Acts 27 is one of the chapters of the Bible that we really ought to study with a map of the Mediterranean before us. Those who have carefully investigated Luke’s record are amazed at the accuracy with which he refers to the various ports and to ancient shipping routes. Some people have suggested that perhaps certain portions of the Bible were written at a date later than they professed to be. The book of Acts has been particularly attacked.
Some years ago a little group of freethinkers in Scotland decided on a plan whereby they might show up the supposed inaccuracies of Scripture, and so discredit the Word of God. One member was given the task of going to Asia Minor, southern Europe, and the islands of the Mediterranean, visiting all the places mentioned by Luke in connection with Paul’s journeys. It was hoped that he would be able to unearth enough information to make evident any falsity in Luke’s record, so that many who had pinned their faith to the book of Acts as a part of God’s inspired Word would have to give it up.
The young man chosen was Sir William Ramsay. He investigated very carefully, and after the most minute examination concluded that Luke was absolutely accurate in every particular. He himself, once a freethinker, became a Christian and wrote some splendid books in defense of the Word of God.
It would be interesting to trace the details of Paul’s voyages from one place to another, but space forbids this. There are a few things though to which I would like to call particular attention. First, the use of the little pronoun we. It is very evident that Luke, the writer of this book, volunteered to accompany Paul after his arrest. Also the continuing use of this pronoun in the next chapter shows that Luke was with Paul to the last.
Another person of note who accompanied him was Aristarchus, one of Paul’s own converts from Macedonia. We read of Aristarchus elsewhere as an outstanding witness for Christ. He was not ashamed to share the prisoner’s lot in order to be a comfort to Paul (Colossians 4:10).
As we read the book of Acts we are struck by the way in which Paul the prisoner takes command. This man of God, wherever you find him, seems to be master of every situation. When they put him and Silas in jail and made their feet fast in the stocks, he and his companion put on a sacred concert. There were only two of them and they had no organ accompaniment, but they gave such a splendid performance that they brought down the house! There was an earthquake, and next thing you know the jailer and all of his household were converted.
Then when Paul was arraigned before various dignitaries, he always came out as the real master of the situation. Again and again we have seen the roles reversed—the prisoner questioning the judge! When he appeared before Felix he dared to reason with him concerning righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. When he stood before Festus he said, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?” To King Agrippa he declared, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day. were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds”—a Christian.
In this present chapter, when he was a prisoner on shipboard, it was not long before all the crew, the soldiers, the master of the ship, and Julius the centurion, were taking orders from Paul. He is God’s man for every occasion. There is one thing about a man who walks with God—circumstances never affect his fellowship and communion with the Lord. Paul could say, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” A brother once asked another brother in my hearing, “How are you getting on?” The other answered, “I am doing very well under the circumstances.” The first brother replied, “I am very sorry to hear that you are under the circumstances. You know, if you keep your eyes on the Lord, He will keep you above the circumstances.” So Paul always seemed to be above the circumstances.
As the ship sailed from one port to another, Paul gave wise advice that they refused to accept, and they soon ran into trouble. When they did accept his advice, God’s blessing rested on them.
Reading from verse 14 however we find that they ran into a fierce hurricane. The winds became so violent that they almost lost the lifeboat. After securing it, they arranged to pass cords underneath and over the ship in order to hold the almost shattered timbers together. Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus pitched in with the sailors and the rest of the men, to help cast off the ship’s tackling. They were not afraid to do their share.
“And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (20). Here we find people who have come to the very end of their own ability. There they are in their ship, the cargo having been tossed overboard, the tackling gone, feeling absolutely hopeless of either the salvation of the ship or of their own lives. But it has been well said, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” and so here God intervenes.
Verses 21-29 bring before us in a very striking way the divine sovereignty of God. “But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss.” Think of that! Here is a prisoner talking to both the centurion and his guard, as well as the master of the ship and his sailors, saying, “You should have listened to me and let me run this ship. If you had listened to me, everything would have been all right.” He had warned them that they ought not to leave a certain harbor, but they did not believe him. People do not believe God’s messengers; yet some day they are going to find out that as the servants of God tell of a fearful storm coming upon this poor world, they are speaking according to the Word of God.
Following his rebuke, Paul said: “And now I exhort you to be of good cheer.” I like that. He did not turn to them and exclaim, “Well, it serves you right. You are getting what is coming to you.” He said, “I have been praying and, when I prayed, God answered, and now I have something to tell you that will encourage you. You are going to lose the ship, but you are not going to lose your lives. I can promise you beforehand that every one of you is going to be saved.”
How did Paul know that? Because God had told him so. He said, “For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve” (23). Oh, the dignity of that! Paul could look at these representatives of the Roman Empire who had put him in bonds, and say, “I am the servant of the most high God. I belong to Him, and I serve Him; I am in His service even now. He sent His angel to me. You couldn’t see him. You had eyes only for the storm, the creaking timbers, and the treacherous rocks ahead, but I have seen the angel of the Lord.” The man of God can see things that the man of the world can never see. Paul saw an angel who said to him: “Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar [therefore you cannot be drowned]: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.”
Here is a striking instance of the sovereignty of God. God spoke through His angel and declared His purpose. He said in effect, “I have settled it that all these men are going to be saved.” Of course. He was speaking of their temporal salvation, their physical salvation, but it is God speaking, you might say, arbitrarily. He speaks in His sovereignty, just as He has chosen in Christ certain ones who are going to be saved for all eternity. Who are they? All who trust in the Lord Jesus. This is not hyper-Calvinistic fatalism. It is divine, elective love.
When God predestinates, He does it in love. Notice in Ephesians 1: “In love: Having predestinated us.” But His predestination is to what? To go to Heaven? It does not say so, either there or in the eighth chapter of Romans. It says in Ephesians that He has “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself.” It says in Romans 8: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Again, in Ephesians we are told that He has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should—what?…go to Heaven while other people go to Hell? It does not say that. What does it say? “That we should be holy and without blame before him.”
I am not afraid of that kind of predestination. It tells me that, having trusted Christ, I will some day be wholly like Him. I am predestinated to be holy and without blame before Him. But nowhere in God’s Word are we told that all this is purely arbitrary. God insists on man’s responsibility to face his sins before Him, to turn to Him in repentance, and to put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He shows us that the invitation to salvation is as broad as the human race. He says, “Whosoever will may come”; “Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” “Whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Here we get one side of this great truth of the divine sovereignty. God declared these men who sailed with Paul were all going to be saved. That part was settled. But next we notice the source of Paul’s confidence: “Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me, Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island.” Can you say, “I believe God”? It is a great thing when God speaks, and you can just put your foot down and say, “God says it, and I believe it.”
When studying the Chinese language many years ago, I was struck by the symbol for faith. It is partly made up of the character for word: the lower part of that character stands for a mouth, and above it are several lines indicating something coming out of the mouth. After all, that is what a word is! Then to one side there is a character of a man. And is not that what faith is—a man standing by the Word? I wonder where the ancient Chinese got that. They composed that symbol for faith thousands of years ago—long before the dawn of our civilization.
Sometimes a poor soul comes to me in distress and says, “I have been praying and praying for months for salvation, but I don’t seem to get it and I am miserable.” I ask, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?” “Oh I do,” is the response. “Do you believe He died for you?” “Yes.” “Do you believe He bore your sins in His own body on the tree?” “Yes I do.” “Have you come to Him and told Him you are a sinner and are ready to trust Him?” “Yes, but He doesn’t seem to accept me; I am not saved.” “Where are you looking for assurance?” “Well, I expect to feel different when I am saved.” I answer: “You might feel very happy and not be saved at all. You might be trusting in the wrong thing or the wrong person. The Lord Jesus Himself said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” Notice, carefully what is said here. ‘He that heareth my word.’ Have you heard God’s Word? ‘And believeth on him that sent me.’ Do you believe that God sent Jesus to be your Savior, to die for you?” “Yes, I believe that,” “All right; now look at the next phrase: ‘Hath everlasting life.’ Have you everlasting life?” “Well, I hope so,” was her response. “But it does not say that maybe he will have everlasting life. Can’t you take your stand on the Word of God?” That poor woman’s face brightened and she said, “Oh, I see it. I must just take Him at His Word. That is sufficient.”
Why, I know people who say, “I know everything is all right. I have been baptized.” But they were just deluded by the devil, for baptism itself saves nobody. Jesus alone saves and He does it for all who believe in Him.
I remember speaking to a woman who had just joined a certain church that teaches salvation by sacraments and legal obedience. She said, “Before I joined this church I never was at peace, but now I just trust my salvation to those in authority.” That is false peace; a peace built on error.
Paul said to his frightened traveling companions, “God has spoken and I believe God.” Christian, what about you? Do you believe God? Why do you then go about with your head hanging down like a bulrush, as much as to say, “Oh, if you only knew my circumstances; my health is poor, and I am afraid I shall lose my job; I don’t know what I shall do when I get old”? Do you trust the One who has said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee”? Do you know that it is written: “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus”? Do you know the Holy Spirit has declared, “All things work together for good to them that love God”? Well then, why not brighten up and say, “I believe God; the devil is not going to get me down because circumstances seem to be against me? I believe there is a God who is above all circumstances.”
“But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria”—think of it! Fourteen awful days and nights in a dreadful storm, and all they had to rest on was the word of God that they would get safely to shore! “About midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country.” They began to hear the roaring of breakers, and they “sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day” (28).
What a graphic picture of that little ship driven before the tempest all those days and nights! And now in the deep darkness they can’t see what is ahead of them, but they can hear the water dashing against the rocks, so they cast four anchors out of the stern and wish for the day. How we Christians are like that sometimes. Things all seem to be going wrong, and it looks as if we are going to crush against the rocks, but faith’s anchor holds because the Word of God can never fail.
The next verses suggest another side of the truth of faith and salvation. The sailors have had the word from God that they are all going to be saved, but it looks as if they are going to be dashed on the rocks. And so these miserable rascals say, “We will save our own lives and let the ship go to pieces.” Under cover of the darkness and pretending to cast out the anchors, they seek to let down the lifeboat, planning to row away and find some cove of safety. But Paul is on the alert. He sees what they are up to, and to the centurion he says, “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.” Then see what happens. “The soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat, and let her fall off.”
The captain might have said, “What difference does it make? You told us we are all to be saved anyway. It doesn’t make any difference what anybody does; if God has foreordained it, that is what will happen.” Then Paul might have replied: “Yes, it makes a great deal of difference.” You see, human responsibility is one spoke in the great wheel of God’s purpose, and divine foreordination is another, And so, though God foreordained the whole thing, He showed Paul that these men were responsible to abide in the ship. This was how He was to accomplish His purpose.
In a similar way, man might say, “If God is going to save me, He will save me; and it doesn’t make any difference what I do.” It makes a great deal of difference! If you do not respond, you will be lost, but if you turn to God and confess your sin and put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, then—thank God—you will be saved. And when you are saved, you will be able to look up in gratitude to the God of all grace and say, “Lord, I thank Thee that Thou hast chosen me in Christ before the foundation of the world.” You see, there are two sides: Man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty.
“And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing” (33). Notice how he again took charge of the situation. He appointed himself chief steward, and said, “Come now, you are going to be saved, but you need some food. It has been fourteen days since you have had anything to eat. Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health. There shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.” What confidence possessed the soul of this man because he had a word from God that he dared to believe! In gratefulness he looked up to God and thanked Him for preserving their lives and providing them food to eat.
In the last section Luke wrote, “We were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.” Think of it! God had promised to deliver safely all 276 travelers! But notice how they were delivered. They were saved with difficulty, through great trials; but they were saved. God fulfilled His word.
In verses 38-40 Luke described in detail the sailors efforts to move the ship closer to shore. It took a real seaman to write this, and Luke certainly entered into the spirit of the sailor.
“And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves” (41). And now the enemy comes in. Satan would make the plight of the seamen an excuse to destroy Paul. “And the soldiers’ counsel was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out, and escape.” It was the voice of the devil, though he spoke through the soldiers’ lips.
But the centurion again intervened and God’s word was fulfilled. All were saved, but they had to meet their own responsibility in the matter. There is surely a lesson here for every one of us. No word of God shall be void of power, but we are responsible to obey His Word and manifest our faith by our works.