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Mark 4:35-41

The question of Jesus’s identity pulses through this passage. The event related in Mark 4:35-41 is categorized as a water miracle or, more generally, a nature miracle. In it, Jesus controls a force of nature, in this case, water and wind in the midst of a storm. The story appears in Matthew 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25, as well.

In each, the basic storyline is the same: Jesus and his disciples embark in a boat to cross the lake, but as Jesus sleeps a storm comes up, which causes his disciples to awaken him in fear. Jesus ends the storm and asks the disciples about faith, which results in them questioning who Jesus is. These passages are clearly recounting the same event. 

At the same time, Jesus’s stilling of the storm on the sea is recounted with far greater detail in Mark’s Gospel than it is in the other two Synoptics.[1] In this paragraph I will make a somewhat detailed comparison between each Gospel’s version of the story in the Greek, which I think helps us note what is at stake for each Gospel author’s depiction of Jesus. From the outset, Mark includes more detailed, scene-setting information (compare 4:35-36 with Matt 8:23 and Luke 8:22). The storm (Gk. lailaps) is nearly personified with wind and sea beating or tossing (epiballō) into the boat (Mark 4:37). In Mark, the desperate situation of a boat being tossed in a severe whirlwind and taking on water precedes the surprising news that Jesus is asleep on a cushion (v. 37-38). Luke spoils the suspense of Jesus’s whereabouts by explaining that he fell asleep before the storm came up (Luke 8:23). Matthew condenses the detail so that within four Greek words we find out that Jesus was asleep (katheudō) and then awakened (egeirō; See vv. 24-25: … katheuden. Kai proselthontes ēgeiran …). The disciples address Jesus by different terms in each Evangelist’s version: Teacher (Didaskalos; Mark 4:38); Lord (Kyrios; Matt 8:25); and Master/Commander (Epistatēs; Luke 8:24). The last term is used only by Luke, among the New Testament books; but in broader Greek usage it amounts to something like “boss.” The tone of the disciples’ request to be rescued is more passive-aggressive in Mark than in the other two: “Teacher, does it not matter to you that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Matthew uses three spare words in the Greek of 8:25—half of the six that Mark utilizes in his rendition—to capture the disciples’ cry: “Lord [Kyrie], save [sōson]! We are perishing [apollymetha].” In Matthew, Jesus critiques the disciples for their apparent lack of faith before acting to save them in the storm (8:26). But, in both Mark and Luke, Jesus calms the storm before asking about the disciples’ lack of faith (Mark 4:39-40; Luke 24b-25). In Mark 4:40 and Matthew 8:26, the question Jesus asks the disciples hits on the intersection of fear and faith, whereas Luke records Jesus asking where their faith is (Luke 8:25). Both Matthew and Luke describe the disciples as experiencing amazement at the conclusion of this story; Luke’s is fear and amazement. Mark, on the other hand, uses an emphatic construction to express the gravity of the disciples’ fear. Indeed, even after the storm has been calmed, Mark notes: Kai ephobēthēsan phobon megan … (And they feared a great fear …; Mark 4:41). 

For all the differences between the accounts, the question of Jesus’s identity concludes each version of the episode. As in Mark, the question of Jesus’s identity seems to be the most significant take-away the other two Gospel authors intend readers to engage. Throughout Mark, perhaps to a greater degree than in the other two Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’s identity—who he is—drives the narrative. Statements and questions about who Jesus is—from John’s announcement (1:7-8), to being proclaimed by a voice from heaven (1:11), to crowds as he teaches and heals (1:27), to his authority as Son of Man (2:7, 10, 28), to interactions with demonic forces and their special knowledge of him (1:24; 3:11-12), to false accusations from his opponents (3:22)—fill the preceding chapters of Mark (and continue after our passage; e.g., 8:27-29; 15:39). These questions do not remain in the realm of ideas and words; Jesus’s actions are understood to be significant for understanding his identity. Nevertheless, in each of these instances, the onlookers’ dispositions and faith either helps or hinders their ability to see Jesus for who he really is. So, in our passage, when Jesus’s closest companions witness his unparalleled authority on display, yet remain incredulous about who he is, this is significant.

While the disciples ask the question of Jesus’s identity in the midst of fear—and it seems to be an honest question representing their ignorance or uncertainty—readers have a much better idea who might be able to control the wind and sea. The Old Testament stories and words of praise for God echo in this story from Jesus. Recognizing Old Testament allusions (i.e., unstated but intended references to prior literature) is a vital interpretive angle. 

First, although water in the form of needed rain could bring life (see Isa 35:6b-7), bodies of water often symbolized forces of chaos in the ancient Near Eastern worldview.[2] For ancient readers, watery depths and stormy seas would have represented dangerous powers that act in conflict with God. Water’s ability to destroy can be seen most dramatically in the flood story, Gen 7:11-24. Second, the God of Israel was credited with the ability to control the waters. For instance, when in the creation narrative God orders the waters and separates them from the land, this illustrated God’s unparalleled power (see Gen 1:9-10). Israel’s God, in contrast to Baal, controls the forces of nature and brings much-needed rain after the famous battle of Elijah against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:41-46). The prophets utilize the dual implications of God’s use of water to give life and to exact judgment (e.g., Amos 5:8, 24). In fact, it is the expectation of the harm that one might come to through contact with water that makes this well-known statement comforting: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you“ (Isaiah 43:2a, NRSV). 

Further allusions seem to be at play when we survey the Old Testament for stories of God’s mastery of the wind. One of the plagues against Egypt was enabled by God’s directing the wind (see Exod 10:13, 19). The story of the Hebrew people’s exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea connects the dual themes of water’s ability to destroy and God’s control over it by using the wind to direct it (see Exod 14:21-31). The Psalmist puts into song a vision of God storing winds in divine storehouses (Psa 135:7). Proverbs acclaims God’s all-knowing status in contrast to human ignorance with a series of questions that attributes to God both holding the wind in hand and wearing the waters as a garment (Prov 30:3-4; cf. Job 28:25). In Job 38:1, God speaks out of the whirlwind. Those operating within human power can identify the direction the wind is blowing, but, try as we might, controlling the weather remains elusive. God, on the other hand, is repeatedly acknowledged as the one who can control wind, rain, and storm throughout the Old Testament.

Even more precisely, the story of Jesus’s stilling of the storm and questions of his identity likely allude to Psalm 89:8-9:

Who is like you, Lord God Almighty? You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them (NRSV).

The Psalmist’s question is rhetorical: No one is like our God who can govern the waters and calm the storm. So, when we encounter a story in Mark, in which Jesus speaks to the wind and waves and they obey him, turning from churning to calm, Jesus’s identity is clear (4:39). He and the One to whom the Psalmist directs praise are one.

The final aspect I will explore in this passage is the intersection of fear and faith here and elsewhere in Mark. As I noted in the comparison of Mark against Matthew and Luke above, Mark makes explicit that the disciples were deeply terrified (“they feared a great fear”). Any Bible translation that minimizes this or characterizes their experience as “awe” (see NRSV and CEB) is masking the clear terror expressed in the text (which is better represented in the NIV, ESV, and NKJV, in this instance). Jesus seems to draw a contrast between fear and faith in 4:40. One chapter later in Mark, Jesus contrasts fear (phobeō) and having faith (pisteuō) again in speaking to Jairus, the father of a girl who dies (5:36). Yet, between these two stories appears the story of a woman with a severe hemorrhage who both is fearful (phobeō; 5:33) and recognized for her profound faith (pistis; 5:34); indeed, Jesus states that her faith is what saved (Gk. sōzō) her. Despite her fear, this woman with a painful illness trusted that Jesus would be the source of her healing; and he was. A further connection between fear and faith is found in Mark’s earliest ending (at 16:8). There, Mark shows the tenacious women’s fear finally getting the best of them, as they fail to fulfill the vital task with which they were entrusted (16:7), due to fear (phobeō; 16:8). Just as unbelief and faith can coexist (see 9:24), so can fear and faith. The question is which one wins out and dictates one’s actions. Here in 4:41, the disciples continue following Jesus (evidence of faith), but their fear allows ignorance to grow.

The disciples get a bad rap in this story: Jesus is so calm, yet they are fearful. Jesus shows so much power, why don’t they worship him? Why can they not see who Jesus is when he shows them so clearly? Isn’t it obvious that with Jesus by your side you can rest easy? I remember, especially as an earnest child, wishing that I could have been a disciple. Seeing Jesus face-to-face, witnessing the miracles he performed, hearing him teach with my own ears … that would make this all so much easier. The whole faith part of the “Christian faith” would be so much simpler if I could just see firsthand. I remember thinking this, but the more I read the Gospels, the more I see how wrong I was. Just as today, what we believe about what we see is intimately shaped by what we believe we are seeing. It seems circular, but in an era of Fake News, Competing Truths, and Talking Heads who talk past their opponents, we should be aware that there is no easy equation between seeing and believing. Some people saw Jesus’s miracle-working and concluded that he was empowered by the Prince of Demons (see Mark 3:22; Matt 12:24; Luke 11:15). When we see God at work in our world, we can choose to attribute those things to their Divine source, or we can find alternate explanations. Our passage finds our disciples somewhere in the middle of their own development in this regard. They believe Jesus enough to turn to him in a moment of distress. They have seen Jesus do things that would be difficult to explain. It seems that the God of Israel is present in their midst in their Teacher. But how could that be? But, then again, who else could this be that even the wind and waves obey him? The passage ends in a question but Mark makes sure that we, as believing readers post-resurrection, cannot miss just WHO Jesus is!


[1] The term “Synoptic Gospels” refers to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three Gospels that bear striking similarities to one another in narrative order and wording. The prevailing scholarly theory is that the similarities can be accounted for, in part, by Mark’s Gospel being written first and used as a base text, so to speak, to which Matthew and Luke each added material they knew about Jesus for their Gospels. For textual indications that Luke, at least, knew other written accounts about Jesus, see the Prologue to Luke (1:1-4).

[2] See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Water,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld; Nashville: Abingdon, 2009) 5:818-21.