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Sea-Faring Stories in the Bible
Throughout history, cultures have had a tendency to regard the sea as a symbol—or a force—of evil. If you’ve ever read a story of men at sea, you might understand why. The sea tempts many sailors with it’s salty air and beauty, then it swallows them up with its waves. It disorients them with its vast and endless horizon. The sea is deceptive and unpredictable, ripe with death. So, it’s constantly viewed as a symbol (or force) of evil.
Even the Bible speaks of the sea this way. You could think of the Psalm which we read together (Psalm 107, starting in verse 23). That Psalm is particularly interesting. There, we learn that the LORD “commanded and raised the stormy wind”, as the sailors “reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end.” So, God gave them these winds and waves, and then we’re told that the sailors “cried to the LORD in their trouble”. The waves, there, are described as their trouble, which the LORD raised up against them.
The waves are troublesome. Psalm 46 also describes the waves as a raging, destructive force of the curse—and here’s the catch: God uses the waves to his own ends. He sends the trouble to accomplish his own purposes. If you think of other stories of men at sea, you might remember that the sea is a place where God draws stubborn people to himself (Jonah). It’s a place where he tests his people, to reveal their lack of faith (the disciples). The sea is a place where he shows his sovereignty over the curse, and his power to deliver us from the curse. Those are all classic themes in Biblical sea-faring stories. God uses the sea for the good of his slow and obstinate people, and to accomplish his sovereign purposes over the curse.
That broad, Biblical observation alone should give us comfort—shouldn’t it? God is sovereign even over the untamable seas—and he can even use the seas to teach his people; to discipline them; to draw them to himself. It’s hard not to allegorize those sea-faring stories in our Bibles, isn’t it? We almost intuitively apply these stories to ourselves in the troubles we face, don’t we? I’ll never forget the old Charles Spurgeon quote, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me up against the rock of ages.” Isn’t that beautiful? Kiss the waves. Why? I can’t help but assume that Spurgeon was implying—“because they’re designed for you”. The waves are designed for you, to throw you upon the rock of ages.
Now, there’s something particularly interesting—or special—about today’s sea-fairing story, singling it out from other sea-fairing stories in our Bibles. Paul wasn’t running from God, like Jonah. Paul wasn’t doubting or misunderstanding Jesus, like the twelve disciples were in the boat. There wasn’t necessarily anything God had to teach Paul. That’s not the main point of this passage, here. Here, Paul was being obedient in his calling as an apostle and minister of Jesus. He was being obedient, with a crystal-clear understanding of Jesus’s power and glory—and yet, Jesus threw him into this most miserable storm.
If this isn’t a story to teach an obstinate Paul a lesson, then what’s the point of this story? Why does Luke—the author of Acts—take pains to tell us this long story? What are we to learn?
I think you could look at this story from a number of angles—but in a word, it showing us how the Lord designs his kingdom to advance through trouble, for his glory. A captain of a ship does not look glorious if he makes all his journeys through easy, calm waters. Instead, a captain of a ship looks glorious if he’s able to get his crew through the most treacherous waters, and the crew morale never sinks. The crews’ spirits stay as high as the waters, and the captain never loses his bearings. He always arrives on time, despite the waters’ conditions. That’s glorious. That’s Jesus, in our passage—giving Paul exactly what he needs to keep the gospel moving forward to Rome. Paul will bring the gospel to Rome, unmoved and untouched by the waves, because Jesus is helping him, anchoring him to the rock of ages. That glorifies the captain, Pau’s Lord, who has already proven himself sovereign over the seas.
Three Anchors in Jesus to Keep Us Steady At Sea
This is a story about how Jesus provides ballast to his faithful servants, even as he sends them out with the gospel through trouble. As the Lord sends us out into trouble, we need ballast. We need to be anchored—much like Paul was. So, I see thee anchors, so to speak, that Jesus gave Paul to hold onto—(1) Jesus’s mission, (2) Jesus’s word, and (3) Jesus’s salvation. These three anchors are priceless to keep anyone steady, even as the gospel might advance through them.
Anchor #1: Jesus’s Mission
So, let’s consider the matter of Jesus’s mission, as it shows up in our passage this morning. Especially in the first 12 verses of this story, we are reminded that Paul was a man on mission for Jesus, and that mission anchored Paul to endure much difficulty.
I’m not going to read those first 12 verses again, so I’ll quickly reiterate the high points for us, here. In verse 1, we’re quickly reminded of the situation Paul was in. Look at verse 1, again. “When it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort named Julius”.
So, Paul was one of several prisoners under the keeping of a Roman centurion named Julius. They were all headed to Italy. In other words, Julius was delivering prisoners to Rome—and, Paul was among the prisoners. Although, you don’t have to read far to realize that Paul was a unique prisoner. Verse 3 says “Julius treated Paul kindly”. Later on, in verse 42, we see that the solders’ plan was to kill the prisoners, “lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan”. Paul was a special prisoner—and, why is that? He was on mission, rather than on death row.
It’s been supposed and commonly understood that the other prisoners were being sent to Italy no other reason than the gladiatorial games. There’s a reason why the soldiers were so quick to leave these prisoners to their death. They were already condemned to death. One man says—
‘[they were] in all probability already condemned to death, and were going to supply the perpetual demand which Rome made on the provinces for human victims to amuse the populace by their death in the arena’.
That’s why they were going to Rome (to Italy). Not so for Paul. From Rome’s perspective—as we’ve seen in the last few weeks—Paul was going to Rome because he was being falsely charged by the Jews as committing treason against Caesar. The Jews, who wanted to snuff out Christianity, wanted Paul dead. So, they charged him of the same capital offense which they accused Jesus of to get Jesus dead—“he opposes Caesar!”. This time, Rome saw through it. There was no evidence, and Paul appealed to Caesar because the Roman judicial courts near Jerusalem were not settling his case.
So, Paul wasn’t being sent to his death, and he wasn’t some low-profile case. He was a big deal, and innocent.
But therein, again, Paul was on mission. He appealed to Caesar so that he might go to Rome—and ultimately, because he was being obedient to his Lord. Way back in chapter 23, when this whole trial in Jerusalem began, we’re told something incredibly significant as we get our bearings for today’s passage. After the Jews first falsely accused him and almost killed him, we learn in chapter 23 verse 11, ‘the following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome”.
Obeying the Lord in our Callings
That’s a missionary calling, right there. Jesus said “you must testify [to the facts about me] also in Rome”—that is, in Italy, where Paul is headed in this passage. That’s the mission which Paul anchored himself to, as the Lord called him. There’s so much to learn from this, even as we consider obeying the Lord in our own callings.
First, the matter of resolve. Remember that Paul regarded himself as a slave to Christ rather than Caesar. Christ redeemed him and called him to Rome. So, he went confidently and joyfully. From this point (in chapter 23) forward, you can bet that Paul was looking for every opportunity he could find in order to get himself out prison and onto a boat to Rome. Unless Jesus gave Paul some vision that we don’t hear about in Scripture, Paul was left to figure out the details which would get him to Rome. Jesus said “you must go to Rome”—so, Paul set his mind on Rome, and he’d obediently find a way to get there, as the Lord would provide opportunity. Jesus had spoken, so Paul was resolved.
Second, we’d do well to remember the matter of wisdom. Paul was a prisoner, remember. Can you make travel itineraries when you’re in prison? You certainly cannot. Yet, the Lord had called Paul to go to Rome. You must wonder if Paul thought Jesus nuts. He could have argued with God, you know. “Don’t you see I’m in prison, Lord? You’re asking me to do the impossible!” Paul didn’t complain like that. He trusted his Lord, and therein found his wisdom. What does the Proverb say? “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”. Fearing God is where it begins—revering his commands and his ways. It begins with fearing God in his wisdom and his salvation—his ways are good, and his help is ever-present when we are insufficient. Think of that moment when a good father gives difficult instructions to a son—and everything in the son says “I can’t do it”. What is the only thing that will keep the son from saying “I can’t, dad, this is impossible!”? A son’s fear and reverence for his Father. “My father is good and wise—and if he says there’s a way, then there’s a way. If there’s not, then he’ll be there to help me”. Paul feared the Lord, and wisely sought obedience. Even though he’s a prisoner, he sought every opportunity to make haste to Rome.
Jesus commanded Paul to testify to his grace in Rome. So, Paul (1) resolved to make haste to Rome, and he sought his itinerary plans (2) with wisdom. I have to wonder how keenly he kept his eyes peeled for any opportunity that might take him to Rome.
And, this brings us to the third matter of patience. Paul sat in that prison cell at Caesarea for 2 years, folks. He was resolved, and he was wise—but, wasn’t in a hurry. He was patience. He trusted the Lord would provide the opportunity—and, he did. Perhaps you remember from previous weeks—a new Roman governor was appointed to Caesarea, and Paul’s case was handed over to this new guy. As matters quickly unfolded under this new governor, Paul seized the opportunity to appeal his case to Caesar. It was a wise move, patiently and powerfully played. For Paul, it was a move of obedience to his Lord who had called him to testify to Jesus’s salvation in Rome. As the Lord would have it—Paul would go as a prisoner with his own personal escorts, his own body guards who treated Paul kindly, and on Caesar’s dime.
The gospel of Jesus’s forgiveness and grace really does advance under the directives of a Sovereign Lord, doesn’t it? Paul anchored himself in his Lord’s directions, and that meant blessing even in prison and on the high seas. He was resolved, wise, and patient as he sought the opportunity which the Lord had orchestrated for him.
So, Paul appealed to Caesar, and so the Roman officials from Caesarea put Paul on a boat with other prisoners who, presumably, were headed for the death arena. Paul certainly was unique. In the eyes of Rome, he was innocent. In the eyes of Jesus, he was on mission. He was resolved, wise, and patient—and the Lord blessed him for it.
Paul's Resolve, Wisdom, and Patience at Sea
By the way, we see these qualities of Paul on mission come out more in our story at sea. Again, he was resolved, wise, and patient. Think of how this story unfolds. From Caesarea (on the eastern-most coast of the Mediterranean sea), Paul and his companions sailed north to the ports of modern-day Turkey, as they simply followed the coastline. Essentially, they were looking for a sturdy boat designed for the big open seas—and one that was headed for Italy.
They found one, and the boat struggled to make its way west to Italy. So, it slowly sailed south to the Island of Crete, where they could shelter themselves from the winds. Verse 9 tells us of when Paul steps in to offer his wisdom.
9 Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over [meaning, it was the fall season when the seas were most dangerous], Paul advised them, 10 saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”
This is a most resolved, wise, and patient Paul. He doesn’t hastily make his way to Rome at any turn of this story. He waits 2 years in prison, and now he’s willing to wait in Crete for several months until the seas are ready to sail again.
Obedience to the Lord, folks, is not a hasty thing. It often involves patience. We live in a very fast age of “instant messages” and “fast food”, so we expect quick results. The thought of obediently waiting upon the Lord for months or years is beyond our ordinary thinking, in many ways. Here, we see the apostle Paul living with a most unhurried—yet diligent—resolve.
But think about this. Why is Paul so patient in his obedience? Isn’t “slow to obey” a bad thing? Perhaps you’ve heard the old parents’ adage, “obey, don’t delay”. How does patience and obedience fit together, for us?
For the Christian, obedience is always a matter of faith and trust. It’s a matter of tending to God’s words, and trusting in God’s ways. Sometimes God does require fast, quick obedience. We must deal with our sins quickly—to repent quickly from sin, and seek Jesus’s forgiveness immediately when we sin. Don’t hold off. As Hebrews says, “today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:17). Don’t put God off for a moment, to let your sin stew before a holy and just God. God commands us to deal urgently with our sin, especially as he is always offering forgiveness and fellowship with him through Jesus’s sacrifice for our sins. He died on the cross so you might deal quickly and fully with your sins, by laying them at the cross for forgiveness and fellowship with the Lord.
Yet in other matters, God’s commands do require patience. As in Paul’s situation in our story, Jesus simply told Paul that he must testify in Rome. That’s not a “when” statement. It’s simply a command. So, Paul was patient. Elsewhere, we are called to pursue growth in our godliness and holiness—a matter that certainly takes patience. We’re called to seek and save the lost; preach the gospel to the nations; love our neighbors—and, all of these take resolve, wisdom, and patience. They also take trust. As First Thessalonians 5:24 reminds us, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”—and he’ll do it on his own timing, according to his grace and purposes for us in Christ.
All of this is our Lord’s calling upon us, folks—and, we’d do well to anchor ourselves in what the Lord requires of us. Paul was anchored in a firm understanding of Jesus’s mission and calling upon his life, and it allowed him to make wise and patient decisions. He saw no reason to risk the stormy season when, for whatever reason, the captain and centurion over his boat thought otherwise. If everything had gone according to Paul’s plan, as he trusted the Lord, then Paul’s mission to Rome might have looked quite agreeable. Smooth sailing!
The Difficulty of Missions
This all might make missions and obedience sound like a fairly easy process. Just anchor yourself in a resolved, patient, and wise obedience to the Lord in your faith and witness, and the Lord will open the doors. He’ll give you a free ticket and body guards to Rome—doesn’t that sound nice?
If only it were that easy. Truth be told, Jesus promised his disciples that following him—especially in our witness—would be hard. The gospel, as this passage of sea-fairing might suggest, is going to advance through “much difficulty” (verses 7 and 16). Telling people about their sin, and his Jesus’s forgiveness, is to be hard in many ways—and, he designs it to be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If a door to missions looks easy-going, I can tell you it won’t be. He’ll send the waves, folks. He will, as he intends to be glorified through them. Remember Paul described his gospel ministry in second Corinthians 4:7,
we have this treasure [i.e., this ministry of the gospel] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
The Lord designs for the church—and individual Christians—to be beaten down to death so that his life would be manifest through our death. If we are perplexed and destroyed and mocked—but not driven to despair—does that not show Jesus to be a most peculiar and steady anchor that this world desperately needs? That’s how Jesus designs for us to carry the light of his gospel into this broken world.
Is that not Paul’s journey to Rome, as this story unfolds? This time, God sends literal waves and soldiers who want to kill him.
Jesus’s calling—or mission—anchored Paul so he might be diligent, wise, and patient. He’s most unlike all the other prisoners on the boat, and everyone knew it. Now, let’s consider how Jesus’s Word anchored Paul to the rock of ages.
Anchor #2: Jesus’s Word
In verse 13, we learn that the folks calling the shots on Paul’s boat saw that ‘the south wind blew gently” one morning. So, what did these ambitious sailors think? They figured it was a good day to sail to Italy! From Crete, where they were, this would have been a days’ cruise across the Adriatic sea.
Then verse 14, “14 But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land. 15 And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along.”
The ships back then weren’t designed to fight these sorts of winds. The only thing you could do is to let the wind take you as it pleases, and hope for the best. So, the wind blew them as it pleased—and, we read a number of nautical references in verse 17 that commentators don’t really know what to do with. What is clear, though, is that the crew did everything they possibly could do in order to preserve their lives—but, to no avail. Verse 18,
18 Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. 19 And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands.
Isn’t that something? This is their last-ditch effort to save themselves. As the water is coming into the boat, they got rid of everything on their ship which was weighing them down. They were just trying to stay afloat at this point. In fact, they didn’t even know where they were. Verse 19 makes reference to them not seeing the sun or stars “for many days”. Sailors back then navigated with reference to the stars. So, they were sinking; they were lost and disoriented; they were ruined. Verse 20 finally says “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned”.
These people were altogether dejected. What’s a man to do in a situation like this? Where do you turn? It’s actually a bit odd that we don’t get much details of the crews’ happenings during this time. They weren’t drinking their sorrows like a any old sailor might do in this situation. In fact, they weren’t even eating. Later on in verse 33, Paul literally says “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing”. Isn’t that odd? Were they saving the food, hoping to ration it out over months? Were they fasting to their gods (as one commentator suggest)? We don’t know. We simply know what verse 20 tells us—they were hopeless. Again, “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned”.
Isn’t it times like this when the glory of Jesus and his grace shines most clearly? “There’s no hope of me being saved, I got nothing left in the tank, I’m ready to die”. In steps Paul, a man on mission, in the midst of the seas. What does he have? He has a word from God. Look at verses 22 and following.
He first establishes his credibility. Verse 22—“Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss.” Paul is saying—"you didn’t listen to me then when I was right, so listen to me now.”
Then, he gives them a revelation he received from the Lord—
22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”
Don’t you love that? Paul’s word, there, can be summed up in two statements: “(1) God has spoken salvation, and (2) I have faith”. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Yet is that difficult, especially when your boat has been taking in water for upwards to 14 days and you haven’t eaten. Imagine the “hangry” these men must have been—or, perhaps, “hanxious”. Hungry, angry, anxious, miserable wrecks.
Yet Paul says “take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told”. You have to wonder what these men thought. “Paul, you’re a crazy man! If your God had the power to save us, the time has passed! Why didn’t he do it last week, or the week before when this whole thing began?”
Don’t we feel that way sometimes? It can be difficult to say that—“I have faith”—after weeks of suffering. Paul didn’t waver. Again, he was patient as he trusted his Lord. Jesus’s words—his promise of salvation—were a rock-solid anchor for Paul, here. He was the only hopeful man in that boat full of 276 persons (as verse 37 tells us).
Do you want that sort of anchor in your soul? The Lord has spoken, folks—it’s all written down in Scripture, ready for you to commit to your heart and mind. Read the Bible, pray over it, memorize it, believe it. As this promise encouraged Paul, allow the promises in Scriptures concerning Christ’s salvation and hope and peace and help flood your soul so that you need not be anxious or angry or fearful.
And more than this, proclaim those promises as Paul does, here in this passage. Don’t merely believe them, but proclaim them. Proclaim them to yourself, to your family, to your friends and neighbors. Proclaim such promises First John 1:9, that ““If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. That’s a promise for great salvation and peace to those who would receive it.
Now, Paul’s message seems to have had a mixed effect on the people. In what follows, the sailors of the ship realized that the ocean floor is getting shallower, and that they might be getting closer to land. So, they pretend to drop anchor, when they are actually stealing the ship’s boat in order to row to shore, and leave everyone else behind to die. So Paul says to the centurion, “unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved”. So, the centurion ordered his soldiers to cut away the boat to be lost at sea. Nobody gets the boat, now. The centurion is listening to Paul’s word, the sailors aren’t. It’s a subtle reminder of how divisive the Lord’s word can be—some try to cut themselves away from it, while others hold onto it for dear life.
So in all this, we’ve seen Paul immovable in his service and devotion to the Lord. He’s anchored to the Lord’s calling, and he’s anchored to the Lord’s word. Those two keep this man solid, determined, and exceedingly hopeful. “I have faith!” he says. Do you have faith in God’s ways and words, to so be anchored?
Now, the last anchor I had mentioned is the Lord’s salvation.
Anchor #3: Jesus’s Salvation
Paul is anchored in the Lord’s salvation. This one might seem a bit odd. I think a lot of times we think of the Lord’s salvation as something to look forward to. We might say we need to get anchored in God’s promises and word so that we might one day enjoy God’s salvation.
That’s not how Paul saw it, here. God’s salvation, for Paul is a matter to be enjoyed even now, by faith. The peace and abundance of life and blessing is all available now, by faith—and, we’d do well to live accordingly. The Lord has spoken his promise of salvation, so we better free ourselves of the anxiety associated with our miseries. If someone you trust says to you in a moment of panic, “don’t worry, I got this”—does that not bring instant peace to your soul? Does that not make you want to take out the best wine and toast to the victory in that moment? By faith, brothers and sisters, so it is for us who trust in God’s promised salvation.
We see this in verse 33 and following. It’s “the day of salvation”, so you might say. As the sun was about to rise at dawn, Paul speaks up and invites everyone to eat, “for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you” (verse 34). Now, it may be tempting to read this simply as Paul telling his peers to eat because they’re going to need strength to swim. No doubt, that’s part of Paul’s intent. I don’t think that’s all, though. I find verse 35 most telling—
35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.)
The passage doesn’t say “and they were strengthened”—as though we were concerned about their physical strength in this food. It says they were “encouraged”. This was a meal given to them by Paul—a man who laid it out before them only after “giving thanks to God”. Paul gave God the glory and thanks, and he sought to encourage the souls as though he were feasting to the king for the king’s deliverance. The king had spoken, you know—he promised that none of us will perish. So strengthen your bodies, and feast to the king, by faith, for he has spoken. Today is a day of the Lord’s victory.
It’s oddly reminiscent of communion, folks. Toast to the lamb who was slain, for his victory is sure. Be encouraged and give thanks. Root yourselves in the Lord’s promised and accomplished salvation. By faith, your sins are forgiven, and you are transferred into his kingdom which you will one day inherit for all eternity. That’s something to anchor yourself in, that you might be faithful in all circumstances.
So brothers and sisters—kiss the wave that tosses you upon the rock of ages. God designs the storms of life to test you and try you. Yet as this passage uniquely shows us, he gives us anchors. He gives us a calling to set our focus on—to repent of our sins quickly, and patiently wait upon him prayerfully. He also gives us his word, and he gives us his accomplished salvation to enjoy now, even as we’re still storm-tossed in this cursed and ever-shifting world. Anchor yourselves in Jesus, folks. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
 This is John Stott quoting Ramsay’s St. Paul the Traveller. From John Stott’s commentary on Acts titled The Message of Acts, page 463 (accessed on Kindle). This is part of the commentary series titled The Bible Speaks Today.