Crossing Enemy Lines

“Often when we read the Bible, we see what we know but don’t know what we see.” The sentence quoted above from an anonymous source, brought to my attention by Doug Greenwold, the Senior Teaching Fellow of Preserving Bible Times, came to mind as I studied this fascinating episode that I will share with you in this post.

“Christ in the Storm,”
Rembrandt, 1633.

Three Gospel writers record the story of Jesus and his disciples caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee and I would encourage you to read these accounts (Matthew 3:23-27; Mark 4: 35-41; Luke 8:22-25). The Gospel of Mark, for example, makes it clear that Jesus’ early ministry is meeting resistance from demonic forces and that everywhere he goes Jesus is confronted by people who are struggling with demons that try to disrupt him. He continually tells them to “Be muzzled” or, in my words, “Shut up.”

In the Gospels, two storms are recorded on the Sea of Galilee. The second one, described in Mark 6:45, is a strong wind that results in Jesus walking on the water to reach his exhausted disciples. The first one is a much different situation. First let’s set the context.

Jesus has been teaching in the area around the Sea of Galilee and his ministry has been very busy with crowds of people flocking to him and bringing their sick for his healing. As evening approaches, Jesus invites his disciples to join him in the boat from which he was teaching and tells them to head “to the other side” of the lake, perhaps to escape the crowd and get some rest.

The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, and on a clear day you can see the other side. It is one of the lowest points on the earth, seven hundred feet below sea level, so frequent and sudden storms happen periodically when cool air from the Mediterranean Sea is drawn down through narrow mountain passes and clashes with hot, humid air from the dessert to the east. The fisherman in Jesus’ group of disciples knew this body of water very well – they made their living on this sea. Traveling with Jesus by boat was not the issue – but going “to the other side” was!

Observant Jews who lived in the northwest region of the Sea of Galilee, for example near Capernaum or Bethsaida, were very careful to eat only certain foods prescribed in Jewish dietary laws and to avoid ritual impurity of any kind. Jews from this region wanted nothing to do with the pagans who lived “on the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, the southeast side that was called the Decapolis.

This region had cities that were built by the Greeks and then the Romans to be showplaces of their culture and their authority. The cities had multiple temples with Greek and Roman idols, bathhouses, theatres and sports stadiums. The forbidden food, the idol worship and the sexual promiscuity of these cities made this region clearly “enemy territory” for religious Jews. What a shock it must have been for Jesus to invite them to join him as he travels to this forbidden area. What a test for his new disciples!

I agree with Michael Card‘s commentary that this storm, which Matthew described as a “shaking” and Mark calls a “great wind,” has all the markings of a demonic attack. A fierce windstorm strikes this small group of boats, yet Jesus is so exhausted – here’s his humanity that the Gospel writers are highlighting — he is “sleeping on a cushion” (Mark 4:38).

When the frightened disciples awaken Jesus, because they see that their boat is about to be swamped by the waves, Jesus gets up and rebukes the storm with the words “Quiet! Be still!” The wind dies down immediately and it becomes “completely calm,” as noted in all three Gospel accounts.

For the disciples, who had serious doubts about going “to the other side” in the first place, this storm may have seemed to be God’s judgment on them, but then their rabbi rebukes the storm and Satan’s attack on them – not God’s judgment — is blocked. Again all three Gospel writers highlight that the disciples are “amazed” at what happened and say to each other, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him” (Luke 8:25).

So What?

  • This event is the first time in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus exercises his miraculous power over natural forces. It is a “nature miracle” in which Jesus applies his power over a non-living object, rather than a person. It is an important event in the life of his disciples (and for us) because it shows that Jesus has authority over storms and seas, just as God demonstrated in the Exodus. It is an amazing God that we worship! He has proven his divine power, while demonstrating he is also human.
  • Some Biblical scholars think this episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples is a parable for the church that sometimes get “lost at sea” and feels helpless in the face of so many challenges and threats. In these difficult times, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Where is your faith?” Jesus has promised not to abandon us, even though it feels that way sometimes. Has this been your experience? It certainly has been mine at different times in my life.
  • Going into “enemy territory” is often missed by Christians in the West who are not aware of the context of this event. Jesus is showing his disciples in a dramatic way that God’s Kingdom is not restricted to certain geographical areas or ethnic groups. The message is clear: Satan is no match for Jesus!
  • The event in Jesus’ ministry that immediately follows this calming of the storm is directly linked to this struggle against Satan and his demonic forces. My next post will discuss the second part of this challenge. Stay tuned!