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Bible Commentaries
Acts 27

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

Luke appears to have remained with Paul from the time he left Philippi on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:5). He may have ministered to him during his entire two-year detention at Caesarea. We know he travelled with Paul to Rome (Acts 28:16). Here begins the longest of the four "we" sections of Acts, Acts 27:1 to Acts 28:16 (cf. Acts 16:10-17; Acts 20:5-15; Acts 21:1-18).

"For the sake of the credibility of his work as a piece of Greek history writing, at some point Luke needed to be able not merely to claim but demonstrate that he had participated in at least some of the events he chronicled." [Note: Witherington, p. 755.]

Scholars have not been able to identify the Augustan Cohort (a battalion of 1,000 soldiers, cf. Acts 21:31) with certainty. Some of them believe this was the cohort responsible for communications and service between the emperor and his provincial armies. [Note: E.g., Ramsay, St. Paul . . ., p. 315.] However this group may not have been in existence this early in Roman history. [Note: Longenecker, "The Acts . . .," p. 557.] Since "Augustan" was a title of honor that the government gave to several cohorts, this simply may have been one of the Augustan cohorts that was based in the Syrian province. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 500.] These Augustan cohorts served various police and judicial functions. [Note: Longenecker, "The Acts . . .," p. 558.]

Since he was a Roman citizen who had appealed to Caesar, Paul would have enjoyed greater privileges than the other regular prisoners. Julius was another centurion (cf. Cornelius, ch. 10; Acts 22:26; Acts 24:23) who demonstrated fairness, consideration, and mercy, as this story will show. Adramyttium was a seaport of Mysia, opposite the island of Lesbos, 110 miles north of Ephesus. Sidon stood on the Mediterranean seacoast about 70 miles north of Caesarea.

Verses 1-8

The voyage from Caesarea to Crete 27:1-8

Verses 1-15

4. Ministry on the way to Rome 27:1-28:15

For a number of reasons Luke seems to have described this stage of the gospel expansion in detail. He evidently wanted to demonstrate God’s protection of Paul, to illustrate the increasingly Gentile nature of gospel expansion, and to document the sovereign Lord’s building of His church.

"Ever since the purpose of going to Rome had been planted in Paul’s mind by the Holy Spirit, his plans had been formulated with that goal in view (Acts 19:21). No warnings of dangers to come could make him deviate from that ultimate aim, nor from the intermediate stages (Macedonia, Achaia, Jerusalem). The intervening weeks had stretched into months and then into years, and Paul had been confronted with one crisis after another, but he had divine assurance that Rome would yet be reached (Acts 23:11). The means were not what Paul could have foreseen nor what he might have chosen, but God was in control and the apostle was fully willing to leave the details in His hands." [Note: Kent, p. 184.]

God led Luke to record Paul’s journey to Rome in a way that is very similar to the biblical record of Jonah’s journey. He may have done this so Luke’s readers would note these similarities and connect the purposes for both journeys, namely, the salvation of lost Gentiles.

The amount of detail in this section also raises the possibility that Luke, as a good storyteller, was building to his climax by emphasizing the improbability of Paul ever reaching Rome. He probably did this to produce a feeling of great relief and satisfaction in the reader when Paul finally did get there. Ancient Greek novelists often used this literary device for this purpose. Storms and shipwrecks were favorite obstacles heroes had to overcome to win their prizes, as in Homer’s Odyssey, for example. Luke purposely built to his climax in this section as he did in his Gospel. There he described in detail Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem and His last days there, a feature peculiar to the third Gospel. [Note: See the map of Paul’s journey to Rome in Longenecker, "The Acts . . .," p. 251, or in Toussaint, "Acts," p. 425.]

"The story is told with such a wealth of detail that in all classical literature there is no passage which gives us so much information about the working of an ancient ship." [Note: Rackham, p. 476.]

This story also throws more light on the personality and character of Paul. Though he was a prisoner, he became the leader and savior of all those who travelled with him. Though he was weak, God made him strong (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). He was God’s man, the Holy Spirit working in and through him, for the blessing of everyone he touched. Paul is the main subject. Some people on the trip even concluded that he was a god (Acts 28:6; cf. Luke 8:25; Luke 23:47).

Toward the end of the nineteenth century a group of Scottish unbelievers decided to expose errors in the Bible. They designated one of their number to visit all the places Luke mentioned that Paul visited with a view to proving the record in Acts inaccurate. The man chosen was Sir William Ramsay who, after thorough study of the matter, concluded that Luke was accurate in every detail. [Note: Ironside, Lectures on . . ., pp. 618-19.] Ramsay became a Christian and wrote several books on Acts and Paul in defense of God’s Word, some of which appear in the bibliography of these notes.

Verse 2

Most likely Paul sailed from Caesarea. His ship originated from the port of Adramyttium just south of Troas opposite the island of Lesbos. It was a coastal vessel that docked at most ports along the northeastern Mediterranean shoreline.

Aristarchus, like Luke, seems to have stayed with Paul during his Caesarean imprisonment (cf. Acts 19:29) and travelled with him all the way to Rome (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24). The presence of these companions with the apostle probably contributed to the respect that Paul received as he travelled. [Note: See Ramsay, St. Paul . . ., p. 316.]

Verse 3

Sidon stood about 70 miles north of Caesarea. Paul’s friends were probably members of the church there (cf. Acts 11:19). A soldier would have accompanied Paul wherever he went.

Verses 4-5

Prevailing winds in the Mediterranean during spring and fall usually blow from west to east and often from the northwest. Consequently this ship sailed north up the east side of the island of Cyprus (cf. Acts 21:3). Proceeding north it came to the coast of Cilicia and turned west passing Pamphylia and landing at Myra in Lysia, the southernmost region in the province of Asia. This was a 14-day journey by ship that spanned about 500 miles. [Note: Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2:1266.]

Verse 6

At Myra Julius transferred his party to another ship bound for Italy. This was a grain ship (Acts 27:38) that had accommodations for at least 276 passengers (Acts 27:37). There were no ships devoted exclusively to passenger travel at this time. [Note: Witherington, p. 759.] Its port of origin was Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. Egypt was the major supplier of grain for Italy. A large fleet of these ships sailed between Egypt and Italy along the coast of Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor carrying food. According to a contemporary description, these large ships were usually 180 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 44 feet deep from the deck to the hold. [Note: Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, pp. 158-59.]

Verses 7-8

Cnidus stood on the southwestern tip of the province of Asia, where what we now call the Aegean Sea met the Mediterranean, about 108 miles south of Ephesus. A northwesterly wind forced Paul’s ship southwest to the 180-mile long island of Crete. By sailing along Crete’s eastern and southern coasts it finally reached the port of Fair Havens (probably modern Limeonas Kalous) near a town called Lasea having rounded Cape Salmone at the island’s southeastern tip.

Verses 9-10

Evidently the captain waited for some time for the weather to improve in Fair Havens. The "Fast" refers to the day of Atonement that fell in the fall each year, sometimes as late as early October. People considered it dangerous to travel by sea between mid-September and mid-November, and the harbors closed for the winter from mid-November to mid-February. Paul had already experienced shipwreck three times (2 Corinthians 11:25). He recommended staying through the winter at Fair Havens. A strong northerly or northwesterly wind that frequently came up unexpectedly at that season of the year could blow a ship far from its destination. This is what happened.

Haenchen noted that Luke recorded 11 or 12 sea journeys that Paul took in Acts, beginning at Acts 9:30 and ending with Acts 28:10. He calculated that the apostle traveled at least 3,000 miles by sea. [Note: Haenchen, pp. 702-3.] Thus Paul was a seasoned sea traveler whose word those in authority should have heeded.

Verses 9-26

The storm at sea 27:9-26

Verses 11-12

The centurion had the final word. Grain ships of this kind were part of a fleet that was under the control of the Roman government even though private individuals owned the ships. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 507.] The pilot (captain) and the owner (rather than captain) carried more influence with the centurion than Paul did. Fair Havens was suitable for wintering but not as desirable as Phoenix (modern Phineka, or possible Lutro [Note: Robertson, 3:462-63.] ), which stood about 45 miles farther to the west along the Cretan coastline.

It is doubtful that Paul had the time or opportunity to plant a church on Crete during this visit. He or others may have planted the church there at another time. He probably visited Crete with Titus after his release from Rome (Titus 1:5).

Verses 13-15

"Euroquilo" means northeastern. The wind changed from a mild southerly breeze to a violent northeasterly gale. This wind drove Paul’s ship southwest away from Crete and the harbor at Phoenix.

"Ancient ships could not tack or face heavy seas . . ." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 408.]

Verses 16-17

The small island of Clauda (modern Gavdos or Gozzo) lay south of Crete about 23 miles. There appears to have been no adequate harbor there. However this island did provide enough temporary shelter for the sailors to haul the trailing rowboat (dinghy) on board. Another safety measure was to feed ropes over the bow and hold them up against the ship’s hull from each side. Drawn up tight under the ship these ropes helped to reinforce the internal braces of the hull.

The "shallows of Syrtis" probably refers to the dreaded quicksand and shoals off the African coast west of Cyrene (modern Libya) toward which the ship headed. [Note: See Pliny, Natural History, 5:26; and Josephus, The Jewish . . ., 2:16:4.] The Greek word translated "sea anchors" simply means equipment and can refer to any gear, perhaps some of the sails and rigging here (cf. Acts 27:40). Compasses did not exist at this time. Sailors plotted their courses by the stars and by using points of reference on land.

Verses 18-20

Evidently the ship was taking on so much water that the captain decided to jettison the wheat on board as well as other cargo and all but the most essential tackle (cf. Jonah 1:5). He kept some wheat on board probably for ballast as well as for food (Acts 27:38).

Verses 21-26

Paul presumably mentioned his former advice at Fair Havens not to gloat, but to encourage his fellow travelers to believe what he was about to tell them. What he had predicted had taken place, and what he was about to predict would also. An angelic visitor now confirmed God’s former assurance to Paul that he would reach Rome (Acts 23:11). He told Paul that all on board would reach land safely.

"This announcement that all will survive is remarkable. . . . This announcement is a key to understanding the rest of the episode, for it determines what must happen, and the acts of sailors, soldiers, and Paul are to be judged in light of it. From this point on, no method of escape is acceptable that doesn’t include all." [Note: Tannehill, 2:332-33.]

Paul encouraged his despairing and perhaps seasick companions twice (Acts 27:22; Acts 27:25). His reference to God’s promise would interest the other passengers in his Lord when God fulfilled this prediction if not before. Faith in God gave Paul great confidence and hope, as it always should. Notice also Paul’s beautiful expression of his total commitment to the Lord: "to whom I belong and whom I serve" (Acts 27:23).

"The prisoner had become the captain, for he is the only man with any courage left." [Note: Barclay, pp. 202-3.]

Verses 27-28

The ancient name of the central part of the Mediterranean Sea was the Adriatic or Hadriatic Sea. People referred to what we now call the Adriatic Sea as the Gulf of Adria or Hadria or as the Ionian Sea. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 515; Longenecker, p. 561.] The winds and currents had carried Paul’s ship in a northwesterly direction from the south-central Mediterranean. The sailors may have smelled the land, which sailors can do, or they may have heard the waves breaking on shore.

"Took soundings" is literally "hearing the land" in Greek. To determine the depth of the water the sailors tied a weight to a line and threw it overboard. The depth to which it sank indicated the depth of the water. A fathom is 6 feet, so these depths were 120 and 90 feet.

Verses 27-44

The shipwreck 27:27-44

Verse 29

Four stern anchors kept the ship pointing toward the land so when the sun came up the sailors could beach it prow first. Another rendering of the Greek word for "wished" (euchomai, Acts 27:29) is "prayed" (cf. Jonah 1:14). Paul’s company had traveled by sea about 475 miles. [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 739.]

Verses 30-32

The ship’s crew was about to abandon ship and make for land in the lifeboat leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. Paul probably realized that anchors in front of the ship were unnecessary and sensed their plan. The sailors would have been valuable on board to help beach the ship safely. They were the experts at maneuvering it. Perhaps the soldiers let the dinghy drift free so the sailors would not try another escape. This small boat would have been useful later when the passengers had to swim to land.

"Verses 24 and 31 provide an interesting illustration of the Biblical viewpoint regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility. God knew that all on the vessel would be preserved (and if God knows it, it is certain and cannot be otherwise). At the same time God’s sovereignty which insured their safety was not intended to discourage human effort, for this was the means by which God would achieve the end in view." [Note: Kent, p. 189.]

There is no adequate basis for concluding that because God gave Paul insight and wisdom during this voyage that all Spirit-filled Christians, therefore, have more wisdom than unbelievers. God gave Paul intelligence and perception that He does not give all His servants. Some Christians think that they can assess situations and that people should follow their advice simply because they are Christians or Spirit-filled Christians. Jesus taught that often unbelievers demonstrate more wisdom than believers, unfortunately (cf. Luke 16:8).

Verses 33-37

All on board needed to eat to gain strength for the work of getting ashore that lay ahead. Paul gave thanks to God publicly for the food (cf. 1 Timothy 4:4-5). This would have helped all present to connect their deliverance with God. This meal was evidently not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as some commentators suggested. [Note: E.g., Neil, p. 252.] The circumstances of the occasion argue against this view as does the terminology Luke used (Acts 27:35; cf. Luke 24:30). The rest of the people followed Paul’s example and ate too.

"It could never be said of Paul as it was said of some people that ’they were so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly use.’ He knew that hungry men are not efficient men; and so he gathered the ship’s company around him and made them eat." [Note: Barclay, p. 204.]

Verse 38

It was necessary to lighten the ship so it would ride high into shallow water when the sailors beached it.

Verses 39-40

A sandy beach, traditionally St. Paul’s Bay, was second best to a harbor. This type of ship had rudder-like paddles on the sides of the vessel that served to guide it. Evidently the sailors had locked these rudders in place when the ship was drifting, but now they put them into use again. The foresail on the front of the ship would have increased its maneuverability.

Verse 41

Evidently currents from two parts of the sea converged near the entrance to this bay resulting in an accumulation of sand or mud. The sailors did not see this bar and inadvertently ran the ship aground, and it stuck firmly. "Reef" implies coral reef in English, but the Greek word (topon) and investigations at the site of St. Paul’s Bay suggest that Luke probably described a sand or mud bar.

Verses 42-44

The soldiers would have had to pay with their lives if their prisoners escaped (cf. Acts 12:19; Acts 16:27). The centurion was willing to take responsibility for the prisoners’ safety to spare Paul’s life. This unusual concern for the apostle raises the unanswerable question of whether this man may have become a Christian on this trip. God kept His promise to keep Paul and his fellow travelers safe (cf. Acts 27:24).

A British yachtsman and scholar who was familiar with the parts of the Mediterranean Sea that Paul covered on this journey retraced Paul’s route in the first part of the nineteenth century. His book relates his experiences and findings. It is fascinating reading and confirms the accuracy of Luke’s references in this chapter. [Note: James Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul.]

This unusually dramatic and vivid chapter stresses God’s sovereign control over circumstances to bring His will to pass, specifically that Paul should minister in Rome. It reminds us of Jesus’ ability to control the winds and the waves of Galilee to accomplish His will and to communicate His identity. He had sent His disciples into a storm (Luke 8:22-25) just as He had sent Paul. Jesus had predicted that He would build His church and that Hades’ gates would not overwhelm it (Matthew 16:18). This chapter shows to what lengths God will go to remain faithful to His promises.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 27". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/acts-27.html. 2012.
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