Study 31: After the shipwreck
It’s amazing how quickly uncertainty, desperation and bewilderment turn to some semblance of security. From the turmoil and increasing uncertainty of the previous fourteen days to the relative safety and security of the beach took just minutes, but the contrast was more like years to those who had swum or scrambled ashore on pieces of timber from the battered and broken ship. This had been no small vessel. It had housed two hundred and seventy-six people and was intended to sail for days at a time across open water. It would have had sleeping quarters, as well as daytime rest space, for the crew, who were probably slaves, as well as space for Paul, the other prisoners and their guards and those fare-paying passengers who accompanied them.
These people had eaten virtually nothing for two weeks. They had worked long and hard to try to save the ship, had suffered from the pounding and buffeting of the storm and had experienced the cold of being drenched by the waves and rain blown in by the gale-force winds. It would have been very unpleasant to be out there for an afternoon, never mind for fourteen days and nights!
When they came ashore, the first thing to do was to make sure that everyone would survive. The local people had built a bonfire. They told them that the island that they had reached was Malta. Malta is just sixty miles from Sicily. In those days, it was a busy and bustling port and those who lived there were of Phoenician descent. (Phoenicians had been seafarers and traders for generations.) They were used to storms and knew what to do in calamitous times, so here their experience counted for much.
Probably everyone would have gathered sticks and branches and Paul would have done his part in feeding the fire to keep everyone warm. As he was adding wood to the fire, a snake slithered out and fastened itself to his hand. We know that the snake was poisonous because the locals (who had by now gathered around to investigate this shipwreck and “tragedy-in-the-making”) believed that death would soon ensue. They waited and they watched, watched and waited but, to their surprise and then shock, nothing happened. Paul just shook it off into the fire! (Acts 28:1-5)
Many of us go through traumas of one sort or another during our lives. Some may be going through one right now. It might be personal – at work or at church. In fact, no aspect of our lives is immune. But of one thing we may be absolutely certain: if God is at the centre of our lives, then these traumas may come and go, but nothing can shake our relationship with Him or our final destination: heaven. He has promised never to leave us alone. Just because we cannot see Him and we don’t feel as if He is there, does not mean that He has deserted us! We can learn much from Paul’s relationship with Him. In the middle of a storm that seemed to threaten his very life, he still found that God was there and spoke to him. He seemed almost unperturbed by the circumstances. Why was that? Well, he had God’s word on the matter. You may remember that when he was in prison in Jerusalem, the Roman governor ordered the Sanhedrin to meet and brought Paul before them. Afterwards, Jesus Himself appeared to Paul saying: “Don’t worry, Paul; just as you have told the people about me here in Jerusalem, so you must also in Rome.” (Acts 23:11) Paul always preached the gospel wherever he went. He also taught the people who became Christians. He helped establish churches and to ground them in the faith, writing many letters to them to advise them of the differences between what God had told them and what others (mainly Jewish religious leaders) were trying to force them to do. He encouraged them to stand firmly in their new-found faith and to let God Himself grow them into the sort of people He wanted them to be.
As a result (and as we have seen and heard in this set of notes), men and women throughout the Roman Empire withstood the opposition of the established order – Judaism and worship of the Roman emperor – and held firmly to the truth that they had now found in Jesus. The result was opposition and extreme persecution from the religious hierarchy. Of course, this opposition and persecution had its real seat in Satan himself. He was desperate for the Church to die in its infancy. He had already attempted to kill it before its birth and then, when Jesus had risen from the dead and escaped his clutches, he tried to prevent its establishment and growth.
The Church is all about a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. There is nothing autocratic or even democratic about it. We can lead others to Jesus; we can encourage them to learn more about Him and to grow in their Christian faith; but we cannot interfere with their relationship with Him. If we try, we take away that unique fellowship and friendship that Jesus wants to have personally with each one of us. Of course, He wants the very best for us, so He has established the best form of structure for us to be involved in: the local church. In a church, there will be those that the Lord Himself has appointed as leaders. It will be very obvious who they are. They will not have to wear a name-tag to identify themselves. We will know them by their fruit – in this case, servant-hood. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, signifying the way that leaders should approach their task of leading others. You cannot be a leader unless you are primarily a servant.
Jesus also used the example of a shepherd to teach people about authority. At the time of Jesus (and still today in Israel and other parts of the world) the shepherd leads the sheep.
He walks in front of them so that, wherever they go, he has already been. If there is any danger, he experiences it first and can deal with it or avoid it, causing his flock to avoid it also. He speaks to his sheep and his sheep know and recognise his voice. They will not follow another shepherd or hireling because they don’t trust anyone else. At night when the flock are placed in the sheepfold, the shepherd lies down in the doorway, so that no danger can get at the sheep. The sheep are his responsibility; he gets to know each one by name. He feeds them only on the finest grass in the lushest of meadows. He leads them beside still waters so that they can drink. (Sheep cannot drink from rough water.) He has time for them individually, even at the expense of his own interests. If a sheep were to wander off from the flock, he would recognise the fact and go after it, leaving the rest in order to help and save the one that has gone astray. When he finds it, he rejoices and gently carries it back to the flock. (John 10:1-15) If none or little of the above is happening, then the shepherds or leaders are evil and God Himself will deal with them. As for you: if you are a follower in such circumstances, cling closely to God and He will lead you to a place where you will be properly and faithfully fed – by a true shepherd or leader.
When leaders misuse their authority and act as bad shepherds, God is angry. He will not stand for it. (Ezekiel 34:2-23) Just as leaders today have a responsibility to serve the people they lead, so the followers have a responsibility. They have the responsibility to grow up and learn and never to allow any person or thing to get in the way of the relationship they have with God. God’s word is the primary place from which to learn. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) All followers know when things are going wrong and it is their own responsibility to return to God quickly – to keep short accounts with Him. Listen to Him and read His word; meditate (root meaning: “to rehearse aloud”) day and night on it.
Paul had spent time with God, who had told him that all would be well with the people on the ship. So it was – not one person was lost. Paul was safe to continue on his way to Rome. The sailors would live to find another ship. The soldiers had their prisoners to continue to guard. In fact, God had saved them all and had taught them all so much along the way. The only thing that was lost irretrievably was the ship: the thing that had bound them all together with a common direction in the first place.
Sometimes we are forced into a situation where people stop listening to God. God will warn them but, if they take no notice, they will set out on a course that is disastrous. What was originally a magnificent “container” – in this chapter, it was a strong and seaworthy ship, but in your life it could be anything: a plan, a ministry, or even a church – will fall to bits while we try to save it. Everything went – even the ship’s tackle. The men were left with what they stood up in and perhaps that will happen in your or my situation. Do not despair; learn from it. Never let it happen again. Pick yourself up and continue on your way with God at the centre. Difficult situations like this often lead to opportunities for ministry that you would never otherwise expect. God knew that this shipwreck would happen. He knew where it would happen and who would be on the ship.
The father of the man who showed them hospitality was sick and it just so happened that some of the men who trusted Jesus had arrived (in a somewhat ignominious fashion!) on the island. The confluence of these two things could only result in one thing – and it did! (Acts 28:7-9) Publius’ father and all the sick people on the island were healed. If you are willing to be used, God will use you. Go and pray for people; lay hands on the sick and watch them recover. (Mark 16:15-18)
We have seen Paul being bitten by a snake and nothing happening to him. Now we see Paul healing sick people. Jesus’ direct instructions to us are: “I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you; and be sure of this – that I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Matthew 28:16-20. Get a suitcase and a passport and ask the Lord where you should go. When you arrive, make disciples of the people there. Baptise them; then teach them to obey the commands of Jesus.
When the time came to leave, some three months later, they were showered with gifts, climbed aboard their new ship and sailed off into the sunset, bound for Rome. (Acts 28:10-14) Something happens when you meet someone else who is a believer. There is a clear identification: something that happens on a spirit-to-spirit basis. Your spirit “bears witness” with the other person’s spirit. A friendship springs up that has no natural counterpart and each of you is encouraged by the encounter. It is God who brings us together for such purposes and so it was in Puteoli: a small encouragement on the way to the destination, where a trial awaited Paul because he had appealed to Caesar.
The news got around and other believers heard that Paul was coming to town. People came out to meet him and to encourage him on his way. The entry to Rome was more like a triumphal entry than the march of prisoners. And that was the way it continued for Paul. He was permitted to rent his own house, guarded by a soldier. God had ensured that there would be no rat-infested prison for Paul! (Acts 28:15-16)
After three days, Paul called the local Jewish leaders together to explain his sudden arrival – under guard – in Rome. This was perfectly reasonable. Perhaps he thought that news of his problems (or rather the Jews’ problems) back in Jerusalem and Caesarea would have spread to Rome. He need not have worried! (See Acts 28:17-22.)
Paul was not one to miss an opportunity. He explained in a very few words exactly why he was in Rome. If you want to get to the nub of things quickly, you can always introduce yourself as Paul did: “I asked you to come here today so we could get acquainted and I could tell you that it is because I believe the Messiah has come that I am bound with this chain.” It seemed to work for him because they made an appointment to come to listen to him, since all they were aware of was that these Christians seemed to be “bad-mouthed” everywhere! On the appointed day, he had a good turn-out to listen to what he had to say. (Acts 28:23)
There are times to take things easy and times to “go for it”. This was one of the latter times. Paul knew that he would have one opportunity (and one only) to reach these men, some of whom were very entrenched in tradition. As we have seen, Jesus said that the traditions of men bring the word of God to “none effect”!
So he went for it. The books of Moses and the prophets provided his text. This was a mammoth teach-in and, at the end, “some believed and some didn’t. 25 But after they had argued back and forth among themselves, they left with this final word from Paul ringing in their ears: ‘The Holy Spirit was right when he said through Isaiah the prophet, 26 Say to the Jews, You will hear and see but not understand, 27 for your hearts are too fat and your ears don’t listen and you have closed your eyes against understanding; for you don’t want to see and hear and understand and turn to me to heal you.”’ Acts 28:24-27
This did not surprise Paul and he was ready with a stinging reply. This was not a comment designed to win friends and influence people. This was a verbal equivalent of shaking off the dust from your shoes and they would not have missed what he was saying. (Acts 28:28-29)
Paul continued to live in his own rented accommodation. He was an amazing man, anointed by God, fearless and tireless in his work. He loved the work that God had called him to do and he wanted every man, woman and child, to be as excited about God as he was. Unfortunately that has not happened. There will always be opposition until the end of time. (Acts 28:30-31)
While Paul was under house arrest, he did more than speak to the Jews. He wrote letters (commonly called his prison letters) to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. He also wrote personal letters, such as the one to Philemon. Luke was with Paul in Rome. (2 Timothy 4:11) Timothy often visited him (Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; Philemon 1) as did Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21), Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:18) and Mark (Colossians 4:10). Paul witnessed to the whole Roman guard (Philippians 1:13) and was involved with the Roman believers.
Tradition says that Paul was released after two years of house arrest in Rome and then set off on a fourth missionary journey. Some reasons for this tradition are as follows:
1) Luke does not give us an account of his trial before Caesar and Luke was a detailed chronicler;
2) the prosecution had two years to bring the case to trial, and time may have run out;
3) in his letter to the Philippians, written during his imprisonment in Rome, Paul implied that he would soon be released and would do further travelling;
4) Paul mentions several places where he intended to take the gospel, but he never visited those places in his first three journeys; and
5) early Christian literature talks plainly about other travels by Paul.
It may be that, during Paul’s time of freedom, he continued to travel extensively, even going to Spain (see Romans 15:24, 28) and back to the churches in Greece. The books of 1 Timothy and Titus were written during this time. Later, Paul was imprisoned again, probably in Rome, where he wrote his last letter (2 Timothy).
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this theory, we have to understand that the book of the “Acts of the Apostles” comes to a very abrupt close at the end of Chapter 28. Of course, that is just the paper version. For now the gospel is being preached to the uttermost parts of the earth and the same things and greater (as Jesus promised while he was on earth) are happening, because the Holy Spirit is with us.
Acts Chapter 29 is still in the writing, but you can read it in letters, newspapers, smuggled reports from China, North Korea, Burma, Russia and so on. Our friends tell us of amazing things happening in the countries with which they are involved. The entire world is open to the gospel like never before through radio, television and the internet. There has never been a time like this in the entire history of the world, where the gospel has been advancing on every front and there is nothing that Satan can do about it. He wins temporary victories in skirmishes but loses power and authority. Jesus wins battles of great significance and His authority will never cease.
The great battle over sin has already been won and lost. Jesus is LORD. Death’s dominion is broken; the keys of death and hell have been ripped out of the hand of Satan and the overwhelming sea of the freedom that is in the gospel marches on. Satan is a defeated foe. His time is finished and we already KNOW what the end will be. We have read the end of the book and WE WIN! Praise the Lord! (Revelation 22:12-14)
Study 31: After the shipwreck – Challenge Questions
Please complete all questions marked with * and then complete the rest of the study. The more you look in God’s word, the more you will get out of it.
Read the chapter at the beginning of the week then you have time to meditate on it, rather than rushing! Make God’s word your number one priority.
1. *Read the notes and the Bible verses referred to in them. Highlight the points that “speak” to you and share with the group.
2. *What do you think about the leader of a church being a shepherd? Have you had any good experiences of this and are you happy to be a follower?
3. If a leader does not act as a good shepherd, what does Jesus say He will do about it? What did Jesus do while He was on earth to show how a church leader should act? Quote the verses.
4. *What responsibility do the followers or the congregation have as they become members of a church? The Bible itself explains the purpose of the church. Write down what you think it is and be prepared to explain what it means in your life.
5. Acts Chapter 28 is the last written chapter of the book of Acts. Why is this not the real situation? The book can also be described as the acts of another person and another set of people. Who is the person and who are the people?
6. *Who is able to stop you from accomplishing your Christian tasks? How can you prevent that happening? What authority do you have to stop all other attempts at preventing you from fulfilling your tasks?
7. People often refer to the book of Acts as a book about the life of Paul. Why is that not correct and what is the book really about?
8. *Describe in your own words what it says in Hebrews 12:1-2. Does that apply to you? If so, do you need to make any changes to your lifestyle in order to accomplish what God has asked you to do for Him?
9. The Bible states that Jesus will return in triumph for His “bride”. Who is His “bride” and are you a part of her? Do we know when Jesus will return? Who knows when that date will be?
10. Read John 17:20-26. Jesus prays for two sets of people in John 17. Who are they, and why is that important to us today? What are the things He prays for in that chapter of John?
11. *One of the themes in the book of Acts is the miracles and healings that occur. What effect did they have on the disciples and what effect did they have on those who were associated with the person who was healed? Use the example in Acts 3:1-11 to illustrate your answer.
12. We find that the Church grew in stages. It started off on the day of Pentecost with three thousand people being saved. How does the Bible describe the ways in which the church grew from that point forward? From your studies in the book of Acts, illustrate what you have learned about the growth of the Church.
13. *Why did the religious authorities take such exception to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What happened to the disciples as a result? Give two illustrations from scripture, describing what happened to them.
14. *Did opposition to their message frighten the disciples? Give two examples of their reaction to such opposition and what they said to those who persecuted them. How did God react to their faith? Give an example.
15. Acts Chapters 6 to 8 give us a graphic description of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. How did the apostles choose people to serve at tables? What characteristics did those people have to possess?
16. *Paul was on his way to Damascus when he met Jesus. What happened to him? Two main events after his salvation help us to advise new Christians how to progress quickly in their knowledge of God. What are they? The same steps are evident in the story of Cornelius’ salvation experience. (Acts 10:1-48)
17. *What was the greatest lesson that you learned from the first half of Acts?