Mark 4:35-41. Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom of God. He has taught the crowd with confusing parables, and has explained the parables privately to his disciples. Jesus has introduced some of these parables explicitly as being about the kingdom (“The kingdom of God is as if…” “With what can we compare the kingdom of God…”; Mark 4:26,30) Mark now (from 4:35 – 5:43) records for us four more of the signs of the kingdom which Jesus wrought; visibly bringing the kingdom of God into a fallen world.

Jesus rebukes the wind and waves:

 1) How is this a sign of the kingdom?

a)      What is the Biblical significance of the Sea?

b)      Are there any Old Testament passages which this episode calls to mind?

 2) Why are the disciples terrified? What scares them so much?

 3) How are we to apply this passage usefully to ourselves?

 Discussion:

1a) Jesus has been standing in a boat, teaching the crowds at the side of the Sea of Galilee. He’s been there all day, and when evening comes, he tells that they are going to cross the sea to the other side. So they go, leaving most of the crowd behind on the shore. Some of those listening to Jesus will be local fishermen, and they have boats there on the shore; and some of them probably hop in to their boats and follow Jesus and the disciples across the water- we read that other boats were with them. As this little convoy crosses the sea, a storm breaks out. And it seems to have been quite a vicious storm. The Sea of Galilee is nestled in the hills, and I’m told that it can get pretty windy, especially in the mornings and evenings as air heats and cools on the sides of the adjacent hillsides and rises or falls (Fact for the day, if I remember rightly from Geography lessons; these are called adiabatic and katabatic winds). A storm arises on this occasion, and the disciples- at least some of whom are experienced fishermen who know these waters like the backs of their hands- are scared. The boat takes on water, and it becomes obvious that it will soon go under. And the disciples wake Jesus from his slumbers in the stern (he has been on his feet teaching for a long time, and is absolutely shattered), and ask him to do something about it. They are afraid, and they question Jesus’ concern for them. Jesus wakes, and speaks to the wind and waves, and quiets the storm.

 We’ve said that the miracles are “signs” (as the Gospel writers frequently call them). Specifically, that they are signs of God’s kingdom. Signs point to something, and these signs point to the fact that God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus. They are vanguard invasions of the perfect kingdom into a fallen world. They are demonstrations of what the kingdom is like. In God’s kingdom, there will be no illness, no demonic powers, no death- and so Jesus heals the sick, and casts out demons, and even raises the dead. Miracles are more than mere demonstrations of power. There are plenty of possible miracles which Jesus could have done, but didn’t. He never flew about in the air above everyone’s heads purely to prove that he could, because that wouldn’t tell us anything about the character of the kingdom of God. The one time Jesus flew (I guess you could call it flying) was at his ascension. And that did show us more than the fact that Jesus could fly. So how does calming a sea fit into this mould? How is calming a storm different from flying? What does it tell us about God’s kingdom?

 The answer lies in the whole Biblical concept of the sea. If you went to look at the Sea of Galilee, you would come home again calling it a “lake” rather than a “sea”. Photographs of it on the web look not especially more impressive than Lake Windermere- and I’m led to believe that it is fresh water, not salt. But Mark calls it a sea in v39 and so do the disciples in v 41, and so it is to their minds. This is not because they are small-minded provincials who’ve never seen a proper sea. Mark, remember, has travelled across the Mediterranean to Cyprus with Paul and Barnabas, and has quite likely done a lot more travelling since. He was better travelled than many of us. Rather, the lake of Galilee is called a sea because in conceptual or theological terms, it is a sea.

We thought a little about the biblical imagery of mountains when looking at Jesus going up a mountain to call to himself the Twelve. Throughout the Bible, mountains are places where man goes up to meet with God, and where God comes down to touch the earth: Moses and Elijah on Sinai, Israel on Ebal and Gerizim, Jerusalem- the city on a hill; all of these are places where earth stretches up to heaven and heaven reaches down to earth. The root of the idea is in Genesis, where there is a garden on top of a mountain, in the East, and there God walks with Adam. This is all part of a whole conceptual Hebrew cosmology. Heaven is up, the grave is down, the earth is square (having four corners), and the earth sits in the middle of a boundless ill-defined sea. And it is in Genesis that we will find the roots of a Biblical symbolism of “sea”.

In the beginning, the earth was covered in water. God had made the earth, but it was formless and void, a watery blob, chaotic, disordered. Already, there is a basic view of what the waters are like.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

Then on the second day, God divided the waters. He imposed order upon what was chaotic, imposed form upon what was formless, separated water above from water beneath, and placed the sky in between them. On the next day, he gathered the waters beneath into one place, making dry land appear, bringing more order. The sea in Genesis, is something raw, something without structure or order, something unfinished and unpredictable.

On the 5th and 6th days, God created creatures suitable for the domains he had made. Land is populated with beasts and creeping things, the sky has birds. There is an order to it, things fit neatly into their places. Birds are the category of animals appropriate to the sky. Beasts are appropriate to the land. The creatures appropriate for the water are “teeming things” or “swarming things”. The water is chock full of chaotic unpredictable life. It itself is a “swarming” environment, and so it is filled with “swarming” life. Try watching a school of fish for a while in the shallows of a lake, and you’ll see how unpredictable they are. Can you count them? Can you even follow them with your eye constantly? They dart this way and that way- and they are chaotic, like the water is chaotic. This take on the “fit” between animals and environments is strengthened when you look at Leviticus. In the clean and unclean categories of things there, the unclean water animals are the ones that aren’t like the swarming fish. They don’t fit the proper category.

When the time comes for Adam to begin to exercise his God-given dominion over the creation, he does so by naming things (Genesis 2:19-20). He is not just pulling words out of the air to call the creatures. Rather, he is defining them, giving them limits. His work is both descriptive and proscriptive. He is the vice-regent, and he tells the creatures what they shall be and do. But which class of creatures is noticeable by its absence? Adam names the beasts of the field, and he names the birds of the air, but he does not name the fish of the sea. His rule does not (yet) extend over the chaotic waters. The earth is his domain, and the waters are alien and dangerous. Perhaps he will one day extend his rule over the waters, but not at first. His first sphere of rule is the solid predictable land, not the shifting untameable sea.

The symbolism develops with the flood. When man’s sin becomes so great that God is grieved that he had made the world, God wipes the slate clean. The corrupt order is removed, and everything goes back to water. The earth is a watery blob for the second time. Everything is in ruins, in chaos.

Finally, in John’s visions in Revelation, what is heaven like? How does John see it? 

“At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne… and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” (Revelation 4:2-6)

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire–and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.” (Revelation 15:2)

“…and there was no longer any sea.” (Revelation 21:1)

In the new heavens and the new earth, there is no sea. Or there is a sea, but it looks like glass. There is no chaos, no danger, nothing out of control. Nowhere is off-limits for the new humanity. Jesus’ kingdom has no boundaries. Even the sea has become something steady and orderly.

So on the immediate face of it, this is a miracle that plainly speaks of Jesus’ power over creation. Yet we can better understand it when we look at the significance of the sea in the Bible. Jesus is the one sent to bring in the kingdom of God, to give life to the new humanity, redeeming them from the curse. And his miracles are signs of that kingdom, the kingdom where there will be no disease, no death, no demonic powers at work, no chaos and no danger. He is the one who turns the raging sea into a mill-pond.

 

1b) In keeping with that emphasis, this sign does of course speak of Jesus’ power. We see passages in the Old Testament where God calms storms. The 5th “verse” of Psalm 107 reads,

Some went down to the sea in ships/ doing business on the great waters/ they saw the deeds of the LORD/ his wondrous works in the deep/ For he commanded and raised the stormy wind/ which lifted up the waves of the sea/ They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths/ their courage melted away in their evil plight/ they reeled and staggered like drunken men/ and were at their wits’ end/ Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble/ and he delivered them from their distress/ He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed/ Then they were glad that the waters were quiet/ and he brought them to their desired haven/ Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love/ for his wondrous works to the children of men/ Let them extol him in the congregation of the people/ and praise him in the assembly of the elders.”  (Psalm 107:23-32)

By calming the storm, Jesus is laying claim to divine power. It is God who calms storms. But here is this man doing it! Who can he be?

And more than just his power; there is significance in the way Jesus speaks to the sea. Jesus “rebukes” the wind and the waves. The language there is specifically that of Psalm 106:9, where God rebukes the waters of the Red Sea.

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the Sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power. He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert. So he saved them from the hand of the foe and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.” (Psalm 106:7-10)

The Psalm as a whole is a prayer for redemption. The Psalmist looks back on the exodus from Egypt not only as a great past redemption of Israel, but as a pattern of redemption for the future. God delivered his people in the past, in spite of their constant disobedience. Israel angered God, they were faithless, they despised the pleasant land he had promised them. As a result, God condemned them to the wilderness for 40 years, and he gave them into the hands of their enemies. But in the end, he did deliver them when they cried to him.

And the Psalmist says “Well, we are just like they were, both we and our fathers have sinned. And will you not deliver us, O Lord, from our distress, as you did our fathers when you rebuked the Red Sea.

By choosing the words he does, Mark is drawing an implicit parallel between what Jesus does, and what Yahweh did at the Red Sea. The implication is not only that Jesus has the powers of Yahweh over the waters, to rebuke them, but that Jesus is answering the prayer of the Psalmist. Jesus is bringing about a new exodus, a new salvation, a re-constitution of God’s people. Though they are faithless and disobedient, he has appeared to deliver them.

 

2) The disciples were terrified, and Jesus points out to them that there is no need to be terrified, and that had they faith, they wouldn’t be. Notice the present tense in v40- Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid.” It is easy to read the passage as though Jesus were asking why the disciples had been afraid when the storm was raging- a sort of “Didn’t you know that I wouldn’t let you die? Why did you not just trust me to sort things out?” question. But the timing of Jesus’ question means it can’t be read like that. Jesus actually asks why the disciples are afraid after the calming, when the sea is still. They were scared while the wind and waves were raging, but now thee is silence, they are absolutely terrified. They look at Jesus in awe, and ask each other “Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him.”

The secret of the kingdom has been given to them, but it is fairly clear that they haven’t understood it very well. The disciples have seen Jesus’ power, and you might think that they would rejoice, and say to each other “What a saviour we have. See his power?” Of course they won’t understand all the implications of what Jesus has done. They’ve just been in a crisis, on the brink of drowning; they’re not going to be thinking, “O.K, let’s sit down and work out the significance of sea in the Scriptures and see what it means for Jesus to calm a storm.” Of course, they might understand more of this than we’d think. They are Hebrews and this is the mindset in which they live. We have to put it on like a strange garment, whereas to them it is their daily dress. But even if they’re not working it all through, you’d think they might grasp that Jesus is almighty, and that he cares for them. They could show some gladness and gratitude. But instead, they cower in the bottom of the boat.

There is much here that we don’t know. We don’t know exactly how Jesus spoke the words he did, what his posture was, or his tone of voice. Perhaps he woke to instant alertness, stood up, stretched out his hand, and commanded the elements in a deep authoritative voice, eyes flashing impressively. Then again perhaps he rolled over in the stern of the boat, still half-asleep, and rebuked the storm in the voice of a man who is dog-tired, wet through, and has just been woken up in the small hours of the morning. Mark isn’t really interested in those details. He tells us that the disciples were scared because of what they had seen Jesus do. They “…were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?

These men have had a glimpse of Jesus in kingly glory. As men in a storm suddenly see the landscape lit up by a flash of lightning, and see the reality for a moment before it all falls dark again, so these men have seen Jesus as he really is for a moment; Jesus revealed as God’s glorious king. And it scares them. A proper reverence would be good and right, but this is not the fear that comes from knowing God. It is the fear that comes from ignorance. They’ve had a glimpse of Jesus’ power- but they have only half-grasped it. Their response is not to worship Jesus, but to show abject terror.

 

3) The temptation when coming to this sort of passage is to say, “Well, the disciples are in trouble here. They’re in a storm, a crisis. And they cry to Jesus, and he helps them. So… Whenever I am in a crisis, when there is a storm in my life, I can cry to Jesus and he will help me.” Now that may be very true. And certainly when we are troubled, the right thing to do is to cry out to Jesus. But it isn’t what is taught in this passage. When the disciples cry out to Jesus in fear, he doesn’t calm their fears. He actually leaves them more scared than they were before.

One thing we can take from this passage is simply the awesome power of Jesus. He is not predictable. Like Aslan is not a tame lion, Jesus is not a tame king. He is almighty God. He tames everything else, even the sea. Nothing can tame him. The disciples were constantly tempted to put Jesus into a box, to try to limit him, to think that they could understand him totally and manage him. They see him as the Messiah, but their urge is to try to push him into their ideas of what a Messiah should be.

We will see this when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going up to Jerusalem to die. He says that he will suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed (Matthew 16). This notion does not fit with their ideas, and Peter tells Jesus so. He says, “Never, Lord. This shall never happen to you.” If Jesus is the Messiah, as Peter is convinced that he is, then in Peter’s mind, Jesus can’t go up to Jerusalem to die. The Messiah has to be the king. He can’t be rejected by Israel and killed- he has to be accepted by Israel and crowned as king, and lead a glorious revolution, and set up a victorious kingdom, as God had promised to David’s offspring. We see it again when James and John approach Jesus and ask him for places of honour in his kingdom. They have their own preconceived ideas about what the kingdom will be like, and what sort of king Jesus will be. They have their own concerns, and they want to use Jesus to serve those concerns.

This is a temptation for us also. We have causes, things we care about- and there will be an urge to harness our Christianity up to those causes. So we have had the fruits of many searches for the “historical” Jesus. And it turns out that Jesus was a Marxist revolutionary, or a commune-dwelling hippie, or a paid-up member of Greenpeace, or a libertarian activist, or a spokesman for the Pro-life alliance. According to various sources, you’d have found Jesus participating in gay pride marches, or working as an anti-homosexual campaigner, or speaking at a civil rights rally, or peeking through the eye-holes of a KKK headdress. I don’t think that all of those are equivalent positions, but I think it’s ridiculous to sign Jesus up as a part of a larger organisation of any kind. People ask “What would Jesus drive”, and in case you don’t get it, the correct answer is that Jesus would drive a hybrid car, and those who drive an SUV are going to have to account for their sins of emission. The question is only asked in order to sign Jesus up to the warm-monger agenda. All kinds of people want to use Jesus’ authority to promote their cause, and they’re all mistaken. Screwtape understood this well… “Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here. (Screwtape letters, chapter 7)

I’m not arguing that Jesus wouldn’t have had views on any or all of those issues. And I’m not arguing that there isn’t a distinctively Christian position to take on racism or social justice or homosexuality or abortion. There is.

But Jesus is king. He doesn’t join your kingdom; he invites you into his. That means that you sign up to his agenda on all the above, and that you submit to his authority about how much of a priority those things are to be in terms of your time and effort, both of which belong to him. So devote yourselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.

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One Comment on “Mark 4:35-41. Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”

  1. C Gribben Says:

    Excellent as always!


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