On a first read, Mark 4:35-41 looks like a demonstration of Jesus’ astonishing power—and so it is. Jesus’ disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee. When a violent storm threatens to destroy the boat and its inhabitants, Jesus somehow manages to remain “asleep on the cushion.” The disciples’ wake-up call—“Teacher, doesn’t it matter to you that we are perishing?”—hardly commends either their faith or Jesus’ behavior. Jesus, however, awakens with authority, rebukes the wind and commands the sea by saying, “Silence! Be still!” So when the wind ceases and a “great calm” stills the sea, no wonder the disciples ponder Jesus’ authority. “Who then is this guy?” they ask. Who indeed?
Modern readers struggle with miracle stories like this. Yes, we know some “The Bible’s good enough for me” Christians who are prepared to believe that the sun stood still to assist the Israelites in battle (Joshua 10:12-13), but most of us wonder about deeds like quieting storms and turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). We’re inclined to interpret exorcism stories in the language of modern mental health. Maybe Jesus was helping disturbed people to find peace. We’re prepared for Jesus’ healing miracles because they directly benefit desperate people. But “nature miracles” like stilling the storm challenge the boundaries of our imaginations.
Preachers and hymn composers alike salve our discomfort by personalizing the storm. “When the storms of life surround you, and the waves are breaking in upon you,” they say, “just remember that Jesus is Lord of the storm!” So we avoid our unease with nature miracles by turning them into allegories of the things that try our souls. “Jesus, Savior, pilot me / over life’s tempestuous sea,” pleads one hymn.
Remarkably, Mark’s earliest commentator offered precisely such an interpretation—but with a twist. With a copy of Mark on the desk, the author of Matthew changes several little details in Mark’s story. Matthew, however, is interested in the community of Jesus’ followers more than in the challenges of individual living. So where Mark offers several boats, Matthew’s disciples follow Jesus into one boat. That’s what disciples do; they follow Jesus. And when they’re afraid, they don’t complain as they do in Mark. Instead, they pray, “Lord, save us!” Matthew’s disciples, buffeted by the waves of resistance to the gospel and perhaps by outright persecution, cry out for deliverance, and Jesus saves them.
But that’s Matthew’s version, not Mark’s. Mark allows the story to remain chaotic because Mark is after something greater. Careful Bible readers have long noticed how Mark’s account echoes some of Israel’s Psalms. Facing a storm on the sea, sailors “cried out to the LORD in their trouble.” Then the LORD made the storm “be still,” “and the waves of the sea were hushed” (Psalm 107:28-29, NRSV). Just as Israel’s God stills the storm and hushes the waves, so does Mark’s Jesus.