Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. The correct interpretation of Scripture ensures not only that we understand the text in its proper context but also that we apply it to our lives appropriately. If we misunderstand the meaning of a passage, the application may also be mistaken.
One of the most familiar texts in the Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. It is found in Mark 4:35–41 and reads,
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?”
A popular application of this passage is a metaphorical one. You’ve probably heard it before. It usually goes something like this: Just as Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, so he wants to calm the storms in your own life. The storms you face may be as diverse as the circumstances of life: a strained relationship, a problem at work, finances, even a recently diagnosed sickness or disease. One recent Christian article states,
The significance of Jesus calming the storm is pertinent to what’s happening in our world today and is evidence of God’s love for us. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our lives. We’re flooded by numerous types of storms daily. These storms are both internal and external. The intense surges of emotion within us are due to our humanity while the chaotic circumstances around us are beyond our control. Right now, many can relate to the disciples’ emotions when Jesus calmed the storm.
This application has great emotional appeal and brings a wonderful sense of comfort to many Christians. Despite the overwhelming problems and crushing pressures we may face, Jesus will not let you drown. He will not let your boat be dashed against the rocks. He will calm the raging storms, bring an overwhelming sense of peace into your own life, and get you safely to the other side.
But is this what Mark was intending to communicate in this passage?
Proving Jesus Is the Messiah
One of the most important rules of hermeneutics to remember is the issue of authorial intent. In other words, what was the purpose of the author when he wrote this, and what was he trying to teach or convey? Mark is clear regarding his intent from the very beginning of his Gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). In his commentary on Mark, R.C. Sproul states, “The facts Mark gives us are included to demonstrate two things: Jesus is the promised Messiah and the Son of God.... That is the thematic statement for the entire gospel” (p. 3).
In context, the meaning of this passage seems rather straightforward: Jesus exercises his authority over nature, giving evidence of his identity as the Messiah. As readers of this text, we are led to ask the same question as the disciples when we come to the end: Who then is this? Who is this Jesus? Given that one of the primary goals of the Gospel writers is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by God, it should come as no surprise that the question of his identity is often raised in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 16:13–15).
In his book Playing with Fire, author Walt Russell summarizes the reason the Gospel writers were intent on including the miracles of Jesus in their writing, such as calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee:
Every one of His miracles was to prove that He was the Messiah.... While these miracles point in some sense to Jesus’ deity, they primarily point to His identity as Messiah (which includes deity). This is what the Gospel writers were trying to convince their readers of—that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah of Israel! ... By stilling the wind and the sea, Jesus proved that He, and He alone, had the authority from the Father to bring about the safety from the hazards of nature that would be found in the messianic kingdom. In other words, only Jesus of Nazareth could command the wind and sea as God does. Therefore, only Jesus of Nazareth could be the prophesied Messiah! (p. 200)
Given this understanding, is it an appropriate application to say that Jesus wants to “calm the storms” in our life? When the sea of trouble rises, is Jesus going to rebuke our waves of hardship and take us calmly to the other side? If this is what the passage is communicating, then think about the implications. It would mean “Jesus is asleep and we need to wake Him up and rebuke Him to motivate Him to give attention to our wind and waves!” (Russell, 201) But pastors and preachers never make that application!
Despite this, the article cited above goes on to say,
A good question for us to ask ourselves as COVID-19 rages is, where is our faith? ... Jesus may have rebuked the disciples for their weak faith, but he didn’t abandon them to let them drown. Instead, he calmed the storm and then continued to teach them who he was and demonstrated what it was to have faith in God. Do we have more faith in the pandemic than in the mercy and grace of God? There is not a disease that Jesus was unable to heal.
It is true there is not a disease that Jesus is unable to heal. That doesn’t mean Jesus heals every disease. As Clay Jones is fond of saying, the only thing that is going to prevent you from watching everyone you know die from murder, accident, or disease, is your own death by murder, accident, or disease.
We recently lost our godson David to cancer. He was only 16 years old. We prayed for him numerous times over the course of a year while he was fighting and undergoing treatment. We asked God to heal him. We asked God for a miracle. But our prayers for healing were not answered. David died just before his 17th birthday. Jesus didn’t “calm the storm” in his life. And while there is joy in knowing he is now in the presence of the Lord, the family continues to be filled with grief and sadness. If we are really going to press this “Jesus calming the storm” metaphor, then we should acknowledge that Jesus might very well let you drown (it happens every day, in fact).
In short, Jesus isn’t going to calm the storms in your life because that was never the intended application of the passage. God might take you through numerous trials and tribulations and allow you to suffer in the process. This is why it is important for Christians to develop a biblical theology of suffering.
The Focus of the Gospels Is Jesus, Not You
None of this means that God is not with you during trials and temptations (1 Cor. 10:13). Nor is it to say that God is not present with you during hardship (Heb. 13:5). God comforts us in all our troubles (2 Cor. 1:3), and we know God will ultimately cause all things to work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). But Jesus never promised to calm the storms in life. He promised the opposite: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Remember that the primary focus of the Gospels is Jesus, not you. Reading the Gospels with a me-centered, narcissistic approach will result in the “Jesus is going to calm my storms” type of application. This can have the detrimental effect of “knowing more about ourselves and less about Jesus” (Russell, 205). When interpreting Scripture, first determine the meaning of the text, then move on to application:
When I say that the Gospels are about Jesus, this does not mean they do not give us any insight into ourselves or have significance and application to our lives. Of course they do. However, the Gospels were primarily written to tell us about who Jesus is, what He did, and why He is the only, true object of our faith. If we change this focus, we distort the very essence of the Gospels. By making the Gospels more about ourselves, we ironically lessen their transforming impact on our lives, because the more we learn about Jesus Christ, the more we will entrust ourselves to Him as His disciples. (Russell, 205)
The story of Jesus calming the storm should fill us with a sense of fear and awe and, like the disciples, cause us to ask, “Who then is this?” The Jesus who calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee is the same Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), the same Jesus who promises to raise you on the last day when you place your trust in him (John 6:40). That is our ultimate hope.
Aaron Brake received his B.A. in criminal justice and M.A. in Christian apologetics from Biola University. He is currently working on an M.A. in theology through Reformed Theological Seminary.