While I was preparing my sermon for this past Sunday, I noticed that some commentators perceived some parallels between this pericope of Scripture and Jonah. I want to follow this thought up, but I don’t have space for it in my sermon.
In my sermon, I show that in Mark 4:35-41 Jesus reveals himself as the Creator and Savior of unbelieving disciples. In this reflection, my goal is to first note the connections between the Jonah story and the calming of the sea – both parallels and contrasts – and then ask how these connections help further our understanding of Jesus revealing himself as Creator and Savior. Additionally, I will consider how Jonah as a type of Christ calls us to read the calming of the Sea as a figure of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Passages of Scripture:
1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
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?”
To begin, note that God called Jonah to be a prophet of Israel to Nineveh. In its original context, Jonah is understood as representative of how Israel was supposed to be a witness to the whole world. Israel was called to be a witness to the world of Yahweh and his mighty deeds. Jonah’s flight from God and his mission signifies Israel’s rejection of God and his call on them.
Jesus too was commissioned by God as a prophet – first to Israel and then the world – but unlike Jonah, Jesus does not flee the presence of God. He is, in fact, the very presence of God in the unbelieving world. Jesus does what Jonah refused to do, he obeys God. In this way, we see that Jesus figures how Israel was supposed to be; he recapitulates Israel’s faithlessness with his faithfulness.
Jonah flees God, but God’s presence is not so easily escaped. The fact that Jonah thought he could flee God’s presence shows how limited his understanding of God was. The boat is caught in a great storm, and while the crew fights for their lives, Jonah is asleep in the boat. Sleep, in Scripture, often figures death. It is possible that this points to Jonah’s own spiritual deadness, or foreshadows what is about to happen to him. The crew wakes Jonah up so that he can call upon his God for help. As the narrative continues we see that Jonah realizes that the crew will die because of his unfaithfulness, he eventually convinces them to cast him into the sea, and they do. The storm calms, and the pagan gentiles worship the God of Israel in fear and thankfulness. The irony should not be missed, that even as Jonah flees his mission, God uses his waywardness to bring sinners to repentance.
In Mark 4 we see Jesus asleep through the storm, just like Jonah. But his sleep was not one of spiritual deadness or avoidance of God, rather it was one of quiet presence. Jonah didn’t escape the presence of God, and neither had the disciples been abandoned by God. Jesus was asleep in the boat, and the disciples come to Jesus in fear, just as the crew came to Jonah. However, the disciples did not look for salvation or even a prayer from Jesus, they merely wanted help. Despite their unbelief, Jesus causes the storm to immediately cease. The unbelief of the disciples is turned into fear, much like the fear of the crew on Jonah’s boat. For both crews, the fear was provoked by a unilateral revelation of God and his power. But unlike Jonah’s crew, the disciples do not worship God, they still do not understand who he is. If Jesus is the true Israel, the disciples represent Isreal in its disbelief and spiritual deadness. They, like Jonah, did not really know who the Lord God of Isreal was.
When we read these two stories together, we see Jesus fulfilling the ministry that Jonah and Israel, was called to, i.e., to be witnesses of Yahweh. But more than that we see that someone greater than Jonah has come, God, himself, has come to save the world. This salvation is demonstrated by Jesus saving his unbelieving disciples, which signify unbelieving Isreal and the world. In the end, Jesus is the greater Jonah.
The Two Sleeper’s Death?
The fact that both Jonah and Jesus slept during the storm should cause us to pause. For Jonah, his sleep shows his lack of spiritual sensitivity – his spiritual deadness- to God’s presence and his providential judgment on his flight. This sleep is continued in his descent into the turbulent waters where he spent three days in the belly of a great fish. Traditionally, this has been understood as a kind of death. It is only after dying and rising that Jonah completes his mission from God. In its context, Jonah’s death points to the death of exile that Isreal experienced as God’s judgment for their unfaithfulness.
Is it possible that Jesus’ sleep, read in light of Jonah’s sleep-death further fills out the revelation of his Lordship as creator and savior? I suggest that the parallel between the two sleepers leads us to see Jesus’s sleep as a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection, where he ultimately saves the whole world from death and disbelief. If Jesus’s sleep points to his death and resurrection, it follows that this passage shows us that Jesus’s work of salvation is ultimately grounded in his death and resurrection. It is because of his death and resurrection that he saves and delivers those who call upon him even in their disbelief and fear.
Whether this is a helpful, fair, or good reading of the Calming of the Sea is up for debate. However, I do think it helps to highlight the depth of this event as something more than just a fancy miracle, but as a theophany of God’s whole plan of Salvation: The Creator and Redeemer saves the ungodly. Reading it in light of Jonah’s sleep/death can help us see the depth of the revelation: that it is only in the death of Jesus Christ that the fullness of salvation is brought to bear upon the ungodly.