Sometimes in life it seems as if we’ve got caught up in a tremendous storm that hurls us around and threatens to destroy us. A hundred years ago a storm of war began that shook the world. The church in this country is storm-tossed right now. Some of you here this evening are in the thick of a terrible storm in your own life. This evening’s Scripture is for all of us – but especially for you.
We’re embarking on the final stages of our series through the book of Acts. We’ve reached chapter 27. It’s a long section, from 1-44, and we’re going to race through the whole of it. You really need to see it all laid out in front of you, so please have the Bibles open there. Acts 27. My title is ‘Sailing for Rome’.
As you can see, it’s an even more exciting sermon outline than usual, because it hasn’t only got headings, it’s got a shape to it. Why? Well, some people wonder why Luke takes such a chunk of his space telling the story of this journey of Paul to Rome. Couldn’t he just have said something like, “Paul had a difficult journey to Rome, but he got there in the end”? And some say, in effect, that Luke just thought this was too good a story to miss, and he thought if he included it his chances of getting on the bestseller lists would be improved.
It certainly is dramatic and exciting. You can’t beat a good shipwreck. But surely there’s more to it than that. And I think you can see what it is in the pattern that I’ve set out on the outline. What we’re watching here is the providential unfolding of God’s saving purpose in the midst of a ferocious storm. And the shape of this account of Luke’s is like an arrow directing us to its central point.
The first and final sections, as you can see from the outline, raise the question, “Who’s in control?” The second and sixth sections ask, “Who’s right?” The third and fifth sections ask the question, “Can we save ourselves?” And then right at the heart of it all, in that central fourth section, the key question is, “Can God be trusted?” And here’s a plot spoiler, because I’m going to tell you now what the answers are. Who’s in control? God. Who’s right? God’s servant, the apostle Paul. Can we save ourselves? No. Can God be trusted? Emphatically, yes.
So what we’re seeing here primarily is God’s providential purpose for his servant Paul being worked out seemingly against all odds. And that’s crucial because the apostle Paul is key to God’s saving purpose for the world. But what goes on here has a wider application to us all in the stormy weather that’s the environment in which we live our lives. God’s saving purpose is being worked out in us too. What then should we be doing if we learn the lesson from this thriller of a Bible chapter? In the teeth of the storm, however helpless things seem, in however much of a minority we find ourselves, trust God and obey him. It’s so simple. But it’s so profound.
So, let’s set sail.
First, WHO’S IN CONTROL?
This is the section that runs from verses 1-8. Here it is – and as you listen, think about that question of who is actually in control, and who thinks they are:
And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort named Julius. And embarking in a ship of Adramyttium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica. The next day we put in at Sidon. And Julius treated Paul kindly and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. And putting out to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. And when we had sailed across the open sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy and put us on board. We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind did not allow us to go farther, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea. (1-8)
“It was decided…” (verse 1) and of course various authorities are making decisions here, but who’s really the one who’s decided Paul should go to Rome? God. “They delivered Paul and some other prisoners…” and yes, in one sense Paul was in the hands of the Romans. He was in a vulnerable, powerless position. But really Paul was safe in God’s hands. And who’s prisoner is Paul? He is held captive by the love of Christ. He is the most free man on that ship.
By the way notice how in verse 3 the centurion Julius “treated Paul kindly”. Here is Paul on the receiving end of kindness from the representative of the empire that will in due course execute him. Always remember that there is good in the opposing camp. Don’t tar everyone with the same brush.
Then look at how the weather hindered their well laid plans: “the winds were against us … we sailed slowly … with difficulty … the wind did not allow us … with difficulty.” From Paul’s point of view his journey to Rome did not go smoothly right from the start – even though it was God’s plan. Sometimes even Godly progress feels like wading through treacle.
I remember one year we set out in the car to go the Music Group Weekend Away in North Yorkshire. All seemed fine. But before long we found ourselves in a blizzard. We couldn’t see anything. For a long time it didn’t let up. We nearly ended up having to stay the night in a motel. But in the end we got through, very delayed.
Is your life going well at the moment? Then don’t get complacent and forget God. And don’t fail to prepare for when the wind turns against you and the storm begins to brew. The Lord does not promise an easy ride.
Secondly, WHO’S RIGHT?
This is verses 9-12, and as you listen to this, notice the sharply conflicting views, and who holds them:
Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. And because the harbour was not suitable to spend the winter in, the majority decided to put out to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbour of Crete, facing both southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there. (9-12)
Paul says that if they go there’s going to be trouble. It’s too dangerous. But he finds himself in a minority of one . The ship owner is against him. The ship’s pilot is against him. The centurion listens to them so he’s against Paul too. And (verse 12) “the majority” are against him. So his advice is rejected.
But who’s right? Paul is. He has the courage to speak out even though he’s in a minority of one. But he’s overruled. The others didn’t want to listen to him, because what he was saying interfered with their plans. So they embark on a dangerous course of action that threatens not only their plans but their very lives.
One of the routes that we drive regularly has a sign up at the moment. It says that there’s a bridge on the route that’s closed. You can’t get through. You have to go a different way. If you don’t you’ll get stuck. That’s the kind of sign that you really should take notice of even if you don’t want to hear it. What’s God saying to you that you think gets in the way of your plans? Are you in danger of closing your ears to his loving warnings about the trouble up ahead?
Thirdly, CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES?
They landed themselves in really serious trouble by ignoring God’s servant. So can they get themselves out of it? Think about that as we look at verses 13-20:
Now when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to the shore. But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land. And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship's boat. After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship. Then, fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear, and thus they were driven along. Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. And on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned. (13-20)
At first it seemed like they’d been right, and all was going their way, and (verse 13) they supposed “that they had obtained their purpose”. But who’s plan is this? Who’s purpose is being fulfilled? When the weather is fair they think that they can look after themselves. They’re mistaken. The weather takes a turn for the worse, and soon – look at these phrases – they were “driven along … [again] thus they were driven along … we were violently storm-tossed.” Where is their purpose now? When they throw overboard the ship’s tackle there goes the last vestige of any pretence at control.
“No small tempest” is emphasis by understatement. And by verse 20, “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” That’s a statement loaded with theological freight. Here is a living visual aid of where we’ve got to get to in our lives if we’re going to take hold of the salvation that is by the grace of God alone.
I was once driving across a bridge. It was winter and there was a lot of ice on the road. The car began to skid. I realised that I had completely lost control of the car. There was nothing I could do to save myself from any oncoming traffic, or from going off the road – I had no idea where I would end up. Nothing I could do was any use. That’s the point we need to get to in our lives.
We make no contribution to our salvation. We can’t. We’re slow to admit it. Sometimes it takes a storm in our lives to make us see that. But we have to realise that if we had to save ourselves, we’d be lost. We need to get to this point of abandonment.
Fourthly, CAN GOD BE TRUSTED?
So here we get to the heart of this whole story. As my pattern on the sermon outline indicates, this is the tip of the arrow. This is what it’s all pointing to. Verses 21-26:
Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island.” (21-26)
So at just the moment when they’ve given up all hope, God speaks to them through Paul: “take heart”. Whether or not Paul’s earlier advice came from his much-travelled ocean-going weather forecasting experience, it’s crystal clear now that this time it’s a revelation from God.
The God Paul serves is the Lord of everything including the seas and the storms. He is Lord of their lives. They thought they had Paul in their hands, but God has them in his hands. And he is gracious.
And do you see what the angel said to Paul? “You must stand before Caesar.” There the curtain is drawn back, and we see exactly what the plan is – God’s plan. It’s God’s purpose that is unfolding through all of this, however out of control it seems.
That Paul was not immune to the temptation to fear is clear from the angel’s urging: “Do not be afraid.” And so with renewed boldness Paul tells them: “take heart… for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told…” That’s the essence of faith. Believing what God’s told you. Knowing that he’s in control. Understanding that he can be trusted, so we can take heart, however bad things look.
Occasionally the Lord draws back the curtain just a chink on what’s going on in our lives. Never mind the details, but I remember a time when we were in such a desperate state in our family that we didn’t know how we could go on. We needed a radical change of mind from certain hospital authorities, and there was no sign of it at all. Then we got a call from a dear elderly sister in the church saying that she’d woken up in the night convinced that she needed to pray for us. She had no idea what was going on with us, but she told us to take heart. That call came to us like the voice of an angel. We could do nothing. But God knew. God cared. God was in control. God could be trusted.
Let me say to you, if you’re in a storm in your life at the moment, and you’re tempted to abandon all hope that you can be saved: God knows. God cares. God is in control. God can be trusted.
Now, no doubt because we’re slow to learn, those same first three questions underlie the rest of the chapter – this time in reverse order, as you can see on my outline. So
Fifthly, CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES?
When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship's boat into the sea under pretence of laying out anchors from the bow … [pause there for a moment.] (27-30)
The crew of the ship, at least, had not yet learned their lesson. When they were “seeking to escape from the ship”, not only were they still thinking that they could save themselves, they were also engaged in a self-serving deceit, expecting all the rest to perish. They thought only those on the lifeboat would survive, and they were having it.
And lest we get all self-righteous as we respond to their behaviour, let’s think about how we regard what we might call the lifeboat of our church. Is there some risk that as we look at a lost world, all at sea all around us, we, perhaps unconciously, say to ourselves “I’m OK. I have my faith. I’m safe. Never mind the rest.” We must not use this church as an escape from the world. We have to share what God has given us through Christ with a world that without Christ will sink without trace.
Can we save ourselves? No. God is saving us – but not us alone. Those he has saved he calls to serve.
Sixthly, WHO’S RIGHT?
Again Paul tells them what they must do and warns of the consequence if they don’t. And this time the response is different. Verses 31-32:
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 ship's boat and let it go. (31-32)
The soldiers, at least, have now got the message that what Paul says should be heeded. Who are you like? The sailors, deaf to the word of God through his servant? Or the soldiers who listen and learn?
Then finally, and:
Seventhly, WHO’S IN CONTROL?
We certainly ought to know the answer to that by now, but what happens next drives home the truth that God’s purposes will not be thwarted by anything or anyone. So here’s the climax of the story, in verses 33-44:
As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore. So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders. Then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 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. 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. (33-44)
I mentioned that phone call we had once when we were desperate, that lifted the curtain a bit and enabled us to see that God really is in control, whatever it looks or feels like. That was doubly confirmed the next day when the hospital authorities, out of the blue, completely reversed their decision about what should happen, in line with what we wanted. God is in control.
What a wonderful last line of the chapter that is:
And so it was that all were brought safely to land. (v44)
Paul faced a ferocious storm. So do we, in our lives and in our death. Who is in control? God. Who’s right and to whom should we listen? God’s chosen servant, the apostle. Can we save ourselves? No. Can God be trusted? Yes, yes, and again yes. Can we save ourselves? No. Who’s right? God’s servant. Who’s in control? God. So rejoice in what you’ve already seen so far of God’s saving grace in your life. Rejoice that, however bleak the present looks, God is in control. And trust him.