This passage could be headed, “Shipwreck, Serpents, Superstition and Salvation.” But the undergirding truth would be that of sovereignty. God sovereignly got Paul to Rome in the face of much adversity. God, true to His word, rescued Paul.
After a 27 chapter historical record of the growth of the early New Testament church, Luke brings the plane to land. In this final chapter, we have the record of God’s promised arrival of Paul in Rome. Luke provides some interesting information of the final leg of this journey. And though some of the material may seem irrelevant for where we live, the record is in fact of immense value to us.
When Paul eventually arrived in Rome, he would have even more testimony to God’s faithfulness. Among other things, he would be able to say, “God rescued me.”
Though you may never be shipwrecked or bitten by a serpent, if you have been saved then you too can boast, “He rescued me.” Let’s see how God rescued Paul that we might be led to sing of His rescue of us.
Verses 1–6 introduce us to the great superstition of the people of Malta.
Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
Along with 275 others, Paul had endured fourteen days on a ship, battered by a typhoon. That ship ran aground was broken to pieces, but in fulfilment of God’s promise (27:23–25) they “all escaped safely to land” (27:44). He and his fellow passengers were now waterlogged on the “beach” of a bay (27:39) of Malta. Interestingly, this is from a Phoenician word meaning “a place of refuge.” Though they were no doubt physically exhausted and emotionally spent, yet they were glad to be alive at a place of refuge. This is where we pick up the account as we enter chapter 28.
In the kind providence of God, they were helped by the inhabitants of the island whom Luke says “showed us unusual kindness” (v. 2). Luke uses a word translated here as “natives.” The word literally means “barbarian.” This word simply meant that they spoke a foreign language. It in no way implies that they were uncivilised savages.
As an important aside, note that Luke was an eyewitness. He must have been of strong faith and of devout and courageous spirit as well. What a joy to have such a partner in ministry!
These “natives” showed great compassion to these beleaguered people. Not only had they experienced the trauma of being tempest tossed, but now that they had been shipwrecked on an island the rain began to fall as the temperature dropped. These natives, however, kindled a fire as they extended warm hospitality to them. MacArthur captures the scene when he writes, “Exhausted from their long ordeal, soaked from their swim to shore, drenched by the driving rain, and chilled by the cold November wind, they welcomed a fire to warm themselves.”1
Paul, being the kind of man that he was, could not sit idly by, so he headed off to gather firewood. Barclay insightfully observes, “it is only the little man who refuses the small task.”2 Paul was a leader, and this was proved by his willingness to serve.
As he returned and placed the sticks on the fire, a viper darted from the wood and bit him. These natives, who had been so kind, now became victims of their own superstition and jumped to the conclusion that he was a bad man whom the gods had chased down to punish. For whatever reason, they assumed that Paul was a murderer, and so now he was getting his just due. The word they used for “justice” was the same word associated with a goddess worshipped in that region named Dika.
Paul nevertheless was able to shake off the snake into the fire. Now, I am sure that animal rights activists would be most displeased at this behaviour, but I will not criticise!
The inhabitants of the island now had a change of mind concerning Paul’s character. As they intently observed him, they noticed that not only did he not drop dead under divine judgement, but in fact he seemed to be just fine. As Luke records, he “suffered no harm.”
So, how would they respond? As they did before: with superstition. They went from one extreme to another. From concluding that Paul was an evil murderer, they now concluded that he was a god! Longnecker helpfully comments, “Paul was no god, as they had soon learned. But he was a messenger of the one true God, with good news of life and wholeness in Jesus Christ.”3
Of course, this is not the first time in Acts you find superstitious worship of God’s messengers. In 14:8–19, the inhabitants of Lystra likewise tried to worship Paul and Barnabas. However, on Malta they first believed Paul to be a murderer before they elevated him to the status of a god; in Lystra, they first believed him to be a god before they stoned him and left him for dead!
This record is not merely beneficial for curiosity’s sake, nor is it recorded so that we can roll our eyes at these uncivilised peoples. Rather, there are several lessons here for all of us.
These natives were in fact representative of the majority of people on this planet. Superstition reigns supreme in the lives of many. For example, there are many around us who have an uneasy feeling about the number 13.
The next time that you use a lift in a many storied building you may look in vain for a thirteenth floor. I have flown many times and have never been assigned a seat in Row 13 because, for some strange reason, those who build airplanes can’t count! In fact, this fear of thirteen is endemic. 4
But there are other forms of superstition as well. Many athletes have their lucky socks or lucky jersey. Many athletes follow a particular routine on game day that has little to do with science and much to do with superstition. The same can be said for almost any realm of life—including politics.
One of the tragic manipulations that we witness each election season is the way that politicians use superstition to their electoral advantage. The appeal to ancestors as a motivation to vote for a particular party is nothing less than an appeal to superstition.
Superstition is a reality of the world in which we live. But the fundamental question is, why? What is it that drives superstition? I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but this text does give us some hints. Fundamentally, superstition exists because of a lack of knowledge of God.
For example, 1 Corinthians 15:33–34 highlights that a denial of the resurrection is due to a lack of knowledge of the true God. Therefore, superstitions that deny the reality of the resurrection reigned supreme. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8–10 Paul addressed the matter of idols—physical idols—to which people offered sacrifices. This, of course, is a grotesquely obvious display of superstition since, as Paul says, idols are in fact a nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4).
It should be noted that these natives had a sense of the divine, and this is evident because they clearly had a sense of personified justice (see v. 4). This helps us to understand the truth of Romans 1:18–20 and 2:13–16. It also gives the lie to those who claim to be atheists and who claim that the positing of a personal God is a manmade way to cope with difficulties. After all, how can you explain this pervasive metaphysical charade that seems to exist in every culture on earth? No, the biblical explanation is far more plausible.
This pervasive sense of justice that exists in every culture is evidence of God’s existence. C. S. Lewis made this observation in his famous book, Mere Christianity. In a wonderful passage, he argued that everyone has a sense of the moral law, regardless of atheistic denial to the contrary. He wrote,
But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter, but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong—in other words, if there is no Law of Nature—what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?5
The point that I want to make is that creation and conscience give us the apologetic foundation to proclaim the gospel. And this is particularly relevant to the culture in which we live.
A well-known radio talk show host in South Africa has recently been talking much about traditions in our country. He has made clear on several occasions that while he is all for tradition, “common sense has to kick in at some point.” He is referring specifically to many traditions—initiation traditions into manhood in particular—that have in life threatening consequences. For him, these particular traditions are unacceptable because “common sense” dictates against them.
Of course, while we do not want to minimise the seriousness of the consequences, we must ask, whose common sense? Who gets to define what qualifies as common sense and therefore what should be rejected and what should be retained? Who gets to decide what is just and what is not?
The same talk show host has been heavily critical of a particular Chief Justice who has stated his belief that religion ought to inform South African law. In the mind of this talk show host, religion has no place whatsoever in politics. Morality, in his opinion, must be informed by something other than an absolute standard.
In a culture that seems to be increasingly casting aside any commitment to, or even recognition of, moral absolutes, we are not left speechless. Rather, we can ask thought-provoking questions to help people begin to wrestle with their incongruities. No doubt, many are quite happy to live with such intellectual anomalies, but there are many who will be awakened as we challenge their worldview.
Notice also that this sense of the divine, though obscured by and in spiritual darkness, is also the explanation for common grace. These natives, whom it is clear were an unreached people, showed “no little kindness” to others who, like them, were made in the image of God.
There is no other way to explain this than by God’s sovereign bestowal of common grace. I don’t want to be misunderstood, but we need to realise that unbelievers do have the ability to do good and kind things. They can behave decently, kind and considerately to others, to animals, to the environment and to society as a whole.
The Depravity of Man
“But what about the depravity of man?” you ask. There is nothing in the biblical doctrine of the depravity of man that contradicts this. When we speak of the depravity of man, and therefore our conviction that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10)—when we say that “there is no one who does good” (Romans 3:12)—we are, of course, affirming biblical teaching. But there is a context to these statements. No one is righteous before the holy God. No one is able to do good towards God, for in fact the nicest, most decent unbeliever that you know is not seeking God.
But this does not mean that unbelievers cannot be decent people in horizontal relationships. This does not mean that unbelievers cannot do kind things. And the text before us proves the point.
We need to see that even these acts of kindness are further proof of the existence of God and, in fact, further condemnation of the unbeliever.
Consider that, each time an unbelieving person does something kind for another, it is an implicit recognition of the Creator. At the same time, it is also a resistance of that knowledge of God (Romans 1:18). So, though we are grateful for common grace, those exercising it are putting themselves in even greater need of the special because saving grace of God.
Common Grace for Special People
One other observation is in order: God uses His common grace to care for His own.
This is clear from our text. The Lord had promised Paul that he would get to Rome. So the Lord brought him through the storm safely to land. He then provided care for him by these natives. (No doubt, the supply of food was a part of the “kindness” they displayed.)
We need to realise that, since Jesus is Lord of all, He is not restricted to use the church for the church. He is free, of course, to use those who are not a part of His church to further the building of His church. One thinks of natives whom missionaries have used in their translation work—before they were even converted (e.g. Krishna Paul, who helped William Carey with Bible translation and was only later converted).
We can learn from this that the Lord is Lord and will do what He will do using whom He wills to get His missionaries where they need to be!
Verses 7–10 give a wonderful account of reciprocity. What I mean is that, after these natives showed kindness to Paul and to these who had been shipwrecked, the Lord used Paul to bless them. They had not earned God’s favour, but the Lord did indeed show mercy to them. This passage is quite instructive for us.
In that region there was an estate of the leading citizen of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and entertained us courteously for three days. And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him. So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed. They also honoured us in many ways; and when we departed, they provided such things as were necessary.
A “leading citizen” (“chief man,” KJV) on the island showed great kindness to Paul and his company. He man cared for their physical needs over a three-day period.
Meanwhile, his father was ill. He was suffering from, in the diagnosis of Dr. Luke, “a fever and dysentery.” This is a nasty illness in any place and in any age. It was most likely what became known as Malta Fever, and it arises from a bacteria found in goat milk in that area.
I assume that Publius spoke with Paul about his father’s illness, especially since Paul was viewed as a god (v. 6). In fact, it was probably for this very reason that Publius was particularly courteous to him. Anyway, Paul went to the father, laid his hands him and prayed for his recovery. God heard and answered. Word spread quickly and soon sick people from all over the island came to Paul. He likewise prayed (probably while laying hands on them) and they were healed. God’s grace in a place of refuge extended to those who were providing refuge.
William Barclay makes an interesting observation here: “The word used is the word for receiving medical attention; and there are scholars who think that this can well mean, not only that they came to Paul, but that they came to Luke and that Luke, the doctor, the beloved physician, gave them of his skill.”6 This may well be the case. If so, then we see here perhaps the first instance of a medical missionary.
After some three months (v. 11), Paul and his companions prepared to depart, and when they did so the Maltese demonstrated their affection and appreciation by “honour[ing] us in many ways,” including providing material supplies for their journey. It was doubtless an emotional parting, both for those staying behind as well as for Paul and the rest who were departing.
John MacArthur posits that a church had most likely been planted here because the people’s display of affection was so strong. In point of fact, the text is silent about that, which leads us to some pertinent observations.7
The Sound of Silence
We need to note a strange silence in this text. There is a glaring gap in this passage in a book that is about the spread of the gospel. That is, there is an audible absence—a silence that shouts—in that there is no mention of evangelism. There is mention of miraculous healings, but nothing about gospel proclamation. There were clearly signs of the supernatural, but no firm indication of a local church being planted. What do we make of this?
Let me first of all warn us about expounding the silence. When you make too much of the space between the lines you may be in trouble. Hebrews 7:3 is a Spirit-warranted exposition of silence, but we rarely have such a warrant. Having said that, we can make at least three valid observations.
First, knowing what we do of Paul, we can assume with a good deal of confidence that he did proclaim the gospel. In fact, the presence of signs in the various Scriptural accounts are most often for the purpose of giving a platform of credibility for the proclamation of truth. Such supernatural signs gave the believer the opportunity to preach the gospel.
Second, though there is no mention of a church being planted here, we have no firm reason to conclude that one was not. Acts does not claim to be an exhaustive history of all church-planting efforts.
Third, the silence concerning the proclamation of the gospel, along with there being no mention of the planting of church, does provide us with a concrete example of Christians doing good works that help human flourishing without a direct gospel connection. This point needs to be made and defended in the current evangelical climate.
There is much debate today, some of it heated, concerning missions and social upliftment. Many argue that the Great Commission is equally about evangelising and social upliftment (ministries of care) or, as it is increasingly being labelled, “human flourishing.” I think such an argument for equal congruence is flawed and, if not properly addressed, can be fatal to the mission and flourishing of the local church. The fact is that gospel proclamation, with the view to making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, with the goal of planting local churches, is the primary calling of the local church.
Conversions and Compassion
Yet as our church has come to appreciate in recent years, the church, by virtue of her character, is compassionate. Therefore, Christians and their local churches are to be heavily involved in ministry of mercy. This is a natural outflow of our love for God. But ideally, and practically, we should be seeking to keep these together without either side being put asunder. That is, we want to reach out in mercy to the man on the side of the road and to minister to his needs with the view of him coming to faith in Christ. In other words, our merciful concerns for him are not merely physical and temporal but rather (and ultimately) spiritual and eternal.
It is precisely here where many passionately argue that the local church should not be digging wells, for example, unless it is directly connected with gospel proclamation. I understand this argument, and I agree fundamentally with what is being said, but this passage in Acts 28 leaves me unsettled with this ultimate conclusion. After all, as we have noted, there is a complete silence in the record of any gospel proclamation and gospel success. The only concrete evidence of gospel success is that these superstitious natives were obviously used of God to minister to the needs of a missionary and his friend as a means to get them to their next place of ministry.
Some Important Lessons
So, what do we learn from this?
First, we can learn that it is always right to do right even if we cannot always accomplish the best. Paul actively involved himself in the lives of others for their physical benefit, while apparently not being of any immediate benefit to them spiritually.
We cannot guarantee the outcome of our good works. We should hope for the best but not withhold the good because there is no guarantee of the best. As Solomon wrote, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so.” (Proverbs 3:27). And as James exhorted, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
Second, we can learn that we never know the eventual outcome of our ministry of mercy. Personally, I fully anticipate meeting some Maltese believers in heaven who were the fruit of Paul’s evangelistic efforts. They may not have been converted then, but perhaps seeds were planted that later brought forth a harvest. We do know that a church eventually existed in Malta. So go ahead and do the right, good and kind thing, leaving the results with God.
Third, we can learn that it is never wrong (and always right) to serve our fellow man with the gifts that God has given to us. It is right, in other words, to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Much could be said here, but suffice it to appreciate the temptation of “luring” rather than loving people. Men like John Stott and Tim Keller have made the point, and I think rightly, that too often Christians are guilty of loving people with an agenda rather than loving them for the simply profound reason that they are made in the image of God.
Now, of course, on one level, if we truly love people then we will have a gospel-centred and gospel-driven agenda to see them repent and be converted to Christ. To deliver others from the eternal experience of the wrath of God in hell is a wonderfully loving agenda that should drive our relationships. But the point that Stott made many years ago, and which Keller is currently making, is that even if our neighbour rejects Christ we nevertheless are right and obligated to love him. After all, does not our heavenly Father send rain both on the just (His children) and the unjust (His enemies)?
So let us be committed to loving our neighbour with a Christ-driven agenda. And if he rejects our gospel then, like Christ, we will continue to minister to him. Was this not precisely what Jesus did throughout his ministry (see John 2:23–25; John 6; etc.)?
God moves in mysterious ways. That is His prerogative. But since we are not privy to the eternal counsels of God, let us do what has been revealed to us. Let us do good to all men, while emphasising doing good especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Who knows: Some of those who are currently in the category of “all men” may, by God’s grace, one day become a part of “the household of faith.”
Safe and Sound
In vv. 11–16, God keeps His promise to Paul:
After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose figurehead was the Twin Brothers, which had wintered at the island. And landing at Syracuse, we stayed three days. From there we circled round and reached Rhegium. And after one day the south wind blew; and the next day we came to Puteoli, where we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them seven days. And so we went toward Rome. And from there, when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns. When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage.
Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him.
We know that God is faithful, but it always wonderful to read historical reminders of that faithfulness. The Bible and church history are full of them. Here, we have one such confirmation.
After three months on Malta, the weather turned and it was safe to sail. Paul and company boarded a ship marked by the icons “Twin Brothers,” and their first stop was Syracuse. After three days, they boarded again and, after another stop, came to Puteoli. This was their place of disembarking for the walk to Rome.
Here, they found fellowship with other believers and enjoyed that fellowship for a week. They then headed, by road along the Appian Way, for Rome. Along the way—perhaps halfway—brothers from the church in Rome met up with them. They had quite a reunion. Luke records what a tonic this was for Paul: “When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage.” As Stott comments, “It must have been an emotional experience for Paul to meet personally the first resident in the city of his dreams and the first members of the church to which he had addressed his great theological and ethical treatise.”8
This should be the outcome of our fellowship. When you spend time with Christians, do you leave them thanking God and feeling encouraged? Or do they leave even more burdened and thanking God that you have left?
Once they arrived in Rome, Paul was placed under house arrest, which was a far better prospect than being incarcerated in one of the infamous Roman prisons. Some soldiers were assigned to him and no doubt became the recipients of many a gospel proclamation.
Paul had reached Rome, safe and sound. He did not reach it the way that he had planned (see Romans 15:14–28), but he nevertheless reached it by God’s sovereign design. As far as we are aware, Paul never left Rome until his soul departed on Nero’s chopping block. But he died right where God intended.
Paul would have wonderful opportunities in Rome to proclaim the gospel and to carry on his work. He would doubtless continue to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 30–31), thereby strengthening the church at Rome. Paul had suffered much—most recently in a terrible shipwreck. Yet he was in the hands of his sovereign Saviour and that was enough. As he had told his fellow shipmates, “I believe God.”
You and I may find ourselves, like Paul, misunderstood, misrepresented and ministering without seeing any immediate fruit. But if we know God, if we are secure in the conviction of His sovereign control and of saving compassion, then we can face our difficulties resting safe and sound.
God was faithful to rescue Paul from his sins and the wrath to come. God then time and rescued Paul until the day He would finally and fully rescue him in death. Paul would learn by experience what he knew by exposition: that the worst thing that can happen to the Christian is also the best thing. Is this your confidence? Can you sing with confidence, “You rescued me”?
- John F. MacArthur, Jr, Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:360. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 206. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:565. ↩
- Personally, I am a bit offended because I was born on the 13 February. And just to prove to you that I am not superstitious, I googled my birth date and discovered that I was born on a Monday! Close call! ↩
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 6. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 207. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 2:364. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 396. ↩