After Jesus rebuked a storm on the Sea of Galilee, everything became calm—except the disciples. Continuing his exposition of the gospel of Mark, R.C. Sproul explains why Christ’s disciples were more afraid of Jesus than the wind and waves.
We continue this morning with our ongoing study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. Today’s lesson will give us Mark’s account of Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
There is something a bit unusual about this passage because usually when we compare descriptive narratives from Mark with those from the other gospel writers, Mark is noted for his brevity. He just gives us the bare facts, and we will often get a longer and more detailed version of events in the life of Jesus from Luke or Matthew. But in the case of this narrative, we get more details from Mark than the corresponding narratives from Matthew and Luke, leading many to be convinced that he got his account of this event directly from his mentor, Saint Peter. Peter, of course, was an eyewitness of the things recorded in this text, having been one of the terrified sailors in the boat during the storm that night.
I will be reading this morning from Mark 4:35–41, and I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”
Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Father, how we thank You for this narrative that gives insight into the person of Your only begotten Son. Move us this day as You moved the seas and the spirits of the disciples who were with Jesus. Yet, o God, calm us this day, as He calmed the sea. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
A Tempest in a Teacup
If you ever go to Israel and have the opportunity to take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, I am sure you will experience the warnings of those who take you that even with the modern equipment sailors use today to navigate the Sea of Galilee, there is always a profound and imminent danger of sudden storms that arise without warning. There are reasons for that climatically and geographically, and we realize that the topography of that region of the Sea of Galilee has not changed much in the last two thousand years. Mountains that were present then remain present now. The sea level of the Sea of Galilee is basically the same today as it was in Jesus’ day.
Some of you have traveled from near First Baptist Church because of the Ligonier conference during these last few days. If you can, try to imagine the trip you took to Sanford, to Saint Andrew’s. I am not sure how many miles you traveled, but you traveled about the same distance that would be between the Sea of Galilee and the highest mountain to the north. In that short distance, there is a difference in sea level of over ten thousand feet. The sea itself is over nine hundred feet below sea level. It sits underneath a basin of hills and mountains. It is like a teacup, if you will. If you have ever heard of a tempest in a teacup, that is what we read about this morning. The structure of the ground there creates opportunities for wind tunnels that come either from the east off the desert or from the west off the Mediterranean Sea.
In this passage, the event takes place in the evening. We know that in ancient times, though the Sea of Galilee was so rich for the fishing industry, most of the fishing was done at night to avoid the worst winds, which usually occurred during the day. So, this perfect storm that Mark describes takes place at night, which was somewhat unusual and gives us some insight into the exceedingly great fear that these seasoned, veteran fishermen experienced.
One other detail before we look at the text itself is that in recent years, archeologists made an interesting discovery along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In one of their digs, they found a fishing boat intact. Their carbon-14 dating indicated that this fishing boat dated back to the end of the first century BC, or right around the beginning of the first century AD, so it comes from the time of the narrative we just heard.
The boat was twenty-seven feet long. From where I am standing to the other side of the lectern would be the length of the normal fishing boat. We can assume that the kind of boat Jesus and His disciples were in, which would usually have fifteen crew, would be from me to the other side of the lectern. If you go from the communion table back to the second row, that covers the width of the common fishing vessels on the Sea of Galilee, and they were normally four feet high. So, they were not little row boats, but they were not exactly the Titanic either. They were propelled by four sets of oars and sails when it was possible to use them. In the back of these boats was a seat or a bench for the coxswain, and it had a comfortable pillow for him to sit on. That is enough of the background. Let us go to the text itself.
Oblivious to Peril
On the same day that Jesus had given the parables of the kingdom, which we looked at in previous weeks, “He said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side.’ Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.” For you landlubbers, the stern is the back of the boat.
Every time I read this text, I think of Dr. James Montgomery Boice. Many years ago, we had done a conference together in San Francisco and were flying together back east. Shortly after takeoff, we encountered some heavy turbulence in the plane. I grabbed hold of the armrest. I was praying as I was turning white, and my knuckles, particularly, were of an alabaster hue. I looked over at Jim, and he was sort of half dozing, and I said, “Jim.” He said: “Isn’t it wonderful? I love it to be up in the air like this.” I said, “Are you out of your mind?” I always remembered the teaching of Jesus, “Lo, I am with you always.”
I think that depicts the kind of attitude the disciples had when the dreadful maelstrom erupted so suddenly, provoking fear in them. They turned to their leader, of course, and there was Jesus in the back of the boat, sound asleep, oblivious to the immediate peril, utterly unconcerned for His own or anyone else’s safety.
Mark describes the disciples as both afraid and angry. They not only awakened Jesus, but they rebuked Him. That is the first rebuke that takes place in this text. They said to Him, “Teacher, don’t You care that we are perishing?”
Let me pause here for a second. How like the creature it is to rebuke the Creator. How like the servant to sass the master. There they were, rebuking their Lord for taking a nap. This is the only time in Scripture that we read of Jesus sleeping. Now, I am sure He slept every night, except for those nights that He stayed up all night praying, but this is the only time we are told about it. When He was trying to get a nap after a heavy day of teaching, His disciples were rebuking Him. But He ignored their rebuke, except to ask them about the reasons for their fear.
Jesus rose, and He gave a rebuke, but He did not rebuke the disciples first. Instead, He “rebuked the wind, and He said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’” You know what happened. The Lord of glory, who created heaven and earth, who was master over nature, who could curse a fig tree and make it wither on the spot, gave His command. Just as the Father had commanded the light to come on in creation, now the Son said to the elements, “Peace, be still!”
As soon as the command came out of the lips of Christ, the sea was like glass. There was not the slightest zephyr to be felt in the air. Everything was calm except the disciples. They remained agitated, which I find quite fascinating. Jesus then rebuked His disciples, saying: “Why are you so fearful? Don’t you have any faith?” What follows? Does Mark tell us, “Then disciples finally calmed down”? No, it says, “They feared exceedingly, and said to one another, ‘Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’”
Great Storm, Great Calm, Great Fear
I want us to notice that in this passage, Mark uses the descriptive term “great” or “enormous” three times. The Latin translation uses the word magna. The Greek here speaks of the term mega. You know what a megaton bomb is like. People who call into Rush Limbaugh say, “Mega-dittos, Rush.” You understand the force of this prefix.
Of the three times we read “great” in the text, the first is to describe the tempest that came up so suddenly on the sea. It was not just a storm. It was not just a tempest. It was a “mega-tempest” according to the text. It was a great, enormous storm, surpassing the usual types of maelstroms that arise on the open water. This was a horrific tempest that threatened the lives of the disciples. We read that the great windstorm arose and the waves beat not simply against the boat but into the boat. That four-foot-deep craft was about to capsize as the waves beat into the boat and filled it with water.
It was at that point that the sailors went to their leader, woke Him up, and said, “Do something, or we perish.” When Jesus uttered His command and rebuked the sea, saying, “Peace, be still,” the text says that a great calm, a “mega-calm,” a “magna-calm” came upon the water. From great distress and violence came great and instant peace.
The descriptive term in this passage I am most interested in is the third use of the term mega. Mark uses the term magna in the Latin or mega in the Greek to describe the fear of the disciples. What I also want us to see is the progress of that fear. When the storm came up, they were phobic. They were afraid. They were intimidated. But when the storm was calmed, their fear was intensified. Is that not remarkable? The great fear did not come until after the threatening storm had been removed. We dare not miss the significance of this in the lives of the disciples in their response to the person of Christ.
The Fear of Strangers
Recently, I saw in the paper a list of the top ten phobias that assault people’s comfort zones in the United States of America. People are afraid of the marketplace, agoraphobia. They are afraid of water, aquaphobia. They are afraid of small, cramped spaces. But do you know what the number one phobia is among people in the United States? The fear of public speaking, which is what I am doing right now. If I would like to scare many of you, I could call on you now to come up and finish the rest of this message.
In the top ten phobias in our country is a phobia called xenophobia. Xenophobia is the fear of strangers, aliens, people who are different from us, the fear one ethnic group has for another, the fear people of one nation have for people of another. They are not familiar with their customs. They are not acquainted with their behavior. Their strangeness, their difference, haunts us because we are not sure how to respond. We always have a fear of the stranger.
Do you remember Mark Twain’s short story on the mysterious stranger and how people did not know how to respond to this stranger from out of town who came into their community? They were frightened. Is it not interesting how Hollywood uses extraterrestrial aliens to create a movie designed to scare us? We are absorbed by these scary tales when they give us strange individuals. This is xenophobia, the fear of strangers.
Religion to Cope with Fear
I was teaching seminary in Philadelphia many years ago. I had a senior course on the history of atheism, and I required my students to read primary sources. I said: “I don’t want you to just read about atheism. I want you to read the atheists.” So, I made them read Kaufman, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents.
As the students would read these works of the most brilliant atheists of the last couple of hundred years, we would have discussions about their arguments against the existence of God. There was a common thread that ran through nineteenth-century atheists, in particular, because after the Enlightenment, the thinkers of the Enlightenment said: “We no longer must look to the idea of God to account for the beginning of the universe or the origin of human beings. Now we know that the universe has come to pass through spontaneous generation.”
The question left for the followers of the Enlightenment was this: Since there is no God, how is it that everywhere we go on this planet, we find people practicing religion? Mankind seems to be incurably homo religiosus. Where does that all come from since it does not come from God? Why so much religion? The same answer is given repeatedly by the atheistic philosophers, namely that religion is invented as a crutch, as a psychological bromide to help us cope with the scary things that surround us.
Freud had an interesting theory about this. He said that as human beings, we’re frail. We’re always in imminent danger of having our lives destroyed; here today, gone tomorrow. We look at those things around us in nature that can terminate our existence. We see, for example, that we can succumb to fatal illnesses. We can be killed on a battlefield in war. We can be murdered by a robber. We can be killed in a hurricane, an earthquake, a fire, or some other natural disaster.
Freud said, basically, that nature is hostile to us and a threat to our survival. Nowhere is that more eloquently portrayed than in the text we have read this morning. It was the force of nature—the great wind, the great turbulence in the sea, the beating of the waves against the boat—that threatened the very lives of the human beings on the boat.
Freud made the observation that we have learned how to cope to some degree with hostile people. If you are angry at me and expressing that anger, and I want to get rid of that anger, I can do a few things. I can beg you for mercy. I can apologize to you, and maybe that will turn away your anger. Or I can say, “You don’t want to be mad at me; I’m president of your fan club, and let me show you—here’s a gift,” and offer you a gift hoping to assuage your anger and turn it aside.
Freud said that religion rises when we use the same techniques that sometimes remove the threat of humans against us with non-human entities. We personalize the impersonal forces of nature because how do you negotiate with something like Hurricane Katrina? You can pray: “Katrina, go down the coast. Hit someplace else. Don’t hit us.” But she does not hear. So, we personalize the storm. We personalize the earthquake.
Then the next step is that we sacralize natural forces. We begin to invent personal gods who live in the hurricane, the earthquake, and the sea so that you have sea gods, wind gods, and all the rest, so now we can talk, pray, and offer sacrifices to them. Freud said that is how religion started: you can simplify it when you boil it all down to one god over all the forces of nature so that if you are afraid of the hurricane, you can pray to the god who makes the hurricane. But not so fast, Sigmund . . .
The Fear of the Holy
Although I think it is true in the history of religion that people do tend to sacralize non-sacred objects and personalize objects that have no personality, nevertheless, in all their inventive creativity, the one thing human beings do not do when they invent gods to protect themselves is to invent a god more terrifying than the force they are trying to tame. That is the point that Freud overlooks. Human beings do not want a personal god who is holy. Nothing threatens sinful humanity more than the presence of the holy.
Remember the other occasion on the sea when there was drought of fish and the disciples had been out all night and had not caught anything? Jesus saw them coming in with their empty nets and said, “Why don’t you throw your net over that side of the boat?”
Peter was likely upset: “Who do you think we are? Do you think we don’t know anything about fishing? We’ve been out here all night. We’ve had the nets over every side of the boat that we could. There’s nothing here. But it’s the Master, and if Jesus tells us to throw the net on this side of the boat, let’s humor Him, fellows. We’ll throw the net.”
You know what happened. Every fish in the Sea of Galilee jumped in the nets. They had to get another net. The boat was sinking because there were so many fish in the net, and everything came to a climax. What did Peter do? He was a businessman. He said: “Jesus, I’ll tell you what: 50 percent of my business is Yours. You don’t have to go out on the boat with us every night. You don’t have to labor on the docks and repair the nets. Just once a month, come down here and fill these nets, and I’ll give You 50 percent of the profit.” That was not what Peter did. When those nets were filled, He turned to Jesus and said, “Depart from me, because I’m a sinful man.”
You see, Peter’s was the same reaction that took place this night on the sea. When the disciples saw the storm instantly calmed by the command of Jesus, we see the third use of mega. Now they were not just afraid. Their fear was a “mega-fear.” It was exceedingly great. They cried out, “What kind of man is this that even the winds and the seas obey Him?”
What Kind of Man?
What kind of man is this? The disciples met all kinds of people. Every time you walk down the street in a city and you see hordes of people coming your way that you have never met in your life, you instantly pigeonhole every person you see. You may not consciously think about it, but you are watching all the time. Is that person smiling? That person is safe. Are this other person’s eyes furious? You give them a little extra space because you know what unbridled anger can be like in human beings, so you give room for people like that. You separate and sort every person you meet into a category: safe, dangerous, nice, cantankerous.
But we do not have a category for somebody who can speak to the waves—and they listen to Him. This One is sui generis. This One is in a class by Himself. This One is so alien, so other, that there is no category or compartment for us to include Him. In a word, beloved, what the disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee that night was the holiness of Christ.
The disciples liked His power when they were in trouble: “Wake up, Jesus. Help us. Show us your power.” But when He showed them the power He had, they said: “This is not common power. This is holy power. This Man is different from any other person on the face of the earth.” When they were in the presence of the Holy One of Israel, they were consumed by fear.
That is what Professor Freud never understood. The thing Freud was more afraid of than anything else in the world was the holiness of God. That is why people run from God. That is why people run from Christ. As soon as He manifests His transcendent majesty, they are reduced to terror.
That is why, beloved, if Christ in His majesty would come in this church this morning, nobody would go up to Him and shake His hand and say, “Hey, pal, come on in.” No, no, no—you would be on your faces, just as John was on his face when Christ appeared on the Isle of Patmos.
When the resurrected Christ in His glory and the manifestation of His holiness appears, all creatures hit the dirt because He is other. He is holy. Not only do people tremble at His voice, but seas that have no ears listen to His command, and winds that have no knowledge know enough to stop blowing when He says, “Be still.” That is our Savior.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.