I was sitting in the pew at our worship service on Sunday listening to the sermon when something from the text jumped out at me. The sermon was on fear, and not being afraid, and the scripture it was based on was from Matt. 8:23-27 (and also its Markan parallel in Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus calms the storm. While I was reading the passage, it suddenly occurred to me just how much like another story in the Bible this one was, and that by making them so similar the writer was probably trying to draw parallels to it. Let’s take a deeper look.
Let’s take a look at the two stories, side by side, so you can really see how close they are. Then we’ll finish by looking at the significance behind their endings.
“Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat.” (Matt. 8:23-24a, NIV)
In this story, Jesus leads his disciples out into the lake where (he knew) the storm would arise. When the storm came, it was incredible. As I learned on Sunday, the word used for the storm was the Greek σεισμός (seismos), only used by Matthew to denote an earthquake when Jesus died and when he rose from the grave. So Matthew is trying to convey just how big this storm was. It was huge and I think he was trying to bring to mind another fierce storm from the scriptures:
“Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid…” (Jonah 1:4-5a, NIV)
The literal Hebrew of the passage is that “the ship thought to break up,” as though it was so bad that the ship itself thought to break itself so as to end its misery. The sailors were afraid for their lives, and Jonah goes on to say that each one prayed to their own god. They thought they were going to die. Who does that remind you of? Let’s keep going in the story, this time flipping over to Mark’s version:
“Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?'” (Mark 4:28, NIV)
Just like the sailors on Jonah’s boat, we can see that the disciples were terrified. Notice here that Jesus was calmly sleeping through the storm, but his disciples were so afraid that they woke him. But they didn’t just wake him up and say “master, we are afraid,” no, they asked if he cared if they drowned. Sounds to me like what happened to Jonah, who was also sleeping through the storm:
“But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:5c-6)
The rabbis have an interesting commentary on this verse in Jonah, one that is strikingly familiar and sounds like the gospel passages. Here is what two different rabbis interpreted the above verse from Jonah to mean:
“What is the matter with you to be sound asleep? Now is no time to sleep!” – (Rashi on Jonah 1:6)
“We are standing between life and death, and you sleep?” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezar, ch. 10, explaining Jonah 1:6)
Sounds like Jesus’ disciples. So we have the same storm, the same complete and gripping fear of death from the sailors, and the person of interest is asleep during the storm. Now we look to the ending. Both stories end the same way – the sea is calmed – but how they get there is different:
“Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.” (Jonah 1:15, NIV)
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” (Mark 4:39, NIV)
And finally, at the end of the story about the storm, we see they end the exact same way – everyone is amazed:
“At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” (Jonah 1:16)
“They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” (Mark 4:41)
Both the sailors on Jonah’s boat and Jesus’ disciples were filled with fear after seeing the storm calmed. It’s easy to see why the pagan sailors would be so afraid because they had worshiped what Jeremiah calls “gods who are not gods” (false gods who have no powers). Suddenly they have seen the power of the One True God, and they fear Him, as they rightly should. But Jesus’ disciples? They had already seen him perform many miracles, including healing paralytics, driving out demons, and healing skin diseases. So why should they be “terrified” when he calms the storm? To find that answer, we must look at who controls nature.
“O LORD God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” (Psalm 89:8-10, NIV)
Only God has power over nature, and the power to calm the raging seas. At the end of the Jonah passage, God calms the storm. At the end of the Gospel narrative, Jesus calms the storm. The disciples fear him because they realize He is God, but even more than that, I think the disciples were terrified because, as it says in Job:
11 The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke.
12 By his power he churned up the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.
13 By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the gliding serpent.
14 And these are but the outer fringe of his works;
how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”
(Job 26:11-14, NIV)
That’s just the outer fringe of his power! It’s just the faint whisper of his strength! I think that’s the reason they were terrified after he calmed the storm. For the very first time, they truly grasped that they were in the presence of God incarnate. Watching Him calm the storm filled them with great fear because suddenly he went from (in their eyes) a man who was at the height of man’s power (to do great miracles in the name of God, like the prophets of old) to the faint whisper of God’s unlimited power.
In the words of the Psalmist:
24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.
Give thanks to Adonai for his unfailing love, and his wonderful deeds for men!
Peace to you,
P.S. It’s also interesting to note that the New Testament sets Jesus up very early as the next Jonah. First, this story where Jesus does what Jonah could not. Jesus preaches repentance to everyone that God called him to preach to, unlike Jonah who ran and then only reluctantly did it. Finally, Jesus fulfills the sign of Jonah by his death and resurrection. This warrants more study, but that is for another post.
Update (Nov. 24, 2009): My friend Bryan Nix wrote a good post about Jonah and why he was so quick to run away from God’s call.