After all the judicial proceedings are complete and there is no longer any reason for Paul to stay in Caesarea, Festus sends him to Rome. He and a group of prisoners board a boat for the coast of Italy. The voyage begins normally enough but is soon met with delays which expose the ship to a monstrous autumn storm. As the storm rages and hope is lost, Paul’s role changes from prisoner to leader, and God makes His glory known to Roman soldiers, pagan sailors, and even island dwellers nowhere close to the original route of the ship.
Once all the hearings are over in Caesarea and there is nothing more for Festus to do now that Paul has appealed to Caesar, Festus hands Paul and some other prisoners over to a centurion named Julius to take them to Rome. Since appeals to Caesar are not common and are only open to Roman citizens, it is likely the prisoners Paul travels with are bound for the games in Rome (the Colosseum is not yet built, so games held in other venues).
Going along with Paul are Luke (note the reference to ‘we’ in verse 1) and Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica who has been with Paul since the third journey (he was in the middle of the riot in Ephesus – 19:29). These two men loyally stay by Paul’s side all the way to Rome and will remain with him during his imprisonment (Col 4:10-14, Philemon 24). They must pay their own way on the trip as they are not prisoners.
The ship leaves Caesarea and travels directly north along the coast to Sidon. The ship is a freighter – no such thing as passenger ships at this time – from Adramyttium, a coastal city in the province of Asia not far from Troas. In Sidon the centurion is kind to Paul – it probably helps that Paul is a Roman citizen who has not been condemned – and allows him to visit with friends (likely fellow believers he knows from his travels) and receive care (which could mean they feed and tend to him and also provide him with food and supplies for the trip). The ship leaves Sidon and travels around the north side of Cyprus because the winds were contrary. Travel from east to west on the Mediterranean is difficult because of prevailing northwesterly winds. Here the ship tries to avoid the winds by using the shelter of the island. They sail past Cyprus and eventually land at Myra in Lycia (roughly 100 miles west of where Paul landed after leaving Cyprus on the first missionary journey – 13:13).
Because the Adramyttian ship will continue to travel north to its home port, the centurion finds another ship traveling west to Rome (notice that there is not a definite itinerary for this journey – no passenger ships means the centurion must be resourceful and find freighters going in the right direction that can accommodate the group). The ship is from Alexandria and is apparently carrying grain bound for Rome (Egypt is the breadbasket for the capital city). They board the ship – it is likely much larger than the one they have been on (vs 37) – and begin to sail west. The voyage progresses very slowly (meaning they are using up time and pushing the trip later and later into the fall) because of the winds, but eventually the ship makes its way to Cnidus (\nī-dəs\) (or just off Cnidus). From there they sail along the south side of Crete to a small port called Fair Havens.
Since the voyage thus far has taken far longer than what was planned, the group is now later in the season than is preferable for sailing. It is now after the fast – the Day of Atonement that takes place in late September or early October – and the voyage has become dangerous. Sailing completely stops from early November to early March, but any time after the middle of September is considered risky. Here it is late September or even into October, and the risk of proceeding is real. Paul tells the group – probably based on his knowledge of sea travel (II Cor 11:25 – he has been down this road before) more than supernatural insight – that they should stay where they are as they risk the cargo and their lives by going ahead.
The centurion – who may not have sole authority over the ship but who obviously carries a lot of weight – consults with the pilot and the captain (likely the owner) and they decide as a group to proceed (not unreasonable for the centurion to give more credence to the two sailors than to Paul). The port they are in is not suitable for wintering so they set sail for Phoenix, a port also on Crete roughly 40 miles to the west. They are only going a short distance to a better port so the decision to proceed seems rational.
When a moderate south wind comes up, the ship puts out to sea for a voyage that should only take a day. However, before very long a violent northeast wind (Euraquilo) rushes down from the island and pushes the ship away from the coast and out to sea. The ship cannot sail into the wind so the sailors let the ship be driven along. The ship sails by a small island off the coast of Crete called Clauda (or Cauda) at which point the ship’s boat (a small boat used for transportation to and from the ship – like a dinghy) has to be brought in (it has likely been towed behind to this point) because it is becoming uncontrollable and perhaps is about to be destroyed. After hoisting up the boat the sailors undergird the ship with supporting cables (could mean they slip the cables over the bow and work them back to brace the hull). Fearing that they could be driven south into the shallows of Syrtis (a shallow bay on the north side of Africa known for being a graveyard for ships), the sailors let something (?) down (either an anchor – sea anchor [NASB] – to slow the ship’s progress [they seem to have a lot of anchors as they will use four later] – or a sail of some kind) to either change the course of the ship or perhaps lighten it.
Notice something at this point in the story. Who sends the south wind that convinces the sailors to leave Fair Havens (and knew it would convince them)? Who then turns a favorable wind into a raging storm that threatens to destroy everything and everyone associated with the trip? Going back even further, who ensured the voyage would be delayed by contrary winds all along the way and make it exposed to autumn storms (when the gales of November come early)? Keep this in mind as we go through the remainder of the story. God has not been mentioned yet but He is clearly working for His own purposes. And at this point it is fair to say that no one involved is overly happy that He is.
On day two of the storm the crew begins to jettison cargo to lighten the ship and make it more controllable. This is not an easy decision as everything thrown overboard means lost money. Remember the purpose of the voyage is not to take people to Rome – it is to take freight to Rome. On day three they throw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. It is not clear what this means but it could be the beam or yard arm that supports the main sail. If this is the case, throwing it overboard would be quite an operation as it is enormous and heavy (perhaps this is why Luke mentions they do it with their own hands) and would also show just how desperate they are.
The storm is so fierce and the sky so overcast that they go many days without seeing the sun or the stars. This means they cannot navigate. The sun and the stars are what enable them to know where they are, so without them they are lost. Thus they are completely and utterly out of control. They cannot steer the ship, they cannot dictate how fast the ship goes, they do now know where they are, and they have no idea when any of these circumstances will change. They are in about as bad a situation as is possible. The last part of verse 20 shows the effect this has – from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned. This seems to imply that they all did not come to the same conclusion at the same time, but they all did eventually reach it. Hope is gone and we are all going to die.
Who has put them here? Who controls when they see the sun and the stars? Who has made things so utterly hopeless that they despair for their lives? Does any of this sound like a time in your life? There is nothing worse than being in an incredibly stressful situation and feeling like you have no control over it with absolutely no idea when or if it is ever going to end.
Right as it is darkest and all have lost hope (do not miss that the message of vss 21-26 comes right after the hopelessness of vs 20), Paul stands up in the midst of the group and reassures them all. For some reason Luke mentions that no one has eaten, perhaps to paint a fuller picture of not only their discouragement from circumstances but the weakened resolve all around from a lack of food (it very well could be that no one wants to eat because of the effect of the tossing seas on their stomachs). Paul is a prisoner but apparently is in a place where he can address the group. It could be that with the current circumstances and everyone thinking they are going to die, no one is too worried about protocol.
Paul reminds them that they should have listened to him when he warned them not to leave Fair Havens. He likely says this not to gloat but to establish credibility for what he is about to say. He then tells them to be courageous as no one on the ship will die even though the ship itself will be lost. He says an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve (what a great way to describe God to unbelievers!) came to him this very night and reminded him that he must stand before Caesar (the same thing Jesus told him in a vision in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem – 23:11) and that God will grant him the lives of everyone who sails with him. God not only will protect him so he can stand before Caesar, but as a blessing to Paul He will also save the lives of everyone who stays with Paul on the ship. Paul is now the anti-Jonah. All the lives on the ship will be saved as long as he is on it.
Paul tells them he has complete faith in the heavenly vision. They should keep their courage as what the angel told him will certainly come true. Things look awful and bleak now, but God has spoken and what He speaks always comes true. There is reason to hope.
Paul does throw in another piece of information that is perhaps a little worrying. He ends with a tidbit that states pretty strongly that though they will be saved the circumstances they are in are not going to get easier. He has already said the ship will be lost. Now his concluding statement is, “But we must run aground on a certain island.” Not exactly a sun-will-come-out-tomorrow conclusion, is it? God has shown up and has graciously and miraculously encouraged everyone, but the storm is still raging and apparently will continue to rage for some time. And though everyone will live, it is going to be a bumpy ride. You wonder if Paul kind of says the last statement quietly while putting his hand over his mouth. “Oh, by the way – not that it’s a big deal or anything – but we must run aground on an island. OK – who’s up for some food?”
We will explore this more when we finish the chapter, but isn’t it amazing how God works things out in this story? Just when things are bleakest – because of circumstances He produced – He lovingly shows up and encourages His servant (never forget that God knows exactly how far He can push us and when is the perfect time to show up [although we may not agree on the timing]). But even when He shows up He does not change the circumstances. He simply says He will enable Paul to survive them. He will save his apostle THROUGH the storm instead of taking him OUT of the storm. And going through the storm is not going to be easy – the ship is going to run aground and be destroyed. And it is not going to be quick – it still has another week and a half to ride this out before it gets to the island (notice that though God tells Paul everyone will be saved He says nothing about how much longer the storm will last). Nobody likes going through a storm and certainly nobody likes going through a LONG one, yet God knows what we need and how long it will take to accomplish His purposes.