Calming the Stormy Sea

By Eric D. Huntsman. Cross-posted at New Testament Thoughts and excerpted from The Miracles of Jesus19-22.

The divinity of Jesus that the miracle at Cana symbolized was even more clearly demonstrated in those nature miracles that are the clearest examples of epiphanies, or direct revelations of a divine identity.[1]  The twin examples of Jesus’ calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee and his later walking on that same body of water are striking illustrations of this because they employ common Near Eastern symbols of creation, which often involved a deity defeating the unruly powers of chaos, which were often represented with images of stormy seas.[2]  But more importantly, because the Hebrew Bible credited YHWH, or Jehovah, with the ability to subdue the sea and tread upon the face of the waters, these New Testament miracles directly connect Jesus with the Jehovah of the Old Testament.

Mark 4:35–41 gives the earliest account of Jesus stilling a storm and thereby saving his disciples.  His account is followed with only some modifications by Matthew 8:23–27 and Luke 8:22–25.[3]  The first part of the episode sets the scene by describing the great storm that arose while Jesus and his disciples were on the Sea of Galilee in a small boat.   The disciples’ terror contrasts with the unperturbed calm of Jesus, who seemingly would have slept through the storm had his friends had not roused him, begging for his aid.  In the second part of this miracle story, Jesus, in a moment of divine majesty, “arose, and rebuked (Greek, epitimēsen) the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).  Jesus’ direct rebuke of the storm is followed by an implicit reprimand of his disciples in the next verse, when he says, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?”  The concluding part of the story relates the reaction of the disciples: “they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41).  The common literary motif of greatness weaves the sections of the miracle story together, stressing the great storm that occasions the miracle, the great calm that ensues, and the great fear of the disciples that results.[4]

This repeated emphasis on greatness underscores Jesus’ connection with the Old Testament YHWH who could cause the flood to recede (Genesis 8:1), divide the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21; Psalm 106:7–11; Isaiah 51:10), and cause storms to arise and to subside (Jonah 1:4, 15–16; Psalm 89:8–10; 93:3–4; 107:25–30).  But while God could be the force behind tempests to accomplish his purposes, some storms result from independently acting forces of nature, which since the fall can be unpredictable, dangerous, and even contrary to his purposes.  As a result, the Lord at times must rebuke the waters (Psalm 104:7), even as Jesus rebuked the wind on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:39).  This adds an important element to the image of Jesus as Jehovah: whereas he had originally brought order out of chaos as Creator, since the fall his creation has become prone to disorder, making it necessary for him to “reorganize” it.  This idea of re-creation is, in fact, a type of Jesus’ role as the one who would reverse the effects of the fall, giving us hope that sickness, disability, age, war, other conflicts, and even the death that characterizes mortality will one day be overcome and set right.[5]

            But beyond being an epiphany that reveals the divine identity of Jesus as Creator and Re-creator, the mighty act of calming the storm can also be characterized as a rescue miracle.[6]  Indeed, in Matthew’s version, the disciples cry out, “save (Greek, sōson) us: we perish” (Matthew 8:25, emphasis added).  Just as the sailors on the ship to Tarshish had to rouse a sleeping Jonah to pray for the Lord to end the storm that threatened them, so Jesus slumbered during the Galilee storm, untroubled, and apparently not in any danger, from such a temporal tempest.[7]  But where Jonah prayed to the Lord, asking him to calm the tempest, Jesus himself rebukes the storm and brings peace.  The original audience of Mark is generally understood to have consisted of a small, persecuted Christian community in and around Rome,[8] which would have compared their own trials and struggles to being caught in a dangerous storm.  They, like the original disciples on the boat with Jesus, may have had a crisis of faith as they waited for the Lord to rescue them but would have taken heart that he would, in fact, save them in time.[9]  This is where readers and believers today can find modern application: just as YHWH could rescue his people from actual storms on the sea and bring them safely to their port (see again Psalm 107:23–30), when storms of life arise for us, Jesus will save us if we have faith and will call upon him.  Beyond that, the use of the word “save” (Greek, sōzō) also connects Jesus’ miracle here to the deeper, spiritual salvation that comes through the atonement.[10]


[1]Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 94–99.

[2]Achtemeier, “Person and Deed: Jesus and the Storm-Tossed Sea,” 170–75; Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, 123.

[3]Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 113–14, 155–56.

[4]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.925–28.

[5]Achtemeier, “Person and Deed: Jesus and the Storm-Tossed Sea,” 176.

[6]Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 99–101.

[7]Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.931–32; Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 70–71.

[8]Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 31, 34–36.

[9]Marcus, Mark 1–8, 336–37.

[10]Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 112–13.