Please turn to Acts 28:1-10, and to what happens especially to Paul on Malta, which is an island south of Italy. With those words on Malta some of you are now thinking of summer holidays, palm trees, relaxing by the Mediterranean under the hot sun - suffering for Jesus! But what did Paul do on Malta following his shipwreck there on his way to preach the gospel right at the heart of the Roman Empire in Rome from where it would spread further? And what lessons can we learn today? Well first that God's plans, purposes and promises will be fulfilled
Let's briefly go back to the shipwreck and to the end of chapter 27, v41.
But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape [knowing that by Roman law if anyone escaped they would themselves be liable to bear his punishment]. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land. (Acts 27.41-44)
Another translation of v44 has, 'So it came true', expressing the fulfilment of God's purpose and promise, 'that everyone reached the shore in safety'.
And it's repeated for emphasis in v1 of chapter 28:
After we were brought safely through... (28.1)
God is in control even when it doesn't feel like it. Who needs to hear that? All our days are in his faithful hands. Look to Jesus who endured the cross. God's plans, purposes and promises will be fulfilled. Paul would still reach Rome - v10 The people also honoured us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed - and in the meantime he was able to minister to the people of Malta.
Let me ask you this. Do you believe in God's sovereignty? Do you really believe in God's sovereignty? Do I really believe in God's sovereignty? You see if we do then we will be agents oF Hope in what is a world without hope. Why? Well Paul believed so strongly in the sovereignty of God, that he could look beyond the bleak situation such as here in the boat or in prison etc. and anticipate good to come out of it. Now some of you may be thinking well that was OK for Paul but what about me when the situation looks bleak as far as the eye can see, when all I can see is not light at the end of the tunnel but rather just another train coming? Why am I struggling with seeing the sovereignty of God? Well a vision of God's sovereignty may not come to us immediately because our natural tendency may be to panic in a difficult situation. If that's so, we must grapple with God until we come out of that situation and are able to go to the people with a word from God rather than with a public display of anxiety.
One useful place in the Bible to go to about this is Psalm 73. The psalmist in Psalm 73 is pondering the mysterious providence of God that can allow the wicked to prosper while the righteous suffer. This had greatly troubled him. In the end, without publicly proclaiming his doubts, he goes to the sanctuary to battle it out with the Lord (v17). There he receives a vision of God's sovereignty, and in the rest of the psalm he praises God. And we too must grapple until we see things the way God sees them. And this will give us the confidence to be agents of hope for Christ.
Twice in chapter 27 Paul with a strong conviction that God's in control asked the people to take courage (v22&25). He also ate some food. As a result "they were all encouraged and ate some food" (v36). Our words and actions can cause us to be agents of hope in a world that often seems hopeless. One of the most powerful messages we can give to the world is that God is sovereign and there is therefore hope amidst the gloom that may temporarily engulf us.
And it's both words and actions can communicate this hope. When people lose hope, it shows in their meaningless actions, which make situations even worse. Christians, by their constructive and meaningful actions, can bring hope to others and thus help transform society.
At a time when the war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka, the people there had fallen into a state of hopelessness and despondency. Roads were littered with filth and the yards of homes were unkempt. The Youth For Christ leader in northern Sri Lanka, Suri Williams, decided to keep a happy and beautiful home in spite of all the terror and confusion around him. He and his family carefully tended their plants even though bombs were destroying many yards and many others had given up on their yards. One day they decided that not only would they keep their yard clean, they would also clean up the road outside their home. An Indian army officer from a camp nearby saw this being done and challenged his soldiers to start a clean¬up campaign of the roads near their camp. Neighbours were also encouraged to improve the areas surrounding their houses. Keeping a tidy home in a time of war became a symbolic act of hope. What can you do to bring the hope of Christ to people this week?
The unspoken witness to the gospel through such acts of hope is immense and will result in people who observe others seeking out Christ. When John Wesley was on his voyage to North America as a missionary from England, his ship encountered a terrible storm, so bad that they feared for their lives. The English immigrants on the ship were shrieking with fear. Wesley exam¬ined himself, as he usually did in all circumstances, "and found to his horror that he was afraid, mortally afraid of dying." But a group of Moravian Chris¬tians from Germany were singing hymns amidst the storm. After the storm had subsided, Wesley went to one of them and asked, "Were you not afraid?" The man replied, "I thank God, no!" Wesley persisted, "But were not your women and children afraid?" "No," came the reply, "our women and children are not afraid to die." This experience had a profound influence on Wes¬ley, and these and other Moravians had a big part to play in his subsequent experience of evangelical conversion that sparked off the 18th century revival in England.
There'll no doubt be difficult times ahead as we seek to grow to 2000 and turn this nation upside down for Christ but God's plans and purposes for JPC and St Joseph's will be fulfilled. Do you believe that? Then let's be agents of hope for Christ - God's sovereignty and man's responsibility always go together in Scripture.
Secondly we also learn of God's provision
Look at v1-2, 7&10
After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold... Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days... The people also honoured us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed. (28.1,2 & 7,10)
The original word translated 'native' in verse 2 is barbaroi, but this doesn't mean 'barbarous people'. The Greeks used the word for all foreigners who spoke their own native language instead of Greek. The unusual kindness they showed the shipwrecked seafarers, by building a fire in the cold and rain of the early morning (2), indicates that they were the very opposite of those we might call barbarians today.
The land near the beach belonged to a man named Publius whom Luke calls the island's 'first' or most prominent person, perhaps its 'chief official', 'chief magistrate' or even 'governor'. He opened his home to 'us', Luke says, presum¬ably a selection of those shipwrecked, not all 276 of them(!), and for three days was lavish in his hospitality (7). And in response to Paul's ministry the islanders gave all that was needed for the apostle's onward journey (v10).
Yes God is sovereign – his purpose and promise will be fulfilled and he provides. Where God guides he also provides. Who needs to hear that this evening?
Thirdly here we also see God's protection v3-6
Paul played his part in building a fire to keep folks warm by gathering 'a large bundle of sticks', out of which there slithered a viper, dis¬lodged by the heat. Luke doesn't explicitly say that Paul was bitten, although that the snake fastened itself on his hand (3) and was hanging from his hand (4) seem to imply this. Certainly the islanders took it for granted that he'd been bitten. They then jumped to the conclusion that he was a murderer who, having escaped from drowning, was now being pursued and about to be poisoned by the goddess Dike, the personi¬fication of justice and revenge. But as they watched, Paul shook the viper into the fire and he neither swelled up nor dropped down dead. Now this shouldn't encourage us to play with poisonous snakes without fear but Luke's obviously amused that the crowd should immediately change their minds and call him a god. So fickle is the crowd that in Lystra Paul was first worshipped, then stoned (14:11-19), while on Malta he was first called a murderer, then a god. But, of course, the truth was at neither extreme. Instead of being drowned or poisoned by Dike, Paul had actually been protected from both fates by Jesus. And Jesus promises to be with us as we serve him.
Fourthly we learn that God's people are servants
Look at v3 and then at v8-9
When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire... (v3)
It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. (v8-9)
We'll come back to v3 and some more general points that we learn here about Christian service in a moment. But to begin with let's look at the more particular act of service in v8-9.
While in the house, Paul became aware that Publius' father was also there, sick in bed. Now what did Paul do? Did he just acknowledge that and say to Publius that he'd pray for his dad whilst enjoying the delights of the island? No, Paul makes himself available. He's willing to give of his time. He visits Publius' dad. Luke describes the father's complaint as 'fever and dysentery', which was probably 'Malta fever', and lasts on average for four months and sometimes even for two or three years. But not in the case of Publius' father. For through prayer and the laying-on of hands Paul healed him instantly. As the news spread, all the island's sick came and were cured. God blessed Paul's willingness to serve. Although Luke in v9 employs a different verb (therapeuo), which was used for medical treatment, there's no hint here that he means us to think of Publius' father's healing as miraculous and of the other healings as medical. Supernatural cures were part of the apostle's ministry.
The apostles raised the dead and were involved in remarkable instantaneous healings. Paul in 2 Cor 12:12 speaks of “... the things that mark an apostle –signs, wonders and miracles.” If they were ‘marks’ of an apostle, they set the apostles apart. What they did was not what other Christians did. And that was a way God authenticated their teaching. Also, of course, the apostles were commissioned by Jesus himself and had met him, risen from the dead.
However Jesus still calls Christians to be involved in healing the sick, for church elders to serve in prayer ministry for the sick as in James 5, for God does still heal in that way; and to serve in the medical profession, which is a vocation, where God does bring healing through medicine and of course the two are not always mutually exclusive.
But what about Christian service more widely? Have we really taken on board the fact that God's people are servants? Let me ask you this. What lifestyle should we adopt as Christians? What lifestyle have you adopted as a disciple of Christ? Comfortable? Modest? One that reflects your status in this world? Well the answer according to Jesus in the New Testament is A servant's lifestyle. Wherever we are (in church, at home, or in society) and whatever our role may be (leader, follower, Christian minister, businessman, etc.), our attitude should always be that of a servant, should always be that of Christ, the Son of God, who took the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8). In Paul's address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-35), we see that Paul adopts a servant lifestyle in his ministry. Here on Malta we see him adopting a similar lifestyle in his activity in society. Even though he must have been exhausted from the strenuous trip and though the Maltese people were doing their best to help the people from the ship, Paul was busy gathering wood for the fire that the Maltese people were building. As someone once said, "It's only the little man who refuses the little task."
Paul was, of course, following the example set by Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples—a servant's task that none of the disciples seemed will¬ing to do (John 13:4-9).
Another servant-like act of Paul in this passage is, as we've seen, his going to see the sick father of Publius. In religions like Buddhism and Hinduism you have to pay to receive the services of religious workers, and devotees have to either go to them or provide transport for them to come and perform their service. In Christianity the worker is a servant, so he does his work without demanding any privileges except that of serving the people. This is a powerful testimony for Christ.
An article by an anti-Christian journalist in an Indian newspaper on the conversion of large numbers of tribal people in India to Christianity attributed the success of Christianity with these people to three reasons. (1) Christian workers went to places where no one else would go. Even government cen¬sus workers did not bother to go to remote tribal villages in the mountains (they simply wrote down estimates). But Christian evangelists not only went to these places, they even lived among the local people. Which is an important lesson for us with regard to St Joseph's. (2) Christian evangelists handed over leadership of the churches to locals very soon and thus empow¬ered the people. That too may be an important point for JPC with regard to St Joseph's and our future other sites. (3) Christianity is a "cheap" religion. By that the author meant that it didn't cost the people a lot in order to get the services of a Christian minister. We need to serve by offering inexpensive wedding packages at St Joseph's to encourage marriage.
These three points of attraction of Christianity have to do with the servant lifestyle of the Christian. How powerful might the testi¬mony be of a lawyer, a government official, a bus driver, a school teacher, a health care worker, a nursery nurse, if he or she went into his or her work with a desire to be a servant of Christ! And how powerful might a servant lifestyle be at and from St Joseph's too, along with the Word of God. Paul says in Philippians 2 that in a crooked and depraved generation we shine like stars as we hold out the word of life - the gospel - God's Word.
I remember counselling at a Billy Graham mission. One night a businessman came forward and received Christ. The next Sunday he went to church and asked his business colleague who was also a leader in this church, “How long have you and I been colleagues?” “About 23 years" his colleague replied. “Have you known Christ as your Saviour all that time?” the businessman asked. “Yes, I have,” he answered. “Well, I don't remember you ever speaking to me about Christ, and I thought so highly of you. In fact, I thought so highly of you that I felt if anyone could be as fine a man as you and not be a Christian, then I didn't have to be a Christian either.” You see - both actions and words are vital.