A Shipwreck, But Not of Faith
Introduction: In the book of 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul writes to his young protege in the ministry and says, “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.” Paul knew a lot about shipwrecks because he experienced at least four of them. But he never shipwrecked his faith. In fact, the result of his shipwrecks was actually the strengthening of his faith.
In our text today, Acts 27, we read about the best-known of those shipwrecks, which occurred on his way to Rome as a prisoner to share the Gospel at the very heart of the Roman empire.
Now when it was decided that we would sail for Italy, they proceeded to turn Paul and some other prisoners over to a centurion of the Augustan cohort, named Julius. 2 And we boarded an Adramyttian ship that was about to sail to the regions along the coast of Asia, and put out to sea accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica. 3 The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul with consideration and allowed him to go to his friends and receive care. 4 From there we put out to sea and sailed under the shelter of Cyprus, because the winds were contrary. 5 When we had sailed through the sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy, and he put us aboard it. 7 When we had sailed slowly for a good many days, and with difficulty had arrived off Cnidus, since the wind did not permit us to go farther, we sailed under the shelter of Crete, off Salmone; 8 and with difficulty sailing past it, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.
9 When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul started admonishing them, 10 saying to them, “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be with damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11 But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship than by what was being said by Paul. 12 The harbor was not suitable for wintering, so the majority reached a decision to put out to sea from there, if somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete facing southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there.
13 When a moderate south wind came up, thinking that they had attained their purpose, they weighed anchor and began sailing along Crete, closer to shore.
14 But before very long a violent wind, called Euraquilo, rushed down from the land; 15 and when the ship was caught in it and could not head up into the wind, we gave up and let ourselves be driven by the wind. 16 Running under the shelter of a small island called Cauda, we were able to get the ship’s boat under control only with difficulty. 17 After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on the shallows of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and let themselves be driven along in this way. 18 The next day as we were being violently tossed by the storm, they began to jettison the cargo; 19 and on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope of our being saved was slowly abandoned.
21 When many had lost their appetites, Paul then stood among them and said, “Men, you should have followed my advice and not have set sail from Crete, and thereby spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 And yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong, whom I also serve, came to me, 24 saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has graciously granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on a certain island.”
27 But when the fourteenth night came, as we were being driven about in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors began to suspect that they were approaching some land. 28 And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and a little farther on they took another sounding and found it to be fifteen fathoms. 29 Fearing that we might run aground somewhere on the rocks, they cast four anchors from the stern and prayed for daybreak. 30 But as the sailors were trying to escape from the ship and had let down the ship’s boat into the sea, on the pretense that they were going to lay out anchors from the bow, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men remain on the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it fall away.
33 Until the day was about to dawn, Paul kept encouraging them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been constantly watching and going without eating, having taken in nothing. 34 Therefore, I encourage you to take some food, for this is for your survival, for not a hair from the head of any of you will perish.” 35 Having said this, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all, and he broke it and began to eat. 36 All of them were encouraged and they themselves also took food. 37 We were 276 people on the ship in all. 38 When they had eaten enough, they began lightening the ship by throwing the wheat out into the sea.
39 Now when day came, they could not recognize the land; but they did notice a bay with a beach, and they resolved to run the ship onto it if they could. 40 And casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea while at the same time they were loosening the ropes of the rudders; and they hoisted the foresail to the wind and were heading for the beach. 41 But they struck a reef where two seas met and ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck firmly and remained immovable, while the stern started to break up due to the force of the waves. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none of them would swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wanting to bring Paul safely through, kept them from accomplishing their intention, and commanded that those who could swim were to jump overboard first and get to land, 44 and the rest were to follow, some on planks, and others on various things from the ship. And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land.
Many of us either have suffered or will suffer shipwreck, perhaps of our marriage, or business, or reputation, or health, or finances, or maybe even of ministry. But while such shipwrecks are often terribly costly, they do not have to be the final word. Our God is a God of salvation and restoration, and He is in the business of restoring shipwrecks. I trust that this morning we will find both encouragement and edification from Paul’s experience.
Paul appeals to Caesar rather than risk going on trial in Jerusalem, which was his right as a Roman citizen. A Roman centurion is assigned the duty of delivering him to Rome, a man named Julius, who belongs to the Augustan Cohort of the Roman military, a very prestigious unit responsible directly to the emperor himself. He treats Paul with great courtesy and respect throughout this voyage, evidently viewing him not as a common criminal but as a political prisoner worthy of special consideration.
In addition, there are several individuals traveling with Paul. One is Aristarchus, a young man Paul met in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey and who now faithfully accompanies the Apostle wherever he goes. Dr. Luke is also with Paul on the journey, as indicated by the fact that this is another one of the “we” sections of Acts. He is perhaps allowed to go along as Paul’s personal physician since the Apostle suffered from some debilitating maladies.
The first leg of the journey is taken aboard a little vessel which travels up the coast of Palestine toward present day Turkey, stopping only in Sidon, where Julius lets Paul visit his friends. What starts out, however, as a rather uneventful trip becomes …
A prescription for inevitable tragedy (1-13)
A natural factor—the weather. If one were traveling from Sidon to Rome, the quickest route would normally be straight west to the south side of the island of Cyprus, to the north of Crete, and between the toe of the boot of Italy and the island of Sicily. However, as verse 4 indicates, “the winds were against us.” The winds were apparently out of the west, necessitating their sailing by the east side of Cyprus in order to be protected from the wind, and then west along the coast of Turkey.
At Myra the Centurion succeeds in finding a much larger ship, a grain ship from Egypt, and he commandeers it to take him and his prisoners to Rome. This was perfectly legal since grain ships were considered to be in the service of the government, and the military always had precedence over civilian matters.
The weather doesn’t get any better, however, and the ship has to sail to the east side of Crete also to avoid the westerly winds. They even have trouble sailing along the south coast of Crete, but finally make it to the port of Fair Havens, where Paul predicts (vs. 9-10), evidently by divine revelation, that the voyage is going to be disastrous and urges them to winter there in Fair Havens.
I would like to suggest that in addition to the natural factor of the weather there was also a supernatural factor in this prescription for tragedy.
A supernatural factor—Satan. Frankly I see the devil’s fingerprints all over this journey. It is no secret to the serious Bible student that Satan has always worked overtime to disrupt the plan of salvation and the spread of the Gospel. Especially was this true of the coming of Messiah Jesus into the world. He tried to disrupt the Messianic line at many points; he motivated Herod to kill the infants in Bethlehem; he made frequent attempts on Jesus’ life prior to the time determined by the Father for His sacrifice on the Cross; and of course, he did his best to prevent Him from rising from the dead.
But it is also true that he tried to prevent the spread of the Good News of Jesus’ payment for sin. He motivated the execution of most of the Apostles; he tried to exterminate the early church by using enemies like Saul himself; and he sowed dissension when he couldn’t succeed through persecution. And here is one more effort of Satan’s unfolding before our eyes. If Paul arrives in Rome and manages to convert key people in the Emperor’s household, Satan’s hold on the civilized world would be seriously challenged. He knew that, and therefore he did everything within his power to prevent Paul from arriving.
Not everything, however, can be blamed on the weather or the Devil, though we sometimes do our best to lay our problems at those two doorsteps. There are also some major human factors in this prescription for tragedy.
1. “Expert” advice. Instead of listening to Paul’s warning the Centurion listened to two experts on the ship. One was the owner and the other was the pilot. The Centurion exercised faith, but in the wrong people. God’s wisdom is far above the wisdom of men and the man who knows the Word of God knows more than all the experts. Psalm 119:97ff reads: “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed Thy precepts.” In addition to expert advice there was the pressure of the majority.
2. Majority rule. Verse 12 says, “Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there.” The centurion took a vote and Paul was outvoted, but in the Bible the majority is wrong more often than not. Still the most common excuse one hears today is, “Everybody’s doing it.” The text doesn’t tell us why the majority thought the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, but some commentators suggest that it had little to do with the harbor itself and a lot to do with the entertainment available, or rather not available. Fair Havens was a tiny town with no discos, only one bar, and a dearth of women. Phoenix, just a little further down the coast, had a much faster night life.
Then, as if to confirm the expert advice and the will of the majority, the Centurion notices a third human factor leading to tragedy.
3. Favorable circumstances. Verse 13 indicates that a gentle south wind begins to blow. This is exactly what they want, for they are headed northwest. A southerly wind will keep them within sight of land as they make their way to Phoenix. Here’s the proof the Centurion is looking for that Paul was wrong. How many times have we been fooled by some seemingly favorable circumstance which we take to be a good omen because we want to do something badly enough? We must beware of “great opportunities” that come along and contradict the Word of God.
Well, so far we have seen three factors that contributed significantly to turning a very ordinary trip into an inevitable disaster. Beginning in verse 14 we find the disaster begin to unfold.
A storm of unprecedented fury (14-26)
When we lived in Florida in the early 70’s we learned to be prepared for what they called a “nor’easter.” It was a sudden storm that blew out of the northeast in October or November which signaled the end of summer and the arrival of winter, such as there was in Florida. Well, that is exactly what hits this ship as it is sailing the short distance from Fair Havens to Phoenix. Without warning a wind called “Euroclydon,” meaning “northeaster,” blows them away from Crete out into the open sea.
The lifeboat is almost lost, and only a brief respite on the lee side of a small island called Cauda enabled them to haul it aboard. (Lifeboats in those days were pulled behind the ship rather than stored aboard). Out in the open sea again the storm becomes so fierce that the sailors have to wrap cables around the ship in order to keep it together.
Afraid that they will run aground on sandbars along the coast of Libya, they begin to throw cargo overboard, then the ship’s tackle. When neither the sun nor stars appear for many days and the storm continues unabated, they finally give up all hope of survival. Luke states this in the first person, indicating that he, too, has lost hope.
The loss of all hope (14-20), however, is not a bad condition if it forces us to listen to God.
A word of encouragement from God (21-26). That word comes from the Apostle Paul to the crew. He says in verse 32, “Men, I told you so.” Now if that were all he said, I wouldn’t call it particularly encouraging. But there’s more. He starts out that way, I believe, in order to highlight the importance of listening to God. “You tried your own human wisdom, and it didn’t work. Now here is what the Lord says: Keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.” I imagine that was excellent news to all but one of the 276 men on board—the owner. But probably even he would rather have his life than nothing.
Then Paul relates the fact that an angel of God has promised him that he will stand trial before Caesar (undoubtedly a frightful prospect for anyone but Paul) and that God has graciously granted the lives of all his fellow-travelers. “So keep up your courage men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.”
Never underestimate the impact one person who is totally sold out to God can have in a tragic circumstance. Just one person willing to stand up in a crowd and say, “I believe that God is here and that He can be trusted,” can calm more fears than all the tranquilizers money can buy. Just one person willing to pray for those around him can avert tragedy. Remember that God was even willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah because of Abraham’s intercession if he could find just five righteous souls there.
I think we shouldn’t underestimate the secret strength that God offers to His children in time of trial. Paul is exposed to the same peril as the rest of these men; the storm is no less severe for him; the danger just as evident, the waves just as high, the darkness just as fearful. Everything is exactly the same except that God has given to Paul an encouraging word, a secret knowledge that the others do not possess. He doesn’t lessen the pressure, but He gives an inward reassurance that enabled Paul to stand out from the rest of them and be different. And isn’t that what the Christian faith is all about—special resources that enable us to handle the pressures of life without going bananas?
The drama increases in verse 27 as we come to the third major movement in our story.
A shipwreck with incredible results (27-44)
It has been two weeks since the ship was within sight of land, but about midnight the sailors sense they are approaching land. So they take a rope with a weight at one end and throw it over to see how deep the water is. The first time it shows 120′ deep, then 90′. When your ship has a draft of over 30’, as scholars suggest this one probably had, you don’t like the sound of those soundings. So, according to verse 29, they drop four anchors from the stern and pray for daylight.
However, these guys aren’t about to trust God alone. While praying they are also plotting.
A plot foiled (27-32). The sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea under the pretext of using it to lower some more anchors. Their intention, however, is to escape in it and leave the soldiers and prisoners to the horrible fate of a ship dashed to pieces in the surf. Paul, however, warns the centurion of the plot and says, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” This time the Centurion is ready to listen to Paul, so the soldiers cut the ropes that hold the lifeboat and let it fall away.
By the way, do you see anything interesting about Paul’s statement in verse 31? “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Back in verse 22 he had promised by divine revelation that “not one of you will be lost.” Now if God says not one will be lost, then not one will be lost! Right? Therefore, these men could have jumped into the middle of the Mediterranean with cannons tied around their bodies and they still would have survived, since God had promised that not one would be lost. Right? Wrong. God had determined a particular result, but He had also determined a means to that result.
Some people dwell on verses that speak of God’s election of some for salvation and deduce that if you’re one of the elect, you’re going to be saved no matter what, and if you’re not one of the elect, you’re going to be lost no matter what. That is not at all the balanced picture that the Bible presents. It says that God has chosen some, but it also makes is clear that no one, elect or not, will be saved unless he puts his faith in Jesus, and that no one who puts his faith in Jesus, elect or not, will be lost. The Scriptures are always beautifully balanced.
An unusual meal (33-38) occurs beginning in verse 33. The men are on their last legs, in part because they have not eaten for two weeks. Perhaps it was because of seasickness, perhaps the need for constant watch, or maybe they were fasting to please their gods. Whatever the reason, Paul is aware that they are going to need every ounce of energy for the final stage of the drama and he urges them to eat. In fact, he unashamedly takes some bread and gives thanks to God in front of them all. Then he begins to eat and so do they. In fact, they eat as much as they want.
The loss of the ship (39-41). Spotting land, they head for a bay with a sandy beach, but they get stuck on a sandbar and the pounding turf quickly begin to reduce the ship to rubble. They are within sight of safety when …
A last-minute threat (42,43) arises. The soldiers decide to kill the prisoners. Now that’s understandable since in those days a soldier who allowed a prisoner to escape for any reason was himself subjected to the same penalty the prisoner would have received. But the centurion, now perhaps close to faith in Paul’s God, spares Paul’s life, as well as the lives of the rest of the prisoners. Instead, he orders those who can swim to jump in the water and head for shore.
The fulfillment of God’s promise (44) is seen in the final verse of the chapter, where we are told that those who couldn’t swim made it to shore on planks or pieces of the ship. Everyone reached land in safety, obviously a miracle when one considers the conditions and the number of passengers—276.
Points to ponder concerning the boat you’re on:
1. Get acquainted with the other passengers (and the Captain!). Paul was a prisoner on this ship. As such he could have sulked and isolated himself, refusing to socialize with the other prisoners or certainly his captors. But he didn’t. Instead, he felt it important to get acquainted with everyone on the ship. How could he have a ministry with them if he didn’t know them?
Some of us feel like we are prisoners at work, at school, in our neighborhoods, or even at home, and our tendency is to lick our wounds and isolate ourselves. But no matter what boat we’re on, it’s important to make friends. Statistics show that most Christians within two years of their conversion have no non-Christian friends.
More importantly, Paul was acquainted with the real Captain of the ship. I’m speaking, of course, of God. He is sovereign over the circumstances of our lives, and that’s crucial for us to remember.
2. Be willing to question the course you’re taking. Paul, even though just a passenger and a prisoner at that, didn’t hesitate to speak up and challenge the course the ship was taking. Sometimes that’s hard, and we must be careful not to be obnoxious about it, but we need to be very courageous and not just go along for the ride. You know the saying, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” It may triumph anyway, but it shouldn’t be because we have done nothing.
3. When the storm gets rough:
a. Drop the anchors and pray. That’s what they did in our story. And sometimes when the storm gets rough that’s all we can do. The anchors we can put out are the anchors of faith and hope.
b. Cut loose the lifeboat. I think the reason Paul asked the Centurion to cut loose the lifeboat was in order to bring everyone to the end of their rope. All human hope of rescue was then gone, and their only hope was God. Of course, that’s not a bad position to be in. I think many of us do not experience the miraculous power of God in our lives in the way He would like to demonstrate it because we never come to the end of ourselves. We always keep an ace in the hole. We give, but not sacrificially. We pray, but not desperately. We serve, but not with abandon. Another step the ship’s crew took was to
c. Lighten the load. They cast everything possible into the sea in order to give the ship every chance of survival. That reminds me of a verse in Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”
d. Take some nourishment. With hope gone and certain shipwreck facing them Paul orders up a meal. I think there are times when we allow our circumstances to get the best of us to the point that we quit eating, quit sleeping, and quit taking care of ourselves. Paul is saying, “You can’t help yourselves anyway, so why not relax and enjoy some nourishment.” When things get desperate, maybe the best thing to do is to relax and wait for a miracle. And don’t forget a little spiritual nourishment while you’re at it.
4. If the ship goes down, grab a plank and remember the promises of God. I can’t promise you that the eminent disaster you’re facing won’t actually happen. Sometime God allows some very difficult things to overtake us. And if your ship goes down, the best thing to do is what the sailors and prisoners did—grab a plank and remember that God has made some promises to His people. Among them are these:
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
“No trial come upon you but such as is human. And God is faithful; He will not allow you to be tried beyond what you can bear, but will with each trial provide a way of escape that you may be able to bear it.”
“But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”
Is He trustworthy? You bet He is. Even in the shipwrecks of life? Yes, even in the shipwrecks.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, we thank you for the reminder from this chapter that life is intended to be filled with difficulties and dangers, perils, and even shipwrecks at times. Thank you that it is through all these that we mature and become more like Your Son. If even an Apostle was given such difficulties to face, such darkness and uncertainty and danger, should we complain at the trials which are given to us? Help us to understand that they all have their valuable purposes. Protect us from the shipwreck of our faith. May we all understand anew the truths of that old hymn:
Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
Thank you in Jesus’ name, Amen.