Acts 27 – Shipwreck On the Way to Rome
A. From Caesarea to Fair Havens.
1. (1-2) Paul and his companions leave Caesarea.
And when it was decided that we should sail to Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to one named Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment. So, entering a ship of Adramyttium, we put to sea, meaning to sail along the coasts of Asia. Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us.
a. Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment: We don’t know much about this specific Augustan Regiment (several held that title), but it was common for Roman soldiers to accompany the transport of criminals, those awaiting trial, and merchant ships filled with grain going from Egypt to Rome.
b. Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us: Aristarchus and Luke (notice the us of verse 2 and beyond) accompanied Paul on this voyage. The favor Paul enjoyed from Julius (as in Acts 27:3) meant he was allowed to take these companions with him.
2. (3-8) From Caesarea to Fair Havens.
And the next day we landed at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him liberty to go to his friends and receive care. When we had put to sea from there, we sailed under the shelter of Cyprus, because the winds were contrary. And when we had sailed over the sea which is off Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing to Italy, and he put us on board. When we had sailed slowly many days, and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, the wind not permitting us to proceed, we sailed under the shelter of Crete off Salmone. Passing it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.
a. Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him liberty to go to his friends and receive care: The ship first sailed to Sidon, where Paul met with Christians and could receive care from them. The Roman commander gave Paul a lot of liberty because he wasn’t a condemned man (yet), but waiting for trial before Caesar. Paul’s godly character and display of Christian love were also helpful in gaining favor.
i. Paul was different from the other prisoners on board. The other prisoners were probably all condemned criminals being sent to Rome to die in the arena.
b. An Alexandrian ship sailing to Italy: This was a grain freighter, taking grain grown in Egypt to Italy. According to Hughes, the typical grain freighter of that period was 140 feet long and 36 feet wide. It had one mast with a big square sail, and instead of what we think of as a rudder, it steered with two paddles on the back part of the ship. They were sturdy, but because of its design, it couldn’t sail into the wind.
c. Along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra…off Cnidus…off Salmone…Fair Havens: The ship began to make its way west, eventually coming to the port called Fair Havens on the south side of the island of Crete.
3. (9-10) Paul’s advice to the captain and crew of the ship.
Now when much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives.”
a. Sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over: The Fast date in question here was probably October 5, which was the date of the Day of Atonement in a.d. 59. The idea is that as winter approached, the weather became more dangerous for sailing.
i. “The dangerous season for sailing began about September 14 and lasted until November 11; after the latter date all navigation one the open sea came to an end until winter was over.” (Bruce)
b. Paul advised them, saying, “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives”: Paul did not necessarily speak here as a prophet of God, but perhaps as an experienced traveler on the Mediterranean, having already traveled some 3,500 miles by sea. Knowing the seasons and conditions – and perhaps with supernatural wisdom – Paul advised that they not go on.
i. 2 Corinthians 11:25 tells us that by this time, Paul had already shipwrecked three times. He, like most everyone, knew that sailing in this season was dangerous.
4. (11-12) The decision is made to sail on.
Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul. And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to set sail from there also, if by any means they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete opening toward the southwest and northwest, and winter there.
a. Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul: It isn’t a surprise that the centurion had more respect for the opinion of the chief sailor and the owner of the ship than for Paul’s opinion. They both had much to lose if the ship didn’t make it to Rome.
b. Because the harbor was not suitable to winter in: The name Fair Havens (Acts 27:8) was not entirely accurate – at least not accurate in the winter. The position of the bay made it vulnerable to winter winds and storms. It was not an ideal place to wait out the coming season.
i. It was also not a fun place to spend all winter, and the crew of the ship didn’t look forward to months in a small town. One commentator suggests that the local Chamber of Commerce named the place “Fair Havens.”
c. The majority advised to set sail from there also: Taking a vote of the crew, they decided to sail on to the harbor of Phoenix. The port at Phoenix was on the same island of Crete and only about 40 miles away. It didn’t seem crazy to them to make it to Phoenix and be spared a miserable winter at Fair Havens.
i. Yet they failed to properly regard the wise word from the Apostle Paul, which turned out to be prophetic: This voyage will end with disaster and much loss. They should have listened to Paul, and later told them so (Acts 27:21).
B. The stormy journey from Fair Havens to Malta.
1. (13-16) A good start is made from Crete, but the ship quickly encounters great difficulty in a storm.
When the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their desire, putting out to sea, they sailed close by Crete. But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Clauda, we secured the skiff with difficulty.
a. When the south wind blew softly: The winds looked favorable, so they set out from Fair Havens. Just beyond Crete, the wind turned dangerous.
b. A tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon: This wind was feared among ancient sailors for its destructive power. Helpless to navigate with this wind in their face, all they could do is let her drive.
c. We secured the skiff with difficulty: The skiff was normally towed behind the boat, but taken aboard at bad weather – so they brought it in.
i. We secured the skiff with difficulty may be quite literal from Luke’s perspective. The doctor was probably pressed into service pulling ropes.
2. (17-19) Measures taken to save the ship.
When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven. And because we were exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day they lightened the ship. On the third day we threw the ship’s tackle overboard with our own hands.
a. They used cables to undergird the ship: This was a normal emergency measure, helping to prevent the ship from breaking apart in a storm.
b. They struck sail and so were driven: The fear of crashing on the Sytris Sands (an infamous wrecking area of ships off the coast of North Africa) made them go with the wind and give up hope of navigating the ship in the storm.
c. They lightened the ship…threw the ship’s tackle overboard: These were the final two things done to help save the ship – first throwing over the cargo and then the ship’s equipment. Even with this, the ship continued to drive in the wind for many days.
3. (20) The hopelessness of crew and passengers.
Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up.
a. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days: On the open sea they could only navigate with either the sun or the stars. Many days in this storm drove the crew to desperation. The great tempest drove them blind westward across the Mediterranean.
b. All hope that we would be saved was finally given up: Acts 27:37 tells us there were 276 people on board, both passengers and crew. It seems that they had all finally given up, and had no hope of survival.
4. (21-22) Paul tells the crew to take heart.
But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.”
a. After long abstinence from food: We shouldn’t think that the sailors fasted and sought God. Instead, their abstinence from food probably was due to the poor condition of the food and seasickness.
b. Men, you should have listened to me: Paul could not resist (rightly so) an “I told you so” moment. Had they listened to his wisdom at Acts 27:10, they would not be in this seemingly hopeless situation.
c. I urge you to take heart: As a messenger of God, Paul hoped to bring hope to these passengers and crew who had given up all hope. His point wasn’t simply to tell them he was right, but to bring them good news.
d. There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship: This was a mixed message. The promise that no life would be lost was hard to believe if the ship were to be lost. It was also bad news to hear that the voyage would be a complete financial loss, with the cargo already overboard (Acts 27:18) and the ship to be lost.
5. (23-26) Paul tells the crew of the angelic visit.
“For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. However, we must run aground on a certain island.”
a. There stood by me this night an angel: God sent an angelic messenger to Paul to bring good, encouraging news when all else seemed hopeless. This wasn’t a direct appearance of Jesus (as in Jerusalem, Acts 23:11), but of an angel. God’s word came to Paul different ways at different times.
b. An angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve: The angelic presence was an encouragement; this was also. Paul remembered that he belonged to God and that he served God. God never forgets those who belong to Him and serve Him.
i. That doesn’t mean everything goes easy for those who belong to God and serve Him. Paul’s present calamity proved that. It does mean that God’s watchful eye and active care is present even in that kind of calamity.
c. Do not be afraid: There was a reason Paul needed to hear this. He was also afraid in the storm (at least some of the time). In his strong moments, Paul knew he would make it to Rome because God promised it. Yet in the storm (here, a literal storm) it was easy to doubt and Paul needed the assurance.
d. Indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you: This implies that Paul sought God for the safety of everyone on the ship. He already had a promise for his own safety, but that wasn’t enough for Paul. He labored in prayer for the safety and blessing of those with him, believers and not-yet-believers. He cared them and loved them, and labored for them in prayer until God granted Paul their safety.
e. Therefore take heart, men: Paul encouraged them to take heart just a moment before (Acts 27:22). He repeats the encouragement again, this time in light of the revelation from God. “You have reason to take heart – God has given me assurance of your safety, and I believe God.”
i. Paul couldn’t keep his hope to himself. He had to pass it on to both the believers on board the ship and to those who had not yet believed.
f. I believe God that it will be just as it was told me: Paul’s confident word to the troubled sailors on a storm-tossed ship express the essence of what it means to put our faith in God and His Word. God said it to Paul (through an angel) and Paul said, “I believe God.”
i. Take note of what Paul said: “I believe God.” He didn’t say, “I believe in God.” Every demon in hell agrees with the existence of God. Paul declared his total confidence in God’s knowledge of his situation and His promise in his situation.
ii. Paul believed God when there was nothing else to believe. He couldn’t believe the sailors, the ship, the sails, the wind, the centurion, human ingenuity or anything else – only God. This was not a fair-weather faith; he believed God in the midst of the storm, when circumstances were at their worst. Paul would say along with Job: Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15). The storm and the danger were real, but God was more real to Paul than the dreadful circumstances.
iii. Paul was not ashamed to say that he believed God. “I would to God that all Christians were prepared to throw down the gauntlet and to come out straight; for if God be not true let us not pretend to trust him, and if the gospel be a lie let us be honest enough to confess it.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Paul’s unshakable confidence in God made him a leader among men, even though he was a prisoner of Rome.
g. However, we must run aground on a certain island: This was mixed news, and in these circumstances to run aground might be fairly called to shipwreck. Paul essentially said, “We’re all going to shipwreck on an unknown island, but everyone will be alright.”
i. A certain island means that God did not tell Paul everything about what was going to happen. Paul had to trust that God knew which island they would run aground on, even if Paul didn’t know.
6. (27-29) Drawing near land.
Now when the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven up and down in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land. And they took soundings and found it to be twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little farther, they took soundings again and found it to be fifteen fathoms. Then, fearing lest we should run aground on the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come.
a. When the fourteenth night had come: They spent two entire weeks in the misery and terror of the storm.
b. The sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land: Sensing land was near (probably by hearing the breakers in the distance) the sailors took proper precautions against being crashed against some unknown rocks (they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come).
c. And prayed for day to come: The threat of shipwreck and death made them men of prayer.
7. (30-32) Some sailors seek to escape from the ship.
And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, when they had let down the skiff into the sea, under pretense of putting out anchors from the prow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the skiff and let it fall off.
a. As the sailors were seeing to escape from the ship: These sailors didn’t care for the passengers. Seeing a chance to save their own lives in the darkness, the hoped to abandon the ship leaving the passengers.
b. Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Paul knew two reasons why they had to stay together. First, the ship’s passengers desperately needed the crew’s expertise, and it would be fatal if the crew abandoned the passengers. Second, Paul probably sensed that God’s promise to give him the lives of the whole ship’s company assumed that they would stay together.
c. The soldiers cut away the ropes of the skill and let it fall off: At this point, it seems the soldiers had great trust in Paul.
8. (33-38) Paul encourages the passengers and crew at dawn.
And as day was about to dawn, Paul implored them all to take food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day you have waited and continued without food, and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat. Then they were all encouraged, and also took food themselves. And in all we were two hundred and seventy-six persons on the ship. So when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship and threw out the wheat into the sea.
a. Since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you: Paul had a word of faith and confidence from the Lord for the frightened crew and passengers. But this word only benefited those who believed it.
i. God has scores of promises of His comfort and care for us in desperate times, but they only benefit us if we believe them.
b. And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat. Then they were all encouraged: There are hints that Paul regarded this meal as communion at the Lord’s Table for the Christians present.
c. They lightened the ship: Throwing out the wheat into the sea reflected their great desperation. This was the last of the essential cargo of the ship, after they had already lightened the ship (Acts 27:18). This was a struggle for survival.
9. (39-41) The ship runs aground and breaks apart.
When it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible. And they let go the anchors and left them in the sea, meanwhile loosing the rudder ropes; and they hoisted the mainsail to the wind and made for shore. But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves.
a. They did not recognize the land: They did not know it at first, but they came to an island called Malta. The place where the ship came aground is now called St. Paul’s Bay.
i. “Only the rarest conjunction of favorable circumstances could have brought about such a fortunate ending to their apparently hopeless situation…all these circumstances are united in St. Paul’s Bay.” (Ramsay, cited by Bruce)
ii. “If they missed Malta, there would have been nothing for it but to hold on for 200 miles until they struck the Tunisian coast, and no one could have expected the ship to survive that long.” (Bruce)
b. The prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves: As the ship was stuck fast on shore, the still-stormy sea pounded the weakened vessel and started breaking it apart. All on board had to jump ship or be broken up with it.
10. (42-44) Leaving the ship and coming safely to shore.
And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, and the rest, some on boards and some on parts of the ship. And so it was that they all escaped safely to land.
a. And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape: To the soldiers, it made sense to kill the prisoners, because according to Roman military law a guard who allowed his prisoner to escape was subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered – in the case of most of these prisoners, death.
b. But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose: God gave Paul favor in the eyes of this Roman centurion, and that favor kept Paul and all the prisoners alive – in fulfillment of the word spoken to Paul, God has granted you all those who sail with you (Acts 27:24). God’s word never fails.
© 2012 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission