The world’s largest inland sea links Europe with Africa and the Middle East, tying together the influential cultures of Rome, Greece, Israel, and Egypt. The ancients called it Mediterranean, from the Latin mediterraneus (“midland”)—medius (“middle”) plus terra (“land, earth”). The ancients thought of the Mediterranean as the “sea in the middle of the earth.”
The Hebrews referred to the Mediterranean simply as “the Sea,” “the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun,” or “the Western Sea” (Numbers 34:6; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:4; 9:1). The prophet Micah may have had the Mediterranean in mind when he wrote that God will “hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
The Mediterranean’s shiny surface is visible from the hilltops near Nazareth, where
Jesus grew up about 20 miles from the seacoast. I wonder if sometimes the Lord gazed at the Mediterranean and envisioned how his disciples later would sail across it, taking the gospel to other lands. Near the Mediterranean’s scenic beaches Jesus crossed a cultural boundary by healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).
Most Hebrews were scared of the Great Sea. They considered it a place of danger, mystery, and dreadful storms. When God instructed Jonah to go preach in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the renegade prophet instead bought a one-way ticket to sail to Tarshish (in southern Turkey). A great fish swallowed him, and there in the depths of the Mediterranean, Jonah began to learn about the depths of God’s love for the world—including Israel’s enemies.
Jonah boarded his ship in Joppa (Jonah 1:3), a coastal town near what we know today as Tel Aviv. Centuries later Simon the Tanner lived in that same town, and Peter stayed with him for a while (Acts 9:43). Simon’s house was located “by the sea” (10:6), as salt water was useful for tanning animal skins and the sea breezes helped to clear away the foul smells associated with the tanning trade. When Peter went up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray, he enjoyed a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea. There with the Great Sea as a backdrop, God gave Peter a special revelation to convince him that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews (10:9-48). Isn’t it fascinating to realize that Peter received his missionary calling in the same town (Joppa) where Jonah tried to escape from the Lord’s command to preach to a foreign nation?
Ancient people considered the Mediterranean Sea “the middle of the earth.” Located on the edge of that sea, the church at Antioch occupied a strategic outpost for sending missionaries to Europe and beyond. Likewise, God has placed you and your church in a strategic position in the middle of your own world, surrounded by people who urgently need Christ. To spread the gospel, first-century disciples had to find the courage to cross a formidable body of water and travel to places far outside their comfort zone. For us, like them:
- The “sea” separating us from other cultures can look scary. Travel across it anyway.
- The water looks deep. Push out onto it anyway.
- People in other tribes and cultures think and act differently than we do. Love them anyway.
God is calling. Venture out. Cross the sea.
David Faust serves as the Associate Minister at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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