We do not ask for storms, or difficult times, to come into our lives—they just come. They are part of life, but more importantly, they are part of God’s plan for our lives. Paul’s experience on the sea gives us some much-needed perspective on life’s storms.
When hurricane season is upon us, people where I live keep an eye on the weather report. I don’t live right on the coast, but I am close enough to have experienced the catastrophic effects that a hurricane can deliver.
Everybody wants to avoid a hurricane, but sometimes it just is not possible. There is not enough time to get out of town, much less to prepare in advance. And that is true of the storms of life. Sometimes they hit you with unexpected fury. They sweep into your life in the form of a surprising event, a devastating medical report, or an unexpected loss, and suddenly life is turned upside down. You do not even have enough time to run for cover or get out of town.
Acts 27 gives us one of the most detailed accounts of a literal storm at sea. It also gives us some insights on how to handle the storms of life.
Paul has appealed his case to the emperor, Nero, and he now departs for Rome. He and some other prisoners are put in the custody of a Roman centurion named Julius. Paul is also accompanied by a fellow believer named Aristarchus. We know, too, that Luke is also along for the ride, as indicated by the use of the pronoun “we” in this chapter.
These first six verses of chapter 27 trace the journey by ship westward across the Mediterranean Sea. Strong winds eventually force them down to the southern side of the island of Crete, which is below the Greek peninsula, and to a harbor known as Fair Havens.
Luke mentions in verse 9 that the “Fast was already over.” This is a reference to the Day of Atonement, and it tells us that the fall months have arrived. This is the most difficult and dangerous time for sailing on this sea, so it is going to be best to settle in at Fair Havens until after winter.
Well, evidently the sailors are ready to push on, so Paul says to them, “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” (verse 10). Unfortunately, verse 11 tells us, “The centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said.” Besides, these sailors are the experts at this. Paul is not a sailor, so what does he know?
There is another motive here for moving on. Evidently Fair Havens is not so fair. Phoenix, farther west on the coast of Crete, is a more desirable harbor and a lot more comfortable place to wait until spring.
They evidently take a vote here, for verse 12 says, “The majority decided to put out to sea.” And just like our world today, the majority opinion is dangerously wrong—and life-threatening.
By the way, we can create some storms of our own by following the majority opinion, by being too impatient, or by wanting more personal comfort in life. Too often we listen to the experts out there who have no interest in God or His will.
Well, they are not going to make it to Phoenix. Strong winds force them south and back out into the open sea. This storm just does not let up, either. Luke writes, “They began the next day to jettison the cargo” (verse 18) and “On the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard” (verse 19).
The storm continues on for “many days,” until Luke writes in verse 20, “All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” They are now hopeless and at the mercy of this hurricane storm.
Have you ever felt that way? Maybe you are feeling that way today. Hope has left you, and all you can see is a storm with hurricane winds.
Paul addresses the crew and passengers above the howling wind. He says, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete” (verse 21). This is not some arrogant “I-told-you-so” moment; Paul is effectively telling them, “You didn’t listen to me before, but you need to listen to me now.”
In fact, Paul tells them why they can remain hopeful now:
“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.” (verses 23-25)
That’s quite a statement—and a very confident one—delivered to a crew of unbelieving, pagan sailors.
What was Paul’s confidence here? What kept him from despair? The circumstances? No. The wind starting to let up? No. It was the word of God—the promises God gave him the night before.
The focus of this chapter is not so much on “why shipwrecks are allowed by God” or “why God allows storms to sweep into our lives”; the focus is on trusting God in the midst of the storms of life.
First, Paul trusts God’s promise to him. In this case, God promised Paul would reach Rome—not in a coffin, but alive and well. His survival, along with the others, will become a wonderful testimony to them that God is managing the storm.
Second, Paul’s example shows us that storms allow the Lord to work through us in ways we could never imagine. This does not mean we should go looking for storms! But it does mean we can lead others to look for God in the midst of storms.
Well, the remainder of this chapter describes the outworking of God’s promise to Paul. As the storm continues into the fourteenth day, the ship approaches land. Paul again assures his fellow travelers that all of them will survive. He even encourages them to eat so they will have strength for what happens next. He sets the example by thanking God for the food and eating. Verse 36 says, “Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.”
At dawn the next day, they spot a bay with a beach, and they direct the ship, as much as possible, toward it. “But striking a reef,” Luke writes, “they ran the vessel aground” (verse 41).
As the ship begins to break up in the crashing waves, we are told, “The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape” (verse 42). They do not want to answer later for allowing their prisoners to escape. The centurion’s respect for Paul, however, moves him to prevent this, and he orders everyone to swim for shore or hang on to whatever they can use to keep them afloat.
Verse 44 states simply what must have seemed miraculous: “All were brought safely to land.” As we will learn later, this is on the island of Malta.
There are so many lessons for us here in this historical event. Let me mention three of them.
First, life is never free of storms, but God is with us in the midst of them. Those stormy waves that crash over our heads are always under His feet—under His control.
Second, when we are in the middle of a storm, we want the Lord to deliver us; He wants to develop us. We are impatient; we have plans to get to Rome, but God wants us shipwrecked on the island of Malta. We want to get to where we are going. God is more interested in who we are when we arrive.
Third, even the worst storms cannot erase God’s plans for our lives. Paul would still reach Rome, but this storm was designed for Paul to reach unbelievers for Christ.
Paul is not shipwrecked on the island of Malta. He is shipwrecked on the island of God’s perfect plan.