August 24, 2016

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts Chapters 12-28)            

                    

Subtopic G: Paul in Rome (Acts 27:1-Acts 28:31)                                     

                          

                                                                           

         Lesson: IV.G.1: The Shipwreck (Acts 27:1-44)                                                                         

 



 

Note: Please familiarize yourself with this map, since we will refer to it many times in this commentary on chapter 27. Sorry, map did not print. I need to figure out how to do it.

 

 

Introduction

This sea voyage might reasonably be called Paul’s forth missionary journey.  He was just as active when he went to Rome, he exercised the same liberty, he made as many contacts, and he witnessed just as faithfully as he had on his other journeys.  Chains did not hinder him even though he made this entire journey in chains.  He is the one who said that the things which happened to him work out for the furtherance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12).

In chapter 27 of Acts we have the record of his voyage to Rome.  What we have here might be called the log of the ship.  This chapter of Acts has been considered the finest description of a sea voyage in the ancient world that is on record today.  There were certain benefits gained from this voyage, such as, Paul going to Rome, which is what God said he must do.  There is nothing observable to be gained by this voyage unless the author intended for us to see the providence of God overcoming all obstacles to get the apostle to Rome.  This surely is the purpose of placing the story in the Bible.

 

Commentary

1 And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus' band.

Like all the other [2]centurions who figure in the New Testament, [3]Juliusis a good man and loyal soldier.  Ramsey has suggested that “Augustus’ band” was an imperial [1]cohort of couriers responsible for communications between the Caesar and his armies in the provinces.  “Paul” was placed in the custody of one such army officer. His status as a Roman citizen and the fact that he was on his way to the emperor secured favorable treatment for Paul.  Even though Paul was a prisoner, who knew what high-level connections he might have?  Throughout the voyage, Julius treated Paul with considerable respect.  Paul’s gift for making friends no doubt helped him, and as the voyage proceeded and Paul’s wisdom, foresight and influence became obvious, the centurion became his protector.

The “other prisoners” may include some sent for trial as Roman citizens, but a higher number of those sent normally were convicted criminals to be killed in the games—either by wild animals or by gladiators—for the entertainment of the Roman public.

The “we” here reintroduces the historian as one of the company.  Not that he had left the apostle from the time when he last included himself (21:18)—but the apostle was separated from him by his arrest and imprisonment until now, when they met in the ship.

There were three regular routes which a person in those days might take from Caesarea to Rome.  One option was to book passage on a vessel going directly west across the Mediterranean to Italy.  Another was to sail on a coastwise ship along the coast of Syria and Asia Minor and take the first large vessel sailing west to Italy.  A third option was to go on board the first coastwise ship going to the Aegean Sea with the hope that Neapolis was a port of call.  From Neapolis it was possible to go overland on the Egnatian Road to Dyrrhachium.  From Dyrrhachium one could cross the Adriatic Sea to Brundisium and take the Appian Road to Rome.

Apparently the original itinerary of Julius was the third listed above.  He planned to go to Adramyttium and transfer to a ship going to Neapolis.  From there he would march his prisoners along the Egnatian Road and finally reached his destination.  However, when he arrived at Myra, he changed his mind and transferred to a grain ship from Alexandria which was going to “Italy.”

2 And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched (set sail), meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one [6]Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us.

Caesarea was the chief seaport of Syria.  Julius, unable to find a ship bound for Italy large enough to accommodate his prisoners and the soldiers under his command, shipped aboard a vessel that at least would get him started on his way.  He found a ship of [4]Adramyttium, a seaport of Mysia on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea.  This vessel was in all likelihood heading for its home port.  Its course from Caesarea would take it past the various ports of the Roman province of [5]Asia.

Paul’s companions were his beloved Luke and “Aristarchus of Thessalonica” (19:29; 20:4), one of the men who had accompanied him to Jerusalem with the money gift from the Gentile churches.  On another occasion, he had been seized by the crowd during the riot at Ephesus.  It has been suggested that these two friends of Paul might have shipped aboard as Paul’s slaves or perhaps Luke was allowed to go as Paul’s Physician and Aristarchus as Paul’s personal assistant.  Either case would have greatly enhanced Paul’s image in the eyes of the centurion.  As an agent of Rome, Julius could requisition passage on ships without paying for it.  A prisoner’s friends or servants would be permitted to accompany him only if his guards allowed it.

Look well at Luke and Aristarchus, Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” He said, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was . . . in prison, and he came unto me” (Matthew 25:34-40).  If such an inheritance is in store for those who thus identify themselves with the least of His brethren, what an inheritance awaits Luke and Aristarchus, who ministered faithfully to the very chief of all the apostles.

Again, it will be helpful if you will follow this voyage on a map.  You will notice that now they are going up the coast of Israel.  In other words, they don’t sail directly out to sea from the point of departure and then arrive at Rome.  The ship hovers close to the coastline and goes up the coast of Israel.

3 And the next day we touched at Sidon. And Julius courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself.

The vessel headed north along the coast about 60 geographical miles, to the ancient seaport of Sidon, where it dropped anchor, no doubt to do business.

Here it was that Julius extended to “Paul” the first of a number of personal kindnesses.  As long as Paul was in Julius’ custody he was treated courteously.  He allowed Paul to go ashore and visit “his friends” (doubtless a local church) in town and “refresh” himself.  From the saints at Sidon, perhaps, Paul received the food, clothing, and other necessities for his long and possibly hazardous voyage.

A ships primary purpose was to transport cargo; passengers therefore were responsible to bring their own food and other supplies.  (At night they slept on deck either in the open or in tents that they brought and erected.)

4 And when we had launched (set sail) from thence, we sailed under Cyprus, because the winds were contrary.

5 And when we had sailed over the sea of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia.

6 And there the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy; and he put us therein.

Once out to sea again and in sight of the important island of “Cyprus,” the ship ran into adverse winds.  The westerly wind forced the ship to the leeward side (away from where the wind is coming from) of the island.  Standing to the north, they passed Cyprus on the port side (the left-hand side of a boat when facing forward) and reached the main island again in the vicinity of “Cilicia.”  Here they picked up the land wind, prevalent in the summer months, and the westward current.  And in due course the vessel dropped anchor at “Myra,” the most southerly part of Asia Minor

Here the centurion made inquiries for a vessel better suited to carry his company onward to Rome.  At anchor was a ship from the Egyptian city of “Alexandria.” Egypt at that time was the granary of the Roman Empire, and this sizable vessel was loaded with wheat destined for Rome.  The grain ships appear to have been as large as some of the larger merchant ships of our day.  The centurion wasted no time in commandeering space aboard the ship and transferring his men and prisoners aboard.

Grain ships bound to and from Rome accounted for a vast proportion of Mediterranean trade; ships from Alexandria, Egypt, would travel northward and then westward to bear their cargoes to Rome.  This journey took from as little as 40 days to over two months (with up to another month to unload the cargo in Italy), although the reverse voyage from Rome to Alexandria could take as little as 9 to 13 days.  A particularly large ship could be about 180 feet long, 45 feet wide and (at their deepest) over 40 feet deep; estimates of the amount of grain imported to Rome annually range from two to four hundred thousand tons, probably over a hundred thousand tons of that being imported from Egypt.  Because of the fertile Nile Valley, Egypt supplied possibly a third of Rome’s grain.  Egyptian peasants who raised the grain could not always feed their families, but the grain was disbursed free to citizens of Rome to maintain stability in the heart of the Empire.

7 And when we had sailed slowly many days, and scarce were come over against Cnidus, the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salmone;

8 And, hardly passing it, came unto a place which is called The fair havens; nigh whereunto was the city of Lasea.

The voyage continued, but progress was slow.  Luke says it took “many days” before “Cnidus” appeared off the ships starboard bow (the right-hand side of somebody facing the front of a ship).  The distance between Myra and Cnidus was about 130 miles, and with a favorable wind it could have been covered in a day.  The contrary winds were an omen of the whole voyage.

The question now was, should they put into “Cnidus” and wait for better weather, or should they sail on?  The direct route to Italy would call for passing by the north side of the island of “Crete.”  That would have been the choice but for one obstacle—the wind, which was evidently blowing somewhat to the west of NNW, which was usual towards the end of summer.

At “Cnidus” the shelter of the weather shore (windward shore) would cease unless they put into port to wait for a favorable wind.  Evidently that alternative was rejected.  Those in charge had good reasons for pressing on, given a reasonable margin of safety.  The ship’s captain naturally wanted to make all speed to Rome with his cargo and the centurion was anxious to deliver his prisoners without costly delays.  Although the ship could not be expected to weather the northern side of “Crete” under the prevailing conditions, it could aim for the eastern extremity of Crete and come under the lee of the island.  The prevailing northwest wind could still enable them to creep along the southern coast of Crete as far as “Fair Havens,” where the land suddenly bends towards the north and the shelter afforded by the island stops.

The decision was made, then, to launch out away from the mainland, make the best of the weather, and head for “Crete.”  Accordingly they ran for the eastern extremity of Crete, rounded Cape “Salmone” (A promontory on Crete’s northeast coast.), struggled along the southern coast, and finally dropped anchor at “Fair Havens,” the farthest point an ancient sailing ship could go in the face of northwest winds.

Everyone on board must have heaved a sigh of relief and felt that the harbor well deserved its name.  The sailors would be tired in the landlubbers probably seasick and frightened.

9 Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,

Delay after delay now forced a critical decision on the ship’s officers and the Roman centurion.  “Paul,” as a seasoned traveler and one well versed in shipwrecks (In 2 Corinthians 11:25 he tells us that he has already suffered three shipwrecks and that on one of those occasions he remained in the sea a night and a day) felt he had a right to speak, too.  Any decision to set sail at this late date was bound to be fraught with peril.  Danger was so common at sea that some estimate that a fifth of voyagers faced significant danger on voyages; perhaps half of all voyages faced delays.  Shipwrecks were so common that archaeologists have identified more than a thousand ancient shipwreck remains.

Luke gives us some idea of the date.  “The fast was now already past” is a clear reference to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  That annual “feast of the Jews” was celebrated on the 10th day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:27), which would be about the first of October in a.d. 59.  The dangerous time for sailing ran from about mid-September to mid-November, at which time all navigation ceased until winter was over.  Because winter storms could soon be expected on the Mediterranean, Paul spoke up and “admonished” those in the position to imperil everyone’s life by a rash decision, especially his friend the centurion.

It was now clear to everyone that it would be impossible to get to Rome before winter, therefore the consultations were to decide whether to winter in Fair Havens, or to try to push on to Phoenix, further along the south coast of Crete, which was thought to provide a better harbor for their purpose.

10 And said unto them, Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives.

Paul was right, but the fact remains that Fair Havens was situated in a bay open to nearly one-half of the compass and, as such, in the opinion of the seamen, it was an unsafe harbor in which to pass the winter.  Nevertheless, the anchorage was well protected by off-shore islands, so, although it was not so comfortable a refuge as, say, nearby Phenice, it was, in Paul’s seasoned opinion, good enough under the circumstances.  To be caught in a sudden, violent, northerly gale while trying to make for the most spacious port Paul considered far too risky a venture to undertake.  Too much was at stake for such a gamble; a valuable ship, its cargo, and the lives of all on board.

We see Paul under some real testing here.  He certainly stands out.  He makes a suggestion which, they will find later, should have been followed.  The spiritual superiority of Paul is evident at this point.  There is no confusion in the life of Paul, no uncertainty, no frustration.  He is what would be called a poised personality.  Paul knew the way he was going.  “This one thing I do” was his declaration when he got to Rome.  We can observe these qualities in his behavior, throughout the voyage.  Paul lived his life as a man in touch with God.

11 Nevertheless the centurion believed the master and the owner of the ship, more than those things which were spoken by Paul.

The [13]master/owner wanted to chance it by attempting to reach the larger and safer port of Phoenix about 40 miles to the west, but by going west past Cape Matala, the ship would be exposed to the northern winds off of Crete. The captain’s opinion prevailed over Paul’s warnings. And that is the way it so often is.  The scales come down on the side of the expert, on the side of science and scholarship, on the side of the men whose opinion is weighted by his position and authority, by his learning in his particular field.  The voice of the humble believer in touch with God is ignored.  The final decision seems to have been left to the centurion, because grain ships were considered to be in government service.  He looked at Paul and he saw a prisoner, a missionary, and he underestimated him.  He looked at the ship’s captain and he saw a successful businessman, owner of a large ship, and seasoned sailor, and he overestimated him.  Having given Paul appropriate allowance for his learning (in other fields) and his experience at sea (as a passenger), the centurion decided that the professional should know whether or not it was safe to proceed.  And in any case, Phenice was not far—just 30 or 40 miles westward along the southern coast of Crete.

12 And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more part (majority) advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain to Phenice, and there to winter; which is an haven of Crete, and lieth toward the south west and north west.

The conference broke up.  They would weigh anchor at once and head down the coast for “Phenice.”  The expression “lieth toward the south west and north west” is generally taken to be a reference to the prevailing winds.  The harbor evidently faced the direction from which those winds blew.

At “Phenice” (Phoenix) they would be able to spend the winter comfortably.  Paul, having been overruled by the experts, no doubt retired to his cabin to pray earnestly that all would be well.  For himself he had no doubts at all.  He knew that whatever happened, he would end up in Rome (23:11); but what about his beloved Luke and Aristarchus?  And what about his friend the centurion?  And what about the captain and crew and the passengers and the prisoners—all those unsaved men now exposed to the possibility of storm and shipwreck?  We can well believe that Paul prayed earnestly once the fateful decision was made.  What a good thing, too, for that particular ship that they had a Paul on board, not a Jonah! 

Events are going to prove that Paul was right.  Throughout this voyage the captain, the soldiers, and the sailors were depending on human speculation alone.  Paul was looking to God.

13 And when the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, loosing thence, they sailed close by Crete.

“The south wind blew softly.” It so often does!  “Supposing that they had obtained their purpose.” We so often do!  “When the south wind blew softly,” the mariners thought they could make the extra distance to Phoenix.  Beware “when the south wind blows softly,” especially when it blows in the teeth of advice given by Paul.  Too many have been lured away by the soft “south wind.”  It is all too easy to take seemingly favorable circumstances as the deciding factor in the matter of guidance and ignore the sterner counsel of the Word of God.

The captain and the centurion both had an inner conviction.  It was wrong.  They decided that Fair Havens was too poor an anchorage for the winter; Phoenix would be much better.  So much better, it seemed that it was worth a gamble.

They both had what seemed like confirming circumstances—“the south wind blew softly.”  They congratulated each other, no doubt, on their remarkable good luck.

They also had the warning of the apostle, or, as we could say, the warning of the Word of God; which they rejected with disastrous results as being contrary to their own liking.  Never ignore Paul.  Never allow other considerations to outweigh God’s Word.  Never make a key decision without finding God’s mind on the matter.  Make your quiet time with God the most important factor in your life.

Life is a great sea and our lives are little boats.  We can sail our boats by human supposition if we so choose.  Friend, there is a storm blowing out there, a bit of a gale.  The tragedy is that, amid confusion, world chaos, and darkness, most men are still guessing.  There are a thousand human plans for building a better world.  Yet everywhere we look we see failure we need men who know God.

14 But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called [14]Euroclydon.

15 And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive.

The course of the ship lay across the great southern [7]bight to the west of Cape Matala. They had not gone far, however, before there was a drastic change in the weather.  The ship was “caught” in a typhoon that blew with such violence that they were unable to face into it. Instead they were forced to run before it, completely at its mercy.  There must have been a sinking feeling in the heart of the centurion, who now I am sure wished he had paid more attention to Paul.  Many a person, acting without God and suddenly caught by circumstance in which his own folly has placed him, has wished the same thing.

16 And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat:

The sudden change from a south wind to a violent northerly wind is a common occurrence in those waters.  There was no hope now of beating it back to Phoenix.  Indeed, the wind drove them farther and farther offshore.  The island of “Clauda” lay some twenty-three miles to leeward, and they were able to take a brief advantage of the smoother water on the lee side of the island to prepare the ship to face the full fury of the storm.

The ships “boat” refers to the dinghy used for ferrying passengers to and from shore and for other purposes. Normally it is left in the water and pulled behind the larger boat, but here it is hoisted aboard to prevent it from being smashed against the side of the ship.  But what made it so difficult to hoist the boat onto the deck of the ship?  It was probably due to the gale raging at the time, and the fact that the boat had been towed between 20 and 30 miles after the gale sprang up, and could scarcely fail to be filled with water.

17 Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so were driven.

 “Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship.” In the meantime, the ship itself was showing signs of having suffered severely from the buffeting of the waves.  It was imperative that measures be taken to prevent her from filling with water.  A necessary part of ancient ships were cables, already fitted in place and winched tight, to facilitate the undergirding of the vessel when under severe strain.  The process of passing lengths of large cable around the hull or frame of a ship to support her in a storm is called frapping.  The practice is not wholly unknown even in more modern times.

“And, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so were driven.” There are two gulfs on the North African coast full of shoals and sandbars; one is called Strtis Major and the other Strtis Minor.  The sailors now feared they might be driven onto the first of those.  Accordingly, orders were given to bring down the topsail and its rigging in order to make the ship more stable.  That alone was not enough; the ship must set such sale as the violence of the storm would permit in order to head away from the shore.  The ship was under sail (scudding, to run before a gale with little or no sail set was far too dangerous) with her storm sail set.  Thus she drifted solely at an overall rate of about one-and-one-half miles per hour in a direction just a little north of due west.  So ended a very dreadful day.

18 And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship;

19 And the third day we cast out with our own hands the tackling of the ship.

Conditions on board must have been dreadful.  Below deck there must have been terror among prisoners and passengers and deep forebodings among the crew.  Seasickness must have been prevalent.  All night the vessel fought against the wind and waves, the darkness bringing additional terrors.

Next morning they began to throw the cargo overboard.  There went the captain’s profits.  Probably the water level had begun to rise in the hold as a result of sprung boards in the ship’s hull.  For another night and the next day, all hands were busy with the work of heaving overboard the [9]tackling of the ship.  That seems to mean the ships [8]mainyard, an immense spar, probably as long as the ship.  It would take many of those on deck to lower it down to the deck.  One would secure it if possible, but in the severity of this storm, they cannot afford the encumbrance created by retaining it.  In crisis like this one no distinction is made between valuable and cheap cargo.  They do not discard all the cargo here (27:38); ships carried at least 68 tons, large ones (such as this one) usually carried over 250 tons, and some could carry up to 1200 tons.  Unloading such a ship once docked could take up to 12 days.  Hurling merchandise into the sea required less caution, but the crew certainly could not finish the task in one day.  The grain was probably stored in sacks piled 6 feet high which could be moved manually only with great effort, without the equipment normally available on docks—this would be made more difficult when the bags were soaked with sea water.  Freed from that weight, the beleaguered ship would once again be able to brave the storm.

All had been done that common sense and good seamanship could suggest.  They were now in the hands of God.  They did not know it, but they had one man on board, one man and his two friends, who knew God.  We can be sure that Paul was in touch with Him every one of the dark days that followed, praying them all through.

20 And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away.

Day followed day, overcast with thick clouds, an invisible sun revealing a wildly heaving sea and a tumultuous wilderness of gray, angry waves.  Night followed night—thick, black, dark night with no sign of a single star.  Their only means of navigation were hidden, so that they had no idea where they were (see 27:39). Dreadful days followed by appalling nights, with the wind shrieking in the rigging and the vessel lurching and plunging.  And all the while the gale-force winds howled like tormented demons so that one could hardly think.  On deck was a roaring nightmare.  Between decks was a scene of horror, fear, and despair, made worse by seasickness and the fearful knowledge that even the sailors had given up hope.  

Nobody knew where the ship was.  It was being driven before the wind in a sinking condition, still shipping (taking on) water from the leaks in the hull.  Their apprehensions, therefore, were not so much caused by the fury of the tempest, as by the state of the ship.

21 But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss.

They knew that now, only too well.  Paul was a better seaman than them all.  It was not, however, a petty case of “I’d told you so.” Paul only mentioned it now to make sure the lesson had been learned and that they would listen to him this time.  Paul was far too much of a gentleman and too kind to be looking for mere self vindication.  The situation was too desperate for rhetoric.

There had been a prolonged period of general fasting.  Anyone who has been onboard a large ship in a roaring sea knows what seasickness does to you at the time.  In any case, in such a storm the ship’s galleys could not have been kept from damage, and much of the food must have either been spoiled or swept overboard.

“Ye should have hearkened unto me.” We would do well to underline that statement both in our Bibles and in our hearts.  Much of this world’s problems today are because people will not listen to “Paul.” When has Paul been appealed to in Congress?  When has the United Nations ever convened a session for the express purpose of harkening unto Paul?  Many of our own personnel problems and predicaments arise because we do not hearken unto Paul.  The philosopher, the psychologist, the learned professor—we will listen to them.  But what about listening to Paul?  Much of the disarray, division, and deception in church life arise from the same cause.  “He should have hearkened unto me.” Well, they would hearken to him now.  His hour had come.  He and he alone had a word from God in such an hour of need.

22 And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship.

The consequence of their former disbelief could not be completely avoided.  The ship itself would sink.  There would be a high price to pay by those responsible for so casually launching the whole company on such a hazardous course in the teeth of Paul’s warnings and advice.  The ship would be lost.

23 For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve,

Paul had something solid on which to base his word of encouragement and cheer.  He had received a visit, that very night, from the angel of God.

Nobody on board that boat, and in that wide and angry sea, had any idea at all as to where the ship really was.  God knew.  He was able to give His herald angel the exact latitude and longitude.  It had not been out of his site for a single moment.

The person seen by Paul was probably Jesus appearing in a glorious angelic form, the one who bought Paul with the price of His blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23) and called him to serve Him (Acts 22:10).  Paul may well have recognized that this was Jesus whom he had seen on the Damascus Road (Acts is 9:5), but to the non-Christian crowd he speaks of Jesus as an angel which they might more easily understand.

24 Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.

Paul based his confidence on the word he had just received from God.  It was not a new revelation; he had been told it before.  He “must be brought before Caesar.” The same sovereign divine purpose according to which Jesus must spend his final week in Jerusalem has decreed that Paul shall bear witness in Rome (see Luke 9:21-22).

What a revelation of God’s love!  He must be brought before Caesar, before Nero, before that monster whose vileness and wickedness would soon fill the world with horror and whose memory would haunt history for all the rest of time.  Paul must appear before Caesar. That wretched man must hear the gospel before plunging over the precipice.  It seems that Paul was released from his Roman imprisonment in a.d. 62; Nero burned Rome in a.d. 64; and he committed suicide in a.d. 68—the same year he martyred Paul.  He must be given one last chance.  Paul had kept before him one great goal: “I must see Rome” (Romans 1:10-16).  Now God says to him: “You must appear before Caesar.  You are quite right, Paul.  You must see Rome.” Neither physical calamities nor the plans and schemes of men can thwart God’s purposes; God over-rules these secondary causes to bring about His Glory (Acts 4:27-28).

“And, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.” Why?  It was because, without a doubt, Paul had asked for them.  There was only one man on board that boat who must see Rome.  Paul knew that he would escape; the angel’s message told him nothing new there.  It just strengthened his conviction.  But Paul’s great heart went out to all those frightened people on board.  Day and night, we can believe, all that fateful voyage through, Paul had been hammering at heaven’s door, unrelenting in his pleas for his fellow passengers.  The world will never know how much it owes to those in its midst who know God and have the key to God’s heart in their hands.

So the lives of all those on board were given as a present to Paul, and he could not wait to tell them the good news.  No matter how skeptical some might be Paul was convinced.  He knew, and it was on the highest authority, regardless of the heaving waves and howling wind, that all was well.

It is significant that Paul says “God” rather than “the Lord Jesus” here; it is language that a pagan audience would more easily understand, and Luke is emphasizing that it is the maker of heaven and earth who is managing what’s going to happen as they go forward in the midst of this chaos of nature.

25 Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.

26 Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island.

“I believe God!” That was the challenge.  We can compare that with the centurion who “believed the master and owner of the ship” at the outset of this disastrous voyage (27:11). It often comes down to that.  Who are we going to believe?  What are we going to believe?  Heaven or hell swings in the balance of those two questions.

27 But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country;

“But when the fourteenth night was come,” that is, fourteen nights had passed since they left Crete.  They were now well into November.

The expression “were driven up and down” can be rendered “were carried hither (here) and thither (there).” During the two weeks they had been at sea, the ship had been driven over 500 miles off course and was now adrift in the Adrian Sea. (It is now called the Ionian Sea and must not be confused with the Adriatic Sea.)

“Adria,” or Adriatic Sea is that part of the Mediterranean between Groatia and Italy. In Paul’s day the Adriatic Sea was known as the Gulf of Adria and the central Mediterranean as the Adriatic Sea.

“The shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country,” from the swells of water they could see and the sound of the surf they could hear.

28 And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms.

“Sounded” means they were in the process of determining the depth of the water, since it appeared that they were being driven on shore.  Their soundings were made by throwing into the water a line with lead on it; they are sometimes said to be “heaving the lead.”  A “fathom” is about 6 feet; “20 fathoms” would be between 120 feet and 90 feet.  The depth of the water was decreasing rapidly (meaning they were getting closer to shore), and the sailors knew they had only one hope—to run the ship aground.  But to attempt such a move in the darkness, even if they could have gained some measure of control of the ship, would have been foolishness.  They could now hear even more clearly the ominous booming of the breakers on the reefs ahead.  It needed little imagination for them to picture the fearful crash of their ship upon some jagged outcropping of rock, the fierce battering of the waves, and the swift end of it all.

29 Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day.

Then they fervently prayed for the coming day.  They still did not know what hope there might be of finding a passage through the reefs.  Because they are shoaling (entering shallow water) quickly with low visibility, they use anchors as breaks.  These were normally cast from the bow, but here they are cast from the Stern, probably so the stern cannot be blown around into the rocks or because they will advance bow-first in the morning light.  The “anchors” were probably used in succession to prevent the vessel from being smashed against the reefs.  The ship could still sink during the night, right there at her anchors.  Or the morning light might disclose an iron-bound (harsh, rugged) shore with no beach.  In the meantime, there was nothing to do but hope and pray.

30 And as the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship, when they had let down the boat into the sea, under colour as though they would have cast anchors out of the foreship,

Such is the natural cowardice and selfishness of the human heart.  Times of great peril often bring out the best in men, when they rise to great heights of heroism and sacrifice, but they can also bring about the very worst, and such was the case here.

The sailors decided to try to save their own lives at all costs.  They pretended that they had to make the ship more secure by laying out anchors from the bow.  To do that, they said, they would need the ships launch.  Such a move would have added nothing whatever to the safety of the ship.  These boats were not meant to serve as lifeboats and were only capable of carrying a handful of people.  The officers could not have been deceived by the ploy, so they must have been parties to the scheme; but there was one man on board who immediately saw through it—Paul.  He had been to sea too many times and had taken far too keen an interest in sailors and their trade to be deceived by this excuse of the sailors made to conceal an attempt to abandon ship.  He saw through it at once and spoke up.

31 Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.

32 Then the soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat (already lowered), and let her fall off (drift away).

We have throughout this entire narrative an interesting blend of mystical faith and practical common sense.  All would be saved; Paul had God’s word for that.  That was knowledge supernaturally bestowed.  Paul, faced with the defection of the ship’s officers and men, did not shrug his shoulders and look for some divine miracle to intervene.  He saw at once the obvious fact that without a crew that ship would never make it to shore.  Their skilled help was needed for the dangerous maneuver of beaching.  God does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.  So Paul with down-to-earth wisdom appealed to the one man on board able to do something about what was happening—the centurion.  Moreover, Paul put the matter bluntly and in terms of everyone’s very obvious self interest: “Don’t let those men get away if you want to be saved.” The angel of God had told Paul that he and the men would be saved.  But they couldn’t be saved their way.  They must be saved God’s way.  God’s way was for them to stay with the ship.

There was no indecision on the part of the centurion and his men.  They did not argue the point as to whether or not, in actual fact, the sailors were going to secure some more anchors, nor did they discuss the advisability of cutting the ships one lifeboat adrift.  The centurion had learned his lesson well.  When Paul spoke, he listened and responded.  So at a nod from their commander, the soldiers descended in a body on the sailors, pushed them aside, and with a slash of the sword cut the boats [10]hawsers and let her be carried away by the waves.  Any angry reaction by the sailors would have been quickly silenced by the wrath, determination, and armed might of the soldiers.  Thus a dangerous and regrettable incident passed.  The crew went back to their duties, and the soldiers mounted a watchful guard against any further treachery. 

33 And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing.

34 Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.

Paul knew that every man on board needed his strength for the grueling work of keeping the ship afloat and escaping to shore, therefore, he assembled as many as possible and told them, “This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing.” There are several reasons for going without food for so long—the difficulty of cooking during a storm, spoiling of food by seawater, seasickness, fear and discouragement causing a loss of appetite, etc.

“Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health.” The ugly incident might soon have bred resentment and revenge on board.  Something needed to be done to distract people’s attention from what had happened, so Paul, always practical, suggested a meal.  The suggestion cheered everyone up.  Suddenly all on board remembered how hungry they were.  There is nothing like the thought of a meal, especially to a starving man, to take one’s mind off of other things.

Paul gave some practical advice: one has to have food for human survival (Deuteronomy 8:3); Jesus, the bread of life (John 6:35) for spiritual survival.

Then, to allay the panic of the sailors and to calm the dismay some must have felt at seeing the only lifeboat swept away, Paul spoke again using a common Jewish saying denoting absolute protection: “For there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.”  “You’ve nothing to fear,” he said.  “You are all going to be saved.  You will arrive on shore completely unharmed.” God is in control of the minutest detail of the individual’s life (Luke 21:18).

35 And when he had thus spoken, he took bread, and gave thanks to God in presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat.

Though this sounds like an observance of the Lord’s Table, it probably was not.  Most of those 276 people were not Christians.  Rather it was a public testimony by Paul of his faith in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus as well as practical grounds for eating—in order to muster strength for the ordeal ahead.

To Paul, even the simplest action, such as eating a meal, was sanctified by prayer and by the acknowledgment of God’s goodness, provision, and care.

36 Then were they all of good cheer, and they also took some meat.

37 And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.

All of a sudden the fear, the suspicion, the hate, the anger died away.  Everyone cheered up.  Food was brought.  People began to eat.  A new spirit of optimism and good fellowship prevailed.  A buzz of conversation arose.  People began to peer through the gloom with new heart and new hope.  Paul’s promise of safety somehow seemed more real.  He had just been talking to his God in a personal and intimate way.  Somehow, Paul’s God seemed very near, very real, very much alive, and very personal indeed.

What a result from a simple prayer of thanks for a humble crust of bread!  It was not that Paul was parading his religion.  To him, it was as natural as breathing to acknowledge God and his nearness in even the most commonplace functions of life.  That is what produced the result—the unselfconscious, unpretentious act of showing devotion to God.

38 And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, and cast out the wheat into the sea.

Now came the time for further practical measures.  If the ship was to have a chance of surviving, or at least of making the maximum distance over shallow seas, she must be lightened.  Everything not needed must be jettisoned and as much water as possible bailed from the hold, so that she would ride high on the waves.  So overboard went all the remaining stores.  Again we see the same mixing of the ordinary and the miraculous.  It is an axiom of life that God does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.  He expects us to take all possible and prudent steps that may suggest themselves in a situation.

There was one very serious problem unique to a grain ship.  Once wet, grain would also pose a hazard to the ship, since the grain could swell to twice its original volume and split the hull.  Many suggest that they would have retained some of the cargo as ballast (heavy material kept in the hold of a ship to steady it); whether or not this is the case, such ships carried hundreds of tons of wheat, so they could not have finished the job began in 27:18; yet they again cast grain into the sea in hopes of making some small difference. An Alexandrian ship’s cargo would be wheat.

39 And when it was day, they knew not the land: but they discovered a certain creek with a shore, into the which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship.

40 And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves unto the sea, and loosed the rudder bands, and hoised up the mainsail to the wind, and made toward shore.

We know exactly where the ship was now positioned on the coastline of Malta.  The sailors, however, had no idea where they were.  They had long since given up any attempt at navigation.  Travelers tell us that the shore here is skirted with rocky crags that tower out of the sea.  The ship would have been dashed to pieces on those precipices if she had not been prudently anchored the night before.  Dawn revealed the forbidding headland.

But, to everyone’s intense relief, there was a creek with a Sandy Beach visible.  That Sandy Shore seemed to the storm-tossed souls on board a blessed place of refuge from the storm.  God Himself had steered that ship to such a sliver of shore.

Final preparations were now made to run the ship, if possible, onto that sandy beach.  The anchors were [11]weighed and the lashings (ropes) securing the [12]rudders (one on each quarter of the ship) were loosed (untied), so that they could direct the ship into the bay.  A helmsman would pull and push a tiller, or handle, to control two steering paddles (oars) connected as rudders.  The sailors had apparently bound the rudders to prevent unwelcome movement but now they needed to steer. It was also necessary to expose some sail to the wind so as to give her headway and allow the steersman to operate the rudders.  Accordingly the foresail was hoisted, and the doomed ship committed irrevocably to its last brief voyage to shore.

41 And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves.

It was a short bumpy ride.  The ship was driven, it seems, to the west side of the bay, which, although rocky, had two creeks with beckoning beaches.  Driven by the wind to the west side of the bay, the ship’s bow ran firmly onto a bottom of tenacious clay, where it was held fast.  The stern, exposed to the violence of the waves, soon began to disintegrate under the heavy pounding of the sea.  Paul had not been promised that the ship would be saved—just the contrary—but that the lives of all on board would be saved.  The miraculous good fortune of being able to bring the vessel so close to a hospitable shoreline to which the people on board could flee was God’s provision for them all.

42 And the soldiers' counsel was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out, and escape.

At times truth is stranger than fiction, and everyday life just as exciting as a story.  Here Paul, saved from the sea, is now imperiled by the soldiers.

The stern code under which Roman soldiers lived made them personally responsible for their prisoners.  If one prisoner escaped, their lives were forfeit (we remember the Philippians jailer’s reactions, 16:27).    It was therefore natural that they would want to execute the prisoners then and there.  A dead prisoner could be accounted for.

43 But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land:

According to strict justice, if they killed any prisoners, they would have to kill Paul as well.  Probably Julius felt that would be the height of ingratitude to put to death the man who, under God’s guidance, had been so helpful in their deliverance thus far. 

Paul had made such a deep impression on the centurion, that he was determined to save him at all costs, and his word overruled that of the soldiers.  Before any developing rebellion could take root, he gave the immediate order for those under his care and command to abandon ship—that would include the prisoners.  Chained prisoners cannot swim; unchained prisoners can escape.  Guards were responsible for the prisoner’s safe custody.  They would be less liable for their charges if the prisoners “died at sea” than if they escaped.  In any case, most of these prisoners were likely going to be fed to animals for public entertainment in Rome.

The restraints were removed from the prisoners, and all on board began to hurl themselves into the sea; those who could swim naturally leading the way.  The centurion was not too concerned about losing his prisoners.  There would not be much chance of any of them getting very far under the circumstances, and, in any case, he was in command, and the responsibility was his.  Thus he showed his gratitude, courage, and common sense. Julius might have had a hard time later explaining how he spared one prisoner (Paul) and not others, so he spares all. 

44 And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.

Those who could not swim soon found practical means to reach the shore.  The wooden ship was breaking up fast, so on bits and pieces of the wreckage, one and all in desperation threw themselves into the sea.  And God’s promise held true.  Not a single person on board that ill-fated vessel failed to make it to land.  We can picture the scene; the cries, the wild waves picking up the debris and rubbish of people and wreckage alike and hurling it all on shore.  We can see the curling of the waves, the foaming of the sea.  We can see the struggling people plunged beneath the water, and then emerging a little nearer to land.  We can hear their cries of fear give way to a note of hope as at last their feet touch the sandy bottom.  Then another wave picks them up again, overwhelms them, but throws them farther toward the beach.  Finally the strong would wade back into the breakers to give a hand to the weak. 

 

Special Notes

 

[1]Cohort is defined as one of the ten divisions in an ancient Roman legion, numbering from 300 to 600 soldiers.

[2] A centurion (in the ancient Roman army) was the commander of a hundred men.

[3] Julius—A Roman centurion on special assignment; taking Paul to Rome as his prisoner.

[4] Adramyttium.An ancient city of Mysia in the Roman Province of Asia. The only reference in the New Testament to it is in Acts 27:2 which says that Paul, while being taken a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome, embarked upon a ship belonging to Adramyttium. The city, with a good harbor, stood at the head of the Gulf of Adramyttium facing the island of Lesbos, and at the base of Mt. Ida.

[5] Asia. An ancient Roman province, the first and westernmost Roman province in Asia Minor, stretching at its greatest extent from the Aegean coast in the west to a point beyond Philomelium (modern Akşehır) in the east and from the Sea of Marmara in the north to the strait between Rhodes and the mainland in the south. The province was first constituted when Attalus III, king of Pergamum, bequeathed his dominions to the Romans in 133 bc. At that time the province contained many different communities at different stages of development.

[6] Aristarchus, or Aristarch was "a Greek Macedonian of Thessalonica" (Acts 27:2), a Christian mentioned in a few passages of the New Testament. He accompanied Saint Paul on his journey to Rome. Along with Gaius, another Macedonian, Aristarchus was seized by the mob at Ephesus and taken into the theater (Acts 19:29). Later, Aristarchus returned with Paul from Greece to Asia (Acts 20:4). At Caesarea, he embarked with Paul on a ship of Adramyttium) bound for Myra in Lycia (Acts 27:2); whether he traveled with him from there to Rome is not recorded. Aristarchus is described as Paul's "fellow prisoner" and "fellow laborer" in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 1:24, respectively.

[7]bight is a bend or curve in a coastline, river, or other geographical feature. It typically indicates a large, open bay, often only slightly receding. It is distinguished from a sound by being shallower.

[8]yard is a spar on a mast from which sails are set. Although some types of fore and aft rigs have yards, the term is usually used to describe the horizontal spars used on square sails.

[9]The tackling of the ship—the anchors, sails, cables, baggage, etc. That is, everything that was not indispensable to its preservation.

[10] Hawser refers to a large rope for towing or tying up a ship.

[11] Weighing anchor literally means raising the anchor of the vessel from the sea floor and hoisting it up to be stowed on board the vessel. But in their current situation they may have simply cut the anchor ropes, and left the anchors in the sea.

[12] The word rudders literally describe the blades of oars and refer to paddle rudders extending from the sides of the ship.  These were tied while the ship was at anchor.

[13] The opinion of commentators is split as to whether the owner and master are the same person or two different people.

[14] Eurolclydon (sometimes called “a northeasterner”) is a strong, dangerous wind storm greatly feared by those who sailed the Mediterranean Sea.


 

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