To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (58): Rome at Last

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 19, 2007

Acts 28:1-16

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Wednesday Evening

September 19,
2007

Acts 28:1-16

“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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