“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”
~Arthur Miller from Death of a Salesman
Great American playwright Arthur Miller died on this day, February 10th in 2005. His masterwork, Death of a Salesman is the story of Everyman, Willy Loman; a success-obsessed man who eventually loses his job. Afterward, desiring to be supportive, Willy’s son takes him out for an evening. As they prepare to leave, his wife tells their son
“Be kind to your father, son; he is only a little boat looking for a harbor.”
In one masterful sentence, we understand man adrift.
It is fitting that today is also the traditional anniversary of the Apostle Paul’s shipwreck off the coast of Malta in 60 AD. Paul, like Willy Loman, was on a mission in many ways not his own, but unlike Willy, Paul understood his quest to be one of tactics, not strategy. Rather than seeing himself as a man adrift, Paul allowed God’s hand to play out including his life’s direction. As Melville has it in Moby Dick
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
Man’s quest for meaning is predicated on self-knowledge, and more specifically, an understanding of his place in creation. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me Karen Swallow Prior writes:
Knowing oneself has tremendous importance for all of the major life decisions one might make. Making life choices that are in line with who one is—who one was created to be—leads to a more fulfilling life. I know that “self-fulfillment” has become a dirty word for those who rightly understand that life is not “all about me,” but about a greater purpose. This is true. At the same time, each of us is created as a unique individual with unique gifts, talents, and callings that were designed for a purpose. Self-fulfillment doesn’t necessarily mean selfish fulfillment. It can mean fulfillment of all that one was created to be. The satisfaction one feels at having achieved one’s rightful desires is no more selfish or wrong a thing than the satisfaction of the apple tree in bringing forth the fruit it was designed to bear.
Death of a Salesman is the tragic story of a man destroyed by false values that are not his own. We must first know who we are before we can fully understand the God-given desires of our hearts, and that is always a painful process. The fortunate learn quickly, but they are the exception.
Again, Dr. Prior writes:
In many areas of life, self-knowledge is crucially important to making wise choices, the sort of choices that lead to a fulfilling life. For what would be the wise choice for you, might not be the wise choice for your neighbor. Of course, in making choices between right and wrong, right is always the wise choice, but many, if not most, of our daily choices deal not with right or wrong, but with shades of right. Probably the most significant area in which this is true is in our choice of daily work, and it is in the area of work that Willy in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman experiences the tragic consequences of failing to know who he is.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The Shipwreck of Paul
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 soldier) 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 a 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 an eyewitness to the events as he had previously 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 the 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 “forth-telling” and cites Acts 27 as example. Like the prophets of old, Luke presents Paul as the voice of God and although 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 the classic motifs 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.
Sources & Resources
Bence, Philip A. Acts : A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. Indianapolis, Ind.: Wesleyan Pub. House, 1998.
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.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Richard Duane Patterson. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation : Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.
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.