This semester ITS students are studying (among other things) the “Synoptic Gospels”—Matthew, Mark & Luke. It’s been great! We’ve spent a lot of time in Mark and have observed how the good news about Jesus is presented in a way that emphasizes two inseparable themes: Jesus’ power and Jesus’ suffering. Mark is teaching us how good it is to know that the one we follow has power—over illness, over demons, over nature, over persecutions, even over death. But Mark also sobers us to remember that this power is mingled with suffering. Jesus—the powerful one—suffers in this gospel. And this, ironically, encourages us: when we suffer we should not think something strange is happening or that we are outside of God’s will. For even Jesus suffers; and he is with us when we suffer.
Let me give you an example, Mark 6:45–52. Jesus walks on the water and the winds calm down! This is a powerful but, sadly, often misunderstood passage.
Let me start with the negative. I typically hear this story taught like this: “Jesus will calm all the storms of your life. Just look at the way he effortlessly strolls over the waves. The waves are the disciples’ big problem. And Jesus doesn’t even break a sweat; he can walk all over your big problems too, and calm all the troublesome winds that blow through your life.”
I do not like that interpretation. I don’t like it for three reasons: (1) that’s not the point of the text; (2) it’s simply not true that Jesus will solve all our problems; and (3) the promise of Mark 6 is actually a lot bigger and more awe-inspiring. So to read Mark 6 so flatly misses the point, makes false promises, and actually undercuts the promise Jesus does make.
Someone, however, will ask, “But shouldn’t I be encouraged and have strength in my trials, and doesn’t this passage teach that?” And I say YES, ABSOLUTELY! So let me explain how that is different than the previous interpretation.
My disagreement with the previous interpretation is not that the storm is equated with the problems of life. That’s understandable. Rather, my issue is with the idea that Jesus will resolve all our problems. We have no promise in scripture that Jesus will take away all trials and sufferings while everything comes up roses. To make that promise is misleading and will ultimately discourage people when problems and sufferings do come—because they thought “Jesus would calm all the storms of my life.” It’s a false promise that will only disappoint.
Rather I think the power of Mark 6 is here: Not that Jesus will solve all the problems of life, but that he is with us through all those problems! And that is why we need not fear, and that is why we should take comfort! So we will still have trials and tribulations, but Jesus is with us! Thus the two sides of the gospel: the powerful Jesus is with us, but not to remove sufferings. Rather, he encourages us and sees us through the sufferings. For he too suffered, and ultimately died “to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).
Yet, there is more. The really big problem of life is death. And that is the promise that Jesus actually does promise to solve…with a resurrection no less! The “sea” is, after all, a metaphor for death in the Old Testament, and that is specifically what Jesus is trampling down (see Exod 15:1–2; Job 9:8; Psa 77:19 for some very interesting OT background). That is why I said above that the flat reading misses the opportunity to really marvel at Jesus’ greatest promise: when you die he will raise you back to life! Christian, take courage in that! Marvel in that! Boast and exult and triumph in that! Jesus treads down the forces of death…and then gets in the boat with this disciples! He is with us—in life, in suffering, and above all, in death and in resurrection. So the “Jesus will calm all the storms of your life” interpretation sounds inviting. But it’s too small. It doesn’t have enough glory! We need more. We need a remedy for death. We need to sing “when the death dew lies cold on my brow; if ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”
Just observe where the whole of Mark is going. In the end Jesus passes his own sufferings and is himself raised from the dead. Jesus’ experience is the paradigm for the church. To the early Christian community—commonly buffeted by the forces of death all around them—it was a powerful message to hear. And it remains so.
So, the short answer to the question is “Yes, Mark 6 does teach us to be of good courage and not fear in all our issues of life because Jesus is with us. But not because he’ll take away all of our trials and discomforts with the snap of a finger. Through many trials and tribulations must we enter the kingdom of heaven, just like he did. But in the end the ultimate form of suffering, death, has no sting!”
- Dr. Nicholas G. Piotrowski is an Associate Pastor at Northside Baptist Church and the President pro tempore of ITS.