That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Mark 4.35-41.
This is the only mention of Jesus “sleeping” in the whole of the New Testament; though from the various references to his eating, drinking, walking, sitting down, and getting hungry and being tired, we know that he did sleep and otherwise function in just the same way as any other human being. And that does, perhaps, go a long way to account for the disciples panic here, even though Jesus was with them in the boat, and for the way in which they so readily turn on Jesus and rebuke him for what they see as his lack of concern for their safety.
They are a long way, at this point, from seeing him as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” by whom “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” and in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1.15-17). He can heal the sick, yes, and even cast out demons, but he is only human after all. What can he do about a raging storm? Only pray. But he can do that and clearly that is all that they expect of him.
Indeed, it seems clear that Mark has actually modelled his account of this storm on Galilee on the story of Jonah up to the point where, “the captain went to Jonah and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish'” (Jonah 1.6). In the Jonah story, a violent storm had arisen (Jonah 1.4 — in the Greek version of the Old Testament the words are the same as the ones used here for “a furious squall got up”) and Jonah was below decks, fast asleep (Jonah 1.5); but prayer was what was required of him, and that is most certainly all that the disciples are expecting of Jesus here in this story when they awaken him.
But instead they get something different. He “rebukes” the wind and tells the waves, “Siopa, pephimoso” — literally, “Be quiet, be muzzled”. The vocabulary is the same as that used in Mark’s account of the way Jesus dealt with the unclean spirit in the synagogue at Nazareth (Mark 1.25). And Mark wants all his readers, including me, to understand that Jesus has equal authority over everything in the whole of creation. There are no limits. There is nothing that he cannot do. “Even the wind and waves obey him.”
Mark’s immediate readership was, in all likelihood, the church in Rome in about AD 65 — a fearful church being rocked by the violent storm unleashed by Nero following the great fire of AD 64 that he blamed on the Christians. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” was probably a question in many a person’s prayers in those troubled days. And Mark’s reassurance through this story is that they will not drown.
“Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asks the disciples in the boat; and, through Mark, he asks that same question … first of the Christians in Rome, and now of me. Why do I get anxious about so many things? Why do I fear what lies ahead? Do I not know who is here in the boat with me? “Who is this?” the disciples ask at the end of Mark’s story; and the answer that Mark clearly expects all his readers to provide is: “This is the Mighty King, the ruler of everything, the strong Son of God.” This is someone who, if I have him in the boat with me, will make sure that I will never drown, and who can, whatever the storm, bring about a great calm, deep down in my heart … if I let him.