By Sam E. Stone
In last week’s lesson, Paul stood before King Agrippa and the Roman governor, Festus. They both found him innocent of any crime but, since he had appealed to Caesar, they sent him on for a hearing before the emperor in Rome. Today we study a part of his sea voyage en route there.
Paul was accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus. Whether Aristarchus was a voluntary companion or whether he was himself a prisoner is not clear. Later Paul does mention him as a fellow prisoner (Colossians 4:10; see Philemon 24). Luke has been “out of sight” for some time in the record of Acts (since Acts 21:18), although he probably was nearby. With the word we he confirms that he has rejoined Paul on this important journey.
The trip to Rome shows how God chose to answer Paul’s prayer that he might one day get to preach in the capital city (Romans 1:10; 15:30-32). J. W. McGarvey notes, “The machinations of the Jews, the avarice of Felix, the indecision of Festus, the prudence of Paul, and the Roman statute for the protection of citizens, had very strangely, yet naturally, combined to fulfill a promise God made in answer to prayer.”
Acts 27:1, 2
A centurion named Julius, part of the prestigious Imperial Regiment, was in charge of Paul and the other prisoners. He determined that they would travel by ships to take the prisoners to Rome. Normally this would be much faster than going by land. Sailing was dangerous in the New Testament world though. Prior to this experience, Paul mentioned that already he had been shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:25). The weather was a major factor in planning a voyage, and the ships sought to stay near enough to the coastline that the crew could go ashore when necessary. Paul’s trip to Rome had started in Caesarea on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
The section of this chapter that is not in our printed text (Acts 27:3-32) summarizes what led up to the shipwreck. Despite Paul’s advice that they should remain in port awaiting better weather (27:9-13), the ship’s officers determined they would go ahead and set sail.
Even now the apostle held out hope to Julius the centurion and all on the ship. Although they had not taken his advice but had sailed from Crete, God had sent an angel to Paul with a message of hope. The angel assured him that he would stand before the emperor, adding that “God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you” (27:24). What wonderful news for all the ship’s passengers! “Keep up your courage, men,” Paul advised them. “I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me” (v. 25).
Paul was a realist. He next encouraged them all to eat a good meal. For days they had gone without food, fearful and watching. Now it was time to eat so they would have the necessary energy for the challenges ahead. Encouraged now, all 276 people aboard joined in eating a meal after Paul gave thanks to God in front of them all.
When they had eaten and lightened the vessel, the sailors then noticed what appeared to be a sandy beach where they might run the ship aground. They cut loose the anchors, untied the ropes that held the rudders, and hoisted the sail. The ship headed straight for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground, Luke explains. The pounding surf quickly began to break up the stern; the bow was immovable in the sandbar. They had to abandon ship.
The soldiers decided they should kill all of the prisoners since this happened. None must be allowed to escape. They were responsible to deliver them all to Rome. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life, so he ordered the soldiers not to harm any of the prisoners. Instead everyone was assisted either in swimming to land or floating there, hanging on to pieces of wood from the ship. The good news—In this way everyone reached land safely. God had kept his promise to Paul! Even a shipwreck in a hostile sea and the animosity of pagan sailors could not prevent the Lord from keeping his word.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.