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Bible Commentaries
Acts 27

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-44

Chapter 27


27:1-8 When it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they handed over Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Cohort Augusta called Julius. When we had embarked upon a ship of Adramyttium, which was bound for the ports along the coast of Asia Minor, we set sail, and Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us. The next day we put in at Sidon. Julius treated Paul kindly and allowed him to visit his friends and to receive their attention. We put out from there and sailed under the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had crossed the sea, coasting along the shores of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we reached Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian vessel bound for Italy and embarked us on her. When we were making slow progress for many days and had with difficulty arrived off Cnidus, because the wind was unfavourable, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. With difficulty we sailed along the coast and reached a place called Fair Havens, to which the town of Lasea is near.

Paul has embarked upon his last journey. Two things must have lifted up his heart. One was the kindness of a stranger, for all through the voyage Julius, the Roman centurion, treated Paul with kindness and consideration which were more than mere courtesy. He is said to have belonged to the Augustan Cohort. That may have been a special corps acting as liaison officers between the Emperor and the provinces. If so, Julius must have been a man of long experience and with an excellent military record. It may well be that when Paul and Julius stood face to face one brave man recognized another. The other uplifting thing was the devotion of Aristarchus. It has been suggested that there was only one way in which Aristarchus could have accompanied Paul on this last journey and that was by enrolling himself as Paul's slave. It is probable that Aristarchus chose to act as the slave of Paul rather than be separated from him--and loyalty can go no further than that.

The voyage began by coasting up to Sidon ( G4605) . The next port of call was Myra but things were difficult. The prevailing wind at that time of year was the west wind and they could make Myra only by slipping under Cyprus and then following a zigzag course up the coast. At Myra they found a ship from Alexandria bound for Rome. She would be a corn ship, for Egypt was the granary of Italy. If we look at the map we can see what a long way round she had to take; but the strong west winds made the direct journey impossible. After many days of beating against the wind she slipped under the lee of Crete and came to a little port called Fair Havens.

IN PERIL ON THE SEA ( Acts 27:9-20 )

27:9-20 Since a considerable time had elapsed and since it was now no longer safe for sailing because the Fast was already past, Paul offered his advice. "Gentlemen," he said, "I see that this voyage is going to be fraught with injury and much loss not only to the cargo and to the ship but also to our own lives." But the centurion was persuaded by the master and the owner rather than by what Paul said. Since the harbour was not suitable to winter in, the majority proposed the plan of sailing from there, to see if they were able to reach Phoenice and to winter there. Phoenice is a harbour in Crete which faces south-west and north-west. When a light southerly wind blew they thought that their purpose was as good as achieved; so they weighed anchor and coasted close in along the shores of Crete. But soon a tempestuous wind called Euraquilo rushed down from it upon them. When the ship was caught by it and could not keep her head to the wind, we yielded to the wind and scudded before it. When we had run under the lee of a little island called Cauda we had great difficulty in getting the dinghy under control. They used their lifting tackle to get it on board and they trapped the ship. Because they were afraid that they would be cast on to the Syrtis Sands they loosed the gear and away they were driven. When they were making very heavy weather on the next day, they began to throw equipment overboard; and on the third day with their own hands they jettisoned the ship's spare gear. When neither sun nor stars were seen for many days and a great storm was raging, at last all hope that we should be saved was taken away.

It is quite certain that Paul was the most experienced traveller on board that ship. The Fast referred to is the Jewish Day of Atonement and on that year it fell in the first half of October. According to the navigational practice of the time, sailing was considered doubtful after September and impossible by November. It has always to be remembered that the ancient ships had neither sextant nor compass and in cloudy and dark weather they had no means of finding their way. It was Paul's advice that they should winter in Fair Havens where they were. As we have seen, the ship was an Alexandrian corn ship. The owner would be rather the contractor who was bringing the cargo of corn to Rome. The centurion, being the senior officer on board, had the last word. It is significant that Paul, the prisoner under arrest, was allowed his say when counsel was being taken. But Fair Havens was not a very good harbour nor was it near any sizeable town where the winter days might be passed by the crew; so the centurion rejected Paul's advice and took the advice of the master and the contractor to sail farther along the coast to Phoenice where there was a more commodious harbour and a bigger town.

A very unexpected south wind made the plan seem easy; and then struck the terrible wind from the north-east. It was a gale and the peril was that if they could not control the ship they would inevitably be blown on the Syrtis Sands off North Africa which were the graveyard of many a ship. (They have been called "The Goodwin Sands of the Mediterranean.") By this time they had managed to get the dinghy, which had been towed behind, on board, in case it should either become water-logged or dashed to pieces against the ship. They began to throw out all spare gear to lighten the ship. With the stars and the sun shut out, they did not know where they were and the terror of the Syrtis Sands gripped them so that they abandoned hope.

BE OF GOOD CHEER ( Acts 27:21-26 )

27:21-26 Since they had been without food for a long time Paul stood up in the midst of them and said, "Gentlemen, you should have obeyed me and you should not have sailed from Crete and so you would have avoided this injury and loss. So now I advise you to keep your hearts up. There will be no loss of life among you, but only the ship. For this night there stood beside me the Angel of God, whose I am and whom I serve, saying, 'Have no fear, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' So, gentlemen, be in good heart! For I trust God that things will turn out as it has been told to me; but we must be cast upon an island."

The peril of the ship was by this time desperate. These corn ships were not small. They could be as large as 140 feet long and 36 feet wide and of 33 feet draught. But in a storm they had certain grave disadvantages. They were the same at the bow as at the stern, except that the stern was swept up like a goose's neck. They had no rudder like a modern ship, but were steered with two great paddles coming out from the stern on each side. They were, therefore, hard to manage. Further, they had only one mast and on that mast one great square sail, made sometimes of linen and sometimes of stitched hides. With a sail like that they could not sail into the wind. Worst of all, the single mast and the great sail put such a strain on the ship's timbers in a gale that often they started so that the ship foundered. It was to avoid this that they trapped the ship. That means that they passed hawsers under the ship and drew them tight with their winches so that they held the ship together like a tied up parcel.

It can easily be seen what peril they were in. Then an amazing thing happened. Paul took command; the prisoner became the captain, for he was the only man with any courage left.

It is told that on one of his voyages the crew of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's ship were terrified; they felt that they were sailing right out of the world in the mists and the storms and the unknown seas. They asked him to turn back. He would not do it. "I am as near to God by sea," he said, "as ever I was by land." The man of God is the man whose courage stands when terror invades the hearts of others.

HOPING FOR THE DAY ( Acts 27:27-38 )

27:27-38 When the fourteenth night came and we were drifting across in the Adriatic, in the middle of the night the sailors suspected that some land was approaching them. They took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. Since they were afraid that they would be cast up on rough places they cast four anchors out of the stern and hoped for the day. When the sailors were trying to escape from the ship and were lowering the dinghy into the sea on the pretext of being about to send out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion, "If these do not stay in the ship, you cannot be saved." Then the soldiers cut the dinghy's ropes and let her fall away. When it was nearly day, Paul urged all of them to take some food. "Today," he said, "is the fourteenth day you have spent waiting without food and have taken nothing. So I urge you to take some food for this is for your health; for not a hair of the head of anyone of you will be lost." When he had said this and then had taken bread, he gave thanks to God before them all and broke it and began to eat. All of them were in good heart and took food. And we who were in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six souls in all; and, when they were satisfied with food, they lightened the ship by casting the corn into the sea.

By this time they had lost all control of the ship. She was drifting, broadside on, across the Adriatic; and they could not tell where they were. In the darkness they heard the crash of breakers on some distant shore; they cast out sea anchors from the stern to slacken the drifting speed of the ship in order to prevent being cast on the rocks that they could not see. It was then that Paul took the action of a commander. The sailors planned to sail away in the dinghy, which would have been quite useless for two hundred and seventy-six people; but Paul frustrated their plan. The ship's company must sink or swim together. Next comes a most human and suggestive episode. Paul insisted that they should eat. He was a visionary man of God; but he was also an intensely practical man. He had not the slightest doubt that God would do his part but he also knew that they must do theirs. Paul was not one of those people who "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.

As we read the narrative, into the tempest there seems to come a strange calm. The man of God has somehow made others sure that God is in charge of things. The most useful people in the world are those who, being themselves calm, bring to others the secret of confidence. Paul was like that; and every follower of Jesus ought to be steadfast when others are in turmoil.

ESCAPE FROM THE DEEP ( Acts 27:39-44 )

27:39-44 When day came they did not recognize the land; but they saw a bay with a beach, on which they purposed, if it was possible, to run the ship ashore. They loosed the anchors and let them go into the sea and at the same time they loosed the lashings of the rudder paddles, and they set the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. When they were cast into a place where two seas met, they beached the ship; and the bow remained fast and immovable but the stern was being broken up by the surf. The soldiers had a plan to kill the prisoners for fear any should swim away and escape; but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, stopped them from their purpose. He ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and to get to land; as for the rest, he ordered some to go on planks and some on pieces of the ship. So it happened that all came safely to land.

Once again the fine character of this Roman centurion stands out. The soldiers wished to kill the prisoners to prevent possible escape. It is difficult to blame them, because it was Roman law that if a man escaped, his guard must undergo the penalty intended for the escaped prisoner. But the centurion stepped in and saved Paul's life and the other prisoners with him. So this tremendous story comes to an end with a sentence which is like a sigh of relief. The ship's company was saved; and they owed their lives to Paul.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 27". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/acts-27.html. 1956-1959.
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