On the journey between two difficult events for Jesus a storm arises and the disciples show fear. Jesus challenges them to show faith - before he's calmed the storm. The challenge still stands today.
On the journey between two difficult events for Jesus a storm arises and the disciples show fear. Jesus challenges them to show faith - before he's calmed the storm. The challenge still stands today.
Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 14. This is the story of Jesus calming a storm and we're going to look at it from the point of view of Luke: Luke 8: 22 to 26. This is an interesting story in which the accounts given in the other Gospels (particularly, in this case, Matthew and Mark) are very helpful, so I'm going to refer to those as well because they add some really interesting details. The account in Mark is Mark 4: 35 - 41; and in Matthew, Matthew 8: 18 and then 8: 23 - 27.
Introduction and Recap
This is a very dramatic and well-known story and it follows on directly after some major events in Jesus' second tour of Galilee. You'll remember there was a first tour, where he established his reputation, taught, preached and healed. Then came the Sermon on the Mount, a very major point in his ministry; the appointment of the twelve Apostles at that time; and he's now in his second tour. Many important things have happened and - most specifically to the context - Jesus is by the lakeside of the Sea of Galilee. He's been addressing a large crowd and his disciples, and he's been talking to them and teaching them in parables. These are recorded most fully in Matthew 13 where seven different parables are identified that Jesus taught on a particular day, as he was standing in a boat just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and teaching a large crowd and his disciples. These parables had the theme of the growth of the Kingdom of God and he was trying to explain the process by which the Kingdom of God would grow so that those who followed him were able to understand that process in the light of the fact that it wasn't all going to happen at once - there was going to be a long period of time and gradual growth during that time until Christ comes again. That's the wider context that we need to bear in mind.
In the last episode, Jesus warned his listeners in the crowd to make sure that they were careful how they listened to his message. They needed to be receptive, open, humble and willing to embrace the life of the Kingdom and join believers following him, believing in him as Messiah and becoming his disciples. Then we concluded our last episode with a fascinating little story of Jesus' mother and his brothers - up to four brothers could have been present. He had four brothers that are named in Mark's Gospel. They came to try and find Jesus and, as you look at the text closely and the parallel passages, we see that they wanted to take him home. They were worried about him and they couldn't really get access to him. The people said, “Your mother and your brothers are in the crowd wanting to see you,” and Jesus used that as a basis for teaching and saying, essentially, that those who followed and obeyed God's will and Jesus' teaching were his mother and his brothers and his sisters. We don't know quite what happened to his mother and brothers, but there's no record of them being able to see Jesus at that point in the midst of the huge crowd.
With this crowd by the side of the lake and this very significant teaching having taken place, Jesus suddenly makes a very different move. He decides to relocate and go across the lake and that's the starting point for our story and for this important event. We're going to read, first of all, from Luke's account which is the primary account we're going to study. It's only a short account, Luke 8: 22 - 26:
‘22One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. 24The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we're going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25“Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”’Luke 8:22-25, NIV
The Sea of Galilee
It had been a challenging ministry by the lakeside and Jesus makes this very specific decision to go across the lake. The Sea of Galilee is a factor in the geography of Galilee that we encounter all the time in the Gospels - it keeps coming up and, as I've mentioned in previous episodes, it's very central to the economy of that part of the country. A beautiful lake, huge amounts of fresh water coming down from the Lebanese hills through the River Jordan and other streams and making a wonderful place for fishing. There was a rich fishing industry there. At the maximum, the Sea of Galilee was up to 13 kilometres across and up to 20 or 21 kilometres from north to the south, so it's quite a substantial amount of water and it took some time to get across in a boat. There were many boats, of course, operating around the Sea of Galilee; many of them were fishing boats but other boats were used for transporting people around. You could get from certain places to others much more quickly by boat than you could on the land. It was easy for Jesus to get away by boat and he'd done this on a number of occasions. There's an interesting one in Mark 3: 9. In an earlier incident it says:
‘Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him.’Mark 3:9, NIV
As he was by the lakeside, which is frequently where he was, sometimes the crowds were so great that he resorted to getting on a boat either travelling across the lake or, sometimes (as we saw in Matthew 13 and we also see in Luke 5, on a different occasion) Jesus uses a boat as a platform for teaching where he can't be accessed directly by the people. He's just a few metres away from the shore. It'd been a busy and challenging time by the lakeside and his ministry was complex at this time. The particular complexity was that, just before he'd spoken extensively in parables, as recorded in Matthew 13, we have in Matthew 12 the account - as I've mentioned a number of times and I need to emphasise this because it's so important for the context - of a head-on controversy with the Pharisees which had led to a denunciation of Jesus by the Pharisees, claiming he was a false messiah operating by demonic power. This was a massive statement and it raised the stakes in terms of the conflict between the religious establishment and Jesus. It made it very confusing for people to know whom to believe. Were they to believe Jesus? Were they to believe their respected, religious leaders? It also created a certain risk to Jesus' physical safety and created that sense that wherever he went he might be being watched, interrogated, reported on and being publicly challenged.
It was a difficult time and Jesus decided he was going to leave the western side of the Sea of Galilee and go across to the east. Where was he going? He was going to a land described as the land of the Gerasenes. This is not Jewish territory; once you go to the other side of the lake we're in largely Gentile territory and most of it is part of a confederation of independent city states, known as the Decapolis. Decapolis means ten towns or ten cities and, originally, there were ten cities that had a loose confederation at that particular time. The Romans had an oversight also of the Decapolis area. The point that we need to bear in mind is that, as Jesus goes to the other side of the lake, he's going out of Jewish territory if he's going to the region of the Gerasenes, out of territory overseen by King Herod Antipas, who was looking after and ruling Galilee. That's the context.
Jesus heads off on the lake. Why did he go? Maybe he went for a rest. Maybe he went because he heard the voice of the Father calling him to go there and he didn't know exactly what he was going to anticipate, and maybe he anticipated what was going to happen - because something very significant happened as soon as he got to the other side of the lake and we'll discuss that particular incident in our next episode. In summary, he met two men who were heavily demonised and living apart from society and he set them free from all their demonic power in this Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, part of the Decapolis territory and that had huge implications for the community. We won't talk about that too much, but we need to keep that in mind.
Jesus' Authority Over the Natural World
As he travelled across, Mark 4: 36 said there were several boats - not just one but several boats. Jesus was on one of the boats with some, or all, of his disciples as they travelled maybe 10 to 13 kilometres across the lake. Jesus was tired; one of the accounts tells us that he was sleeping on a cushion. It's not surprising Jesus is tired; he has such a demanding public ministry, and so this journey was an ideal opportunity for him to rest and to sleep. He was sleeping deeply, it appears, when suddenly there was a storm - described in the account as a squall, which means a sudden, sharp storm. Mark 4:37 says it was a ‘furious squall,’ so a very sudden weather event. We know that these things could happen from time to time on the Sea of Galilee but everything changes at sea when the weather conditions change and close in; dangers are ever present. The greatest danger by far in this situation was that the boats literally would sink. They were taking on water and the boat Jesus was in was obviously taking on water. The lake was so rough with the wind that the disciples were seriously worried. Interestingly enough, Jesus didn't wake up immediately when the storm came; he was still sleeping; he was tired; and he was resting. When he was awoken, he quickly resolved the question of the storm by doing something that they may not have seen him do ever before: he spoke to the natural world and to the weather conditions and all the forces behind them. Mark 4: 39 tells us that he used the words, ‘“Quiet! Be still!”’ and the storm subsided immediately. Suddenly it changed and then Jesus looked at his disciples and said, ‘“Where is your faith?”’ They were amazed, according to Luke's account,
‘In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”’Luke 8:25, NIV
This is another moment when the disciples are gaining further perspective into who Jesus is - the miraculous dimension of his power; his authority over the natural world. That's easy for us to understand if we know he is the Son of God, if he actually was involved in the creation of the world along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, which is clearly what the scriptures teach. John 1 and the first few verses teach very clearly that Jesus was involved directly in creating so, therefore, he has authority over the natural world and he can speak and things can change and move. His miraculous power over the natural world is in the same category as his miraculous power over the spiritual forces of darkness and over the human body to bring it into order when it is suffering from sickness and disease. These are all part of the same power of Jesus. But I don't think the disciples had really understood fully that Jesus could exercise his power as widely as is indicated by this incident when - very suddenly, in a very dangerous situation, where the sinking of the boat was a real possibility - he completely calmed the storm.
Three Gospel Accounts
It's a dramatic story and again, like so many dramatic stories in the Gospels, it's often used amongst children when they are being taught in a church context. That's good but let's look at it from the point of view of the adults involved and realise something very serious was at stake here; their lives were in danger and people did drown on the Sea of Galilee. It happened regularly. These experienced disciples which included fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James and John) knew when there was danger at hand and they knew, without a doubt, this was a dangerous moment for them. What I want to do is to analyse the key question at the centre of this episode a little more closely - and that's the question of faith. In order to do this analysis, what I've done is I've very carefully compared Matthew, Mark and Luke's account. As I indicated in the opening statement at the beginning of this episode, this is one of those stories where it's good to compare the text very closely because they all bring out different things. This is a general methodology of our approach which is to honour the significance of all the different accounts of the same event and to prioritise the chronology (the order of events) given in Luke, but to take seriously all the other details given in different passages. Generally, I prioritise the passage that gives us most detail when I'm teaching an event or teaching of Jesus that is recorded in different Gospels. In this case, there's about equal amount of detail given in the different accounts and they're all very different, so I could have chosen other than Luke. I chose Luke as the foundational one but, in this particular question, it's fascinating to see that if you put the three accounts together you see Jesus dealing with the question of faith in quite a substantial way.
Let me explain this to you in simple terms. There are three periods of time that operate in this event. There is a period of time before Jesus' intervention, when the storm is intense and the danger is real; then there's the period of time when he wakes up and he intervenes; and then the period of time after his intervention. Interestingly enough, if we read the accounts we will see that according to Matthew 8: 26 before he intervened, Jesus said, ‘“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”’ (Matthew 8: 26). Before he's done anything, he says, ‘“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”’ and according to Matthew it says, ‘then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves.’ So beforehand, he's asking the question: about faith and about fear, which is what we're going to focus on. During the intervention he issues the words of command - ‘“Quiet! Be still!”’ according to Mark 4: 39. And after the intervention, he speaks again about faith. According to Mark 4: 40, ‘He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’ or in Luke's version (Luke 8: 25) Jesus says, ‘“Where is your faith?”’ The interesting point here is that Jesus addresses the question of fear and faith before he's intervened and then he comes back again to the same question after he's intervened. This tells us something important about faith, which is a foundational issue in this particular passage.
There is a testing of faith going on amongst the disciples and the testing of faith comes, very often, in extreme circumstances which are outside of our control. Jesus expected his disciples to trust him - even before he'd intervened, while he was still asleep. Sometimes this is the way that Christians feel about events in their life. When they feel things are getting out of control and they feel that God is not active - he's not doing anything, he's not responding to our prayers or our thoughts. Have you ever had that feeling? It's a very common feeling amongst Christians. It's exactly the feeling that the disciples had. There they were trying to bail out the boat, keep the water out, trying to keep the boat sailing in the right direction, trim down the sails so they didn't keel over and sink - and there was Jesus sleeping in the back! He didn't even wake up - which they found hard to imagine because they were alert and awake and fearful, full of adrenaline, very concerned about what was going to happen. Yet, when he woke up he said, ‘“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”’ Jesus addresses fear and then afterwards, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”’ Jesus is wanting his disciples to remember and take on board the significance of the fact that he has performed an astonishing number of miracles that they've witnessed and seen with their own eyes, over many months, and he wants that to sink into their understanding to such an extent that they will trust him when something unforeseen and dangerous comes and they won't just resort to fear; they will think, “What is Jesus going to do?” This is an important learning point for us, something that many teachers have drawn from this passage: it's a teaching about faith.
My first reflection is that discipleship means learning about faith in Christ, trusting in tough times and not giving in to fear and panic. That's a human issue for all Christians that we face regularly, and sometimes very severely, when life's circumstances change and sometimes disasters or serious events take place in our experience. Almost everyone following this will have had that experience and so we should come to this story, and this event, and see what we can learn. Sometimes a major crisis threatens to stop us doing what God wants us to do. We then need faith to trust him in the crisis and confidence to keep going and do what he wants us to do. It may be that this storm was connected to the fact that Jesus was making a significant step forward for the Kingdom of God by going to the territory of the Gerasenes and was going to confront demonic strongholds in two people there that represented the demonic power in the whole community, and he was going to set two people free, very dramatically, from heavy demonisation. It may be because that great step forward was about to happen that a setback was threatened in the immediate moment just before that actually took place. We don't know for certain, but it's interesting to see the chronological sequence here: Jesus is going to do something new; he's going to go to a new area to establish a foothold there - and we know that some people from the Gerasene territory will have been over to the other side of Galilee to be healed, so his name will have been known there to some degree - but he hasn't gone there to preach and it's not a Jewish area. It's not been a top priority for him in his tours of Galilee, so he's breaking new ground; he's moving into new situations and this storm could have prevented him getting there in the first place - in other words stopping the Kingdom advancing.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where you feel, “Something is trying to stop me moving forward,” and then, at that point, you can decide not to move forward with your life. This moving forward could be changing jobs; it could be working in evangelism in some area; it could be something strategic in your church; it could be a decision to commit yourself to pray in a particular way that's going to really advance the cause of the Kingdom; it could be financial giving - it could be all sorts of different things. It could be going to share your faith in Christ with a key person that you feel called to do. Then - whatever it might be, you find there's a blockage; there's an event or a circumstance or a situation that means you can't go forward, apparently. It's in those moments that we need faith. Those are dark days for us and it was a dark day for the disciples. They were really afraid. They were afraid for their own lives but they were also afraid for the life of Jesus, feeling that he could drown as well.
Something spiritual was going on here, probably, that's unspoken - that's not explained clearly - and that often happens in our lives. There's a spiritual dimension behind the difficult circumstances that we face and we don't understand that spiritual dimension fully - nor need we understand it. Nor should we try and investigate it but we are involved in a spiritual battle and sometimes, when you're pushing forward, there's a counter-attack and things become particularly difficult for you. This was the case, not only for the disciples, but it might even have been the case for Jesus himself. He had just experienced the denunciation of the religious leaders on the western side of the Lake of Galilee in the heartland of his mission; he was going to be encountering some of the most heavily demonised people he'd ever encountered when he landed - as soon as he landed on the shore, which we'll see in the next episode - and then, as he went between these two difficult realities, came a life-threatening storm on the lake which could have led, theoretically, to his drowning. It was a spiritual battle that was taking place here.
Paul the Apostle reflects on these types of circumstances in the book of Ephesians in chapter 6 and this is where I want to end this episode. I want to consider this same theme from the point of view of specific Christian teaching given by the Apostle Paul. You see in Ephesians 6, he describes in a famous passage which begins in verse 10, putting on the armour of God because he describes that our battle,
‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’Ephesians 6:12, NIV
He basically describes something which he calls ‘the day of evil,’ a time of battle, a time when things are contested and things are difficult. That is the experience of every genuine Christian, living by the power of the Holy Spirit, seeking to move forward. And he says,
‘Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.’( That's Ephesians 6, verse 13)‘and after you have done everything, to stand.’Ephesians 6:13, NIV
When the day of evil comes, we need to stand - not move forward, not move back - just stand our ground. That's another way of expressing what Jesus was talking to his disciples about: when something difficult comes, have faith, express faith, trust God, pray to him, grow in your trust of him rather than allow the circumstances to overwhelm you. That's the lesson, primarily, that we can take from this remarkable little episode of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The sudden furious squall threatens to sink the boat on which Jesus is travelling across the lake to the other side. Jesus rises and his word is enough to bring that storm to an end - immediately. Within seconds and minutes, they're seeing a fundamental different circumstance on the lake; he has that authority but our responsibility, as disciples, is to exercise faith - a deep trust in God, a prayerful reliance on him and a determination to keep going forward in the things we're called to do even when circumstances are tough. Thank you for reading, I hope you've found this episode helpful and strengthening your faith.