“ . . . the sea represents a place of peril, of human vulnerability, the place where would-be sailors are at the mercy of the elements” (William Willimon–American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church). True story today, but especially so in the 1st century. Paul, now a prisoner at Caesarea, is taken by sea to Rome.
When the time came, we set sail for Italy. Paul and several other prisoners were placed in the custody of an army officer named Julius, a captain of the Imperial Regiment. And Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was also with us. We left on a boat whose home port was Adramyttium; it was scheduled to make several stops at ports along the coast of the province of Asia (Acts 27:1,2).
“We” implies Luke, as well as Aristarchus, is traveling with Paul, who is under the guard of Julius, a Roman centurion. Julius chooses a ship which will stop at Asian ports as it makes its way home to Adramyttium. The ship sailed north from Caesarea reaching Sidon in about 24 hours . . .
The next day when we docked at Sidon, Julius was very kind to Paul and let him go ashore to visit with friends so they could provide for his needs (Acts 27:3).
“Friends” in Sidon had probably been evangelized in the dispersion after Stephen’s martyrdom. It’s likely Paul had previously visited the church. Now the centurion allows Paul to visit them for a meal and maybe some supplies to help on his journey.
Putting out to sea from there, we encountered headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland. We passed along the coast of the provinces of Cilicia and Pamphylia, landing at Myra, in the province of Lycia. There the officer found an Egyptian ship from Alexandria that was bound for Italy, and he put us on board (Acts 27:4-6).
As they set sail on the westward leg of the journey, headwinds hinder their course. They use the island of Cyrus as a shield and dock at Myra, a regular port-of-call for grain vessels. The centurion now books passage on another grain ship destined for Italy. Since it is early fall, some commentators suggest ship owners were trying to squeeze in one more trip before winter, when seas were especially treacherous.
We had several days of rough sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus. But the wind was against us, so we sailed down to the leeward side of Crete, past the cape of Salmone. We struggled along the coast with great difficulty and finally arrived at Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages by then because it was so late in the fall, and Paul spoke to the ship’s officers about it. “Sirs,” he said, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on — shipwreck, loss of cargo, injuries, and danger to our lives.” But the officer in charge of the prisoners listened more to the ship’s captain and the owner than to Paul. And since Fair Havens was an exposed harbor — a poor place to spend the winter — most of the crew wanted to go to Phoenix, farther up the coast of Crete, and spend the winter there. Phoenix was a good harbor with only a southwest and northwest exposure (Acts 27:7-12).
Gale-force winds now make sailing westward impossible. “The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages . . . because it was so late in the fall . . . “ Officers and crew hold a council. Paul, an experienced traveler,is pulled in. He warns of danger if they go on. But they decide they can make safer harbor. They turn south and “struggled . . . with great difficulty” and finally reach Fair Havens. “Winter sailing” meant “scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility and the double raging of winds, showers and snow (Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39). It is now October A.D. 59. The ship is anchored in a harbor exposed to wind-whipped seas.
So Paul’s warning to the ship’s officers is well-founded—but disregarded. Most of the crew argue to continue on to Phoenix, where a good harbor for wintering awaits.
When a light wind began blowing from the south, the sailors thought they could make it. So they pulled up anchor and sailed along close to shore. But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (a “northeaster,” they called it) caught the ship and blew it out to sea. They couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale. We sailed behind a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat that was being towed behind us. Then we banded the ship with ropes to strengthen the hull. The sailors were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor and were thus driven before the wind. The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. The following day they even threw out the ship’s equipment and anything else they could lay their hands on. The terrible storm raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. No one had eaten for a long time (Acts 27:13-21a).
A gentle, summer-like south wind springs up; the sailors think they can make Phoenix. Soon after pulling up anchor “a wind of typhoon strength” (a “northeaster,” they called it) drives the ship away from the coast and out to sea. They’re at the storm’s mercy. To save the dinghy they’re towing from being smashed into the ship they pull it aboard. To strengthen the ship’s hull from being pounded apart they stretch cables several times around it. To keep the ship from rising too high in the wave-crests they drop its anchor. To lighten the ship against the onslaught of waves, they throw “cargo” and some of “the ship’s equipment” overboard. Extreme measures. The storm “raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.”
Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Fair Havens. You would have avoided all this injury and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island” (Acts 21b-26).
After many days fighting the furious storm, the crew gathers around Paul. Why would they listen? Probably because Paul’s warning at Fair Havens came true. Plus they’re desperate for any solution. Paul’s message is good news-bad news Good news: nobody will die. An angel promises God will keep everyone safe. Bad news: shipwreck on an island and the ship will go down.
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We’re called to believe apart from an angel.
It reminds me of Thomas. When doubting Thomas saw the resurrected Christ, he finally believed. Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). I take that to mean special favor, special joy, comes on all of us who believe God, who believe Jesus risen, though we haven’t seen him.
When we sail smooth seas, trusting the Lord’s words doesn’t break a sweat. But when a “Northeaster” hits, an angel would help, wouldn’t it? I’m sure one has come to some. I’ve read several accounts of Christians comforted in suffering by an overwhelming presence of the Lord. I think most of us, though, are left with promises on a page. We’re called to believe without an angel.
To make matters worse, the promises confuse. Some seem to say that if we believe and keep praying, the Lord will deliver us. Others promise deliverance through death into heaven. We’re left to trust that God will do what’s best. And the “worst” is entrance into eternal glory with our Lord.
Sometimes, though, in a raging “Northeaster”, it would be nice to have an angel.