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Matthew 8:23-27 “Authority Over Creation”

And after He entered the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold! A great earthquake came on the sea, so that the boat was being covered by the waves, yet He Himself was sleeping. And coming they woke Him saying, ‘Lord, save! We are perishing!’ And Jesus says to them, ‘Why are you cowardly, little believers?’ Then, getting up He rebuked the winds and the sea and there came a great calm. So, the men marveled saying, ‘What sort is this One, that even the winds and the sea submit to Him?’

 

Having defined the purpose of Jesus’ authority, Matthew now proceeds to define the extent and source of Jesus’ authority. The text picks up where v. 22 left off. The scene is still set with the command from Jesus to depart to the “beyond” (v. 18). Structurally speaking, these verses are arranged in something of a chiasm, which helps to bring focus to the larger point. This chiasm is illustrated below:



While it is too simplistic to state that the exchange between Jesus and His disciples is the only thing to focus on, this is the center of Matthew’s attention. All other details help to fill out this point, that His disciples must grow beyond knowing that they can trust Jesus to understanding the implications of whom they are trusting.

 

Context (v. 23)

And after He entered the boat, His disciples followed Him.


With the interruptions of the two would-be disciples out of the way, Jesus and co. are now free to depart as intended in v. 18. The connection to the previous section is not to be taken lying down as the repetition of ἀκολουθέω (to follow) clearly indicates. The scribe boasted he would follow Jesus anywhere. The “other” disciple asked permission to depart and thus not follow Jesus. Yet, these men execute the basic requirement of discipleship without ceremony, discussion, or debate. Jesus gets in the boat, and they follow Him. This is discipleship 101. While many are sometimes referred to as “disciples”, Matthew makes a point of calling these individuals Jesus’ disciples (οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ). These disciples belong to Him. Though the twelve will not be mentioned as such until chapter 10, it is likely that at least some/all of these (certainly the two sets of brothers introduced in 4:18-22) are present at this episode.[1]


The context is now set with Jesus alone with His disciples. What next takes place will not only reveal something of the extent of Jesus’ authority, but will also serve as a lesson for these disciples.

 

Catastrophe (v. 24)

And behold! A great earthquake came on the sea, so that the boat was being covered by the waves, yet He Himself was sleeping.

 

By now we should be accustomed to Matthew’s interjection “behold!” (ἰδού). If the text itself does not grab our attention, this interjection demands that we sit up and pay attention to what is unfolding before our eyes.


Regarding this catastrophic scene there are several things to note. First, Matthew’s “storm” is not described in terms of a whirlwind or a hurricane (λαῖλαψ) nor as seasonal inclement weather (χειμών). Rather, Matthew uses a term exclusively translated in the New Testament (save this occurrence) as “earthquake” (σεισμός – Matt. 8:24; 24:7; 27:54; 28:2; Mk. 13:8; Lk. 21:11; Acts 16:26; Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). The fact that the Sea of Galilee is prone to sudden and robust storms is well documented.[2] Yet because such storms are common, it is unlikely that the veteran fishermen onboard would have been so disturbed by this storm. There is something about this particular storm that utterly unnerves them. In addition to topography, natural geography comes into play. The entire Jordan River flows through a region known as the Jordan Rift,[3] a fault line that is prone to earthquakes as the biblical record indicates of the past (Amos 1:1; Zech. 14:5) and the future (Is. 29:6; Jer. 10:22; Ezek. 38:19). The description of the storm in v. 26 indicates that there is certainly more to this tempest than an earthquake. But if such an earthquake occurred simultaneously with a sudden burst of cold air rushing down from northern mountains, a truly unprecedented storm would be the result. Of course, the odds of such an occurrence are small indeed. Yet perhaps this is precisely the point. This is not a normal storm, but a perfect storm created with this moment in mind.


Second, the situation is truly dire. Matthew reports that the result of the earthquake (ὥστε) produced waves to cover the boat (τὸ πλοῖον καλύπτεσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν κυμάτων). Waves upon the sea arrive in sequence, one following another. The top of each wave is referred to as the “peak” while the low ground in between each wave is called the “trough”. Because gravity continues to work at sea, the peak of each wave will come down. The danger is finding oneself in the trough when the peak of the next wave crashes down upon the vessel. Depending on the size of the boat and the size of the wave, a single wave could fill the boat with water and sink it. That is, if the force of wave did not already splinter the craft asunder. The ticklish task of the disciples is to navigate their boat as best they can to avoid such a disaster. The point is simple: with one wrong move, they’re all dead.


Third, there seems to be a connection between this scene and the account of Jonah. The similarity in language and content between vv. 24-25 and Jon. 1:4-16 are striking. (1) An unprecedented storm in which seasoned sailors lose their minds. (2) An emphasis on the magnitude of various things (the size of the storm, extent of fear, size of the fish, etc.) identified with the adjective “great” (μέγας/גָדוֹל). (3) A representative Israelite taken on as passenger. (4) Destination of Gentile occupied territory for the purpose of divine revelation. (5) Said Israelite representative sleeps through all the commotion. (6) The seasoned sailors turn to land born Israelite representative for help. (7) Actions of the Israelite representative lead to the supernatural cessation of the storm. (8) Through these actions, the sailors who remain are brought to a fuller faith in Yhwh. This is the beginning of the “Jonah motif” in Matthew’s gospel (8:25; 12:39-41; 16:4, 17).[4]


Finally, we must resist the temptation to sermonize the fact that Jesus is sleeping in the midst of this storm and thus miss the point. While it is true that Jesus undoubtedly had a trying day and was exhausted, that is not the point of His slumber. Everything Jesus is recorded to have said and done is with precision and purpose.[5] That Jesus is sleeping in the boat with a storm raging around Him serves to (a) strengthen and make obvious the connection to Jonah, (b) highlights His sovereign control over the situation, which (c) provides the perfect bridge for the climax.

 

Climax (vv. 25-26a)


This center of the chiasm is reminiscent of previous encounters with Jesus as the disciples “come” (προσελθόντες) to Jesus and call Him “Lord” (κύριε). This brief and highly charged exchange reveals much about the disciples, Jesus, and the extent of His authority.

 

 The Disciple’s Anguish (v. 25)

And coming they woke Him saying, ‘Lord, save! We are perishing!’


As already stated, Matthew carefully places the disciples as new petitioners in the same shoes as the leper (v. 2) and the centurion (v. 5). To fully appreciate what they petition Jesus for we must fully understand the situation in which they found themselves. First, it cannot be overstated that this is no ordinary storm. Many a commentator observes the fact that this storm must be exceedingly fierce to unnerve the veteran fishermen in the group, but then go on to explain how such severe storms are common on the Sea of Galilee. If such storms are common, then there’s nothing new here and no reason for experienced hands to fear. This storm is unlike anything these men have ever faced before. It is not enough to explain this storm in terms of topography and geography as if this is a normal occurrence. This is a supernatural storm, just as the allusions to Jonah would indicate. Yet rather than being hurled upon the sea by God (Jon. 1:4), could it be that darker forces are behind this storm (Job 1:6-19; Jn. 12:31; Eph. 2:2; 6:12)?


Second, it is amazing (and telling) that these men turn to Jesus at all. The issue is with the sea, the wind, and the waves and yet they turn to Jesus who has no nautical experience that we know of. Like the leper and the centurion, the vocative “Lord!” (κύριε) carries weight. What could a mere teacher offer in such a time? They recognize that Jesus is more than a teacher, He is Lord. Thus, Jesus is able to offer assistance above and beyond the abilities of any able seaman. This is a significant difference from the Jonah narrative. Rather than begging Him to call on God (as the sailors did to Jonah), the disciples petition Jesus Himself to act.[6]


Their statement to Jesus consists of only three words in the Greek: Κύριε, σῶσον, ἀπολλύμεθα (Lord! Save! We perish!). The choppiness of this exclamation adds to the drama of their impending doom. One might imagine these words screamed over the howling of the wind and the crashing of the waves. The concept of salvation (σῴζω – to save 106x; σωτήρ – savior 24x; σωτηρία – salvation 46x) is an important theme in the New Testament. While the present circumstance clearly has physical deliverance from danger at the forefront, it may be too simplistic to utterly dismiss any spiritual and soteriological significance from this request. After all, this is only the second time the verb has been used in Matthew, the first of which was to describe the purpose of Jesus’ birth and the significance of His name: “because He will save His people from their sins” (1:21). The need for salvation is communicated by the present indicative from ἀπόλλυμι (to ruin, destroy, perish, be lost). The disciples state that they are even now in the process of destruction.[7] They believe that Jesus is able to save them, a faith that is certainly valid. Yet, their behavior is admonished rather than commended by the Lord.

 

Jesus’ Admonition (v. 26a)

And Jesus says to them, ‘Why are you cowardly, little believers?’


One should take a minute and appreciate the manner in which Matthew unfolds this story. The disciples shake Jesus awake[8] and beg Him to save them from certain and sudden death. With a storm raging around Him, Jesus first addresses His disciples before even rising from His makeshift bed. Matthew places the weight of this account right here, in Jesus’ admonition of the disciples.


Matthew again uses the historical perfect (λέγει) to set up this punch line. The adjective δειλός is more than fear but is used to describe an attitude of cowardice. Jesus accuses His disciples of cowardice. Given the circumstances (an unprecedent supernatural storm/earthquake that will destroy the boat and them along with it at any moment), one might think that these words a bit strong. With the apparent effect of rubbing salt in the wound, Jesus calls them “little believers” or “you of little/small faith” (ὀλιγόπιστοι). This is the same term Jesus used in 6:30 to describe those who dare to worry about their physical needs and thus doubting God’s providential care of them. Their panic exposes doubt, the antithesis of faith.


To be clear, Jesus does not say that they have no faith, but that their faith is small. The disciples certainly expressed faith in that they recognized Jesus’ ability to save them. Clearly, they have in mind some kind of supernatural deliverance, for Jesus is not about to offer any maritime advice that will alter their situation. That they call on Him to save reveals true faith indeed. Yet their panic betrays a deficiency of that faith. What does Jesus mean by “little faith”?


Faith is never measured in volume, as you would measure water in gallons or land in acres, but in substance and content. Jesus has been publicly identified as the beloved Son of God (3:16-17). What does this say about Jesus’ identity? Jesus has claimed that He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (5:17). What does this mean? Jesus has demonstrated His ability to make the unclean clean (8:3) and credit righteousness on the basis of faith (8:10-13). What does this indicate about Jesus’ ministry? Jesus has linked Himself with the infirmities of His fellow Israelites as expected of Yhwh’s Suffering Servant (8:16-17). What does this demand about Jesus’ mission? In their most recent hearing, Jesus has claimed to be the Son of Man (8:20). What does this imply about Jesus’ destiny? It is impossible to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, who will take away the sin of the world while also being convinced of their imminent demise at sea. Neither the severity of the storm or its supernatural origin can derail Jesus’ purpose and plan. He has come to offer Himself as a holy sacrifice to atone for the sins of His people. He will not perish in a tempest. In this moment, the disciples have lost sight of that. Thus, Jesus takes the time to admonish them before demonstrating the truth of who He is.

 

Calm (v. 26bc)

Then, getting up He rebuked the winds and the sea and there came a great calm.


Only now does Jesus raise from His sleeping position and does so to rebuke the winds and the sea. Jesus issues a command to the wind currents to cease and the waves to ignore the shifting tectonic plates beneath them. Whatever forces behind this storm, there is a greater authority now being exercised. The result of Jesus’ rebuke is instantaneous obedience. In place of the great storm there came a great calm.


The Greek here perfectly mirrors the description of the storm’s arrival. A wooden translation that captures this wording may go something like this: “an earthquake great came…there came calm great” (σεισμός μέγας ἐγένετο…ἐγένετο γαλήνη μεγάλη). The mirrored effect is illustrated below.


It is not only the suddenness of the storm and the calm that is emphasized, but also their magnitude and completeness. One might wonder what a great calm looks like. The idea is that not a breath wind was felt, nor a ripple of water perceived. What Matthew describes is far more than a simple cessation of wind and stillness of plate activity, for the inertia those forces created upon the water would still be in effect. Hours may elapse before the force of gravity overcame the lack of wind to produce the result of a calm sea. Jesus’ rebuke did not simply stop the forces of the storm but invoked His own force to instantaneously neutralize them. To use more theological language, Jesus reversed and undid the storm with a word. This fact brings the disciples to make an astonishing conclusion.

 

Conclusion (v. 27)

So, the men marveled saying, ‘What sort is this One, that even the winds and the sea submit to Him?’


Matthew’s post-positive δὲ (and, but, so) sets this statement apart from the rest of the narrative. Each verse thus far has been introduced by καὶ (and) to link one event after the other. This verse is linked by means of a result or conclusion. The disciples marvel (ἐθαύμασαν) in the same way that Jesus marveled (ἐθαύμασεν) at the centurion’s faith (v. 10) rather than the astonishment (ἐξεπλήσσοντο) of the crowds (7:28). They were mightily impressed by what Jesus did because it revealed who Jesus was.


Their question is a question of kind. They have no idea what category to place Jesus in. They do not ask what sort of man Jesus is, but literally ask what kind is this One? (ποτοπός ἐστιν οὗτος). This is no mere man that stands before us. The winds and the sea do not submit to a mortal. The question is not phrased in doubt, but in wonder. They realize that Jesus is not simply a man, but the Son of Man who has come among them and will one day rule over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth. With a word, the rebellious forces of nature submit to Him.


That Matthew refers to them as “the men” (οἱ ἀνθρωποι) does not mean that folks other than the disciples marveled. Rather, this reference to the disciples as men is a foil to the non-man man with them in the boat.[9] Only the creator can exercise authority over creation. Jesus’ authority extends over creation itself, implying that all aspects of creation are likewise subject to Him, things visible and invisible. This theory will be put to the test in the following narrative.




[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 204-5.


[2] The fact that the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by high ground ranging from 2,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation while itself sits in a bowl 680 feet below sea-level makes this place ideal for sudden storms. As the warm air from the sea’s surface rise the cold air from the heights rush down the slopes to fill the biometric void. As a result, gale force winds occur, whipping the sea into a frenzy and wreaking destruction in their wake.


[3] Ralph H. Alexander, “Galilee, Sea Of,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 643.


[4] Simply put, Jonah was an accurate representation of who Israel was at the time of his ministry. Despite his rebellion, God used Jonah for His purposes. On the other hand, Jesus is an accurate representation of who Israel was meant to be and one day will be. Both personify the nation while the first foreshadows the second. Jonah’s shortcomings emphasize Jesus’ perfections.


[5] It would be odd to emphasize the frailty of Jesus’ humanity by showing the necessity of a nap in a section dedicated to proving and defining His authority as the divine Son of God.


[6] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 101.


[7] Morris, p. 206.


[8] One might wonder that the true miracle is the fact that Jesus continued to sleep through all of the excitement and had to be awakened by the disciples at all.


[9] Morris, p. 207.

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