13 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Many readers of Acts, who have no problem with chapter 28 (Paul’s arrival and ministry in Rome), find great difficulty in chapter 27 (the voyage, the storm and the shipwreck). Why on earth did Luke devote so much of his precious space to this graphic, but seemingly unedifying, story? To be sure, his reputation as an accurate chronicler is enhanced by it, and is portraiture of Paul in a crisis situation is helpful. But still the length of the narrative seems out of proportion to its value.
It is this feeling which had prompted some students to look in the story for deeper, spiritual meanings. One such was August van Ryn, who was born in the Netherlands in 1890 but became an American preacher and teacher. In his *Acts of the Apostles: The Unfinished Work of Christ* he developed an elaborate allegory. The ship is the visible church, whose history has been a voyage from ‘its pristine perfection’ in Jerusalem at Pentecost, through ‘much contrary winds and violent storms’ (persecution and false doctrine) to ‘its moral and spiritual wreck in Rome’, that is, in the Roman Catholic Church. Those on board are a mixed multitude. Some resemble the centurion, who believed the captain and owner of the ship (church leaders) ‘more than those things which were spoken by Paul’, while others, even in the midst of darkness, storm and fear, listen to Paul’s teaching and are saved. These also throw the wheat into the sea, casting their bread upon the waters, that is, broadcasting gospel seed far and wide. The crew struggle to undergird the ship (well-meaning people who try to hold the church together by union schemes). But they cannot prevent it from being wrecked, from being broken into a thousand fragments. The allegory is far fetched, van Ryn admitted, but added ‘personally I like this far-fetchedness’. I hope my readers do not, however. Unprincipled allegorizations bring Scripture into disrepute, and cause confusion, not enlightenment.
What, then, is the major lesson we are intended to learn from Acts 27 and 28? It concerns the providence of God, who ‘works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Eph. 1:11), declares that ‘no wisdom, no insight, no plan…can succeed against the Lord’ (Pr.21:30; cf. Is. 8:10; 54:17), and engineers even evil ‘for the good of those who love him’ (Rom.8:28; cf. Gn. 50:20). This providential activity of God is seen in these chapters in two complementary ways, first in bringing Paul to Rome, his desired goal, and secondly in bringing him there as a prisoner, his undesired condition. It was an unexpected combination of circumstances: what lay behind it?
First, Luke intends us to marvel with him over the safe conduct of Paul to Rome. It is not so much that Paul has said ‘I must visit Rome’ (19:21), as that Jesus had said to him ‘You must testify in Rome’ (23:11). Yet circumstance after circumstance seemed calculated to make this impossible. Paul had expressed his intention to proceed straight from Jerusalem to Rome (Rom. 15:25-29). Instead, he was arrested in Jerusalem, subjected to endless trials, imprisoned in Caesarea, threatened with assassination by the Jews, and then nearly drowned in the Mediterranean, killed by the soldiers and poisoned by a snake! Each incident seemed to be designed to prevent him from reaching his God-planned, God-promised destination. Since Luke concentrates on the storm, we need to remember that the sea, reminiscent of the primeval chaos, was a regular Old Testament symbol of evil powers in opposition to God. It was not the forces of nature (water, wind and snake) or the machinations of men (schemes, plots and threats) which were arrayed against Paul, but demonic forces at work through them. Scripture is full of examples of the devil seeking to thwart God’s saving purpose through his people and his Christ. He tried through Pharaoh to drown the baby Moses, through Haman to annihilate the Jews, through Herod the Great to destroy the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, and through the Sanhedrin to stifle the apostolic witness and smother the church at its birth. And now through the storm at sea he attempted to stop Paul bringing his gospel to the capital of the world.
But God obstructed his purpose. Luke increases the excitement of his story by letting us into his secret, namely that Jesus had promised Paul in advance that he would reach Rome (23:11). So we know from the beginning that he will get there. But as the narrative proceeds and the storm becomes ever more violent, until all hope is lost, we wonder how on earth he will be rescued, Will he make it? Yes he will! He does! For he was rescued by the divine overruling, which Luke makes clear by his repeated use of the vocabulary of ‘salvation’ (Acts 27:20, 31, 34, 43, 44; 28:1, 4).
Tomorrow: Conclusion (continued).