Acts 27:1 – 44
Jesus is awake,
In 1736 John Wesley was a Church of England clergyman, but strangely enough, not yet a Christian.
One night, on board a ship to America, he was caught up in a terrible storm;
The mast was snapped off,
The sails were torn,
Water poured in between the decks.
Wesley was terrified, and sure that he was going to die. He wrote that it was “as if the sea had already swallowed us up.”
Also aboard the ship were some missionaries from the Moravian church, one of the oldest Protestant groups in Europe, and they were not afraid.
The story goes that in the middle of the night when Wesley was terrified, one of the Moravians was sleeping soundly. Wesley went and woke him up, “Why are you still asleep? Why aren’t you afraid? And the missionary replied, “Jesus is awake, there’s no point both of us missing out on sleep!”
It’s not far off what we see of the Apostle Paul’s confidence in the midst of this terrible storm in Acts 27 is it?
Things have actually started reasonably well for this group of travellers.
Paul is to be tried before Caesar in Rome, that’s actually in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to him, so a journey is planned for Italy.
The centurion in charge of the prisoners shows some kindness Paul, and allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs
But it’s on the second leg of the journey that things start to go badly.
A warning ignored
Luke tells us that sailing season is drawing to a close, verse 9, Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement
Based on what we know about the change-over of governors that we saw 2 weeks ago, historians believe that this all took place in the the year 59 AD. And in that year, the Day of Atonement fell unusually late. By our calendar, the 5th of October , tomorrow!
One Roman military historian records that sailing was considered dangerous after September 15, and impossible by November 11. Hence Luke’s sense of urgency.
But even in this detail about sailing conditions, we see that Luke expected his Christian readers to be quite familiar with Jewish religious occasions.
He doesn’t actually write the Day of Atonement, he simply says “the fast”, and he expects his readers to A, understand what he’s talking about, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and B, to be familiar with the date.
In the middle of the first century, then, it seems that Christian people were still observing or at least familiar with the patterns of Jewish religious life.
That fits with what we’ve heard Paul repeatedly state in his trials and defences;, Trusting in Jesus for forgiveness and relationship with God, is the natural, the theologically coherent continuation of Judaism.
So the scene is set, and then Paul’s first words here warn that the trip is going to end badly.
Verse 10 Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also
Now, we’ve heard the story, and so we know how it ends. There is no loss of life.
So did Paul get it wrong?
Or did God tell Paul the wrong thing?
Down in verse 23, God does speak to Paul, but here at the beginning there isn’t any revelation from God.
This seems to be just a general observation from Paul.
He’s sailed something like 5000 kilometres across the Mediterranean in the past 30 years. He says in 2 Corinthians that he’s been shipwrecked 3 times.
Some scholars think that Paul is possibly the most seasoned traveller in this entire ship’s company!
So he seems to be just making an observation from his experience.
I heard on the radio last week about a Japanese mountain climber who was about to attempt to climb Mount Everest, alone, without oxygen, and missing 9 of his fingers, which he lost to frostbite in a previous attempt.
The mountaineering expert I heard on the radio made this kind of prediction;, This venture is not going to end well.
And sure enough, he had to give up, in order to save his life.
This isn’t an inspired prophecy from God, but a warning from experience,
But the warning is ignored
We might think it strange that both the pilot and the owner of the ship were in favour of sailing on. But the historian Suetonius, writing , just a little bit after these events, records that the Emperor offered special rewards to merchants who would carry grain to Rome during the dangerous sailing weather, even promising compensation for lost or damaged ships. So there’s a financial incentive to keep pressing on.
Salvation is beyond human efforts (v13 – 20)
No doubt, as the gentle south wind began to blow, those who disregarded Paul’s warning felt that their confidence was being rewarded!
But very soon this wind of hurricane force sprang up, and what should have been only a single day’s sailing, turned into 2 weeks that no one on board would ever forget!
They can no longer control the ship and, verse 15, eventually they just let the wind blow it where it will.
Luke gives us a very detailed description of how the sailors try to protect the ship, and to exert some control, particularly their attempts to avoid the hazard of the sandbars of Syrtis. And I’m sure you noticed, that once again we’re in one of the “we” sections in Acts;, Luke is not just narrating these events, he’s also experiencing them first hand!
In the 19th Century there was a bloke named James Smith, a sailor, a geographer, an expert in ancient shipping and navigation, and to top it all off, a fellow of the Royal Society.
He literally wrote the book on this episode of Paul’s life. His work The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul is considered, after Luke’s account, the defining work on this event,
And he was a man who threw himself into his work, he criss-crossed the Mediterranean, and even spent the winter of 1844-45, living on Malta, to research this incident.
And Smith argues that every detail demonstrates Luke’s claim to have been an eye witness. He concludes, “No sailor would have written in a style so little like that of a sailor; No man not a sailor could have written a narrative of a sea voyage so consistent in all its parts, unless from actual observation.”
And another scholar observes, There is no such detailed record of the working of an ancient ship in the whole of classical literature.
This is absolutely an eyewitness account.
This is no attempt to try and make Paul seem better than he is.
This is eyewitness history, and so when Luke says, in verse 20, we finally gave up all hope of being saved, we really ought to feel the weight of that.
There were 276 souls on board, verse 37, who, almost without exception, had given up hope of getting out of this storm alive.
A friend of mine once went on a cruise in the Pacific, but unbeknownst to him, they were sailing right into the path of a tropical cyclone!
He described it as the most miserable several days of his life!
He said during the first 3 days, it was so bad, he was afraid he was going to die. And then for the next 3 days, he was afraid he wasn’t going to die!
The men on board this ship have done everything they can,
They’ve tried to stay in the protection of the island. They’ve been driven out to sea,
They drew in the lifeboat that normally would have trailed out behind the ship,
They’ve jettisoned the cargo,
They lowered the sea anchor,
They threw the ship’s tackle overboard,
They passed ropes under the ship, to hold it together. The next time you’re on a plane, and the pilot comes on the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, if anyone has a roll of gaffer tape in their carry-on bag, please let one of the cabin crew know immediately, we’d just like to strengthen the aircraft for the turbulence we’re about to face!” That is the point where you say, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
They have done everything they can, and having done everything, they are powerless, and at the mercy of the storm.
Human efforts are not going to get them out of this situation.
You know, today we hear people say things like, “You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
It sounds good, but it’s utter rubbish isn’t it?
It’s blindingly arrogant western middle-class nonsense, as if a mother of starving children in the developing world hasn’t set her mind to achieving enough food for her children.
Please let’s be way more discerning, than to believe that self-centred nonsense,
But here, look,
The picture could not be more clear.
They have set their minds, and their hearts, and their own hands, verse 19, to saving themselves, and they have failed.
, This isn’t just a fable from which we’re supposed to extract the moral, it’s a real moment in history.
But of course, by this point in the book of Acts, we’re very aware of the message of salvation that is at the heart of the Christian faith, and so we can’t help but notice the imagery of salvation in this whole episode.
We can see a parallel between those on board the ship, and in great peril, and those on dry land, but far from God, who are also in great peril.
It is a terrible thing to spend your life ignoring God, living in the world that he’s made, but living as if he doesn’t exist.
Because to do that means to spend eternity separated from God and his blessings.
The situation is perilous.
I’m quite sure that part of the reason that Luke tells us so much about the sailors’ futile efforts, is to remind us, that when it comes to being saved from the consequences of our sin and rebellion, salvation is beyond human efforts.
We can be as busy as these sailors, doing everything we can, to save ourselves,
To stack the odds in our favour,
But nothing that we do with our hands, or our minds, or our efforts, can change the situation that we are in.
If those on board this ship are to get out of their situation, they need God to intervene.
If we are to get out of our terrible situation, facing God’s judgement for our sin and rebellion, we need God to intervene.
We need God to make a way.
We need Jesus to take the punishment that we deserve, so that we need not be excluded from his presence and blessing forever.
Human efforts are never enough.
Even in his detail, Luke tries to raise our eyes to the bigger picture,
To the more pressing issues,
To the reality that maybe some of us even today, need to come to grips with.
Human efforts are not enough.
They never can be.
A promise of salvation (v 21 – 26)
But for those on the ship, the man whose advice was ignored at the start of the journey, has a promise of salvation.
Verse 22, “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.
God has given Paul a promise of salvation.
An angel of God appeared to him, and said, verse 24, Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.
It’s easy to think that in New Testament times angels were appearing all over the place, and bringing messages from God to every Tom, Dick and Harry.
But even in the book of Acts, which deals with a very concentrated period of God’s action, surrounding the birth of the church, and the pressing out of the gospel message into new areas and to new people, even in Acts, angelic appearances are pretty rare.
I could think of only 6, across the breadth of the known world, in the nearly 30 years that the book covers.
An angel turning up, is an event that should make us sit up and take notice.
God is reaching into his world,
Directly involved in what he’s made.
He doesn’t just set things going and then, , hands off.
Last week when I was away with the Trinity Network senior staff, we took a couple of hours off to play bowls at the Victor Harbor bowls club. We did some work, but we also played bowls!
The thing I became very aware of, is that as soon as the bowl leaves your hand, you have no control over it. You just have to stand there and watch, as it drifts sideways across 3 other peoples’ games!
That’s not how God sets up his plans and purposes.
He doesn’t just let the world go, and see where it ends up!
He is directly involved, to bring his purposes about, and also in this case, to provide assurance to his people.
Now, we don’t always get the angelic messenger, do we?!
There are times I wish we did!
There are times I would have dearly loved a confirmation from God, some difficult decision, yes, this is the way forward.
I’ve never had the angel!
And I guess that most of you have never had the angel.
I’ve never had the same angel,
But I have the same God.
And if you trust in Jesus’ death for relationship with God, then you have the same God.
We have the same God who works for the good of his people,
Who brings his plans and purposes about,
Who is intimately involved in his world.
And lots of the scholars think that the language in verse 24, God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you, probably means that God is acting in response to Paul’s prayers.
What we know of Paul would suggest it’s not at all out of character for him to be praying for the safety of everyone else on board.
God acts, God speaks, in response to Paul’s prayer.
Jesus has previously promised Paul that he will get to Rome to speak the good news of the Christian message.
Right now, you’d have to say, that’s not looking so likely!
And there are times, aren’t there, when it looks to all intents and purposes, like God’s promises are not going to come true,
God might have promised something in his Word, but there just doesn’t seem any way at all, that it could possibly come to pass.
And I’d have to say, if I was Paul, that’s what I’d be thinking.
“Sure, Jesus has promised has going to stand in Rome, and testify about him, but it looks right now, and for the past several sickening days, like maybe Jesus has changed his mind.
But how kind of God, that not only does he keep his word, but he sends Paul the extra assurance, the reminder, that it is God’s plan for him to stand in Rome. And we saw last week, nothing gets in the way of God’s plans, of God giving the world what he thinking it most needs.
But this promise of salvation from the angel isn’t just repetition, the same promise about testifying in Rome, now Paul is told, and we’re told, this testimony about Jesus is going to happen before Caesar;,
Paul is going to talk about Jesus, and how his resurrection from the dead proves him to be God’s king, the Messiah, to the most powerful person in the world.
And there’s also this additional promise that not just Paul, but everyone on board is going to be saved.
Maybe you read Homer’s Odyssey at school, or university. It’s a Greek poem written about 800 years before Acts, telling the story of Odysseus travelling home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy.
And it’s such an epic tale, the ultimate road trip story, that it set the pattern for ancient stories of travel at sea.
And numerous other sea travel stories were written in the same vein.
And the common theme in all those stories of drama and disaster at sea, is that when things were going badly,
When everyone’s spirits were at their lowest,
When all on board had finally given up all hope, someone would make a significant, moving speech.
Which sounds, a little bit familiar, doesn’t it?
Except, in all those other stories, the poignant speech in the moment of despair, is all about the terrible fate that’s about to overtake everyone, and how we’re all gonna die!
This one is different, isn’t it?
This word in the midst of despair is a message of hope!
A promise of salvation!
Paul says keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.
He’s inviting the soldiers, the sailors, the other prisoners, to have faith in God just like he does.
How can they have courage?
Well they can only have courage if they believe what Paul says.
They can only have courage if Paul’s God can be trusted.
Believe God’s word?
The question is, will those on board believe the promise?
Will they believe God’s word?
2 weeks into the journey, they’re still a being driven across the Adriatic Sea. These days the Adriatic just refers to the gulf on the Eastern side of the bootleg of Italy, but in the first century that name described everything down to the middle of the Mediterranean.
And now we see the promise of salvation begin to unfold. The ship is approaching land, and perhaps because they can hear waves breaking on the rocks, the sailors began to check the depth.
The soundings confirm their suspicions, they’re moving into shallower waters, and so they dropped four anchors to stop the drift towards shore.
Some of the sailors though, are not willing to trust the word of this prisoner Paul,
They don’t believe the promise of his God,
They haven’t taken courage and trusted in Paul’s God like he invited them to.
They’re not interested in saving everyone,
They have no intention of running the ship aground on some island, like Paul said they’d have to.
They just want to save themselves.
Verse 30, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”
If you’ve read Robinson Crusoe, this might sound familiar! In that story the ship’s mate lowers the boat over the side of the ship, and all the sailors pile into it, and make for shore. All except Crusoe were lost.
And the author, Daniel Defoe, puts these words in Crusoe’s mouth, “I saw evidently, that if we had kept on board, we would have all been safe.”
“God has promised the salvation of everyone” Paul says to the centurion, and so any rescue attempt, that works for only some of those on board, and not others, is incompatible with God’s plan.
And although the centurion disregarded Paul’s earlier warning, by this stage, with things panning out exactly as he said, and perhaps even because of Paul’s obvious confidence in the midst of this terrible storm, “Jesus is awake, there’s no point both of us losing sleep!”, the centurion now does listen to what Paul says.
Verse 32, the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away, which perhaps was a little bit overzealous, or maybe they’ve been swept up a little in their confidence that Paul’s God is going to save them. Because cutting the boat adrift, means that they’re not going to be able to ferry people ashore, when the time comes, and in fact really dooms the ship to be lost, because they’re going to have to attempt to beach the ship, in order to get everyone off.
But, remember, God’s angel had said the ship will be destroyed, verse 22. That outcome becomes more and more apparent now. The things that God had said would happen, are panning out.
That map that’s printed on your outline, I love that wiggly line in the middle of the ocean. We all know what that represents, and maybe even some of us start to feel a little bit green around the gills just thinking about it!
But in the chaos of this ship that’s been pummelled by a storm for 2 weeks, God is still in control,
God word is being fulfilled.
A promise of salvation, part 2 (v 33 – 38)
For a third time, Paul intervenes, urging everyone on board to eat, verse 33, but more significantly, we have again, the promise of salvation,
I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive.
Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat
Again, as we’ve seen throughout Acts, and even already in this episode, God is working towards a particular goal,
But that doesn’t mean that people who are trusting in God to achieve his ends just sit back and do nothing.
In Paul’s mind, God’s sovereignty gives motivation for something even as straight forward as eating.
“God has said we’re going to survive, so just sit back and let some massive wave from God’s hand sweep you off the deck of the ship, and deposit you safely on dry land”?! Not at all!
God has said we’re going to survive, so you need to do what it takes to survive!
The interplay between God’s action and human action is quite tight, isn’t it?
Understanding that God works in the world to bring about his ends, to Paul, never seems to be a reason for laziness, or inactivity, or a lack of strategy,
But for thinking “What can I do?”,
God has assured Paul of the outcome of this situation, and yet Paul never stops thinking “What’s the best course of action now?”
Paul’s promise of salvation, Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head, Jesus used this same language as an assurance of God’s protection.
And in this case, it’s kind of a proverb that says something about the complete and utter degree to which God will save his people.
Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head
I’d be happy to escape this ship, even if it cost me a few hairs.
Such is God’s promise of salvation, Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.
And it seems like each time Paul speaks and reveals God’s promises, the confidence in God that he has, becomes more widely shared.
See verse 36, They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves.
Eating is not only part of contributing to your own-well being, You need it to survive, as Paul said, but it’s also a demonstration of your trust in God’s salvation.
There’s not much point eating if you think you’re going to be dead by daybreak!
Having eaten, they throw the grain on board into the sea, the grain that was perhaps the reason for risking this passage in the first place. This of course lightens the ship, which will give them the best chance possible of passing over reefs and shoals in an attempt to run the ship aground on a beach somewhere.
This again, was what Paul had said must happen, in order to save the lives of those on board. So again, another suggestion, that the sailors and passengers are starting to believe God’s promise of salvation.
Safe on dry land (v 39 – 44)
When daylight comes, they did not recognise the land, but what they did see what a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could.
So they do what they can to get the ship onto the beach, They Cut, loose the anchors,
untied the ropes that held the rudders,
And hoisted the foresail to the wind.
If you, happen to travel to the island of Malta today, you can wade out into a bay on the North East side of the Island, called St Paul’s Bay, which is where the historians think this probably happened.
In the bay, is an outcrop under the water, which may well be the place where this ship runs aground.
There’s no alternative now but to abandon ship, as it’s already being broken up by the pounding of the surf.
Everyone either swims, or floats to shore on pieces of the broken ship, and Luke records in the final verse, In this way everyone reached land safely.
But there’s one more moment of significance just in these last few sentences, isn’t there.
Once the prisoners are in the water, swimming for shore, there’s really no way of keeping tabs on them and they could easily escape.
This week in Tasmania, almost the exact opposite of this happened. A man escaped from Risdon prison, and went and hid on a yacht.
Here the soldiers are worried about the prisoners escaping from the boat and not ending up in prison.
But Luke tells us that this centurion, who seems to have come to trust Paul more and more intervenes. Verse 43, the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan
The practice at the time, was that if you were a Roman soldier responsible for a prisoner who escaped, then you personally would suffer whatever punishment that prisoner was facing.
It’s a big call from the centurion then, isn’t it? A big risk to take, to allow Paul and the others to swim for it. There’s not much point surviving a shipwreck, only to be executed in Rome as a substitute for some prisoner.
Stepping in to prevent the prisoners being killed, and therefore accepting responsibility for the risk of escape is a significant vote of confidence in Paul.
But because of that, the angel’s promise to Paul is fulfilled; God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.
God’s sovereignty, God’s promises,
Worked out, through the actions of individuals.
I was on a ship caught in bad weather once. It was a ferry in Thailand.
I was a child, and this several hundred seat catamaran was caught in such bad weather, that as the waves broke across bow, you could see the ship flexing, and we were all told to go up onto the rear deck and put on our life jackets.
What I remember about the end of that experience, was, when we finally docked, people bending down and kissing the ground, they’d been so sure they’d never see dry land again.
Here, the lasting impression that Luke leaves us with, is the idea of salvation.
Notice the very last word there, safely.
It’s repeated at the beginning of the next sentence also.
This is the “salvation” word. And Luke uses this group of words deliberately, to raise our eyes to other things.
Even that dramatic statement in the middle, verse 20, we finally gave up all hope, well, that was a common enough expression, but of course Luke added, of being saved.
It’s like he’s just randomly sprinkling the salvation words through the story.
Except of course, it’s not random, it’s very deliberate.
What does Luke hope we hear in his account of these events?
Time and time again we see God promise salvation, and deliver salvation.
It’s salvation from physical calamity, but if our eyes and ears have been tuned by the story of Acts so far, we’ll see the echoes of the salvation that can be found in Christ, in the way that God delivers people in this episode.
It’s a fantastic story.
It’s got action, adventure, suspense, and a happy ending!
But what a pity it would be, how disappointed Luke would be for us, to hear of this great salvation, and not hear in it, the promise of the greater salvation from sin and rebellion, that comes to us through Jesus.