Monday, August 20, 2012
In Search Of Truth, Acts 27:1-44
You might notice that the pronoun "we" appears again. Luke, the author of Acts, was likely nearby for much of what happened to Paul since the last mention of "we" in Chapter 21, but he officially joined Paul on his journey to Rome at this point.
There are a number of locations mentioned that I won't go into detail about, but I'll still share a few details I found helpful to look up and sort out.
"Augustan" was an honorary term known to be attached to military personnel. And a cohort represented about 500-1000 soldiers. So Paul was handed over to a centurion named Julius, from an elite or honored military company. The centurion had some soldiers with him, but we aren't told exactly how many (v.1)
Centurion, soldiers, Luke, Paul, sailors and other prisoners, all set sail on a non-military commercial vessel. Aristarchus is also mentioned to be along for the ride. He is mentioned to be a part of Paul's travels earlier (19:29, 20:4) and may have made himself a voluntary prisoner of Rome in order to accompany Paul. This possibility, along with the care Paul was given by friends at Sidon, reminds me that the Christian life is not a loner's journey, but one meant to be supported by self-sacrificing relationships with others. (v.2-3)
A "lee" is a wind shelter. So Paul and company were sailing close to Cyprus to avoid the heavy winds common this time of year, which also resulted in a slower journey. (v.4)
The slow-going journey continues and increases in challenge as they fight the winds and change ships. "The Fast" refers to "The Day Of Atonement", which falls in a time of year that became increasingly difficult to sail, due to weather.
Paul tried to warn Julius that the journey was putting both passengers and cargo in serious danger, but Julius didn't give much weight to this "religious criminal" and went with the pilot and majority instead, who wanted to press on rather than spend a difficult winter in their current harbor. (v.5-12)
Things momentarily looked better, but soon got even worse than before, with winds blowing the ship out of control. They were even in danger of losing the ship's "boat". The "boat" referred to in verse 16 is a life-boat/maneuvering boat used for docking. Often ancient ships dragged these small boats behind them, but the storm became strong enough that they had to secure theirs on deck. (v.13-16)
They soon found themselves out of control and needing to throw the cargo overboard. On top of this, the clouds covered both the sun and stars for days, removing any ability they had to determine where they were. In a time long before any modern navigation tools, these were all indicators that the sea would once again add lives to the countless it had already claimed. (v.17-20)
The men on the ship were without hope, and without food in their stomachs (likely due to sea-sickness). But Paul explained that God had just promised him that every man who sails with him will survive the journey. Once again, despite his circumstances, Paul was reminded of God's promise for him to share the truth about Jesus in Rome. God had now added to that promise the protection of those sailing with Paul, and affirmed that Paul would specifically appear before Caesar. (v.21-26)
Still out of control on the fourteenth night of travel, the sailors suspected they were close enough to land to risk an escape from the ship, though did so secretly since the small maneuvering boat wouldn't hold everyone.
Paul caught them in the act and warned Julius and the soldiers to stop them or risk injury or danger of some kind. (God's promise did not rule out injury, and as you might guess, sailors are a critical part of successfully running a ship.) But the soldiers cut the boat away and let the sailors go, probably to avoid placing their own lives in further danger. (v.27-32)
At this point, the men had not eaten for a very long time. But in order to get to land without the sailors' help, they would need everyone as strong and alert as possible. Paul's courage, in light of God's promises, allowed him the stomach to eat and his courage became contagious as the other men ate as well.
With some of their strength restored, they were able to lighten the ship's load further and saw some land. Then it was "all or nothing" time. They ditched the anchors, let loose the rudders, caught the wind and rammed that ship straight into the land. The front of the ship wedged itself into the ground and the back half started breaking up from the sheer force of the waves. (Anyone else think this would make a good movie? Wow!) (v.33-41)
Any "all for one and one for all" attitude that might have held together while in survival mode nearly fell apart, though. The soldiers, rather than risk punishment for letting prisoners escape (and now would be a GREAT time!), nearly started killing them all. But Julius stopped them, and coordinated the evacuation so that every man on board lived to tell the tale. (v.42-44)
A few things strike me about this passage overall. The first is the detail Luke offers in his description. Ports, ships, names and dates. Despite the epic nature of this story, it is not written in the style of any legendary myths of this time period. It's filled with real historical details that Luke expected his audience to be familiar with and able to verify. Anyone trying to label the book of Acts as legendary fiction has the best evidence working against them.
The other thing that strikes me is Paul's faith and character. Even if I had just received a miraculous vision promising my survival, in the light of massive, overpowering waves and dozens of panicked people, I'd be second-guessing whatever vision I saw. But Paul trusted that every detail of God's promise would be fulfilled, without compromise or exception.
And not only did Paul's faith carry him through a terrifying situation, but it was a source of inspiration and encouragement that very tangibly helped those around him.
There is always room for questions in our faith, and God expects our doubts and that we will voice them (as my time in the Psalms has reminded me lately). But as God proves himself through either evidence or action, our willingness to trust him with the remaining unknowns and "storms" of life should be growing in response.