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Occasional Letters: All Safe to Land

D Newell, Glasgow

My father and my brother often waxed lyrical about the delights of Percy F Westerman, a popular writer of boys’ stories in the earlier part of the twentieth century who specialised in exciting yarns about the sea. Since, for me, an ocean trip tended to stimulate undesirable internal upheavals, I felt more at home on dry land – in the school classroom with Bunter, or even in the air with Biggles. But it was hard to escape those sea stories, for the literature of the British Isles is, not surprisingly, rich in nautical narratives. By contrast, Israel in Bible times had no effective coastline so that seafaring tales are few and far between. Even when the nation was at the zenith of its power in Solomon’s day there was no attempt to construct a Mediterranean port. After Jonah’s dramatic experience (itself occasioned by disobedience) and the Galilean squalls recorded in the Gospels there is nothing until Paul’s voyage to Rome in Acts 27. James Smith’s fascinating piece of research, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul, first published in 1848 but accessible online, has demonstrated the remarkable geographical, nautical and meteorological precision of Luke’s gripping account. After all, the beloved physician was a fellow voyager who helped in the desperate efforts to keep the ship afloat for, "exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they [the sailors] lightened the ship; And the third day we [the passengers] cast out with our own hands the tackling" (Acts 27.18-19). The voice of personal experience is unmistakable. But some readers may ask why such a considerable space of God’s Word is devoted to a detailed account of this journey. Surely the chapter would have been better given over to, say, doctrinal exposition or devotional meditation? Why this waste? Let me suggest some reasons.

Well, at the simplest level, Acts 27 illustrates the cost of Christian service. What Paul mentions in passing in 2 Corinthians 11.25-26 is here documented in depth, and should dispel any illusion that apostolic ministry was glamorous or easy. By extension it teaches that the Christian life as a whole is not always plain sailing (if you’ll pardon the expression). All God’s people go through storms of one kind or another, and it is as well to be forewarned: "In the world ye shall have tribulation", said the Lord Jesus (Jn 16.33). Further, it highlights the overruling power of God accomplishing His sovereign purpose even in the ordinary affairs of men (Eph 1.11). Paul had been told he would reach Rome (Acts 23.11), but at that stage he could hardly have been aware that the Lord would arrange for the empire to defray his expenses. Significantly, he arrived at the imperial capital not as a lonely, despised captive but as a man dearly beloved by believers (28.14-15), respected by his guards (27.43), and afforded special treatment by the authorities (28.16,30-31). Perhaps he was the only Roman citizen on the ship, for Luke alludes to "certain other [heteros, of a different kind] prisoners" (27.1). Paul obviously stood apart. Indeed, there is a dignity about his final moments in the Acts which stamps God’s approval on his service. And of course the entire chapter testifies to the wonderful accuracy of God’s Word: safety was promised (27.24) and safety was provided (27.44). We can take heart from such lessons.

But let’s go further. It’s always worth teasing out the organizational features of Scripture. Most of the chapter is straightforward past tense narrative, but ten verses stand out because they move into direct speech. The only voice we hear at first hand is Paul’s. In fact, the entire section can be seen to be structured around his four crucial utterances, first of all urging caution (27.10), then, his warning not being heeded, assuring confidence (27.21-26), while presenting the condition of safety (27.31), and finally setting an example of practical courage (27.33-35). These four occasions offer important lessons in how to interpret God’s Word.

First came the word of caution: "Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives". The dangerous sailing season in the Mediterranean fell between September 14 and November 11, a period including "the fast" (27.9) of the Day of Atonement. Hence the urgent discussion about the advisability of setting sail. Speaking primarily, I presume, as an experienced traveller rather than an inspired apostle, Paul suggested delay, but his counsel went unheeded as the centurion preferred to listen to the ship’s owner. In the same way, Scripture infallibly warns of coming judgment (Prov 14.12; Acts 24.25; 2 Thess 1.6-9), but worldly wisdom and academic pride are deaf to the danger signals. Bible-loathing Scotland (was it ever really a Bible-loving country?) has no time for God’s Word. Only the Lord’s sheep, each one given to Him by the Father in eternity past, will unfailingly hear His voice and respond in child-like faith (Jn 10.26-29). The mark of the Christian is that he believes and continues to believe, not the opinions of men, but the teachings of Scripture. How should we interpret the Bible? We should read it and heed it!

While Julius’ scepticism was understandable, the narrative proves that soft winds do not guarantee a tranquil voyage any more than tempests inevitably spell disaster. The Christian life, sometimes on a mountain peak of spiritual elation, sometimes in the valley of dejection, is as unpredictable as the Mediterranean weather (Acts 27.13-14), and our sole sure resource in joy or trial is the immutable Word. God’s promises are steadfast in the face of the worst of storms. In contrast to the panic of the sailors, Paul’s word of confidence (27.21-26) is notable for its certainty ("I believe God") and simplicity ("it shall be even as it was told me"). He brought God into his reckoning, responding with unflinching trust in a message of safety, even though outward conditions remained as bleak as ever. The only difference was that God had spoken. This is our position in a hostile world: enduring the storms with quiet confidence in the divinely-assured outcome. Paul did not allegorise the message he had received any more than we should try to escape the plain meaning of Scripture when it speaks of the rapture, the great tribulation, the national and spiritual restoration of Israel, or the Saviour’s Kingdom upon this earth. The world may laugh and theologians may sneer, but "it shall be even as it was told me". How should we interpret the Bible? Take it at its face value!

Yet the tempest continued unabated. As the beleaguered travellers were driven close to land, the sailors secretly plotted to abandon ship and leave them to their fate, but Paul’s insistence that all remain in the stricken vessel laid down the practical conditions upon which safety was guaranteed. His word of condition (27.31) made common sense, since professional seamen would eventually be needed to get the boat ashore (27.39-41), but it also looked back to the promise of v.24 ("all them that sail with thee"). Not one word of God can fail. Just as the gospel warns of judgment while announcing the provision of deliverance, so it demands absolute obedience to the terms of the message. There was no safety outside of the ship, and there is no redemption outside of Christ. In Him alone reside all God’s proffered blessings (Eph 1.3). How should we interpret the Bible? Obey its commands!

In all this turmoil and distress Paul the prisoner (not, you will note, the ship’s captain or the centurion) stood out as the source of consolation. For two weeks the company had gone without food, but now his word of courage coaxed them to eat, and he set the example himself, publicly giving thanks (27.33-35). If Paul could honour God in such circumstances, how much more should we in our daily meals (1 Tim 4.4-5). Yet, as so often in Scripture, the physical points to the spiritual. Material food is essential for physical health, and the food of the Word is necessary for spiritual wellbeing (Mt 4.4). Believers who try to exist without regular spiritual sustenance do not progress. But we should carefully observe that the language of v.35 ("took bread…gave thanks…[broke] it"), though similar to that of 1 Corinthians 11.23-24, does not refer to the Lord’s Supper. Bible words and phrases must always be understood in the light of their immediate context. The setting here is a common meal. A similar distinction occurs in Acts 2.42 and 46. How then should we interpret the Bible? We should read it in context!

But don’t miss the chapter’s satisfying climax – "they escaped all safe to land". That’s the assured destination of all God’s redeemed; not Malta, of course, but the many mansions of the Father’s house. No matter how severe the storm, the harbour is in sight.

To be continued.


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