Acts 27:27–44 . . .
“Shipwrecked on the Way to Rome”
Following up from last week's appreciation of the severe storm that developed on Paul's cruise to Rome (seen in Warren's summary of Acts 27:1–26), fourteen days have passed since they left Fair Havens and the storm first struck the ship. The sailors had no idea where they were or how far they might be from land. Nearing land in a storm would be a very risky situation. After all, a ship can be tossed about at sea and survive much better than it were to be dashed upon the rocks. In a storm, control of a ship is always limited, and navigating a narrow entrance to a port would be almost impossible. All in all, it would have been best to wait out the storm at sea.
But there was a problem: They weren't in control of the ship. It drifted wherever the storm carried it. Because of their very limited visibility, they might not have been able to see land until it was too late. Thus, the sailors continually took soundings, measuring the depth below them, so that they could discern, far in advance, their approach to land (which would be indicated by progressively diminishing depths). Let's get back to Luke's account of this life-threatening adventure, which the video clip linked below highlights in real time.
“Land, Ho!” (27: 27–29)
The ship’s captain, owner, and Julius the Roman centurion who was in charge of all of the prisoners on board, decided to sail on to Phoenix on the western tip of Crete, instead of heeding Paul’s advice to board the ship in the harbor and wait out the winter in Fair Havens. Clearly, Fair Havens wasn’t an ideal location to stay the winter, but Paul thought it was wiser to stay rather than chance it on the treacherous autumn seas. When they entered the Gulf of Messara, just six miles east of the point of departure, strong winds blew. The most terrible storm — a dreaded Mediterranean nor’easter — swept down from the island of Crete and almost devoured everyone. Out of frantic desperation, cargo and equipment were thrown overboard, however, nothing seemed to help.
After fourteen days, the ship was riding westward "across" the Adriatic Sea. In one sense, they all hoped for land, but not during the night, lest they be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Thus, throughout the night, the sailors kept testing the depth of the water. About midnight, their soundings revealed that they were approaching land. They couldn't see in the darkness, so the first indication of a shore ahead was probably the sound of breakers. Immediately they took a sounding (v. 28), measuring 20 fathoms (i.e., 120 feet, with the Greek word for fathom signifying 6 feet). A short while later, they took another sounding that measured 15 fathoms (90 feet). Meanwhile, they'd busied themselves with preparations to anchor the ship, for they feared being driven onto rocks so they prayed for daylight (v. 29). As soon as they were ready, they cast off four anchors from the rear. Normally, boats are anchored from the bow, but on this occasion the captain wished to direct the prow forward in the gale by anchoring from the stern.
Sailors Stopped From Abandoning Ship (vv. 30–32)
The sailors couldn't determine where they were, but they'd actually entered a bay on the northeast side of the Island of Malta, which is known today as St. Paul's Bay. On their left side, they'd just passed the point of Kura, a narrow strip jutting out from the mainland. From there came the sound of breakers. When they'd cast anchors, their ship was about a quarter mile from shore. At the end of the bay was a wall of rock.
But it was still dark, and they couldn't assess their situation. When Luke says, they "prayed for daylight," he conveys the great anxiety of everyone on board. The ship was so weakened that it might sink before day arrived, or they might discover in the morning that the shore afforded no place to land. So the crew talked secretly together and decided that their best chance of survival was to abandon ship without delay (v. 30). But the only means of escape was the dinghy taken aboard earlier, which was large enough for the crew only. They therefore lowered it and prepared to get in, under the ruse that they were going to let out anchors from the bow. The soldiers believed the crew at first, but Paul perceived the crew's plan and alerted the centurion and the soldiers, warning him that if the crew escaped, everyone else on board would be lost. At the centurion's orders, the soldiers rushed to the side while the dinghy was still empty and cut its ropes so that it drifted away (v. 32).
Now the soldiers were listening to what Paul had to say. Paul, the prisoner, was in charge! The safety of all on board rested on one man: Paul. Daylight would come soon; knowing that the passengers would need their strength for what lay ahead.
Paul’s Encouragement and the Ship’s Grounding (vv. 33–41)
Paul urged them all to eat. He assured them that they needed to eat because they'd gone very long without an adequate supply of food. He also assured them that they'd survive: "Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head." That was the equivalent of saying, “You will be saved without a scratch.”
Before daybreak, Paul stood up again before the whole company and gave last-minute directions, in anticipation of the critical moment when they'd all have to move quickly to save their lives. By now, the soundness of his counsel had won everyone's respect; they were willing to do his bidding. He instructed them all to eat (vv. 33–34) because for the duration of the storm they'd abstained from eating normally. They'd been too busy or too seasick or too overwhelmed to organize regular eating. As a result, they were in a weakened condition. Paul's purpose in urging them to eat was no doubt to make them stronger for the great physical exertion that might soon be required. He used a vivid figure of speech to assure them again that they had nothing to fear; heir preservation would be so complete that not one hair would fall from anyone's head. He then took nourishment for himself as an example for the rest. He broke bread, thanked God for it, and began to eat it in their presence. The whole company was greatly cheered by his words and also ate bread.
You may not think of this as an act of faith, but it was. Those on board refused to eat because they were seasick. They'd learned that there was no reason to eat since they'd become seasick the next day. They'd learned their lesson — better not to eat at all. Now, in order to eat, they'd have to trust Paul, rather than their instincts and past experience. This time it was different. Their bread would stay down, and it would nourish their bodies for the hearty effort each would expend in the stormy waters between the ship and shore. All of the passengers listened to Paul; all were encouraged by his words; all of them ate — all 276 of them (including Paul). Having eaten, they proceeded to lighten the ship by casting the remainder of its cargo (wheat) overboard.
We read in v. 37 that the ship’s company was somewhat larger than we might assume. No less than 276 people were on board. Luke's main purpose in providing this information was likely to help us appreciate how miraculous their deliverance was. Yet, we might suspect, he also wanted us to understand that the crew conducted a headcount before the last meal. They needed to know the total number to be fed before they divided the available rations. Care was required so that everyone would receive a portion, however small. Perhaps another reason for the headcount was to assist the crew later when they'd have to determine if everyone made it safely to land.
The last preparation for leaving was to throw everything loose or detachable overboard, including the grain cargo and all the remaining food (v. 38), so that the ship would ride as high as possible in the water, allowing it to run aground nearer the shore.
At the first light of day, every eye stared anxiously at the dimness ahead. Soon it was obvious that they'd floated to a place wholly unfamiliar to captain and crew. The shore didn't appear to offer any refuge for a foundering ship; much of it was rocky. Yet, to their relief, as they scanned the ground enclosing the bay, they spotted a creek with a sandy beach. Judging that it might be a good place to land, the crew prepared to take the ship inward. First (v. 40), they cut loose the anchors because they added weight to the ship. Also, they loosed the "rudder bands," the two large paddles, one emerging from each side of the stern, used for steering. Previously, they'd been lashed in place to prevent uncontrolled movements that might hinder a straight course. They were better able to help direct the ship to safely make land. Lastly, the crew hoisted a small sail to catch the wind. It was a foresail, not the mainsail that had been jettisoned many days earlier. Then after every precaution within their power, they set off for shore.
Before the ship came fully to the beach, however, it ran aground, the forepart sticking fast in the mud. The stern's structure was subject to violent agitation of the waves, which perhaps repeatedly lifted and dropped it, therefore causing it to break apart. If any were to survive the shipwreck, they had to flee quickly. But escape was difficult, because the water wasn't yet shallow enough to permit wading to land.
Prisoners and Passengers Spared From Death (vv. 42–44)
The centurion now had to decide how to handle the prisoners. Remember that there were other prisoners on board, perhaps many besides Paul (Acts 27:1). The soldiers, seeing that the prisoners couldn't be removed under guard, advised Julius that the best course was to kill them. They knew that they'd be held responsible if one or more prisoners escaped when reaching dry ground; also, that the Roman military command dealt severely with failure in guard duty. As we've discussed previously, a soldier who allowed a prisoner in his charge to escape was severely punished; if the escapee had been accused or convicted of a capital crime, the negligent soldier was executed, and the method of execution could be gruesome. Therefore, the proposal to kill the prisoners would have merited consideration under such circumstances. But the centurion didn't support it. He saw the immense injustice in killing Paul, a man whose counsel served them well, a man with indisputable credentials as a mouthpiece for God, and, of course, a man who was innocent. The centurion therefore ruled that all the prisoners should be given a chance to flee ashore.
By his orders, the first to disembark the destroyed ship were those who could swim, followed by the rest, keeping themselves afloat by hanging onto wooden pieces of the disintegrating ship. After everyone passed from rough water to dry beach, it was determined that nobody was missing. As Paul predicted and assured them, every life had been saved.
So what? Paul's ordeal, as he sailed on a ship — battered by moaning gales, rocked by surging waves — is a picture of every believer's experience in our sin-cursed world. We must all go through frightening storms in a hearty manner. Yet, like Paul, we belong to the Lord. Therefore, we can be sure that just as our Lord Jesus brought Paul and his whole company safely to land, where they found security and rest, he'll also deliver us from whatever affliction or persecution or temptation or storm that disturbs our peace.
The story of the deliverance of Paul and his shipmates is a wonderful illustration of the salvation that God offers to all who'll receive it. The majority of those on board ship trusted in themselves, in their captain, and in their ship to get them safely to port in Phoenix. The gentle south winds at Fair Havens proved deceptive; they weren't as safe as they supposed, nor were they going to reach their desired destination. At first they supposed they'd be able to weather the storm, but in time, they lost all hope. They could do nothing to save themselves. But there was one man on board who promised salvation if they'd do as he said: Paul. In so doing, all were saved from disaster and brought safely to shore.
Who is our Lord? He is the mighty One whom the disciples asked this extremely puzzling question, as seen in Matthew 8:27. The best answer to their question was that "The man Jesus was the very Creator of winds and water." By his word the winds and water came into existence, and so, by his word, they also grow or diminish. Since his ruling motive is always "love," we certainly know that his will for us will, in the long run, always be beneficial (Romans 8:28), and that our storms in life will diminish as soon as their good work is done. Our greatest comfort is that someday these storms will disappear forever (Revelation 21:3–4).
Yes, it's a pleasure to see Paul’s practical gifts, wisdom, and value to others being utilized so effectively. But let's not end this week's summary by putting the spotlight on Paul. Instead, let's end by reminding ourselves that Luke's volume of Acts is about God, about his faithfulness, about his sovereignty, about the fact that he sovereignly orchestrates all things so that his purposes and promises are fulfilled. Paul was spared, along with the entire passenger manifest, not because of Paul’s greatness, but because Paul trusted and served a great God. Father God wouldn't allow Jewish assassins or weak-willed Gentile rulers to prevent Paul from keeping the mission for which he'd been saved and to which he'd been called. In the final analysis, it's not about great men, but about a great God, the one true God, who's made it his purpose to use mere men like us to proclaim the gospel, thereby bringing glory to himself. "Great are you, Lord!"
- Q. 1 If you were Paul, how would you have felt if the captain, the ship's owner, and the centurion ignored your advice and chose to sail to Phoenix?
- Q. 2 As Paul, how would you have felt if the soldiers appreciated your guidance and put you in charge of the ship?
- Q. 3 How might this passage help you, as a believer, go through frightening storms in a hearty manner?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 27.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 26:11–27:33, followed by 27:34–28:30, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
27On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28They 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. 29Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30In 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. 31Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.
33Just 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. 34Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35After 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. 36They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
39When 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. 40Cutting loose 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. 41But 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.
42The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43But 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. 44The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.