While You Were Sleeping (Mark 4:35-41)

While You Were Sleeping (Mark 4:35-41)

Preached by Pastor Jeff Hamling

January 24, 2021



Mark 4:35-41

While You Were Sleeping


The image of a ship being tossed about in a storm is a universal, evocative one. It appears across the board in literature, in paintings, in movies, and in multiple places in the Bible.

In fact, when the early Christians started building their own church buildings, they called the inside of the building where people sit “the nave.” “Nave” comes from the same root word as “navy.” It means ship. Christians saw the church as a ship on the sea tossed about by a storm.

Because this passage is loaded with application and gospel imagery, I want to just walk through it one verse at a time, so we don’t miss any of the nuances. I will read a verse, explain it, and then move on to the next.

Begin with v35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was teaching a large crowd on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He now wants to cross over the eastern side. This is a non-Jewish region, an area where Gentiles lived.

Crossing the Sea of Galilee was a bit risky at times. While it was only 7 miles wide, it was known for its sudden, violent storms.

Just to the north was Mount Hermon—9200 ft high. The Sea of Galilee was 700 ft below sea level. The cool winds from the mountain would clash with the warm air above the sea and cause impressive thunderstorms and squalls.

Jesus’ desire to cross over to the eastern side of the Sea, is a reminder that Jesus has come not just for Israel and the Jews—but for the whole world. Jews and Gentiles.

Next: v36: Leaving the crowd behind, [the disciples] took [Jesus] along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.

Jesus had been teaching on the shore from a boat. This provided a buffer so that he wasn’t crushed by the crowds. But now that it was time to go, the disciples hopped in and began taking Jesus to the other side.

What’s striking about this verse is that it includes a detail that’s really not important to the rest of the story. It mentions, “There were also other boats with him.” We don’t hear about these boats again. We aren’t told what happens to them. The mention of these boats is an incidental detail—a nonessential part of the story.

Scholars of ancient literature calls details like this “irrelevant details.”

So what? Why’s this important? Because these same scholars point out that when ancient writers were making up legends—fictional stories—they NEVER included irrelevant details.

Today, authors of fiction do this all the time in order to make the story seem more realistic. But authors NEVER included irrelevant details in the ancient world if they were fabricating a story. They only used these kinds of details in true, eye-witness accounts.

This fact, that this passage includes the verse, “There were also other boats with him”, is an indication that this is NOT a made-up legend. It’s the mark of a real, historical, eye-witness account: We are reading about an event that actually happened.

37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.

For the Jews, the sea symbolized the evil that stands to undo creation.

In Genesis 1, the Bible begins by telling us that there was nothing but darkness over the surface of deep waters. This is a symbol of unorganized, unhabitable, chaotic forces. The whole point of Genesis 1 is that God overcomes these forces.

Or again, in the book of Daniel—Daniel has a dream where 4 destructive beasts rise up out of the sea. The churning sea symbolizes the forces of evil bent on destroying God’s creation.

This is why in Revelation 21:1, in our promise of forgiveness, when it talks about the new heavens and the new earth it says, “And there was no longer any sea” in the new creation. The sea symbolized chaos, evil, and destruction.

As modern people, we don’t view the sea that way. Yet, we still use the langue of a boat at sea when things in our lives are unraveling.

  • We experience a sinking feeling when the doctor tells us bad news.
  • We say we’re swamped with bills.
  • We talk about being hit with waves of depression or being pounded with one trial after another.
  • We see the storm clouds rising when our children make choices that we know will hurt them down the road.
  • We know what it is to have a marriage that’s about to be dashed against the rocks.
  • When we consider how the social fabric of our democracy is being stretched,—we wonder, how much more water can this ship take before it sinks?

Though we don’t share the disciples’ view of the sea, we can identify with their terror as they find themselves in the middle of a violent storm at sea.

38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

There are two things that stand out about this verse:

  1. Jesus is sleeping.

All hell is breaking loose and Jesus is snoozing in the back of the boat. Why would he do this?

Eric Alexander is a famous English preacher. He tells the story of how when he was a young man, he was leading the service for the famous preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaches his heart out and then sits down. Eric Alexander wanted to engage the great preacher, so he asked, “How do you feel?” Martin Lloyd-Jones answered, “Tired.” Eric Alexander asked, “In what way, doctor?” Lloyd-Jones replied, “Young man, I think this is the closest that a man will ever come to the experience of childbirth.

Jesus has been preaching to a large crowd for an entire day. Preaching and then interacting with people for hours on end takes it out of you! Even the most extroverted pastors get worn down by it emotionally, psychologically, physically—it’s draining! Jesus is exhausted from a day of preaching.

Why’s this important? Because Jesus is God, yet he’s God in the flesh. Jesus’ humanity is on full display in this scene. Jesus, the Son of God, allows himself to tire, grow weary, suffer, and eventually die—all on behalf of his disciples.

He’s sleeping because he’s a man. And he’s a man because he loves them.

And yet they interpret his weariness, his humanity, as a lack of care.

Ironically, the disciples accuse Jesus of sleeping and therefore not caring. Yet, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before Jesus goes to his death, he tells his disciples: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch [and pray].” And what do they do? They go to sleep. Even after he wakes them—they go back to sleep.

How often we accuse people of the very thing that we ourselves are guilty of!

2. The second striking part of v.38 is the disciples’ question.

They ask Jesus: Teacher, Don’t you care if we drown?

It’s worth pointing out that there is a right way and a wrong way to ask this question.

The wrong way to ask “Don’t you care?” is to ask it as an accusation: You don’t care! To ask it with the assumption that God doesn’t let us go through storms: If you cared, you would do something; I wouldn’t be going through this right now!

Last September, I officiated at an outdoor wedding. Afterwards, I saw a relative of the bride standing off to the side smoking a cigarette. I went an made conversation with him. Very intelligent. Graduated from Harvard. He shared with me that he is an atheist. I asked why. He shared that when he was a teenager his sister died in a car accident. He told me that a caring God would ever allow that to happen.

But the Bible never promises that we won’t go through storms in life. In fact, it assures us that we will indeed encounter loss, heartache, suffering, and tragedy. The Bible tells us that we are living in a broken world. And while God promises that he’ll be with us in the storms of life and that one day he’ll make it right, he never promise that we won’t encounter storms.

If we ask, “God why don’t you care?” with the assumption that he will never let us suffer, then we are asking the question the wrong way.

But there’s a right way to ask this question: Lord, don’t you care? There’s a way to ask that question in faith. In fact, the Bible encourages us to talk to God like this.

  • Psalm 44 says, Wake up, Lord! Why do you sleep? Why do you hide your face and forget our misery? Rise up and help us!
  • The Psalms are full of questions like this. God wants us to take our frustrations, fears, questions, and our doubts to him.
  • Jesus himself from the cross asks, Father, why have you forsaken me?

So, what’s the difference between asking this question the right way and the wrong way? The wrong way assumes that God doesn’t let us go through storms. But the right way is to come to God, knowing that even if I don’t understand, I trust him.

39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Jesus says two things: Quiet! and Be Still! When he says, Quiet, he’s talking to the wind. When he says, Be still, he’s talking to the waves.

  • It’s one thing for the wind to die down. But perhaps even more astounding is the Sea becoming completely calm.
  • If you’ve been around a large body of water, you know that even when the winds stop and the storm ends, the waves keep pounding for hours afterward. Yet, Jesus immediately causes the sea to be as smooth as glass.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t pray and ask God to calm the storm. He commands it himself. In the Bible, calming storms on the sea is attributed to God alone.

  • Psalm 65:7 [God] stilled the roaring of the seas, and the roaring of their waves.
  • Psalm 89:9 You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.

Jesus is not only a human who grows weary and sleeps on the stern of a boat. He is the Sovereign LORD who alone has authority over all creation.

40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The disciples were terrified in the middle of the storm. But now, in the calm, they are even more terrified!

Why? Because while the storm had immense power that was beyond their control, Jesus has infinitely more power—they have even less control over him. No wonder they are afraid! No wonder they ask, Who is this?!

It’s the right question to ask. And it’s the question Mark wants us to ask ourselves.

In answer to the question: Mark has intentionally told this story so that it is structured almost exactly like another famous story in the Bible: the story of Jonah.

The two stories are almost identical. In both stories:

  • Jesus and Jonah are prophets.
  • They are both in a boat.
  • Both boats are overtaken by a storm—that threatens to swamp the boat.
  • Both Jesus and Jonah are sleeping during the storm.
  • In both stories, the sailors on the ship—wake up the sleeper and say, “We’re going to die!”
  • In both accounts, the people on board the ship become afraid after the storm—in the calm.

The stories are pretty much identical—except for one major difference. In the story of Jonah, Jonah says to the sailors in effect:

Throw me into the sea and the storm will go away. If I die, you will live. If I perish, you will survive.

Jesus doesn’t say that here. But the point of this story is to foreshadow that Gospel Truth. Now one greater than Jonah is here!

On the cross, Jesus does throw himself into the abyss of chaos and evil. He allows the waves of sin and death crash over him.  On the cross, Jesus says, If I die, you will live.

If Jesus is willing to throw himself into the ultimate storm—how can you say, “Jesus, don’t you care?” when we face the storms of this life?

He promises that he will be with us. And he will calm the sea and make all things new.