In July of 2009, my wife and I were visiting friends in Destin Beach, Florida. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, not a cloud in sight. We embarked from our friends’ home in their boat on the inter-coastal waterway toward Destin proper, and its channel into the Gulf of Mexico. We were going for lunch and site-seeing. It was a gorgeous day, we were on vacation, and we were feeling ourselves to be at the very height of carefree merriment.
Perhaps you can guess where this is going. All of sudden, a fierce storm rolled in as we ate lunch and enjoyed our time on the beach. We were several miles by water from our friends’ home. I’m not sure we noticed the dark clouds until lightning caught our eye. At first, we were hopeful the storm would miss us, but then it became all too clear that it was coming right for us, and we had squandered our chance to ride back to the house before it was on us. We realized that we were left to face the storm with just our little boat.
We rushed to get into the boat and make one last effort to outrun the dark clouds, lighting, and thunder. But we were indeed too late. The storm seemed most severe to the east, which was our way back to the house, so we headed west to avoid as much as we could. Lighting was flashing, thunder erupted around us, the rain pelted our faces. Once the storm had passed, we found ourselves miles west of where we had planned to be, and we had quite the ride through very choppy waves before we safe back at our friends’ house.
It was quite the harrowing experience to be stuck on a small boat, out on the water, as the storm arose and came right for us. And we had a motor and cellphones, and weren’t ever far from land. And in the end, there was no shipwreck. So it may have felt similar for a while, but in reality our little storm-at-sea experience can’t hold a candle to what Paul and 275 others faced in Acts 27.
Sailing to Caesar
We saw at the end of chapter 26 last week the reason that Paul and his companions (including Luke, who writes the story) are headed out to sea: Paul, as a prisoner and Roman citizen, had appealed to Caesar and now is receiving a Roman escort to the capital city of the world. Paul had been taken into custody in Jerusalem because Jews were beginning to riot when they found him in the temple. He was moved as a prisoner to the Roman city of Caesarea. There he appealed to Caesar, and even though the Roman governor and Jewish king could find no fault in him, he was off to Rome — fulfilling the very plans he had long made to visit the church in the capital city (Romans 15:23–24). The Roman military and judicial systems were now serving the progress of the gospel.
Let’s track with this story of high stakes on the high seas in Acts 27 in four parts: 1) the storm at sea, 2) the promise of God, 3) the leadership of Paul, and 4) the pattern of hope.
1. The Storm at Sea (verses 13–20)
Paul leaves Caesarea in the care of a Roman solider named Julius (verse 1). He has traveling companions with him (Aristarchus from Thessalonica, verse 2, and Luke who tells the story in the first person plural). They head north on the Mediterranean, and already, because of strong winds, have to go further north than they originally intended before heading west. They are leaving late in the sailing season, and already they’re pushing it. Obviously, there are no motors at the time, and they are at the mercy of the winds.
Navigation was considered dangerous by the middle of September, and stopped altogether for the winter from early November until early March. That year (59 A.D.), the Day of Atonement (“the Fast,” verse 9) was in October, so they are late into the season. They change ships for one headed to Italy and make it with difficulty to a harbor called Fair Havens on the island of Crete in the middle of the Mediterranean. The crew, then, decides to try to push it one more day’s journey to a harbor that would be better for the winter, called Phoenix.
At this point, Paul, who has been shipwrecked three times before (2 Corinthians 11:25) steps forward to offer his counsel. Verse 10:
“Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”
But Paul is just a lowly prisoner. His advice doesn’t carry the day, and they depart for Phoenix.
Soon the gentle wind from the south is replaced by “a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster” (verse 14). The ship is blown away from land and their destination and out into the middle of the sea, and they are in the thick of the storm. They secure the ship’s escape boat (verse 16); they reinforce the ship with supports to keep it from breaking apart in the storm (verse 17); they even begin to jettison the cargo (verse 18) and throw the ship’s tackle overboard (verse 19). Verse 20 is the low point:
When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.
Hope is lost. They can’t see the sun or stars to navigate. No cellphones, or radios, or coast guard. Imagine yourself in this situation. On a boat, in the open seas, covered by a storm so dark and thick you can’t see the sun, and humanly speaking, there is no chance of survival.
It is, then, into this context that Paul has a word of hope.
2. The Promise of God (verses 21–26)
Now this ship of 276 people is full of despair and hopelessness, and Paul rises to speak. He has a promise from God. Verses 22–24:
“Now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’”
Against all odds, Paul has this promise from God because God has a purpose for him (he learned this in Acts 23:11). Paul must testify in Rome about Jesus and the good news of his life, death, and resurrection — news which is not only for the Jews, but for all; not only for the powerless, but even for Caesar, the most powerful man in the world. And so Paul is invincible until the work God has for him is done.
The same is true for us. Not that we must testify before Caesar, or the President, but that our message is for all and we are invincible, come what may, until God’s work for us is done. I’ve often reminded myself of that on a plane; I probably reminded myself of that in that storm in Destin as we raced across the crashing waves. It doesn’t mean I won’t die, but it does give strength to my soul to know that I won’t die before God is ready for me to die. It feeds faith when the waves of anxiety and fear are crashing. I may die, but it will not be apart from God’s wise and loving plan. Your life will not be snuffed out by happenstance; you only go when God is ready for you.
And, of course, what makes Paul’s announcement not just interesting information, but good news to the other 275 people on the ship, is the “behold” part at the end of verse 24:
“Behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.”
God could have just promised salvation to Paul. Paul could have been the lone survivor, like Robinson Crusoe. But God chooses not only to save Paul, but also “all those who sail with him.” God doesn’t give private revelations to everyone on the ship, but just to one man, and then chooses to save others through him. “If you sail with Paul, you will be saved.” (We’ll come back to this at the end.)
Before resolving the story, let’s note something about Paul’s leadership. So we have the storm at sea, then God’s promise of salvation, and now . . .
3. The Leadership of Paul (verses 31–36)
It is amazing to see the kind of influence that a lowly prisoner rises to as the seas are raging. Paul is onboard as a prisoner, being escorted to Rome by a Roman soldier. Paul could have phoned it in, and waited till he got to Rome for the real ministry to start.
But the gospel is the greatest leadership curriculum in the world. It doesn’t only rescue us from our sin and the eternal consequences we deserve; it also goes to work on us, and grows in us, and begins slowly making us like Jesus. And Jesus is the greatest leader in the history of the world.
Note how Paul rises to lead in this “secular” context, outside the church, for the good of others.
The first time he steps up is verse 10. He gives his counsel that it’s unwise to push it to the next port, and that they should winter where they are. His counsel is not heeded, and the ship sails into the storm.
Next Paul steps forward in verses 22–24 when all hope is lost and gives hope by announcing the good news that God has promised to spare not only his life, but also everyone else who sails with Paul.
The third time, then, is in when they are getting close to land and the sailors decide they will try to escape on the ship’s boat. They pretend to be laying out anchors from the bow, but they are lowering the boat and about to abandon ship to leave the rest to their own fate. Again, Paul steps forward and says, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (verse 31). This time they heed his words, and cut away the boat.
Finally, Paul steps forward again in verses 33–36 and encourages them all to eat; they will need the energy and strength the next day in seeking to get to land. His counsel again proves wise and beneficial to the group — and a means of their salvation.
There is a lesson and encouragement here for us. Throughout history, Christians, in general, have been better prepared to lead than any other group on the planet. Because the gospel is the greatest curriculum for developing leaders, not only in its pattern in the life of Christ, the greatest leader, but also in its power by the Holy Spirit.
Your faith in Jesus is preparing you to rise to the occasion in your neighborhood or in your extended family or in your job or coaching kids’ sports or some other place where God has you interfacing with nonbelievers in society.
All that is needed is an earnest Christian, who has reason (in Christ) to know his neighbors or coworkers and invest in them, and because of Christ, to take a little, humble step of initiative, and make a few small sacrifices. Initiative and sacrifice (which are created by the gospel and the Spirit) are the essence of true leadership, and I am frequently surprised how God wired humans to respond to them.
Perhaps this is precisely what is needed at your job, or in your neighborhood, or wherever you find yourself in society. If you follow Jesus — the greatest leader of all-time — and have the help of his Spirit and are being increasingly shaped by the truth of his gospel, you are likely much better equipped than you might think to be the one who takes those small steps of initiative and make small sacrifices for the good of the group that people are waiting to rally to.
So, we’ve seen the storm, God’s promise, Paul’s leadership, and now we end with . . .
4. The Pattern of Hope (verses 22–24)
You know how the story finishes. They find themselves nearing land and are preparing to run the ship ashore when they strike a reef. The bow sticks and is immovable, and the ship begins to be broken up the waves (verses 39–41).
What I want us to notice here in closing is Luke’s careful wording and carefully chosen details in this account, and how he means to teach us something, here near the end of Acts, about the church, as he tells the true story of Paul’s dynamic voyage to Rome. Again, this is a “we” section; Luke was there; this is an eyewitness report. And yet this is no mere report of what happened at sea. Luke also has a deeper impression to leave on our souls.
Our first clue is back in verse 20. Luke reports, “No small tempest lay on us,” and “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” Why saved? Why put it that way? Why make it about salvation, that they are unable to do anything for themselves, and their only hope is intervention from the outside — for someone to step in and rescue them?
Then, fast forward to verse 31 and what Paul says to the centurion and the soldiers as the sailors were seeking to escape: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Again, “saved.” Paul is always talking about salvation, is he not? Salvation, not merely survival, is at stake in this storm, and now with these men remaining on the ship. (Luke will use “save” again in verse 43.)
Then, of course, most provocative is the message from the angel. We said we’d come back to this. Here’s how Paul reports it in verse 22–24:
“I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’”
Don’t miss the beholds of Scripture. They are there for a reason. There are no wasted words. Paul and Luke and God mean to have our special attention for this: “Behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.”
The new information here is not the promise that Paul will testify in Rome — that was already clear, long before this voyage, in Acts 23:11 (“Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome”). The behold part is that God has given to Paul all who sail with him. Literally, he has “graced” him — it’s the verb form of the noun we translate “grace.”
What a strange way to do it. Why not just say, “I will save everyone on the ship”? Why say, “I promise to save you Paul — and I will give to you all those who are with you”?
God singles out Paul. He promises salvation to Paul. He will preserve and keep Paul. Paul is the one who is invincible. And he will do this for Paul: he will grace him with all those who sail with him. All those who are in the ship with him, and stay in the ship with him, and do not abandon him, will be saved with him. Paul is the focal point of this salvation, and he is the mediator of the others’ salvation. God makes Paul the hero, and the others must be with him in order to be saved.
There are two things here, I believe, Luke is pointing us to. The first is secondary, the second is primary.
Stay in the Ship
The first is the connection between the ship and what we might call “the visible church” or the church in this age. This is not the timeless, universal church, because that breaks down, as we’ll see (on the reef), but it is a picture of the church in this age, in being God’s means to bring us safely to the shores of eternity. The key, as you may suspect, is verse 31, when the sailors are trying to save themselves, rather than trust the promise for God’s salvation, by sneaking into the escape boat. It comes to Paul’s attention that they’re trying to get away, and he says, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
Luke’s word for us here near the end of Acts, as he’s been telling the story of the birth and growth and spread of the early church, is this: stay in the ship. Sometimes the sailing is easy; other times the waves are crashing, dark clouds cover the sun, and the ship is rocking in the storm. There is temptation to try to work your own salvation, abandon ship, sneak into the escape boat and paddle away. This ship of the church will often be battered in the storm, but it is God’s appointed means to bring us safely to shore. Cut away the escape boat. Until we’re to shore, this is our vessel. Even in the darkest of storms, stay in the ship. She will bring you home. And the reason why is the promise of God.
Sail with the Hero
Which gets us to the second and primary thing Luke is pointing us to. This is the pattern of hope. The reason we stay in the ship is because there is a hero in the ship to whom God has promised to give all those who sail with him.
Note this well: It is not that salvation is coming to others because you’re in the ship, but salvation is coming to you because of a hero. You and I are not Paul in this story; we’re the anxious soldiers and frantic sailors and helpless other passengers. Our being saved is not because of what we have done, or what we will do for God.
Rather, God’s promise of salvation rests on Jesus. He is the focal point. He is the hero with the promise. And God’s promise to him is even more sure, so to speak, than it is to Paul. Paul is en route to testify to the emperor in Rome; Jesus is already in the very presence of the emperor of the universe, in the place of honor at his right hand.
Paul’s heroic, exalted role in Acts 27 is only a faint echo of the glory of Jesus his Lord. The other 275 persons are saved because they sail with Paul. And we in the church are saved, not because of us, not because of our calling, not because of what we’ve done, not because of what could possibly do for God. We are saved because of Jesus. We are not the grounds for our salvation. Another is. Jesus is the hero. Salvation comes first to him, and we are saved so long as we are with him by faith.
So while the angel says to Paul, “I have granted you all those who sail with you,” God himself says to his own Son, “I have given to you all those who have faith in you.”
Take Some Food
There is another place where Luke cues us in to the deeper meaning he sees in this true story. It’s verses 34–36. Perhaps it caught your ear earlier. Paul says,
“I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.
And so here we are at the Table. This is a meal for those who sail with Jesus. For those who count him as their hero, their lord, their savior, their treasure. And these little fragments of bread, and little cups of wine, bring us great spiritual encouragement when we eat in faith and say, “I sail with Jesus. He is my salvation. He is my hero. He has the invincible promise of God. I will not abandon him, but will stay with him in the ship, knowing that he will bring me safely home.”
So as we eat and drink together at the Table, let’s renew our resolve to cut away every escape boat and find our satisfaction in sailing with him, no matter how dark the storm may be.