GOD’S GRACE IN THE STORM
Key Verse 27:24
“…and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the life of all who sail with you.”
Acts 27 is high adventure on the high seas. It could be the script of a Hollywood blockbuster like, the Perfect Storm. Did any one see it? How did it start? It was calm and they caught a bunch of fish. But the calm was deceptive, there was a once-in-a-century, perfect storm brewing.
Luke 27 could be the bases of a similar high-drama movie. It is entertaining, but why is it in the Bible? Did Luke feel that perhaps his book was a little boring and needed spiced up? Do you think? Well no, the Bible is never for entertainment, it always has a deep point. And may God open each of our hearts so that we may find the point as we meditate on this passage this morning. In particular, we will find how Paul turned a life threatening situation into an opportunity to testify to his faith in God, and a trip to Rome in chains into a chance to shepherd his fearful captors. In the end, we will find this perilous ship-voyage as an allegory of life.
Part I “Instead of listening to Paul …” (1-13)
Let’s read 1-3.
When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.
The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.
Paul was being sent to Rome with an Imperial centurion, Julius. But they would get there by means of merchant vessels. As Paul was taken on board the ship, he was not alone. Who went with him? Aristarchus is one. He had been persecuted in the riot and Ephesus, but he kept his faith. He had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, and now he was choosing to go with him to Rome. He was a true friend in times of crisis. There was a personal danger of his own arrest, but he went Paul, even when Paul was a prisoner.
Another who went with Paul was Luke. Look at verse 2. What is the first word of verse 2? “We.” This means Luke also accompanied Paul. True friends are the ones who stick with you in crisis, and as gospel workers, Aristarchus and Luke demonstrate that they have genuine concern for Paul. They really loved him, as the church should love one another. They were a great source of encouragement to Paul. Verse 3 shows that Paul had other friends in Sidon. The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.
After Paul was encouraged by the loving serving of the Sidonian Christians, and they prayed for his voyage and trial, the soldiers took him back to the ship.
Now look at 4-9a.
From there, we put out to see again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea. Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast.
A map. An explanation of what is the point. Hard going. Probably had not even planned to go to Crete. Yet they insist on their plan. It took longer than planned, was after the Fast, which is Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, it was 3 days ago. This Fast comes at the time of year when hurricanes develop. And so Paul warned them. Look at 10. “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.”
How did Paul know this? Well he was a very smart man, but as I read the passage, I think there is more to his knowledge than just reason. I think God gave him some sense about the situation. Throughout this passage, Paul demonstrates a keen insight and a clear head in crisis. What the sailors needed, that they should eat something. He was even alert to a plan to abandon ship. I think God gave him a sense, and he spoke with the Holy Spirit. As servants of God, who have access to the Holy Spirit, may we also have a good sense about what needs done, and then do it.
Yet when Paul gave this excellent advice, how he was received? 11-12. But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.
Why didn’t the Centurion listen to Paul? It is obvious. Paul was just a prisoner. The pilot and the owner of the ship were the ones to be trusted. However, the owner of the ship has a vested interest, and is likely to risk lives for making a profit. Verse 12 shows that the majority wanted to move on. Their stated reason was that Fair Havens was not suitable to winter in. But, I wonder how correct their assessment was; after all it was called Fair Havens. Still, Phoenix was a better harbor more suitable to winter in, and also a larger city more desirable for the sailors and soldiers to stay over winter. Whatever their motives, it seemed like they were reasonable. It was only 34 miles to Phoenix.
But here the passage makes a clear point. The advice of the Godly man was ignored, and the advice of worldly men was taken. These men were the “experts,” but their judgment was clouded by their own desires for fun and financial gain, as well as their short-sightedness. We see that the majority agreed with the experts. It was a majority decision, but the majority is not always right. The voice of Godly people is often a minority voice in our society. But it should be listened to.
What was the outcome of their decision? Let’s read verse 13. When a gentle south wind began to blow, we thought we had obtained what we wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete.
It looked like they made the right decision. Maybe Paul was an alarmist they should not listen to! It looked like everything was finally proceeding exactly according to plan. They had struggled against the wind all the way to Crete, but now it was cooperating with a gentle south wind. A south wind means a wind from the south. Their whole voyage, they had been hoping for such a favorable wind. It would blow them right to Phoenix.
They all smiled and dreamed of the wild party they would have that night in Phoenix. Yet the south wind was a deception. They were short sighted, they could not see the horizon. They were to the lee (that means down wind) of Crete. To the south and east and west, they saw clear skies to the horizon. The north also looked clear, but they could not really see to the horizon, because the mountains of Crete were in the way. They only saw a false and misleading horizon. If they had been far-sighted, and able to see the true horizon, the ominous shadow of a monster storm about to come sweep down off the island (14), they never would have left. But the gentle south wind deceived them. In fact, if they had known it, it was the calm before the storm. The south wind was a sign that the hurricane was coming. For instance, I spoke with Shepherdess Jenifer who last week survived Hurricane Ivan in Grenada. She shared that the day of the hurricane began as one of the most beautiful days she had seen. She had a hard time believing her professor, who said the storm was coming. It seemed impossible. But that night the eye of the storm passed right over Grenada and destroyed so much in its path. In fact, do you know what the natives say? When the hurricane is approaching, the nicer the weather, the worse the hurricane. The know how to really interpret deceptive winds.
Part 2 Paul’s witness in the storm (14-44)
Now look at verses 14-15 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster” swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along.
The storm was so strong. They could not head into the wind. They gave way to it and were driven along. Their plan seemed so simple and doable in the bright, sunny morning, but they could not do what they plan. Even 34 little miles was far beyond their ability. All they could do was give way before the wind.
They were in serious danger. Let’s read 16-17.
As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along.
The waves were crashing, the seas were heaving, the rain was pounding, the wind was howling and the thunder was crackling! They were hardly able to get the lifeboat on board. The beams of the ship creaked ominously as the waves tossed the ship around like a ball, so they passed ropes under the ship to hold it together. They feared striking sand bars in the middle of the ocean, and threw down anchors. This was a large ship holding 276 people. In the gentle morning breeze, it probably seemed a mighty and unshakable vessel. But now it resembled a little bottle cap floating in a washing machine. When you have to hold your ship together with ropes, it is time to feel insecure.
When you are on firm land, then at least the hurricane cannot make you sink. And it will pass by in a few hours. But on the sea, at the mercy of the waves and wind, the hurricane can drive you along in its grip for many days.
Now look at 18-20 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 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 the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
The cargo was expensive, worth thousands of dollars. It was the point of the ship. It was their wages. They threw it overboard! Why? Money could not help them in the storm. The weight of the cargo made the ship ride lower in the water. Their materials were a hindrance that they threw off.
What did they throw overboard on the third day? On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. What is the ship’s tackle? It is the tools and supplies for repairing the ship. Sometimes we use this word when we say a tackle box. But what did they do with all of their tools? They threw them overboard with their own hands – they realized that none of the tools they had trusted was doing anything to help them in this storm, and was just weighing them down. Finally, after many days without sun or stars, what did they do? They gave up all hope.
But not Paul. Now was Paul’s time to shine out like a lighthouse beacon in the dark night. In the gentle breeze, they did not listen to Paul. But in the storm, Paul will effectively become the leader. This horrible time was God’s wake up call, and an opportunity for Paul. When all others gave up hope, Paul kept his courage and his faith. This made him stand out, and attracted men to him.
Let’s read 21-26
After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
Show of hands: who likes to hear “I told you so?” No? Why not? It reminds us of our own foolishness. Also, people often say this to brag. But Paul’s purpose is not to brag. It is to remind them that he is a man who should be listened to. It is a rebuke, and an encouragement for them to at least listen to him now. If they had listened at first, they would be so much better, but now there is still hope. When he had their attention, he shared with them the promise of God. His first point was for them to have courage.
But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. It was also the first words the angel spoke to Paul: Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. The fear of death had overcome most of the crew. They had given up any hope of being saved and were barely hanging on. But Paul drew courage from God’s promise. In fearful times, God’s word is often, “do not be afraid”. As when Jesus disciples thought he was a ghost walking on the water. The phrase “do not be afraid” occurs 65 times in the Bible. God does not want us to be afraid, even in the raging storm, when our very life is in danger, we can have peace in God.
There is the story of John Wesley. Once he had to voyage back to England, and a terrible storm came upon the ship. He was filled with fear. Then he noticed the Moravian Christians on board – they were praising God and unafraid. Then John Wesley repented and started to live by faith rather than fear.
Next, the angel reminded Paul of his mission to preach to Caesar: You must stand trial before Caesar. God had given Paul a vision to go top Rome. He had also given Paul a promise that he would go there. But in a storm, all of these visions and promises may seem in doubt. But God does not change his mind or give in to a little sea storm. God reminded Paul of his unchanging purpose for him. And God’s purpose for us is also unchanged by the storms we encounter.
Then the angel said to Paul, “and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” Strictly speaking, these men did not deserve to be saved from the storm. They had ignored the word of God’s servant. But God was merciful. He graciously gave Paul the lives of all who sailed with him. If Paul had not been with them, they would surely have drowned. But Paul was the salt of the earth. For his sake, they were spared. He was a prisoner, but he was a blessing to all on board. When we are faithful, God will also grant us the lives of those who sail with us. Sometimes these are family members. When I started praying for my brother, it looked hopeless. But then, God started to work, and his whole family became Christian, through the beautiful outreach of a local church in his area. It wasn’t anything I did except praying (and that not with real expectation), but God does graciously want us to be a blessing.
Once Paul been encouraged by God’s word, what did he do? He shared it with the other men who were frightened. Some people thought it was enough to just solve their own fear problem. But Paul cared for the crew. He wanted to share this encouragement with them. Let’s read verse 25 again So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
The storm was ominous. But Paul had faith that overcame the storm. He did not have faith in the cargo, or the tackle, or the strength of the ship – as many of the crew had had. These hopes had proved in vain, so they gave up all hope. But Paul’s hope was in God the Almighty. He shared his simple testimony with them: So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Do you accept God’s promises, such as John 15:5, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Or do you look at you lack of fruit and give up all hope? Have faith in God that it will happen just as he told you.
For how long were they at sea? Look at verse 27-29.
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.
In the dark hours of the night, they realized that they were fast approaching land. And without light, they would either miss it or crash against the rocks. So they dropped 4 anchors and prayed for daylight. Here, hardened sailors became praying people. In desperate times, the most unlikely people can be found praying. Even atheists pray in a closet when the situation seems hopeless. Certainly, I was an atheist in high school, but when I was in trouble, I found that I wanted to pray.
Now Paul shows his leadership and his heart through two events. First
In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow.
Their selfish plan was to escape and row to the island. But then who would steer the ship? Only Paul was paying attention. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away. Actually, if we look back at verse 16, they went through great effort to get that lifeboat on board. It was their back up plan. America is the Land of the Back Up Plan. Some people do not feel safe unless the have house insurance and life insurance and all kinds of assurances that they will have money if something goes wrong.
But now the soldiers’ cut away their back-up plan. It must have hurt to watch the lifeboat slip away into the sea. It was an act of faith, that what Paul said was true. They would survive if they stayed with the ship. But it took faith to cut away their backup plan. We like to have a plan to fall back on.
Next Paul showed his leadership by encouraging and strengthening these men. Look at 33-34. Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food – you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You will need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.”
14 days in constant suspense! Can you imagine it? They had had no appetite. The churning sea churned up whatever they did eat. But now they would have to swim, and would need their strength. Paul gave them a bold promise, “Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” Even when we take a shower, we lose many hairs. I can find them afterwards in the drain. But the men were under God’s protection for the sake of Paul. Not a one would loose a hair.
When the men seemed reluctant to eat, Paul gave a demonstration. Look at 35-38.
After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether, there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
In this rough storm, he taught them to still give thanks to God: he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. He thanked God for his provision and his coming deliverance. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Then they threw the rest overboard. Finally, after the cargo, and the tackle, and the lifeboat, finally over went even the food. This meant they trusted Paul that, when the sun rose, there would be land and they would not need the grain. It was also an act of faith.
Look at 39-44
When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting lose the anchors, they left them in the sea, and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
As Paul had warned, the ship was destroyed. But not a single one of them was lost. Besides the storm, there was also the danger of the soldiers plan to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape. But God used the centurion’s concern for Paul, to spare all of the prisoners. It took faith for Julius to give this order, because, if any of the prisoners did escape, his own life would be demanded by Caesar. In theses verses, we see that even before Paul arrived in Rome, he began to have a powerful ministry among his guards, and the Roman soldiers.
In this passage, we can think of our lives like a sea voyage. We all are like Julias, the captain of our ship. It goes where we send it. Sometimes the wind is against us, and it is difficult going. But then comes the south wind, when we think, at last I have what I wanted! Verse 13 reads “When a gentle south wind began to blow, we thought we had obtained what we wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete.”
College students can be like this. All of the struggle to get the degree, and then we think, “Ah, at last the gentle south wind! Now we have obtained what we wanted. I will sail for Phoenix!”
In this passage, the ship is our life. And what is Fair Havens? Fair Havens is Christ. He is our refuge in the storm. He is a Fair Haven. The word Fair here can be translated beautiful or handsome. Christ is the only Fair Haven. But that is not what the world tells us. The worldly experts say that we will be happier if we go to Phoenix. It is an all-round better place to stay. But there is not other safe harbor than Christ. If a ship sets out for safety in this life, it will never reach it.
If we turn on the TV, we can see many self-help speakers, saying, “Take charge of your life!” and “You can do it!” This is what the experts say. And they majority agreed with them. Not many stand with Paul and say “Don’t do it! Stay in the safe harbor of Christ.” Even the wind seems favorable. Recall verse 11-12. But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest. But, they never got to Phoenix. The experts were wrong, the popular opinion was wrong and they were all deceived.
I heard a recent radio sermon. A pastor shared about a woman who left his church. Later he met her, and do you know what storm she had experienced after leaving the safe harbor of Christ? No storm! She was enjoying the gentle south wind. She shared how much easier her life was, now that she could enjoy herself and not worry about God. But I ask you, can this lady make it to Phoenix? I ask you, should we see her example and conclude that maybe she has a point? No, the south wind is a deception. She may experience a storm in this life, in which case she is fortunate. Or she may continue smooth sailing until the end. But Christ warned about the deceiving south wind when he spoke, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Mt 7:13) It is broad and easy to travel. It is popular, and everyone encourages one another that they are on the right road. But it lead to destruction. Because, though they don’t see it, there is a storm on the horizon, and they will never reach the safety of Phoenix. They are given over to a powerful delusion.
After we struggled so hard to reach the safe harbor of Christ (I know about my own hard struggle), lets not be foolish enough to listen to the experts of the world who tell us that there is a place we would rather be. Let us not be like those Paul warned of in 1Tim 1:19, “holding on to faith and good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.” If you are thinking about leaving the harbor, don’t. If you have left the harbor, turn back before the storm comes. If it is too late, and you are in the storm. You may loose your ship. But at least, stay with Paul, rather than getting into the life boat.
Lastly, we can learn from Paul. He was a light to people who had given up hope. When we are strong, we can bring hope to all those around us. We can recognize their need for hope in Christ.