9 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 27:39-28:10. Shipwreck on Malta.
Although, even when it was light, the crew did not recognise the island, they later found that it was Malta (28:1), and James Smith was convinced that the place of the shipwreck was the traditional site which is known as St. Paul’s Bay, on the island’s north-east coast. Certainly the combination of rocks (29), which he identified as the low rocky point of Koura, the ‘bay with the sandy beach’ (39), and the ‘sand-bar’ (41) or ‘shoal’ (RSV), literally a ‘place of two seas’, which he believed was the mud-bottomed creek between the islet of Salmonetta and the mainland, led him to say ‘how perfectly these features still distinguish the coast’. Of course during the subsequent nineteen centuries bays, beaches, sandbanks and even rocks have probably changed their contours; nevertheless, there seems no reason to question the identification.
The sailors ‘slipped the anchors…loosened the lashings of the steering-paddles’, which in ancient vessels did duty for rudders, ‘set the foresail to the wind, and let her drive to the beach’ (40, NEB). But the ship struck sand or mud, which was probably submerged, and while the bow was immovable, the surf broke the stern to pieces (41). When the soldiers, acting without orders, intended to kill the prisoners (42), knowing that by Roman law if anyone escaped they would themselves be liable to bear his punishment, the centurion stopped them. He then ordered the swimmers to jump overboard first (43), while the rest were to use planks or pieces of wreckage with which to get ashore. ‘So it came true’, wrote J.B.Phillips, probably to express the fulfilment of God’s purpose and promise, ‘that everyone reached the shore in safety’ (44).
b). The bonfire on the beach. (28:1-6).
The noun translated ‘islanders’ in verses 2 and 4 is *barbaroi*, but the AV rendering ‘barbarous people’ and ‘barbarians’ is incorrect. The Greeks used the word for all foreigners who spoke (instead of Greek) their own native language. The *unusual kindness* they showed the shipwrecked seafarers, by building a fire in the cold and rain of the early morning (2), indicates that they were the opposite of uncouth savages. Paul played his part by gathering ‘a large bundle of sticks’, out of which there slithered a viper, dislodged by the heat. Luke does not explicitly say that Paul was bitten, although perhaps his statements that the snake *fastened itself on his hand* (3) and was *hanging from his hand* (4) are meant to imply this. Certainly the islanders took it for granted that he had been bitten. They then jumped to the conclusion that he was a murderer who, having escaped from drowning, was now being pursued and about to be poisoned by the goddess *Dike*, the personification of justice and revenge. But as they watched Paul shook the viper into the fire and neither swelled up nor dropped down dead. Luke is obviously amused that they should immediately change their minds and call him a god. So fickle is the crowd that in Lystra Paul was first worshipped, then stoned (14:11-19), while on Malta he was first called a murderer, then a god. But the truth was at neither extreme. Instead of being drowned or poisoned by *Dike*, Paul had actually been protected from both fates by Jesus (Lk. 10:19; cf. Mk.16:18).
c). The healings on the island (28:7-10).
The land near the beach belonged to a man named Publius whom Luke calls the island’s *protos*, its ‘first’ or most prominent person, perhaps its ‘chief official’ (NIV), ‘chief magistrate’ (NEB) or even ‘governor’ (JBP). He opened his house to ‘us’, Luke says, presumably a selection of the shipwrecked men, not all 276 of them (!), and for three days was lavish in his hospitality (7). While in the house, they became aware that Publius’ father was also there, sick in bed. Luke describes his complaint as ‘fever and dysentery’, which Dr, Longenecker tentatively diagnoses as ‘Malta fever’, which he adds, ‘was long common in Malta, Gibraltar and other Mediterranean locales’. The micro-organism, which causes it, was apparently identified in 1887 and traced to the milk of Maltese goats. Although a vaccine has been developed, the fever lasts on average for four months and sometimes persists even for two or three years. Not on the case of Publius’ father, however. For through prayer and the laying-on of hands Paul healed him instantly (8). As the news spread, all the island’s sick *came and were cured* (9). Although Luke here employs a different verb (*therapeuo*), which was used for medical treatment, and which he himself will have used for his work as a doctor, there is no hint in his text that he means us to think of Publius’ father’s healing as miraculous and of the other healings as medical. Supernatural cures were part of the apostle’s ministry (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12), and the gratitude of the islanders was expressed in giving gifts and providing supplies. (10).
Tomorrow: Acts 28:11-16. 5). Arrival in Rome.