Acts 27:1–26 . . .
“Shipwrecked by a Storm of Life”
If you’ve ever been in a terrible storm at sea, in a small vessel, you can identify with Luke’s description of the shipwreck in today's passage. Luke and Aristarchus accompanied Paul on this difficult journey to Rome. Scholars have wondered why Luke went to such lengths to describe the details of this event, since at first glance it doesn't seem to fit into his purpose. Part of Luke’s reason might be that the details reveal just how harrowing this experience was. Against the human helplessness of this frightening adventure stands the sovereign hand of God, who'd promised Paul that he'd testify in Rome (Acts 23:11). Since an angel repeats that promise to Paul here in the midst of the storm (v. 24), Luke asserts that God’s purpose cannot be thwarted, even by such powerful forces of nature.
Also, Luke shows Paul’s calm, practical leadership in the midst of this storm of life. Even though he was a prisoner, Paul's the dominant figure in the chapter. Because of him, all 276 people on board the ship were saved from death. Paul’s testimony, both by his calm demeanor and by his words, obviously had an unforgettable impact on those on board.
Even if you’ve never been in a storm at sea, you've been in, and will be in, many storms in life. In some of them, you may despair of life itself, even as everyone on board did (v. 20). Paul’s experience teaches us that if you'll trust in God’s sovereign care for you in life’s storms, he'll use you to bear witness to many. In your testimonies, emphasize as Paul did, these three essential elements: (1) God is sovereign over the storms of life; (2) our responsibility in these storms is to trust openly in God’s care for us; and (3) God will use our act of trusting him during storms to be a witness to many.
Overview of Luke’s “Shipwreck” Passage
The first eight verses of Paul's odyssey in chapter 27 take Paul from Caesarea to a harbor named Fair Havens. This journey began on an Adramyttian ship, which took them as far as Myra, where they boarded an Alexandrian ship, headed for Italy. The journey was delayed by unfavorable winds. Vv. 9–13 describe a crucial decision that was made. It was too late in the sailing season to travel on to Rome by sea so the question was where would the ship make port for the winter. Paul strongly urged them to stay where they were, at Fair Havens. Since this wasn't an ideal place to spend the winter, and sailing conditions looked favorable at the moment, they decided to press on to a more accommodating port. Vv. 14–20 describe the sudden onslaught of the storm, the steadily deteriorating conditions, and the complete loss of hope of those on board. A late-night visitation by an angel of God, and Paul’s words of encouragement to his shipmates, are reported in vv. 21-26. In v. 27, Luke describes the ship’s approach to a body of land.
Providence and Provisions (27:1–9)
This is the final “we” section in Acts (v. 2), confirming that Luke was on board the ship. Paul’s odyssey would have begun early in the morning when he and his companions boarded the small coasting vessel from Adramyttium. The crew would have set the sails and felt the sun warm the back of their necks as their boat drifted away from the dock and headed northwest along the coast, in search of a larger ship that could transport them across the vast blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Their current vessel wasn’t made for sailing long distances.
Everything went well that first day — the winds were calm and the surface of the water was placid and still. They made good time throughout the day and night; the next day they anchored in the harbor of Sidon. On such voyages, it was every man’s responsibility to go into the city to secure their own supplies before venturing back to sea. This posed somewhat of a problem for Paul and his companions. Surely, Julius would not permit a prisoner or his friends to leave the cruiser for fear of escape, but here is where we start to see God’s providence at work. Surprisingly, Julius was a kindhearted man and he trusted Paul enough to allow them to enter the city to secure supplies (v. 3).
Also, God’s providence is seen in the fact that Paul had a number of Christian friends in that city. The Christian community in Sidon welcomed Paul and his companions with open arms, abundantly supplying their needs for the rest of their odyssey. It wasn’t an accident that they landed in Sidon, or that Paul had Christian friends there; nor was it a coincidence that Julius allowed Paul to enter the city. God’s providence guided all of these events. Likewise, God’s providence eventually led them to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Italy when they reached the port of Myra (vv. 5–6). This large ship was designed to carry cargo across the open seas; it was heading to the very place they wanted to go. [Note: This was a ship from Alexandria off the coast of Northern Africa; Africa was the main supplier of grain for the Roman world (v. 38).]
So far, so good! Paul’s odyssey had been relatively uneventful thus far. Their small vessel ran into a little difficulty on their way from Sidon to Myra. Winds became quite strong making it tricky to navigate the vessel, but as long as they stayed to the lee of Cyprus, they were protected from the worst of it and were able to maintain their course. Later, once they were on the Alexandrian grain ship, they again ran into wind problems. Gale forces slowed their progress considerably. A ship so large and loaded down with heavy grain likely slowed to a pace of one mile an hour; what should have taken a few days quickly turned into a few weeks. By the time they passed by Cnidus, the winds beat against them so fiercely and the currents became so dangerous that they couldn't come to port; they were forced to veer off course and make their way south toward the southern end of Crete, hoping that that island would offer them protection.
Perceiving God’s Providence (vv. 10–12)
The winds never quit but died down enough so that they could make port at the city of Fair Havens (a.k.a. Good Harbor to the locals) on the south-central coast of Crete. By the time they anchored, fasting for the Day of Atonement had passed; it was early-October (i.e., in AD 59, it would have been October 5). Sea travel was normally not undertaken after mid-September. Only a fool would dare to sail from November to March. Paul wasn’t a sailor by trade, but was a seasoned-enough traveler (who'd already survived three shipwrecks) who had enough common sense to perceive the reality of great danger. He tried to council the captain and the centurion (v. 10) to spend the winter in Fair Havens, even though this wasn't an ideal location in which to winter. He warned them that it wasn’t worth risking the ship, cargo, and their lives; such a decision would surely be disastrous.
After considerable dispute, Julius sided with the captain, the owner of the ship, and the majority of the crew (v. 11), to sail another fifty miles to Phoenix, on the west side of Crete. In spite of the great danger and Paul’s perception, they raised anchor and set sails again. There wasn’t anything Paul could do about it. The centurion made the decision for everyone in their company, so they complied by re-boarding the ship. As we follow Luke's dramatic account of the beginning of Paul’s odyssey to Rome, continue to focus on God’s providence. Moreover, as you endure your own hearty odyssey through the storms of life, be continually aware of God’s providence so you'll be able trust him more and more.
The Perfect Storm (vv. 13–20)
Paul had warned everyone to stay, but they refused to listen to him! After an already difficult and dangerous voyage, they were safely harbored at Fair Havens on the south-central coast of the island of Crete. The ship's owner, captain, and Julius the centurion all wanted to sail sixty miles further to Phoenix on the western tip of the island. They arrogantly ignored Paul’s advice, raised the anchor, and set sail again. When they first set off there was a gentle south wind that was ideal for cruising.
Little did anyone know then what was about to happen. When they passed by the Cape of Matala in the Gulf of Messara, just six miles west of Fair Havens, the winds began to change, growing more powerful; the waves swelled higher and higher (v. 14). Before they knew it or could do anything about it, they coasted into the middle of a powerful storm, one of those dreaded autumn “nor’easters,” which was well documented in the literature of the day. The actual Greek word that Luke uses for this is typhoniko, from which we get “typhoon." It was a horrendous storm with whirlwinds that swept down from the northeast, causing the waves to crash so hard that most ships were torn to pieces. They lost total control of the ship and were forced to go wherever the wind blew. It appeared that they were completely at the mercy of the wind and the sea.
In the wake of immanent disaster, they eventually passed by the small island of Cauda, which gave them a temporary reprieve from the gale, allowing them to take emergency measures in an attempt to preserve the ship and their lives: The lifeboat that was towed behind the ship was hoisted aboard (vv. 16–17); the crew passed ropes under the ship to hold together and reinforce the hull against the battering of the waves.
Their reprieve was short-lived before a new danger loomed. They'd ventured so far south (v. 17) that they entered the dreaded “Syrtis Sands,” a malicious maze of shallows and quicksands off the coast of Cyrene in North Africa — it was known as a graveyard for ships. Fearing that the ship would run aground on the sandbars, they took a few more desperate measures: They lowered the sea anchor as a drag to slow them down; they began tossing cargo and equipment into the sea, hoping to lighten the load and increase their chances of survival. Everyone on board — all 276 passengers and prisoners — were required to do their part.
Divine Deliverance (vv. 21–26)
As a result of the storm, most of the people on board likely became seasick and hadn't eaten for days. In this hopeless situation, Paul offered a word of encouragement, having himself been encouraged by the Lord through his angel (vv. 22–23). He hoped that this time they'd take him seriously. Twice he asked them to keep up their courage, basing that appeal on the angel’s words of assurance that God had destined him for Rome, and that everyone on board would be delivered from death. After expressing his faith in God to all (v. 25), he predicted that the ship would run aground on an island and be destroyed, however, the life of every person on board would be spared.
It's difficult to know how the crew and passengers responded to Paul’s message. On one hand, they'd have had a difficult time believing that an angel actually appeared to him and gave him that message. On the other hand, they had ignored his prophetic words in the past and they got themselves into a lot of trouble. Either way, this text shows God’s sovereignty over Paul’s life and the forces of nature. A storm of this magnitude would typically capsize such a ship and everyone would drown, but God was in control of everything. Nothing was going to stop his plan for Paul’s life!
So what? Luke uses his storm narrative to again highlight God’s sovereignty and providence, one of his sub-themes throughout the volume of Acts. When we read this account and imagine ourselves on that boat, we had better reaffirm the reality of God’s control over the circumstances of our lives today. Take a moment now and as often as possible to answer the three "It Makes You Wonder" questions below. Then come back and read the powerful closing paragraph. . .
Could God have prevented this storm from occurring? Sure! Could he have calmed it immediately? Absolutely! Remember the story of Jesus calming the storm when he was on a boat with his terrified disciples (Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41)! Indeed, Jesus can definitely calm every storm. But he doesn't immunize Christians from those problems that people of the world face. Sometimes he miraculously delivers Christians from such situations, while at other times he gives Christians courage to undergo and survive disasters, turning evil situations into good ones. Though Christ can calm our storms, we must have the courage to face them when he chooses not to still them for us, for we know that, as a result of our enduring the crisis, God’s sovereignty will present something good.
- Q. 1 How many times has he stepped in and divinely delivered you from dumb and disastrous decisions?
- Q. 2 How many times has he given you the exact amount of grace you needed to get through a problem?
- Q. 3 How many times has he allowed you to experience difficulty for the purpose of reminding you that you're not in control of your lives, but he is?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 27.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 26:11–27:34, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
Paul Sails for Rome
27 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. 2We 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.
3The 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. 4From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7We 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. 8We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.
9Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement [That is, Yom Kippur]. So Paul warned them,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.” 11But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12Since 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.
13When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor [or sails] and let the ship be driven along. 18We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
21After they 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. 22But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24and 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.’ 25So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”