Control Over Nature (Mark 4:39, 41)
[May 16, 2010] In this story we see a demonstration of who Jesus is. “Who then is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Jesus has command over the wind and the sea. This is the same authority with which He controlled the catch of fish. He commands the forces of nature. This is actually the same authority with which He commanded the leper to be cleansed and others to be healed.
We often make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is in conflict with the forces of nature and overpowers them with His superior power. This kind of thinking is what we would expect of an aggressive culture that constantly seeks to dominate nature. This describes that early change from horticulture to agriculture, with its attendant shift from the worship of earth spirits to sky spirits. After the twelfth century the changes in culture became more intense, most noticeably in the age of “discovery” when superior technology and organization was able to conquer and destroy the native people of the Americas. Then the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century came, in which we systematically brought to bear this same desire to dominate and control on nature itself. This made possible the age of modern tyrannies and warfare. In the modern age of information, perhaps symbolized by our trip to the moon, people and nature have been reduced to information. We have become an indoor people, withdrawn from nature as if it were a stranger. We vacation outdoors and now we even have eco-“tourism.”
So naturally, when Jesus commands the wind and the waves, we think He confronts nature as an outside force and bends it to His will. This is also how we imagine the transcendence of God. God is outside of nature. We might even define a miracle as something that contradicts nature. This reflects our cultural bias. It is not only a “bias,” however, for this perspective of ours is symptomatic of our rebellion against God and our desire to be like we imagine God is. It clearly defines the world as determinedly insulated from God, symbolized by Babel in the Book of Genesis and moving towards the system of “Babylon the Great” in the Book of the Revelation.
When Jesus commands the wind and the waves, of course, He acts with the authority of God. What we call “mother nature,” the forces of nature, the laws of nature, ecology, are none other than God’s own presence in the creation. Creation is from the hand of God and is sustained by the Spirit of God and does everything according to the sovereign will of God. When we examine and take apart the “laws” of nature to their basic physical field theories, and examine how things synthesize to make life and consciousness happen, we are simply unfolding the manifestation of God’s witness to Himself. “Nature” as that which guides the creation in its forms and behaviors is simply the Wisdom and Word of God, who is God.
When Jesus performs miracles, however, He also is acting as the “kingdom of God drawn near” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom or kingship of God does not refer only to the sovereignty of God over all things—in which case, there is no need for the kingdom to come since it could never have departed without the creation itself dissolving into nothingness. Rather, the kingdom of God refers to the overcoming of opposition and ultimately to the accomplishing of God’s purpose for the creation, which is its deification—full participation in the divine nature according to the principles defined by the Council of Chacedon in 451 AD (two natures without separation or division, and without mixture or confusion) with respect to the Son’s full participation in our human nature.
That is two things: the overcoming of opposition in order to move things towards their teleological fulfillment. On the one hand, there is something that opposes God—sin, the world, the devil. The reaction of the divine nature to this is judgment and wrath. On the other hand, nature itself is meant to become more than it is. Nature is like a seed that is meant to sprout and grow into something that manifests its true nature. When the prophets spoke of the coming of God, and the coming of God’s kingdom, they describe the reconciliation of all peoples on the one hand and the restoration of nature to a peace and harmony and fruitfulness that reminds us and exceeds our remembrance of Eden.
When Jesus heals the sick, they are getting a foretaste of the “age to come.” He is bringing to bear on them the kingdom of God. Nature is restored towards its original purpose. In other words, Jesus is not opposing nature but bringing out—temporarily for sure—its own fulfillment. When Jesus commands nature, it is not to oppose nature. Rather He acts as the secret hidden in nature itself, the divine Nature, to free nature from its “subjection to futility” and its “slavery to corruption” (Romans 8:20-21) to its innate and unfulfilled glory.
This glory is the glory of the new creation, a participation in the resurrection. Jesus has this “power” because He is the “Firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). He, as Man, is the first of creation to participate in the powers of resurrection (Colossians 1:18). That of course is because of His original divine nature, but in Him our earthly nature first participates in divinity. So when He commands the wind and the sea, He does so as Man with the authority of His divine nature. He does not contradict nature but frees it for its innate and original purpose—that is, He fulfills nature.
So when He “commanded” nature, it was without the slightest effort. It was as “natural” as the forces of nature themselves. And there was not the slightest resistance to His command, as if nature longed for His voice.
Prior to His “command,” however, Jesus slept in the stern of boat without the slightest concern or fear. He could have kept sleeping did not the disciples awaken Him. It appears from the rebuke in verse 40 that He only commanded the wind and the waves in response to their fears. This reminds me of Matthew 17:27 where Jesus performed a miracle so as not to cause others to misunderstand Him and therefore stumble. What would have happened if no one had awakened Jesus? Jesus walked away from death in other cases because His time had not yet come, so presumably Jesus had no intention of dying by drowning. He must have known that they were going to be okay and slept with that confidence.
We will have to return to these thoughts after we examine the passage further.
People’s Different Responses to Jesus (3:20—6:6a)
In 1:16-20; 2:13-14 and 3:13-19 we see typological examples of Jesus calling together His new family (3:31-35). They come to Him and gather around Him. They are attentive to His teaching, to His self-revelation as He explained the Scriptures. Others closed and hardened their hearts against Him, utterly rejecting Him, identifying Him with Satan (3:22-30).
Jesus told a short series of parables that explains that when seed is sown, different kinds of soil will produce different results. In three kinds of soil, the seed is wasted. Only in the right kind of soil does it produce a crop (4:3-20). And that crop takes time before it is ready for the harvest (4:26-29). There is also an aberrant crop, one that is anxious for growth but ends up harboring birds that eat the seeds (4:30-32). These parables are the first time in Mark when we get a sample of Jesus’ teaching at any length. Primarily, in the text, Jesus teaches through His actions. As we move into the next stories, Jesus continues to be the Teacher (4:38), but His words are few.
After Jesus gives the parables in 4:1-34, Mark tells a series of stories in 4:35-5:43, in each of which we have a demonstration of Jesus exercising the “kingdom of God” in power, bringing to bear, that is, the powers of the “age to come,” the new creation of which He is the Firstborn. Jesus brings the kingdom to bear on creation (4:35-41), Satan’s realm (5:1-20), sickness, and death (5:21-43). In each of these stories, however, we also get to see a range of different responses to Jesus.
It turns out that these stories are themselves enacted parables—their arrangement in all three synoptic gospels shows this. In the Gospel according to Matthew they are told as a prelude to the teaching given in chapter 10 on the mission of the church. Luke, who is entirely concerned for the mission of the church, presents these stories as an unveiling of who Jesus is, demonstrating the power of the Word, leading to the revelation on the mount of Transfiguration. The basic analogical meaning of the miracles remains the same, however.
The crossing of the sea represents the (Jewish) church setting out to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. The storm represents the tremendous opposition they face. The situation in the region of the Gerasenses represents the church among the Gentiles. Jairus represents the hope of Israel. The woman with the flow of blood represents the Jews who believe in the church age. And the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead represents the turning of Israel to the Messiah when He comes in glory.
In itself this sequence tells the positive response to the Word, the Gospel, to Jesus, from His ascension to His coming again in glory. But the Gospel according to Mark also brings out the disciples lack of faith as a result of their fear (4:40), the rejection of Jesus by the idolatrous Gentiles (5:15-17), and the prevailing unbelief even in Israel (6:6a).
The typology gives us a clue to the significance of these stories, but we read it in the actual lives of the people in the stories. We need to pay attention to their experiences as well, for here is also where the significance is unfolded, as Mark’s addition of telling details demonstrates.
The Storm (4:35-38)
As we have pointed out, the Gospel according to Mark originated as the apostle Peter’s retelling of the Gospel, in a way that validated the Gospel according to Luke alongside the Gospel according to Matthew, as he wove together the accounts laid out in the Gospel scrolls of Matthew and Luke. He did this during the time when the emperor Nero was persecuting the church and made it officially a crime to be a Christian.
This was the storm for the people who listened to Peter’s retelling of this story. The Gospel was brought into the Gentile world and brought to the Gentiles as such (and not just the Jewish Diaspora and Gentile proselytes and the “god-fearers” who attended the synagogues of the Diaspora) as the Acts of the Apostles tells us. At first the opposition came from their fellow Jews. That was the storm when Matthew wrote. But the Jews were not the only ones who opposed this movement. Soon the Gentiles themselves opposed it. At first it was mostly popular opposition, for Gentile Christians refused to honor the gods of family and society. The governors followed the will of the crowds. Now, at the time when the Gospel according to Mark was written, the opposition came from the highest levels.
Jesus had told Peter of His martyrdom and Peter may well have had a premonition that the time was approaching. When the apostles of the church were in mortal danger, it certainly seemed as though the waves were beating into boat (the church) so that it was beginning to fill up with water. Indeed, in the decades that followed, the church was severely tested by its discouragement and the false teachings that arose in the wake. Peter and Paul were martyred in the mid-sixties. It would not be until the beginning of the nineties that the church would recoup its strength (when Paul’s letter-collection and the Gospel according to John were published).
As the church suffered, it seemed as though Jesus was asleep “on a cushion.” The reference to a cushion is not in the accounts of Matthew or Luke. In 4:27—in the only parable not recorded by Matthew and Luke—the farmer goes to sleep and the seed sprouts and lengthens by itself. We interpreted this to refer to the ascension of Jesus. He has apparently left us, comfortably sitting at the right hand of the Father, or rather—in our skewed view of it—sleeping on a cushion.
This would have been even more exacerbated if we had expected Him to return when things reached this point, and when a few years later the Gentiles laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Nothing happened; Jesus remained in heaven. There was no outward validation of the martyrs’ deaths.
It would be fair for us to read our own storms into this story.
The disciples awaken Jesus as we try to awaken Him with our prayers and “acting out.” When they call Him “Teacher” (only in Mark) it is perhaps with some irony. You have taught us, now where is the substance? Is all the teaching just a bunch of impractical ideas? Here is a real live situation and there You are sleeping. What is the teaching worth if You can do nothing when it really matters?
What they say gets to the heart of the matter: “Does it not matter to You that we are perishing?” Do You not care? These words are not in Matthew and Luke, so Mark has them for emphasis. This is what we really feel. Does He not care about us? Christians are those who have given up everything for Jesus. We have staked our lives on His claims. We thought it was the truth and so we cast in our lot with Him. Now that He has ascended into heaven, does He not care about us? Where is He? Asleep somewhere?
Addressing Our Fears (4:39-41)
Matthew records Jesus saying, “Why are you cowardly, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). In Mark He says, “Why are you cowardly in this way? How do you not have faith?” Our reaction to the storm is to be afraid. But our fear corresponds to our lack of faith. If the disciples understood who He was, if they believed in Him, they would not have feared, just as He was not afraid. When we are in the midst of a storm that threatens to overwhelm us, we could put our faith in Him and not be afraid. Whatever happens, we could rest assured that not a hair from our head can fall without His intending it. Nothing is out of order.
Mark says that after Jesus saved them, the disciples “became greatly frightened” (Luke 8:25 simply says “they became frightened”). Fear is repeatedly mentioned by Mark as people’s response to Jesus (5:15, 33, 36; 6:50; 9:6; 10:32; and 16:8).
But fear prevented the disciples in the boat from recognizing who Jesus is. When He acts, their fear continues, or changes, or increases. “Who then is this?” Is this not the same fear as in 16:8? We are afraid that what we believe about Him might actually be true. Who then is He is who He has been saying He is and which—we thought!—we accepted as true. But now that it is there in front of us, the truth of it is utterly frightening. If they were not in the boat, they perhaps would have run away like the women in 16:8!
The text says that Jesus “rebuked” the wind. Perhaps the storm was conjured up by the fear of the “legion” of evil spirits on the Gentile side of the lake. It is questionable whether they have the power to do this, but perhaps angelic powers might. In any case, Jesus knew they could not use nature against Him; which is why He was sound asleep. But until then the disciples did not “see” who He was. They did not see the divine at work directly. Wherever He was, God was, and nature was always at His direct “command.” Jesus rebuked the wind and commanded the sea to be calm entirely in response to the disciples’ fears. It was unnecessary.
Jesus does not always still the storm around us, because it is unnecessary. Sometimes He does, as this time. But even then, the disciples did not comprehend. They were in the grip of fear and so they could not really see. Their minds were focused on what they perceived was happening. They saw only with the “eye of flesh and soul”; they could not see with the “eye of spirit.” The disciples could not let go of what was in their minds to perceive directly and therefore see Who was in their presence.
Fear, the reaction of the soul to that which threatens it, blocks the freedom of the spirit, which is faith. We need to establish our faith by seeing with the “eye of the spirit” so that our fear can be overcome by understanding.
What Is the Lesson?
The boat is the church, the community of believers. The church is the circle of people who adhere to Jesus (3:34). As long as we have each other—which we do—Jesus is in the boat with us. If He is in the boat with us, it does not matter what the storm may “seem” to be doing to us. Even if, as in Luke 21:16-17 we are hated by all and put to death, “Yet a hair of your head shall by no means perish. In your endurance you will possess your souls” (21:18-19). We will be okay, whatever the storm does, because Jesus Himself is okay and unafraid, and He is with us. Let us have our eyes on Him rather than the storm so that we can go forward in faith and not fear.