This chapter started out normally, but as we have already seen it quickly turns into quite an adventure. We have seen the weather play havoc on this journey to Rome. This started off with contrary winds that forced them to take a different route they what they had planned. And ended with them being stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean version of a hurricane. As we ended yesterday we read that Paul’s traveling companions had given all hope of being rescued. However, one person had not given up hope and that was Paul, because he knew what God had planned for him and for his traveling companions.
After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.—27:21-29
Either nausea or hopelessness (or quite likely both) led the passengers to abstain from food. To encourage them, and to set the right path, Paul stood up to speak. He first reminded them all that he warned them not to sail from Crete. It is unlikely that Paul was gloating; instead he was likely reminding them that his track record was very good on these things. He next—and more importantly—recounted a visitation from an angel who had prophesied about the outcome of the trip. The ship would be lost, but no one would lose their lives. The reason for the providence of God was for Paul to appear before Caesar. That is why Paul was saved, but his traveling companions were saved so that they could spread the message of the saving power of God wherever they went.
To save their lives now, they had to run the ship aground somewhere. Two weeks later they thought they spotted land and tested the depth repeatedly. At each sounding they were getting closer to land. They threw out four anchors to keep from shearing the ship on the reefs. While they were following the correct procedure under the circumstances, it was still very dangerous.
In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.—27:30-32
It would have been a legitimate procedure to set the anchors at the bow of the ship from the smaller boat. This was a process designed to lock the ship in a single orientation (in this case into the wind). However, a single sailor would take the anchor in the lifeboat to drop it off. So a large number of sailors climbing into the lifeboat was a suspicious sight. In this case, these sailors were in the process of abandoning the ship, the passengers and the officers. Since a ship of this size needed 12 crewmen, all the sailors could have been attempting to abandon the ship. Paul’s warning in verse 31 should not be seen as contradicting the vision reported in verses 23-23 for two reasons. First, prophecy is often conditional. Second, the warning may simply have been wise observation of the need for the sailors to beach the ship. The sailors’ attempt was thwarted by casting the lifeboat adrift. This would mean they would have to swim for it later, but they would all die without the crew, so it was a necessary decision. Verses 30-32 preserve the truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.—27:33-38
Such a harrowing trip was likely to wreak havoc on the nerves, so Paul took action to help the passengers. Since they had not eaten for 14 days (again, whether due to nausea or nerves is unstated, perhaps a little bit of both), Paul suggested a meal, and then he encouraged his shipmates. He predicted they would all make it out alive. The ship contained 276 people. This is not a particularly high number of passengers on board such a ship. Other ancient sources note ships of this size with 600 passengers.
Previously, verses 18-19, they had started throwing the cargo along with other things overboard in hopes of saving the ship, some of its profits and all those aboard. Now that they were planing to beach the ship, they threw out the rest of the cargo, since it would be lost anyway. The cargo would likely have been in amphorae, clay jars in the shape of inverted tear drops. This action would have considerably lightened the ship in order to get it as close as possible to shore.
When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.—27:39-44
Once they found a suitable bay, they took action to beach the ship. They cut the anchors and unlashed the rudders to let the wind have its full force. These rudders were more like steering paddles fixed from the deck rather than the modern instrument under the ship. Then they hoisted the main sail to get as much wind as possible. Eventually, the ship was beached, and it was slowly ripped apart by the surf. The soldier’s plan to kill the prisoners was a common safety measure to keep the soldiers out of trouble for losing any of them. They rightly believed the repercussions would be severe if some of the prisoners escaped. The centurion rejected this plan, as was his right as the commanding officer, thus sparing Paul’s life. The centurion apparently had respect for Paul personally and he took seriously the goal of getting Paul to Rome. And that is where we will pick tomorrow as we see Paul and his companions of the island that is identified in the text as “Malta.”
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Job 40-42, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, Psalm 45:1-17 and Proverbs 22:14
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