Today’s reading is Paul and Luke’s travelogue from Caesarea to Rome. Not only do we see their travel but these two chapters are a vivid account of what ancient sea travel looked like. This is the last “we” section in Acts, where we get an eyewitness account by Luke. And what an account to write. We learn that there are 276 people on board this ship. Some of them, like Paul, may have been going to Rome because they appealed to Caesar. Others may have already been convicted and sentenced to death. They would have been going to Rome to appear as combatants in the arena, either against other humans or against wild animals. In either case, they would fight to their death. We learn the Roman centurion who is in charge of the prisoners is named Julius. He was part of the Italian regiment which meant he was a career soldier and not someone local who had been conscripted. This is the only time we see Julius. If you look at a map of Paul’s travels you will see that they sailed as close to shore as they could until they were near Crete. They were sailing late in the fall…after the Fast which was Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. This is always observed in late September or early October. The usual sailing season by the Jewish calendar was between Pentecost which is May or early June, through Tabernacles which was five days after the Fast. The Romans considered the prospect of sailing after September 15 doubtful and anything after November 11, suicidal. It was not a good time to be sailing in the Mediterranean Sea.
Paul and Silas had Aristarchus with them. He was a native of Thessalonica and a coworker with Paul in Asia. They docked at Sidon in Phoenicia, about 70 miles north of Caesarea. This was the ships first port of call. Julius graciously allowed Paul to go ashore to visit with Christian friends who cared for him and provided for his needs. Luke detailed each town or port they passed or stopped at. Myra was a regular stop for Egyptian grain ships bound for Italy. Their difficulty in traveling was due to their sailing very late in the season and the winds were not favorable. Once they docked at Fair Havens they should have stayed put. The season for sailing was over and continuing would have been dangerous. Paul had been a fisherman and out on the seas many times. He recognized what would happen if they tried to continue on and warned them. But the ships officers and the Roman officer were quite unlikely to listen to a Jewish rabbi who was a prisoner no less and had no seeming experience as a seaman. Later they would realized he did know what he was talking about. By then it was too late. They tried to go along the southern shore of Crete but a strong wind came up and drove them out to sea. The storm was a “nor’easter” and carried with it typhoon strength winds and waves. It threatened both cargo and crew, kept the crew from turning the ship into the wind, and they were forced to just let the wind and waves take them where it would. Eventually the sailors bound ropes around the ships hull in attempt to strengthen it against the tremendous pressure of the storm. Letting down the anchor, hoping it would slow the ship down and steady it didn’t help either. Luke tells us the storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and stars until at last all hope was gone. This led the crew to throw cargo overboard in an attempt to lighten the ships load and maybe keep it from coming apart.
Now it was Paul’s turn. He knew the God of lost causes and no hope. Paul addressed the crew first, scolding them for not listening to him but then he encouraged them, having had an Angel of the God he serves tell him that there will be no loss of life. In fact not a hair in their heads would be touched. God told Paul that he had to appear before Caesar and God would grant the safe passage of all 276 who sailed with him. But God also revealed that they would run aground on an island. The storm had raged for two weeks when the sailors sensed they were nearing land. After taking soundings they realized they were drawing closer. Now they feared the rocks along the shore so they dropped four anchors and prayed for daylight. Some tried to escape but Paul warned all must stay in the ship. As dawn broke Paul
urged everyone to eat. It seems that no one had eaten during the duration of the storm because it was so fierce. This time soldiers and crew listened to Paul. He took bread, broke it and ate and others followed suit. Once they had eaten they tossed the rest of the cargo overboard. Finally the light of day arrived and they saw a coastline no one recognized. But there was a bay and a beach and they made plans to run the ship aground but that happened too soon and the ship began to break up. The food had strengthened them and light had brought encouragement. Even in a crisis the prisoners remained the responsibility of the soldiers, who wanted to kill all of them. But the commanding officer wanted to save Paul so all of them were spared. This was a clear indication of God’s hand at work. He had protected and shown favor to all 276 people on board. All of them made it to shore safely, fulfilling the angel’s promise.
The island they had found their way to was Malta. They had been blown way off course. Malta was a major island under Roman control, about 60 miles south of Sicily. The locals of Malta understood justice as a personified power or deity carrying out judgement on a criminal. When nothing bad happened to Paul the natives understood him to have power over snakes and drew the conclusion that he was a god. Instead, Paul’s survival demonstrated God’s protection. Keep in mind, the snake is a representation of the evil one. They landed near where the chief official of the island lived and he welcomed them warmly. But this official’s father was sick with a fever which may well have been what is now known as Malta fever, traced to the milk of the Maltese goats. The fever usually lasts four or five months but could continue on for up to four years. Paul prayed for the man, laid hands in him and he was healed. Later all those on the island who were sick came and were healed. Even as a prisoner of Rome, God used Paul to spread the Good News. The people of Malta were so grateful to Paul that they supplied everything they would need to continue in with their trip to Rome. They stayed in Malta for three months.
Luke is very detailed in his recording of the journey from Malta to Rome. The worst of the winter had passed. They sailed on an Alexandrian ship from Egypt. This ship had the twin gods as its figurehead. These twin gods were the sons of Zeus, Castor and Pollux. They sailed up the coast of Italy and docked in Puteoli. They found believers there so stayed with them for a week, no doubt giving thanks and praise for safe travels and the adventure they had had. Even in the storm Paul was able to share the Good News. Puteoli was major port of entry for large grain ships bringing supplies from the east to Rome. Not only were there believers in Puteoli but believers from Rome heard they were coming and met Paul and company. Three years earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul had expressed his deep desire to see them someday. That day had come. Because Paul had not been accused of a dangerous crime and was not considered to be a political threat, he was permitted to dwell by himself under house arrest. That means he could entertain friends and minister to groups such as Roman Jews and Gentiles. Paul might have been traveling in chains but “the Word of God cannot be chained”. It is possible Paul was treated so well because of either his citizenship or his social status.
By this time the decree of Emperor Claudius had been allowed to lapse and Jews were returning to Rome after having been expelled. Paul called a meeting with the Jewish leaders, partly to discern what they had heard from Jerusalem and Caesarea, and mostly to begin sharing the Good News with them first. So Paul gave the officials an account of his life and his work. He insisted that he was guilty of no criminal offense, but strong Jewish opposition had made it necessary for him to appeal to the emperor. Paul had nothing against his own people. Instead he wanted to explain his great conviction that the Messiah they had been expecting had already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish leaders assured Paul they had received no news about him and they wanted in fact to hear what he had to say because they had heard about this movement. Paul explained his Jesus had fulfilled the Old
Testament hopes for the kingdom of God, the master theme of Jesus’ own preaching. Paul referred to Scripture to present his case for Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. He spoke all day and his message received a mixed response just like it had everywhere else. The leaders left with Paul giving them a warning about rejecting the gospel message of Jesus Christ. This came from Isaiah 6:9-10. Once Paul had finished quoting scripture, and the leaders were preparing to leave, Paul told them he had given the Jews the first chance but since they chose not to believe, he would now go to the Gentiles and they would believe.
For the next two years Paul lived in Rome in his own house. He paid his own expenses and boldly proclaimed the kingdom message. During this time he was permitted to minister to anyone who came to his rented house. Paul also wrote four of the New Testament letters from there; Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. No one tried to stop Paul from proclaiming his message. The Greek word here is akoloutos and it means without hindrance. This single word in Greek is the last word in the Book of Acts. One of the keys to its meaning is that God’s word cannot be chained, even when it’s messengers are! Acts is the story of an unhindered message of Good News, available to all people throughout the world, whether Jew or Gentile, rich or poor. The mission of proclaiming this message is accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit. It embraces Jews, Samaritans, God-fearers, and Gentiles. Luke ends his account with Paul still under house arrest in Rome. Paul was later freed and traveled freely. According to tradition Paul was imprisoned again in Rome in about 64 AD and was martyred there during Nero’s persecution of believers, after Nero set fire to Rome and blamed the Christians. Some believe Paul went to Spain as he desired (Romans 15:24). Many believe Paul returned to his missionary travels for a few more years, ministering on the island of Crete. Finally he was rearrested, retried, condemned, and executed as a martyr somewhere around 67 AD.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W