One of the scariest moments of my life happened in northern Wisconsin. Some friends and I took a pontoon boat across Tomahawk Lake and were caught in a vicious thunderstorm. The skies darkened, the wind picked up, the waves started rocking the boat, and the rain came down in sheets. But the scariest part was the thunder and lightning. Lightning struck all around us and was louder than a high-caliber gun going off right by your head. I was stunned and terrified by the speed, sound, and ferocity of the storm. I enjoy watching and listening to storms, but being stuck in the middle of one with very little protection while surrounded by water (on a large metal boat!) is a completely different story. While I wasn’t a believer at the time, I now know God was watching over me.

While this was a scary moment in my life, it pales in comparison to the storm and shipwreck that happened to Paul on his way to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. Travel in the 1st century could be life-threatening, with robbers on the roads and pirates on the seas. But the concern on this occasion was the weather. Let’s look at this account with some help from the Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary.

Paul’s Sails to Rome (27:1–12)

The first part of this account brings Paul from Caesarea to Crete (27:1–12). The sudden reappearance of the “we” in this account (27:1; cf. 21:18) probably helps in explaining the details contained in the following narrative. Also important is Julius, the centurion who is introduced by name in verse 1, one who will serve as both a guard and a witness to all that happens in this fateful journey to Rome. Paul’s companions also include soldiers (27:31), sailors (27:27, 30), and other prisoners on board (cf. 27:1, 42).

After a difficult journey from Sidon (27:3), they land in Fair Havens on the southern coast of Crete (27:8). Luke notes that it was “after the Day of Atonement” (27:9), in September-October. Paul warns them of the impending disaster if they are to continue with their journey (27:10), but the centurion decides to follow the advice of others and insists on moving ahead (27:11).

In the ancient Mediterranean region, late May to mid-September was considered a safe season for sea travel, and mid-November to mid-March was considered to be extremely dangerous. Paul’s journey would have been just past the safe season for traveling, and the fact that this journey would last for months (cf. 28:11) points to the risk in setting sail from Crete. The “owner of the ship” (27:11) insists on setting sail, likely because his ship transported grains from Egypt to Rome and to delay the trip for months would incur incredible loss.

The Storm Begins (27:13-26)

As Paul has predicted, they do encounter a storm as soon as they leave Crete (27:13–26). When those in the ship “finally gave up all hope of being saved” (27:20), Paul reveals to them the vision that he has had (27:23–24). “Do not be afraid” (27:24) recalls the earlier words of comfort from the mouth of the risen Lord (18:9). Instead of a promise to be freed from the chains, Paul was promised that he “must stand trial before Caesar” (27:24). The word “must” (dei) again points to the necessity of the plan of God to be fulfilled, and the words of promise are comforting only when one realizes that Paul’s journey to Rome is not an accident in history but part of God’s plan for him to proclaim the name of Jesus in Rome.

For the rest of those traveling with him, the second part of the vision is probably more encouraging: “God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you” (27:24). The power of this word of prophecy lies in the fact that Paul’s earlier prediction has already been fulfilled (27:21; cf. 27:10).

No Men Overboard (27:27–32)

As in the preceding account, Paul’s prophecy that “only the ship will be destroyed” (27:22) is again fulfilled (27:27–44). The dire situation is dramatically illustrated by the attempt of the sailors to escape (27:30), but Paul stops them. Paul’s statement, “Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head” (27:34), points to their deliverance from this storm. Elsewhere in Luke, however, other “hair” references point to the significance of the salvation of one’s soul (cf. Luke 12:4–7; 21:16–19).

Communion in the Storm (27:33–38)

The significance of the meal scene (27:33–35) has been a subject of debate. The taking of bread, giving thanks to God, and breaking it and eating it (27:35) recalls the account of the Last Supper (Luke 22:19), but similar acts also appear in other Lukan meal scenes (cf. Luke 9:16; 24:30; cf. Acts 2:42, 46). Nevertheless, if the Last Supper is to serve as the key to understanding the other meal accounts, this meal may point specifically to the presence of God. Moreover, considering that numerous parallels do exist between the trials of Jesus and those of Paul, this meal may recall Jesus’s last meal with his disciples before his death on the cross. To call this a sacrament or even a singular reenactment of the Last Supper does, however, go beyond the description of the Lukan text.

Surviving the Storm and the Soldiers (27:39–44)

After the ship runs aground, the soldiers are about to kill the prisoners, but the centurion stops them. Eventually, all the passengers on the ship are able to reach land safely. This again points to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Paul (27:22). These prophetic activities confirm Paul’s earlier defense that he is constantly benefiting from God’s help (26:22). If so, this would also point to his innocence. Throughout this shipwreck experience, however, Paul’s innocence is not affirmed by political rulers but by God himself. This focus on Paul’s innocence is explicitly noted in the next episode.

Surviving a Snakebite (28:1–6)

Coming on shore, Paul and those around him find themselves on Malta (28:1–10). This island was about sixty miles south of Sicily. The account of their experience on this island centers on Paul being bitten by a viper. At first, the islanders think that he has been punished by “Justice” personified (28:4; cf. Hesiod, Theogony 901; Josephus, Jewish War 1.84). When Paul survives without injuries, the islanders realize that he must not be guilty because he has survived not only the storm of the sea but also the vicious attack of the viper. To Luke’s readers familiar with Hellenistic literature that points to the manifestation of divine justice through one’s fate in the midst of natural disasters (cf. Greek Anthology 7.290; Heliodorus, Ethiopian Story 2.20), Paul’s deliverance from such calamities proves that he is innocent in the eyes of God.

Provision for and from the People (28:7–10)

As in a previous account (14:8–20), Paul is considered to be a “god” (28:6). Luke clarifies that Paul is simply the messenger of God by noting that Paul has to invoke the power of God through prayer (28:8) to heal those who are sick. Paul emerges, however, as one in chains to one who is able to free people from their chains of illness (28:9; cf. Luke 4:18–19). In light of the fact that Luke always uses the Greek word for “honor” or “value” in reference to material possessions (Acts 4:34; 5:2, 3; 7:16; 19:19; cf. Matt. 27:6, 9; “money”), the remark that these islanders “honored us in many ways” (28:10a) may point to their expression of gratitude through tangible gifts. The final phrase then should be read as an elaboration of the “honors” Paul and his companions receive: “They furnished us with the supplies we needed” (28:10b).

Paul Safely Arrives in Rome (28:11–16)

The final leg of the journey brings Paul from Malta to Rome (28:11–16). The note that the ship they are in has “the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux” (28:11) is noteworthy. Considered to be the sons of Zeus and Leda, these twin gods are venerated as the protectors on the sea. The previous account has made it clear, however, that it is the God Paul worships who has protected them. The note that “Paul thanked God” (28:15) recalls his earlier act of thanksgiving during the storm (27:35); in both situations, Paul acknowledges God to be his ultimate guide and protector.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary

The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary is an excellent resource. It is especially great for those wanting to understand the cultural and historical background of the Bible. If you find your knowledge lacking in any of these areas, then pick up your copy of this resource from the Olive Tree Store today!

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