And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Matthew 8:23-27 (NRSV)
Earlier, Jesus had given orders to cross the Sea of Galilee to the other side before he was held up by a couple of people who asked to become his followers. Having had those conversations, he and his disciples get into a boat to cross.
This is one of the more famous stories of Jesus. It is a powerful image that lends itself well to retelling and various portrayals not just due to its own drama, but in terms of the empathy we feel with the disciples who are fearful because of their circumstances, while Jesus is calmly in control of them.
The sea itself may contribute some of the meaning, here. The sea, throughout the Levant, represented chaos and destruction by powerful forces. All the way back to Genesis 1, Elohim commands creation to rise up out of the chaos waters, and both the waters and the creation obey. This is in contrast to other creation myths in the Levant, where a god or demigod has to battle with a primordial sea monster for supremacy.
This unleashing of destructive chaos crops up in many, many Old Testament accounts, either directly (the Flood, the Red Sea, etc.) or indirectly, used as a common symbol for both the grave and the invasion of powerful armies. It is this significance, in fact, that contributes to John’s vision in the Apocalypse of a new age where there is no sea in the world (Revelation 21:1). Jesus demonstrating mastery over the sea, in the Hebrew mind, has connotations of Jesus being the master of not just a body of water, but the core forces of destruction in the world – powerful armies, chaos and entropy, and even death itself.
But we also want to take into account the purpose of miracles in the gospels, which are to give signs that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah.
Throughout the Old Testament, God does miracles through people for similar purposes. Sometimes, the miracle itself is an act of deliverance. But whether it is or not, the miracles serve the purpose of demonstrating that God is on the side of the miracle-worker and the miracle-worker is in the right – his contentions are true.
When it comes to miracles that control nature, and storms in specific, we might think about Elijah, who not only called down lightning from heaven in a contest with Baal the storm god, but who shut up the rain during those years. This is to demonstrate what the poor widow recognizes during this time when Elijah raises her son from the dead: “Now I know you really are a man from God. I know that the Lord truly speaks through you.” (1 Kings 17:24, NCV for some reason)
Or perhaps we might think of Moses who brought plagues upon Egypt’s natural resources, destroyed their army in the Red Sea, called down manna from heaven, opened the earth to swallow a rebellion, and on and on.
It is through these demonstrations that observers recognized that Israel’s God was operating through these men, and it marked them as true prophets and deliverers – Egypt in Moses’ case, a corrupt political and religious government in Elijah’s case.
By doing this miracle, Jesus not only saves his disciples, he demonstrates that God is working in him – that he is a prophet and a deliverer in YHWH’s name just as the miracle workers of old were in Israel’s history. The fact that he saves his disciples from a storm at sea is part of the sign, that Jesus will save those who follow him from the coming storm against Jerusalem. Remember Jesus’ parable from the Sermon on the Mount. A storm is coming, and those who listen to Jesus’ words and follow them will be saved through it.
Once again, Matthew brings us firmly back around to the issue of trust in God despite the appearance of external circumstances. Here, that experience is encapsulated by a short story about a storm, but this is a theme that spans Israel’s entire history and is particularly relevant to Israel at that moment in history. Israel, who lives as a prisoner and a sojourner in her own land, ruled by a pagan empire that is many, many times more powerful than they. Israel, whose religious leaders are not shepherds who will lay down their lives for her, but instead are money-grubbing hypocrites who scrabble like dogs for every shred of power the Empire might throw their way, all while parading their external conformity to the Torah as righteousness. And this situation doesn’t last for a few weeks or a few months or even a term of four years – it has gone on a long time, even longer if you replace Rome with INSERT PAGAN EMPIRE HERE.
But Matthew tells his readers, “Jesus is a reason to trust God.”
This Jesus is the Word that God is moving and active among His people, ready to do a great work of deliverance. This Jesus will be their anchor not only while they follow him, but for decades after his death (and resurrection). This Jesus will be a reason to trust God for the intervening centuries under pagan persecution until the Empire embraces the name of Christ. This Jesus will be a reason for countless Gentiles who did not know Israel’s God at first to trust Him. This Jesus continues to be a reason to trust God for people the world over from age to age who did not know him as a man, but take up his identity and mission all the same, trusting in the God who raised him from the dead.
Can we say that, in a given particular circumstance, God will always intervene to make it turn out the way we’d like? If you’re old enough to even entertain that question, you know the answer is no. There are specific circumstances where He does, and many others where He is silent. God does not ask us to trust Him on the basis of all our troubles going away, our suffering being alleviated, or even our lives being saved. If that’s where our eyes are set, we will surely have a great difficulty trusting this God.
But God asks us to, insofar as we can, see the story from where He sits. He asks us to see the long journey of His people through ups and downs. He asks us to look at how He has always moved to keep His promises in the timing He deems best, even when His own people are not keeping up their end of the bargain. He tells us, as Jesus showed the disciples in the boat, that He will see His people safely through whatever lay ahead, and they will not just survive, but be the heralds of a new creation.
Even if it takes resurrection to do it.
- What are some instances in Israel’s history when the common person on the street probably felt as though their circumstances were insurmountable? What did God do in those circumstances and why?
- Have there been specific circumstances in your own life when God did not act in a way that would have helped you? Do they make it harder to trust God? Have you ever told Him that (the prophets had no issue telling God this)? How could you work through these things with Him?