Acts (Part 37) - Storm at Sea
In chapter 27 an abrupt change occurs from the previous chapters’ doctrinal emphasis in Paul’s defenses. Paul is finally being sent to Rome and this chapter, along with the beginning of chapter 28, gives account of his travel. Luke travels with him as evidenced by a return to the “we” format.
Paul is not the only prisoner on the voyage. Verse 1 tells us there were others but probably not many. It would seem odd that Festus, after so short a time in Caesarea, would have very many prisoners of state to send to Rome. Verse 2 tells us that the ship they began on was sailing to ports in Asia. From Asia, they would commandeer a ship to take them to Rome.
Luke mentions that Aristarchus, a Thessalonian is with them. We have read of Aristarchus before. He was one of Paul’s companions dragged into the temple in Ephesus when the riot occurred (Acts 19:29). He also was with Paul coming back to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:4-5). Aristarchus is mentioned as being with Paul (in Rome) in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 1:24. Aristarchus was probably a constant companion of Paul’s for several years seemingly acting as a personal servant—reason for him traveling with Paul to Rome.
The ship travels north only 70-80 miles to Sidon, where Julius, the centurion charged with taking Paul to Rome, allows Paul the freedom to visit friends so that he could “receive their care” (27:3). The Greek phrase translated “receive their care” in the HCSB is used only twice in the the Greek Bible (Septuagint and New Testament). The other occurrence is in Proverbs 3:7b-8: “Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. This will be healing for your body.” The healing spoken of in Proverbs provides the same connotation in Acts. The phrase is medical terminology. Paul evidently was ill—either a long-term sickness contracted possibly while a prisoner in Caesarea or a short-term problem maybe just developed on the voyage. I would assume a short-term illness since it is not mentioned later and Paul does not appear later to be hampered by it.
A little conflict with the wind forces them to sail north of Cyprus and follow the coast to Myra in Asia. There they find an Alexandrian grain ship to take them to Rome. As a centurion, Julius does not request permission or bargain for passage. His rank outranks the captain of the ship. He merely informs the captain that they would be coming with the ship. Notice later that final decisions on the port in which to winter are made by the centurion with the captain as only an advisor.
The ship sails west but soon finds that its heading is directly into a strong wind. They turn south to gain the shelter of the island of Crete, finally ending up in Fair Havens, a port on the south central part of the island that is shaped long east to west and short north to south. It is here in Fair Havens that a critical decision must be made. Luke tells us in verse 9 that the voyage was already dangerous. This meant that the regular sailing season in the Mediterranean (March to mid September) was over. Between mid September and mid November, some ships still sailed, but only if there was urgent need. Winter weather was rough on the sea, and turning “dangerous” during this September to November time. We also note that Luke says the Fast was already over. The Fast referred to was the Day of Atonement (10th of Tishri) which could occur between mid September and mid October. It appears (according to the timing of the rest of the chapter) that the Fast occurred well into October, which means that they were well into this dangerous period for sailing.
Paul (having quite a bit of experience in sailing and shipwrecks—2 Cor 11:25) tells the captain and centurion that they should probably stay put, spending the winter there in Fair Havens. But the centurion is persuaded by the captain to move to another location along the southern coast of Crete. Fair Havens was a port not well protected. It was open to winds from the west, south, and, particularly fearful in winter, the east. Additionally, the topography of the land was fairly flat around the port, offering no shelter from wind across the land. The captain knew of the port of Phoenix only about 50 miles further west, a short, half a day travel. That harbor was protected by high elevation to the north and east. When a mild wind from the south blows in, they decide to take advantage and scoot the ship over to the other harbor.
Their plans are thwarted by a Euroclydon or Euroquila—a violent, surging storm coming suddenly from the northeast. The storm winds cross the island’s narrow north-south midriff and force the ship away from Crete so that they round a small island about 25 miles south of Crete and due south of their intended destination. But the islet offers little protection and the storm continue to drives them along. Fearing the sandbars of the Syrtis—a wide, shallow region due south of them on the northern coast of Africa—they drop a drift anchor in hopes that it would keep them from moving too far until the storm let up.
But the storm would not relent. Day after day the storm continued with a constant cloud cover blackening out the sun by day and the stars by night (27:20). Of course without sun or stars, they did not know where they were or even what direction they were headed. After a few days of this, Paul stands to address everyone. He begins with what could be interpreted as an “I told you so!” attitude (27:21), but his point was merely to provide background support that his advise was worth listening since he was then going to provide them with additional advice. He tells them that an angel of his God appeared to him and promised him he would reach Rome and that, although the ship would be destroyed, the crew and passengers would all be saved.
Apparently this news makes little difference to most of the men. Verse 33 informs us that they continued to fast (in petition to their gods since food on board was plentiful—their whole cargo was grain). And verse 30 gives account of some sailors that wanted to escape. But although many of the men did not believe Paul, the man with the final say—the centurion—did believe him.
After two weeks of storm, they finally find land. Since darkness still reigned, they were worried about crashing into the rocks. Some sailors made an attempt to escape with the skiff (the lifeboat). But Paul, recognizing their intent, informed Julius and warned that those men had to stay with the ship in order for any of them to make it through alive. And Julius, now a supporter of Paul, had his men cut the ropes, sending the skiff to drift away before the sailors could board it.
Intending to run the ship to the shore, they sailed straight for the beach, but a sandbar caught the ship’s bow and the waves broke up the stern. Julius prevented his soldiers from killing the prisoners (necessary so that they would not be blamed and punished for their escape). By swimming or floating to shore on wood from the ship, they all survived as Paul had prophesied.
The first few verses of chapter 28 tell of Paul collecting wood for a fire. From out of the bundle a snake, recognized as poisonous by the island inhabitants, bites Paul’s hand. Paul shakes it off into the fire. The islanders, apparently knowing that Paul is a prisoner, assume he is off the worst kind—a murderer—and although he escaped from the sea, justice would be served through the snake’s poison. But Paul shows no effect of the bite, and after a time opinions change, assuming Paul must be a god in order to have survived. The irony of the passage is that Paul really was a murderer, having stood with the Jews in the stoning of Stephen. Yet his salvation from the snakebite was not that he was a god, but that he was a child of the God who sovereignly directs all events.
Through the last several chapters we have read of numerous attempts on Paul’s life, from the initial attacks in chapter 23 through the planned ambushes, and then through the storm, shipwreck, and snakebite. Paul was taking the gospel from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish world, to Rome, the capital of the Gentile world. So, of course, Satan is attempting to thwart that plan with these many darts hurled at Paul. But Paul does not despair of any of the circumstances. He rests confidently in God’s control, knowing that God’s will and way would be accomplished.
Luke also adds a few verses (28:7-10) showing the communion of fellow Christians and their encouragement and meeting of needs. The book of Acts and this voyage in particular emphasize the purpose of bringing the gospel to the lost. But that is not the only part of Christian life and ministry. Kingdom living involves the care, concern, encouragement, shared hope, and shared joy among God’s people. Luke shows us that here and in Paul’s reception by the Christian in Italy and Rome. The mission of gospel preaching is abundantly clear. But so to is the mission of beneficial unity in the family of God.