Acts 27 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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The Shipwreck

Eric Liddell, "the Flying Scotsman," won the four-hundred-meter race at the 1924 Paris Olympics in world-record time. But his real heroics occurred twenty years later, in the Weihsien concentration camp in China. This missionary's faith and energy encouraged many of the eighteen hundred trapped in the camp's squalid conditions. "Uncle Eric" to children separated from their parents, he "organized activities, served as a teacher and a guardian for youth, and fulfilled the role of pastor until a brain tumor claimed his life in February 1945" (Williamson 1991:127).

Many centuries and many miles away on the dark, storm-tossed Mediterranean, Paul too determined to make a difference to those around him. His example helps us understand what it is to proclaim by one's life the salvation blessings found in Christ alone.Warning: Conserve Skilled Human Resources (27:27-32)

Two weeks, or 324 hours, have passed since Cauda. If the ship has been driven across the Adriatic Sea at a rate of one and one-half knots, it has covered 482 nautical miles. On a course of a very shallow curve, the ship would find itself at Malta, 474 nautical miles from Crete (Haenchen 1971:705; Smith 1978:124-28). About midnight, whether from the waves' change of motion into a running swell or the sound of surf crashing against Point Koura, a quarter of a mile away, the sailors sensed they were approaching land. Luke actually speaks from the point of view of the seafarers, who see the boat as stationary, and says, "The land was approaching."

The sailors test their sense that land is near by casting a leadline over board to take depth soundings. The "lead had a hollow on the underside which, filled with tallow or grease, brought up samples of the bottom" (Casson 1971:246; Herodotus History 2.5). Their unit of measure is "fathom," the distance between fingertips when the arms are extended--approximately six feet (E. F. Harrison 1986:420). Probably no more than thirty minutes later (Smith 1978:130-31), a second sounding finds that the sea floor is thirty feet closer.

The sailors take immediate action to halt the ship's drift toward a coast that they cannot make out in the dark. They hurl four anchors from the ship's stern, probably by casting a cable with two anchors attached from each side of the stern. This would not only halt the ship's progress but also position its bow facing the shore to prevent the waves from making damaging broadside blows.

The vessel is now poised for its approach at daybreak. The sailors have done all they know to do. Now all that is left is to keep on wishing for daylight (NIV prayed for daylight). Though God is sovereign, human beings still have responsibility. These sailors met theirs, and we must meet ours, especially in adverse circumstances that can tempt us to despairing passivity.

So important is the crew to the survival of all that when some seek to escape, under the pretext of using the dinghy to position anchors from the bow, Paul draws this to the attention of the centurion and his men: Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved. Luke may be playing on his leitmotif of salvation here, speaking of physical rescue but intending to point beyond it (compare Acts 4:9, 12; 16:30-31). The word of promise is "God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you" (27:24). If the sailors jump ship, this promise cannot be fulfilled for them or for the passengers.

The assurance of physical salvation through belief in the divine message to Paul and the commitment to remain with him is an acted parable of the essentials of spiritual salvation: believing the gospel message and solidarity with the gospel messenger (14:3-4; 16:14-15, 32-34; 17:2-4, 34; 18:8). Impulsively or wisely, the soldiers cut the ropes so that the dinghy falls away. The passengers' and crew's fate will now be the same.Encouragement to Gather Strength (27:33-38)

Each successive appearance of Paul in the voyage narrative moves him more to the center. As the key to the physical survival of all on board, he encourages these who because of constant suspense (anxious expectation; compare Lk 21:26) have not gone to the galley to prepare a meal for a fortnight (they may have nibbled, however, on their own supplies--Williams 1985:438). He urges them to gather strength for the final push to shore by taking a meal. Again he uses salvation terminology: You need it to survive (literally, "This is for your salvation"). His reassurance comes in the form of a proverbial saying present in the Old Testament and Jesus' teaching: Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head (1 Sam 14:45; 2 Sam 14:11; 1 Kings 1:52; Lk 21:18). So certain is physical rescue under divine providence that not even a hair--the most easily detachable part of the human body--will be lost in the process.

Paul matches words with actions: he took some bread and gave thanks to God. . . . Then he broke it and began to eat. We should not doubt that Luke wants us to understand that Paul eats here with eucharistic intent (Lk 22:15-20; 24:30-31, 35; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11). Originally the words of institution probably bracketed everyday meals of the believers, so the sanctifying giving of thanks and inaugural breaking of bread took on a kerygmatic significance in combination with Jesus' words, "This is my body given for you." Paul could have done this here, but to what effect? This is the climax of this acted parable, in which physical salvation by divine providence, mediated by the wisdom and guidance of God's apostle, points to the spiritual salvation of which this apostle is also a messenger. To those who "just don't get it," Paul is simply being prudent--eating food in thankfulness and confidence. But to those who hear the Lord's death proclaimed until he comes, Paul's eucharistic example leads to the open secret of the apostle's life: faith in Christ's saving work.

The ship's company are encouraged. They turn away from their anxious, despairing vigil (27:20) and regain sufficient heart to take food. Indeed, all 276 on board eat their fill (Lk 9:17) and then set about final preparations for approaching the shore. The precious cargo of grain, which has served as ballast in the storm, would now prevent them from running aground as high on the shore as possible. So they begin to jettison it. The effect of Paul's encouragement and eucharistic example demonstrates the power of one who has determined to be "salt and light," as well as a witness, to those around him.A Saving Presence--the Prophecy Fulfilled (27:39-44)

At daybreak the crew makes a decision based on their observations. They "tried to recognize" the land (conative imperfect; Williams 1985:441). All they can make out is a bay with a sandy beach, but they hope that here they can "beach the ship." That is their plan, if they "might be able" to pull it off (dynainto: the optative mood of personal wish shows the level of uncertainty under which they continue to labor; compare 27:12-13).

They "cut loose the anchors," or simply let the anchor ropes fall into the sea (Haenchen 1971:707). They untie the ropes that held the rudders. These two large paddles, secured during the storm, are now lowered into place on each side of the ship at the stern to provide steerage (Casson 1971:228). They hoist the foresail to the wind; this sail sloped forward almost like a bowsprit and also provided steerage (Lake and Cadbury 1979:338). Then the crew "began to head" for the beach (inceptive imperfect; Kistemaker 1990:941).

At the entrance to the bay they unexpectedly struck a sandbar; today the shoal is thirty-nine feet below the surface, but then it probably stood in only thirteen feet of water. The ship effectively ran aground, for the bow stuck fast and would not move. The rocks of Malta disintegrate into extremely minute particles of sand and clay when acted upon by currents or by surface agitation. They form a tenacious deposit of clay (Smith 1978:144). The combination of the bay floor's composition and the direction of the wind made this sandbar the ship's final resting place. But the sea was not through with the ship. The pounding of the surf gradually broke up the stern (continuous imperfect). Paul's prophecy was coming true: only the ship will be destroyed (27:22).

The soldiers knew that they could pay with their lives for any prisoners who escaped when all abandoned ship for land. So they planned to kill the prisoners. But the centurion had other plans (compare previous Roman protection: 21:33-36; 23:10, 23; 25:1-12). To spare [diasosai] Paul, he thwarted their plan and ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. In a very real sense Paul was a "saving presence," for saving him automatically meant saving the other prisoners. Thus as a mediator of physical preservation, Paul again becomes a living parable of spiritual salvation, which is just as certain when persons take refuge in the name Paul preaches (16:31). Whether swimming, floating on planks (which may have been used to hold the grain cargo in place) or riding on the backs of swimmers, everyone reached land in safety.

The comforting prophetic word had been fulfilled to the last letter (27:22, 34). The strongest of natural forces threatening Paul's existence had been unable to thwart God's providential purposes for him. Solidarity with Paul meant physical life. For those considering the claims of Christ, the question is, If God's messenger can be so salubrious to old salts, what can his message do for me?

Previous commentary:
Caesarea to Crete; the Storm

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