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This is a fascinating chapter. We find in it the account of the sea voyage of the prisoner Paul from Caesarea to Italy with Rome as his final destination. God wants to have Paul there, so that he will give testimony of Who He is to the emperor. Luke, who is an eyewitness to all events, gives an account of Paul’s experiences and that of all those who travel with him.
Paul has often travelled by sea, as Luke has already stated in Acts (Acts 13:4; Acts 13:13Acts 16:11; Acts 18:18Acts 20:14; Acts 21:1-Leviticus :Acts 21:6). He did not give us a detailed account of those voyages. That Luke, just before the end of the book, describes in detail precisely this sea voyage of the ship on which Paul, as a prisoner, makes the voyage to Rome, must have a deeper meaning. We will also be able to notice this deeper meaning in the course of the chapter.
Before I continue, a brief account of the ‘deeper meaning’ that I believe I see in this history. There will be readers who question the ‘deeper meaning’, or some aspects of it, or reject it in whole or in part. I can understand that. The reader does not have to agree with me in everything in order to learn lessons from this sea voyage. It is also good to remember that the application of history can never be extended to the detail. In this sea voyage it is all about the big picture. I have gratefully used what others have said and written about it. As far as I have recognized their application and consider it responsible for myself, I have included it in this commentary. It is up to the reader to form his own judgement about this.
We can say the following beforehand. In the book of Acts we have the description of the first thirty years of church history. With the last verse of Acts 28 the book seems to end abruptly, but it is, so to speak, an open ending. The history of the church has only just begun and continues. How that history continues is presented to us in the history of the sea voyage.
It is not strange that certain historical events also have a symbolic meaning. Since ancient times, countless writers have depicted life as a journey. In particular, the sea voyage with its storms provides a recognizable image of human life, in which also very difficult periods can occur. This also applies to the people of Israel, to the believer, to the servant of the Lord and to the Christian church.
We will therefore see that this history has a metaphorical meaning, just as we have in other marine histories described in the Bible. For example, there is a history where the Lord Jesus lies asleep in the ship while a storm comes (Matthew 8:23-Ezekiel :). There is also a history where He comes to His disciples who are in a boat in the middle of a storm (Matthew 14:22-Micah :). Both cases give a picture of the present time we are going through.
On the one hand, the Lord is in heaven, but on the other hand, He is also with us, although sometimes it seems as if He is absent. We also see that the faith life of the individual is compared to a voyage on a ship, where shipwreck can occur (1 Timothy 1:18-Proverbs :). So we see that Scripture describes and uses events and expressions from shipping that are a picture for believers – see also the use of the word ‘anchor’ in Hebrews 6 (Hebrews 6:19).
If we look at the life of the believer and servant who is in the way of the Lord, we see in the journey that Paul makes that road is not smooth. Paul is on the road that God wants him to go and is experiencing a huge disaster along the way. That shows that being in the way of the Lord does not mean that we will be saved from disasters. Anyone who wants to do a service for the Lord can get an accident or even die.
We do not read of miracles in this history. We know that Peter was freed from prison by an angel, but here we see that Paul remains imprisoned. In the Gospels the Lord rebukes the storm, but here everything has its natural course. Here we see no intervention of God, but despair of people and the total loss of the ship. It is precisely in these circumstances that faith reveals itself and there is reason to witness to the living God. That is what Paul does. On his journey to Rome Paul is the master of the situation. He is just as calm during the storm as he is before rulers and kings.
Luke here shows how the faith of a single man can bring about a great change in the lives of many who are travelling with him. Paul is the one who gives advice in accordance with the message he received from God. He encourages and acts in every way in the Name of God in the midst of the stage that surrounds him, a stage full of false confidence and fear.
In this history we also see how to look at the forces of nature. God has placed enormous forces in nature. Here they are unleashed. They have a devastating power. Natural laws are not independent of God. They are the result of the Son’s actions (Hebrews 1:3). They are in the hand of the Son. He disposes of them at His convenience. He Himself can walk on the sea and also enable Peter to do so (Mt. 14:25,29), something that is normally impossible for a human being.
In connection with natural forces, angels also play a role. It is written of them that the Son makes them wind and fire (Hebrews 1:7). Was not Job struck by fire and wind when God allowed Satan to make use of it (Job 1:12; Job 1:16Job 1:18-Psalms :)? The Lord Jesus is also above that. He rebukes the wind and the sea (Matthew 8:26). The word ‘rebuke’ is used to rebuke demons (Mark 1:25; Mark 9:25). When the Lord rebukes the wind and the sea, He is actually rebuking the angel powers that lie behind the wind and the sea. In the storms, we can see the work of evil powers, but God remains in full control. Evil forces can do no more than God allows them to do, while serving His purpose.
The same goes for the storm that strikes the ship on which Paul is. Satan knows that Paul is on his way to Rome to testify to God before the emperor there. This emperor was controlled by Satan, so that the realm over which this emperor rules is in reality controlled by Satan (cf. Luke 4:5 with Luke 2:1). Paul is on his way to preach the gospel to this satanic man. This makes the rage of Satan all the stronger to torpedo this journey. But Paul gets there and performs the preaching during two imprisonments in Rome (Philippians 1:12-1 Chronicles :; 2 Timothy 4:17).
As already mentioned, Paul’s journey to Rome also gives an impression of the development of the church after the first thirty years. The journey goes from Jerusalem to Rome and symbolically outlines the situation of Christianity that has arisen in Jerusalem and will completely decline to the roman-catholic church, where the confessing church will find its end (Revelation 17-18). On that path Paul, as a representative of the truth of the church, is a prisoner. In the explanation of this chapter we will encounter several aspects of this.
A Calm Start and Headwind
Paul has appealed to the emperor and will go to the emperor. When the occasion arises, it is decided that the journey to Italy will begin. By using the word “we”, we know that Luke will also go on board. He does not go along as a prisoner, but to keep Paul company on the ship. Paul, the bearer of the Christian testimony, is a prisoner. He is no longer a free man. As an application to our personal lives, we can observe that it is a harbinger of a shipwreck if God’s Word can no longer act on us in its full force.
The man who has to make sure that Paul, together with some other prisoners, will arrive safely in Rome, is a centurion of the “Augustan cohort”, named Julius. It emphasizes that Paul is a prisoner of the emperor of Rome. Julius chooses a ship that sails a route that leads to Rome. Then the ship sails off for a long voyage.
Besides Luke, Aristarchus is also on board. Aristarchus has voluntarily chosen to accompany Paul and Luke on their voyage. In this way he makes himself one with the defamation of the gospel. He has suffered with Paul for the gospel (Acts 19:29), and in Rome he will voluntarily share Paul’s imprisonment with him (Colossians 4:10).
The beginning of the journey looks far from threatening. Julius treats Paul kindly. In the early days, the church did not suffer much from the secular government. The government even protected the church, as we have seen in Acts several times with Paul.
At Sidon Paul is allowed to go to the believers, who are called “friends” by Luke. In many places such a company of people has been formed by the grace of the Lord. Where the love of the brotherhood is present, one can speak of “friends” (3 John 1:15). Paul goes there to be taken care of by them, which means to enjoy the friendly attention of these friends for him. They will have given him the necessary for his body. This refreshment for his body will have meant an even greater spiritual refreshment.
After this encounter, both physically and spiritually invigorating, the journey continues. They experience a headwind, which forces them to sail close to Cyprus. Headwinds or storms do not mean that you are not in the way of the Lord. The Lord Jesus Himself has also been in a storm. It is important to sail the most cautious course, close to a possible harbor.
Then the sea will be crossed for Cilicia and Pamphylia, where Paul also sailed on his first missionary voyage during his return to Syrian Antioch (Acts 14:24-Ezekiel :). All these names will certainly have brought back memories to the apostle and brought him to (extra) prayer for the believers in those regions. Then they arrive in Myra in the province of Lycia on the south coast of Asia Minor.
A Difficult Sea Shipping
In Myra, there must be a change of ship. The centurion goes in search of a ship sailing to Italy and finds a ship from Egyptian Alexandria. The centurion and his prisoner are transferred to an Egyptian ship. That means that this ship becomes the ship of the Christian testimony. In Scripture we generally see in Egypt a picture of the world. By moving the prisoner Paul to that ship, we see how the world influences the church. The world takes in the church. This ship becomes the great trust of the entire crew, but how that trust is shamed. A great storm comes over this ship and it is eventually lost. Until it is no longer possible to save it, all kinds of things have been tried to keep it sailing or afloat.
The first characteristic of sailing with this ship is the slow progress, the difficulty of sailing because they don’t have down wind. Spiritually applied we see that in the church slowness, headwind and difficulty are caused by a clinging to religious forms (Hebrews 5:12) and false doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). These things put a brake on spiritual growth. Then it is time to come to reflection and not to continue, but to let ourselves be warned of imminent dangers.
This is when Paul rises to give that warning. The time has come when it becomes dangerous to sail. Because of the headwind a lot of time has been lost. Luke mentions that “the fast was already over”, by which he means the fast of the Day of Atonement. This fast falls at the end of September / beginning of October. That is a period in which it becomes dangerous to sail on. The following winter period is even more dangerous.
We have not heard Paul speak on this trip before, but now he is making himself heard. He says what he foresees will happen if there is any further sailing. He can say this because he has heard this from the Lord in his dealings with Him. He can also say this because of his great experience with sea voyages. He is used to travelling by ship. He has learned the dangers of the sea and on three voyages he has even been shipwrecked (2 Corinthians 11:25-Ezekiel :). So he really knows a thing or two about shipping. Paul doesn’t say or think that all will go well, or that he will be saved anyway because he has the guarantee of the Lord to come to Rome. This doesn’t say anything about the crew and he is concerned about the crew as well.
Here too the application is obvious with regard to the development of the Christian church. Paul warns in his letters for storms that will tug at the ship (1 Timothy 4:1-Leviticus :; 2 Timothy 3:1-1 Samuel :; cf. Acts 20:29-Amos :). He who does not let himself be warned will suffer great damage to the life of faith and his faith may even be shipwrecked.
Deprived of All Hope of Salvation
Paul’s counsel was ignored. He remains silent and does not open his mouth again until Acts 27:21. In the same way the professing church did not listen to Paul and that is the cause of the decline. The warnings we find in Scripture are ignored. The commanders, the people who say they know it and can show their diplomas for it, are in charge of the church. The result is that the ship becomes a prey of the elements of nature, adrift and without any light.
It is a situation that we recognize in church history in the dark Middle Ages. Then the Word of God was utterly despised and only the word of man had value. The church teaches and the church people consumes. There is a clergy who decides for the lay people how the Bible should be read. This situation can be found especially in the roman-catholic church, but we also find these things in the protestant churches. Problems are approached in a human way and human solutions are offered. According to the democratic principle the majority decides.
So it is also aboard the Alexandrian ship where Paul is present, but where he is not listened to. The general opinion is that the harbor is unsuitable for wintering. Most of them think it is advisable to sail away and try to reach Phoenix and overwinter there. When it says that the advice of “the majority” is followed, it also means that there are people who would rather follow Paul’s advice. However, they are a minority.
When the ship leaves the harbor, the first experiences seem to prove ‘the majority’ right and Paul wrong. With the moderate south wind, no one suspects what kind of strong character there is in the man Paul. That becomes public when the storm rises. Then the passenger, and indeed prisoner Paul, takes over. He makes decisions and gives instructions that mean death or life for all.
The impression of the right decision doesn’t last long, because they are barely on their way or from the island a northeasterly storm called Euraquilo suddenly rushes down. The storm is so violent that the ship cannot be kept on course. The crew is powerless in the face of this violence of nature. They surrender the ship to the whims of nature. It is a striking picture of a church dragged along with every wind of doctrine. Especially the roman-catholic church “has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird” (Revelation 18:2).
The only means of salvation is the boat or sloop. The sloop is the escape route when things threaten to go wrong. Man wants to keep control of it and to a certain extent he succeeds in doing so. But all escape routes and safety measures do not bring the ship ashore. The storm continues unabated. Another precautionary measure that is taken is undergirding the ship. By doing so, the planks of the ship have to be kept together, so that it remains a whole. With the undergirding of the ship we can compare the external means used to try to keep the church sailing as a ship, such as councils. In spite of these measures the ship remains adrift.
Because there is also a great threat of running aground on the shallows of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor. What could still help somewhat to keep the ship on course, but what the storm has now gained in its power, is disabled. Although it may prevent an immediate danger, it does not offer a real solution. The raging storm continues.
This leads the crew the next day to jettison the cargo. It will possibly be part of the corn, the rest of which will be thrown overboard in Acts 27:38. On the third day, they throw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. In this way, the storm wind is deprived as much as possible of any hold. Every piece of the ship or the cargo that is thrown overboard takes away a little more of the ship’s dignity and function.
Thus, over the course of the centuries, the Christian church has lost more and more of her dignity towards God’s thoughts and her functioning before God and towards the world. Think, for example, only of “the third day”, which recalls the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Has it not been thrown overboard in almost all Christianity? This may mean that the resurrection is radically denied, but it may also mean that the orthodox confession is there, but that its consequences for the life of faith are completely absent.
If this pillar of faith is undermined, the consequence will be that the faith will no longer be food for the heart and that people will wander in utter spiritual darkness. No more heavenly light is seen. What is characteristic of the dark Middle Ages because the Word of God is withheld from the people is also characteristic of today’s Christianity. There is no longer anything the Christian can use to determine his course. The hope of salvation, the salvation based on faith, has disappeared.
Hope Is Glowing
When all resources are gone, God remains. He steers the ship to where He wants it. Now the way is opened for Paul to stand up as a representative of God and he stands up in the midst. Here we see a situation arise that the Word of God becomes central again. If no food has been provided for a long time, the Word regains nutritional value. Here we see the ‘sola Scriptura’, only the Scriptures, of the Reformation. Here the hope of salvation reappears (Acts 27:22).
When Paul begins to speak, he first recalls their refusal to listen to him, their disobedience. The Word first says what went wrong. Do we as a church listen to the Lord Jesus when He says to us that we have done something wrong? Paul does not say this to impress upon them how stupid they have been, but to make clear the true reason for the misery in which they find themselves. Everyone had to understand that he was right and that their attempts have all failed. If they acknowledge that all their wisdom is gone, that they are at their wits’ end (Psalms 107:27), they will now be happy to continue listening to him and obeying his commands. Tough times in our personal and communal lives can sometimes be avoided if we listen to God’s Word.
Paul only begins to speak after he has had a message from God, not before. Not only does he have reproach, he also has words of encouragement (Deuteronomy 31:6-Judges :; Deuteronomy 31:23). In the midst of the expectation of death, come words of hope and life. He encourages them by predicting that all will be alive. Only the Alexandrian ship will be lost. In this history we see the saying come true: “God did not promise us a calm journey, but He did promise a safe arrival.” In the words of Paul to the people of the ship we hear the certainty for the believer that no power can separate him from the love of Christ and from the love of God (Romans 8:35-Malachi :).
Paul explains why he can speak in this way. He has had a visit from a messenger of God, which is the God Whose complete possession he is, the God Whom he serves with all that he is and has. In these circumstances this is a significant testimony. He tells about the promise he received personally from that God. He can also tell that God has promised that all those who sail with him will also be saved. Through the faithfulness of true Christians, salvation has often come for many, both for sinners and deviated believers. He who sails with Paul, that is to say, who lives in accordance with what Paul has written, will arrive safe with Paul.
In Acts 27:25 he repeats his exhortation of Acts 27:22 to keep up their courage. The confidence of faith is expressed. We see this in reformers who have rediscovered Scripture. It is the courage of faith in Scripture. God’s Word is reliable, trustworthy. That does not mean that there will be no more difficulties and that they do not have to do anything themselves. Nor does it mean that God gives all the details and there are no more surprises. God always tells us so much that we can trust Him to bring us home safely, while He also hides things to keep us dependent on Him. Paul doesn’t know the name of the island. He says no more than he was told by God. So there remains a look up to Him. The journey is not yet over. The reformation is not the end. A new night begins, without light.
Significantly, Luke speaks of the fourteenth “night”. That best reflects the experience of the sailors. The count has also been kept. Also the time has been kept. It is midnight when the sailors suspect that land is approaching. This means that the salvation is near.
The expression ‘midnight’ is a prophetic expression used in connection with the coming of the Lord Jesus as the Bridegroom (Matthew 25:6). We can therefore connect this expression with the coming of the Lord. In this sense we can say that the land that is approaching is the heavenly land. It also means that the day is near, the day that He appears. All on board desire it to become day (Acts 27:29).
To measure the depth of the water they take soundings. The first measurement indicates that the water is twenty fathoms, that is thirty-six meters, deep. When they take another sounding, it turns out that the water is only fifteen fathoms, that is twenty-seven meters, deep. The water becomes shallower and shallower. That means that the land is approaching.
If we apply this to the situation of Christianity, we can compare the taking of soundings with the Word of God. If we take soundings in the Word, we might measure only five fathoms or even less. For us, too, the land is coming more and more into sight. It is also our desire that it becomes day, for the day means the salvation of the whole people of God (cf. Romans 13:11-2 Kings :). The lamentable developments of Christianity and all attempts to keep the boat afloat have failed miserably. All that remains is the longing for the day.
There is also another side. That is the side of responsibility. Nobody can be saved on their own initiative. It is to be saved together and all along the same path. The actions of the sailors to sneak off with the boat are in opposition to the faith that Paul expressed.
Those who knew so well and set the course want to abandon the enterprise. That can be shocking for those who are left behind. Paul prevents it. For him they are part of it and they too will be saved, but then they have to stay in the ship with Paul and do what he says. God has spoken that all will be saved, but in His way. This chapter also shows through everything the history of God’s faithfulness. He will come to His goal with His people.
Now they do listen to Paul. In the midst of all the circumstances caused by the storm, Paul stands upright. In the storm there is faith in his word. His word is proof of his right. People of faith turn out to be people of faith in the storms. If there were no storms, we would not be able to show our faith.
Paul Encourages All to Take Food
As the day begins to glow, Paul encourages all to take food. Paul has an eye for the physical efforts all have made. Spiritual leadership has an eye for the whole human being. He has counted the days when they have not eaten (cf. Mark 8:2). For him it is not the fourteenth night (Acts 27:27), but the fourteenth day. He proves himself as someone who is of the day (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Also spiritually the exhortation to take food is important. More than ever, believers in spiritual darkness need to read God’s Word as food for their souls. King Saul forbade the taking of food in battle. According to Jonathan, this was a foolish prohibition (1 Samuel 14:28-Amos :). The food of the Word gives strength to salvation (2 Timothy 3:15).
The word “preservation” or “salvation” is a key word in this history. Opposite expressions such as ‘to be lost’ or ‘perish’ and ‘not to be saved’ also occur here several times. God could have saved them in their weakened condition even without them eating, but He preserves by taking food. He acts the way He wants. We cannot press God’s actions into schedules. He acts sovereignly and saves here in a natural way. They need strength to be able to swim later on.
The not perishing one hair from one’s head indicates a new period in church history, namely the period of the revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It is the period that follows the revival in the Reformation, where access to the Word of God has been reopened. It is a movement of Bible study, reading the Bible in its context, especially concerning the future of Israel and the coming of the Lord. The Word becomes real food. Many bible commentaries are written as well. Spiritual growth and discipleship is taking place.
Earlier it is that no life will be lost (Acts 27:22), now Paul says that not one hair from the head will perish. This is reflected in the increasing extent to which the believer discovers what certainty he has in Christ. This development also takes place in the life of the individual believer who studies Scripture.
Paul’s encouragement to take this food is undiminished for today. Also as a church we must always take to heart the encouragement to read God’s Word together and to be nourished by it. We all need it. We need to stir each other up to go to meetings where the Word is brought.
Paul himself sets a good example. After he has encouraged all, he takes bread himself, thanks God for it in the presence of all, breaks off a piece and begins to eat. We have here a practical example of how we should do when we have a meal in a public place (1 Timothy 4:4-Deuteronomy :). There is also a testimony of this. Paul is not ashamed to do it out aloud. Such a thing is done by a man who has spiritual strength. Paul’s words and example is stimulating them all. It gives them courage and desire to eat. Their appetite was gone. When you stand face to face with death, you are not hungry.
As an application for the church we can see here a picture of worship and fellowship at the Table of the Lord. These things came to the fore in a special way during the revival.
And then Luke suddenly mentions the exact number of souls on board. Why is he doing that here? Why not earlier or only at the very end? If we may assume that in many aspects this chapter presents us with the history of the church on earth, mentioning the exact number at this place in history has a meaning related to the revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Isn’t one of the great discoveries of the revival that all believers belong together, wherever they are? Through the study of the Word by those who submit themselves to it, the Holy Spirit again presents as a living truth the one body for the hearts of those believers.
The Ship Perishes
Then comes the moment when the sailors are saturated with food. It is typical that at that moment they throw the wheat overboard. This is reflected in the history of the church. After a period of great desire for God’s Word follows a period of saturation. It can be compared to the two periods we find in Revelation 3 in the letters to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.
Philadelphia shows us the period of the revival. Laodicea shows us the period that follows the revival. In Philadelphia there is warm love for the Lord expressed in love for His Word (Revelation 3:8; Revelation 3:10). In Laodicea there is saturation, through which that love has cooled down to lukewarmness and moderation (Revelation 3:15-Esther :). Indifference to the food of God’s Word has come. It has been thrown overboard. The good of faith has been thrown away. That is what those who are shipwrecked as far as faith is concerned do. The truths of the Christian faith are no longer appreciated.
In earlier years Christendom had always expanded, but now there is a decline of Christendom in the countries where it first progressed. Now Christendom is gaining field in the third world. In the Christian countries, the great apostasy is emerging.
When the Word of God is no longer food, also the recognition of the land disappears by the time it becomes day. The anchors are cast off. Christian hope – of which the anchor is a picture (Hebrews 6:18) – is given up. From the pulpits it is preached that with death it is over and out.
Attempts are still being made to head the ship for the beach to moor it gently, but they fail because of a reef. The ship gets stuck on the reef and breaks in two. One part remains stuck immovable, the other part is completely smashed apart in planks and wreckage.
We also see this picture in the end time. The one part of the ship that remains whole represents the ecumenism where one wants to be a unity at any price. The other part is the fragmentation into countless sects, where one separates oneself at all costs from everything that does not correspond to one’s own ideas (Jude 1:17-Psalms :).
All Are Brought Safely to Land
Just before the end there is a great threat that not all of them will be saved. If everything seems to end well as far as the salvation of those on board is concerned, it all threatens to end badly after all. For the soldiers take up the plan to kill the prisoners. They foresee that they will all escape once they are on land. This will cost them their lives, because with their lives they guarantee the lives of the prisoners.
Then we see that God, in His providence, also uses the centurion to keep the soldiers from their plan. The centurion orders the swimmers to be the first to jump overboard. The others can then use the planks and wreckage of the ship to get ashore.
God sometimes requires that in a spiritual sense we swim or cling to a piece of floating wood. This shows in circumstances that we no longer have ground under our feet. In any case, all come to land safely. The end goal is reached by all who have traveled with Paul.
Thus, all God’s children, all members of the church, will arrive once in the heavenly Fatherland. Everything on which man has relied for a safe and secure journey will then no longer be there. What remains is only the grace of God to glory in it, because only by doing so will all His own safely reach the final goal.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 27". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany