One of the best known stories in the Gospels is that of Jesus’ calming the storm on the lake. Just from a simple reading of the few verses we would rightly conclude that the account demonstrates Jesus’ authority over the elements of nature, and, the disciples weak faith for being afraid. The story comes in a series of reports about Jesus’ authority in various areas—sickness, demons, death, and sin. It provides another significant part to the portrayal of the King: He is not just a king over the people of Israel; rather, He is king over all nature as well.
The story is placed here in chapter 8 no doubt to be a part of this demonstration of Jesus’ authority. Chronologically, though, it has to come later in Jesus’ ministry, probably in the fall of the second year of his ministry (fall of 31 A.D.). The reason for this is the account of the calling of Matthew is reported in Matthew 9:9, but it would have to have been before these events on and around the sea for the simple reason that Matthew was there. But a rearrangement of the order of the stories by Matthew for rhetorical or theological purposes is not a problem.
But there are a couple of apparent difficulties that you would have to deal with in studying this passage. You would discover them right away when you read the account in the three synoptic1_ftn1 gospels: Matthew 8:23-27 of course; Mark 4:37-41; and Luke 8:23-25.
The first one is that Matthew says that the disciples cried out to Jesus “Lord, save us. We’re going to drown.” Mark says that the disciples said, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Luke says that they said, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown.” Now this apparent “discrepancy” as it is often called affords us a good opportunity to understand the synoptic gospels. Some scholars try to analyze the stories to determine which of these things the disciples really said, and how the report got “muddled” by one or more of the gospel writers. But that is a stilted bookish view and totally unrealistic. The disciples said all these things and probably more as well. Think about it. We have a sudden storm in the middle of the lake; the little fishing boat is about to go down; and the group of disciples are thrown into a panic, yelling all kinds of things. Do we think they huddled, decided on a precise wording to use in their approach to waking Jesus, and then in unison or by representative said their one sentence? Of course not. So, taking the three gospels together we get a wonderful reflection of their fear and the chaos in the boat. Matthew remembers one thing that was said and records that. Mark, who relied on Peter’s report, recorded another. Luke, who did research in writing his gospel, traced the memory of something else that was said. They are not contradictory statements; they are not discrepancies. Each gospel writer includes some of the things that happened there in the boat.
Similarly, but a little more problematic, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples is stated differently in the gospels. Matthew says that Jesus said to them, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Mark says, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Luke simply says, “Where is your faith?” This is a little different because they are all reporting what Jesus said, not what different people said. But remember, in reporting the event the gospel writers are not working from a dictated record; rather, they are all telling what happened and what was said in their own words._ftn22 And while the precise wording is different in each gospel, none of them are incorrect. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their weak faith. Luke simply summarized it in a question to capture the essence of the rebuke. Both Matthew and Mark included Jesus’ question about their being afraid. But Matthew used a word that means “of little faith” while Mark says “do you still have no faith?” Mark did not mean to imply that the disciples had no faith at all--he has already described their following Jesus. And so his wording is meant to convey that the disciples did not have enough faith. He is saying essentially the same thing that Matthew said.
When you compare stories in these three gospels, remember that the writers have the freedom to summarize the speeches or to put the sayings in their own words. When the sayings were particularly important teachings, or teachings that were repeated frequently, then they might put more of the exact phrasing in their gospel reports. And sometimes they can summarize a saying by putting it into a question when it was an assertion, or by making it negative when it was positive--they are trying to capture what was said, but capture it in a way their individual audiences would best understand it.
A simple illustration. One day in teaching class I was instructing students about the form of their homework assignment. I told them very specifically to write their work on only one side of the paper. One student asked another, “What did he say?” And the answer was, “He said, ‘don’t write on the back’.” Well, if we were looking for a dictated or recorded transcript, that is not what I said. But that is certainly what I meant, put in other words that the fellow student would understand better (he was not in the habit of listening well).
So when you come upon apparent discrepancies in the narratives (and some interpreters like to exploit these as errors), remember that the writers have a certain amount of freedom to put things in their own words, or to summarize, or to select only parts of the event for their book. But be careful: they are not making things up to embellish the account.
23 Then He got into the boat and His disciples followed Him. 24 Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke Him, saying, “Lord, save us, we’re going to drown!”
26 He replied, “You of little faith! Why are you so afraid?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey Him!”
In addition to the items mentioned above, Mark adds some more information. It was in the evening (4:35); Jesus said, “Let us pass over to the other side” (4:35); there were other boats that went along side (4:36); Jesus was in the stern sleeping on a cushion (4:38); when Jesus rebuked the storm He said, “Peace! Be still!” (4:39); and the disciples were terrified (4:41) and asked “Who is this?” (4:41).
Luke says that “one day” Jesus said to His disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake” (8:22); He fell asleep (8:23); and when the storm came up they were in great danger (8:23). The other changes are small variations of the wording.
So with all three accounts we have a full picture of what took place. It is helpful to keep that in the back of your mind. But as you are studying Matthew’s account, only the points that Matthew makes should be your basic Bible study, because you are studying the passage in the way he wrote it in his gospel.
It is helpful also to get all the facts straight in the event before looking at the point of the story in the passage. We are dealing with a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee. This sea, or better “lake,” is in the north of the land of Israel; it is the only fresh water lake in the land, and so a great place for fishing. The fishing villages of Capernaum and Bethsaida so frequently mentioned in the gospels were on the north west and north shores of the lake.
The lake is about seven miles across at its widest (it is shaped like a harp, which is what it is called in Hebrew: Kinnereth). At its deepest it is about 160 feet deep, depending on the fluctuation over the years. And the surface of the lake is about 600 feet below sea level. In our story Jesus must have gotten into the boat in the region of Capernaum, on the north west shore, because He got out of the boat “on the other side” near Kursi (on the eastern shore about half way down the coast).
Now as for the sudden storms, these are fairly frequent. I myself was ready to take a group out on the lake in a boat but we had to cancel because there were fifteen foot waves on the other side. The lake is in the famous rift valley, a natural fault line that runs from this region in the north down the Jordan River Valley to the Dead Sea and in fact all the way to Africa. Mount Hermon to the north is over 9,000 feet high, and the Dead Sea is about 1250 feet below sea level. That means the valley drops sharply to the desert region in such a short distance. Hot air can come up this valley quite suddenly and collide with the cooler air from Mount Hermon in the north of the valley, causing sudden storms on the lake.
All this kind of material you can gather from a good dictionary. But you can also gain a great appreciation for things like distances, temperatures, altitudes, and such by actually taking a good trip to the land of Israel.
Now the boat would not be a large one. In fact, archaeologists found a first century fishing boat of this kind a few years ago. The year was dry, and as the water of the lake was down they were able to see parts of a boat buried in the mud along the shore south of Capernaum--in the mud for 2,000 years! Over the next several years they treated and preserved it. It is now on display in a lovely new museum there on the shores of the lake at Genneseret. It is not large, but you could get twelve or so men into the boat fairly easily, but not a whole lot more. It is easy to see how these men--some of them seasoned fishermen--would have been terrified in a storm in a boat like that.
Structure. This little passage is rather straightforward in its structure. There are three parts, based on the three things that were said. The first part is the storm on the sea and the disciples words to Jesus. The second section is Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples and then the calming of the storm. The third is the disciples’ amazement and their words about Jesus.
Contrasts. The story can also be looked at from the perspective of contrasts. The storm is contrasted with the calm after the miracle. The disciples fear and panic is contrasted with Jesus’ sleeping on the boat. Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples is contrasted with Jesus’ rebuke of the storm. And if we can go into the next story, the disciples’ question about who this one is will be contrasted with the demons who knew exactly who He is.
And the contrasts in this passage reflect the conflicts in the gospel itself, for Matthew likes to contrast Jesus with the limitations of ordinary people. Jesus was tempted, like a man, but rebuked Satan (Matt. 4). Jesus was accused of having a demon, but He cast out demons (Matt. 12). And here Jesus is tired and sleeping, but He has control over nature (Matt. 8).
Jesus’ Words. It is always good to pay close attention to the exact words of Jesus in a passage. We have already noted how the speeches give us the meaning of the flow of the story. And that is certainly true here, for without the speeches we have a storm, the disciples’ panic, Jesus’ calming the storm, and the disciples’ amazement. But add the speeches and we see that Jesus calmed the storm at their request for help, but before He did it He rebuked them for their weak faith. Afterward their amazement is on who this one is. In a way, their request for Him to save them already had answered who this one was.
In between their request and their amazement is Jesus’ rebuke of their weak faith. That will be a primary focus of the study. It will indicate that Jesus did the miracle not only to authenticate His claims, but also to build their faith.
The text is brief, and we have already noted several things about it, so this part of the study should be brief as well. But if we work through the passage now, section by section, we may observe certain things that help us gain the message.
I. The disciples ask the Lord to save them in the storm (23, 24). We have already discussed the boat and the storm so that we do not need to reiterate that now. Here we can simply note that it was Jesus who got into the boat (to escape the crowds) and the disciples followed Him. I would not make too much of their following Him (some folks make a spiritual point out of some common statements), because the word is used even for the crowds of unbelievers who followed Him where He went. Here it simply reports that they went with Him in the boat.
When the storm came up, He was asleep, but they were in a panic. The other accounts describe their fear more than Matthew, but you can hear it in their words to Jesus in Matthew’s account as well: “We’re going to drown.” A number of these men were experienced fishermen, who had been on the lake in storms before. But here they were afraid. This indicates the severity of this storm.
Jesus’ sleep is significant to consider for a moment. Here we have a very human characteristic. He was exhausted from His ministry with the crowds, and so in the boat He was asleep during the storm. It is a reminder that Jesus was truly human.
Their words are interesting: “Lord, save us.” In their experience this was a simple and urgent request. They did not want to drown. But as is often the case in the gospels, words like this are retained in the Christian community with added meaning. Kyrie soson, “Lord, save,” became a part of the liturgical language of the church. It is the basic cry to the Lord for help by a needy people.
II. Jesus calmed the storm to encourage their faith (v. 26). The first thing that Jesus did in response to their request was to rebuke their weak faith: “O you of little faith, why are you afraid?” They were right to ask Jesus to save them--and their request shows that they had faith that He could save them. But it was their fear that betrayed the weakness of their faith. They were in a panic when they came to Him, not in confidence. He did not rebuke them for waking Him to ask Him to save them, but for waking Him in fear. They had been with Jesus for over a year now (judging from the chronology); they should have had more confidence after hearing all His teachings and seeing all the miracles He did (“little faith” is also used in 6:30; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20; and Luke 12:28). But, the circumstances of the storm on the sea terrified them and they thought they were going to drown—even though in their presence was the Son of Man. Hence, the question, “Why are you afraid?” It is a rhetorical question not meant to be answered, but meant to tell them that since He was there they had nothing to fear.
Then, after this Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves and they became calm. Here we see the power of His word over nature. He had already done miracles by His powerful word, and now here He did another over the storm. Of course, some of the more liberal writers would say it was simply a coincidence that the sudden storm would also have a quick ending, and Jesus, knowing that, rebuked it at the right moment. But that does not make much sense, for these seasoned sailors thought they were going to drown right up to the moment that Jesus calmed the storm. Surely they could have seen a sudden calm too if that had been the case. This is a miracle by Christ, demonstrating His power over the storm.
The use of the word “rebuke” is interesting and deserves some study. It is used usually against things that ought not to be, such as the weak faith of the disciples. But it gives us also a clue that the storm, although only a storm, is a symptom of something else about nature.
Now Jesus is revealed in His power. He might truly be a man, but He is also clearly the “Son of Man” (see Matt. 16:21-23; based on Daniel 7:13-14). This was the Messiah, the one everyone believed would be the Lord of all the earth.
The effect of Jesus’ powerful command was to calm the storm on the sea, but also to calm their fears. By taking care of the troubling circumstances of life Jesus was able to take away their fears and build their faith in Him. He had not rebuked their weak faith simply to point out their weakness; He had rebuked their faith in order to show a weakness that He was now about to resolve. They would look back on this and always remember His “Why are you afraid?” because they would not be so afraid again in His presence.
This becomes the powerful thrust of the passage to all subsequent believers. Even though there are so many things in life that threaten our lives and cause us to fear, the more we know the Lord and His power, the less we will be afraid. Our prayer for deliverance from our troubles will be less and less out of fear and desperation and more out of confidence.
III. The disciples are amazed at His power (v. 27). Their response is amazement! They had never seen anything like this. And so their question is “What kind of man is this?” It too is a rhetorical question, not designed to be answered, but to express the idea that there is no one like this. What other person can speak and have the winds and the waves obey His voice? — clearly, no one.
So Matthew uses their words to drive home his point that Jesus is truly unique, for He is sovereign over nature. This one truly has authority.
This passage does not quote from the Old Testament, so we are left to make connections with the theme—one who controls the elements of nature by His word. Of course, in the Old Testament, this is descriptive of the LORD God. One thinks immediately of creation where by His word the LORD brought everything into existence, even including controlling the seas (Gen. 1). This theme of controlling the seas was stressed in Job 38:8-11. That idea was important in the Bible, for the seas were always the symbol of chaos. To control them was to show sovereignty over the chaos that was in the universe. In fact, throughout the ancient Near East the sea was the symbol of Sheol, the abyss, the evil enemy. But God is portrayed as mightier than the raging seas (Ps. 93).
The 29th psalm is also a good one to connect with this study. That psalm describes a thunderstorm growing in the Mediterranean Sea and sweeping inland over Lebanon, causing damage to the trees and shaking the hills with an earthquake. All of that is said to be “the voice of the LORD” (not of Baal, the storm god of Canaan where that storm was situated). The psalm closes by reminding the reader that God sat sovereignly at the great Flood (Gen. 6-8). So in the Old Testament God alone has the authority to command and control nature, especially the chaotic element of nature like this huge storm in Psalm 29. For additional references, see Pss. 65:5-7; 89:9; 107:23-32. Even something like the story of the battle of Deborah against Sisera (Judg. 4, 5) would be of interest as well since God caused a huge thunderstorm to assist Israel.
When Jesus calmed the storm, then, He was demonstrating that He has the power of heaven at His command. The disciples’ wonder at what kind of a man this was could ultimately be answered only by an understanding of the incarnation, God with us.
And yet the disciples were looking at a man, a human being, who had some special kind of authority over nature. Here was a man having dominion over the earth and the sea. Psalm 8 had said that God made man a little lower than the angels and gave him dominion over creation. Everything was to be subjected to mankind (Gen. 1:27,28). The writer to the Hebrews quotes from that 8th psalm, and then says, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him, but we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor . . .”(2:5-9). Jesus is the second Adam, as the Bible expresses it, beginning another race—the righteous seed.
In these nature miracles, though, Jesus was demonstrating what God had intended for humans to be. This is one reason why He chose to designate Himself as the Son of Man, a Messianic title from Daniel 7:13-14 to be sure, but also a way of describing Himself as the authentic man, invested with power, humble, obedient, and finally exalted.
Jesus’ power over all nature is referred to at the very beginning of the Book of Hebrews, for it begins by reminding us that Jesus is sustaining all things by His powerful (spoken) word (1:3). Sometimes the powerful word of the Lord is described in very vivid pictures, such as in Revelation as the sharp, two-edged sword that comes out of His mouth and will strike the nations (19:15).
The message of the passage is rather straightforward: Jesus has authority over nature. This is part of the overall presentation of the king in these chapters as one who has the authority to do all the things that He said He came to do. The authority that Jesus has is usually demonstrated by His mighty works, His miracles. And while some of those miracles seem to be less spectacular than others, they all reveal to us the nature of the Son of God who does not have the limitations we now have.
What does this mean for us? First, it should help us to build our faith, our confidence in Christ. We do not follow a simple itinerant preacher from Galilee; we follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. Nothing is impossible for Him.
Second, our faith may be expressed in our prayers to Him, “Lord, save us” — from any of the dangers and troubles of life that we face. It is interesting to note that here Jesus answered their prayer/plea and calmed the storm even though they had “little faith.” Any turning to Him in prayer is an act of faith. Jesus did not rebuke them for their request. It is the proper thing to do.
Third, the more we see the power of the Lord, both in the Bible and in the experiences of believers around us (and in our own lives), the more our confidence will grow. We will always struggle with fears in this life, because the world is not a safe place. But gradually as we learn more and more in the faith, as the disciples did over several years, we will become bolder and more confident in the Lord (look at the confidence of the disciples in Acts 2-4). But building faith is a process, and so we have to be patient and continue to develop it. And the comforting thing is that even in our fears and terrors, our weak faith, we may cry to the Lord: “Lord, if you are willing, save/heal/deliver/protect . . . .” And often He answers our prayers in ways that we can only marvel, and say, “What manner of man is this?”
1 You will no doubt see the word “synoptic” frequently in studying the Gospels. It is a simple word made up of syn, “with,” and optics, vision, sight. It is how we refer to the first three Gospels that have the same basic presentation of the account of Jesus, although with variations. John has a different view of the life of Christ and so is not always being paralleled.
2 Even if the writers were relying on a separate and earlier source of Jesus’ sayings and works, as much of modern scholarship assumes, they still had the freedom to put it in their own words to suit their purpose, yet never making it say something Jesus did not say or mean.