In our last study we saw Paul leave Caesarea by ship headed for Rome. Paul warned them on the Isle of Crete that they should stay there for the winter, but they pressed on and were caught in the midst of a severe storm. For fourteen days they were battered and tossed until finally ending up stuck on a reef. The waves destroyed the ship while the 276 men aboard made it safely to shore.
The ship was a total loss, but the entire crew, all 276 men, were saved by the hand of God as promised by the message of an angel who appeared to Paul in the midst of the storm, saying:
'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' Acts 27:24 NASB
I wonder if Paul thought of Psalm 107 as he reached the beach:
He caused the storm to be still, So that the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they were quiet, So He guided them to their desired haven. Psalms 107:29-30 NASB
This unusually dramatic and vivid chapter in Acts stresses God's sovereign control over circumstances to bring His will to pass, specifically that Paul should minister in Rome.
When they had been brought safely through, then we found out that the island was called Malta. Acts 28:1 NASB
Paul and his fellow shipmates discovered that they were shipwrecked on Malta, a small island about 18 miles long and 8 miles wide, located about 60 miles south of the island of Sicily, and about 500 miles west of Crete. The people who inhabited it in Paul's day were of Phoenician origin. Malta is a Phoenician word that means "refuge" or "escape."
The natives showed us extraordinary kindness; for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold, they kindled a fire and received us all. Acts 28:2 NASB
In mid-November the weather on Malta would be biting cold. The passengers would not have kept any heavy clothing, because they had to swim (or paddle on some piece of wreckage) to shore. We know that the storm was still raging, and thus there would have been high seas and strong winds. On top of this, it was raining. Can you imagine how cold folks were as they gathered on shore? Many of them would be suffering from hypothermia. The local people saw what was happening and came to help.
Luke says, "The natives showed us extraordinary kindness"--the Greek text says, "the kindness that you don't meet with often." They came out into the bad weather and kindled a fire for them to gather around as a relief from the rain and the cold. These are unbelievers showing this kindness to them.
On other beaches they might have found people waiting to kill them as they landed so as to collect their possessions. But God had prepared not only a beach to land on, but even the hearts of the people had been prepared.
The word "natives" here is the Greek word barbaros from which we get the word "barbarians." This doesn't mean that they were barbarians in the sense in which we use the word today. They were obviously caring people. "Barbarian" properly means: "one whose speech is rude, or harsh"; the word is onomatopoeic, indicating in the sound the uncouth character represented by the repeated syllable "bar-bar." Hence it signified one who speaks a strange or foreign language. The Greeks called anybody who spoke in a language other than Greek a barbarian.
Some scoffers have objected that there are now no trees on Malta. How, then, could they be gathering firewood? Easily. First, the fact that there are no trees now does not prove that there were no trees then. And there would certainly be driftwood on the beach.
But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. Acts 28:3 NASB
The able ones among the rescued no doubt busied themselves in doing what they could for the others. And, as usual, Paul was busy seeking to serve, and he assisted by gathering a bundle of sticks. Does that seem strange to you? The Apostle Paul gathering sticks? Culturally, it was strange. In the Hebrew culture, wood gathering was the work of women or children. So Paul is doing very menial work here when he gathers firewood.
Culturally, its strange, but Biblically, it isn't. Paul said he was a follower of Jesus:
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1 NASB
And Jesus said he was a servant of all:
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Mark 10:45 NASB
I think you would agree with me that as the Creator of the world, Jesus is in the supreme position of authority. But when He came to His creation, He did not come expecting to be served; He came to serve. And this is the same attitude He expects in His followers:
And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. Mark 10:42 NASB
Jesus illustrated His point from Gentile rulers; the Jews had experienced a number of them. And one thing was common to all: They lord it over their people. They were proud of their authority and very conscious of it, and they exerted it to the full. They were the masters, and they wanted everyone to know it.
This is biting irony. This is exposing the hypocrisy of the disciples. Because in the disciples' desire for position, rank, and precedence so that they might exercise authority over other people, they are no different than the Roman rulers they so despise.
And I suspect their hypocrisy and their struggle is ours also. In our workplace, in our neighborhood, and even in our church, we desire a place of rank or precedence that we might exercise our authority or influence for our own benefit--that we might exercise those things in our own interest:
"But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. Mark 10:43-44 NASB
"It is not so among you"-- As followers of Christ, as those redeemed through Christ's blood, as those who now live for the glory of Christ, it is not this way. The phrase "among you" implies all disciples, every congregation of believers. Jesus Christ insists on a distinct contrast between Kingdom citizens and the world.
"Be your servant"--the idea is of personal service rendered to others. The word for servant is diakonos. This verse, incidentally, describes the duties and responsibilities of a deacon; humble service to others.
"Slave of all"--the Greek word used here is doulos. Some translate this: "servant," which is not a very good translation. A servant is one who can quit. "Slave" better fits the picture here. Doulos conveys the idea of: "ownership, possession, dependency, subjection, loyalty." It also conveys the idea of: "willing service," not a forced service. They are slaves, but they are slaves by choice. They have willingly made themselves slaves of Jesus Christ to do His will.
The disciple's prime concern, said Jesus, is to serve, yes, even to be a bond servant. That is the test of greatness among Christians: They do not look for praise, They do not seek honor, They do not desire position. They gladly take the lowest task if it will help someone. They just want to be useful in God's service, and as long as God is satisfied, they are satisfied. That is true greatness.
Humility was no virtue in the ancient world. To be a slave meant that you were not a citizen, and you did not have the rights of citizenship. You were not free. You belonged to another. You could not pursue your own ambitions, but were left to the desires of someone else. Someone has said, "You will know whether a person is a servant or not by the way they act when they are treated like one."
Those who want to be great in Christ's kingdom must become the servant of all.
Paul echoes these words of Mark as he calls his readers and all Christians to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who deliberately humbled Himself:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, Philippians 2:5 NASB
In the eyes of the men from the ship, Paul had established a great deal of credibility with them--from taking charge when they needed a cool head to forecasting that they would all be spared despite losing the ship. Yet when it came time to gather sticks, we don't see Paul directing others to do it; he went and did it himself. And he is serving others after 14 days of no food, being storm tossed and then being in very cold water. He has been through a rough time and immediately he is serving others.
Humility is a must for the servant of God. After washing the disciples' feet, Jesus said:
"For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. John 13:15 NASB
Just as our Lord Jesus served His disciples by the humble task of washing their feet, so we are to serve others by humble service. Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, who, like his Master, sought to serve rather than be served, began gathering wood. We should never consider ourselves too good or too important to minister to others in humble ways.
But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. Acts 28:3 NASB
The natives knew their snakes, and when they saw the viper fasten itself to Paul's hand, they were certain that he would be dead in moments. A number of the New Testament scholars have commented upon the fact that from what we know of the island of Malta today, there are no poisonous snakes on the island, and so some have suggested that this was an event that was invented by Luke. The Island of Malta today is a very densely populated island, twelve hundred people per square mile, which is rather dense. As a matter of fact, the reason they do not have many snakes on the island, is there are so many people there.
When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, "Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live." Acts 28:4 NASB
Notice these natives theology, they interpret this event like the health/wealth people do. "If bad things happen to you, you must have sinned in some way." It illustrates the fact that so often we, like Jobs comforters, make judgments which are really not accurate at all.
It's likely that the word "justice," which is the Greek word dike, is a reference to a goddess named "Justice." Albert Barnes wrote: "Dike, or justice, was represented by the heathen as a goddess, the daughter of Jupiter, whose office it was to take vengeance, or inflict punishment for crimes" (Notes on the New Testament: Acts [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975], p. 370). The natives expected Paul to fall dead as one of her victims:
However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 But they were expecting that he was about to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. Acts 28:5-6 NASB
How would you respond to a poisonous snake stuck to your hand? After receiving a snakebite, most people would run around in a panic, but Paul merely flicked the snake off his hand. They waited and watched for him to swell up and fall down dead. But when nothing happened, they changed their opinion. Now they say, "He's not a murderer who managed to escape a storm, and now justice is going to take over and see that he dies for his sins. He's really a god." It seems like we are prone to attempt to interpret every event that happens.
Paul experienced a similar but opposite response earlier in his ministry at Lystra when he healed a lame man. The crown said, "The gods have become like men and have come down to us." Then shortly after this they tried to stone Paul to death.
I think Luke wants us to see this incident with the snake as symbolic. To Christians the snake represented Satan, and here was his representative seeking to destroy Paul, but failing. We see this over and over in the book of Acts. At Samaria, Simon Mageus clearly had reference to the kingdom of Satan. When Paul reached the Island of Cyprus, Elymas the magician was there, and Paul performed a miracle there with Elymas, suggestive again of satanic power. When he was in Philippi, there was the girl who was involved with the python; again, satanic involvement. And perhaps here, when he performed the miracle, the viper suggested to the apostle, that old serpent, Satan himself, and the truth of our Lord's ministry as that which breaks the bonds of Satan himself.
Now, when we reflect upon the fact that when the Lord called Paul to the ministry of apostleship He said that he was to:
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.' Acts 26:18 NASB
In this incident we see the kingdom of God is defeating Satan's kingdom.
This incident has caused a lot of misunderstanding in Church history. Many cults practice snake-handling as part of their worship services. Even to this day there are churches in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee that include snakes in their worship. Unfortunately, several people are bitten each year and die. These people take their authority from a text in Mark 16:14-18, which says:
"These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." Mark 16:17-18 NASB
How many of you have believed? How many of you will drink some poison? Why not? It says, "If they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them." The Bible never teaches that "all" believers will demonstrate these miraculous signs as these verses seem to say. What these verses teach is taught elsewhere in Scripture, but in relation to the apostles and not all believers.
Well, this incident with the serpent certainly gave Paul a much more attentive audience, as you can imagine.
Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us courteously three days. Acts 28:7 NASB
The title "first man of the island" or "leading man of the island" is known from archaeology to have been the title given to the Roman governor of Malta. His name was Publius. Luke says that Publius welcomed "us" and entertained "us" for three days. Luke says in verse 2, "they kindled a fire and received us all." The "us" here seems to refer to all 276 men. Then he apparently found them lodging for the winter.
And it happened that the father of Publius was lying in bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul went in to see him and after he had prayed, he laid his hands on him and healed him. Acts 28:8 NASB
One commentator writes, "He says he was sick with fever and with dysentery, which sounds very much like the common symptoms of the flu today." I think it was a little more serious than the flu. The Greek word used here is dissentar. That is the word from which we get the English word "dysentery." Some say this is probably a reference to cholera. Others say it was most likely Malta fever, which could last from four months to several years. In 1887 it was discovered to be caused by a bacterium in the milk of Maltese goats. At any rate, it was a very serious disease, and Paul healed him.
The Charismatics make a great deal over things like this, and say this should be the norm in the Church today. Well if we still had apostles, it probably would be. But we don't still have apostles, and this is not the norm for the Church. The apostles were individuals who had special gifts that were given to them for the transition age in which they lived. In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 Paul writes:
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. 2 Corinthians 12:12 NASB
These signs were given to authenticate the ministry of the apostles as God's representatives.
In the First Testament, for instance, God performed signs and wonders through His prophet Moses to demonstrate to Pharaoh that He alone is the only living God. The miracles of Jesus were all signs to demonstrate to the Jews that he was their Messiah and the Savior of the world. Nicodemus said to Jesus:
this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." John 3:2 NASB
The apostles followed and performed those works in order that their ministry might be authenticated. But since the days of the apostles, there have been no such miracles as were performed by our Lord and by the apostles. Many claims have been made comcerning modern day miracles, but unauthenticated. No one is raising people from the dead today.
There was a report of a number of miracles out in the East Indies, and some investigation was finally made by some responsible men, and they discovered it was really a semantic problem; that they had used terms such as we might use of a person who was converted who came from death into life. And they were misunderstood, and so the report circulated of people being raised from the dead:
After this had happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases were coming to him and getting cured. Acts 28:9 NASB
These healings, in addition to the viper incident, would have given Paul a credibility that would likely have opened doors for evangelism among these people, but Luke does not choose to discuss this. As is often the case throughout Acts, the Christian evangelism is simply assumed. We cannot doubt that every opportunity was taken to present the Good News, and that many responded.
According to tradition, Publius became the first Gentile Christian on the Island of Malta. Catacombs that have been discovered on the island dating from the fourth and fifth centuries have many drawings of Christian symbols.
The account of Paul's healings on Malta is very similar to the account of Jesus' healings at Capernaum at the beginning of His ministry:
Then He got up and left the synagogue, and entered Simon's home. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Him to help her. And standing over her, He rebuked the fever, and it left her; and she immediately got up and waited on them. While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them. Luke 4:38-40 NASB
In both cases, the healing of an individual is followed by the healing of "all" or "the rest" in a region. The individual, a relative of the healer's host, has been taken over by fever. There is also reference to laying on of hands. The similarities show that Jesus' healing ministry still continues through His witnesses. I think we see here a scene from the beginning of Jesus' ministry is echoed in the last description of healing in Acts:
They also honored us with many marks of respect; and when we were setting sail, they supplied us with all we needed. Acts 28:10 NASB
This indicates that many of them became believers, and that a church may have already been founded on Malta.
Here, as earlier (on board the ship), Paul's presence proved to be a blessing to all.
Paul blessed those on board his ship by encouraging them and by becoming the means of their deliverance. Paul blessed these shivering passengers by helping to keep the fire going. Paul was a blessing to Publius, his father, and to the natives of Malta by healing the sick. And because of the gratitude of these natives for Paul's ministry to them, Paul was a blessing to the passengers, who enjoyed the provisions the people of Malta gladly provided.
God's presence in His people should prove to be a blessing to those who are around His people. Do people see you as a blessing?
The last lap of the journey follows in verse 11 through verse 16:
At the end of three months we set sail on an Alexandrian ship which had wintered at the island, and which had the Twin Brothers for its figurehead. Acts 28:11 NASB
Luke is telling his readers how they made it from Malta to Rome. After spending three months in Malta, they found another Alexandrian wheat ship that had wintered nearby on which they could book passage. No ship would put to sea over those three winter months.
If you studied Greek mythology when you were in school, you might know who the twin brothers were, this is referring to Castor and Pollux. Zeus had two sons by Leda, and the two sons were Castor and Pollux. They became the guardian deities of sailors and navigators, so not surprisingly in a superstitious age, you would find ships which had the statues or some representation or image of these two gods upon them.
Luke's reference to the figurehead of this ship, from which it took its name, is unusual. This is the only ship's name that he recorded in Acts. Why does Luke tell us this? I think maybe Luke saw it as ironic that the sons of Zeus should carry to Rome the greatest opponent of Zeus in the Roman Empire.
After we put in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. Acts 28:12 NASB
After wintering on Malta for three months, they once again set sail, making port first at Syracuse, an important city of Sicily. Syracuse stood on the east coast of the island of Sicily. It was a busy port and the most important city on the island:
From there we sailed around and arrived at Rhegium, and a day later a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. Acts 28:13 NASB
Rhegium was near the tip of the "toe" of Italy's boot opposite Sicily. It, too, was an important harbor.
Puteoli--is a port in the bay of Naples, it was 180 miles farther north on the "shin" of the boot. It was a very large port and the final destination of many Egyptian wheat ships at this time. From this point, Paul and the others would travel by land, along the great Appian Way:
There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome. Acts 28:14 NASB
There they found a group of Christians and were heartily welcomed among them for "seven days," a period of joy and bliss.
"And thus we came to Rome"--this is not a travel description, but a triumphant eulogy. They had not really arrived in Rome. but Luke viewed Puteoli as close enough to warrant this enthusiastic announcement of their arrival. To them Puteoli in Italy spelled Rome. To arrive at Ostia or Puteoli signified Rome to all sea travelers. They were Rome's grain terminals.
And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet us; and when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage. Acts 28:15 NASB
Christians came out as far as the Market of Appius (44 miles from Rome) and Three Taverns (33 miles) to escort Paul into the city. Can you imagine what the rest of the travelers in Paul's company thought when they saw these people welcoming this prisoner as an important dignitary!
These believers had received Paul's letter to the Romans three years earlier (in A.D.57) from Corinth during his third missionary journey. Now they could meet the famed apostle, who was the author, for themselves. Paul must have felt like a conquering emperor being welcomed into Rome. Paul thanked God and took courage when he saw these Christians whom he had longed to see for several years (Rom. 15:23).
When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Acts 28:16 NASB
Paul had finally reached Rome, and was free to carry out his ministry there. Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier guarding him. This was pretty exceptional treatment. Paul's rented accommodations must have been rather spacious to accommodate the large groups that came to hear him.
Paul's desire and God's prophecy is finally fulfilled:
Now after these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome." Acts 19:21 NASB
But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, "Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also." Acts 23:11 NASB
Now Jesus' words given at the beginning of Acts will also be fulfilled, "You shall be my witnesses... even to the remotest part of the earth."
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