The story of Jesus calming the sea is one of those classic Sunday School stories, perfect for flannelgraph time. Yet there is far more to this story than our childhood memories might recall. In some ways, this story is still about discipleship. After rejecting two disciples who are not able to commit themselves to Jesus’s high standard of discipleship, we now learn that even the disciples who were willing to leave family and reputations behind and got in the boat with Jesus have “little faith” in who Jesus really is. That is the second thread in this brief story, Jesus is the God who commands the seas and silences the winds and waves. But there is a third, darker thread to this story. The storm is not a normal storm, this is a satanic attack on Jesus, something which becomes clearer when he arrives on the other side of the lake and encounters two demoniacs (Matt 8:28-34). Jesus will silence demons in the same way he silences the storm in 8:23-27.
Matthew has an abbreviated version of the story found in Mark 4:35-41. Mark mentions other boats were with Jesus’s boat and that Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The words of the disciples are omitted, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” and Jesus’s words rebuking the storm are also omitted (“Peace, be still”). Although Jesus’s words to the disciples are slightly different the gist is the same (they have little faith). Luke 8:22-25 is quite similar. Instead of “teacher” the disciples call Jesus Master (ἐπιστάτης, twice) and he adds the phrase “they were in great danger.” In all three versions Jesus and the disciples reach Gerasenes (or Gadarenes in Matthew) and encounter a demoniac (or two, in Matthew).
After hearing he is about to leave Capernaum and go to the other side of the lake, two would-be disciples approach Jesus (8:18-22). Jesus responds to them with enigmatic sayings which show how difficult it is to be a true disciple of Jesus. Jesus then gets into the boat with his disciples to cross the sea. These are presumably his true disciples, the beginnings of the twelve. Jesus does not appoint the twelve until chapter 10.
First, Jesus falls asleep and a great storm threatens to swamp the boat. First, Jesus is asleep in the boat during a violent storm and needs to be awakened (v. 25). In Matthew 20:8 the same word will be used for raising the dead. This may be an indication of total exhaustion. As a human Jesus was exhausted by a long day of teaching and healing and simply was worn out. In the other hand, Jesus is so confident that he will not be killed crossing the lake that he is able to lay down and sleep in the presence of his enemies (the chaos of the sea, cf. Psalm 3:5-6).
Second, this should be a short trip across the lake, a trip the disciples have made many times. The Sea of Galilee is not a large lake and early evening boat trip cutting across the lake would be faster than a crowd could follow. In addition, the will land near the Gentile region of Decapolis where a Jewish teacher is unlikely to draw a huge crowd. This trip should take about two hours, but because of the storm it well into the night before the disciples decided to wake Jesus from his sleep.
Third, this is not just a normal bad storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Old Testament, a raging sea is often used as a metaphor for the enemies of God. In Daniel 7:2 a series of nations rise from the raging, churning sea, nations who all oppress God’s people. Even in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the chaotic, formless and void waters before God imposes order on the chaos in the days of creation. Matthew says the storm is a violent storm (σεισμὸς μέγας), Mark and Luke describe it as a “furious storm” (λαῖλαψ), a word used only in Mark 4: and Luke 8:23 (and 2 Peter 2:17, false teachers are driven by strong winds).
The Disciples are Terrified (8:25). The storm is so great the disciples are terrified. Presumably at least four of these men are Peter and Andrew, James and John, men who were raised in Galilee and were used to fishing on the lake at night.
The disciples fear they are about to die because of this storm, so the awaken Jesus and call him to save them from the storm. The disciples address Jesus as Lord (Κύριε). The second would-be disciples also called Jesus Lord, although it not clear he meant anything more by this than a respectful title. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says not everyone who calls him Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven (7:21).
They say to Jesus “Save us!” Although Christians are used to hearing “saves” in the context of personal salvation (Eph 2:5, 2:8 for example), the word is common in the Old Testament when someone is crying out to the Lord to be rescued from some real-life danger. For example, Psalm 3:7. “Arise, O Lord! Save me,” the LXX uses κύριε, σῶσόν με, virtually the same phrase as Matthew 8:25. The reason David’s enemies have risen up against him, his son has rebelled against him and his life is in real danger. Psalm 3 concludes with the line, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” It may be a coincidence, but in Psalm 3:5 the psalmist is so confident in the Lords salvation that he lays down and sleeps and is sustained by the Lord when he awakens even though he is surrounded by his enemies.
Remarkably Jesus calls his disciples cowards! The word δειλός is a rare in the New Testament, used here and in the parallel story in Mark 4:40. The word can have the sense of fearfulness but is used for timidity and cowardice (BrillDAG). It is rare in the LXX, used in Judges 7:3 for the men who were afraid of the upcoming battle, similar to 1 Macc 3:56. In 2 Chronicles 13:7 it is used to describe the “certain worthless scoundrels” who supported Jeroboam. Depending on how you want to hear these words, Jesus could be calling out his disciples for being timid (having little faith) or calling them a bunch of cowards!
In either case, the problem is they lack confidence in Jesus to protect them from this unusual storm. In Mark 4:38, the disciples say “don’t you care we are perishing,” in Matthew they call out to Jesus to save them from certain death.
Jesus then rises and rebukes the winds and the sea, resulting in “great calm.” To rebuke someone is to silence them. Jesus rebukes demons and orders them to be silent, but he also rebukes his disciples. When Peter sought to correct what he took to be Jesus’s misunderstanding about his role as messiah (the word rebuke is used), Jesus rebukes Peter (Matt 16:22).
After he rebuked the sea, there was a “great calm” (γαλήνη μεγάλη). “Calm” is an unruffled surface on a body of water (BDAG); it is a “dead calm.” The word is used as a metaphor for tranquility or serenity (BrillDAG). Whatever the storm was like (supernatural chaos), this is the exact opposite, a supernatural calm.
What is the Point of this Story? Following Mark, Matthew presents Jesus as the God who controls the seas. The sea was considered by most ancient cultures to be a place of chaos that only the gods can control. But in the Old Testament God is the one who controls the seas. For example, Psalm 89:9 describes God as ruling the raging of the sea and the waves.
In Psalm 89:8-10 and Job 26:12-13 Rahab refers to a primordial sea dragon. Although this is a terrifying and powerful creature, God slaughters it completely. The sea is a dangerous place which threatens to destroy God’s people. Just as God controlled the chaos of the waters in Genesis 1:2, he unleashed that chaos at the time of the flood.
Jesus rebuked the winds and the seas, a clear allusion to Psalm 107. The Psalmist describes God as “rebuking the Red Sea” when he brought Egypt up out of Egypt. Psalm 107:29, the Lord himself calms the sea, 107:25-27 describes the terrifying storm, in vs. 28 they cry out to the Lord in their trouble; vs. 29 the Lord stilled the sea, the storm was waves were hushed, the waters are quiet, and the Lord brought them to their desired haven (v. 30).
The sea was considered by most ancient people to be a place of chaos, only the gods can calm the chaos of the sea. Psalm 89:8 indicates God controls the sea and calms the waves. In the Psalms, the writer often describes himself as drowning in deep waters, only God can rescue him (Pss 18:16; 69:2, 14–15).
By calming the sea, Jesus reveals who he is to his closest disciples, but they do not fully understand at this point who he is.