One of my greatest concerns for the church in our day is that worship in so many churches has become casual. Casual worship is a contradiction in terms. No person ever comes into the immediate presence of a holy God in a cavalier manner. You do not come into the presence of God dressed like you are going to the beach. Sometimes, we reveal how casually we take the experience of worship.

When we come to worship, it is holy ground. We come not with a servile fear but with a godly fear, a sense of reverence before Him, a sense of fear and trembling experienced by the disciples in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. Yes, they were frightened, and they should have been frightened because they were in the presence of the Holy One of Israel, before whom even the demons from Hell screamed in terror.

We come to church for so many different reasons. We come to experience fellowship, and that’s a wonderful thing. Some people come to be entertained. Some people come to learn pop psychology lessons. However, the reason that we are to come, if we are mature in our faith, is to worship God, to bow down before Him, to sing our praises to Him, to offer the sacrifice of praise to our God, and to adore Him with the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.