September 19, 2007
“Rome at Last”
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas
As we return once again to The Acts of The Apostles, we come to the final chapter, Acts 28.
Paul, you remember, was caught in a storm. It was a wonderfully exciting account, as we read last week in chapter 27. Luke of course was on board the ship, so we're given a very, very detailed account of the journey, as we will again this evening.
They shipwrecked eventually, after two weeks adrift on the open sea in the midst of an unrelenting Northeaster, or a hurricane. The ship finally hit the reefs and broke up. Paul and his companions and the inhabitants of that ship had of course no idea as to where exactly they were, but they were, as we shall find out now in the opening of chapter 28, offshore of the island of Malta.
Now we're going to pick up the reading right at the end of chapter 27, and we're reading through the first sixteen verses of chapter 28. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We thank You for these extraordinary accounts of the Apostle Paul's journey to the city of Rome — a prisoner on his way to trial. We thank You especially that in the Scriptures You teach us all things that we need to know concerning salvation and life, and how to live for Your glory. So come; come and grant Your blessing. Come, Holy Spirit, help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The second half of verse 44 of chapter 27…
“And so it was that all were brought safely to land.
“After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain, and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up, or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
“Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery; and Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people of the island who had diseases also came and were cured. They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.
“After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium, and after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found brothers, and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.
“And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him.”
Thus far God's holy and inerrant word.
Paul, of course was no stranger to shipwrecks. Writing in II Corinthians (a letter that had been written over two years before this current shipwreck of which we read in chapter 27), Paul tells us that he had been shipwrecked three times…on one occasion spending a night and a day adrift on the open sea.
Paul has now made his way to the island of Malta. Luke doesn't tell us whether Paul was a swimmer. The captain of the ship had given orders as the ship broke up on the reef barrier off the shore of Malta that those who could swim should make it to the shore, and others should lay hold of whatever pieces of wood or flotsam they could find, and it was every man to himself. Luke doesn't tell us whether Paul was one of the swimmers or whether he was one like myself who had to hold on to a piece of wood. But the astonishing thing is that as he comes to the island of Malta, an island–I'm sure if any of you have been to the island of Malta…it's about 18 miles wide and about eight miles in depth. It lies, of course, immediately south of the island of Sicily on the Massena Straits, off the shore of the “toe”, as we say, of Italy. Malta was a barren island, by and large, apart from its principal port. It had been occupied by the Carthaginians before the Romans occupied it. Later, in the third or fourth century A.D., we know that there was a thriving Christian community on the island of Malta. There are catacombs that you can visit to this day, with engravings on the walls that indicate a thriving Christian community. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth century A.D., Malta was taken over, as that part of the world north of Africa largely was, of course, by the Arabs.
Malta received its name from the Phoenicians a long time before Paul ever set foot on the island, and in the Phoenician language, and as it so happens in the Hebrew phonetically, the word Malta means refuge. And I can't help but think when Paul lands on the island and learns from the native islanders, as he no doubt must have asked “Where are we?”, to hear the word Malta, or refuge, I can't help but think that for the Apostle Paul it must have been a most appropriate name for somebody who has just escaped another shipwreck at sea. I sort of wonder, really, if the Apostle Paul might not have been thinking of some of the great verses in the book of Psalms that mention God as a refuge. The opening line of Psalm 16: “Preserve me, O God, for in You I take refuge.” Or perhaps the familiar words of Psalm 81, in that setting you remember where the psalmist speaks of “under His wings we take refuge.” And Paul, who had been delivered once again by the hand of God, had known something of the refuge that exists in trusting in the living God.
There are in fact at least three things that I want us to see in the passage that is before us this evening, and first of all,
I. The promise of God.
Because Luke, I think, in deliberately ending chapter 27 (of course, there were no chapters as Luke was writing it, but in repeating the fact at the end of chapter 27) and at the beginning of chapter 28 that “all the souls on board the ship were saved alive”; and that, of course, according to the promise that God had given to the Apostle Paul. You remember, he calms the captain and occupants of the ship by telling them in the midst of the storm that on the previous night an angel had appeared to him and reassured him that Paul will be brought to Rome, and that all on board would be saved alive. God had kept His promise. God had been true to His word. God was utterly dependable. God was one in whom we may put our complete confidence and trust.
I don't know whether you know the hymn by Fanny Crosby…
“Dark is the night, and cold the wind is blowing;
Nearer and nearer comes the breakers’ roar.
Where shall I go, or whither fly for refuge?
Hide me, my Father, till the storm is o’er.
“With His loving hand to guide, let the clouds above me roll,
And the billows in their fury dash around me.
I can brave the wildest storm with His glory in my soul,
I can sing amidst the tempest–Praise the Lord!
I can sing amidst the tempest–Praise the Lord!”
Now you and I of course are not given any such promise that in every circumstance of trial, in every life-threatening situation our lives are going to be preserved. The occupants of United Airlines Flight 93, as it made its journey from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco on that fateful morning of September 11, 2001, were given no such promise. Not even the Christian on board. You remember Todd Beamer, the graduate of Wheaton College, the man who now famously uttered those words, “Let's roll!” as they tried to occupy from the highjackers the direction of that flight. He had led them just before those famous words, you recall, in The Lord's Prayer. The fact that there was a Christian on board did not mean that God always promises to keep us from death in every circumstance. But there is a general truth here that is applicable to all of us tonight as we read this story: that we are, all of us, as we sometimes say, immortal until our work is done. “It is appointed unto man once to die,” the writer of Hebrews says in the ninth chapter, and that much at least we can draw from this passage: that God, who orders all things from the end to the beginning, is utterly trustworthy and utterly dependable. God keeps His promises.
II. There is a second thing I want us to see here, and that is the providence of God.
The providence of God…. As soon as they land, Luke describes — and maybe something of a shiver comes down your back as you read it — that it begins to rain, and they are soaking wet, of course. And the islanders light a fire because they are cold. And in the process of lighting this fire, there must have been either a snake in the place where they lit the fire, or else perhaps Paul lifts, thinking it is a stick, something that has become torpid because of the cold, and in the heat of the fire regains its strength again. We’re not sure how to understand that, but it launches forth and grabs the Apostle Paul by the hand. It's a viper–evidently a poisonous and deadly viper. There are no such snakes on the island of Malta today, you may be pleased to learn, and that has caused biblical critics to pooh-pooh the accuracy of Luke once again. But it is not of course unrealistic that in the last two thousand years on an island that small, that the occupants could very easily have rid themselves of poisonous snakes, insuring that today there are no such things on the island of Malta.
But what is much more interesting is the conclusion that the islanders reach, because it is a conclusion that many would reach today. Why do bad things happen to good people? And their only conclusion was because Paul had been bitten by this snake, and as they waited for him either to swell up or to fall down dead, that he must be a murderer; that he had escaped the justice of God in the storm at the sea, but justice will catch up with him again. He deserves this trial that has now come upon him! And of course they are equally capable of switching it the other way around in the event that Paul isn't harmed by this snake, and they make him into a god.
It's worth pausing for a few minutes tonight and asking ourselves that question: Why do bad things happen to Christians? Paul has been in a storm for the past two weeks — a life threatening storm; he has been incarcerated for the last two years, unable to fulfill his desires and dreams (and vocation, in one sense). Is it because this is the justice of God that has now caught up with him? Why do bad things happen to Christians? And of course there are many answers that we can give to this question.
The first and obvious thing that we need to say is that we live in a fallen world. Christians as well as non-Christians, believers as well as non-believers, are caught up in a world that is fallen, a world that is corrupt, a world that suffers the consequences of the corruption of the Garden of Eden. This world in which you and I live is a world that Paul says in the first chapter of Romans that “groans and travails in birth, waiting for the regeneration of all things.” The rain and the snow falls on the just as well as the unjust. We live in a fallen world. This is not Paradise. Don't be surprised, therefore, if common adversity afflicts the whole of mankind, including believers. Including you and me.
When that hurricane came in September of 2005…Katrina…it did not seek out the believers in New Orleans or on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and pass them by. There was no Passover for Hurricane Katrina. It affected the just as well as the unjust. It is part of living in a fallen world. We need not look for mysterious explanations. We are caught up in a world that groans and travails, and it is longing for the new heavens and the new earth to dawn. We live in a fallen world.
And sometimes suffering comes because we need correction — a mid-course correction. The writer of Hebrews reminds us forcibly in the twelfth chapter that because we are sons, because we are sons, because we are overseen by a heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us, you can expect to be corrected. You can expect the rod of God's chastisement to come, not because you are suffering the judgment of God, but you are suffering the chastisement of God. He's correcting you. It is proof that we are the children of God, and that He hasn't abandoned us, and that He hasn't forsaken us.
And sometimes suffering comes because it's part of the process of growing. Every teenager has braces now. No one in my generation wore braces. (I mean dental braces, now.) Everyone has braces now, to have this gorgeous, wonderful, photogenic smile! What a wonderful age we live in. I can't but imagine that braces [I've never had them…too late now]…but I can't help but imagine that they are painful and uncomfortable. And they are there to enable us to grow. Ask a physiotherapist (and we have some in this congregation) of the pain of post-surgical physiotherapy…you know, those military types in hospital that get you out of bed a day after you've had surgery, when you just want to lie there and go to sleep. And it's painful, and it's arduous, and you wish they would go away. But it is for your good. It is in order that you might grow.
But sometimes the cause of suffering is in order that we might simply exercise faith in the living God. We’re not told here by Luke as to the cause of why Paul had spent two years in prison. I can't but imagine that Paul had pondered that over and over during the long watches of the night as he had spent those months in Caesarea. I can't imagine but that he had thought about it in his shipwreck at sea–yet another shipwreck! I can't but imagine that as he lands on this island of Malta, ‘Why is God dealing with me in this way?’ I can't but imagine that the Apostle Paul thought about this as this snake got hold of his hand and bit him.
Why has God allowed this to happen to the Apostle Paul? And of course, we don't know the answer. We can surmise, and we can conjecture, but like Job, we are called upon to trust the living God even when the lights go out, and to lay hold of His hand, and take His hand in ours and walk by faith and not by sight, trusting that God works all things together for the good of those that love Him–even if He does not give me the explanation and the reason for why this suffering has come into my life.
No, Paul wasn't experiencing the vindictive hand of justice here, nor was the Apostle Paul a god. But one thing for sure, through these successive trials he learned to trust the living God, perhaps as he had never trusted Him before. In the frustration of incarceration and the frustration of another shipwreck, the Apostle Paul “learned in whatsoever state he was in, therein to be content.”
III. The praise of God.
But there's a third thing I want us to see here: Not only the promise of God and the providence of God, but the praise of God. And you see that most eloquently in verse 15.
After three months on this island, having ministered to the chief man of the island, Publius, having been used by God in a miraculous healing of this man's father from dysentery and fever (note Dr. Luke's graphic description of what was wrong with him)…after three months, an Alexandrian ship that had taken refuge in the Maltese port for the winter is now setting sail for Italy once again. Luke describes for us that at the prow of this ship were the twin gods, Castor and Pollux–the constellation of Gemini, the sons of Zeda, queen of the Spartans, that Zeus had (in Greek mythology) turned into gods. And in Alexandria especially, the twin gods of Castor and Pollux were thought to be good luck indeed for sailors.
They come to the harbor at Syracuse, on the east coast of Cicely, and they spend three days there. They sail on to the important port city on the toe of Italy, on the Italian side of the Straits of Massena, the port city of Rhegium. And then a wind blows them northwards, and in two days they manage to make the 180-mile trip to the port city of Puteoli, and there Paul disembarks.
And a couple of interesting things occur here that we can't avoid making a comment or two about. First of all, Paul is given leave to seek out the brothers in this city. Isn't that interesting? Remember, he's still a prisoner. It isn't surprising that there were brothers in this port city of Italy; what is surprising is that he was given leave to go and minister to them, and to be ministered by them for a space of seven days.
And then, in verse 14 — did you note that as we read the passage together? It's almost as though Luke is so anxious to get Paul to Rome that he gets it in too quickly. He says at the end of verse 14 (before he's even got to Rome, you understand), “…and so we came to Rome.”
Now, if you’re reading the King James Bible, the King James has translated that a little differently, using the imperfect sense of the verb: “And so we set out for Rome.” But that's cheating just a little bit in the Greek, and I don't think that's the solution to the problem of this verse. Because Paul doesn't actually get to Rome until verse 16. Verse 15 tells us that Christians from the city of Rome set out from Rome to Three Taverns, which is 33 miles from Rome; and then, to the Forum on the Appian Way, which is 43 miles from Rome. And only after that does Paul get to Rome. I think the solution is (as William Ramsey, who wrote a great, great, and very famous book on Paul's travels) the first is a reference to the administrative center of Rome that extended way beyond the city of Rome, and in verse 16 we have a reference to the actual city itself.
You know, there's a sadness here, too. Because years later, after Paul would be released from this imprisonment in Rome — or house arrest in Rome — and then would be recaptured; and he writes to Timothy his farewell epistle, and he mentions that Onesiphorus has finally found him, having found it difficult to find where the Apostle Paul was incarcerated in Rome. And you know, where were the Christians then in Rome? Because Onesiphorus could have gone to any of the Christians in Rome and said, ‘Where is the Apostle Paul?’ but evidently they did not know…nor had made, perhaps, any great attempt to find him. And the whimsicalness of the Christian church …and that's in the future.
But right now Paul is thankful. Paul is grateful. He sees these Gentile Christians from Rome coming to meet him, and he thanks God and takes courage. God is with him. God has blessed him. He's learned, despite his incarceration and despite his trials, and despite his setbacks and difficulties, to bless God in every circumstance. Oh, my friend! Let that be a lesson tonight that we take home with us! To thank God and take courage in every circumstance and every trial, and to be grateful in particular for the communion of saints and the fellowship of the church in times of difficulty. That, I think, is a very special lesson about Wednesday evenings here at First Presbyterian Church.
Well, last lesson in Acts next week, God willing. Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and pray that like the Apostle Paul we might learn in whatsoever state we find ourselves to give You thanks, and to take courage from the reassurance that You work all things together for the good of those who love You. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and 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.