When your life is threatened (Matthew 8:23-27)

When so much is out of control, can Jesus restore this unruly world?

Open Matthew 8:23-27.

Matthew 8:23-27 (my translation)
23 As he boarded the boat, his students followed him. 24 And look! The sea became severely agitated so the boat dipped into the waves, but he was sleeping. 25 They came and roused him saying, “Lord, save us! We’re perishing.” 26 He says to them, “Why are you fearful, trusting so little?” Then, rising up, he told off the winds and the sea. It settled to a great calm. 27 The people were astonished saying, “What kind of person is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

What kind of person indeed! In the ancient world, the sea was outside the boundaries of the nations, beyond human control. Matthew’s point is that Jesus has authority over the natural world, even the parts that are unruly and unruled.

Matthew’s message is all about Jesus’ authority. The anointed king expects obedience from this people (7:29). Even an officer from the army of their oppressors recognized his authority (8:9). All that oppresses his people — diseases and spirit powers — flee at his command (8:16).

Yet, God’s earthly realm isn’t running right: the animals have homes, but the human doesn’t (8:20). That’s why Jesus was trying to sleep in the boat.

The storm strikes. Jesus is asleep. The natural world is out of control. His students fear it will overwhelm and destroy them all (8:25).

The sea has often featured as a threat to God’s reign in the Bible’s story. Unformed, unfilled, and dark, the waters submerged everything until the heavenly sovereign established their boundaries (Genesis 1:2-6). The waters broke their boundaries in Noah’s day, overwhelming the world that rebelled against God’s rule (Genesis 7). As Israel fled from Pharaoh’s tyranny, the Red Sea trapped them. For just a day, the ruler of earth and sea changed its boundary, making a path through the Sea. Then the waters flooded back to swamp Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14).

In Israel’s poetry, the waters often represent the forces that threaten to overwhelm God’s people (e.g. Psalm 69; Isaiah 43:2, 16; Jonah 1:4; 2:3). To the disciples, the sudden storm whirling over Galilee was another threat to their survival in an out-of-control world.

They fear that Jesus will drown with them, overwhelmed as he sleeps. Jesus is part of their group when they say, “We’re perishing!” They’re expecting him to save his people, but if the saviour perishes, what hope is there for anyone? If Jesus drowns, evil and chaos will reign; the kingdom of God will not be restored.

Before he rebukes the out-of-control wind and sea, Jesus confronts his disciples over their fear and unbelief. He wants them to feel the force of his words while the storm is still raging. This won’t be the last time they’ll see Jesus’ life under threat. Or their own.

They will see Jesus losing his life — not to the forces of nature but to the forces that rule humanity in rebellion against God and his anointed. In asking why they were cowering before the storm, why they trusted so little, Jesus was not saying that he and they were invincible. They weren’t: Jesus was as mortal as they were. His rebuke was that they trusted the heavenly Father so little to re-establish his governance of the earth. They needed a strong, deep trust that, even if they saw Jesus killed, the heavenly sovereign would still re-establish his reign over his out-of-control realm, bringing the earth back under his governance.

Jesus stands up in a wildly rocking fishing boat, buffeted by the gale, waves crashing over him. He commands the winds and waves to subside. They comply. Winds wither. Seas settle. Great calm descends, as if his voice had travelled across the whole sea, as if the brute force threatening their lives had slinked away at his command.

In the calm, his students ponder his authority. What kind of person commands the forces of nature? With a word, spirits and sicknesses yielded (8:16). With a word, winds and seas subsided (8:26). What kind of person has that authority?

The spiritual world and the natural world submit to Jesus the Christ, the ruler anointed by heaven. That’s where Matthew’s story is taking us: the Christ receives all authority in heaven and earth (28:18). But before his coronation, Jesus will face his most difficult confrontation: the rebels who grasp God’s power to rule over humanity will murder him to keep their power.

Even death cannot destroy God’s purposes. Jesus is raised up out of death, established as ruler of heaven and earth. I can’t promise you that you won’t be overwhelmed by forces that threaten your life. I can promise you that God will re-establish his reign over the earth through Jesus, his anointed ruler. Be wise, but don’t cower in fear before the forces that threaten you. When you’re struggling to trust, feeling like someone of little faith, keep your eye in the bigger promise: the certainty of God’s reign.

What kind of person is this? A word from his mouth is more powerful than a sword. Even his breath — the suggestion of a command — is all it takes. Spirits and sicknesses surrender. Winds and waves subside. The rebels who resist divine authority will yield to him. Trust him.


What others are saying

Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 150:

Jesus has demonstrated the identical sovereignty over wind and waves attributed to Yahweh in the Old Testament (cf. Jonah 1–2; Pss 104:7; 107:23–32). … The disciples wonder aloud about the identity of the man, bringing the narrative to its Christological climax.

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 371:

For the first time the verb σῴζειν [to save] appears in relation to gaining help from Jesus (but see 1:21). Its use in Matthew is generally in immediate connection with a pressing present difficulty or need, but this is not to say that behind and beyond the immediacy of Jesus’ assistance does not stand a larger sense of the neediness of Israel and the wider world, and of the saving purposes of God.

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 91:

First, how do we regard Jesus? It’s all very well to say in church, or in private devotion, that he’s the son of God, the Lord, the Messiah, or whatever. Do we actually treat him as if he’s got authority over every aspect of our lives and our world? Second, are we as his followers acting in such a way, in our confrontations with evil, our bold announcements of the kingdom, that other people say of us, What sort of people can they be?

[previous: What’s your view of humans?]

[next: What if people don’t want Jesus as king?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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