A Steep Learning Curve
What teacher would dare throw a pop quiz on the first day of class?
Well, Jesus would.
At the end of the parable of the soils and related parables Mark concludes with these words:
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
On the surface, the conclusion sounds like he is done with a major section. He is not. The next verse, which introduces the storm on the sea, begins, “On that day, when evening had come, he said, ‘let us go across to the other side’” (Mark 4:35 emphasis added).
Clearly, Mark wants to connect the interpretation of the parables to the events that lead to the storm. Let’s see why.
Here is the account of the storm on the sea in its entirety.
Mark 4:35-41 (ESV)
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.
37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.
38 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?”
39 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.
40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Mark’s Writing Style
Mark is a lean writer. He boils the entire account of the disciples’ debarkation, their crisis on the sea, and the awe that follows when Jesus rebukes the wind and waves down to a single paragraph. The paragraph falls into four episodes. These are:
- Transition from teaching as Jesus isolates the disciples, (verses 35-36)
- Crisis when a storm threatens to flood the boat, (verses 37-38)
- Calming of the storm, (verse 39)
- A new crisis that grows from the resolution, (verses 40-41)
Transition: From the Ordinary World to Crisis
Imagine a good suspense movie. We seldom enter the movie in the middle of the suspenseful situation. Instead, we begin with opening scenes that show us the characters in their everyday world. These become markers. When the tension begins, we see how and why the characters react to the crisis and how they ultimately return to their normal lives.
Mark does just that in the opening of this episode. After finishing his teaching, Jesus has the disciples shove off for the other side of the lake.
Verse 36 mentions three details that reinforce the meaning of “normal” for the disciples. The first occurs at the verse’s opening. “And leaving the crowd…” Mark uses this comment to prepare the scene. Crowds signify interference in Mark’s Gospel. The disciples do not know the fact yet, but their isolation from the crows will allow Jesus to work with them alone.
Second, the disciples take Jesus onto the boat, “just as he was.” In borrowing their boat, he has made himself beholden to them. He continues in this position as a passenger. For the moment, he lives on their time.
Finally, Mark says that “Other boats were with him.” The other boats complete the picture of the normal world before the storm begins.
Into the Storm
Mark’s description in verse 37, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling,” launches the disciples into the middle of a crisis. The storm resists any efforts to maneuver through it. The boat fills with water. Everyone aboard is about to drown.
Meanwhile, Jesus sleeps.
The disciples wake him with the words, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” These words reflect the kind of dread that drives men beyond the ability to frame rational questions. They have become like children. Please do something, Teacher.
Moving Into even Deeper Crisis
Jesus does something, but it is nothing like what his friends could have expected. He wakes up and rebukes the storm. It obeys, and a great calm replaces it.
Peace was never so disturbing. Now, the disciples move from a problem with the storm to a problem with Jesus. This is reflected in Jesus’ words, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
The question, “Have you still no faith?” indicates faithlessness at two points in time. So, where exactly in time does this question lie?
If its focus lies in the middle of the storm, then another earlier faithlessness must have occurred before the storm. Mark records no pre-storm faithless acts.
If we move their continued unfaithfulness forward a few seconds to the calm, the question makes perfect sense. Now, it reflects the disciples “great fear” in verse 41. For the first time, the disciples see Jesus’ superiority over the storm, and he presents a specter that dwarfs mere wind and waves. Drowning is one thing. Confrontation with supernatural authority raises the stakes to a whole new level.
But this is precisely the lesson that Jesus wants to convey. He is master over nature.
The realization is too great for them. They are catapulted from ordinary fear to a level of terror unimaginable within the bounds of the ordinary world. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
What Jesus Expects
Who is he, indeed? The secret of the kingdom of God, which the Father has given them (Mark 4:11), takes them to Jesus. Knowing him drives them to territory from which they will never escape.
“Normal” is where the crowds live. It is the territory among the people who reject Jesus outright, or who follow him only superficially, or remain caught up in their distractions. Jesus’ chosen men cannot go back to that world because they now live under the King of the Cosmos.