Joining Battle with the Mighty Sea
Against the wise counsel of Paul, the commander of the ship bearing the apostle left a relatively safe harbor in Crete and struck out across the open sea, even though the season for good sailing had gone by. Winter was approaching, and with the passage of each day the danger of a disastrous storm increased. Yet the captain hoped to go about fifty miles along the southern coast of the island and come to a better harbor for spending the winter. As soon as the voyagers set out, however, a great wind like a typhoon struck them from the northeast.
The captain's first response was to try turning the ship into the wind and holding the ship steady. But in this he failed, so his only alternative if he wished to prevent the ship from capsizing was to run ahead of the wind. The fierceness of the storm left no opportunity to make adjustments. The sailors could only let the ship scud along at breakneck speed while they held on tight. About 23 miles to the south they came to a small island named Clauda. There they were able to slip around to the lee side and find some calmer water. Immediately they began work to make the ship more seaworthy in a storm. First, they hauled in the small dinghy that had been trailing behind. Luke's use of the first person suggests that he himself helped to haul the boat aboard. Then the crew undergirded the ship with cables, here called "helps." Because an ancient ship carried only a single stout mast with a huge yard at the top, it was poorly designed for strong winds. The swaying mast was a lever against the hull, applying forces sufficient to break it apart.
The captain could not allow the ship to continue in a southwesterly direction. A better translation of verse 17 shows clearly what peril the ship faced and what expedient the captain adopted. "Quicksands" is the place name Syrtis, which referred to shallow sand bars just off the African coast. "Strake sail" should be rendered "lowered the gear." Luke is referring to ordinary procedure in any sailing ship caught in a storm. The captain ordered all superfluous gear in the top to be lowered, including fair-weather sails. But he did not let the ship drift without sail, or it would have gone straight to Africa. So, he must have set a storm sail that would carry the ship on a westerly course.
For three days a great wind drove the ship along. On the second, they lightened the ship by jettisoning some of the cargo. On the third, they cast overboard some of the tackling. The wording "with our own hands" leaves no doubt that Luke, and possibly Paul as well, did his share of the work. The need for the assistance of both passengers and crew suggests that what they discarded was the main yard. It was a huge beam that, when lowered, ran the whole length of the deck.
The storm raged on day after day. After many days with no sun or stars, it appeared that the ship would most certainly come to a tragic end and be remembered as lost at sea.
Words of Hope
For a long while Paul said nothing to the whole company. They rejected his counsel earlier, so he waited to speak again until events proved him right. Now that they were in peril of their lives, he judged that they would listen to him with greater respect. So, he stood before the soldiers, passengers, and crew and brought them a new message from God. He began by saying that they should have heeded his warning. The disaster he predicted had come to pass. In telling them, "I told you so," he was not seeking to score a point at their expense. He was not smug in attitude, and his goal was not recrimination. Rather, he was solemnly exhorting them to accept his authority as a man of God.
Yet he now had a message of hope. An angel of God had appeared to him during the night and promised that they would finish the voyage without casualties. The ship would be wrecked, but every soul would escape alive. The angel explained that God would not allow the storm to thwart His plan to bring Paul before Caesar. In saving Paul's life, He would also save the lives of his fellow travelers. The angel said that God had given all these people to Paul. Evidently, he meant that they would not only survive, but also come to faith in God through Paul's testimony. But although a great tragedy would be averted, they still faced hardship. In consequence of the ship being wrecked, they would all be cast upon an island.
After fourteen days, the ship was riding westward across (not "up and down") the Adriatic Sea. The ancients considered the sea to extend well south into the Mediterranean. About midnight, the sailors discovered that they were approaching land. They could not see in the darkness, so the first indication of land ahead was doubtless the sound of breakers. Immediately they took a sounding and measured twenty fathoms, and a short while later, they took another and measured fifteen fathoms. In the meantime, they had busied themselves with preparations to anchor the ship, for they feared being driven onto rocks. As soon as they were ready, they cast off four anchors from the stern (the rear). Normally, boats are anchored from the bow, but on this occasion the captain wished to keep the prow forward in the gale.
The sailors did not know where they were, but in fact they had entered a bay on the northeast side of the Island of Malta, which runs northwest to southeast. The inlet is know today as St. Paul's Bay. On their left side, they had just passed the point of Kura, a narrow strip jutting out from the mainland. From there came the sound of breakers. Now when they cast anchors, they were standing about a quarter mile from shore. Ringing the end of the bay was a wall of rock.
But it was still dark, and they could not assess their situation. When Luke says, they "wished for the day," he conveys the great anxiety of everyone on board. The ship was so weakened that it might sink before day arrived, or they might discover in the morning that the shore afforded no place to land. The crew talked secretly together and decided that their best chance of survival was to abandon ship without delay. But the only means of escape was the dinghy taken aboard earlier, which was large enough for the crew only. The crew therefore lowered it and prepared to get in, under the ruse that they were going to let out anchors from the bow. The soldiers believed them at first, but Paul perceived the crew's plan and alerted the centurion, warning him that if the crew escaped, everyone else on board would be lost. At the centurion's orders, the soldiers rushed to the side and cut the ropes of the boat so that it fell away. What they did seems like an impulsive reaction. It would have been more prudent to reserve the boat for possible use later.
More Timely Advice
Before daybreak, Paul stood up again before the whole company and gave last-minute directions, in anticipation of the critical moment when they would all have to move quickly to save their lives. By now, the soundness of his counsel had won everyone's respect, and they were willing to do his bidding. He instructed them all to take food. For the duration of the storm they had abstained. The wording does not mean that they had taken no food, but that they had not eaten normally. They had been too busy or too sick or too overwhelmed to organize regular meals. As a result, through lack of food, they were all in a weakened condition. Paul's purpose in urging them to eat was no doubt to make them stronger for the great physical exertion that might soon be required. Lest anyone had succumbed to a sense of despair that would keep him from eating, he used a vivid figure of speech to assure them again that they had nothing to fear. Their preservation would be so complete that not one hair would fall from anyone's head. He then took nourishment for himself as an example for the rest. He broke bread, thanked God for it, and partook of it in their presence. The others were greatly cheered by his words and ate bread also.
We now learn that the ship's company was somewhat larger than the size of an ancient sailing vessel would lead us to suspect. No less than 276 people were on board. Luke provides this detail so that we will better perceive how miraculous their deliverance was.
The last preparation for leaving was to throw everything loose or detachable overboard, including all the remaining food, so that the ship would ride as high as possible in the water. As a result, it would run aground nearer the shore.
At the first light of day, every eye stared anxiously at the dimness ahead. Soon it was obvious that they had come to a wholly unfamiliar place. The shore did not appear to offer any refuge for a foundering ship. Much of it was rocky. Yet, to their relief, as they scanned the edge of the bay, they spotted a creek with a sandy beach. Judging that it might be a safe place to land, they prepared to move the ship inward. They cut the anchors and dropped them. They loosed the "rudder bands." (These were large paddles, one on each side of the ship, used for steering.) Lastly, they hoisted a small foresail (not mainsail) to catch the wind. Then they were off.
The wind carried them to the place desired, near where two seas met. Luke was probably remembering that as they approached land, a channel suddenly went off to the right, leading to the open sea beyond. It divided the mainland from a small island on the north rim of the bay.
On the beach the ship ran aground, the forepart sticking fast in the mud. The hinder part, remaining free, was subject to the violent agitation of the waves. It therefore began to break apart. If anyone was to survive the shipwreck, they had to flee quickly. The soldiers, seeing that the prisoners could not be removed under guard, decided that the best course was to kill them. They knew that if any gained shore and ran away, they would be held accountable, and the Roman military command dealt severely with failure in guard duty. A soldier who allowed a prisoner in his charge to escape was executed, and the method of execution might be gruesome. He might be burned alive. Therefore, the proposal to kill the prisoners would have merited consideration under other circumstances. But the centurion did not support it. He saw the immense injustice in killing Paul, a man whose counsel served them well, a man with indisputable credentials as a mouthpiece for God, and, of course, an innocent man. The centurion therefore ruled that all the prisoners should be given a chance to flee ashore. By his orders, the first to forsake the ship were all who could swim. Then came all the rest, keeping themselves afloat by hanging on to wooden pieces of the disintegrating ship. After everyone came onto the beach, someone must have made a head count, because it was found that nobody was missing. As Paul predicted, every life had been saved.
Another Attack on Paul
Soon after the refugees from the great tempest gathered on land, they discovered where they were. They were on a major island just south of Italy, the Island of Malta. Such a large company of people arriving onshore could not long remain unnoticed by the local inhabitants. When the people living nearby found the 276 pitiful victims of the pitiless sea, their hearts were moved with compassion. The long days and nights of struggle against certain death had left them cold, wet, weak, and hungry, and the world of nature continued to deny them mercy, for now it was raining, and the air was chill.
The Maltese rushed to give them help. Luke calls them barbarians, but not because they were savages. The habit of a Grecian like Luke was to designate anyone a barbarian who was not Greek or Roman. The Maltese were a civilized people who descended from the Phoenicians and spoke a Phoenician tongue, and they received the castaways not with distrust or annoyance, but with great hospitality. Their first act of kindness was to kindle a fire to combat the cold and dampness that would make people sick.
Always ready to serve the needs of others, Paul joined in the work of building the fire. But when he twisted together a bundle of sticks, he did not notice a snake hiding among them. And when he laid the sticks on the fire, the snake fled out of the flames and fastened on Paul's hand. The native Maltese standing nearby saw the snake and recognized it as a viper, a species renowned for its deadly poison. Its bite killed the victim within minutes. Although Scripture does not say whether the viper bit Paul, the Maltese assumed from their own experience with vipers that it did bite him, and they expected him to swell up and drop dead at any moment. They watched him carefully, saying among themselves that a man pursued by vengeance so relentlessly, using first the sea and now the viper to bring him down, must be a terribly wicked man, at least a murderer.
Paul was not concerned about the snake. He simply shook it off into the fire and afterward suffered no effects. The onlookers were amazed. They had never seen a viper's bite fail to do harm. From the suspicion that he was murderer they switched to the suspicion that he was a god. Their reaction was exactly the reverse of what happened years before in Lystra of Lycaonia, a city in Asia Minor. There, after Paul healed a lame man, the people hailed him and Barnabas as gods. But a short while later, after hearing Paul's enemies accuse him of being a troublemaker, the same people allowed him to be stoned.
Harvest in Malta
The plight of the stranded seafarers soon came to the attention of the chief man on the island, whose name was Publius. It so happened that his home was nearby. Moved by a gracious spirit, he extended hospitality to members of the ship's company, among them Luke and Paul and probably the other leading men. For three days they stayed in his home and enjoyed his companionship. An opportunity then arose for Paul to repay his host with a favor. The man's father was seriously sick. In describing the illness, Luke resorts to the medical language of his day so that we might form a clear idea of the man's condition. He suffered from a "fever" and "bloody flux," symptoms pointing to dysentery, a common ailment on the Island of Malta. Paul went in to see the man and healed him in a way designed to show that his recovery was a miracle. He openly prayed for the man so that Publius would credit God with the healing, and he laid his hands on the man so that Publius would understand that Paul was God's minister.
News of the healing spread throughout the island, and many brought their sick to be healed. And many were healed. As a result, the people of the island came to set Paul and Luke in high regard. It is unthinkable that these two emissaries of God did not use their prestige to advance God's work. Undoubtedly, they told many about Christ and brought many into the Kingdom.
When they left the island, the natives heaped honors upon them and gave them everything necessary for their coming journey. In some contexts, the word "honors" refers to money, so it is possible that the natives gave money to the evangelists to meet their expenses.
Last Leg of a Last Journey
Winter had nearly settled in by the time Paul reached Malta. Therefore, no further movement over the sea was possible until the coming of spring. Finally, after three months of waiting, the return of good sailing weather allowed the centurion to resume travel with his soldiers and prisoners. Upon finding a ship that had been wintering in Malta, no doubt at moorings in the harbor of Malta's capital, Valetta, he arranged for passage. This was a ship from Alexandria, another in the fleet that brought grain to Rome. Its sign, sculpted as a figurehead on its prow, was the twins Castor and Pollux, two mythical sons of Zeus who were regarded as patrons of navigation.
With Paul and Luke on board, the ship set sail as soon as the weather permitted and moved northeastward to Syracuse, capital of the Island of Sicily. Perhaps because the ship was becalmed, the journey suffered a delay of three days. Then the ship moved on to Rhegium, a major port on the toe of Italy. The crossing required the sailors to "fetch a compass." The likely meaning is that the ship could not proceed straight to Rhegium, but had to take a roundabout course dictated by the winds. Then at Rhegium they caught a south wind that took them directly to Puteoli, a port not far from Rome. The wind was so favorable that the trip took only one day.
As one of the principal ports of Italy, Puteoli had long been the home of a Jewish community. Now Paul found a body of believers there, and at their insistence and with the centurion's permission, Paul remained with them seven days, no doubt giving them both teaching and encouragement. Then he and his company resumed their journey to Rome. The rest of the trip was by foot. A short distance north of Puteoli they came to the Appian Way, the great road running down the length of Italy. Following this highway north, they soon came to Appii forum (the Forum of Appius), a market town about 43 miles south of their destination. There they met a group of brethren from the church in Rome, which had evidently heard of Paul's coming and sent out delegates to welcome him. More arrived as he walked along, some meeting him when he came to Tres Tabernae (translated "The Three Taverns," but the reference is to shops), a point about 33 miles from the city.
The willingness of these brethren to walk sixty or eighty miles round trip just to greet someone who was coming into the city anyway is a wonderful testimonial to their high regard for Paul. He had sacrificed much in his years of ministry to the churches. The Roman church sensed how ungrateful it would be to withhold some little sacrifice for his sake.
The warm greeting that Paul received thrilled his soul. He thanked God for it and derived from it new courage. He was coming into Rome with the formidable prospect of defending himself before Caesar, a wicked and violent man. He did not know whether he would ever leave the city again. As it turned out, he did not, so far as we know. He must have sensed that he was walking into the precincts of his final hours. So at this time he was in special need of encouragement to be brave, and God, as He normally does, provided encouragement through fellow believers.
Upon his arrival in the city, the centurion handed Paul over to a higher officer, a captain of the guard with the Roman title "stratopedarch." The centurion must have spoken highly of Paul, for the captain, rather than casting the prisoner into a common jail, treated him with great deference, allowing him to live in his own house under guard by a single soldier. The soldier was bound to Paul by a light chain attached to Paul's wrist.
Paul's Meeting with Jewish Leaders
Three days after Paul settled in his new home, he called for the leaders of the local Jewish community. Why they promptly answered the summons is unclear. In his request for a meeting, he must have been able to establish that he was a person of some importance. The account suggests that they already knew of him as a leader of the church.
At this meeting, he explained why he had come to Rome as a prisoner. He said that the Jews delivered him to the Romans even though he had committed no offense. The proof of his innocence was that the Romans were willing to release him, but when the Jews protested against the finding of the Roman court, Paul had no recourse except to lodge an appeal with Caesar.
Paul emphasized that he came to Rome with no complaint against his own people. In other words, he did not intend to file charges against anyone in Jerusalem. Paul gave this assurance to the Jewish leaders so that they would not bridle up against him and treat him as an enemy. He was fostering a friendly reception to what he intended to say about Christ.
To prepare the way for the gospel, he stated that the only reason for his bonds was his zealous testimony to the hope of Israel. By that hope, he meant the hope fulfilled when Christ came and conquered death. It was Paul's desire to speak further with the Jewish leaders so that he could tell them more about Christ.
The leaders responded that they had heard no evil report about Paul, whether through letters or visitors from Judea. We may conclude that the high priest and his allies had decided not to make trouble for Paul in Rome. If they could not bend the local Roman governor to their will, they could hardly expect to win their case against Paul in the emperor's court, which was hardly friendly to Jewish interests. Any action against Paul was risky. If they pressed their case against him in the courts or if they sent letters maligning him to the Jewish leaders in Rome, they might stir up passion and civil disorder in the Jewish community. As a result, the emperor might expel Jews from Rome again, as he had done before.
Although these leaders in Rome had heard nothing against Paul, they had heard much against the new "sect," as they called it. Knowing that Paul was a leader of this sect, they wanted to hear what he could say in its defense.
At an appointed time, many of the leading Jews in Rome came to hear Paul present the gospel. Although he was a great preacher, his method of witness on this occasion was not preaching. Rather, using teaching as his method, he systematically went through the Old Testament Scriptures and showed that every prophecy was perfectly fulfilled in Jesus. He spent all day, from morning to evening, patiently explaining the prophecies and answering all questions. He was seeking to build faith upon faith. If they had already put their faith in God's Word, it was but a small step to put their faith in the One who was the theme of God's Word.
His method worked for some of his hearers, but not for all. Paul's testimony for Christ divided them into two groups that fell into sharp dispute with each other. One part gladly accepted Paul's message. The other hotly rejected it. In the evening, the company of Jews left without coming to agreement. The debate continued even as they walked away.
Paul's last words addressed the unbelievers. He repeated the solemn verdict brought by Isaiah the prophet against the nation of Israel (Isa. 6:9-10), the same verdict that Paul had already quoted in his Epistle to the Romans (Rom. 11:8) and that Jesus Himself had quoted when rebuking the Jews for their unbelief (Matt. 13:14-15). Isaiah predicted that the nation of Israel would turn their backs upon truth. Sin would so weigh upon their hearts and dull their spiritual senses that truth would make no impression on them. Paul warned the unbelievers that by rejecting Jesus, they were fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy.
Paul then announced that God would seek another audience for truth that, unlike the Jews, would receive it. He would send salvation to all the gentile peoples of the world.
Paul's Sojourn in Rome
The Book of Acts comes to an end with a summary of the next two years. Throughout that time Paul remained under guard in his lodgings, a house he himself rented, where he welcomed any visitor who wished to hear about Christ. His fetter kept him from witnessing for Christ in the streets and plazas of the city, but the city could come to him, and presumably many did. He met and taught them freely, without any interference from government officials.
Coming to Rome, capital of the civilized gentile world, was a logical final step in the career of the apostle to the gentiles. The concluding verses of Acts, speaking of Paul's two years of ministry in Rome, are therefore words of triumph, for they affirm that Paul had fulfilled his calling in life. He had always longed to complete the arduous course laid out before him (Phil. 3:13-14). Now he could say that he had run the race and come to the finish line (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.