Gospel Gazette Online
Volume 22 Number 11 November 2020
Page 5

How Paul Became a Man of the Sea

Wayne A. Dixon

My earthly father, Captain M.A. Dixon, was a man of the sea. He was a veteran of the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. He attained his captain’s license in the Merchant Marines at age 26 and spent most of his oceangoing career in that capacity.

Being raised as the son of a seafarer in the port city of Norfolk, VA, and spending two summers at sea in the Merchant Marines to defray college expenses gave me a special appreciation of Paul’s sea-time experiences, especially considering the fact that I rode out a hurricane on the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, I was employed as a surveyor for the better part of two years on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel – one of the engineering marvels of that day. Being on the Chesapeake Bay frequently while being raised there and almost daily while working on that well-known body of water helped me relate to and hopefully pass on a deeper understanding of a side of Paul, not inspired, but gained through close to six decades of water travel.

Saul’s contact with the maritime world began at his birth. He was born about A.D. 3 (Webster) in the port city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia on the southeastern side of the Anatolian peninsula. The city of Tarsus was located on the Tarsus River (Latin: Cydnus), which was located approximately twelve miles north of the Mediterranean Sea. This tributary is named the Berdan River in present-day south-central Turkey.

His parents likely took him in his preteen days dockside to look at the ship movement. This was my experience as I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and what greater thrill for a young boy is there than to watch the ships come and go?

At the age of fourteen (Webster), Saul traveled by ship from his home of Tarsus to the coastline of Judea and made his way to the university at Jerusalem to study the Torah at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He returned home by ship across the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea after these studies, and during this time is likely when he learned the trade of tentmaking (Acts 18:3).

Saul returned to Jerusalem, probably after Pentecost, and again relied on the Phoenician trading vessels (Jackson) of that era for transportation back to Jerusalem where he began his self-appointed mission of persecuting Christians. The first event recording his involvement in this type of activity is found in Acts 7:58, where he cared for the outer garments of those stoning Stephen, and we learn in Acts 8:1 that Saul consented to his death.

After Saul’s conversion recorded in Acts 9:18, his trip to Arabia (Galatians 1:17-18) and his preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:20), he preached in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26). The unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem tried to kill him as a similar group had tried in Damascus. Faithful brethren in Jerusalem saved his life, but instead of a basket used by the brethren in Damascus (Acts 9:25), they resorted to a ship (Acts 9:30), sending him back to his home in Tarsus. In this instance a ship was his physical salvation.

Barnabas and the apostle Saul were commissioned by the Holy Spirit in Acts 13:2-4 to go forth with the Gospel message. Once again, sea travel was required to cross the Mediterranean to Salamis on the Island of Cyprus (Acts 13:5). After their stay in Salamis, they proceeded to Paphos, and Saul’s name was changed (Acts13:9). As was necessary in traveling to Cyprus, once again a ship was used to exit the island across a portion of the Mediterranean to Perga (Acts 13:13). Likewise, the return leg of this first missionary journey required sea travel to return to Antioch of Syria and give a report to the elders there (Acts 14:26-27).

On Paul’s second missionary journey, Paul once again used waterborne vessels to transport himself and other members of his evangelistic team to their destination. After receiving the Macedonian call (Acts 16:9), Paul, Luke and others left from Troas by ship and arrived at Neapolis, Philippi’s harbor, the next day (Acts 16:11). At the end of this, his second missionary journey, he sailed from Greece to Ephesus and then on to Caesarea before going overland to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22).

Paul’s third missionary journey was yet another inspired account of how he gained so much knowledge of the sea. After his extended stay in Ephesus, Luke recorded his departure to Macedonia, no doubt by water (Acts 20:1). After spending three months in Greece (probably Corinth, Acts 20:3), he planned to return from there to Antioch but had to change his plans due to yet another death threat (one of many during his preaching career) (v. 3). His revised itinerary took him back through Macedonia and over to Troas, launching from the area of Philippi (Acts 20:6). This trip took five days where the identical voyage during his second missionary journey took a little over a day (Acts 16:11). Paul’s knowledge of the sea and her ever-changing personality was increased as he was no doubt mindful of the previous “…straight course” (Acts 16:11) of that voyage versus the likely contrary winds of this considerably longer voyage over the same water.

As Paul’s return trip continued, he hiked across the island of Assos, got back on board with his group, followed by island hopping possibly in a smaller vessel used to navigate among these islands (Acts 20:13-15). After his farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38), more sailing was necessary for Paul. Island navigation was required by the captain of his vessel as they sailed to Coos, Rhodes and Patara. Note that, as was the case in their first trip to Neapolis, Luke once again recorded “a straight course” (Acts 21:1), indicating favorable winds on that voyage. Paul’s knowledge of the sea continued to grow as these island trips were generally done in the daylight due to the lack of sophisticated navigational aids for sailing close to land at night.

Note the significance of Luke’s observation “and finding a ship.” Ships of that time were not on a precise schedule as scheduling was tenuous at best due to unpredictable winds and other maritime factors associated with sailing in the true sense of the word, depending strictly on the wind, currents and navigational skills. Paul boarded another ship, likely a seagoing vessel, and crossed the Mediterranean, docking at Tyre to unload cargo (Acts 21:3). The inspired account of Acts as recorded by Luke gives us amazing detail of the sailing of that day. His observation was, “Now when we had discovered Cyprus, we left it on the left hand” (Acts 21:3). That shows the captain and all aboard knew that they were on course! Navigation of that day relied heavily on visual shoreline observations. From there, they sailed to Ptolemais and on to Caesarea (Acts 21:7-8). Paul, then, traveled overland to Jerusalem (Acts 21:14-17).

It is likely that the epitome of Paul’s maritime adventures was his voyage to Rome. Unlike his many other voyages, on this one he was a Roman prisoner accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus (Acts 27:1-2). After setting sail from Caesarea, their first port-of-call was Sidon (Acts 27:3). From there, the sailing was very slow and arduous due to contrary winds (Acts 27:4) as they made their way westward to the port of Myra, where the centurion found a ship bound from Alexandria to Rome (Acts 27:6). The statement, “the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing unto Italy,” once again brings to the forefront the element of time and effort regarding sea travel of that day. The sailing continued to be very slow as they navigated to the island of Crete (Acts 27:7).

At this point, Paul’s earthly wisdom coming from the experience gained by his many years of ocean travel became evident. It was the beginning of an approximate four-month period of time (November-March) that experienced seaman simply would not put to sea in the single-masted Phoenician designed ships of that day (Jackson). They had proven not to be seaworthy in the rough seas generated by winter storms on the Mediterranean.

A meeting was held to discuss whether to take the chance of moving from one Crete port (Fair Havens at Lasea, Acts 27:8) westward to another (Phenice) at which to winter. Luke recorded the meeting in Acts 27:9-12 in which Paul strongly advised them against such a move (v. 10). Many scholars suggest that the second letter to the Corinthians had already been delivered. When we read 2 Corinthians 11:25b, “thrice I suffered shipwreck a night and a day I have been in the deep,” we can rightly conclude that Paul’s admonition in Acts 27:10 was tantamount to him saying, “I don’t want to add another shipwreck to my seafaring mishaps.” Also, with his statement to the Corinthian brethren with regard to spending approximately twenty-four hours floating around, likely on a piece of wreckage from one of his previous shipwrecks, obviously being shipwrecked was high on his list of situations to avoid.

However, Paul was outvoted as we read in vs. 11-12. As they say, “The rest is history.” Paul was right. The northeast storm (Euroclydon) that hit them immediately (vs. 14-15) was vicious. It was so severe that Luke said, “all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (Acts 27:20). In other words, all 276 aboard were ready to accept an epitaph of “Lost at Sea.”

The severity of this storm was such that Paul was afraid. Again, this now aged man of the sea knew from his years of experience (Acts 27:21) that this was indeed a killer storm. God, however looked after him with the assurance that there would be “no loss of any man’s life among you” (Acts 27:22b). Christian have the same spiritual assurance today as recorded in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”

Their physical salvation from that storm was conditional: The ship had to wreck (Acts 27:26) and they all had to stay on the ship (Acts 27:31). Our spiritual salvation today is also conditional based on our obedience to God’s will. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

For those not familiar with this type of storm endured by Paul and his shipmates, a good example of the magnitude of strength generated by this type of storm is found in a study of the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. That 1962 storm was the most extreme nor’easter on record to hit the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Storms of this type have caused untold loss of life and property damage over the centuries.

Paul counseled the newly established Galatian congregations “that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22b). At the outset of Paul’s preaching career, Ananias was told that Paul would suffer tribulation. “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).

The apostle Paul traveled over 6,000 miles across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and was indeed a man of the sea, and his maritime tribulations along with all the others in his evangelistic life serve as a shining example for us all today. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Works Cited

Jackson, Wayne. The Acts of the Apostles from Jerusalem to Rome. Stockton: Christian Courier P., 2005.

Webster, Allen. “Biography of Saul of Tarsus.” House to House/Heart to Heart.

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