Acts 27 records a vivid report of the first portion of Paul’s travel to Rome—from Caesarea to the shores of Malta. Most likely the trip started at the beginning of autumn in a.d. 60. At Myra in Lycia, he was transferred to another ship set out for Rome with a total of 276 people and a load of Egyptian wheat.
Ships usually have a well-organized community. When on duty, sailors remain very disciplined. A strict chain of command exists and all orders are to be respected in absolute discipline. This vessel was also manned with a military unit. When we read the story of this voyage, we see that in spite of the presumed competency of the sailors and the soldiers, the report is not pleasant: “the winds were contrary” (v. 4), “we . . . sailed slowly many days” and “the wind [was] not suffering us” (v. 7), then “not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind” (v. 14), “and when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive” (v. 15). Soon the crew resorted to desperate measures: “they used helps, undergirding the ship; . . . and so were driven” (v. 17), “and we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship” (v. 18). The terse description, mostly in the third person, using short sentences and almost void of any emotion, changes to a very personal expression of the intense pain and despair felt by the crew when they decided to deliberately throw overboard some of the sailing tools. “We cast out with our own hands the tackling of the ship” (v. 19), as “all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (v. 20).
And Paul was on this ship as a prisoner to Rome. The fate of the small community on the doomed ship would also be the fate of the apostle.
Is this not a word picture for the situation of our planet? The parallel is striking! International organizations, multilateral treaties, and global resolutions try to tackle every major issue. However, the problems of this planet are so convoluted that all efforts to halt or slow the destruction are too weak, too late.
We Christians live on this planet. As a part of humanity, we will share in its predicament—at least up to a point. We cannot expect special treatment or to be set apart when suffering and tragedy affect all other members of society.
Paul’s status on the ship illuminates our condition in society. While visiting churches, especially those organized by him, he was easily recognized and considered an authority; but on this ship he had no status. On the ship, he entered an already structured community with its own rules and routines in the same way we have to operate in a society existing long before we became part of it. In terms of social standing, he had little influence to change this society. Yet, over a period of several weeks, Paul transformed the thinking, and even the characters, of the crew, soldiers and centurion, travelers, and prisoners. He became a source of hope amidst devastating situations and promoted a sense of responsibility and respect for what was right in conditions bent toward chaos and erratic behavior.
The ship remained for a short time in a place called “Fair Havens.” Paul admonished 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” (v. 10). Why did he intervene? Because he saw himself as a responsible participant on the voyage, not just a passive passenger. He had no authority; nonetheless, he knew he had power to influence those in executive positions and used it rather than complaining about his own lack of social standing. Paul acknowledged the authority vested in the centurion, master, and owner of the ship, and approached them rather than venting his objections among the sailors or other travelers. He interacted with the sailing community in a way that should model our own interactions with society.
What was the source of Paul’s advice? He possibly received this information supernaturally. He was a prophet of God who, indeed, revealed to him many things. If this was the case, why did he not disclose the source?
His hearers were not prepared for such a statement. They barely knew him and were prejudiced against him. They did not consider him a prophet or representative of God. If Paul received the revelation from God, he conveyed the message to those concerned, and was wise not to identify the Source.
But probably Paul’s realization of threatened danger resulted from his own observations as a seasoned traveler. He had already made several journeys on the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, showing interest in everything connected to seamanship, observing different factors, and discussing his observations. Paul had a keen interest, not only in theology and mission, but also in many other areas of life. He was able to make practical applications of his knowledge, considering he had a duty to speak out and respectfully influence people in positions of power.
Influence is not something that can be demanded but a privilege obtained on the basis of real interest in human affairs, systematic observation, serious thought, courageous opinion, and responsible interactions with society.
The first intervention by Paul was rejected. The decision was taken to depart for Phenice, a better haven of Crete. But they were not able to enter the peaceful gulf because a tempestuous wind arose and the ship was caught and terribly tossed. Crew and passengers alike suffered from seasickness and had not eaten. They had not caught a glimpse of the sun or stars for days and had lost all hope. The centurion and the master had plenty of reasons to regret not following Paul’s advice. However, Paul showed the same deep interest in his fellow travelers, so he acted again. We read that “Paul stood forth” (v. 21). When all others were exhausted, broken, and defeated, Paul was in the same situation as the others—but his attitude was completely different.
Like Paul, we are exposed to the same injustices, calamities, and tragedies in society. Our prophetic understanding makes us more keenly aware of the terrible times to come. We have a better perception of Satan’s hatred against this world and the chaos and destructions he perpetrates.
But we have a faith that helps us from being despondent. We are to stand up when others fall down; stand forth when others falter. Our posture should be a message in itself.
Paul started his second speech by reminding the people of his previous rejected intervention. Why? His attitude was not a self-righteous “I told you so.” Paul was rather preparing the way for what he planned to say now, and he sought their respect and attention.
His second speech had two time references: “then” and “now” (v. 22). “Then” was the time of their distrust, disobedience, and bad decisions.
“Now” was the time of a new promise, an opportunity to trust and obey. A “then” exists in the life of every person and community. Our dark history cannot be simply ignored, otherwise we would continue on the wrong paths. Without reckoning our sinful “then,” the “now” has no appeal, no attraction. And, without a “now,” there is no hope, no escape from despair.
“I exhort you to be of good cheer” (v. 22), continued Paul. We can be certain that he was a living model of what he was asking of them—his countenance and body language radiated hope and courage. What was “now” the source of Paul’s intervention? He stated it clearly: “the angel of God” (v. 23). He even gave the time of the revelation: “this night”! He did not procrastinate, waiting for a better time. Why was he now so open? He had had the time to become known and trusted as a man and believer, so he spoke freely about God. He knew he belonged to God and served Him (v. 23). He had a clear destination not only for this trip, but also for his life (v. 24). He would reach Rome in spite of all adversity because he had to bear testimony for Christ there.
His report to the other travelers—sailors, soldiers, and passengers—was explained in surprising terms: “God hath given thee all them that sail with thee” (v. 24). In the same way, we can hear God speaking to us: I have given you all those with authority over you, everyone in the same town, school, and company, on the same bus, boat, or plane. We are placed in our community to act with courage and faith.
Preserver of community
The next intervention of Paul, described in verses 30–32, is quite different. The crew, apparently again in despair, tried to abandon the ship, thinking they could save their own lives. The sailors plotted to take a small boat and flee. And Paul was the only one to detect their scheme! He again displayed a remarkable ability to observe the reality and understand the consequences of the attempted plot. He was willing to act responsibly, even taking personal risks. Christians should also be seen as having the clearest perception and interpretation of reality, the most responsible attitude, and the most sincere and unselfish involvement in the affairs of society.
The way Paul expressed the danger becomes very significant both for church and society: “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved” (v. 31). Our natural tendency is to find someone to blame for problems and have these individuals removed. But Paul was of a different opinion. Talking to the soldiers, he did not say, “Except the crew abides in the ship, they cannot be saved,” but rather, “Except the crew abides in the ship, you cannot be saved!”
Embodiment of hope
Now we reach the last reported interaction of Paul with the people on board (vv. 33–36). He expressed his tender compassion to the battered sailors and travelers. Everything was completely upset and it was possible to obtain only snatches of food now and then. All were hungry and exhausted with the most challenging times still ahead. So Paul encouraged them to come and eat, and began eating in front of them.
Once again, he practiced what he was preaching. The wording of verse 35 is intriguing: “And when he had thus spoken, he took bread, and gave thanks to God . . . and when he had broken it, he began to eat.” The wording is closely reminiscent of the language used by the Gospel writers and Paul, himself, to describe the Lord’s Supper. This does not lead us to conclude that Paul organized a formal supper. The daily meal of a Christian should include more than just feeding the body, but should be an act of gratitude, hope, and love. Every meal should be a shadow of the Lord’s Supper. “The light shining from that Communion service in the upper chamber makes sacred the provisions for our daily life.
The family board becomes as the table of the Lord, and every meal a sacrament.”*
This was the last recorded intervention of Paul. The rest of the events followed in quick succession, and, before long, the ship was completely broken by the violence of the waves. In verse 42, as the shipwreck was ominous, the soldiers considered killing all prisoners, fearing they would do what every prisoner would do—try to escape—exposing the soldiers to death for their negligence. So they reasoned, It is better to kill than be killed. The centurion resisted. He wanted to save Paul, realizing that all on board owed him their lives and that Paul had a divinely ordained appointment in Rome. Even more, during those terrible weeks, it is possible the centurion learned from Paul about the sanctity of human life, the righteous judgment of God (cf. Acts 24:25), and the duty of the higher powers to minister on behalf of God for the good of those under their authority (cf. Rom. 13:1–4). These convictions might have become strong enough to lead him to take the risk rather than kill his prisoners.
The last verses of the chapter bring the most luminous evidence of Paul’s transforming influence on all—including his fellow prisoners. They did not take advantage of the incredible opportunity to flee, but grouped on shore, ready to be put again in chains!
Two or three weeks, under the most trying circumstances, were enough for Paul to instill a living and transforming hope in more than 270 persons aboard. They learned to trust God and experienced a dramatic rescue by hope. They were inspired to respect life and the rights of others. This transformation gives a convincing testimony to the invincible power of a hope-centered life to influence, change, and redeem individuals and entire communities.
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 660.