I have a lot of marking to do, so I’ll keep this to the point. In the Greek Old Testament it is God alone who rebukes the sea and calms the storm (Ps. 17:16; 103:7; 105:9; 106:28-29; Is. 50:2 LXX). So when Matthew says that Jesus “rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matt. 8:26), is he insinuating that Jesus is God?
In a sense, yes. But in what sense?
Where does he get the authority from?
The matter of the authority by which Jesus teaches and acts in exceptional ways comes up a few times in the surrounding text.
When Jesus finishes the sermon on the mount, the crowds are astonished because “he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).
The centurion with the paralysed servant says to Jesus, “I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matt. 8:9). Why does he say that he is a “man under authority” and not just a man with authority? Is he thinking that Jesus also both is under authority and exercises authority over sickness? Certainly, the story implies that the person who commands has received his authority from somewhere.
When Jesus is challenged by the scribes over his offer of forgiveness to the paralysed man, he says that the Son of Man “has authority on earth to forgive sons” (Matt. 9:6). The “one like a son of man”, of course, receives authority from the Ancient of Days; and the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Dan. 7:13-14; Matt. 9:8).
Later the chief priests and elders of the people ask him where he got his authority from (Matt. 21:23). The question “by what authority?” is equivalent to “who gave you this authority?” In the end, Jesus refuses to tell them “by what authority” he does these things, but he doesn’t deny that he got it from somewhere.
Finally, the risen Jesus declares, in clear allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).
So we are given the impression—far more clearly than the supposed intimations of his innate divinity—that he exercises an authority that he has received from God. True, the calming of the storm is not explicitly attributed to such a derived authority, but we may assume that the winds and sea “obey” him because he has been given authority as the Son of Man to command them.
There’s worse to come
After the calming of the storm the men in the boat ask, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Since Jesus appears to have been quite intentional about getting to the other side (Matt. 8:18), and since he is immediately confronted by the demon-possessed men, their address to him must be significant: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29). The calming of the storm is explained by what happens in the country of the Gadarenes.
Jesus has come across the lake, the two men suppose, in order to torment them “before the time”. He is the anointed “Son of God” (cf. Matt. 3:16-17), sent to do the work of a servant, who as obedient Israel in the wilderness has defeated Satan (Matt. 4:1-11), who casts out demons as a sign that the kingdom of God is coming upon Israel (cf. Matt. 12:28). Jesus is doing now as “Son of God”, on a small scale, what sooner or later God himself will do on a massive scale.
The calming of the storm belongs to this prophetic narrative: it anticipates the future divine protection of the disciples as they face the violent birth pangs of the coming age—perhaps specifically as they take the message of the kingdom of God far and wide (cf. Ps. 107:28-29).
Jesus acts as God as a sign that God will soon come in person to act. He is God in a prophetic-symbolic sense.
Let me show you how it’s done
When the boat is about to founder, the disciples wake Jesus and say, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing” (Matt. 8:25). They have faith that he can save them. So why does he say, “Why are you cowardly or timid, you men little faith (oligopistoi)”? He is not asking why they are afraid of the storm. The word deilos suggests timidity, a failure to act with confidence. His point is that instead of waking him they should have acted boldly and decisively themselves, in faith, to rebuke the wind and sea. So he has to show them how to do it.
We have a similar narrative immediately after the transfiguration. The disciples fail to heal the epileptic boy, so Jesus shows them how it should be done. He “rebukes” the demon (just as he “rebuked” the wind and the sea), and it comes out of him. The disciples ask why they couldn’t do it. Because of their oligopistia—their little faith. Exactly the same problem. But with faith no bigger than a mustard seed they should be able to say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for them.
In Luke’s version of the saying, they will command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, “and it would obey you”—just as the wind and sea would have obeyed the disciples if only they had had the boldness to rebuke and command them.
Jesus has received authority on earth, as the Son of Man, to act as God in heaven would act. He will give this authority to his disciples as they pursue their mission to Israel and to the nations (Matt. 10:1; 28:18-20). Whatever they bind on earth, will be bound in heaven; whatever they loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19). But they need to learn how to exercise it.
O ye of too much faith!
So it is believing too much to think that Matthew here surreptitiously depicts Jesus as God incarnate. Theology has over-inflated our understanding of the text, and we need to let some of the air out. Historical reductionism is a good thing. It helps us to see the true shape and proportions of Jesus’ person and purpose.
On the one hand, he is doing—as the anointed servant-prophet-messiah, as the “Son of God”, as obedient Israel, with the authority that he has received as the Son of Man—what God himself was going to do on the day of his wrath against Israel.
On the other, he expects his disciples to do exactly the same things: to cast out demons as a sign of the coming judgment against unrighteous and unclean Israel, and to express their faith boldly in the face of adversity and challenges, with the authority that they have received from their risen Lord.
John, and perhaps others, will see Jesus’ brief transformative career as the “incarnation” of the creative Word or Wisdom of God, but that’s not the point that Matthew is trying to get across here.