Acts 27 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Caesarea to Crete; the Storm
During the apostle Paul's "ministry in chains" he has successfully maneuvered around mob attack, scourging, plot and ambush (21:32-33; 22:22-25; 23:10, 12-34; 25:3-12). Just when he appears to be "home free," granted safe passage to Rome, Paul faces his greatest challenge: a storm at sea. Will natural forces do what human opponents have been unable to do--thwart God's gracious purposes for Paul to preach the gospel in Rome (19:21; 23:11)?
As Paul embarks on his journey to Rome, Luke reminds us of his prisoner status. Paul is handed over along with other prisoners into centurion Julius's custody (compare Lk 23:25). Julius chooses a homeward-bound coasting vessel that is about to call at ports on the western coast of the province of Asia until it came to its home port, Adramyttium, located south of Troas, east of Assos and facing the island of Lesbos. Paul's traveling companions include at least Luke and the Macedonian Christian Aristarchus (Acts 19:29; 20:4; Col 4:10, 14; Philem 24).
Borne along by the Syrian coastal current--the Nile water that runs north--the ship, moving at a speed of three knots, covers the sixty-nine nautical miles to Sidon in twenty-three hours. Sidon, mother city of the Phoenicians, with its double harbor, figures prominently in Luke's Gospel as a model of repentant Gentile receptivity to the teaching of Jesus (Lk 6:17; 10:13-14; compare 4:26). It was probably evangelized during the Hellenistic Jewish Christian dispersion after Stephen's death. There were a number of times during Paul's earlier ministry when he may have visited the church there (Acts 11:19, 30; 12:25; 15:3). Through the kindness of the centurion Paul is freed, probably under guard, to visit friends in the city. They provide for his needs, which, as I. Howard Marshall (1980:404) conjectures, may have included conversation, a meal and some gifts to help on the journey.
In contrast to Jesus' suffering, Paul knows relief both from a centurion who shows kindness and from the companionship of friends on board and along the way. The importance of the support of Christian friends should not be underestimated.
On the next leg of the journey, as they strike out to the west, the travelers encounter adverse weather. Contrary winds from the west block their progress. Since their square-rigged vessel does not readily tack into the wind and make headway in a zigzag fashion, the crew chooses to use the island of Cyprus as a shield, sailing on its lee, its northern side which faced away from the wind. They may also want to take advantage of the westward two-mile-per-hour current along the southern coast of Asia Minor, as well as the land breezes that at night flow down the valleys perpendicular to the sea (see Heliodorus Aethiopica 4.16.10). So as Luke narrates, We . . . sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, [and] landed at Myra in Lycia. Myra, on the western third of Asia Minor's south coast, was a chief port of the imperial grain service, a regular port of call for grain vessels taking the northerly route from Alexandria to Rome. Archaeological remains of the grain storage facilities attest to its importance.
The Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy, on which the centurion books passage for himself and his prisoners, is probably a vessel in the imperial grain fleet. Since the main time for the Alexandria-to-Rome run was in late spring and early summer, the ship's presence at Myra in early fall probably indicates it is on a second run that the owners are trying to squeeze in before winter (Casson 1971:298).
On this portion of the trip--Myra to Fair Havens, Crete--the same contrary winds from the west accost them. After many days they only succeed in making Cnidus, a port at the western end of a long promontory of southwest Asia Minor which stretches out into the Adriatic. As they leave Cnidus and enter the open sea, the northerly winds of the Adriatic blow against them, preventing them from maintaining their westward course. So they drop under the lee of Crete, sailing along its southern coast, again using an island as a shield. Even so, keeping close to the coast and making westward progress is difficult. The ship barely makes Fair Havens, a harbor at the midpoint of Crete's south coast, twelve miles east of Cape Matala and five miles from Lasea.
The ancients divided the navigational year on the Mediterranean into four periods (Hesiod Works and Days 663-68; Vegetius Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39; compare Genesis Rabbah 6:5b, "The crossing of the Great Sea too: Thus saith the Lord, who giveth a way in the sea [Is 43:16]--from Pentecost until the Festival [Tabernacles]"--mid-May to mid-October). Optimum sea travel could be expected during the summer months, May 15 to September 15. Dangerous times for sailing were September 16 to November 10 and March 11 to May 14. Sea travel on the Mediterranean ceased between November 11 and March 10.
As the ship lies in port at Fair Havens, it is already the dangerous period--after the Fast, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurred in the fall, the tenth day of Tishri. In A.D. 59 this would have been October 5 (Marshall 1980:406).
Paul's warning is well founded (v. 10). Vegetius described the dangers of "winter sailing" as scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility and the double raging of winds, showers and snows (Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39). The dangerous period saw the beginning of such conditions.
As the centurion, the ship's captain (NIV pilot) and the ship's owner or his representative confer, the majority, possibly including most of the rest of the crew, reject Paul's counsel and decide to risk a forty mile-journey out in open sea around Cape Matala to Phoenix. Fair Havens's harbor was open to the east, leaving ships unprotected against winter winds (Earle 1982). Phoenix, at the west of the promontory Cape Mouros, was better suited for a wintering ship. The present Phoinika Bay fits the description, for it has an inlet that faces southwest, and there are traces of a inlet, now marred by silting and an earthquake, that faced northwest (Finegan 1981:196). Paul's cautionary word is the first of a number of initiatives in which the apostle demonstrates that he is indeed his "brother's keeper."
A gentle south wind comes up, like those common during the summer sailing season, and the officers and crew judge, though wrongly (12:9; 17:18; 26:9), that they have gained their purpose. They weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete some three or four miles to Cape Matala. It is probably as they round the cape that they meet a wind of hurricane force, called the "Northeaster," blowing down from 8,056-foot Mount Ida. The strong cold wind that blows across the Mediterranean in the winter from a general northeasterly direction is caused by a depression ("low") over Libya which induces a strong flow of air from Greece (Finegan 1981:197).
The storm so seizes the ship that the crew is unable to head the vessel into the wind and position it so that the waves will not strike it broadside and break it apart. Though in the main they had to give way to the wind, lower the sails and allow themselves to be driven, they did not do so totally. A small sail on the mast was used to tack and make headway into the wind. Otherwise the ship would have been broken apart by the waves (Haenchen 1971:701).
When people reject the wisdom gained from observing God's natural order, foolish decisions are likely to follow. As one mountaineer said as he turned back from the challenge of climbing an Alaskan peak because his equipment was inadequate for the icy conditions, "There are old mountaineers, bold mountaineers, but no old, bold mountaineers" (Robinson 1993).
The crew takes at least four steps to cope with the storm (Acts 27:16-19). First, under the protection of the lee, the south coast, of a small island called Cauda some twenty-three miles west of Cape Matala, they hoist and secure on deck the dinghy (NIV's lifeboat limits its uses) they are towing. They do this not only to rescue a waterlogged boat from the battering of the waves but also to prevent the rough seas from smashing it against the stern of the ship (Lake and Cadbury 1979:332). Second, they "frap" the ship, undergirding it with cables running vertically under its center hull, four or five turns. This strengthens the hull against the continual pounding of the waves.
Third, they lowered the sea anchor. This was a broad piece of wood held vertical by a weight below and an empty barrel on top. It would slow the ship's movement from crest to crest and help keep it on course (Haenchen 1971:703). The lowering of the mainyard with its sail and the setting of a storm sail may also be included in this lowering (compare Lucian Toxaris: Or, Friendship 19). If some sort of course westward could be maintained, they could avoid the sandbars of Syrtis. One hundred miles off the Libyan coast and three hundred miles in circumference, this area has deep waters with shallows; "the result is, at the ebb and the flow of the tides, that sailors sometimes fall into the shallows and stick there, and that the safe escape of a boat is rare" (Strabo Geography 17.3.20). So ancient sailors sailing along the North African coast kept a safe distance and took precautions not to be "driven by winds into these gulfs" (Strabo Geography 17.3.20).
Fourth, if we may understand verses 18 and 18 as dealing with the same gear, it is probably the mainyard spar, as long as the deck, and the accompanying gear and tackle that, after a failed first attempt, they succeed in throwing overboard on the third day (Clark 1975:145; NIV's cargo in v. 18 must then be differently understood). Thus lightening the ship by removing movable gear and tackle from the deck, the crew hopes to avoid further storm-induced damage to the ship's structure.
These herculean efforts to secure the ship, its course and their safety still left these sea voyagers at the mercy of the elements. The cloud cover and darkness of the storm meant they didn't know where they were for many days. The sun and the stars--in ancient times the only means of navigation on the open sea--were out of sight. Besides all this, the storm continued raging. Finally all hope was being abandoned (imperfect passive) that they would be saved (compare Lk 23:35, 37, 39).
When do we abandon hope? When we do not know where we are but do have the terrible knowledge that we may not get out alive. And such is the condition of many people today, disoriented in emotional, relational, social or physical storms.
The men had gone a long time without food. Asitia indicates this is voluntary. Is it anxiety, seasickness or the inedibility of the foodstuffs (because the storm spoiled them or made cooking impossible)?
Paul stands up in their midst (not as NIV, before them) and says, in essence, "Cheer up! The outcome will be positive." He reviews the counsel he gave at Fair Havens (27:10), not so much to say "I told you so" (contrast Longenecker 1981:561) as to partly establish why he should be believed now. Indeed, he frames what they should have done using his favorite verb for divine necessity (edei; compare Lk 24:44; Acts 23:11; 27:26). This may point to the revelatory quality of his prior warning (see note at v. 10). Paul, then, "urges" (same word translated "warned" in v. 9) them, Keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.
Paul immediately proceeds to give his source of information. His allegiance and his piety are devoted to the one true God (compare Lk 1:74; 2:37; Acts 24:14). That God has sent his angel "this very night" (NIV last night). He "approached me" (NIV stood beside me; compare 9:39) and gave this message of encouragement, which reaffirms a divine promise and announces a gracious gift. As at Corinth, the angel urged Paul to "stop being afraid" (18:9). He reiterated the divine necessity (dei) of standing trial before Caesar (23:11). He announced the good news: God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you (the perfect tense, has . . . given, communicates certainty). Luke does not explicitly say that this is in answer to Paul's intercession (contrast Marshall [1980:410], who cites Gen 18:23-33 as a parallel). All we can be sure of is that God is determined that Paul not perish at sea, and has further decided to preserve all those with him.
Paul's application of the angel's message to his fellow travelers is a call to keep up their courage. He also states that they will run aground on some island. He bases his call on his own faith that God's deed will match this prophetic word.
Paul models for us the stance of one who is convinced that God's gracious purposes cannot be thwarted, even when outward circumstances call that conviction into question. It is not that he is simply a practical man in a critical emergency--"keeping his head when all about him are losing theirs" (contrast Bruce 1988:475). Rather, it is precisely because he is an "impractical" holy man, a Christian apostle who receives messages from angels, that he can be an encouragement in the fury of the storm. His strength comes from beyond the storm: he "believes God," that he can accomplish what he has promised. Such faith is the foundation for a life of encouragement.