The story of the sea storm in the Gospel of Mark picks up right after Jesus has given a series of sermons. He’s preached to a crowd so large that he had to speak from a boat pushed a short distance into the water.
Mark 4:35–41 tells the story of Jesus calming the storm—but, curiously, we find the Lord asleep as the chaos breaks out around him:
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 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?” 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. (Mark 4:37–39)
Why was Jesus asleep in the boat?
There are a few possible explanations. Mark, as well as most of the other biblical authors, is spare with his details—including only those elements necessary to the author’s agenda—so we could assume it’s a salient element to the story. There are three possibilities.
1. A Link to Jonah
Perhaps Mark tells us Jesus is sleeping in order to link the account to Jonah. The story of Jonah shares similar elements and language (in its Greek translation) to the one in Mark 4, which suggests Mark is evoking the story. One is the idea of the main character sleeping in the bottom of the boat during the storm, though the language used to describe Jonah is more vivid and possibly pejorative.
2. A Clue about Jesus’s Humanity
Jesus is fully human: He works hard, does much public speaking, and deals with many different people, all of whom want something from him. Given the strains ordinary ministers experience in their daily work, the fully human Jesus must have suffered from exhaustion during his earthly ministry.
3. A Clue about Jesus’s Divinity
Though Jesus is a human, he also has full confidence in his divine identity. As only the second person of the Trinity can, Jesus sleeps like a baby amid the chaos, secure in the realization that he is one with the Creator, and his time has not come. His sleep signals divine insight: Jesus knows he’s not going to die tonight.
Of course, all three of these explanations are possible at the same time, because human language in the hands of a skilled author can convey multiple complex ideas at once.
Why These Three Options?
Surely, the sleeping Jesus is supposed to make you think about Jonah’s story (the first option), where a suspicious storm develops and is quieted by God and all the witnesses are left terrified. Remember when the sailors cast lots, asking, “Who has brought this storm on us?” The lot falls on Jonah. They begrudgingly throw the prophet overboard, and the storm immediately dissipates. The emphasis is on who calms the storm. The Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, stills it, and the sailors know they have just witnessed God’s hand and his complete authority over the forces of creation. In Jonah 1:16, “the men feared the LORD exceedingly.” The Greek translation of this passage emphasizes the great fear the sailors experience when they see God’s power on display. It’s even greater than their fear of the storm (1:5). It’s fear-inducing to know that the cosmic God who calms the storm also cares about the rebellion of a single man.
In Mark, Jesus also sleeps. The disciples wake him for fear of their lives (as in Jonah, the sleeper is roused with a rhetorical question), and the wind and waves are calmed. Mark seems to be drawing our attention to the agent who calms the storm. In Jonah, the agent is the Lord, but in Mark 4 it is Jesus. Jesus is to the storm in Mark 4 what God is to the wind and waves in Jonah 1.
Jesus is to the storm in Mark 4 what God is to the wind and waves in Jonah 1.
And as if to drive the point home, the disciples who bear witness to all of this are described in virtually the same phraseology used in the Greek translation of Jonah. They are “exceedingly afraid” (Mark 4:41). The storm was terrifying, but this prophet in the boat with the power to speak truth to the weather presents an entirely new source of fear. The authority of God inspires such fear in those who see it firsthand.
But the second option works as well. Jesus’s sleep in the boat is a reminder of his humanity. It’s a fascinating idea that there were regular moments when the God-man, the Lord of the universe, may have laid down and pondered some random thoughts before sleep overtook him. As a human, he could grow tired, even to a point of exhaustion. So he gets in the boat and lies back like a business traveler on a red-eye flight, trying to fit in sleep wherever he can. Mark’s audience could readily identify with Jesus’s humanity.
The third option is also compelling. Just the fact that Jesus sleeps is a clue to his divinity. How? Jesus didn’t fear the wind and waves or anything they could do to him. The Creator need not be restless in the face of a dangerous creation. When Jonah secretly sleeps below the decks, he does so in a spirit of fatalism and dread. When Jesus sleeps in the hull of the boat, he does so in confidence. He doesn’t lose sleep on account of weather patterns.
Jesus is more than a teacher; he’s a miracle-worker. Once the reader absorbs that point, Mark ups the ante.
Jesus is more than a teacher and more than a miracle-worker. He has the authority of the Creator himself.