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Bible Commentaries
Acts 27

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Introduction

Following is one of the most exciting adventure stories a person could expect from any type of literature. This record is unlike any other recorded in all of divine writ. It is a fascinating story of ships, winds and waves, catastrophic storms, and shipwreck. The most amazing aspect of this account is that it is absolutely true! One would have to have a most active imagination to have conceived such a series of events. Luke provides us with such details about this ancient sea voyage that even the most critical of Bible scholars find no quarrel with it. Aside from realizing the primary objective is transporting Paul to appear before Caesar, let us enjoy the sheer excitement, the picturesque vocabulary, and the pulse pounding terror as seen through the eyes of Dr. Luke.

Verse 1

And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.

And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul: The pronoun "they" has reference to Agrippa and Festus. At long last Paul is delivered to Roman authorities to make the journey to Rome.

and certain other prisoners: From scriptures we cannot determine the identity of these other prisoners. Lenski suggests, "The other prisoners were not other Romans who had made an appeal to Caesar but men condemned to death, who were to be sent to Rome for the gladiatorial shows, to die in these for the amusement of the Roman populace" (1061).

unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band: Paul is placed in the safekeeping of a centurion by the name of Julius. These Roman captains are spoken of in a very favorable light in the New Testament, and this writer has come to appreciate the Roman centurions. With minor exceptions they are shown to be men of character and courage (see notes on 10:1; 21:31; 24:23)."Augustus’ band"is a name given to a division of soldiers, in this case in honor of Caesar Augustus.

Verse 2

And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us.

And entering into a ship of Adramyttium: The city of Adramyttium is still in existance today. It is known as Adramyti and is located in the modern country of Turkey. Reese says, "Adramyttium was a town on the coast of Mysia, opposite the island of Lesbos. It was an important ship-building center in the first century, and probably the ship’s home port" (640).

we launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia: This ship is what is commonly called a coasting vessel. It makes stops at various ports along the province of Asia. It is very similar to the one Paul and his associates used on their trip to Jerusalem.

one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us: It appears from the little information provided that Aristarchus, like Luke, is one of Paul’s closest friends and attendants (see notes on 19:29).

Verse 3

And the next day we touched at Sidon. And Julius courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself.

And the next day we touched at Sidon: It is generally agreed that the ship initially sails from Caesarea. The port city of Sidon is about seventy miles north of Caesarea. It is here the ship makes its first stop.

And Julius courteously entreated Paul: The kindness and respect afforded Paul by the centurion Julius shows well the magnanimous character of one of Rome’s finest."Courteously" is used only here in the New Testament. It means literally, "in a man-loving way; humanely; kindly" (Vincent 590).

It is also worthwhile to note the effect Paul has upon the men with whom he deals. It is evident Paul, by his conduct and manner of life, favorably impresses those with whom he comes in contact. Paul is respectful as well as respectable (see also 18:14; 19:31-37).

and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself: This passage mentions one of the wonderful "perks" of being part of the family of God. Paul is allowed to debark in the city of Sidon, and there he is met by brothers and sisters in Christ who love him and care about his welfare. His friends provide for his needs. This attention given Paul, for the benefit of anyone who may have forgotten, is called "hospitality."

Verses 4-5

And when we had launched from thence, we sailed under Cyprus, because the winds were contrary. And when we had sailed over the sea of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia.

At this point in our study, it is necessary to understand some of the problems the ancient sailors encounter in their efforts to sail the Mediterranean Sea. The summer months are the ideal time to sail as the prevailing winds favor the sailor, but in the winter months the prevailing winds are out of the west-northwest, thus forcing the small ships out into the open sea for which they are not equipped. The time of this voyage is late August or early September at the very end of the good sailing season. Rome lies to the west, and these "contrary" winds are blowing from the west, so these small ships are forced to sail north, taking advantage of staying near the land as much as possible. Using Cyprus as a windbreak, Paul’s ship makes its way northward toward the city of Myra.

One of the chief towns of Lycia, it lay where the coast forms a slight bay just before it turns north as the west face of Asia Minor, bordering the Aegean or, as we say, the Grecian Archipelago. ... The old name is still known, though the Turks call it Dembre; but its present squalor contrasts painfully with the splendour of the ruins which speak of what it was under the Romans (De Welt 326).

(For notes on Pamphylia, see 13:13.)

Verse 6

And there the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy; and he put us therein.

It is the purpose of Julius to find a larger ship to continue the trip to Rome. Passage for Paul and company is secured on a "ship of Alexandria" that is in the process of hauling a load of corn (wheat) to Italy. These grain ships were huge compared to the coasters that plied the waters of the Mediterranean. Boles gives the following information:

This ship was from Alexandria in North Africa; it was bound directly for Italy with a cargo of wheat on board and two hundred seventy-six passengers. It is thought to have been one of the fleet of grain ships in use to carry wheat from Egypt to Italy. ... This rig was specially favorable for running with the wind, but they could sail within seven points of the wind; they could make about seven knots an hour. A "knot" is a nautical mile, or 6, 085 feet; hence, it would sail about 8.5 miles. These merchant ships were very large and could carry ten or eleven tons ... (414-415).

There is speculation that this ship of Alexandria is having the same problem as the ship of Adramyttium, that being the contrary winds have blown even this great ship off course.

Verse 7

And when we had sailed slowly many days, and scarce were come over against Cnidus, the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salmone;

It is with great difficulty that this large, heavily loaded vessel makes painfully slow progress against contrary winds. Trying to sail west against a strong westerly wind is not only difficult to comprehend for one who is a non-sailor, but it is difficult to accomplish by one who is an experienced sailor.

The distance between Myra and Cnidus is about 130 miles. This leg of the trip probably took two or three weeks because of the strong winds.

At Cnidus the ship takes a southerly turn. Instead of trying to sail on the north side of Crete (a large island off the coast of Greece), it passes Crete on the south side, thus using the island as a much-needed windbreak.

Salmone" was the name of the promontory which formed the eastern extremity of the island of Crete" (Barnes 530). These first century sailors, who do most of their navigation without the benefit of sophisticated instruments, use this high point of land as a landmark.

Verse 8

And, hardly passing it, came unto a place which is called The fair havens; nigh whereunto was the city of Lasea.

It is with great difficulty that the sailors are able to navigate along the west side of Salmone without being forced into the shore by the westerly winds. Finally, the ship sails around the eastern end of Crete and edges along the south side of the island, using it for a windbreak to avoid being driven out to sea. About halfway down the island, they arrive at an inlet called "The fair havens." "Fair havens was nothing more than a small bay. In fact, the nearest town was two hours’ walk to the east, called Lasea" (Reese 644).

Verse 9

Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,

It is now very apparent that the favorable wind for which they have waited is not coming. The time for sailing the Mediterranean is past."The Mediterranean was not safe for ancient vessels after September 15 until about March 15" (Coffman 495). The question to be decided is whether to stay the winter at "The fair havens" or sail a bit farther down the coast to a more "commodious" harbor on the southwest end of Crete called Phenice (verse 12).

The mention of the "fast" being already past allows us to determine the time of these events. McGarvey says, "The fast here mentioned is the Jewish fast on the day of atonement, which was the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month (Lev. xxiii. 26, 27), and it occurs usually within our month of October" (Vol. II 264).

Verse 10

And said unto them, Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives.

Here, once again, the centurion in charge of this voyage recognizes the wisdom and knowledge of the apostle and allows his opinion about traveling to Phenice to be expressed. Paul warns of impending disaster, which will include the loss of the ship, its cargo, and perhaps the lives of those aboard.

Verse 11

Nevertheless the centurion believed the master and the owner of the ship, more than those things which were spoken by Paul.

It is only natural that the centurion would pay more attention to the word of the "master" [captain or "literally the steersman" (Vincent 592)] and the "owner of the ship." After all, the former is an experienced seaman and has the most to lose.

Verse 12

And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more part advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain to Phenice, and there to winter; which is an haven of Crete, and lieth toward the south west and north west.

By this record it seems the sailors and perhaps other passengers ("the more part") are allowed to express their opinions on the decision, and the conclusion is to make the trip to Phenice. After all, it is a journey of only about forty miles and the creature comforts afforded by the accommodations at Phenice far exceed the Spartan existence at fair havens. This decision is probably not difficult for the sailors, "if wintered at Fair Havens, in all probability they would have spent a sober and chaste sojourn, there having been very little chance of anything else" (Coffman 495).

Verse 13

And when the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, loosing thence, they sailed close by Crete.

Finally, the day comes when the dangerous west wind ceases and a deceptively gentle south wind arises to entice this doomed ship into the jaws of "Euroclydon." Such is the joy of the change in sailing conditions that the sailors quickly hoist anchor and cast their fate to the wind, thinking they have gained the "commodious" haven of Phenice.

Verse 14

But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon.

As the ship sails along the southern edge of Crete in high expectation of arriving at Phenice, a major obstacle arises. We can now appreciate one of the dangers of sailing the Mediterranean in the winter. A mighty tempest that literally seizes the ship is so familiar to ancient sailors they have given it a name, Euroclydon. This name describes a wind of typhoon proportions that roars down over Crete from the northeast catching Paul’s ship and sweeping it out to sea.

Verse 15

And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive.

The ship, its crew, and its passengers are at the mercy of the wind. The wind is so violent the ship cannot face into it. Vincent says the term literally is the ship "could not look the wind in the eye" (593). The only recourse is to lower the sails to prevent their destruction and hope the ship will simply be able to ride out the storm.

Verse 16

And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat:

The ship receives a temporary reprieve when the winds drive it behind a small island named Clauda. This island is about twenty miles southwest of Crete. We can only imagine the frenzy of all aboard to take advantage of this momentary opportunity to improve their situation. The first problem is to bring aboard the dinghy that is customarily towed behind the ship. This small boat is used to make trips to land when necessary. Luke includes himself in the "much work to come by the boat" when he uses the word "we."

Verse 17

Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so were driven.

After securing the dinghy on board, the next order of business is to "bandage the ship, " as Luke, forever the physician, says. This "undergirding" involves wrapping the ship with chains or ropes ("helps") in an effort to keep the ship’s timbers from separating in heavy seas.

In modern times this is called "frapping" a vessel, referring to the passing of cables around the exterior of the hull to give it greater strength and keep it from breaking up during a storm. All ancient sailing vessels carried supplies for such a purpose" (Coffman 497).

The crew fears being grounded upon quicksand. Quicksand is but one of many hazards that a ship, out of control, faces. Barnes supplies the following information:

There were two celebrated "syrtes, " or quicksands, on the coast of Africa, called the greater and lesser. They were vast beds of sand driven up by the sea, and constantly shifting their position, so that they could not know certainly where the danger was, and guard against it. As they were constantly changing their position, they could not be accurately laid down in a chart. They were afraid, therefore, that they should be driven on one of those banks of sand and thus lost (531).

In Conybeare and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, there is some excellent material on the verses under consideration, beginning on page 697.

Verse 18

And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship;

The second step, in an attempt to avoid disaster, is to lighten the ship. This action involves throwing overboard the cargo and any other articles deemed unnecessary. It should be noticed that even under such dire prospects as being swamped by thundering waves or being torn apart by the fierce winds or even being washed aground on ever-shifting quick sands, not all of the precious wheat is jettisoned (verse 38).

Verse 19

And the third day we cast out with our own hands the tackling of the ship.

The hope of surviving the storm encourages a joint effort by all on board to further lighten the ship. Every loose item, every dispensable fixture on the ship, is thrown overboard. Such things as chairs, beds, all types of furniture, canons and shot (if the ship is so equipped), auxiliary sails, and anchors, are all cast into the sea.

Verse 20

And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away.

This verse supplies another peril faced by these ancient mariners: the loss of hope. It is difficult to imagine the fatigue, the unabated terror, the depressing darkness, and the despair of the constant prospect of death in the sea. There is no means to determine the ship’s location in this seemingly endless night of rain and clouds. These first century sailors depend upon sighting the sun and the stars for direction.

Verse 21

But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss.

But after long abstinence: It is easy to understand that during the struggle to withstand the onslaught of the storm the passengers and crew have no appetite for food. Hervey explains that Dr. Luke uses yet another medical term to describe the situation:

Asitia is only found here in the Bible; but it was the common medical term for loss of the appetite, and such is the natural rendering here. ... The literal rendering is, when there was a great (or general) loss of appetite among the crew. The terror, the discomfort, the sea-sickness, the constant pressure of danger and labour, the difficulty of cooking, the unpalatableness of the food, combined to take away relish of their food, and they became weak for want of nourishment (296).

Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss: It is not the purpose of Paul to say "I told you so, " (surely it is a temptation) but to remind them of the correctness of his information and to prepare them to pay attention to his next instructions.

Verse 22

And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship.

We can believe that after the events already suffered and the dismal prospects for the future, Paul’s new prediction must have been extremely good news for the storm-weary occupants of this ship.

Verse 23

For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve,

While the others have been fighting for their lives, Paul has been praying to the Master of the winds and waves; and he has been answered. What a wonderful thing to imagine: in the midst of what appears as certain disaster, "the angel of God stood by me this night." We have no reason not to believe that God cares about His children and their trials in the wicked age in which we live and that He will stand by them in time of need. (For additional notes on the "Angel of the Lord, " see 5:19; 7:30; 12:7-10).

Paul gives us another lesson here. He never misses an opportunity to confess the one true and living God before unbelievers. He reminds them of the "God whose I am and whom I serve."

Verses 24-26

Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island.

Because of Paul’s presence on this ship, all can "fear not". Although it is not stated, we can assume Paul has been praying for the preservation of the lives of all on board the ship. By the grace of God and because of Paul’s request, all aboard will be saved.

Paul invites his fellow travelers to rejoice because he is confident in his faith in God that the message delivered will be "even as it was told me." Paul will have his audience before Caesar. Their safety is assured!

Verse 27

But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country;

But when the fourteenth night was come: What an ordeal this has been! For fourteen nights this hapless band of travelers, bound together by circumstance, have been at the mercy of the winds and waves in an ancient ship without the aid of modern navigational equipment. Surely these first century mariners were made of sterner stuff than their modern counterparts.

as we were driven up and down: Some commentators have accused Luke of error here; but those who understand the nature of a hurricane know that winds come from opposite directions, depending upon the location of the eye of the storm.

in Adria: Vincent says that " Adria" has reference to "The Adriatic Sea: embracing all that part of the Mediterranean lying south of Italy, east of Sicily, and west of Greece" (595).

about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country: Sailors have several ways of sensing the presence of land. It is said that a person can "smell" land; but that is not the case here as the wind is blowing from the ship toward the land. It is likely these sailors could hear, over the howl of the storm, the waves breaking upon the rocks.

Verse 28

And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms.

And sounded: The ominous sound of the breakers out in the blackness of the midnight holds an invisible terror for all aboard. This scene would have been a nightmare if it were taking place in broad daylight, but imagine the compounding of the horror by the pitch-blackness of the rolling waters and stormy night.

Suspecting imminent calamity, the sailors move quickly to determine the depth of the sea by "sounding." Sounding is accomplished by dropping a weight, usually made of lead, attached to a rope, overboard. Usually the rope has knots in it one fathom apart.

and found it twenty fathoms: This first sounding indicates a depth under the ship of about 120 feet. A fathom is calculated to be about six feet as Plumptre explains:

The Greek noun so rendered was defined as the length of the outstretched arms from hand to hand, including the chest. It was reckoned as equal to four cubits ... about six feet (175).

and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms: A short time later, the depth is "sounded" again and found to be ninety feet. This is a loss of thirty feet, thus indicating a rapid approach toward the land.

Verse 29

Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day.

The rapid loss of water depth sounds an alarm in the minds of the sailors. In an attempt to prevent being dashed upon the rocks, four anchors are cast out of the ship. With a jolt the anchors hold, the ship is jerked to a halt, and there is nothing else that can be done but to pray for the light of day.

To "cast anchor and wait for day" can be used as an analogy for many of the trials of our modern day. How many times do we find ourselves physically and mentally exhausted, having used up our reserves to combat some calamity in our own lives when all that is left is to hold on to what we have and pray to God for a better day?

Verse 30

And as the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship, when they had let down the boat into the sea, under colour as though they would have cast anchors out of the foreship,

During this time of jeopardy, the need for self-preservation overcomes the sailors. They devise a treacherous plan to save themselves regardless of the consequences for the passengers. Under the guise of lowering additional anchors, they lower the lifeboat with the intention of abandoning the ship.

The term "under colour" means "under a pretense." Vine says: "It signifies the assuming of something so as to disguise one’s real motives" (Vol. I 197).

Verses 31-32

Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved. Then the soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat, and let her fall off.

We have a contrast in the matter of faith. The sailors have no confidence in Paul’s prediction (verse 22), but the Romans are just the opposite. They demonstrate their complete faith in the words of Paul by cutting the ropes that hold the lifeboat and letting it fall from the side of the ship. The conclusion of this unique situation is now left in the hands of God.

Verses 33-34

And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing. Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.

Paul’s natural leadership ability rises to the occasion. In the middle of what has amounted to chaos, Paul calms and assures this ill-fated group that all is well. He encourages them to eat something for their "health" and to take heart, "for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you."

Verses 35-36

And when he had thus spoken, he took bread, and gave thanks to God in presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat. Then were they all of good cheer, and they also took some meat.

Things are definitely looking up. It is dawning toward a much-prayed-for day; finally the opportunity comes for something to eat, and Paul has given them the promise that no one will be lost. Spirits are lifted by this new-found hope.

Again, an opportunity is provided for Paul to introduce the God of the universe to this motley crew. He pauses in the circumstances of the day to thank God before them all. We may assume this prayer does not just involve thanks for the food but praises God and gives Him credit for their deliverance.

Verse 37

And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.

Why Luke specifies the exact number of souls aboard the ship is left to speculation. Perhaps the number is given to help us appreciate the magnitude of the rescue that is about to occur. What power could preserve every single life of such a great number cast into a raging sea? This amazing avoidance of otherwise certain calamity is provided by the grace of God.

Verse 38

And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, and cast out the wheat into the sea.

When all appetites are satisfied, activity is renewed in an effort to save the ship. All remaining cargo is cast into the sea. This is a final effort to lighten the ship so that it will sail higher in the water in hope of avoiding treacherous rocks.

Verse 39

And when it was day, they knew not the land: but they discovered a certain creek with a shore, into the which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship.

And when it was day: Only those who have ever prayed for the dawning of day can appreciate the immense relief that the rising of the sun can bring.

they knew not the land: but they discovered a certain creek with a shore: As these weary sailors strain to see through the pale light of a new day, they do not recognize the land in sight; but they do see a bay with a beach. It is usually where a creek empties into the sea that the soil washes down from the land, building up a sand bar or beach. It is here, by the providence of God, that the ship will be run aground. This geographic location is known today as St. Paul’s Bay.

into the which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship: The wisdom of preventing the sailors from leaving the ship now becomes apparent. It requires the skill of these experienced sailors to sail this crippled ship to land.

Verse 40

And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves unto the sea, and loosed the rudder bands, and hoised up the mainsail to the wind, and made toward shore.

The commitment is made to sail for land. Anchors are lifted, the rudders are loosed for steering, and the sail is hoisted. There is no turning back!

Lenski provides technical information about this race for shore:

Ancient vessels had no hinged rudder but had two long oarlike rudders, one on each side of the stern. The two were often operated together by being joined by cross bars. ... At that moment, too, the foresail was hoisted to the blow of the wind. ... Thus "were they holding for the beach, " the foresail and the rudders controlling the vessel so as to head in the direction desired (1094-1095).

Verse 41

And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves.

The sailors do not know that the sand bar extends farther out into the mouth of the bay than expected. The result is the ship runs aground on the submerged bar a short distance before they reach the beach. The front end of the ship lodges upon the sand bar, and the rear of the ship is literally torn off by the howling gale as it is whipped from side to side.

Luke uses the term "where two seas met" to describe the location. The submerged sand bar with deep water on each side is quite literally, a strip of underwater land with a sea on each side.

Verse 42

And the soldiers’ counsel was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out, and escape.

This is Roman law: rather than allow a prisoner to escape he must be killed. The alternative is if the guard in charge of a prisoner allows the prisoner to escape, the guard is put to death. To be responsible for these first-century Christians certainly made life difficult for some jailers and guards (see notes on 12:19 and 16:27).

Verse 43

But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land:

Considering the consequences, we can understand why the soldiers are concerned about prisoners escaping. The centurion orders all soldiers who can swim to throw themselves into the water and swim for land. This is to insure there will be guards on land when the prisoners get there. Once again, Paul is saved by the intervention of a Roman captain.

Verse 44

And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.

It is everyone for himself; but this massive struggle is not as chaotic nor life-threatening as it may appear. The hand of God is upon this scene, and not one soul will perish!

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalms 46:1).

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Acts 27". "Contending for the Faith". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/acts-27.html. 1993-2022.
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