A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 27:21-38. Paul’s three interventions.
So far in the Acts Luke has depicted Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, the pioneer of the three missionary expeditions, the prisoner, and the defendant. Now, however, he portrays him in a different light. He is no longer an honoured apostle, but an ordinary man among men, a lonely Christian (apart from Luke himself and Aristarchus) among nearly three hundred non-Christians, who were either soldiers or prisoners or perhaps merchants or crew. Yet Paul’s God-given leadership gifts clearly emerge. ‘It is quite certain’, writes William Barclay, ‘that Paul was the most experienced traveller on board that ship.’ Even Haenchen , who scornfully dismisses Luke’s portrait of him as ‘only…a mighty superman’, concedes that Luke fails to draw our attention adequately to Paul’s expertise as a seasoned seafarer. He catalogues the apostle’s eleven voyages on the Mediterranean *before* he set sail for Rome and calculates (although he leaves us to do the addition sum!) that Paul had travelled at least 3,500 miles by sea. Yet it was more than mature experience at sea which made Paul stand out as a leader on board ship; it was his steadfast Christian faith and character.
Paul has already spoken once, when he expressed his view about where the ship should winter, but his warning was overridden (9-12). Now Luke relates his three further interventions, in each of which he issues a clear summons to the ship’s company.
a). The call to keep up their courage (27:21-26)
I am not sure that we need interpret Paul’s ‘you should have taken my advice’ as a rather cheap way of scoring a point off them (21). After all’ his minority stand had been the correct one. Perhaps they would be more respectful of his viewpoint in the future. At all events, he now had absolute confidence in what he had to say. Twice he urged them to keep up their courage (22,25). On what ground? Because none of them, he said, but only the ship, would be lost (22). How could he be so certain? Because the previous night an angel of the God to whom he belonged, and whom he served, had stood beside him (23), had told him not to be afraid, had promised that he must without fail stand trail before Caesar, and had added that God would give him (in answer to his prayers?) the lives of all his fellow passengers (24). These divine promises were the foundation of Paul’s summons to everybody to maintain their courage. For he believed God, in his character and covenant, and was convinced that he would keep his promises (25), even though first the ship would have to run aground on some island (26).
b). The call to stay together (27:27-32).
It was now a fortnight since the ship had been swept from the shelter of Crete and had been drifting helplessly across the Adriatic (a word which in popular ancient usage covered the whole of the east central section of the Mediterranean). But on the fourteenth night at about midnight the sailors sensed the approach of land (27), probably because they could hear the waves breaking on the shore. Calculating the direction and speed of the drifting vessel ( a necessarily imprecise procedure), Smith concluded that ‘a ship starting late in the evening from Clauda would, by midnight on the fourteenth, be less than three miles from the entrance of St.Paul’s Bay’, Malta. So the sailors took soundings, finding first one hundred and twenty fathoms, then ninety (28). Fearing rocks or a reef, they dropped four anchors from the stern, to make sure that they would hold and prayed for dawn (29). It was now, Luke tells us, that the sailors made an attempt to escape. Pretending that they wanted to drop more anchors, this time from the bow, they launched the lifeboat (30). But Paul somehow knew what was happening, ‘either by a natural sagacity, by nautical experience or by special revelation’, and said to Julius and his men: ‘*Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved*’ (31). God’s promise to give him the lives of the whole ship’s company clearly presupposed that they would stay together. So the soldiers cut the lifeboat free and let it go (32).