A Vast Depth of Meaning: The Sea in Luke and Acts

Artwork for article A Vast Depth of Meaning

He Calmed the Sea by Rembrandt Van Rijn

The sea has a special appeal to the human heart. It has occupied our imaginations since the earliest myths: Odysseus, tossed about on the sea; Aeneas, exiled by Juno’s hatred across the deep; and the destructive, yet life-giving cycle of the Nile’s flood, all come readily to mind. In literature, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Old Man and the Sea, the sea has provided the backdrop for the most dramatic stories. J. R. R. Tolkein, through his character Legolas, describes the pull of the sea on his heart:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices in the Lost Isle calling…1

The sea is also a central fixture within Biblical imagery. The Spirit hovers over the surface of the waters in creation. (Gen 1:2) God saves Noah from the flood. (Gen 6:1-8:22) Moses’ staff splits the Red Sea, permitting the Israelites safe passage and deliverance from Egypt. (Ex 14:21-22) Later, the Ark of the Covenant similarly parts the Jordan River as the Israelites reach the Promised Land. (Josh 3:14-17) As the Psalmist prays, “May he {the king} have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” (Ps 72:8) The New Testament also gives the sea an important place in its narrative. Jesus’ ministry centers around the Sea of Galilee. Paul crisscrosses the Mediterranean. And, concerning the end of the world, the author of Revelations describes a “sea of glass mingled with fire” beneath the throne of God. (Rev 15:2)

If the sea has so much meaning, if it has such a deep and poetic pull on the human heart, how can this imagery be used in preaching? During a recent study of Luke, and Acts of the Apostles, I discovered a wealth of patristic commentary on the sea narratives within St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea. In this document, Aquinas compiled numerous sayings from the fathers concerning every verse of the Gospels. All of these passages from the Fathers contained rich metaphors and far-reaching analogies. It seemed to me that this analogical approach could help tap into the mythical side of the sea’s significance. Although my research was restricted to the stories within Luke and Acts, the Fathers’ comments on this one part of the Bible can be used to help understand others.

Much of the modern, historical approach to reading the Bible concerns its literal meaning. By looking at what kind of fishing equipment the Apostles would have used, or by studying the ruins of Capernaum, we can gain an insight into the story, and find a strong connection to the very human disciples. Many great saints encouraged meditating on exactly these details, because it helps to inspire a strong, emotional attachment to Jesus, the historical God-made-man. A more metaphorical or allegorical approach, like the one used by the Fathers, can tie into a different source to help instruct us in holiness. Instead of operating on the level of historical fact, we can look to the literary and imaginative implications of the text to learn more about the spiritual significance that the sea holds.

The Church has a long history of looking to metaphor and analogy in its theology. Baptism, for instance, is frequently explained by drawing from the metaphorical significance of water. Just like water gives life to plants and animals, washing in the waters of Baptism gives new life to Christians. Just like we clean with water, baptism cleanses our sins. And just like the fear of drowning can haunt a sailor, in baptism we die to self and put on a new life in Christ. The Fathers used this analogical and spiritual approach to read the Scriptures. By looking to their work, we can find a solid framework of metaphorical interpretation to help aid our own reading and understanding of the sea narratives in the Bible. Preaching about these stories in this way can connect the ancient Gospels to our listeners’ lives by appealing to that very deep, primal symbolism associated with the sea within of our hearts and minds.2

When the Fathers use symbolism, the details from which they draw meaning sometimes appear random or arbitrary. For instance, St. Gregory Nazianzus views the sea as representing the believer swimming in the dangers of temptation, but St. Augustine describes it as going into the depths of God’s mercy. As a result, picking a quote from patristic commentary can sound artificial to the audience or congregation. There is, however, a connecting framework between what these two Fathers say, and even supporting their individual interpretations. Finding unity amongst widely varying analogies takes a wider frame of view. The Fathers use the narrative structure of the Gospel itself, a rich concordance with other Biblical texts, and an underlying world view, to draw out their metaphors. Separating their commentary according to the part of the lake narrative they refer to—the surface, the depths, the boat—makes it easier to see this foundation.

The sea is first mentioned in Luke at the miraculous catch of fish. and the call of the disciples (Lk 5:1-11). Next, it appears when Christ calms the sea (Lk. 8:22-25), and then, immediately afterward, in the exorcism of Legion (8:31-33). There are then no more stories or major parables involving the Sea in this Gospel, outside of small references. such as the faith that can move trees to the sea (17:6), as Luke does not preserve the walking on water event from Mark 6:45-52. The sea is not again central to the narrative until Acts, where Paul sails to Perga (13:13). Most of Paul’s sea journeys are glanced over. This first voyage, and his further journeys to Europe (16:11), Miletus (20:13-16), Jerusalem (20:38-21:6), and Rome (28:11) contain very little detail to work with as a result. By far the most significant sea story in Acts is the shipwreck while the imprisoned Paul is en route to Rome, in chapter 27. Luke 5:1-11, 8:22-33, and Acts 27 present the richest stories to draw from, and so most of the commentary quoted will concern those passages.

The surface of the lake is an ideal launching point. There are three radically different stories: a shipwreck, an abundant catch, and a miraculous end to a storm, but the Fathers find a single meaning. Concerning these passages, the Fathers see the surface of Lake Gennesaret to symbolically portray the battle with temptation, for the individual believer, and also for the Church. The Venerable Bede finds storminess in the name Luke gives to the sea, “Gennesaret, however, is the name given it from the nature of the lake itself, (which is thought from its crossing waves to raise a breeze upon itself,) being the Greek expression for ‘making a breeze to itself.’ For the water is not steady like that of a lake, but constantly agitated by the breezes blowing over it.”3 This storminess rocks the boats, threatening the Apostles, who are taken to represent both the Church as a whole, and the individual believer. As Bede further explains, “But the fact that the ships, when filled, begin to sink, i.e., become weighed low down in the water; (for they are not sunk, but are in great danger) the Apostle explains when he says, “In the last days, perilous times shall come; men shall be lovers of their own selves, etc. For the sinking of the ships is when men, by vicious habits, fall back into that world from which they have been elected by faith.”4 Bede describes the terror and pain of the end times, but the storm is also an ever-present dimension of life for Christians. While on the waters of this life, our boat is always in danger from temptation. The Fathers do not, however, explicitly list which temptations are represented by the waves. Gregory Nazianzus mentions the believer “swimming in the ever-changing scenes and bitter storms of this life,”5 but none of the patristic commentators quoted by Aquinas mention any particular tribulations or trials. Instead, the waves and storms generally represent everything that Satan, our fallen nature, and a material world can throw in the way of our salvation.

If the world, the flesh, and the devil are out to rock our boat, then faith in Christ as Lord is the antidote. The Fathers are clear to point out that, first, Christ has divine power to calm the storms as the God of the Old Testament did; and, second, that faith can see us safely to the other side. St. Cyril points out the connection between Christ’s calming of the sea, and God’s control over nature, especially as discussed in the Old Testament:

But it could not be that they should perish while the Almighty was with them. Christ then arose, who has power over all things, and immediately quells the storm and the violence of the wind, and the tempest ceased, and there was a calm. Herein, he shows himself to be God, to whom it is said, “You rule the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, you still them.” So then, as he sailed, our Lord manifested both natures in one and the same person, seeing that he, who as man, slept in the ship, as God by his word stilled the raging of the sea.6

The first sentence of Cyril’s exegesis establishes the connection between God’s power, and the storms on the surface of the lake. Although the Apostles were truly in danger of perishing, “it could not be” that Christ should not save them, for he is truly “God with us.” Christ’s incarnation itself is the manifestation of God’s power to save his faithful from the storms of life. And, further, as St. Ambrose teaches, this saving power continues to be manifested for Christ’s disciples even after his ascension:

You must remember that no one can pass from the course of this life without temptations, for temptation is the trial of faith. We are, therefore, subject to the storms of spiritual wickedness, but as watchful sailors we must awake the pilot, who does not obey but commands the winds, who although he now no longer sleeps in the sleep of his own body, yet let us beware, lest through the sleep of our bodies he is to us asleep and at rest. But they are rightly reproved who feared, when Christ was present; since he surely who clings to him can in no wise perish.7

Christ continues to watchfully guard his flock as they sail across the sea of life, and his divine power to calm the storm is infinitely trustworthy. As Ambrose points out, it is thus our lack of faith which is to blame, and is “rightly reproved,” when we succumb to the storms. As a parable later in Luke’s Gospel will describe, “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”8

The Fathers call for a communal faith, and not merely for individual belief. St. John Chrysostom holds that Paul’s faith was sufficient to save many, as he explains, “And this too was no slight miracle, that they {the ship’s crew} also should be saved on his [Paul’s] account.”9 The sailors had given up, “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned,” (Acts 27:20) but Paul called them to trust, saying, “So take heart, men, for I have faith in God.” (Acts 27:25) Paul is convinced that God will save him, and along with him, all those also in the ship. In all of these stories, the boats never have solo passengers. Instead, Jesus grants Peter, and his fishing companions, a miracle, saves all of his disciples from a storm, or grants to Paul salvation for an entire crew.

The ship or boat itself is another focus of the Fathers. It is generally interpreted as representing the Church, although in a broader sense, it can symbolize individual communities within the Church or, in its most basic sense, the cosmos. As Chrysostom describes:

For if a ship does not hold together without a pilot, but soon founders, how could the world have held together so long a time if there was no one governing its course? And that I may not enlarge, suppose the world to be a ship; the earth to be placed below as the keel; the sky to be the sail; men to be the passengers; the subjacent abyss, the sea. How is it then that during so long a time, no shipwreck has taken place? Now, let a ship go one day without a pilot and crew, and thou wilt see it straightway foundering! But the world, though subsisting now five thousand years, and many more, hath suffered nothing of the kind.10

The reference to Acts 27:30 is loose, but informative of the Fathers’ vision of the ship metaphor. The ship is a place of human dwelling, against which the storms of life, physical reality, and evil rage. There is no possibility of crossing through life without a ship to navigate the waters. In this example, the earth itself could not make it, from beginning to end, without an excellent pilot, God, providentially setting a course and constantly combating the weather’s attack. It is a short step to compare the passengers to members of the Church, and the pilot to Christ, with the destination on the other shore as heaven. As Jerome comments, “Paul, and they who bound him, sailed together, endured the same storm, escaped together to the shore when the ship was broken with the waves,” positing that the shipwreck is symbolic of God’s active judgment upon those passing through life toward eternity. The righteousness of Paul saved the whole crew from drowning, and although the ship was impermanent, the crew arrived at the shore. Thus, Jerome can apply this symbolism more directly to the Church, and each subsequent believer, “Now we sail the ship, wrestle, and fight, that at last we may reach the haven, be crowned, and triumph.”11 Ambrose provides the most direct presentation of this analogy: “Now in a mystery, the ship of Peter, according to Matthew, is beaten about by the waves, according to Luke, is filled with fishes, in order that you might understand the Church at first wavering, at last abounding. The ship is not shaken which holds Peter; that is which holds Judas.”12 The Church which holds Peter, thus specifically the Roman Church, guided by Peter’s confession of faith, wavers during its time on the surface of the water. However, the waves subside, and the Lord provides an abundance of fish, symbolizing the abundance of joy in heaven after the turbulence of this life.

The depths of the sea is not one simple analogy, but instead has a twofold meaning. In some cases, the deeps are the depths of hell, removed from God’s love. This is evident in the narrative concerning the man possessed by Legion. The demons asked Christ “not to command them to depart into the abyss,” but then upon entering the herd of swine, they rushed “down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.”13 The Fathers interpret this as a manifestation of Christ’s power: the demons seek to escape the abyss by going into the swine, but end up drowned in the deep nonetheless. “The deep” of the lake is thus allegorically the depths of Hell, as Chrysostom equates the two terms, saying, “And they {Legion} besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep.”14 Maximus the Confessor also sees the depths of the lake as allegorically representing the punishment for the pride which seeks undue favors from God, as he states, “Hence the deep is assigned to the devils as to the proud, it follows, And there was there a herd of swine, etc.”15

On the other hand, the depths can also be representative of God’s mercy, love, and knowledge. This is a clear and straightforward analogy—Peter puts down his nets at Christ’s command to draw forth fish, and so we within the Church pull forth from Christ numerous and plentiful spiritual benefits. As Ambrose explains, “What is so deep, as the knowledge of the Son of God!”16 Augustine expresses a similar understanding when he provides an instruction on how to catechize the newly baptized:

From which ship he taught the multitude, for by the authority of the Church, he teaches the Gentiles. But the Lord entering the ship, and asking Peter to put off a little from the land, signifies that we must be moderate in our words to the multitude, that they may be neither taught earthly things, nor from earthly things rush into the depths of the sacraments.17

Augustine here hints at the unifying point which joins the dangerous depths to the merciful bounty of fish. Although on a surface level there is contradiction, with the depths signifying Hell when there is danger of drowning, and signifying God’s merciful love when there is an abundance of benefits, the two meanings are unified into the life and salvation of the Christian within the Church, under Peter’s guidance. As Ambrose further explains:

Lastly, though to others it is commanded, let down your nets, to Peter alone it is said, Launch out into the deep, i.e. into deep researches. What is so deep, as the knowledge of the Son of God! But what are the nets of the Apostles which are ordered to be let down, but the interweaving of words and certain folds, as it were, of speech, and intricacies of argument, which never let those escape whom they have once caught. And rightly are nets the Apostolical instruments for fishing, which kill not the fish that are caught, but keep them safe, and bring up those that are tossing about in the waves from the depths below to the regions above. But he says, Master, we have toiled the whole night and have caught nothing; for this is not the work of human eloquence but the gift of divine calling. But they who had before caught nothing, at the word of the Lord, enclosed a great multitude of fishes.18

The depths of the lake present both danger to the unprepared and bountiful mercy to those directed by Christ. The torrents of words, signs, phrases, and storms can easily blow astray those without the guidance of Christ’s command, received through Peter. What drowns the sinner, caught in webs of unhelpful words, saves the elect, who has been carried up to higher things by the saving word of Christ made manifest by the strong arms of Peter’s Church.

The sea, then, seen as a whole in patristic exegesis, carries a vast depth of meaning. Its significance spans from the present life of the Church, and the individual, to the eschatological forces opposed to salvation. Its breadth covers the entire, universal Church as the ship steered by God. Its depths hold abundant salvation for those with faith, but threaten with drowning those without the Church’s gifts. The single most central and most important lens necessary for understanding all these analogies is Jesus Christ. He is the captain of the ship, the God in whom we can have faith for safe passage, the savior who quiets the storm. The miracle narratives from Luke’s Gospel, display Christ’s power, and provide testimony to the truth of his teaching, and afterward, during the early years of the Church, recorded in Acts, the mission to spread the Gospel is protected even in the stormiest waters, and amidst failing hopes. The attitude of the Psalms toward God, show total trust in his mercy, and protection is the understanding that the Fathers use to interpret Christ’s actions, and the details of the stories about him. Wherever the Christian may wander amongst the seas of life, the Fathers teach that the confidence of Psalm 56 can be even more so confided in the person of Jesus:

You have kept count of my tossings; you put my tears in your bottle! Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will be turned back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust without a fear.19

God’s mercy, shown to the world in the person of Jesus, his Son, the Word made flesh, provides the key to understanding and preaching the varying metaphors drawn from the sea by the Fathers.

  1.  Tolkein, J.R.R, The Return of the King, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), 261.
  2. This is similar to a Jungian psychology of myth, but I think that it goes past what Jung would say. For Jung, these myths operate on a psychological level – some kind of collective memory. However, for the Fathers, the myths and analogies move us because they are tied to how God has actively imbued meaning into his creation. For more on how imagination and symbolism are important for meaning and education, I highly recommend C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.
  3. Venerable Bede, quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Vol. III, Part 1, (Albany: Preserving Christian Publications, Inc., 1995), 173.
  4. Ibid.
  5. St. Gregory Nazianzus, quoted in Ibid.
  6. St. Cyril, quoted in ibid., 277.
  7. St. Ambrose, quoted in ibid., 278.
  8. Luke 17:6.
  9. St. John Chrysostom, Homily LIII.
  10. Chrysostom, Homily X.
  11. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Bk II, 24.
  12. Ambrose, quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas in Catena Aurae, 175-176.
  13. Luke 8:31&33.
  14. St. John Chrysostom, quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas in Catena Aurea, 282.
  15. Ibid.
  16. St. Ambrose, quoted in ibid., 175.
  17. St. Augustine, quoted in ibid., 174. The term “sacraments” here may refer either to the sacramental practice of the Church, reserved for the initiated, or to the “mysteries,” the deep theological understanding given to believers by the grace of faith. It could also mean both – Augustine is fond of double meanings.
  18. St. Ambrose, quoted in ibid., 175.
  19. Psalm 56:8-11.
Ambrose Doborozsi About Ambrose Doborozsi

Ambrose Dobrozsi is studying for the priesthood at Mt. St. Mary's Seminary of the West, for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He received an undergraduate degree from Northeast Catholic College in liberal arts, and a master's degree in theology from the University of Dayton.


  1. […] behind the images are not easily perceived and may initially seem contradictory. Writing for Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Ambrose Doborozsi [whose quotations are italicized below] notes that while St. Gregory Nazianzus […]