Paul’s Shipwreck


Acts 27:1-42

Text Comment



v.1

The next "we" section begins, which had been broken off at 21:18. Luke does not tell us where he has been the past two years. Many have thought, of course, that he spent the time largely in Palestine gathering material for his two-volume history (Luke-Acts).


v.2

At one of those Asian ports, the Centurion would find a ship headed for Rome. There was a famous study of this chapter written in 1856 by James Smith entitled The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. It was a technical demonstration of the accuracy of Luke’s account in regard to the circumstances of sea-travel in ancient times, Mediterranean weather, etc. An old work, it is still the standard text, and later research has confirmed Smith’s confidence in Luke’s accuracy. You may want to follow the progress of the voyage on the map in the back of your Bible.


v.8

Fair Havens is an open bay, a poor harbor in bad weather.


v.9

A Roman military writer tells us that sea travel was considered dangerous after the 15th of September and ceased for the winter from Nov. 11 to March 10. The year is almost certainly A.D. 59.


v.10

Whether Paul’s advice is commonsensical or based on prophetic revelation, Smith points out that it was undeniably sound. Gales at this time of year appeared suddenly and were terribly fierce and once out of Fair Havens they could only be driven out to sea.


v.14

That is, the Euroclydon (the wind from the NE), which was a well-known feature of these seas at this time of year. Smith writes [102]: "The sudden change from a south wind to a violent northerly wind is a common occurrence in these seas."


v.16

The "we" makes us wonder if we can see Luke himself among those dragging the trailing skiff aboard so that their one lifeboat would not founder or be dashed against the larger ship. In the lee of the island the seas would be somewhat calmer and that made possible the bringing in of the boat.


v.17

The sandbars of Syrtis, off the coast of Libya, were a legendary danger to navigation in those days, something like the Bermuda Triangle today.


v.19

"with their own hands" is an eyewitness touch. None of the lifting gear you would use in port to shift the heavy spars and sails.


v.20

The ship by now is no doubt leaking badly.


v.21

On their not eating, Smith [118] includes an account from John Newton of his days at sea.

On a voyage from Cape Lopez a sea struck Newton’s ship and strained her so much that she nearly foundered.

"We found that the water having floated all our movables in the hold, all the casks of provisions had been beaten in pieces by the violent motion of the ship. On the other hand, our live stock, such as pigs, sheep, and poultry, had been washed overboard in the storm; in effect, all the provisions we had saved…would have subsisted us but a week at a scanty allowance."

And this is on top of the effect of seasickness!


v.24

The world has no understanding of what it owes to the presence among them of righteous men and women.


v.28

Smith did the calculations and found a remarkable agreement between Luke’s narrative and what is known about the likely course such a ship would take driven by such a wind and the distance it would travel at that speed. A fortnight would put them almost exactly at that spot. The soundings agree with present soundings taken at the probable vicinity of the wreck.


v.29

They needed daylight to tell how to steer the ship aground.


v.30

Readers of Robinson Crusoe remember that when his ship ran aground the crew took to the boat and all were drowned except Robinson who later made it back to the ship and reflected that all would have been spared if only they had stayed with the ship. But, in the midst of a storm, staring death in the face, one does not always make the best choices.


v.37

A perfectly credible number. Josephus gives an account of a shipwreck in a nearby part of the Mediterranean Sea where six-hundred were aboard.


v.39

The traditional site is St. Paul’s Bay on the north-east coast of Malta. At the entry to that bay there is a shoal, now sunk below its level in ancient times, which could well be where the ship ran aground.

Now that was an adventure. No one said that serving Christ would necessarily be tame business. Ask Tyndale or the Covenanters or Livingstone and a hosts of others whose loyalty to Christ and his kingdom landed them in many dangers. What a grand story the Bible tells!

But, there is another use for this narrative. The account of the shipwreck serves as an illustration of a very important piece of theological reasoning and has for centuries.

It has to do with the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It is wonderfully and very helpfully put forward in the account of the shipwreck.

You see the divine sovereignty, the divine plan, in vv.22-24. God had a plan and that plan includes Paul’s deliverance from the storm and the deliverance of everyone else with Paul. In a certain way, these 276 on board were God’s elect, the ones he had chosen for salvation from the storm. He doesn’t promise to rescue everyone in a storm at sea, but he promised to rescue these.

But how did the rescue come about?

Well in vv.30-31 the sailors attempt to effect an escape. It is prevented by the warning that Paul gives to the Centurion and his soldiers that if the sailors are allowed to flee those left on board will not survive.

And then we see it again in v. 34 where Paul urges the folk, exhausted, perhaps seasick, from the long ordeal at sea, for the days at death’s door, to take food. You need it to survive, he told them. Perhaps it is most likely that he meant that the trip to shore would take more resources of strength from them than they had left. They needed a meal to recover their strength, for they would depend upon their strength the following day.

And, as it happened, that is exactly what occurred. The sailors were prevented from leaving the ship by the action of the soldiers and everyone had a meal and so was ready for the swim to shore the following day — a swim they hadn’t planned on, hoping to run the ship aground on the sandy beach. As it happened, however, a swim or kicking ashore on planks of wood turned out to be the only way to get ashore. And in this way they all made it alive, all 276 of them.

And so it was. God had a plan, but that plan came to pass through the warnings and urgings of Paul, through the actions of the Centurion and his men, and through the urgings of Paul and the obedience of the folk on board. In each case it is clear that without the steps that were taken — to keep the sailors from escaping and to convince the people to eat — the plan would not have come to pass. Paul says so explicitly in v. 31 and it is implied in his remark in v. 34 that they "need the food to survive."

But this is an exact parallel of the matter of salvation itself. There is a divine plan: he has a chosen people, there salvation is certain, their names are in the book of life, Christ will raise them to life at the last day.

But, at the same time, there are means appointed to secure their salvation: the work of Christ, the work of his Spirit in them, and their own believing, repenting, obeying, and persevering. And over and over again the Bible makes no bones about the fact that the means are an essential instrument of the plan, necessary to its fulfillment.

If Christ had stumbled in Gethsemane…
If someone will not believe and obey…
If God’s people do not persevere in the faith…

Salvation is lost, the plan of God falls to the ground, the chosen are damned anyway. Now, that cannot happen, of course. But the Bible nevertheless speaks of a real "if…then," of means that are essential to the accomplishment of the divine purpose.

Just as God intended to save all 276 from the storm, but saved them precisely through their heeding Paul’s warnings, so God has chosen to save his elect in one way and one way only, by Christ and their life of persevering faith.

We might have expected one of the soldiers, perhaps the Centurion, to say to Paul as the sailors were effecting their escape from the ship, "No, you told us that you had had a vision and that we all would be spared. You can’t now say that we will be spared only if we prevent the sailors from escaping. Did God make a promise of our safety to you or didn’t he?"

Oh, yes, God made that promise. And he kept it. But he kept it by means of Paul’s warnings. And so it is with salvation.

  1. God promises the security of his elect (John 10): they shall never perish.
  2. God warns his people to persevere in their faith (Heb. 10) lest they fail to obtain salvation.

The warning brings to pass the promise of security. "They are kept by the power of God through faith" as Peter says. We cannot do justice to Holy Scripture and to its words and arguments if we do not believe both God’s sovereign plan of salvation and the certainty of its fulfillment and the integrity of the means that God has appointed by which that plan will be brought to pass.

In Rom. 9 Paul says as bluntly as it can be said that God will save whom he chooses and when he anticipates the objection that such absolute control on God’s part renders the human will irrelevant he responds not by defending human freedom but by putting man in his place as a creature: "who are you, O man, to answer back to God?"

But, in the very next chapter, Rom. 10:13ff., after reminding his readers that "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved," he asks: "but how can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"

The chosen will be saved, but they will be saved by the preaching of the gospel and the witness of other Christians and in no other way. The message must get out or election itself is null and void. The fact that the message will get out does not minimize the stress the Bible places on the necessity of the means.

The history of the church reveals a pattern of attempting to resolve this apparent conflict between a divine plan certain of fulfillment and real conditions absolutely requiring to be fulfilled by sacrificing one doctrine or the other, by breaking off one or the other horns of this dilemma.

  1. The hyper-Calvinists of whom there used to be many more but who remain in some numbers even in our man-worshipping day solved the problem by denying the real conditionality of the gospel. In terms of the narrative of the shipwreck, they might have said that God used these means — Paul’s warnings — to effect his plan, but they would also have admitted that had Paul’s warnings not been heeded, the folk would have been saved by some other means. [The Baptist pastor replying to William Carey: "Young man, when God determines to convert the heathen, he will do it without your help!"] Technically, a hyper-Calvinist is one who denies the free offer of the gospel, viz. that the invitation to believe in Christ and be saved ought to be presented to the world at large, including the non-elect. (Nowadays, anyone who believes in sovereign grace is liable to be called a hyper-Calvinist!) But, in practice, what hyper-Calvinism amounts to is a preference for the Bible’s message of divine sovereignty to its message of human responsibility, It is an imbalance on the sovereignty side. They are more comfortable in Rom. 9 than in Rom. 10.
  2. On the other side, most people, esp. in our day, solve the problem by denying the divine will and plan and its certainty of fulfillment. There is no tension for them because the only thing that is certain is the "if…then." If you believe, if you continue, if you repent, if you obey, you will be saved. The divine decree is only a decision to reward those who, by themselves, do believe and follow Christ. [The example of Guy Duty’s If ye continue (Bethany) who argues that real conditions nullify the Calvinistic teaching of sovereign grace or what he calls — in a huge blunder — "the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional salvation" which no Calvinist has ever taught to my knowledge. It is unconditional election that is worked out and brought to pass through the meeting, by God’s grace, of many conditions.]

Both viewpoints are travesties of the Bible’s clearest teaching. All things transpire according to the will of God (Eph. 1:11) and especially in salvation. Salvation comes to those whom God has chosen, Christ redeems the people the Father gave to him and will raise everyone of them up at the last day because they are his sheep and he laid down his life for them, those who were appointed for eternal life believe, and God, who began a good work in them, continues it until the day of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, faith, repentance, obedience, and perseverance are absolutely essential to salvation, without them salvation will not be given. The Bible says this too so clearly that he who runs may read. The Lord told Paul to stay in Corinth because he had much people in that city. They couldn’t find salvation without the gospel being brought to them. And Paul later warned those Corinthian Christians, "let him who thinks he is standing take heed lest he fall." A real danger, a real demand for perseverance, if one would be saved!

And the Bible never seeks a reconciliation between these two facts as though they were somehow at odds with one another. The 276 will be saved but they will be lost if the sailors are allowed to escape the ship. It denies what is clearly affirmed to argue either that Paul’s prophecy of everyone’s eventual salvation was not a certainty or that any action on the part of those on board would not have changed the result. God promised the result that came to pass and he brought it to pass by the means of Paul’s warnings.

He promises to save his elect and he saves them by all the means employed to produce in them a persevering faith and love.

We are willing to put it controversially to make the point. Election won’t save an unbeliever. And true faith will save a man even if he is not elect. (Now such things do not and cannot happen, you understand, faith comes from election and election produces faith, but it is a way of stating our firm adherence to all the Bible teaches: sovereign grace and real conditions.)

Sovereign grace is not fate (don’t bother with your seatbelt, because if your number is up…) And real conditions are not self-salvation.

The result:

  1. The glory is God’s for our salvation.
  2. In that salvation he deals with us from first to last as the human beings he has made us to be: thinking, feeling, choosing. He respects our humanity at every point.
  3. We have something to do, absolutely necessary to do, even as we console ourselves in the fact that our hope is in the Lord and not in ourselves.
  4. Election can in no way be turned into an excuse for indolence or sin. It does not in any way take away our responsibility.
  5. The only demonstration of election is a faithful life that heeds the warnings of God’s word and embraces its promises.

When people bring up the issue of sovereignty and free will, of divine election and human responsibility, you take them to the shipwreck and show them working together to deliver the 276 from death.