Staring Death and Life in the Face: Studies in Mark, Pt. 9

One of the most fascinating stories in Mark’s Gospel account, in my opinion at least, is the story in which Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat while a furious storm is raging outside (Mk. 4.35-41). I have written about some of the seeming peculiarities of this passage in a previous post (click the following link to read it: Mark’s Sleepy Jesus).

Many scholars have suggested that Mark tells this story in such a way as to echo the Jonah tale. Though I do not rule out the possibility of this, indeed, it is very possible, it seems most unlikely to me that Mark was doing this. Moving on, though, I would argue that the point of this story centers on death and life or better yet, death and resurrection.

It is interesting to me that in this narrative, the disciples are “terrified” and they fear for their lives. Just as well, they cannot understand why, like them, Jesus isn’t scared for His life and moreover why He isn’t trying to help them keep the boat under control—and from sinking. When Jesus sees their fear of death, He emerges from the stern and calms the storm. The text suggests that when the disciples see this, they become even more shocked and terrified. They ask, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey Him?” Aware of their terror, Jesus asks them, “Why are you still afraid? Do you still lack faith?”

Now, I think that when preachers and commentators offer exposition on this passage, they tend to over-emphasize two points at the cost of the main point. Again, the main point is death and life. The two points that are often spoken of though, are: 1) The miracle of calming the storm, and 2) The lack of faith on behalf of the disciples. When the second of these two topics is dwelt on, it frustrates me very much. This is the case because if we are honest with ourselves, if we were on a sinking ship, we’d all be scared to death! Why do we look down on the disciples when we’d do the same thing? The first point mentioned above is an important one but it is not the theological centerpiece of the narrative. The authority of Jesus over nature is already presupposed (though this does not mean that He caused the storm; no, the text suggests that He "exorcised" it). I suppose that to us twenty-first century Westerners, it is dwelt on because in our society such miracles are regarded with great suspicion.

As I’ve noted, though, I think that the point of the story is death and life. Here’s what I mean: At one moment, the disciples are sailing along smoothly, at another they fear dying of being drowned and still at another, they are terrified but feel secure. Do you see the string of emotions there? They go from living one minute, to staring death in the face at another, to living securely again.

What takes place in the story, though, is that Jesus pushes back the waters that are threatening to drown the sailors; Jesus pushes back the ensuing waters of death. And what does He do? He spares, and in a sense, gives them another chance at life! In one instant then, these disciples experience the tension between life and death, death and life.

In Christianity, there is particularly one place that death and life are experienced in one event like this: baptism.

It is significant to me that this boat story (one of a few in Mark’s account) is the first! It is also significant to me that this boat story begins by saying, “Let’s go to the other side.” Just as well, it is significant to me that this boat story is the one where water overcomes the disciples. Further, it is significant to me that the tension between death and life appear here and Jesus pushes back death and offers life! I see in this story, more echoes of baptism than I do the story of Jonah.

For instance, if we go back to the opening scene of Mark’s account, what we find is Jesus coming out to the wilderness to be baptized. There are also others who come from far and near to undergo baptism as well. The way Mark tells the story (I have written about this in more detail at the following link: OT Referents) is not accidental. He compares the baptism of Jesus to the Red Sea event of Moses. Just as Moses led the Israelites out from under an oppressive, Egyptian government, through the waters (see 1 Cor. 11 where Paul refers to this as baptism) and to the other side, Jesus is doing the same thing. He is delivering the people from an oppressive, Roman government (in which many of them are participating), through the waters of baptism and to the other side: spiritual freedom. In other words, when these people passed through the waters of baptism and onto the other side of the shore, it was symbolic of them burying the old person and receiving new life.

This is, in large part, what I see going on in Mk. 4.35-41. Jesus is leading these disciples through the waters, to the other side. Not just to the “other side” where the region of the Gerasenes but to the other spiritual side! On this trip they will confront death face-to-face and will also experience life. In a spiritual sense, that is what takes place in and at baptism: we confront sin and death, face-to-face, bury it and receive new life in Christ. We come out of the water, step on to the other side and begin living as a new creation.

While this story has the potential of raising other issues, for example, theodicy (notice again, that Jesus didn’t create the storm here but instead, He rode through it with them), I will leave it at that for now. The important thing we need to glean from this story is that Christ has pushed back death, He has rolled it away, all the way back to the first human, so that we might find life in Him, the second Adam. In the squalls and storms of life that we often experience, what could be more comforting? Not much! But thankfully, Mark preserved this story and in the end, when the question is asked by others, “Who is this Jesus?” we can firmly and confidently say, “He is God. He is God who rolled back the curse of death and gives us new life! He is God, do you know Him?”


  1. Michael,

    I continue to follow your ongoing commentaries with great interest. I think you are right to see the Old Testament echo in Red Sea/death and life, etc and the subsequent connection to Baptism. The Jonah connection, if it is there obviously has to do with the existential chaos occasioned by the early Jesus movement's preaching to the Gentile world. I need to do a little more thinking there - John Dart's work with Morton's Smith's Lost Mark seems to imply a later editing of our narrative which does pick up one this theme. I am just not sure it is in the first draft. For example, I am not sure that the demoniac is Gentile - but may rather be a Jew living in a Gentile territory - I'll argue that point later when my study gets to that story.

    Back to your death/life theme - I think you are right that we should be careful with some sort of holier than the disciples point of view attitude - at the same time, it seems that if faith is always "in spite of" the fear - the story then becomes a paradigm less of a stillness in the waters but a stillness in the disciples being.

  2. John, I just noticed your comments today (about a week late). Sorry. I really appreciate your thoughts and comments, they are challenging and encouraging; thank you for engaging the text and this blog with such diligence.