Testing faith to the limit

Paul was on his way to Rome. God had given Paul two unenviable assignments; he was to visit Jerusalem and then Rome.

We have noticed that at the time of God’s previous discipline of his people when they were sent into exile for 70 years, that there had been both a warning in Jerusalem as well as a message to the Jews in the nation chosen to administer God’s judgment; Babylon. Now we see a similar pattern emerge, a message to Jerusalem, which Paul by now had completed and now a journey to Rome with a message for Jews there.

It’s tempting for us to look back on the events that take place in Acts and remember the extraordinary and spectacular miracles and accomplishments of Paul and the apostles, but these only took place under a situation that was both dangerous and difficult for a Christian. Paul was about to head for Rome, he was under guard as a prisoner, he had escaped the murderous intentions of the Jewish religious leaders and now great uncertainty lay before him as he was escorted to a trial in Rome.

God was with him and God had assured him that he would testify in Rome – Paul could be certain of this, but his faith would be tested to the limit.

  1. The journey begins
  2. The storm
  3. The shipwreck
  1. The journey begins

This passage is narrated by Luke in the first person, so we know that Paul was not without friends; he travelled with Luke and Aristarchus as well some other prisoners. You might remember that Aristarchus travelled with Paul in Macedonia and was with him during the riot in Ephesus. Aristarchus would later be described by Paul as his fellow prisoner and fellow worker. What a great thing it is for Christians to work together to build the church and bring the gospel to this world! Are you a good fellow worker like Aristarchus?

They boarded a ship from Caesarea which was heading north and which would visit various ports along the south coast of Turkey. They were guarded by Julius, a Roman centurion. Their first stop was in Sidon about 70 miles from Caesarea, Julius was kind to Paul and allowed him to visit friends in Sidon, they ‘provided for Paul’s needs’. Having left Sidon the ship took a course to the eastern and northern side of Cyprus, this route offered protection from winds that were against them – they landed in Myra in Lycia (Southern Turkey). The ship would most likely have been returning to its base in Adramyttium in western Turkey, at Myra it was thus necessary to find a ship travelling in the direction of Rome. Egypt was Rome’s bread basket and the supply chain involved many large ships voyaging from Alexandria to Rome, it was just such a grain ship that the centurion secured places on for Paul and his other charges. This ship was large and had enough room for more than 250 people. As they put to sea, the wind was against them and only after several difficult days they made it to Cnidus on the southwest tip of Turkey. From there they headed to Crete and under difficult sailing conditions arrived at the wonderfully named port of Fair Havens. Their plans were now in disarray – the journey thus far had taken much longer than anticipated, it was autumn, Paul noted that the Feast of Atonement had now passed (September/October). It was no longer the time to be sailing on the Mediterranean Sea. We tend to associate the Mediterranean with hot sunny holidays but making an autumn/winter journey was ill advised. I recall taking a boat from Paphos a few miles along the Cypriot coast in mid summer, it was a lovely day, but windy and not a lot of fun at all – even with sea sickness tablets a few in our party were looking rather green! Paul may have been a prisoner but he was had an opinion about what should be done and he was not slow to give it to Julius!

To continue the journey would be disastrous he warned, both to the ship, its cargo and those sailing in it. The centurion, the owner of the ship and the pilot disagreed and it was decided that they should press on to the more suitable port of Phoenix – they would winter there and when sailing conditions improved in the spring would complete their voyage.

  1. The storm

We’ve just seen the devastating effects the wind can have in the Typhoon that recently hit the Philippines. Paul and his fellow travellers were about to experience the effect of a storm at sea. It all started so well. A gentle southerly wind started to blow and the captain seized his chance to get to Phoenix, but before long the wind had backed to become a fierce north easterly of hurricane force. The ship was caught in the storm and was forced to give into the wind – a wind which was blowing them away from the island of Crete and away from safe harbour in Phoenix. This was a serious situation, the boat was now at the mercy of the wind and the sea. As they passed the small island of Cauda the lifeboat was hauled on board to prevent it being lost, ropes were secured under and around the ship to hold the ship’s structure together – this could help them is they ended up running aground on the sandbars of Syrtis (off the Libyan coast). Things were becoming desperate and much of the cargo was thrown overboard in an effort to raise the level of the ship in the water. It was now three days into the storm and now the ship’s tackle was thrown into the sea – the situation was now serious and life threatening.

We have noted before that Paul and we are involved in spiritual warfare. One cannot help but wonder if this journey was difficult because Satan did not want Paul to make it. It seems that Satan was only just beginning to figure out what was happening with God’s newly revealed plans for the church and his setting aside of the Jews. Satan would doubtless attempt to frustrate these plans, by frustrating Paul’s voyage but Paul knew that God was with him and had assured him that he would indeed be a witness in Rome. It’s easy to say all this, but in the midst of a raging storm in a boat that looked less and less likely to stay afloat Paul must have begun to wonder. Luke records that after ‘many days’ in which neither sun nor stars were seen the storm did not abate and they gave up hope of being saved. But Paul other ideas!

He addressed the people on the ship and reminded them that they had ignored his advice before, but now he has more advice. He stated ‘keep your courage, because none of you will be lost, only the ship will be destroyed’. I suspect that if I had been listening to Paul at this stage I would be been interested to hear on what authority Paul could make this bold assertion. Paul provided just that authority, an angel of God had stood beside him the previous night and had assured him that he would indeed stand trial in Rome and that God had given him the lives of all those sailing with him. Keep your courage up! Said Paul, Paul had faith in God that things would turn out just as God had said. This is faith! If God made the worlds, can heal the sick and calm the storm then his word is to be taken for what it is. I am struck how often we don’t take God at his word! We find ways of twisting and turning his word, but we simply must take it as it is said. What has God promised us? An easy life, relief from difficulty? No, but he has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us, he has promised that he will forgive us and put his mark of ownership on us! This will sustain us through the storms of life if we have faith his word, just as Paul had faith in God’s particular word to him on that dark and frightening night.

  1. The Shipwreck

Paul was an experienced sailor. It seems that Paul had already suffered three shipwrecks! Perhaps through these experiences God had prepared him for this very moment. It’s interesting that Paul had great faith in God’s word to him that they would be rescued but he did not take this a signal to relax and just let the events unfold according to God’s promise. Neither should we. It seems that faith leads to action – not inaction. Paul now needed to use all the skills and knowledge he had within him if this situation was to be resolved.

The sailors sensed that they were approaching land. Taking soundings they discovered that the water was about 40 metres deep and soon enough it became 30 metres – they were heading for land. This was both good news (that they might somehow get onto the land) and bad news; they were heading for land with little or no control of the boat. They dropped four anchors from the stern and waited for daybreak. The sailors had little confidence in Paul’s God, but they were pretty confident of their own skills as mariners. Their plan was to escape with the life boat and leave the rest to their fate. Paul instructed the centurion to stop them, ‘unless these men stay with the ship you cannot be saved’. The centurion cut the ropes on the life boat and it was allowed to drift away.

It was just before dawn and Paul urged everyone to eat. They had been in fear of their lives for no fewer than 14 days and now they faced their biggest test of all. What did they need now? A good breakfast! Paul urged them to eat to fortify them for what lay ahead. Paul gave thanks for the food and they ate – everyone was encouraged! Some people are so heavenly minded that they are of no early use! Not Paul, he was heavenly minded for sure, but he was practical and not lacking in common sense.

Daylight came at last and revealed a bay with a sandy beach. The plan was to run the ship aground on the sand – the anchors were cut loose, the rudders untied and the sail was hoisted. But all did not go to plan, the ship hit a sandbar some distance from the beach, it was stuck fast and started to break up. The soldiers fearing they would lose their prisoners made to kill them, but Paul they wanted to save and he persuaded them not to carry out their plan. Julius ordered the swimmers to jump first and then the others would follow holding onto pieces of the rapidly breaking up ship. Luke simply records ‘in this way everyone reached land safely’. What a miraculous outcome – I suspect that if you or I had been part of this remarkable event, miracles would have been the last thing on our minds as we battled with the cold rough sea fearing for our lives! But it was a miracle and had come about because Paul had faith in God’s word. So should we – neither more nor less.

What a relief to arrive on dry land, even if they were soaked to the skin! I recall once having a rather unpleasant boat trip off the coast of Portugal – it wasn’t that bad, but my stomach was decidedly unhappy! I would have gladly drowned in the waves to get relief from the bout of seasickness! - what a relief for me to arrive on dry land! And better still to discover that I could take a bus back home! Paul and the other 275 passengers were on dry land but what now? Find out next time!