Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

83. Storm on Galilee (Mark 4:35-41; Matt. 8:23-27; Luke 8:22-25)

It was the end of a long and tiring day. Darkness was setting in (Mk.), yet still there were great crowds thronging Jesus with unflagging eagerness (Mt. 8:18). So he gave orders to the twelve that they were to embark once again in the fishing boat, and seek peace and quiet at the other side of the lake.

It would seem that the disciples held back, unwilling to set sail, for Jesus was the first to go aboard and then (Matthew adds, rather strangely) “his disciples followed him”. The reason is not difficult to discern. Even the most sudden of storms does not blow up out of a clear sky. The experienced sailor, accustomed to keeping a weather eye open, can usually anticipate by an appreciable amount of time when a change of weather is impending. And several of the apostles were fishermen. So it is readily understandable that they had misgivings about the wisdom of setting sail just then. But evidently Jesus insisted, and when he went aboard there was nothing for it but to follow him. At any rate it got him away from the crowd, and this was his immediate need (Mt. 8:18).

There were no prior preparations of any kind. They took Jesus “just as he was” (Mk; 2 Kgs. 7:7 LXX) without food or any protection against the cold night air.

Other boats also set out “with him” (Mk.). The simple phrase tells plainly that they meant to keep close to Jesus, there were some in the crowd who would not be put off. Complete escape from the popular enthusiasm was difficult.

What sort of storm?

As they set sail Jesus stretched out on the steersman’s leather cushion (Mk.) in the stern, and was asleep almost at once; he went right out (Lk.).

They had not gone far on their short voyage when there blew up a terrific storm of quite unique character. The commentaries make much (too much?) of the suddenness and intensity of the storms to which this lake, no bigger than Windermere, is subject. But it seems often to be overlooked that the Galilean fishermen would know these hazards as well as any, and would design and build their boats adequately for the most testing experiences which could normally be looked for. So a storm which scared them out of their wits was no ordinary meteorological disturbance. Matthew calls it an earthquake. Mark, with fisherman Peter at his elbow, describes it as a great hurricane, using the word for God’s whirlwind when He spoke to Job (Job. 38:1 LXX). Very probably there was an actual earthquake in the vicinity, or even under Galilee itself. And since such phenomena are not infrequently accompanied by violent storms, this would explain the suddenness and violence of the cataclysm. But earthquake is an open sign of God’s displeasure (Ps. 18:7; Job 9:5,6; Mt. 27:51; Ez. 38: 18,20; Hag. 2:6). Then why at this time?

The storm “came down on the lake” (Lk.) - a graphic detail which has been explained by emphasis on the low elevation of Galilee (-700 ft. ) and the fact (?) that it is ringed round by mountains: “surrounded by steep and lofty hills...sudden, fierce winds that sweep down from the heights upon the deep-set lake...shooting out of the gorges...” (Century Bible).

These descriptions seem to argue good imaginations and little personal acquaintance, for the waters of Galilee are not much lower than the surrounding land.

In the circumstances it is permissible to consider whether Luke’s phrase “came down”, like Matthew’s “great earthquake”, is intended to suggest a special divine whirlwind like that experienced by Job and Jonah and Elijah and the army of Sennacherib.

The fury of the waves, worse to endure in darkness then in daylight, was frightening, even to these experienced men of the sea. “The ship was covered by the waves” (Mt.). They “beat into the ship” (Mk.) - the word means they were constantly falling into it-because the boat had broached, and could not be brought round. Already, in the earliest stages of the storm, the boat was filling (Mk.), and there was little they could do about it. They were in dire peril (Lk.).

Appeal for help

Yet through it all Jesus slept on (Mt.). It is the only sleep of Jesus which the gospels mention. Mark’s phrase has a distinct flavour of surprise: “he actually went on sleeping”.

Everyone else on board, including Peter and the others who got their living from the sea, became desperate to the point of panic. Attempts at bailing out were hopeless. Nor could the boat’s head be kept to the wind, so violent and changeable was the hurricane. In their terror some of them fought their way aft (Mt.) to Jesus, and woke him violently (Lk.).
The different appeals made by different apostles, and shouted against the shrieking of the wind, are variously reported, but all convey a clear impression of the terror in their hearts. One thought their end had come: “Captain, captain, we are perishing” (Lk.). “Lord, save us” (Mt.) - there spoke one who had already come to rely heavily on Jesus in all circumstances. And it was surely Peter whose none-too-respectful reproach said: “Teacher, is it nothing to you that we are all perishing?” (Mk.). They were soon to learn that “to be tossed by billows is no proof of desertion, or even of danger” (Burgon).


Still lying there, Jesus addressed himself first to the storm of terror in the hearts of his followers. “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Ps. 121:1,4). Why, indeed! Were they not knee deep in swirling water? Were there not mighty waves crashing into the boat at that very moment? Was not the roar of the storm enough to make brave men quail? Was it not likely that they would founder at any moment? Reason enough to be fearful!

But the real reason for their panic was something else-their little faith! If they knew Jesus to be the Son of God - and they had surely had time and experience enough to learn this — then ought not the logic of faith to teach them that, when he was on board, that humble fisher-craft was unsinkable even in the direst conditions. ?

Hardly ever did Jesus have any reproach for his disciples other than this “O ye of little faith”. It is a fact his followers in this later generation might well take note of. Weathering the storm in steadfast faith is more pleasing to the Lord than frantic importunity for aid or deliverance.

“Peace! Be still!”

Only when this needful reproach had been spoken did Jesus turn to the source of their terror. “Then”, writes Matthew, “he arose, and rebuked (s. w. Ps. 106:9 LXX) the winds and the sea: and there was a great calm”. He said, very simply, but with all authority: “Peace!” This to quiet the howling of the wind. Then, addressing the mighty turbulence of waters all around: “Be still” (the word he used implied: “and stay calm”).

Immediately a double miracle took place. The wind dropped. Its frightening roar ceased. Instead, only an even more frightening silence. And in the same second the ungoverned rage of violent waters all around, which might well have taken all night to subside, sank suddenly to the untroubled placidity of a pond.

The disciples gasped out in awe at the overpowering peacefulness of the scene before them. In the dim light still available to them they peered out over waters still as glass, and found no words for their amazement.

Faith and faith

But Jesus demanded their attention. “Where is your faith?” he asked them again (Lk.). “Why are ye so fearful? Have ye not yet faith?” But they had shown some faith. Their frantic appeal to him showed this. But it was not faith of the calibre he sought, not faith appropriate to an experience such as this. Is there a single disciple of the present day who would have fared any better in that testing experience? Faith in God’s covenants of promise is all very well. Faith in the outworking of God’s inexorable purpose is very necessary. But in this incident the Lord makes his peremptory demand for faith of a very practical personal kind such as few disciples ever rise to (ls. 54:11,17a; Mt. 28:20).

As it dawned on the minds of those men in the boat just what had happened, and how, the terror of the storm gave way to fear of a different sort. None more expert than they at handling a ship on that lake, yet “they feared a great fear, and said one to another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mk.). Their proper estimate of Jesus still needed scaling upwards. Very impressively Mark’s gospel traces the disciples’ growing fear of their Lord: 4:41; 6:50; 9:6,32; 10:32; 16:8. The more they got to know him, the more they feared. And this awe settled on the souls of those in the other boats also (so Matthew indicates) when they learned later from the apostles that the uncanny change from storm to stillness was at the word of Jesus of Nazareth.

Storm in the Psalms

The seafarers among them were bound to be familiar with the witness of the Scriptures to the majesty of God in sea and storm:

“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven” (Ps. 107:23-30).

“Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them” (Ps. 89:9).

“Which stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people” (Ps. 65:7).

“The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their waves. The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea” (Ps. 93:3,4).
This night they had seen the powers and attributes of Almighty God unpretentiously expressed in their Captain, a humble preacher from an ordinary home, and their marvelling at his miracles of healing in the multitude, which they had now almost got used to, gave place to a new sense of wonder and worship. This is specially preserved by Matthew in his description of the miracle: “he rebuked the winds and the sea”. It is this very expression which the gospels reserve for the Lord’s rebuke of the fever in Peter’s mother-in-law (Lk. 4:39) and for his rebuke of the unclean spirit in the epileptic boy (Mk. 9:25). Also, the command to the sea: “Be still”, was precisely the same as that by which he rebuked the demoniac in the synagogue (Mk. 1:25).

There appears to be a common factor in all of these. The Scriptures teach that all the powers of this world, good and “evil”, are administered through the angels, God’s ministers. The inevitable conclusion, then, from these examples of Christ’s divine power and authority, and ‘especially from this latest instance, should be, that even though he was “made for a little while lower than the angels” in that he became “partaker of flesh and blood”, nevertheless he had even in his mortality a status higher than they. They were sons of God (Job. 38:7), but he was the Son, the only begotten. How long did it take these men who were with him to learn, even through such demonstrations, the truth of this fact?

Notes: Mt. 8:23-27

What the mighty work of angels, controlling that storm, could not do (i.e. wake Jesus into action), disciples had the right to do. And he answers the disciples first, then he copes with the storm. It is the lesson of Hebrews 1.

Awoke him; s. w. in v. 26: arose. The word is used in both its senses: rouse, rise.
The men. Could these be employees in the boat with them (Mk. 1:20)? Or (see parallel in Lk.) the disciples, here not called disciples because of their present attitude. ‘Disciple’ means ‘learner’.

Lk. 8:22-25

Launched forth. The word has other meanings, but in Acts, 13 times, it means “set sail”.
The contacts with the Jonah narrative are unmistakable: the word for “raging” (1:4,11,12); “there came down”, cp. “the Lord sent”; asleep and wakened; “they feared a great fear” (Mk. 4:41 = 1:16).

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