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"Paul as Pilot”


This morning, we come to one of the most unusual and most dramatic narrative sections, not only in the book of Acts, but the entire Bible.  F.F. Bruce calls Acts 27 “…a small classic in its own right, as graphic a piece of descriptive writing as anything in the Bible.”[1]  It’s also known as one of the more informative narratives on ancient seamanship in or out of the Bible because it describes a great deal of nautical detail from the perspective of Luke, who writes as a non-seaman or “land-lubber.” It was not however Luke’s intention to provide a resource on ancient seamanship or a gripping tale of maritime adventure.  He writes as an historian, carefully recording what he saw and far more importantly, an inspired writer of Scripture who by the Holy Spirit communicates eternal truth to our souls.  Within Acts, we know that Paul’s desire was that he would fulfill the prophecy spoken over him by Jesus at his conversion that he would “carry my name before kings.”  As we saw last week in chapter 26, he spoke the gospel to king Herod Agrippa and now, because he has appealed to Rome and Caesar to argue for his innocence in the case brought against him by the Jews, he will be carrying the name of Jesus about 1800 miles by sea to the most powerful king on the planet.  In chapter 23 when Paul was physically rescued by the Roman guards from a hostile mob of Jews in Jerusalem, Jesus again assures Paul of his plan for him saying, “11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.

So Jesus is on record multiple times that Paul will testify of him in Rome.  However, as we heard read a few minutes ago, getting Paul from Israel to Rome across the seas turned out to be no easy task.  The Holy Spirit has Luke write with such detail about the specific stops on his sea voyage and the grueling, seemingly insurmountable barriers to Paul ever reaching Rome safely.  He does this because he wants us to again see that—no matter what barriers are placed in Paul’s way nothing can prevent God from fulfilling his promise to him.  An ill-timed voyage in the fall of the year won’t, weeks of hurricane-force winds and perilous seas so violent that even hard-bitten seaman lose all hope--soldiers who want to kill Paul won’t, a pilot and ship owner who refuse to listen to Paul’s sane warnings won’t--a ship with no tackle that runs aground and is partially destroyed won’t.  Because God had promised Paul that he would go to Rome, he was just as certain to arrive in Rome via this harrowing sea journey as if God were to pick Paul up by the scruff of the neck and, in a moment in time, personally carried him from Caesarea to Rome.  The hope-crushing obstacles Paul faces in getting to Rome only serve to magnify the truth that God can and will overcome any circumstance to keep his promises.  A God who can calm the winds and waves with one command as Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee will not be hindered in his purpose by a few weeks of typhoon-strength winds.

It would be a faith-building exercise for you to go through this text sometime and focus on some of the tremendous challenges Paul faced in getting to Rome.  Meditate on verse nine where Luke records, “Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, Sirs I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”  Think deeply about the profound miracles God needed to perform to keep his promise and allow that fulfilled promise in spite of great challenge to build your faith.  Then think of one of God’s promises to you—like the one in Second Corinthians 12:9, “…“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  As you face the battering of your boat through life’s storms, remember this promise in the light of God’s demonstrated capacity in Acts 27 to give Paul sufficient grace.  Focus on the seemingly overwhelming challenge of verse 19, “19 And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”   Maybe you have lost all hope in a given area thanks to months of being storm-tossed by life.  Then, I light of God’s series of miracles in rescuing Paul and the others; think about God’s promise to you in Philippians 1:6 where Paul assures the believer, “6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  As the hurricanes of life in a fallen world buffet you and blow you off course and threaten to scuttle your faith in God—when nearly all the hope you have of finishing strong with God are vaporized, remember his promises to complete his saving work in you.  That will enable you to stare down those winds and trust that there is no trial that will keep you as a child of God from reaching the shores of heaven because God’s promise is stronger than the storms of this world, the flesh and the devil.

Allow God’s faithfulness to keep his promise to Paul in the midst of these “hopeless” circumstances to buoy your faith when your boat is being tossed about by the violent tempests of this sinful world.  As we have seen in so many of these stories in Acts, Luke wants us to see the sovereign power of God in keeping his promise to overcome the most perilous situations.  We must never forget that part of living and growing in faith requires that God will at times place us in seemingly hopeless situations when the sun and stars disappear and we have no bearing on where God is in our lives.  God allows us to go through those times so that when he rescues us, we will have seen anew how strong and mighty he is to do the impossible in our lives.  Everyone on the ship in Acts 27 had lost all hope at one point.  Praise God that when we lose hope, that doesn’t keep God from working.  Paul Tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:13, “13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”  Our hope of deliverance from life’s storms cannot be dependent on our faith that is here one moment and absent the next.  Our faith can never be the object of our faith.  Our faith must be grounded in the flawlessly faithful character of God that will not allow him to deny himself by breaking his promise.  We must be careful not to turn this story into an allegory where Luke’s original meaning is lost. Luke did not intend us to primarily see this story as a metaphor for God’s victory over the storms of life.  But the truth is that few images better convey the great difficulties of trying to live for Christ and trust in his promises than a storm at sea.  And just as God faithfully triumphed over the winds and the waves to keep his promises to Paul, likewise as we are violently driven by the winds of sin and temptation—ours and those around us—God is faithful to bring us home to himself.  And when it’s all over, we will be able to see that in each wave and every stormy gale, God was holding onto us and the strength of the winds only serve to magnify the unbreakable strength of his promise to us who hope in him. 

We want to briefly go over the broad sweep of the voyage and so we see the outline of the trip on the map behind me.    Paul’s Journey to Rome

MAP—At Myra, they board a much larger ship loaded with wheat from Alexandria.  Winds begin—off Cnidus—at  “Fair Havens” winds increase-- Paul offers a dire warning of complete loss and is ignored as recorded in v.10—Along Crete—a tempestuous wind—called a “Northeaster” its and they gave way to it—After “Cauda”—they are “violently storm tossed” according to v. 18  On the 3rd day—ship’s tackle over probably the “mainyard” thrown--large spar as long as the boat—no sun, stars appear for many days—resulting in “complete loss of hope of all aboard” acc. to v. 20.  Later Paul encourages them with an angelic message he received—“We must run aground on some island” acc. to v. 25.  On the 14th night, near Malta—the ship runs aground and all escape to the island safely.

There is another fascinating truth in this text that we see as we examine Paul in the midst of this almost totally pagan environment.  Most of the time in Acts and his epistles, we see Paul as he is doing some sort of formal gospel ministry.  He’s preaching or defending the gospel to Jews and Gentiles.  He’s praying or planting churches.  Here, we get a unique vantage point on Paul’s ministry because we see Paul in the midst of a purely “secular” setting.  He is one of only two or three believers on board.  As we’ll see, he is more than a prisoner on this ship, but he begins as nothing more than one passenger in the midst of 256 mostly pagan passengers.  So, we get to see how a dynamic believer brings the influence of Christ into a decidedly secular setting.  That’s helpful to us because most of us live and walk among secular people all the time in a setting that is far from church.  To use the words of Jesus, Paul helps us to see what it is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in the midst of a hostile, dark context.  Let’s see what encouragement we can derive from Paul’s redemptive influence in a secular setting. 

As we said, it’s clear that Paul is more than just a prisoner.  The Centurion in charge of getting the prisoners back to Rome is according to verse one a man named Julius and on the second day of the voyage, we see him giving Paul favors far beyond what a normal prisoner would warrant.  Verse three says that at Sidon, “…Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for.”  We must remember that Paul is a very unique prisoner because he had been declared innocent before two Roman governors and King Agrippa.  Julius doubtless knew that Paul was not guilty of any crime and could be trusted.  As we witness Paul’s on this voyage, we notice his influence as salt—a preservative because he very much acts as to preserve life and health on this ship. In fact, God uses Paul’s presence on this ship to secure the physical survival of those on board.  We see this in several places.  In verse 10 he warns the ship of the dangers that lie ahead.  As the seas were beginning to turn against them at Fair Havens, Paul announced to those in command, “10…“Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”

Paul could hardly be more negative here but Luke tells us in verse nine that this was Paul’s way of “advising them.”  This is not the tone a person would normally use to issue this kind of dire warning.  There’s no screaming or frantic pleading here--Paul is so at peace here.  He doesn’t use emotionally charged language like “disaster” or “calamity” to describe their impending troubles and neither does he berate the pilot.  He could have said, “Do you have any clue of what you are doing?  To continue on this voyage this close to winter and with the storms already appearing is courting disaster.  Do you want to kill all of us?”  No, instead Paul just clicks off what he believes they will experience—injury and loss--of the cargo, the ship and also …our lives.  Most scholars hold that this first warning was not based on any word from God, but was instead rooted in Paul’s experience as a sea-traveler.  We must member that few of the people in this culture were frequent travelers—most died within a few miles of the town of their birth, never having traveled the high seas.  By contrast, Paul had by this time made a minimum of 11 sea voyages by this time and that would have almost certainly made him by far the most experienced sea traveler of all the passengers.  In Second Corinthians chapter 11, Paul says in verse 25, “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;”

This was written before the events of Acts chapter 27.  Paul was without a doubt THE authority among the passengers and perhaps even the crew when it came to being shipwrecked.  He had been shipwrecked three times before and had also been left adrift at sea.  If it was possible to be an expert in the conditions necessary for fatal shipwrecks, Paul was it.  His frequent journeys—many by ship—as well as his intense familiarity with dangerous situations in general, gave him some confidence in his capacity to judge the probability of impending doom.  We don’t know if the pilot and the ship-owner know of Paul’s unique expertise however and they choose to ignore Paul’s warnings on the ground that “…the harbor was not suitable to spend the winter in…” 

A second example of God using Paul to protect the lives of those on board is in verse 23.  There Paul says,“ 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’”  It’s clear that there is one reason God saved the lives of those on this ship and that is--because Paul was on it and he was going to stand before Caesar.  The implication is that if Paul had not been on board, all these people would have been lost at sea.  Paul’s presence has a redemptive influence.  A third and final time Paul’s influence made a life-or-death difference is in verse 30.  Luke writes, “30 … as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”  These sailors pretended to be lowering the anchors but were really headed for the life boat in a selfish attempt to rescue themselves.  Paul knows that if they were to lose some of the only skilled sailors on board, that would doom any attempts to safely run the ship aground.  The response to Paul’s concern shows how much they trust him at this point.  Verse 32 says, “Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.”   At some level, Paul has now taken a share of command of this vessel.  In a time of great peril, God’s man rises to the top and is used to save the ship.

A final instance Paul’s redemptive influence extends to the physical well-being of those on board is in verse 33.  Luke records, “33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength…”  The sheer intensity of this experience is seen in that the people hadn’t eaten for two weeks—no appetite.  Though this is obviously related to the sea-sickness they all must have experienced from the heaving and bucking of the ship, Paul says it was due to the 14 days of “continuous suspense.”  In those days, most people lived from hand to mouth with no fat on their body.  If people didn’t eat for 14 days, they became weak from malnutrition.  Paul is imminently practical here and tells them they must eat something.  Again, notice the way God uses Paul’s redemptive influence to impact the survival and physical health of those on board the ship.

His influence was not only on the physical lives of those around him but Paul’s presence also brought emotional support through his repeated words of encouragement to the ship. In verse 22, after all hope is lost, Paul tells the people, “22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul…”  Paul offers to the rest of the ship the encouragement he had received from God.   “Take heart,” he says.  In verse 25 he again says, “25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.”

At this point, Paul is at perfect peace.  God has spoken-- Paul believes him—it’s going to be fine.  He passes the assurance he has in God on to his fellowmen.  Notice also the intensely practical nature of Paul’s faith.  It reminds us of so many others of God’s children in the Bible whose faith is marked by a deep sanity.  Even with his faith in God’s promise of a sure arrival in Rome, Paul advises against traveling the seas on the verge of winter.  He believes God’s promise, but his faith isn’t a product of some sort of hyper-spirituality that assumes you don’t have to take normal precautions in life.  Paul’s faith was an expression of trust, not recklessness.  His faith in God’s promise to get him to Rome, did not relieve him of his sense of responsibility when the sailors decided to make for the life boat. He could have looked at them and thought to himself, “Wow, that’s stupid—oh well; I know I’M getting to Rome, anyway!”   Finally, his trust in God doesn’t stop him from urging others to eat something and he doubtless took his own advice here as well.  Faith in the promises of God does not promote a naive recklessness born of a phony, hyper-spirituality that tests God by acting foolishly.  Just because people will call us fools for trusting God for deliverance, that doesn’t mean park our brains and by doing foolish things.  Trusting God transcends human wisdom because it ultimately looks to God and not ourselves, but Biblical faith doesn’t nullify human wisdom.  If God calls you to a short-term missions trip to the Amazon jungles of South America and miraculously finances it, it would be foolish for you to assume his provision meant that you shouldn’t take any malaria shots or bring along some sunscreen.  That’s not the kind of faith Paul has.  In the Old Testament, Nehemiah trusted God to protect his people from their enemies as they carried out his will to build the wall around Jerusalem.  But he also told them to carry a sword as they worked.

Finally, although Paul’s influence in this secular setting is nothing short of extraordinary, even Paul has his weak moments.  As we’ve seen, after the pilot and the ship owner decide to go against Paul’s advice to winter on the Island of Crete, the voyage takes a decided downturn and all hope is lost.  In verse 21, Paul is not at his best.  “21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship”.

It would have been much more gracious for Paul to have said, “Men, we are in deep peril, but God has promised me through an angel that we’ll be delivered from this.  I hope my last bit of advice to you has given me some credibility to cause you to believe me in this.” The fact that Paul’s earlier advice was correct was not irrelevant—he was right and they were wrong and that was painfully clear at this point and Paul’s now-vindicated judgment provides him with some credibility to inject some hope in this hopeless situation.  There was however no need for Paul to point out that, had his advice been followed, they would not be in the hopeless mess they were in. Paul should have heeded his own counsel in Ephesians 4:29 where he says, “29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”   I don’t hear much “building up” in Paul’s rebuke.  I don’t hear much grace here.  What I hear is—“I was right—you were wrong and boy have we all paid for you foolish decision to ignore me.”   It just goes to show us that the old adage is correct—it’s so hard to be right and to be right Biblically.  The speaker from Peacemakers who was hear a few years ago was correct when he said that one of the hardest things for a Christian to do well is to be right.   Paul is unquestionably right here and he was doubtless worn out, but he could have given more grace here.

As we close, here is some very brief application.  First, do we hang onto God’s promises in times of crisis or do we all ourselves to be overwhelmed by the circumstances?  In my life, trusting God is the hardest thing I do.  We are all so wired to look to ourselves and our own puny resources.  When those run out—and they always do in times of trial, it so easy to believe that all is lost because we are so clearly in over our heads and we are drowning.  God would have us look to him and claim his promises of his sufficient grace to us—his promises that he is in control and that he will redeem bad things and turn them into good things.  Part of being in community is weeping with those who weep but also lovingly, gently reminding each other of the truth that God is bigger than whatever trial we may be facing and he is in the midst of the storm working out his plan for our lives.

Second, do we have a redemptive influence in the lives of the unbelievers around us—especially during times of trial?  We must work to share the gospel to those around us, but Luke doesn’t record one sermon by Paul in this setting.  What he does record is Paul in the midst of a deep crisis displaying God’s grace by working for the physical and emotional health and security of those around him.  If you were with people who knew you well and a crisis were to arise in your common context, would they look to you as a source of strength and sanity?  Of, would you be bouncing off the walls just like them?  If everyone at your work place has been hit with drastic pay cuts and unfair work reforms—if a flu epidemic breaks out—if the local government targets your neighborhood for an unfair jump in taxes—if your kid’s school administration proposes implementing some grossly unfair reforms—what is your witness to a lost and watching world in all of those situations?  Are you someone others seek out as a voice of reason and calm and do they look to you to know how to behave in the midst of the trial.  Or, are you as scared, worried, enraged, impatient and unreasonable as the unredeemed crowd around you?  Times of shared testing are wonderful opportunities for the believer to shine like the sun in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  May God grant to all of us the grace to trust God and show ourselves as distinct from a lost world who is not able to draw on the limitless resources of God’s grace for his glory and our joy.

[1] Bruce, “Acts, p. 474.


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