New Covenant Polemics: Jesus Commands the Storm

I recently reviewed Dr. John D. Currid’s Against the Gods. He argues convincingly that the Old Testament parallels to ancient Near Eastern literature should be understood as polemic. “Polemic theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning . . . . Polemic theology is monotheistic to the very core” (Against the Gods 25). From there I started asking, “In what ways is Jesus ministry in the Gospels polemic?”

In Mark 4:35-41, the apostle reports,

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

See also: John D. Currid’s Against the Gods (buy) and N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God (buy)

The first thing that must be noted is that Jesus by trade is a carpenter; many of his disciples by trade are fisherman. They know the Sea of Galilee inside and out. They know abrupt and violent storms frequent these waters. Yet they can do nothing to save themselves from this perfect storm. As I read this passage, heard a sermon preached by my pastor on it, and read Dr. Currid’s Against the Gods, something hit me. This story is highly polemic.

First, by the time of Jesus water symbolizes evil, chaos, and darkness

N. T. Wright explains, “But then we find in the vision of Daniel 7, a passage of enormous influence on early Christianity, that the monsters who make war on the saints of the Most High come up out of the sea. The sea has become a dark, fearsome place from which evil emerges, threatening God’s people like a giant tidal wave threatening those who live near the coast. For the people of ancient Israel, who were not for the most part seafarers, the sea came to represent chaos, the dark power that might do to God’s people what the flood had done to the whole world, unless God rescued them as he rescued Noah” (Evil and the Justice of God 15).

In Genesis one, God says “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (1:2). Later in Genesis nine, waters flood the earth and destroy everything except Noah and the animals on the ark. As Israel led by Moses leaves Egypt, God parts the sea to provide a way of escape and a way of death for the Egyptians who dared to follow. Entering Canaan, God again parts waters in the Jordan River so that Israel could enter her rest. As Wright points out, in Daniel seven, monsters rise out of the ocean to challenge God almighty and his saints. In John’s Revelation, the dragon “poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood” (12:15). In the next chapter, a beast rises from the sea (13:1-10). Finally, in the new heavens and earth, John reports “the sea was no more” (21:1).

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The Exodus redemption in the Old Testament was central for Israel. They were to remember God’s deliverance. They were to rehearse it daily in their families, tribes, and as a nation. They were to rest assured that the God who delivered them once would deliver them again. In the New Testament, baptism functions the New Exodus deliverance from the body of sin and Satan. We are united with Christ and raised to new life. We are washed by the Spirit. We rehearse his salvation through water still.

Second, the waters war against Jesus

Some key words introduce the story from Mark’s account : “evening” and “day.” These immediately bring to mind the Genesis creation narrative, which has the refrain “evening and the morning” and uses the word “day” to structure the creative order. We also know from other New Testament passages in John’s Gospel and Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that Jesus creates and sustains the cosmos.

Jesus enters into the boat onto the sea and the creation begins fighting its Creator. It begins tossing and turning. It begins bellowing. It begins destroying. The water itself is a character in this story. In the midst of all of this, Jesus sleeps. He has been ministering, preaching, and healing. He’s exhausted. The Gospel of Mark starts with a burst of immediately Jesus did this, this, and that. He goes here. He goes there. He’s tempted. He walks here and there. His humanity is on display. On the same hand, when he awakes, he does nothing but speak. His divinity is on display. Only Jehovah controls creation with words. He speaks it all into existence out of nothing. Now here’s this exhausted man, Jesus commanding the sea, “Peace! Be Still!”

Last, the passage is a polemic against the perverted religion of Israel and a reminder that salvation is of the Lord.

As noted early, Israel is commanded to rehearse the redemption story, their Exodus from Egypt, in all of their a life. This story is central in knowing God against all other posers. He isn’t a god among the pantheon of gods. He is the God. He commands the creation at his sovereign will. This should’ve been seared onto the disciples collective minds and they should’ve responded with confidence in Jesus. They should’ve immediately called on him to save them from the waters. Not “Don’t you care we are perishing?” but “Jesus save us from the waters.”  Confident assertion of the gospel story rehearsed.

Yet their faith failed. Jesus gets at this when he asks, “Why are you so afraid?” Isn’t that the history of Israel? Being afraid of what God commands them to confidently do and say. Failing to fulfill the terms of the covenant. Israel is described frequently as a whoring wife turning aside to any and every other “god.” What this episode teaches is that God still saves. He saves through his sent Son Jesus. He still commands creation. Where Israel fails in obedience, Jesus delivers perfect obedience and faithfulness to the covenant. He fulfills all the terms without a doubt. And He’s got the swagger to back up His claim of divinity. He heals the sick, sets the captives free, and commands the creation with a word. These are things only Jehovah does. Salvation is of the Lord in the old and new covenant.

How do you respond when sin, suffering, or people question the promises of God in the gospel story? Do you shrivel back in fear? Or do you boldly remember the truth that salvation is of the Lord?