Lessons of Faith from the Sovereign Sea-Stiller
Sermon Passage: Mark 4:35–41 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 06/06/2021
By Peder Kling
A Story About Jesus, Not Your Storms
Today’s passage is a very familiar one. If you asked a random person in the community, “name some of Jesus’s miracles”, it is very likely they might include “calming the storm at sea” in their list of miracles. Now, if you followed up with them and asked “what should we learn from Jesus calming the sea?”, I imagine many would say something like this: “trust Jesus, and he will calm the storms in your life”. That’s how many pastors have trained us to read these stories through their sermons. They might say—“if you trust Jesus enough, then he might take away your wife’s breast cancer, your financial burdens, your family problems, your problems at work, or your child’s paralysis.” You could think of a related story in the gospels where Peter takes a “leap of faith” into the water, and walks on the water with Jesus. The moment he gets scared, he begins to sink. So the main point in this story is obvious, isn’t it? If you trust Jesus enough, he will calm your storms and help you do the impossible. You could even walk on water. If you don’t trust him enough—you’ll sink.
So we must ask ourselves when we approach today’s passage—is that the focus and lesson which God has for us in these stories? I don’t think so, and for two reasons. First, it creates a false understanding of how God cares for his people, and what he expects of them. God isn’t a cruel tyrant who says, “Sorry, I won’t calm your storm unless you muter up enough faith”. I don’t see that true of God anywhere in the Bible. Some people might challenge me, here, and appeal to those passages where Jesus’s disciples couldn’t cast out a demon because, as Jesus told them, “they had too little faith” (Matt 17:20; Mark 9:29). But if you look at those stories, Jesus was telling his disciples that their faith was altogether defective—they were focused on themselves, not Jesus’s words or power. In the context, Jesus was in the process of predicting his death and resurrection, and the disciples wanted nothing to do with that plan. They were fighting amongst each other to know who was more righteous and worthy of the Messiah. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says they couldn’t cast out a demon “because of your little faith” (and then he explains what he means). “For truly I say to you, if you have faith like the grain of a mustard seed [you will be able to move mountains]”. Faith the size of a mustard seed is “little faith”—and, with that you can move mountains. You can cast out demons. You have to wonder what Jesus was saying when he was rebuking his disciples for having “little faith”, don’t you? I think he was saying that their faith was misplaced and defective because they were too busy focusing on themselves. The Spirit had not awakened them to the glories of the crucified and risen Christ, and his kingdom of humility, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
And yet, many Christians are led to believe preachers when they say—“if you trust Jesus enough, with a big enough faith, you’re wife’s breast cancer will go away. God will calm your storms”. What nonsense—that’s not what this passage says. I’ve seen first-hand how that sort of message can destroy a person. It fills you with anxiety and doubts concerning your salvation, God’s love for you, and the effectiveness of your prayers. Jesus’s blood and righteousness is the basis for God’s love and attentive ear toward you, not whether you have “enough faith”. God wants genuine faith which looks up to him—and, he can use that faith whether it’s a mustard seed or a fully-grown oak tree. One friend of mine often says, “it’s not about the size of your faith, but the object of your faith”.
And, this leads me to the other reason why reading Jesus’s miracles like this is wrong. It makes the story about you rather than Jesus. When you are questioning whether you have “enough faith”, the focus on you and your storms rather than on Jesus. Ironically, I would say it even turns you into Jesus’s self-absorbed disciples who focused on themselves rather than upon Jesus who actually performs the miracle. When we’ve looked through Mark’s gospel, where has the focus been? Jesus. I’ve said the same thing each week—but I’ll keep saying it because we need to keep our bearings right. Mark’s gospel forces us to ask the question, “who is Jesus?”. It forces us to keep our eyes on Jesus—“what’s he going to do or say next, that we should receive him and worship him, or reject him and mock him?”. This focus becomes very clear at the end of today’s story when the awe-struck disciples, after hearing Jesus rebuke the weather, say to themselves “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”. Who is this?
Using the Storm to Teach about Jesus and Faith
Mark has given us different angles and perspectives of Jesus to help us answer that question. In a word—we have seen Jesus’s unchallenged sovereignty over demons, forgiveness of sins, the Sabbath, and all the health problems which he was able heal. This week, the focus is on Jesus’s sovereignty over faith. He is sovereign over our hearts—when and how much we are moved to receive him by faith. He is sovereign over our hearts in that capacity—not ourselves. That’s what this story about Jesus calming the sea is about.
You might raise an eyebrow when I say this. It might seem at first glance that the more likely candidate is creation—Jesus is sovereign over creation. He stilled the waves, didn’t he? Yes. But if we keep the context of this passage in mind, I think we will see very quickly that Jesus is beginning to demonstrate his sovereign plan concerning the faith of his own disciples. He is using the storm to demonstrate this point. So, there are three lessons about Jesus in this passage, and they all pertain to Jesus and faith. [Note: this outline was inspired by Jason Meyers’ 9/2/17 sermon on the same passage]
First, Jesus Gives Faith
Second, Jesus Models faith
Third, Jesus Demands Faith
The Lesson from Context: Jesus Gives Faith
So, where in this story do we learn the lesson that Jesus alone gives us faith? The answer is in the context—and, I don’t simply mean the literary context of this story in Mark’s gospel. I mean the actual minutes and hours that preceded him going to to sea.
Look at verse 35, the first verse of our passage. The first few words describe the specific day that this story takes place. “On that day, when evening had come”. So, this is all happening on the same day which we learned about last week when Jesus taught the crowds about faith and his kingdom in parables. In fact, the passage describes it as a seamless transition from teaching, to going out to sea. Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Then we are told, “And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was [i.e., in the boat, where he was teaching].”. That’s the hour-by-hour context of this story, and I think the storm was just part 2 of the lesson he had been teaching all day.
So, what did we learn last week? Well first, we were reminded about the self-centered, self-seeking nature of the crowds whom Jesus was teaching parables to. We are told at the beginning of chapter 4 that Jesus was forced by the crowds out to the sea so that he could talk to them. If he remained on land, he was unable to teach because everyone in the crowd wanted to press up against him and touch him for healing. This is not a happy thing—the crowds wanted Jesus for his power and healing, not for his kingdom and message of faith and repentance. And what happens to a person who like this? Their brains turn off and they are unteachable. They don’t care what you have to say—only what you can give them. It’s like a drug addict in a doctor’s office. “Yeah, yeah—just give me the pills”.That’s what you should have in mind every time you see that Jesus is teaching on a boat rather than among the people.
So Jesus’s day begins in chapter 4 verse 1 by being pushed out into a boat by the crowds, as he is teaching these self-absorbed crowds seeking his healing. And when teaches them, he does things to illustrate their selfish hearts and deaf ears. First, he repeats himself. Fifteen times in chapter 4, we hear Jesus say “Listen!”, or “Hear!”. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. It’s shameful to you if someone has to do that to you—it’s something you do to a four year old who is distracted by a toy he wants.
Then, Jesus demonstrates their hard hearts and deaf ears by proclaiming his message about his kingdom through secretive parables. Last week, we saw that this was a style of teaching which Jesus used to pronounce judgment over the crowds. In verses 11–12, Jesus cites Isaiah’s ministry of judgment upon Israel as a proof-text for his parables. He spoke the gospel of his kingdom to them in parables, verses 11–12, “so they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven”.
Jesus wasn’t necessarily judging them with any new judgment. He says in John 3:18, “whoever does not believe is condemned already”. So, their unbelief and deaf ears is a sign that they are already judged. Many American Christians have been trained to think that rejecting or ignoring God’s word results in your judgment. The judgment is staved off until you die, or until you decide to receive him at an older age. That’s just not Biblical. With these parables, Jesus is teaching us to think something much different. If you ignore or reject God’s word, it means you are already judged, under God’s wrath and displeasure. You’d rather have the world, your desires and your pleasures, rather than God and his blessings. God and his life-giving joy and truth mean nothing to you. That’s judgment—and, Jesus’s parables were designed to expose their hard hearts, and to leave them in that situation until they would be screaming “crucify him!” on Calvary.
You see, Jesus had a plan for these hard hearts. His plan was to save them through their judged, hard hearts. Do you see, right there, how Jesus’s sovereignty over faith and judgment are beginning to seep into Mark’s gospel story?Jesus wasn’t hopelessly pleading to the masses to repent and trust in him. He was sovereignly leaving them in their judgment so that through their hard hearts (which were on full display at Calvary), he might save them from their hard hearts. The result: he is glorified in every aspect of their salvation. Thousands of people in these crowds would one day be saved—but Christ would grant them that faith at precisely the right moment.
Now, that’s the situation the crowds find themselves in. They get nothing from Jesus except parables, as he was intentionally leaving them in their hard hearts so that they would crucify him according to his plan. Verse 33 says that he only spoke to the crowds in parables.
Jesus’s Pop Quiz on His Disciple’s Faith
But then there’s the disciples. Verses 33 also says “he explained everything privately to his own disciples”. I want you to picture being one of Jesus’s disciples on a day like that day. Mark does not tell us what time Jesus began to teach on that day—but, the passage seems to convey that it was a long day of teaching on the boat. Verse 2 tell us that he “was teaching them many things”. Verse 33 gets to the same point. Then, Jesus is signing himself up for an extra-long day because he had to teach everything twice. He taught the crowds in parables, and then he had to explain everything to his disciples. So, you’d think the disciples would be sitting pretty well in their understanding. They’ve seen all of Jesus’s miracles; they’ve heard all his teachings; they’ve even received Jesus’s exclusive material on everything he’s taught. You might think that of all the people who had seen and heard Jesus, these 12 would be particularly ready to “ace” a multiple choice test on Jesus’s teaching.
But, here’s the deal—Jesus doesn’t use multiple choice tests on his people, does he? He tests them in the field—he tests their heart with real-life problems and trials. In today’s story about the boat and the sea storm, you might say we find discover the first test Jesus gave to his disciples during their 3 year crash-course on the Messiah and his kingdom. You might call this one a “pop-quiz”. This was the kind your teacher might give you immediately after a lecture when everything is still fresh in your mind. You simply have to prove you were listening. Remember: Jesus had been teaching them all day—now, he would test them right there, on the field (or, in the water), to see if they were paying attention. And the irony of it is that Jesus knew they didn’t understand everything yet. He knew they needed to be humbled with one more display of his power and grace. Sometimes a teacher might give a pop quiz to make the students aware that they need to pay closer attention. That’s what is going on here—and, we will continue to see Jesus do this sort of thing throughout his ministry to the disciples.
Verse 37 gives us the details of this pop-quiz after a day of teaching. Mark tells us that when they set sail to the other side of the sea,
A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.
By “great windstorm”, there, Mark means to tell us that something like a hurricane of wind descended upon them. This is not a small lake—it’s quite massive and produces some intense weather all year round due to its geographical situation. And the disciples, being local fishermen, were very well acquainted with these storms. They knew the weather patterns and the practical wisdom to not get trapped in a bad storm like this.
This storm, with Jesus sleeping in the boat, was different. There was no warning—and, it was massive. The Greek language used to describe the storm is reminiscent of a hurricane of wind. Before the disciples knew what happened to them, the boat was filling up with water, to nearly being swamped and useless. I have no indication to think this was any, ordinary windstorm they had experienced during their career as fishermen. This was a test of their faith from God.
Did they pass the test? Did they trust Jesus, even after he had done miracles which only God could perform, and after all his teachings concerning his kingdom of righteousness? Let me remind you that the disciples saw Jesus doing all his miracles up to this point on his own authority—in his own name. He was not invoking the name of Yahweh when he healed their diseases, forgave people’s sins, or challenged the religious system of the day. The reason why people kept asking him, “by what authority do you do these things?” is because he was performing miracles in a way no prophet had ever performed them before. Elijah made it clear to everyone that Yahweh was the power behind his miracles. But Jesus approaches it with the focus on his power and his authority. Remember what he said to the paralytic in 2:10–11, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, I say ‘Rise, pick up your bed, and go home’”. Isn’t that astounding? All of that, with Jesus’s teachings about the parables, are funneling down into this test on the Sea of Galilee. Will the disciples have confident faith in Jesus’s power, or will their fear lead them to fail this test? Look at verse 38 with me, again. As the storm was raging, we are told—
But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?!”
Now, it is interesting that the disciples had the correct impulse to wake Jesus up and appeal to him for help. Some people think the disciples words in this passage are an arrogant rebuke—“don’t you care we are perishing?!”. The greek language formulates this in a way that assumes a positive answer. They weren’t saying “why don’t you care that we are perishing?!”, but “you do care that we are perishing, don’t you?”. Do you see the subtle difference, there? The one assumes Jesus doesn’t care, and the other assumes he does care. The disciples knew he loved them. They also knew he could save them. In Matthew’s account of the story, they actually say “Save us Lord, for we are perishing!”. So, it would seem in that moment of hopelessness at sea, the disciples had learned to assume that Jesus loved them, and that he was able to save them. Based on those words alone, it may seem like they passed the test.
And yet, notice what Jesus says to them after calming the storm. He says in verse 40, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”. Could you imagine this, after you woke him up and asked him to save you? You might think the disciples could have lashed back at him to say—“excuse me? We called out to you to save us. How is that not faith?!”. It seems odd, doesn’t it? And to add to this, I’m convinced that there was a deeper meaning to Jesus’s rebuke when he said to them, “Why are you so afraid?”. The word afraid there is not the standard word for fear, which we do see in the next verse when we are told, “they were filled with great fear” when the realized Jesus’s power over the wind and waves. The word there is phobos—like when you have a phobia. The disciples had a phobia, a fear of Jesus after he calmed the sea. But in verse 40, Jesus rebukes them with a different word that I think is better translated as “coward”. One translation tells us that Jesus said to the disciples, “why are you cowardly? Have you still no faith?”.
Faith is More than an Anxious Cry for Help
So, even though the disciples reached out to Jesus for salvation—Jesus calls them cowards, and encourages them to consider whether they have faith. What’s the lesson, here? Is it a cowardly, faithless thing to call out to Jesus when you need help?
Here’s the lesson. A little faith may save you, but it won’t instill unshakable peace and joy within you. The disciples were saved by their faith—they were moved to call upon Jesus, and he delivered. But everything in this story points to a very frantic, anxious, overwhelmed group of disciples who called out to Jesus in a panic rather than in a restful and confident faith in Jesus. They hadn’t fully grasped the power and glory of Jesus yet, even though it had been on full display before them. The implications hadn’t hit their heart yet, so that they would be filled with unshakable, restful, and fearless faith in the boat that day. Their uncertainties and confusion left worldly anxieties and hesitations in them—and so when they were struck by a wave, an anxious plea to Jesus came out of them.
Distinguishing Stress from Anxiety or Fear
Now, you might say—“Peder, aren’t the circumstances they were faced with cause for some urgency and stress?”. The answer is “yes, absolutely.” But we must remember that physical stress is not anxiety. As Christians with all the God’s promises working to your favor in Christ, you can go through extremely hard and stressful trials which shake you to your bones, and yet you have a deeply confident trust in God that dispels fear and anxiety from your soul. Paul calls it “the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding”. When you are confidently assured that Jesus’s blood and righteousness places you in good standing with God, you can rest easy because God favors you. When you are confidently assured that Jesus is commissioning his Spirit to your aid at every waking and sleeping moment of your life, you can rest easy. We need to keep “stress” separate in our minds from “anxiety” and “fear”. In fact, we must never say “I’m just really stressed” when you are actually anxious, and need to turn from anxiety to Christ’s peace. The Bible makes very clear that anxiety is a sin.
My favorite image of this is Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, anticipating the moment when his Father would pour his infinite wrath upon him—the wrath you and I deserved for our sin. The very thought of it made Jesus’s body shake so deeply that he sweat drops of blood. But, his soul was secured in his Father’s love for him. He was not anxious. In that moment, Jesus was not frantic and thoughtless. As he felt the weight of the moment, he was not grasping for his Father like a beaten down coward. He was shaking for sure—but, his troubled soul was restful and prayerful with a peace which surpasses understanding. “Not my will, Father, but yours be done”.
Do you think the disciples had reason enough to have this sort of faith in Jesus, as their boat tossed in the waves? I’ve already explained to you everything they had seen and heard from him. There was no reason for them to fear with anxiety and cowardice in that boat. This is why Jesus says, “do you still have no faith [even all that you have seen and heard]?”.
Bringing it Together: Jesus Gives Faith
So, this all comes back to the question at hand—who gives you that bold, assured, peace-instilling, faith? If it’s up to us to muster up faith in our own hearts, the disciples give us very little hope that we will ever obtain it. Thankfully, the Bible makes very clear that it comes from Jesus. It comes from God. Jesus promised this sort of faith to his disciples when he said “the helper will come to you after I leave you”. Romans 8 reminds us that the Spirit himself testifies to our hearts that we are children of God—that we belong to God, and that all his promises and blessing are ours in Christ Jesus. When the Spirit himself persuades you of that, and opens your eyes to the glory of Christ, there’s your peace. There’s your strength and courage. As we continue to work our way through this gospel, we will continue to see the disciple’s need for faith build.
So, we’ve seen in the disciples that we desperately need faith—and, that Jesus gives it to us in his own timing. But I want to take moment to consider how Jesus himself models faith for us in this passage.
The Second Lesson on Faith: Jesus Models Faith
Jesus models faith for us in this passage by showing us just how restful faith in God can be. Literally—he was sleeping through a life-threatening storm. That’s restful.
When you read this passage, you might have asked yourself “how on Earth could a man sleep through a hurricane like this?”. There are two answers, really. The first answer is simply in remembering that Jesus was 100%, fully man who had to sleep like you and me—especially after a long day of teaching. Teaching is exhausting—and, Jesus had been doing it on a boat, in the sun (most likely?), projecting his voice for all to hear for an entire day! That will wipe a man out. I once slept through an entire flight from Ethiopia to New York after a week of teaching pastors in Ethiopia—I don’t remember any part of the 14 hour flight at all. This isn’t entirely inconceivable.
But, whether Jesus was a hard sleeper or not is beside the greater point. Sleeping Jesus is a perfect contrast to the frantic disciples in this story.
Notably, the Bible regularly links sleep to godly faith that understands and receives God’s protection. Perhaps you remember the old children’s rhyme—“now I lay me to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep”. I really believe God made us sleeping creatures so that we would be forced to trust him every time we close our eyes. Psalm 4:8, for example, says this—
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
This is a Psalm of David when he was being slandered and attacked by his enemies. But he says in this Psalm—“You have given me relief when I was in distress”. That’s relief to the soul amid distress. Relief that helps you sleep at night. Or he says in verse 7, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound”. David did not need wine to drink his sorrows away, or fill him with momentary joy. He had God. Say your prayers at night, give the cares of the day to him, and rest in him as Jesus rested on the boat.
So, we’ve seen that Jesus gives us the faith we need, and he models that faith for us. We must also see in this story that he ultimately demands our faith.
The Third Lesson: Jesus Demands Faith
This is jumping out of the story in verses 39 and 41—
And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm…. And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Do you notice how they move from cowardice to fear in this story? The storms made them cowardly before God, and Jesus’s revealed power and authority makes them tremble with fear. “Who is this?”. He didn’t even pray to God, or invoke his name. This was his authority, his word, his rebuke to the wind and waves. I have no question that his divinity was running through their heads at this point. Only God can control weather.
Now, the Old Testament regularly describes God’s power with reference to his authority over the seas. But if you turn in your Bible to Psalm 107, you’re going to find an interesting parallel to this story. Starting in verse 23, God’s people say of God’s salvation—
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
So there, you see men get jostled by a storm that God created—a storm that is described as “the deeds of the LORD”. The response of these men might sound familiar—
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble…
Sounding familiar? God answers, just as Jesus did—
...and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
All sounding familiar. But get this—the next verse describes the response that men usually have when God does something in their favor.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
They were glad. But—what do you do when this story is happening to you, and a human person calms the storm as only God can do? “they were filled with great fear”. God was in the boat with them, even saying to them, “Cowards. Do you still have no faith?”.
Jesus demands our faith because he is God, and he has revealed himself as such. He holds all power in heaven and on earth, and it is a terrifying thing to reject him. As God, he will judge his enemies with a wrath that will be impossible to endure. Yet because he is God, he is also “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6).
In the boat that day, the disciples felt this reality in a heavy and fresh way. Yet, their fear was short-lived. Before long, Peter would be rebuking Jesus and they would be rejecting him again, even as he hung on the cross to save them from their sins. Again, we see this come full circle. The disciples’ ability to understand and believe upon Jesus by faith was entirely in Jesus’s hands. Until he would work true faith in them by his spirit, they would continue to be the rocky soil that sprouts up a seedling of joy, but cannot allow deep roots to take hold for the hard trials in life.
And this should be an encouragement to us. We do not need to muster up “enough faith” for Jesus to be pleased with us. He is able to bless even a mustard seed of faith—and, he sovereignly works faith in us as we read or hear his word; pray; and experience his tests which he designs to humble us like the disciples were in the boat. This is where Charles Spurgeon says, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me upon the rock of ages”.
Jesus gives you faith.
Jesus models faith.
Jesus—who has revealed himself as God—demands our faith.