A Study of Acts 28
Once long ago in a faraway land, there was a young man who always knew the best route to any location. Because of that he was in great demand. He led travelers to distant cities. He guided pilgrims to their desired shrines. He directed generals and their armies on military campaigns. He led the king and his caravan on diplomatic missions.
As he escorted his clients, he always held his right hand in front of him as if running it along an invisible thread.
The pathway he choose was often harder than that of other guides, but it always ended up being better. His paths had detours and bypasses, but somehow they always proved the best. His invisible thread never failed to steer him in a way, which, in retrospect, was necessary for success. Sometimes he himself felt perplexed by the way he was going, but he never doubted the thread of guidance he felt in his right hand.
Few people in this world have ever reached out and felt that invisible thread, but it’s there for every one of us. It is the perfect will of God. For every one of us, there is an invisible thread to guide us through our lives. God has an individual plan for each person who is committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
I want to show you how this worked out in the life of St. Paul the Apostle. Let’s turn to Acts 27. This is the most vivid true account of a shipwreck in antiquity. The apostle Paul had longed for many years to visit Rome. There was a church already there, so he wasn’t going as a church planter. He wanted to go as a Bible teacher to share with the Christians there and to strengthen them. He also longed for their help as he labored westward to Spain.
God was guiding him to Rome, but in a rather difficult manner. Paul had intended to travel to Rome as a free man and to do everything he wanted on his own timetable and by his own prerogative. Instead he was arrested in Jerusalem. He spent two years imprisoned on the coast of Israel and finally appealed his case to the emperor. As a result, he was going to Rome as a prisoner. There are four points I want to emphasize.
1. The Winds May Blow Us
First, the winds may blow us. Let’s pick up the story in Acts 27:1: When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship….
The rest of the chapter is about the ill-fated voyage. Let’s skip down to verse 14: Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, call the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not ahead into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along….
Verse 20 says: When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
Verse 41 says: The ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
The passengers, sailors, prisoners, and everyone else jumped into the waters and miraculously everyone either swam to shore or hung onto pieces of timber until they could make it to land.
Chapter 28 says: Once safely on shore, we found out the island was called Malta.
There’s a lesson in all this. Paul would never have chosen this route. He would never have wanted to endure the terror of being on a ship battered by a hurricane and shipwrecked. He would never have willingly suffered hypothermia. He would not have stopped on the island of Malta; but this was where God wanted him to spend the winter. The Lord had work for him here, so the winds of God’s providence purposefully blew this ship and its 276 people to Malta and stranded them there for the winter.
The Lord uses many things to guide us, but He especially uses circumstances. He sends the winds of His providence to push us where He wants us to be.
I’ve just finished reading Pilgrim’s Progress again. Even though it’s over 300 years old, there’s no book that so illustrates the various truths of everyday Christian living. It’s one of the great classics in literary history. The author, Englishman John Bunyan, faced a lot of headwinds. He was a village tinker, which meant he went from house to house repairing pots and pans. But he also attended the little local Baptist church with his family, and he began preaching out in the countryside from time to time.
He and his wife had a little girl, and she was blind. They also had two other children. They were in good health, but John’s wife died following the birth of their third child. John was 30 years old at the time, and he was now a widower with three children, one of them blind. He leaned heavily on his pastor, but then the pastor died. Then the church was thrown out of its meeting house and had to start meeting in barns and cowsheds.
One day, John was invited to preach in a village twelve miles away, in a barn. About this time, the government outlawed the Baptist and all other non-Anglican denominations, and John was arrested there in the barn. I don’t have time for the whole story, but the bottom line is that John’s prison cell because a literary factory. He began publishing sermons, prayers, tracts, and books that flooded England. It was in prison that he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. By the time he was released and restored to his family, he was one of the most beloved and powerful figures in England, and his ministry has led untold thousands—even millions of people—to Christ and into a deeper Christian life.
The world calls it “bad luck” but we call it Romans 8:28. The world says, “This is a curse,” but God turns curses into blessings. Somehow the misfortunes of life lead us to the Malta of God’s will. The harsh winds cause us to wind up where God wants us to be.
2. The World May Befriend Us
Here’s the second thing to notice in this passage—how kind and friendly these pagan islanders were. Let’s look at these verses again:
28 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold….
7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days…
10 They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
The unsaved people in this community of Malta showed unusual kindness to these shipwreck survivors. They built a bonfire for them, welcomed them into their homes, and met their needs for three months. Then they provided the supplies the mariners needed when they departed in the spring.
Do you know there is still an awful lot of good in this world, even among non-believers? I know there is a variety of Christian theology that says the everyone is thoroughly evil and that’s all there is to it. Well, it’s true we all have a sinful nature and none of can be saved and taken to heaven on our own merits. But even those without Christ are created in the image of a good God. Human beings without Christ still have the capacity for kindness and goodness—not enough to save them but enough to allow them to be a blessing to us. I think you’ll agree that non-Christians can be some of the nicest and most helpful people you’ll ever meet.
This is especially true after a natural or national disaster. If you were alive after 9/11, you know how our nation came together. You know the courage of the firefighters and emergency responders, some of whom were not followers of Christ. I remember after the 2010 flood here in Nashville or the more recent tornados how our community came together—both Christian and non-Christian.
Here in Acts 28, the people of Malta got up in the wee hours, the word spread from hut to hut, and they rushed to the shore to pull the survivors to safety and came for them. We know from the passage they were highly superstitious and believed in pagan gods. Yet they were kind and compassionate and a blessing to Paul and his companions.
That’s why we need to treat everyone with dignity and kindness. The apostle Paul was cared for and ministered to by people who, from everything we know from the text, were unbelievers. Yet they treated him with unusual kindness and with generous hospitality. The Lord can use the unsaved—the world—to befriend us.
3. The Serpent May Bite Us
But then the apostle faced another trauma. He was bitten by a viper. I just can’t imagine the hardships Paul faced. In prison for two years, sent in chains onto a ship that sailed right into a hurricane, drenched, cold, shipwrecked, and now he no sooner had dragged his trembling body to shore than he was bitten by a viper. Look at this passage again:
28 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Recently I was hiking in the Southwest and we were told to watch out for rattlesnakes and copperheads, so I scanned the pathway ahead of me. A time or two, I thought I saw a snake and I jumped back about two feet. But in each case it was just a twisted stick of wood. But I thought to myself, what do I do if bitten by a snake? I’d need something to cut the wound and suck out the blood, but I didn’t have a pocketknife. I actually dreamed about it one night. Had I been struck by a snake, I would have panicked.
But it happened in real life to Paul, and I can’t believe it was an accident. It’s hard to read about serpents in the Bible without thinking about the devil. I believe he singled Paul out for special attack, and he does the same for us. He did not want Paul getting to Rome, and he doesn’t want us fulfilling our God-given mission.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe.
Earlier I mentioned the classic book, Pilgrim’s Progress. One of its most dramatic scenes is when Christian confronts the evil Apollyon, which is a name for the devil in the book of Revelation. Christian comes face to face with Apollyon, who threw deadly darts at him as thick as hail.
Christian deflected them with his shield as best he could, but he was struck in the head and hands and feet. The combat lasted for more than half a day, and Christian grew weaker and weaker as Satan attacked him.
Finally just as Apollyon was ready to strike the final blow, Christian reached out his hand, grabbed his sword, and gave Apollyon a dead thrust. The enemy drew back, and Christian jumped up and raced toward him, saying, “But in all these things we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Apollyon suddenly spread his dragon wings and took flight and flew away, and Christian thought of the verse that says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” And immediately a hand reached out to him with some leaves, which, when applied to his wounds quickly healed them. And he went on his way rejoicing.
Christian’s sword was the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the only way I know to fling the serpent into the fire.
Last weekend some of us drove to Black Mountain, North Carolina, to visit with Sally Wilson, who is the daughter of the late T. W. Wilson, a powerful 20th-century evangelist. Sally cooked a big pot of potato soup for us. When I went into her kitchen, I was astonished at her refrigerator. I have a few magnets on my refrigerator, but nothing like hers. Every square inch of every side is covered with small magnets, almost all of them Bible verses. I think she has the whole Bible attached to her refrigerator. This is the way she explained it: “If I ever get too discouraged to read my Bible, I just stand here and read my refrigerator.”
I love that. However you do it in your life, every page of the Bible is an armory of little swords, each one lethal to the devil. When tempted and tried, we use the power of Scripture to shake that serpent into the fire.
We have to shake things off. We have to shake off disappointment, bitterness, depression, temptation. Visualize Paul’s shaking this snake into the fire and let it encourage you to shake off the venomous things that are trying to cling to you. Use the power of God’s Word to get free, and think of the coming day when the Lord Jesus Christ will throw Satan himself into the everlasting fires of destruction.
4. But Christ Uses All These Things to Bless Us
By the Invisible Thread of His Perfect Will
Here’s the final truth: Christ uses all these things to bless us and to use us and to guide us on our way by the invisible thread of His perfect will. Look at all the ministry opportunities Paul had on Malta, an island he would have probably never visited on his own. But this was God’s appointment for him.
7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. 8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. 10 They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
Paul had three months of ministry on this island. He had not planned to visit. It wasn’t on his list. It wasn’t part of his strategy. But the Lord put him there. There’s nothing specific in this passage about Paul’s preaching the Gospel. We expect that he did so, but he certainly provided humanitarian hope and healing for the people, who were prepared for him and receptive to him.
As I studied this passage, a story came to mind that I had read years ago. I couldn’t remember where I had read it, but I stacked up some books and went through them until I found it. It had to do with a missionary pilot in the Congo named Burleigh Law. One day during his normal flight runs, he ran into a deadly storm that seems to sweep toward him from nowhere. It was like Paul’s storm.
There in the cockpit of his little missionary plane, he lost his bearings as thunderclouds surrounded him on every side. Here and there openings appeared in the clouds, and he kept turning his plane toward those openings, following little patches of blue like a needle through fabric. Finally he saw a little landing strip beneath him, and he landed with a sigh of relief.
Suddenly a vehicle came racing up to his plane. A nurse ran to him, saying, “I don’t know where you came from, but I know you are an answer to our prayers.” A missionary couple had been isolated on this remote mission station. The roads were impassible and the bridges were out. The wife had become seriously ill with a high fever. Early that morning the Christians in the village had gathered in earnest prayer for help. They had specifically asked God to somehow send help and intervene in the crisis. In response, God arranged patches of blue to guide Burleigh through the storm clouds like an invisible thread, directing his little plane to the ordained spot of earth.
God knows how to get His people where He wants them to be.
There is an invisible thread that leads those who are committed to Jesus Christ along their appointed way. The path may be circuitous and sometimes difficult, but it’s always the best way. The winds will blow us. The world will befriend us. The serpents may bite us. But through it all the Lord Jesus Christ will lead us to where He wants us to be and bless us in doing what He wants us to do. For…
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps on the sea,
And rides upon the storm.