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To the End of the Earth (57): Peril at Sea

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Sep 12, 2007

Acts 27:1-44

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Wednesday Evening

September 12, 2007

Acts 27:1-14

“Peril at Sea”

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas

Well, it's a joy to be with you again as we continue now in The Acts of The Apostles. Some of you have a map in the back of your Bibles of Paul's missionary journeys, and in particular the journey to Rome that we want to look at. It's a fairly complicated journey, and I thought it would be much easier if I had a map. It would take me a lot less time to explain to you exactly where it is that this ship, or in this case two ships, end up in the Island of Malta.

Now, let me just remind you Paul is now leaving Caesarea. He has been in prison, remember, in Caesarea for two long years. He has seen both Felix come and go, and now Governor Festus, and more recently we've seen him give his defense, or his apologia, before King Agrippa and his sister Bernice. And at the end of the twenty-sixth chapter, King Agrippa had come to this conclusion: that this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.

Now we've got the whole of the twenty-seventh chapter to read. It's a tremendously exciting chapter to read. It's a tremendously exciting chapter, with a shipwreck to close with. But before we read the chapter together, let's look to God in prayer.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We thank You that they are a light unto our feet and a lamp unto our pathway. We thank You that they are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Come, Holy Spirit. Shine a light upon our darkened minds and hearts, and bring Your word home to us as we read it now together. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“And when it was decided that we…”

[Now notice the we, and this will occur sixteen times in the course of the chapter. Luke is on this ship, and no wonder we've got a detailed account of the storm that's about to take place.]

“When it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort named Julius. And embarking in a ship of Adramyttian, which was about to sail to the port along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica. The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. And putting out to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. And when we had sailed across the open sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, and put us on board. We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus. And as the wind did not allow us to go farther, we sailed under the lee of Crete, off Salmone; coasting along it with difficulty we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.
“Since much time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, because even the fast was already over…”

[a reference to Passover]

“…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.’ But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. And because the harbor was not suitable to spend the winter in, the majority decided to put out to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete facing both southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there. Now when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had attained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to the shore. But soon a tempestuous wind called the Northeaster struck down from the land; and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it, and were driven along. Running under the lee of a small island called Clauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship's boat. After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship; when fearing that they would run aground on the surface, they lowered the gear, and thus were driven along. Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo; and on the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. 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. Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, ‘Men, …”

[and don't you love this?]

“…You should have listened to me, and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of God, to whom I belong and whom I worship, 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.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island.’
“When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship's boat into the sea, on a pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.’ Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat, and let it go. 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. Therefore I urge you to take some food. It will give you strength; for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.’ And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged, and ate some food themselves. We were in all two hundred and seventy six persons in the ship. And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
“Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore. So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders. Then hoisting the foresail to the wind, they made for the beach, but striking a reef they ran the vessel aground. The prow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape; but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered that those who could swim should jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks, or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.”

Well, that's the Bible in 3-D! It's a tremendously detailed description, vivid description, because of course Luke himself was there in this storm.

We need to go back to Caesarea. We need to ask ourselves what was going on in the mind of the Apostle Paul as they set sail from Caesarea, heading of course to Rome and Italy. The snail pace of this journey, the ill-fated voyage…surely Paul must have pondered, particularly in those opening days and as the storm came, the providence of God…the strange providence of God; how once again he was being tested. Just when you think…he's spent two years in prison in Caesarea…just when now it looks at last that he is bound for the city of Rome, still there are surprises in the providence of God. From the moment they boarded the ship to the point at which the ship broke apart off the island of Malta, there was no miracle, there was no divine intervention of a miraculous kind, there was no voice of the Master in the midst of the storm, “Be still!” Two weeks in a near-death experience at sea. Why did God not intervene? Why toss the Apostle Paul like a half-drowned rat at sea? It would be understandable of course in the case of Jonah that God would send a storm to prevent him from going any further away from where God wanted him to be, but Paul is heading in the very direction God wants him to be. Paul is walking in the pathway of obedience, and still he encounters the dark side of God's providence. Don't be surprised, my friends, even when you do the right thing…even when you do the right thing, that trials and tribulations and difficulties may come and strew your path.

“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea….” [Yes, in the sea!] “…And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs, and works His sovereign will.”

Paul intervenes four times in the course of this chapter, and I want to look at it around those four interventions, the first of which actually takes place off the island of Crete in a bay called Fair Havens.

Now we need to explain how he got there. Festus and Agrippa have agreed that Paul could have been set free, had he not appealed to Caesar. He is put now in charge of a centurion, a man by the name of Julius. He is of the Augustine cohort, the imperial regiment stationed in Caesarea. With them on board is a man that we've met before, Aristarchus. He was one of those that came from Thessalonica when Paul made his journey to Jerusalem, you remember, with the offering of money, two years before…just before Paul's arrest. Here is Aristarchus, Paul's friend. He will end up in prison with Paul in Rome later on. At this point, he's not a prisoner. He seems to be included along with the we, namely Luke.

It may surprise us that Rome had no imperial fleet for the transportation of soldiers and prisoners, and they would reconnoiter ships — ships sailing from Syria, Palestine, North Africa, from the coast of what we would now call Turkey — and in this instance, the two ships in question are private ships. They reconnoiter this ship that's heading from Caesarea up towards the coast towards Sidon, and then will make its way along the top (if you looked at the map) on the leeward side of Cyprus, trying to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds.

We learn that in Sidon, Julius shows kindness to the Apostle Paul, allowing him to go on shore and to be with his friends and to minister and be ministered to — no doubt with a guard present, of course. Perhaps at Paul's own request…probably at Paul's own request…that even now, even as a prisoner on board this ship he's ministering to the church in Sidon, bringing words of comfort and exhortation to the church at Sidon.

And then the next day they set sail, taking advantage of the leeward side of Cyprus, making their way slowly with some difficulty against the prevailing winds this time, towards this port of Myra. In Lasea, they change ships. They now have a ship that has come from North Africa, from Alexandria. It's a food supply ship. It's a wheat-bearing ship, heading towards imperial Rome, and the prisoners are now put on this ship. They head out of Myra, along the part of the peninsula, as you can see, that juts out into the sea. Then they meet with the prevailing northerly winds, and they are driven south, to the southern side now of Crete.

Now, ancient shipping annals tells us that sailing in this part of the Mediterranean after September 14 was considered to be dangerous, and after November — roughly the tenth — was considered to be impossible. It's already mid-October. The Feast has already passed. This is a dangerous time to be on the Mediterranean, and Paul is no mean sailor. He has been on the Mediterranean many, many times, no doubt spending days in conversation and no doubt in evangelism with captains and pilots of ships. And Paul now gives this warning to stay in Fair Havens over winter, perhaps to go ashore, perhaps to remain on the ship. But any attempt to move from Fair Havens was strewn with problems and difficulties, and perhaps even the potential now of the loss of life and the loss of the ship. It is a risk that is too great for the Apostle Paul. The advice is to move along the coast of Crete towards the port of Phoenix, a more, perhaps, commodious port to winter in.

Now isn't it interesting — at least, I thought it was interesting — that the Apostle Paul is not here speaking from a position of having received a divine revelation of God. This is not as the result of “God has told me and I'm now telling you.” This is Paul the seafarer; this is Paul using his wisdom; this is Paul using his reason. This is Paul weighing the evidence. This is Paul looking at the circumstances, and he considered the risk too great.

Without risk, Columbus would never have discovered the New World, nor would David Livingston have discovered Central Africa, nor would the Apollo space mission have discovered the surface of the moon. We take risks all the time. You dabble in your pension portfolio, and you’re taking risks. You consider a career change, and you’re taking a risk. You consider moving from one location to another part of the country, you’re taking a risk. Well, let's face it, driving on I-55 you’re taking a risk! Risk is part of life. We engage in it all the time. We weigh the evidence, we weigh the circumstances, we weigh — yes, the odds. And for Paul, that's what he's doing. This is his assessment. This is a risk that's too far. This is a risk that begins to tempt the providence of God, and it goes unheeded. And his word is not taken.

The second intervention comes in verse 21. Well, I love this, because you know we're not supposed to say “I told you so” because it's a one-upmanship kind of thing, isn't it? And Paul says in verse 21, ‘You should have listened to me. We’re in a fine mess now, but I told you this would happen.’

The ship is blown, you see, as they try to make their way along the southern part of Crete towards the port of Phoenix. The northerly winds catch them on that peninsula at the end of Crete, and the ship is blown. Now I've never sailed in my life. I've no desire to, to be honest. It's beautiful to watch, and there are some of you who are sailors and some of you have boats and some of you sail, and you’re into this in a big way. You understand the mathematics and the physics and the topography that's taking place here, but this little boat–and all of us can understand this–this little boat is at the mercy of the Euraquilo, the Northeaster. It's a hurricane! It's a storm…it's “the perfect storm.” And the boat is tossed, and you've got to imagine rain, and you've got to imagine thunder and you've got to imagine lightning, and they can't see the stars so they can't navigate. They don't have one of these nice little GPS things. They have no idea where they are, or which direction they’re going. There comes a point at which they abandon all hope. Experienced sailors, a captain of a ship, and all hope is abandoned. They’re drifting.

Luke describes the way in which they tie ropes around the ship, maybe around above the water, but more probably around and under the water to hold this ship together as it's in danger of just splitting apart. One giant wave and this boat is done for, and the 276 souls on board. It's being driven along (verse 15). By the way, that's the very same verb that Peter employs when he says in II Peter 1 that no Scripture comes from private interpretation of men, but men wrote as they were driven along by the Holy Spirit. Isn't that a powerful verb for how the Scriptures came into being? Like this boat at the mercy of this wind–at the total mercy of this wind–so these authors of Scriptures are at the total mercy of God as they brought the Scriptures into being. Isn't that a powerful image, by the way?

You notice in verse 24, Paul says…and this time he has a vision, this time he has a voice, this time he hears those wonderful words…and how many times in Scripture does God come to His servants and say, “Do not be afraid.” Aren't they beautiful words? Because every single one of us in here tonight can give an experience in some circumstance or other where we have been afraid of…cancer…about our children…about our job…about provision…about a hundred different things. And God comes to Paul — now, granted, this is to Paul in a very special circumstance — but what does He say to Paul? What He's saying to Paul is ‘What I've told you before is going to happen.’ God is going to keep His word. And you notice in verse 24, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.” The intent seems to be that God is saying to the Apostle Paul, ‘I've heard your prayer, Paul, and it's being granted to you.’ In the midst of this storm, what has Paul been doing? Praying. Praying for his passengers. Praying for these 276 persons who are on board this ship, and God has heard that prayer.

Joseph Screven…you remember… “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? You should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.” He wrote that, you remember, after he had lost two fiancĐšes. The first one drowned on the eve of their wedding. “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? You should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.” This is the encouragement meeting, this Wednesday night. This is where you get encouragement. That's why we come here every Wednesday evening, because this is the place of prayer, because prayer brings what? It brings encouragement, it brings strength, it brings vitality, it brings faith, it brings hope. It brings assurance. It reminds us of the solidity of the promises of God that are yes and amen in Jesus Christ.

And then there's a third intervention, and you read of it there in verse 31, because now they drift. They drift for fourteen days. That's a long time. They drift for fourteen days. “On the fourteenth day….”

You know, Josephus, the Jewish historian, was on board a ship in this part of the Mediterranean, and of the 600 souls when he was caught in a storm…of the 600 souls on board the ship, only 60, including himself, were plucked from the water. James Smith, in 1848, wrote a book. He was a British yachtsman, and he wrote a book called The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. It's not a thriller. It would fascinate some of you, if you’re into sailing and shipping and so on. But you know what he did? He went back to the Mediterranean and calculated: Under the circumstances, given the kind of boat that he had, given the weight of the boat, given the number of people on board, given the strength of the winds, he calculated that this boat would travel roughly 36 miles every 24 hours. The distance from Clauda to Malta is 476.6 nautical miles, and he calculated that it would take thirteen days, one hour, and 21 minutes–exactly what Luke says.

There's an attempt now as they hear the sound of the sound of the shore. They hear the surf. You see, they have no idea…they can't see it. They have no idea where they are. It's still night time. For all they know, it's just rocks. So they drop four anchors. There's an attempt…well, an “Absent Without Leave.” The soldiers try to take this dinghy, this little boat that they have, and they try to escape. And Paul intervenes again. He says to the captain (and this time the captain listens), “If these soldiers escape, there is no possibility of this ship making it to land. We need all of these men.”

And then…and then…just sublimity itself, because in the calm of the morning as apparently the storm begins to subside, Paul urges them to eat.

You know, I was in a storm once on the Irish Sea crossing from Dublin to Pembroke…or it may have been Dublin to Holyhead, as I think about it now…and it was awful. Eating was the last thing you wanted to do! I won't go into details now! But these men for fourteen days have not eaten. And you know, faith is practical. You understand that. Just like God comes to Elijah in I Kings 17 and feeds him; ravens come and bring him food. And just as in I Kings 19, after Mount Carmel, you remember, when he's cast down, God sends an angel and brings him food, and says, “Eat.” It's not terribly spiritual. You know, it's not the forty days of this or that or the other, it's just food and sleep. And you know, sometimes, friends…you don't need to go to seminary. You just need the very basic. You need food. You need to eat, and you need to sleep. And he says to the men, come to eat now, because tomorrow is going to be a trying day as they try to make land. And isn't this beautiful? I can't help…I don't think this is the Lord's Supper in verse 35, but you can't help but hear the overtones of it: “Giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat.” I can't help but think that Luke is giving you some signal here of something he's written before in the Gospel of Luke. At the very least…at the very least, it's a reminder that everything we have, including a piece of bread….

They’re in a storm that they could drown at sea! You know, I have this fear of drowning (those of you who are in psychology, you can do with it whatever you want…I'm wide open). But I have this fear about drowning. I just don't like it. Don't like the thought of it. (I don't swim, so that's probably part of it.) And here they are, and they’re breaking bread, and there's a reminder that even this piece of bread is from God, and we give thanks to Him. And our very lives and everything about us, we live under the canopy and the embrace of the providence of God.

And now it's every man for himself. And some who can swim …that wouldn't have been me, but some who could swim make it to the shore, and others on flotsam and jetsam… [and that would be me…find the biggest plank of wood I could find to make it to shore]. And every single one of them was saved.

Oh, I can't help but think, you know — and I bring this to a close — of that extraordinary story of John Newton in the ship, The Greyhound, on March 10, 1748, when he was caught in a similar storm. He's down in the hull of the boat; there's this tremendous bang as a wave breaks apart some of the ship above. And as he's making his way up, the captain sends him down again to get something, and somebody passes him up the ladder. And as he emerges on the top, Newton sees him. A wave comes and takes him, and he's gone, and he's dead. He describes all through the night how they try to bail the water out of this ship, and how they’re using everything they can — clothes and bedding and everything, trying to plug the gap in this broken vessel. And all of a sudden he cries out to the Lord — the first time he's ever done it in his entire life — this blasphemer. John Newton had a vile, vile mouth, and for the first time in the midst of a storm he cries out to God. It was the beginning of “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.” He encountered the living God. And that's what these men…I'm perfectly certain that's what overwhelmed Luke as they lay on the beach in Malta, giving thanks to God for His extraordinary gift, incomprehensible providence.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. Hide it now, we pray, deep in the recesses of our hearts. Bring forth fruits of faith and love and trust, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.