The Perfect Storm

A Study of Acts 27

Introduction: I’m sure you’ve heard someone talk about the perfect storm. That’s become a phrase in our vocabulary, and it refers to a critical or disastrous situation that’s caused by a concurrence of factors. As far as I can tell, this phrase was coined as the title of a book about the crew of a fishing ship that was lost at sea in 1991. The ship was the Andrea Gail, and it was on a long commercial fishing trip when three different storms converged in the waters off Massachusetts. The six man crew all perished, but the story of the tragedy became a popular movie starring George Clooney. I remember thinking I might see the movie, but I asked a couple of teenagers how it ended. “They all died,” they told me, and I don’t watch movies with sad endings. So I never saw it.

But the apostle Paul could have identified with the plot because he faced a similar catastrophe in Acts 27.

Today is the thirty-nineth and final episode of our study, Unstoppable, on the story of the advancing church in the book of Acts. We’re coming to one of my favorite chapters—Acts 27, which has been somewhat overlooked. When I was growing up, I recall many Bible stories in Sunday School about David and Goliath, and about the feeding of the 5000. Over the years, I’ve heard many sermon on the Day of Pentecost and the Ethiopian Eunuch. But I’ve seldom heard anyone deal with one of the most thrilling and gripping accounts in the Bible—the voyage and shipwreck of the apostle Paul, which occupies the entirety of Acts 27.

This is a passage that rivets me. Years ago, I preached a series of sermons from Acts 27, which I called “Keeping Your Head Above the Water When Your Ship Is Going Down.” A year or so ago, I led a weekend retreat on this chapter, and I called it “Navigating Life’s Tempestuous Sea.” It’s my earnest desire to write a book on this Bible story, because it contains so many powerful and practical lessons for everyday life.

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first….

The Bible often uses storms and violent weather as a metaphor for the difficulties we encounter in life, and Jesus clearly used the stormy weather of Galilee to teach vital lessons to His disciples. The Lord spoke to Job out of a storm, and, of course, the prophet Jonah had a maritime disaster not far from where Paul’s would occur hundreds of years later—in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Acts 27 is the longest and most vivid true narrative from antiquity of a shipwreck. It was written by Luke, the author of the book of Acts, who was on board and who experienced all the terror of it. It all occurred when Paul, on trial before Governor Festus, appealed his case to Caesar. That meant he had to be transferred to Rome to stand trial in the judicial system of Emperor Nero. Acts 27, verses 1-3 say:

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 from Ad-ra-myt’-tium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

The centurion, Julius, seemed to respect Paul as a noted political prisoner, not as a criminal, and he showed him respect. Luke was there as Paul’s personal physician; some commentators believe Aristarchus agreed to go as Paul’s slave to be allowed onboard. At this point, if you have access to a map of the Mediterranean or of Paul’s journey, it would be helpful.

Verse 4 continues: From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea. Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 

There were no large passenger ships in Paul’s day. Travelers could buy tickets to travel on granary ships or cargo ships. The accommodations were pretty miserable by today’s standards, and all this would have been happening in the fall—in September and October of the year 59. The weather was getting rough. Notice the terms Luke used. He said: 

  • the winds were against us
  • slow headway for many days
  • had difficulty
  • wind did not allow us to hold our course
  • moved with difficulty
  • much time had been lost
  • dangerous
  • disastrous.

In his study of this, Ray Stedman said: “Why would the apostle experience such grave difficulty from natural forces when he is obviously in the center of the will of God, on the way to Rome where the Lord wants him to be? The Lord Jesus had appeared to Paul in Jerusalem and had told him that He wanted him to go to Rome, that He would take him there, and that he must appear before the emperor. And Paul is not disobedient; he is moving right in accord with God’s purpose. Nevertheless the winds are contrary and everything else seems to go wrong on this voyage. God, who controls the winds and the waves, could surely have made it easy for Paul to get to Rome. The question with which this confronts us is one which we all face: Why is it than, even when we are doing what we take to be God’s will for us, we oftentimes have such great difficulty in accomplishing it?”

We often don’t understand exactly what the Lord is doing, but He was in charge of the winds blowing through Acts 27, and He is in charge of the weather patterns for our lives. He knows the answers. He’s the navigator. 

God’s plans for us are synchronized far more precisely than we realize, and with patience and perseverance we’ve got every reason to believe that time is on our side. So when the winds are against us and we move with difficulty and make little progress, don’t be discouraged. We have to proceed with patience and perseverance. 

Well, let’s continue with verses 9-12: Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

Paul was in an awkward place. He was a prisoner, yet he knew from his own experiences on the sea (and perhaps by a special word from the Lord) that setting sail was foolhardy. He was an experienced mariner and according to 2 Corinthians 11:25 had already been shipwrecked three times. So he had a sense of the approaching danger, but the authorities discounted his warning.

But here’s what I’ve noticed: The apostle Paul did not fly into a rage, scream, nag, belittle, hound, or provoke the others. He simply spoke the truth and waited for everyone else to see the wisdom of his words. He didn’t want to lose his leverage by immature emotions.

On every occasion, we must try to be diplomatic, not defiant or defensive, in pressing our point. We seldom win an argument in the moment. But we can plant seeds that will prevail over time. This requires biblical wisdom and a godly temperament. Paul had those, and so he didn’t ruin his relationships.

Verses 13-17 continues: 13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17 so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along.

This is what I really want us to grasp because there’s a powerful illustration here. It’s one of the most vivid scenes in the bible. Notice the phrase: Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together.

The King James Version says: 16 And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat: 17 Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship….

Let me repeat that: They used helps, undergirding the ship.

In other words, they had strong ropes or cables—helps—that were passed beneath the hull of the ship and secured in an effort to keep the ship from breaking apart.

The ship had to be frapped or undergirded by passing cables or ropes underneath it to hold it together. The Greek word for those cables that were holding the ship together is a nautical term boetheiais, literally, “helps.” This phrase is used only one other time in the Bible—in Hebrews 4:14-16 

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

The word “help” is the same as in Acts 27: boetheiais. 

We have a high priest, a captain, and we can come to Him—to His throne—and find grace that will undergird us and hold us together when we’re in a storm. This is a powerful picture, and it seems to me the promises of the Bible are akin to the ropes the sailors passed around the vessel.  The Lord is not going to allow you to fall apart and be shattered in the tempest. He will ungird you and help you with His presence, His power, His peace, and His promises.

Well, let’s see how that worked out.

Verses 18 continues:  We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

In the hull, the grain would have filled he bottom and provided ballast, then other cargo on top of the grain. Then the tackle would have been on top of that and on the deck. They began throwing everything overboard to keep from sinking, but the typhoon was so unrelenting they all gave up.  Even Luke. Notice, he said we gave up all hope of being saved.

It’s a terrible thing to give up hope, and yet it’s also hard to hold out when the storms just don’t ever end.

Verses 21-26:  21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

Apparently, the fear and hopeless had even begun to seep into the apostle Paul’s heart—imagine the wetness, coldness, hyperthermia, and exhaustion. So God sent an angel to him with a direct revelation. And there’s a lesson for us in this too. 

If God doesn’t calm the storm, make sure that He calms you. The Lord gives us secret help. We have hidden resources that no one else knows about or can understand. We even have angelic help. Paul apparently saw his angel. We don’t often see ours, but we have more resources than we know.

In his sermon on this chapter, Charles Spurgeon said: “(Paul) acted like a man who believed God in a business-like way. Faith was real in him and therefore practical. Many Christians appear to hold their religion as a pious fiction—regarding the promises of God as pretty things for sentimentalism to play with, and His providence as a poetical idea. We must get out of that evil fashion and make God to be the greatest factor in our daily calculations—the chief force and face of our lives. We must each one boldly act on the conviction that ‘it shall be even as He has told me.’”

Well, that’s just what happened. Let’s continue with verses 27-37: 27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away. 33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 

So far as we know, there were only three Christians on a ship of 276 souls, yet God’s grace saved all 276 because of the three. The whole ship saved because of the godly one percent. A small minority of Christians changes the chemistry in any environment. 

The story ends like this:

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But 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.

42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

Conclusion: As I read and re-read this chapter I came away with many lessons:

  • Sometimes even when we’re in God’s perfect will, we face headwinds, delays, and prolonged storms.
  • We should speak wisely and wait for others to recognize the truth of which we speak.
  • There will never be a time when the children of God cannot find His undergirding strength in a crisis.
  • God oversees the circumstances and we can trust His providence.
  • And our witness for Him—even if we are an extreme minority—has a powerful effect on the majority.

It’s nicely summed up in B. B. McKinney’s wonderful hymn: Have faith in God, He’s on His throne; / Have faith in God, He watches o’er His own; / He cannot fail, He must prevail; / Have faith in God, have faith in God.