Paul ended his third missionary journey by going to Jerusalem to bring an offering to the church there from the churches he’d founded on his missionary journeys. Some Jews from Asia, thinking he’d taken a Gentile into the temple, stirred up a crowd against him. He was rescued by Roman soldiers stationed near the temple and a few days later, on their commander’s learning of a plot by some fanatical Jews to assassinate Paul, taken by military escort to Caesarea, where the governor (Felix) had his headquarters. Felix couldn’t find anything wrong with Paul but, hoping for a bribe from him, kept him imprisoned. Similarly the successor to Felix, Festus, couldn’t find anything wrong with Paul but, fearing that Festus might turn him over to the Jews to do them a favour, Paul appealed to have his case heard before the emperor, which was his right as a Roman citizen.
In this article I’ll consider the part of Paul’s journey to Rome described in Acts 27:1-28:10. In summarizing and commenting on it, I’ll divide it into four parts: setting sail for Rome, the storm, the shipwreck, and Malta. The Blue Letter Bible gives a map of the complete voyage at Paul’s Journey to Rome (https://www.blueletterbible.org/images/Acts/imageDisplay/#s=maps_paul4_b).
Setting Sail for Rome
Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a Roman centurion named Julius. With them were Luke (”we”) and Aristarchus, a companion of Paul from Thessalonica. Boarding a small coastal vessel at Caesarea, they sailed northwest for ports along the southern coast of Asia Minor. At one of those ports, Myra, they transferred to a larger ship carrying Egyptian grain from Alexandria to Italy. Making slow headway against the strong northwestern wind, they took several days to reach Cnidus on the southwest tip of Asia Minor. The wind’s not allowing them to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, they sailed south to the island of Crete and west along its south coast, using the island as a shelter from the wind.
Sailing still being difficult, they moved along the coast with difficulty, finally coming to a small bay called Fair Havens. Because of the time they’d lost, the sailing season was almost over and Paul warned 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” (27:10). However, the harbour’s being unsuitable to winter in, they decided to sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix, a city farther west along the coast with a larger and safer harbour for wintering in.
Unfortunately as they sailed along the shore a raging wind called the Northeaster swept down from the hills of Crete and they had to give way to it. Driven southwest about twenty-three miles to the small island of Cauda, they managed to get to the side of it sheltered from the wind. There they hauled the lifeboat on board, reinforced the ship with cables to keep it from breaking up, and fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars called Syrtis lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. In the next three days they threw overboard some of the cargo and the ship’s spare gear. With neither the sun and the stars’ appearing for many days and the storm’s continuing to rage, they began to lose any hope of being saved. However Paul urged them to take heart, sharing with them the message which an angel had given him not to be afraid because he must stand before Caesar and God had granted him all the men with him although the ship would run aground on a island and be lost.
About midnight of the fourteenth night the sailors sensed that they were nearing land, took soundings, and found that they were. They let down four anchors to keep the ship from being wrecked against the rocks of an unknown coast in the darkness. They also lowered the lifeboat into the sea, scheming to abandon the ship in an effort to save themselves. However Paul saw through their ruse and warned the centurion and soldiers that unless the sailors stayed with the ship nobody could be saved, and the soldiers cut away the ropes of the lifeboat. At dawn Paul reminded them that none of them was to be lost and urged them to take some food to give them strength. Encouraged by his words and by his eating some bread, they ate some food and then lightened the ship by throwing the rest of the grain into the sea.
When it was day, they didn’t recognize the land but saw a bay with a beach (now called St. Paul’s Bay) and decided to try to run the ship ashore there. They cut loose the anchors, placed the rudders back in the water to steer the ship, hoisted a small sail in the front of the ship (the beam holding the main sail had probably been lost in the storm) to the wind, and aimed the ship for the beach. However they ran aground on a sandbar, where the front of the ship stuck and the back of it was broken up by the surf. The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners so that none of them could swim away and escape, but the centurion wanted to save Paul and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard and make for land and the rest to get there on planks or other pieces of the ship. All 276 of them reached shore safely.
The native people of the island where they’d landed, Malta, built a fire for them because of the rain and cold. As Paul was putting some sticks on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and bit his hand. Seeing this the islanders thought that he must be a murderer whom, although he had escaped from the sea, justice would not allow to live. However when he shook the viper off into the fire and showed no ill effects, they changed their minds and said that he must be a god.
The chief official of Malta, Publius, entertained the shipwrecked travelers for three days. His father was suffering with fever and dysentery, symptoms of an infection caused by goat’s milk called Malta fever. Paul visited him, prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. Then the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. As a result the islanders honoured the travelers and when they were ready to sail provided them with supplies for the remainder of their journey.
Richard N. Longenecker comments: “From what Luke tells us it seems that Paul may have looked on his stay in Malta as a high point in his ministry—a time of blessing when God worked in marvelous ways, despite the shipwreck and his still being a prisoner. God seems, through the experiences at Malta, to have been refreshing Paul’s spirit after the two relatively bleak years at Caesarea and the disastrous time at sea and preparing him for his witness in Rome” (”The Acts of the Apostles” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 9 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1981, page 565).