FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 7

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MINSITERING WHEN YOU’D RATHER NOT
(AND WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DO)

Acts 27, 28

After having been tried before Festus and Agrippa, it was agreed that there was no reason Paul should have been in chains, and that Paul could have been set free after such a positive verdict had he not appealed to Caesar—

Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”  (Acts 26:32)

All the issues surrounding Paul’s imprisonment were now settled, and finally he would be sent to Rome, exactly as he wanted.  For years, the apostle had his heart set on reaching Rome to visit the Christians there and to preach there.  It was natural that Paul should want to minister in Rome for it was the hub of the civilized world at that time.  It was the capital of the mighty Roman Empire and there was a strong body of believers in that city despite the fact that up till now, Rome had not been evangelized by any apostle!  How this apostle longed to go to Rome, and he prayed to that end.  Finally, after all these years, Paul’s prayers were answered, but in a very strange and unexpected way.

Paul’s experience is probably very common among believers of every generation.  The Lord may place a particular burden on your heart to go to a certain place or witness to a particular person or be involved in some sort of ministry, and you may even envision yourself engaged in that work, and praying to that end.  But the way God moves you into that service or the doors you have to go through to get to the point where you are able to serve God in that way may be completely unexpected.  Maybe the work or service you thought would be so easy to perform turned out to be extremely difficult or frustrating.  Yet through the grace of God, you work and you endure and you see the results.  All who serve the Lord according to His will are able to do so joyfully, effectively, and persistently despite the circumstances.  This was something Paul understood.

1.  Adverse circumstances, 27:1, 13—26; 40—44

Generally speaking, Jews did not like the water; they looked at the sea with great apprehension and suspicion and with the exception of fishermen, they generally avoided going on the open water.   When the John wrote about “the new heaven and the new earth,” he also includes this—

…the sea will be no more…(Revelation 21:1)

This would have been a great comfort to John; no more sea to be afraid of!

For Paul, though, sailing was the only way to travel the distances God intended him to travel.  He did not like to sail, and in fact 2 Corinthians 11:25 gives us an idea why Paul disliked sailing so much—

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea

Now Paul has to go to sea again, this time as a prisoner.  He was bound for Rome, finally, with his good friend Luke at his side.

(a)  Support for Paul, verses 1, 2

Luke had been with Paul all during his two-year imprisonment, and now he will be the apostle’s companion en route to Rome.  We may wonder what Luke did while Paul was cooling his heels in prison; likely he was gathering information for his Gospel.  Perhaps it was during this time that he was able to sit down and interview Mary, the now-aged mother of Jesus, who would have been the only one who could have given Luke some of the background material found in the first two chapters of his Gospel.

We may also wonder how Luke was able to sail on this ship; he was no prisoner.  In all probability, he had to pay his own way.  This was not uncommon; friends of prisoners would be the ones responsible to furnish the prisoner’s food, clothing and other necessities

Another thing of interest is this:  Paul was not the only prisoner on board this ship.  There were  many other Roman prisoners being sent to Rome.  Unlike Paul, who was heading to Rome for an interview with Caesar, these prisoners were probably all heading to Rome for execution.  Some of them would likely end up as gladiators, meeting their end fighting wild beasts.  What a golden opportunity to share the Gospel of hope with men who had no hope!

In verse two, we see that not only did Luke accompany Paul, a man named Aristarchus also went with them.  He was, apparently, one of Paul’s closest and most faithful friends and was with Paul constantly during the apostle’s first imprisonment at Rome (Colossians 4:10; Philemon v. 24).  How did Paul, a prisoner, manage to have two friends with him?   As a Roman citizen who had appealed to the Emperor, Paul would have been treated with more respect than the other prisoners, and the centurion would have recognized immediately that Paul was no criminal; he was a gentleman who deserved to have his attendants traveling with him.  It has also been suggested that Luke accompanied Paul, not just as a friend or attendant, but as his personal physician, as he seems later to have done in Paul’s final stay in prison (see 2 Timothy 4:11).

(b)  Peril at sea, 27:13—20

Paul had previously warned the men to stay safely in port because of the extreme dangers storms posed this time of the year—

“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.”

Paul may have been afraid of the sea, but he was no dummy!  However, apparently time was of the essence, so on a nice day, the crew decided to press on.  It wasn’t long, however, before Paul’s worries were realized, thanks to something Luke calls Euroclydon in the KJV—

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

The NIV calls this Euroclydon a “northeaster,” but the term Luke used was a common nautical term of his day for a violent wind that blew into the Mediterranean from out of Europe.  This was the winter season, and these Euroclydon storms were, apparently, common.  Verse 15 vividly describes the fury of this hurricane—

The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along.

For an unbelievable two weeks, the storm pounded the ship.  The crew did everything they could to keep the ship and its crew and passengers safe.   In the darkness, being tossed all over the map, the crew lost their direction and their hope.  It seemed all was lost.

(c)  A word of encouragement, 27:21—26

Luke had just spent a number of verses breathlessly describing the storm in vivid detail.  These must rank among the most exciting verses in all of Scripture!  Yet, for all his detail, one thing is curiously missing:  what was Paul doing all this time?  To be sure, he must have been scared, perhaps even pessimistic—

When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.  (verse 20; note the inclusive “we,” including Paul)

A visit by an angel gave Paul enough courage for an “I told you so” moment.  He did warn everybody about the weather, and was proved right.  Paul, always ready to give a word of advice, gives them one more, which they will actually follow this time—

“Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”  (verse 26)

What is particularly interesting to me is that in the midst of this violent storm, surrounded by pagan, godless, hardened prisoners and men of the sea, Paul was able to stand—no small feat during a storm—and speak freely about God and a heavenly visitation.  Within Paul’s encouraging “I told you so” sermon, is a slice of God’s grace:  not one life would be lost.

This was, incidentally, a second visit Paul had from this very same angel.  Previously, this angel had told Paul that he would some day bear witness for God in Rome, and now he returns to remind and reassure Paul that the promise would be kept in spite of the circumstances.    When God makes a promise, He will keep it.  Believers should never lose faith or think that God has forgotten them on the basis of circumstances.

These dire circumstances were part of the plan; a part that Paul could never have imagined.  Had it not been for the two-year imprisonment in Caesarea, the plot for Paul’s death hatched by malicious Jews, the decision of girly-man Festus, the trial in front of Agrippa and Bernice, the stubborn refusal to listen to Paul’s advice, all got Paul to this very moment where he was able to witness and preach to an audience that had no choice but to listen.  Never doubt God or judge Him by the circumstances you may find yourself in.

(d)  Safe at last, 27:40—44

With a flurry of nautical details, Luke describes the beaching of the ship.  The ship began to break apart, and it was every man for himself!  Roman law dictated that if a soldier or guard allowed his prisoner to escape, that guard’s life was forfeit; he would have to suffer the same fate intended for his prisoner.  This is why the soldiers wanted to kill all the prisoners; it was their lives or the lives of prisoners.  But God rules and overrules, during storms and even in the heart of a Roman centurion named Julius, who was determined to protect Paul.  He ordered the soldiers to stop killing the prisoners immediately.  He ordered all on board the ship to get to dry land however it was possible for them.  They were headed to an island, after all;  where else could they go?

In the next chapter, Julius is seen as being almost friendly toward Paul.  It is never stated that Julius became a believer, but given all that happened to him and how he treated Paul, it is likely.

2.  Miraculous ministry, 28:1—10

(a)  Hospitality, vs. 1, 2

Malta was, and still is, a small island, about 18 miles long and 8 miles wide.  Originally settled and colonized about 1,000 B.C. by the Phoenicians, it was known to them and to other ancient sea-faring peoples as “a place of refuge,” which “malta” or “melita” means.

By the time of the shipwreck, Malta was owned by Rome, however, so when the locals saw soldiers and prisoners clambering ashore, proper respect was shown despite the fact that these locals were considered to be “barbarians”—

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.

You never know where kindness will come from!  These “barbarians” treated Paul better than he was ever treated in Jerusalem!

(b)  Protection, vs. 3—6

Paul, a hard worker no matter where he was or what he found himself doing, gathered some firewood, and when he laid it on the fire a most remarkable thing happened—

…a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  (verse 3b)

To the pagan and superstitious islanders, it was clear that Paul was not a good man:  he survived a shipwreck but will be killed by a snake.  To them, this was a kind of “godless justice.”  We may chuckle at the way they thought, but many of us are guilty of passing judgment on someone based on things we may see and not understand.

Instead of dropping dead, Paul merely shook the beast off and carried on, much to the surprise of the onlookers!  This greatly impressed the simple folk, who viewed Paul now, not as a criminal, but as a “god.”

(c)  Healings, vs. 7—10

In all, Paul spent three months, the worst months of the winter, on Malta.  Luke only gives us a couple of incidents that occurred during this time, and this one is quite instructive.  No matter what the circumstances, a true servant of God is always on duty, ready to serve.

Publius was the governor of the island, and as an official act of courtesy, he had the survivors over to his estate for dinner, which lasted three days.  They knew how to throw a party, these Maltese.  Given the fact that there were 276 survivors, it is likely that only the soldiers, Paul and his friends were among the invited guests.

The kindness of the islanders in general and of Publius in particular, is returned by Paul and his friends.  The father of Publius was bedridden and sick with dysentery.  In fact, this sickness is now known as Malta Fever, and is caused by the milk of Maltese goats.  At any rate, all this was unknown in Paul’s day, and apparently Publius’ father wasn’t the only one with Malta Fever.

Paul healed the father by simply laying his hands on the man and praying.  As a result of this healing, an amazing thing happened—

When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.  (verse 9)

There is a change in words here.  When the old man was healed, Luke indicates that he was “healed,” his condition changed.  When the rest of the sick islanders came, there were also healed but Luke used a different word: therapeuo.  This word is the basis for our word “therapy.”

It has been noted by many scholars that while Paul obviously had the gift of healing and frequently exercised it, he seemed unable to heal himself, living with his “thorn in the flesh” for his lifetime.  Barclay makes an astute and thoughtful observation about Paul’s healing ministry—

Beethoven, for instance, gave to the world immortal music, which he himself, being stone deaf, never heard.

In response to these many miracles, the islanders honored Paul and his friends in many ways, that probably included gifts of money and other things people involved in a shipwreck might be in need of.  Once again, the nearly 300 survivors were indebted to Paul; he not only gave them the advice that saved their lives, but because of his ministry, their stay on Malta was a very pleasant one.  God’s blessings overflow and touch many lives if we, like Paul, are faithful to Him.

Paul was no god, but he was a faithful messenger of God and nothing seemed to stop him in delivering his message.  All Paul wanted to do was to get to Rome, yet time and again circumstances seemed to conspire against the apostle’s plans.   Even though he was unable to preach in Rome, the message that was burning to get out did; to all who were around Paul in his misadventures.

Malta was not on Paul’s itinerary, but from Luke’s account, it seems that Paul may have considered his sabbatical there as a sort of high point in his ministry.  It was certainly a time of blessing for the Maltese when God used Paul and worked through him in amazing ways.  Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances surrouning his arrival on Malta, God ministered to Paul, as well.  After two very long and bleak years in a prison at Caesarea, Paul enjoyed a mild and quiet winter on an island in relative freedom, which no dobut prepared him for his mission to Rome, which was yet to come.

God moves in strange ways in our lives, too.  If we get too busy with the details of everyday living, and if we obsess on the way things are instead of the way we want them to be, we might miss out on the kind of blessings God had for Paul.   Let’s be faithful to God, let’s be faithful in our service to Him despite the circumstances.  And let’s not allow circumstances—good or bad—to dictate our opinions of God.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd
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