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"At least I have my health!" How many times have we heard this declaration of the high, if not supreme, value placed on physical well-being? What is God's perspective on physical health? How is it related to the saving "wholeness" the gospel announces?
Though the crew and passengers were safely on shore (diasothentes; compare 27:43-44), they still faced the possibility of slavery or death if they met unfriendly islanders. The inhabitants of Malta could well have been such. Luke labels them "barbarians" (note NIV's softening to islanders). Their language was a Punic (Carthaginian) dialect. The island, strategically located at the narrows of the Mediterranean, had been settled from Phoenician Carthage in the sixth century B.C. Though Rome had captured it from Carthage in 216 B.C. and Augustus had settled veterans and their families on it, those who met Paul at this remote bay were of the original settlers' stock.
God in his providence made the rescue complete, for these uncouth, uncivilized islanders showed unusual kindness and welcomed the shipwreck survivors with a fire. Though the temperature may have been about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the rigors of the journey and the swim to shore had soaked the travelers to the bone. A fire was necessary relief from the rain and cold. Paul's promise, Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head (27:34), continued to be true.
Jesus and Paul modeled the "character of authority as service" (Lk 22:25-27; L. T. Johnson 1992:461). Thus Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and . . . put it on the fire. No act of service for the health and well-being of others was too menial for him or his Master, nor should it be for us. But in that act danger struck: a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. Lawrence of Arabia relates a similar experience: "When the fire grew hot a long black snake wound slowly out into our group; we must have gathered it, torpid, with the twigs" (Lawrence 1927:107, quoted in Bruce 1988:497).
The islanders, steeped in an animistic worldview, thought of the gods as using the forces of nature, especially storm and sea, for retributive justice. They interpreted Paul's snakebite as the work of the goddess "Justice" against Paul, who must be a murderer. In a Greek epigram Statyllius Flaccus tells of a mariner who escaped the whirlwind and fury of the deadly sea, only to be slain by a viper on the Libyan sand (Greek Anthology 7.290).
The islanders were following the conventional wisdom: "bad things happen to bad people." Yet Paul's innocence (23:29; 26:31) encourages Luke's readers and us to take a second look at the significance of this snakebite. At the very least, it calls into question the adequacy of any worldview that solves the problem of evil in such a mechanistic fashion.
In a very matter-of-fact way Paul shook the snake off and suffered no ill effects. Thus he proved true Jesus' promise to his messengers (Lk 10:19; compare Ps 91:13). Still, suffering no harm is the exception, not the rule, for Christian disciples in general and for Paul in particular (Acts 14:22; 9:16).
The islanders kept on expecting Paul to either swell up (compare Num 5:21, 27) or burn with fever (pimprasthai can mean either; Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:658) and suddenly fall dead as the poison acted to destroy blood corpuscles and vessels. But their expectations went unfulfilled. How were they to explain Paul's preservation in health? They began to say, or repeatedly said, "He is a god!"
The islanders' about-face shows the power of a worldview for interpreting experience--and how a non-Christian worldview often won't "get it right." Those who have a non-Christian worldview and observe a "witness in sign" are likely to misconstrue what is happening unless an interpretation, a "witness in word," is provided. Even then, unless the Lord opens the heart to understand the gospel witness, the miraculous sign will not serve to point unambiguously to the power of Jesus the Savior. The Maltese are not alone in misinterpreting a "witness in sign" (Acts 2:12-13; 3:12; 8:18-21; 14:11-18; 19:13-16). And today Luke calls the "signs and wonders" movement to reckon with this ambiguity and aim to make the Spirit-empowered, Spirit-illuminating proclamation of the gospel message central to any "power encounter."
In parallel with the islanders' initial welcome is the official welcome by Publius, the chief official on the island. Luke's report of the survivors' three days of hospitality at Publius's estate would certainly enhance Paul's status in the eyes of Luke's readers, especially if us referred only to Paul and his Christian companions.
Paul's host has an older relative who needs physical healing (compare Jesus' and Peter's ministry: Lk 4:38; Acts 9:33-34). Publius's father was sick in bed, suffering from bouts of fever and dysentery (pyretois, plural). It is probably the "Malta fever" (Micrococcus melitensis), which in the nineteenth century was traced to the milk of Malta goats and for which a vaccine was developed in 1887. Untreated, it lasted an average of four months, but in some cases up to two to three years (Longenecker 1981:565).
Paul parallels Jesus' and Peter's practice in some ways: he goes to the bedside and lays hands on the man (Lk 4:39-40; Acts 9:34; compare Paul's experience in 9:17). But he makes a significant addition: he prefaces the laying on of hands with prayer, thus showing as explicitly as possible the true source of the healing power (compare Jn 11:41-42).
The islanders' misunderstanding of Paul's survival after the snakebite--"He is a god!"--explains his methods here. Publius's father and the Maltese must learn for the first time--and we must never forget--that any restoration of physical health comes from God, whether it be directly or through the practice of medicine. We, like Paul, show that we are convinced of this truth if we ask for healing in prayer.
The sick on the island respond to the news of the healing by "approaching" Paul, one after another, and "being healed" by him (imperfect continuous action; compare Lk 4:40-41; Acts 5:15-16). Though Christians may differ on what aspects of Paul's miraculous ministry were unique to him as an apostle and which are possible today, all should agree that the proclamation of the "whole gospel" will involve prayer-saturated witness to and concern for the "whole person" (compare Jas 5:13-18).
Paul experiences what he had instructed the Corinthians about--the dynamic of sowing spiritual things and reaping physical things (1 Cor 9:11; also see Rom 15:27). The islanders honored Paul's party in many ways and furnished them with the supplies . . . needed. A mercy ministry embraced in truth will not simply amaze or bring physical restoration--it will make one merciful.