By Sam E. Stone
Once safely on land after the shipwreck, Paul and his companions learned they were on the island of Malta. Located about 60 miles south of Sicily, it is some 500 miles west of Crete where Paul’s trip to Rome had begun.
Acts 28:1, 2
When the sailors saw land during the storm (Acts 27:39), they weren’t sure just where they were. Upon landing, they met people on the beach who told them. The natives were largely of Phoenician extraction. Their language was a Phoenician dialect. F. F. Bruce explains, “They were thus regarded by both Greeks and Romans as ‘barbarians’—a slightly patronizing word, comparable to the vulgar use of the term ‘natives’ nowadays.”
More important, however, was the unusual kindness shown by these natives to the 276 shipwreck survivors. They did more than say, “Keep warm and well fed” (James 2:16). They built a fire and provided for their immediate needs.
Paul didn’t just sit around and watch other people work; he helped out! As he gathered firewood, a snake of some sort bit down on his hand. The people were horrified. This was a poisonous viper! Some reasoned, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” Like many people today, they supposed that every calamity is a judgment for some particular sin (compare John 9:1-3). The people guessed wrong! Paul shook off the snake into the fire, but he suffered no adverse reaction.
When he didn’t swell up immediately or suddenly fall over dead, the people did a 180-degree turn in their thinking. This new evidence convinced them that Paul had divine power. J. W. McGarvey writes, “This is Lystra reversed” (see Acts 14:8-20). Jesus had predicted that his disciples would even be able to handle poisonous reptiles as they took the gospel into the entire world (see Mark 16:17, 18; compare also Luke 10:19 when he sent out the 72).
The chief ruler on the Island was a man named Publius. He was exemplary in his graciousness to the people from the ship. He welcomed them to his own home and showed them generous hospitality for three days. His father was seriously ill and Paul prayed for him and then healed him. This must have encouraged the islanders to be even more receptive to the gospel message Paul proclaimed. Rather than accepting the people’s false conclusion that he was deity, Paul prayed to the one and only God. Then he laid his hands upon the sick man. The early Christians were taught to call on the church’s elders to pray for the sick and lay hands on them (James 5:14).
It was by the Lord’s power that none had lost his life in the shipwreck, and it was that same power by which Paul was now able to bring healing in Jesus’ name. Never did Paul claim to have any special power of his own. Instead he pointed everyone who heard him to the source of all good things—the God whom he served. All of those from the ship were treated well in part because of Paul’s presence among them. As W. R. Walker notes, “One good man frequently saves many bad ones. Sodom would have been saved for 10 righteous souls.”
Some Bible scholars believe the people not only came to Paul with their sick, but they also may have called on the medical skill of Dr. Luke, as well as Paul’s gift of healing. If that is true, Luke might accurately be considered the first medical missionary!
No doubt the apostle made full use of every opportunity to share news of the Great Physician both with those who were sick and those who brought the sick to him. When the travelers were ready to continue on their journey to Rome, the people of Malta honored (them) in many ways. No doubt they brought food, clothing, and other provisions to assist them on the rest of their voyage. Luke concludes simply, When we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.