It is not down on any map; true places never are.
On this day, February 10th in 60 AD, tradition says the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. The exact date is disputable, but the shipwreck is not.
The Bible described it as “the fullness of time.” For hundreds of years, God’s people were subjected to one cruel ruler after another and each seem bent to out-do their predecessor in horror. When Jesus was born the power was mighty Rome and many had risen-up to fight back, but ultimately learned as Martin Luther King Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”
The journey of Paul at the onset of Christianity seemed to be coming to a horrific halt with the wreck of a ship, but in truth he was on the verge of a climatic adventure that would take him to an audience with Nero. The world was enslaved by a Caesar, but God was up to something bigger.
When Jesus came into the world, the people knew they needed a Deliverer, but they didn’t understand the depth of their captivity. Rome was only a metaphor of the storm of destruction sin was wrecking on their lives. Like sailors in a midnight hurricane, all they could do was hang on and pray for daylight.
It was from this darkness that the voice of John the Baptist was heard as his father Zechariah prophesied in Luke’s Gospel:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Deliverance was coming.
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.
Art: Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky (Original Title: Тонущий корабль) 1854
This painting is a testament to the artist’s skill of portraying light and dark. With nothing more than a pencil and gouache on paper, this scene illustrates the strong winds and crash of the waves with violent intensity. This intensity makes you fear for the safety of the standing observers, as if the waves threaten to dash the ship against the cliff, upon which they are standing, and throw them into the sea. Three seagulls fly over the ship, creating the slight sense that all hope is not lost, and seeming as if is not impossible to hope that the ship may not yet be lost.
Literature & Liturgy – The Shipwreck of Paul by Rick Wilcox
Chronologically, the events of Acts 27 follow Paul’s trial before Festus and Agrippa and was specifically related to Paul’s appeal to Caesar, exercising his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11). During the trial, Paul was treated with interest if not respect and ultimately Agrippa remarked to Festus that Paul might have been freed absent his appeal (Acts 26:32). This general attitude toward Paul apparently set a favorable tone with the centurion Julius to whom Paul was entrusted with transport. This writer imagines some measure of relief to the centurion who (as a career solider) must have been accustomed to dealing with far more notorious criminals. This is not an insignificant point because the innocuous (if not ultimately respectful) attitude of Julius towards Paul contributed greatly to the story’s favorable conclusion.
Preceding the Storm: Acts 27:1-12
The first twelve verses of chapter twenty-seven set the stage for the journey from Caesarea to Puteoli and is often noted for its attention to detail (a general remark for the following sections as well). In verse one, Luke reintroduced the first person plural tense and thereafter used either “we” or its derivative to describe the events. While some have considered this detail superfluous or even indicative of secondhand reporting, Polhill and others have observed this to be a mark of first hand narrative rather than the allegorical tale proposed by Baur in the nineteenth century. As W.R. Nicoll wrote, Luke possessed suburb literary skills and clearly expected the reader to understand that he himself was eyewitness to the events as he had previous set disclaimers when otherwise. As Smith (referenced earlier) concluded, Luke’s use of nautical terminology, while somewhat technical, is consistent with the notes of a nonprofessional eyewitness observer. The work is written like a journal and interpretation is most logically achieved when other theories are set aside.
The port of embarkation was remote to the empire and it was necessary for the centurion to arrange an itinerary that would accommodate a connection to Rome at a major hub of commerce. Verses two through six describe this early part of the journey through favorable weather, and Luke makes special note of Julius’ generosity in verse three as Paul was allowed to visit his friends in Sidon for provision of his needs. Scripture is unclear about whether Paul remained under arrest during this visit or was afforded “trustee” status, but in either event no escape was attempted and Paul returned for continuation of the journey. Julius successfully procured passage on a large Alexandrian grain ship in the port of Myra and the bulk of the itinerary was commenced.
Verses seven through twelve introduce the developing inclement conditions in both weather and relationships. Luke notes a change in the winds that caused difficulty and delay until the ship safely arrived in Fair Havens (verse eight). Until that time, no indication was given that Paul had acted in any manner other than the prisoner he was, but here he assumed the office of prophet. There is no indication of God’s direct revelation (unlike later in verses twenty-three and twenty-four) of impending disaster to Paul, but the apostle nonetheless stepped forward to dissuade further travel in spite of his unfavorable circumstances. Kostenberger describes the prophetic office as both “foretelling” and “forthtelling” and cites Acts 27 as example. Like the prophets of old, Luke presents Paul as the voice of God and though his counsel was not heeded, this initial speech grounded another to follow during the height of the storm.
The Storm: Acts 27:13-26
Verse thirteen begins with “a gentle south wind” but “before very long” the ship encountered a storm of hurricane force. The vessel was a grain ship that would have been both large and heavy, and there was little the crew could do other than implement a series of defensive measures. As Luke states in verse fifteen, “we gave way to it and were driven along.” The verses following describe increasingly desperate measures to secure the ship with each failing to assuage the situation.
The climax of the story is reached in the twentieth verse as Luke describes a point, “after many days” of seeing neither sun nor stars when “we finally gave up all hope of being saved.” Linguistically, verse twenty is striking for Luke’s use of the words “we” and “saved.” By including himself in the condition of despair, Luke was inclusive of the general gloom and his language states that hope (as Nicoll has it) “was being gradually stripped away.”
The key verses in Acts 27 are verses twenty-two through twenty-six. At the peak of the storm and the depth of despair, Paul addressed the people, saying he had received a special revelation from God by way of an angel who appeared to him in the night. The angel’s message contained two points – that Paul would indeed stand trial before Caesar and that all of the crew would be saved. The passage calls to mind Jonah in a number of ways. During the storm described in the first sixteen verses of Jonah, the crew likewise fought helplessly by throwing cargo overboard and calling on their gods. When Jonah addressed the men, he said the storm was his fault and that “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land” (Jon 1:9). Paul likewise invoked “the God to whom I belong and whom I serve” as his authoritative source (Acts 27:23). Paul was quick to remind them that he had given them counsel (which they ignored) previously which had now proved sound and fortunately his message was one of encouragement. Faw’s commentary contains a bright section here on Luke’s occasional use of humor as Paul did not resist an “I told you so” moment of (what is now) comic relief. While the ship would ultimately be lost, each of them would be saved.
The Shipwreck: Acts 27:27-39
Few shipwrecks have been recorded with such fluid and vivid literary skill. Luke begins the sequence in verse twenty-seven by saying two weeks had passed as the mariners helplessly rode the crippled vessel through the sea. Sensing their approach to land, they took “soundings” which Hemer describes as a technical term referring to the use of a special anchor. Evoking Homeric language, Luke says in verse twenty-nine that the sailors “dropped four anchors and prayed for daylight.” Bruce describes Luke’s use of classic motif in detail citing numerous similarities.
Adding drama, Luke also included an escape attempt in the lifeboat by the sailors which was thwarted by Paul. The incident’s inclusion is significant because it clearly highlights the influence of Paul as the soldiers heeded his instructions to prevent the sailors’ escape. Verse thirty-two says that the soldiers cut the lifeboat loose and “let it drift away”; a notable act of faith from a group in such despair.
Verse thirty-three marks a turning point in the story. With bold leadership, the apostle spoke to the men “just before dawn” and urged them to eat by setting the example himself and encouraging them that God’s promise of their safety was assured. The use of food consumption as a setting for teaching is a particular Lukan device. Polhill’s extensive commentary is especially rich here and rewarding for further study.
For the first time (verse thirty-seven) Luke informs the reader that there were “276 of us on board”. Given the shipwreck that was to come it is remarkable that this large number accepted that they would all be saved as Paul said and (verse thirty-nine) ate “as much as they wanted” before throwing the grain into the sea. The text is absent of any indication of grumbling or disunity among the crew or passengers.
At dawn, the sailors saw the beach of an unknown island and decided to run the ship aground by cutting the anchors, untying the rudders and setting the foresail (verses thirty-none and forty) but the heavy ship became inextricably stuck in a sandbar, helplessly victimized by the pounding waves. As the stern began to break-up, the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape – no doubt in concern for their own lives, but Julius prevented it because of his desire to save Paul. Instead, he ordered those who could to swim to shore and the others to drift in on pieces of the ship (verse forty-four). As Paul prophesied, all were saved.
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Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. Rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988.
Faw, Chalmer Ernest. Acts. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993.
Hemer, Colin J., and Conrad H. Gempf. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament,, 49. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989.
Homer, and Robert Fagles. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996.
Josephus, Flavius, and John M. G. Barclay. Against Apion. Flavius Josephus, Translation and Commentary, 10. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2007.
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Lenski, Richard Charles Henry. The Interpretation of the Acts of the Appostles. Columbus, Ohio.,: Lutheran book concern, 1934.
Longenecker, Richard N. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary : John – Acts, with the New International Version of the Holy Bible. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary ; Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.
Nicoll, W. Robertson. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. 5 vols. London,: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897.
Polhill, John B. Acts. The New American Commentary, 26. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1992.
Smith, James. The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul: With Dissertations on the Sources of the Writings of St. Luke, and the Ships and Navigation of the Antients. London,: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848.
Talbert, Charles H. Reading Acts : A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Rev. ed. Reading the New Testament. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2005.
Utley, Bob. Luke the Historian : The Book of Acts. Marshall, Tex.: Bible Lessons International, 2003.
Wade, John William. Acts : Unlocking the Scriptures for You. Standard Bible Studies. Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Pub., 1987.
Wright, N. T. Acts for Everyone. 2 vols. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.