Paul and his fellow prisoners and the other passengers are in the midst of a life-threatening storm that has been raging for days with no break in sight. Paul has just told the group of his visit from an angel who told him as long as everyone stays with Paul on the boat they will live. Paul’s news is reassuring, but the storm is not letting up and no one has any idea when the ordeal will end. Eventually the ship will run aground on a certain island – so the angel said – but he did not say where or when, so the ship continues its out-of-control course and the passengers continue to hang on and hope that Paul’s angel was real.
Even though the angel told Paul that everyone on the ship would be saved, the storm continues to rage. It has now reached its FOURTEENTH night. Two solid weeks of riding out a storm and still no end in sight. The sailors must be completely worn out. The other passengers have to be exhausted from living in crisis mode for so long, and everyone’s emotions are likely shot. The storm was so bad after three days that they actually gave up hope, and that was eleven days ago. Paul’s message was reassuring – assuming anyone believed it – but that was a long time ago too, and nothing seems to point to it being fulfilled any time soon.
They gave up control of the ship sometime during day one or two (vss. 15-17). That means for almost the entire duration of the fourteen days they have simply been riding along with the wind with no say in the ship’s direction or destination. They also have not seen stars or the sun (vs 20), and so still have no idea where they are. No control, no way to influence the direction or speed of the ship, and no way of finding out their location. They are utterly helpless and totally lost and still have no idea when the nightmare is going to end. If there were a way to measure stressful situations, their circumstance would seem to have all the marks of a Grade A, DEFCON 1 trial.
The fact that the sailors had to give up control of the ship and allow the wind to drive them shows how in-control of the situation God is. The most arrogant sailor at this point has no way of claiming that he can influence either their course or destination. God is COMPLETELY in charge of where the ship goes, where the ship lands, and what condition it will be in when it gets there. The truth, of course, is that this is the way the world always works – God is always in control of everything. The difference here is that He makes the truth painfully obvious to everyone involved. No one on the ship needs convincing that He is in charge. And that’s what trials often do. They show us through pain or suffering or stress what is actually true all the time. Sometimes we see things more clearly in a crisis.
Somehow the sailors perceive that the ship is approaching land (they may hear waves breaking against the shore or perhaps see the foam). They take soundings – by using a rope with a weight on the end thrown into the water – and figure out they are in 20 fathoms (a fathom is roughly six feet, so 20 fathoms equals 120 feet) of water. A short time later they measure and find they are in 90 feet of water. They start to worry about running aground on the rocks (perhaps they know there are rocks from seeing the waves break on shore), and so cast four anchors from the stern to keep the ship from going closer to land and also to keep the bow facing land if they do proceed (they have some hope of control if they go forwards into the shore rather than backwards – also the ship will ride over rocks better with the bow to the front). After throwing out the anchors they pray for daybreak. [This does not impress as a great plan, does it? Not likely that any prayers are going to speed up sunrise – although as overcast as it is the dawn has likely been coming late. It is a sign of their desperation and fear that this is where they are now. Throw out the anchors and start praying. “C’mon daylight! C’MON daylight!!!”]
Remember that Paul told everyone that the ship would run aground (vs 26), so the current status of the boat should not terrify anyone. The sailors, however, apparently do not put much stock in what Paul said. It has been many days since Paul spoke, and the storm continues and the ship is now in real danger of being destroyed on the rocks. Therefore the sailors do what they think is the rational thing. They try to save themselves. They begin to let down the ship’s boat – the one they brought on deck during day one (vs. 17) – so they can escape in it. They do this under the ruse of laying out anchors from the bow.
Paul sees what they are doing and alerts the centurion. He tells the centurion that if the sailors leave, the safety of the centurion and his men is no longer guaranteed. Remember what the angel told Paul – “God has granted you all those who are sailing with you” (vs. 24). Apparently Paul will survive regardless of what happens. But for everyone else, they must all stay on the ship with Paul to live. And if the sailors leave, then the promise to save everyone is no longer valid and so everyone other than Paul becomes endangered.
Interestingly, the centurion takes Paul at his word. He has the soldiers cut the ropes to the boat and let it fall into the water and drift away. Apparently the sailors are still on deck and had not started to climb down. The text does not say anything more about this standoff between the sailors and the soldiers, but it is reasonable to assume it is an extremely tense situation – especially considering what they have all been through.
It is worth noting the differences between the two groups. The sailors do not have faith in what Paul said. The centurion does. The sailors act incredibly selfishly by trying to desert the boat. The centurion believes the only way for him and his men to be saved is for everyone to stay on board (meaning he has his own selfish reasons for stopping the selfish sailors). The sailors have been fighting the storm for 14 days and see no let up in sight. From their perspective it does not matter what some holy-man prisoner said his god told him. What matters is they are finally near land and the ship is going to be destroyed and it is time to save themselves. From a certain perspective what they do makes all the sense in the world, and the bigger surprise is that the centurion puts credence in what Paul says. Why he chooses to believe Paul when to this point there really is not any reason to (Paul has not performed any great work and the message from the angel has not yet come true) is not entirely clear. The centurion respects Paul – remember he let him visit friends in Sidon (3) – so perhaps that figures into his decision to have faith in him now. And he knows Paul was right about not leaving Fair Havens. But it is still a little surprising that he so wholly accepts Paul’s words and acts so forcefully to support them. Perhaps the Spirit is working in the Centurion.
During the 14th night Paul encourages everyone on the ship to eat. He says they have not eaten for the duration of the storm – an amazingly long time. The constant tossing of the waves has probably quelled any appetite plus the stress of fighting the storm has likely left little time to think about food. Nevertheless, the added physical effect of hunger on top of dealing with the constant threat of death has to have an incredible effect on the group. It is not hard to imagine how completely they are spent both physically and emotionally (and how each adds to the other).
He encourages them to eat for more reasons than their immediate well-being, however. He wants them to know there’s reason to renew their strength, “…for not a hair from the head of any of you shall perish.” They need their strength because they are going to get off the ship and live. Do not give up now, salvation is coming.
The group believes him (note how Paul, the prisoner, has evolved into Paul, the leader of the ship). Paul takes food and thanks God for it in front of everyone and begins to eat. The rest of the group joins him and is encouraged by it (which makes sense – eating after so long has to have an amazing effect on their strength and overall outlook). Things look better after a good meal.
Luke notes here that there are 276 people on board. This shows that this is not a small ship. Its cargo was likely large and the loss from this storm is likely enormous for its owners. The large number of people also shows the breadth of God’s promise to save all of them.
After eating, the crew begins to throw the cargo of wheat into the sea. Apparently when they lightened the ship earlier in the trip (vs 18) they kept some or all of the grain perhaps as ballast or maybe because it was the most valuable item of freight. Regardless, they throw it overboard now to lighten the ship so it will ride as close to shore as possible before running aground. They no longer need ballast as much as they need a ship with a shallow draft.
They work through the night until finally daybreak comes (prayers are answered). As they look out they see land but no one recognizes it. They do, however, see a bay that looks to be a good place to come ashore. They decide to try as best they can to drive the ship into it. They cast off the anchors and leave them in the sea and hoist up the foresail and untie the rudders so they can try to steer again. The ship begins to head for land.
Unfortunately the ship soon runs aground (on the shore of this uncharted desert isle). The bow of the boat becomes wedged and will not move. The crew can do nothing more at this point and the surf begins to batter the back of the boat. With the front of the boat immovable, the stern begins to break up from the pounding of the surf. The ship finally yields to the storm – the incoming waves begin to destroy it.
As they realize their predicament the soldiers panic (the sailors panicked before – now it is the soldiers’ turn) and decide to kill the prisoners so none can escape by swimming away. They do this because any soldier responsible for an escaped prisoner is subject to capital punishment. The centurion steps in, however, and does not allow them to carry out their intent. For the sake of Paul – who he wants to see safely through the ordeal (thus proving again by his actions how much he respects him) – he orders them to stop and instead tells everyone to abandon ship and make for land. He effectively makes everyone responsible for themselves by telling those who can swim to swim and those who cannot to float to shore on the wood from the disintegrating ship.
The centurion’s order works (and the angel’s promise is fulfilled). Everyone on board goes into the water and not one of them perishes. Everyone makes it to shore. As Paul predicted when he blessed the food – not a hair from the head of anyone is lost.
These fourteen days of Paul’s life is one more sign that God does not spare His servants. Paul has been a Roman prisoner for over two years – and counting – even though he did nothing even remotely illegal. Now – as an innocent man unjustly imprisoned – he has just endured a fourteen night storm that ended with the survivors having to swim for their lives from a destroyed ship. He has done NOTHING wrong and in fact has obeyed God every step of the way, yet his life for the last two years has been filled with unjust treatment and trials (both literal and figurative). The whole reason he was in Jerusalem – where this odyssey started – was because God told him to go. He is where he is because he serves God – not in spite of it.
As for this particular trip, what was gained from fourteen days of storms and a destroyed ship? We know God has not changed his mind about Paul going to Rome because the angel who appeared to him on the ship told him he would be a witness for God there. Remember that Paul goes only because God specifically told him to (as mentioned before he is the anti-Jonah in this story – he goes where God tells him to go and the only way the people on the ship live is if Paul stays on it). So what was the point of the storm? It is not to punish – it cannot be that, as Paul has done nothing but obey. So what was the purpose? Is there any way to say? The chapter simply ends with everyone being saved – which is nice. But nothing is said about the point of what they have just survived. At the end of the day there is no way to definitively say, “Here is why this happened – it makes perfect sense.”
In light of these facts it seems there are two lessons – among many – to highlight from the voyage to Rome in Chapter 27:
Do not expect that life as God’s child is always rational. If God’s ways are not our ways, if God’s perspective on time is radically different from ours, if we live in a volatile world thrown upside down by sin, and if the big picture is so far beyond what we can comprehend that God cannot possibly explain Himself, then we are foolish to believe that A + B should always equal ‘C’ in our lives. The earlier in our lives we accept that life will not always make sense the better and more contentedly we can live for the kingdom. Romans 8:28-29 says that all things work together to make us more conformed to the image of God’s Son. It does not say that all things work together in a way that makes perfect sense to us. In a rational world we do not need God nearly as much, and if we do not need Him we will never become like Him.
Do not assume that righteousness equals peace and safety. Paul is a prisoner because he obeyed God by going to Jerusalem. He is on the ship because he obeyed God’s command to go to Rome. His righteousness did not spare him suffering, it actually brought it on. This goes right along with the first point, but we are arrogant and deluded to believe that our righteousness somehow obligates God to bless our lives and remove trials. It is certainly true that unrighteousness has its own ramifications – whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap – but to believe that our obedience should result in smooth sailing (excuse the pun) is to believe that the world proceeds rationally and that we can earn God’s favor. We have said this many times in this class (and it actually is a rough approximation of a Jerry Bridges quote), but on our best day we do not deserve God’s blessing and on our worst we are not outside the scope of the cross. We cannot fall apart every time tragedy befalls the righteous. If trials usually bring us closer to God, why would God keep them from us if we are devoted to Him?