Jesus and Jonah at sea: what the disciples learned

Read time: 6 minutes

The relevance of Psalm 107:28-29 for understanding Jesus’ imperious rebuke of the wind and waves is often noted: some went down to the sea in ships; the Lord “commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea”; they were terrified and cried out to the Lord, and he “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (cf. Ps. 65:7). Simon Gathercole remarks that “Jesus makes the strange transition from a Jonah-like figure who sleeps while the rest of the sailors are in peril… to a divine figure who calms the storm.”1 But for Mark, at least, it appears that the Jonah story is not merely a springboard for christological reflection; it is central to the meaning of the passage.

The similarities between the two sea journeys are remarkable (Jon. 1:3-16 LXX; Mk. 4:35-41):

  • A brief account of embarkation is provided. Jonah goes to Joppa, finds a ship bound for Tarshish, pays the fare, and boards. At evening Jesus invites his disciples to go with him across the lake to the foreign region of the Decapolis, they set off, other boats are with them.
  • In the Jonah story the Lord stirs up a wind (pneuma) and a great surge on the sea, and the ship (ploion) is in danger of breaking up. The sailors are afraid and cry out, “each to their god”. In the Gospel story there is a great windstorm and the waves break on to the boat (ploion) so that it was filling with water.
  • Jonah is asleep in the “belly” of the ship, and the captain wakes him up and says, “Get up, invoke your god in order that the god might deliver us and we not perish (apolōmetha)” (Jonah 1:6 LXX). Jesus is also asleep, in the stern, on a cushion—Mark is likewise careful to provide the precise location—and the frightened disciples wake him up and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing (apollumetha)?” (Mk. 4:38). The improbability of Jesus sleeping in a fishing vessel in a storm has suggested to some commentators that the detail has been added only to underline the relevance of the literary parallel with the Jonah story, though the whole thing begins to unravel if the disciples do not first have the opportunity to act on their own.2
  • From here the stories follow different pathways, but they end up at the same place. The fugitive prophet is eventually thrown into the sea, and “the sea ceased from its tumult”; and the men “feared the Lord in great fear (ephobēthēsan… phobōi megalōi)” (Jon. 1:15-16). Jesus immediately rebukes the wind and says to the sea, “Peace, be still”; the wind ceases, and there is a great calm. The disciples are “filled with great fear (ephobēthēsan phobon megan)”, and they say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).

In the first place, therefore, the carefully constructed parallelism presents Jesus as the obedient prophet who does not refuse to travel to foreign parts to prophesy in the name of the Lord—to declare, in effect, as the anointed Son of the Most High God, that the unclean Roman presence that has corrupted Israel will soon be expelled (Mk. 5:1-13). Indeed, we are told in Matthew and Luke, albeit in a different connection, that “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41; Lk. 11:32); and just as Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be a sign—of impending judgment—to this generation of Jews (Lk. 11:29-30; cf. Matt. 16:4).

Just as important, however, is the parallel between the disciples and the sailors, which is where Psalm 107 becomes relevant.

The captain roused Jonah from his sleep for good reason: Jonah worshipped “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jon. 1:9). But by the same token, the disciples had no need to wake Jesus: they should have cried out in their trouble to the God who made the sea and dry land, and he would have delivered them from their distress; he would have calmed and the wind and the waves (cf. Ps. 107:28-29).

That is the point of Jesus’ reproach: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk. 4:40). “Have faith in God,” he tells the disciples later. “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mk. 11:23–24).

That Jesus is “something greater than Jonah” is demonstrated by the fact that he directly rebukes the wind and the waves. Mark, however, provides his readers with a clear answer to the disciples’ astonished question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

He is the beloved Son, with whom YHWH is well pleased, who will fulfil the task assigned to servant Israel (Mk. 1:11; 9:7; cf. Is. 42:1). He is Israel’s messiah; he is the Son of David who will bring peace; he is David’s “Lord,” who will be told by YHWH to sit at his right hand (Mk. 8:29; 10:47; 11:9-10; 12:35-37). He is the Son of Man, who must suffer many things but will be seen by the leaders of Israel “seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 8:31; 14:62). He was, in the eyes even of a representative of the unclean Roman presence, a righteous “son of God” (Mk. 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:47; 11:9-10; 12:35-37; 14:62; 15:39).

The consistent claim of the Gospel as a whole is that this figure who appeared to Israel as a miracle-working prophet, who was rejected by the religious and political elites, who would suffer and be killed, would nevertheless be vindicated within the lifetime of his enemies—would be proved right—and would receive from Israel’s God, as the Son of Man, the authority to judge and rule over his people.

The authority demonstrated in the rebuke to the wind and sea, therefore, is best understood as a prophetic anticipation of the authority that Jesus would have in the post-second temple era, rather than as the disclosure of a present divine identity. The lesson for the disciples was that they would need the faith to be obedient messengers to Israel and the nations, overcoming storms and casting mountains into the sea by means of the authority that Jesus as the exalted Son of Man would share with them. What he does in the boat, as their Lord and master, is model the exercise of that authority.

  • 1Gathercole, S.L., The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (2006), 63.
  • 2See Marcus, J. Mark 1–8 (1974), 337.
Samuel Conner | Sun, 11/01/2020 - 15:00 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.

I wonder whether it may be valid to see a hint of a connection between the “hear him” of Mk 9:7 and the “heard me”, “always hear me” of Jn 11:41-42. Israel’s god YHWH, who always “hears” the beloved Son (and, per the Lazarus story, always does what the Son asks) , commands His people, Israel, to also hear (and obey) the Son.

(I am also tempted to think that the implications of the Lazarus story, that it was YHWH who raised Lazarus, at Jesus’ [silent] prayer, may imply a similar “behind the scenes ‘mechanics’ ” in other mighty works, such as the calming of the storm of Mk 9.)

Sir, few questions

1. Why does Peter in Matthews version request to be commanded to walk on the sea? The belief that earthly elements obeyed prophets of God seems to come from Philo, is there any thing in the hebrew bible?