In our last essay we studied Acts 25:23-26:32 in which we found Luke’s account of Paul’s hearing before King Agrippa. In this essay we are studying Acts 27:1-44. Luke’s last “we-passage” of Acts begins at 27:1 and runs through 28:16. And the details of the events recorded clearly show that Luke was a participant, though some liberal scholars accuse him of outrageously appropriating the diary or daily log of someone else who had participated in a sea voyage and shipwreck in order to dramatize his account.
The centurion charged with taking Paul to Rome was named Julius. He was a member of the Augustan cohort, which means he was part of the cohort assigned to the emperor. There evidently was no ship available that was bound for Rome, so Julius booked passage on a coastal vessel from Adramyttium, a port on the north Asian coast near Troas that was headed in the direction of Rome. In verse four we learn that Aristarchus (a Thessalonian Christian) like Luke was accompanying Paul. Julius rightly assumed that he could catch a ship bound to Rome at one of the coastal ship’s ports of call. He succeeded in doing that at Myra, a city at the southern most tip of the province of Asia (v. 5). There Julius booked passage on a ship from Alexandria that was carrying wheat (see verse 38). Rome imported most of its wheat from Egypt. From there they sailed to a place on the south side of Crete called Fair Havens.
In verses 9-12 we see that the travelers were facing a dilemma. On the one hand, Fair Havens was not a good place to spend the winter. It was too open to storms. On the other hand, the season for safe sailing was coming to an end. It was dangerous to sail after mid-September and impossible after mid-November. “The Fast” mentioned in verse nine would have been the Day of Atonement, the only fast day on the Jewish religious calendar. In the year AD 59, which may have been the year of this part of the journey, the Day of Atonement would have been on October fifth. So they really did face a difficult decision.
Paul advised against sailing and predicted that they would lose the ship, its cargo, and some lives if they sailed. As we shall see later, the loss of life part of his prediction did not come true because of God’s direct intervention. But the loss of the ship and its cargo did. At any rate, the captain of the ship, its owner, and Julius decided to go for the port of Phoenix, forty miles or so along the coast, where they could more safely spend the winter.
Moving on to verses 13-20 you can see that a moderate south wind encouraged them to set off. But after a period of smooth sailing, “a violent wind” (Greek tuphon, from which we get our word, typhoon) blew down on them from the shore (v. 14). They had no choice but to sail with the wind, which took them out to open sea. They got a brief respite when they entered under the lee of a small island named Cauda. That gave them an opportunity to get the dingy, which normally floated behind the ship, on deck (v. 16), to wrap the ship with cables to hold it together, and to lower the sea anchor to slow it down (v. 17).
The next day, with the storm still raging unchecked, the crew jettisoned part of the cargo (v. 18); and the day after that, they threw their extra gear or tackle overboard (v. 19). This was done to lighten the ship. Nothing changed for another eleven days, and the entire ship’s company, with the exception of Paul, gave up hope of being saved.
At this most desperate moment, verses 20-26 tell us that the Spirit-filled Paul stands among his shipmates and exerts the leadership that eventually would save their lives. First, we see Paul exhort them to take courage (vv. 23 and 25). However, notice that he could not resist telling them, “I told you so” (v. 21, Bruce). As you know, Paul had warned them not to sail from Fair Havens in order to avoid just such a disaster, but they had refused to listen to him (vv. 10-11).
Paul explains his present optimism by telling them that the night before an angel of God had appeared to him and assured him that, though the ship would be lost, he and all of his companions would survive. Speaking as an experienced traveler, he had predicted that lives would be lost. Paul not only was an experienced traveler, he was experienced in dealing with shipwrecks. In 2 Corinthians 11:25, Paul tells us that he was shipwrecked three times and spent a day and a night adrift at sea.
However in this situation, Paul no longer was speaking as an experienced traveler, but as one who had a revelation from God. And due to that revelation, Paul was able to assure them that none of them would die.
Verses 27-32 tell us that about midnight on the fourteenth day of the storm, as they were drifting across the Sea of Adria (an ancient name for the central Mediterranean) the sailors sensed that they were approaching land, probably because they could hear the waves breaking on the shore. Soundings proved that they were heading towards land, so they threw out four anchors off the stern, which kept the ship pointed towards land but stopped it until daybreak when they could see where they were and what was in front of them. Ideally, it would be a beach on which they could run aground. But it could be rocks or a reef that quickly would destroy the ship.
At this point the sailors tried to escape from the ship on the dinghy, but Paul told Julius that all had to remain together for all to be saved. Julius believed Paul, and his soldiers cut the dinghy loose to end any thought of using it to abandon ship.
Moving to verses 33-38 we see that just before daybreak, Paul once again demonstrated his leadership by urging everyone to eat a meal. Apparently no one had eaten anything during the fourteen days of riding out the storm. And Paul knew they would need strength for their survival the next day. He reassured them that all would survive, and then he took some bread, gave thanks to God for it, and began to eat. The others followed his example, and all ate a full meal. After everyone was satisfied, they jettisoned the rest of the wheat. They had disposed of some of it earlier (v. 18), but now, in order to make the ship draw as little water as possible for a run to the shore, they dumped the rest.
Because of the language used, some have suggested that Paul was celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but that was neither the time nor the place, especially since so few of the 276 people on board were Christians. Some Greek manuscripts read “seventy-six” rather than “two hundred seventy-six.” Most scholars accept the larger number for two reasons. First, Josephus describes a similar ship and says that it had 600 people on board. And second, the manuscript support for the larger number is better.
When it was light, the sailors did not recognize where they were, but as 28:1 tells us, it was the island of Malta, which is just south of the boot of Italy. Thus we see that, though the previous 14 days had been extremely scary and uncomfortable for everyone, at least they had been blown in the right direction.
The sailors observed a small bay with a beach, so they cut off the anchors, loosened the steering-oars, or paddles, hoisted the foresail, and headed for the beach, hoping to run aground on it. The steering-oars, or paddles, were two paddles that were located on each side of the stern. They served as rudders to steer the ship.
Unfortunately, there was something they could not see lurking under the surface of the water. It was a reef. The ship’s bow ran aground on the reef, leaving the stern exposed to the surf’s destructive forces. The soldiers immediately wanted to kill the prisoners so that they could not escape. But Julius, who wanted to save Paul, wouldn’t allow them to do it.
Next, Julius ordered those who could swim to jump overboard and swim to shore. The others, meaning those who could not swim, were told to find a plank, or some other piece of the ship or the ship’s gear that would float, to use to make it to the beach. Amazingly, all survived, just as the angel had told Paul.
There are four lessons can we learn from Paul in this situation (Wiersbe). First, Paul was courageous about sharing God’s word when he had the opportunity. An angel came to Paul and gave him a message; and Paul shared that message with his shipmates (vv. 22-26). We also must be courageous when we have such an opportunity.
Second, Paul warned the others. When the sailors sought to escape on the dingy, Paul warned that all must stay together if all were to be saved (v. 31). It isn’t likely that we ever will be in a situation such as Paul was at Malta, but we can envision circumstances in which we might need to warn someone that what they are doing is not approved by God.
Third, Paul set a good example for them (vv. 33-38). He knew that they would need extra strength the next day; and by eating, he encouraged the others to eat.
In addition to the lessons we learn from Paul, there are three practical lessons arising from these verses. First, the storms of life have a way of revealing character. The sailors wanted to escape. Others on board lost hope. But Paul trusted God, and so should we.
Second, even the worst storms cannot hinder the will of God. God saw to it that Paul would make it to Rome as he had promised.
And third, storms give us an opportunity to serve others and witness for Christ.