Imagine yourself a deckhand on board ship in 59 A.D. as Paul, a prisoner, begins his transport to Rome. He and several others are under the guarded care of Julius, a ten year veteran and a Centurion of the Roman Army. A hundred soldiers under his command attend his interpretation of the will of Caesar in the field. Luke the gospel writer is telling your story, and he’s a master of detail. With him is Aristarchus. Luke is also interested in making an apologetic defense of the gospel to counter the effects of the Epicureans.
With incredible maritime accuracy, his testimony will bolster credence in God’s word to the present day. Your saga at sea is recorded in Acts 27. The journey begins with fair weather and elevated spirits. Julius even permits Paul to visit some of his Christian friends at a stopover in Sidon. Upon arrival at Myra, Julius arranged for a change of ship and you board a large vessel, a grain trader whose commercial trade route has it traversing between Italy and Egypt. Besides much grain, you are also carrying metal goods and pottery.
Stormy Waters Ahead
But with the wind against you and much tacking needed, your pilot is forced to take a southern jag around the rugged coast on the south side of Crete, coming to port first in Fairhaven. Paul warned the pilot that it’s too late in the fall to navigate these waters safely to Italy, and that your trip will end with peril for the cargo and the ship, with your life in danger as well.
9 Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, 10 saying, “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.” 11 But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said.
As wind and storm descend upon you, the ships wooden structure creaks and strains as tackle and gear are breaking under impaling winds and the weight of its cargo. Gripped by fear, you begin loosening some of the tackle used for guiding the ship and throw it overboard. It isn’t long before other hands help you heave crates of cargo and stored grain over the stern. Anything to lighten the load… Everyone on board is cold, sick, hungry, and afraid. You are desperate, and all hope for survival seems jettisoned as well. Then prisoner Paul speaks again with the promise that no one will perish, because his God is making sure he will appear before Caesar in Rome!
21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 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.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.
And then he adds, 26 But we must run aground on some island.”
As the tempestuous Northeaster rages, days become weeks. It is so dark you lose track of day and night. As the ship becomes less seaworthy, a few of you plot an escape. You’ve heard the rumor that Roman soldiers will kill a prisoner before they let him escape, and you’re not sure that deckhands will fare much better, so you make your move. Pretending to drop anchor with the appearance of weathering the storm, several men reach for the lines to the only life boat, planning to jump ship. Just as you are about to make your escape, prisoner Paul calls to the guards.
31 … “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Caught in the act, you “cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.” (:32)
Now Paul urges everyone to eat the last of the grain stores. As if there’s still hope? He promises that not a hair on your head will perish! And there, in the midst of this catastrophic storm, he thanks his God for the bread he breaks with a loud voice.
35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36 Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) 38 And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
Your fellow deckhands toss all remaining anchors into the sea, and now, releasing the rudder and with no means of steering the ship, your intent is to be driven straight to shore. You hoist the small fore sails, and while pointed toward the beach, make a run for it with the wind at your back. Suddenly the underside of the bow sticks hard into the reef and you lurch to a halt. Wind driven waves pound the stern, and the ship begins to break up. Soldiers start to grab prisoners to bind them together so they will go down with the ship, but Julius stops them in order to save Paul, and bids all who can swim to do so, urging the others to grab onto anything that floats. Exhausted and water logged, you drag yourself up on shore along with the other 275 survivors. You are alive! Up to this point in their lives, only one of them believed in the God of creation who cares whether you live or die. A God with a plan and a purpose for you. A God who can be sought and found in prayers that are answered.
You soon discover that you are on the Island of Malta, [Melita], and the prisoner they call Paul will continue his attended journey to Rome. The story of your saga at sea and your delivery will be retold to family and friends, to tradesmen and soldiers, and even whispered between prison guards in Rome.
The Rest of the Story
At the turn of the 14th Century a Papal secretary in his 30’s named Poggio Bracciolini was sifting through moldy manuscripts in a monastic library and he came across an original work by Epicurean poet Titus Lucretius Carus, (50’s A.D.) Because of Bracciolini’s careful handling and copying, we have that document available to us today. Lucretius’ six-book Latin hexameter poem De rerum natura (DRN for short), is variously translated On the nature of things and On the nature of the universe.
Lucretius is Paul’s contemporary, and a foundational proponent of the Epicurean view of the world. Note now how his description of a saga at sea differs from the Apostle’s: “When the supreme violence of a furious wind upon the sea sweeps over the waters the chief admiral of a fleet along with his mighty legions, does he not crave the gods’ peace with vows and in his panic seek with prayers the peace of the winds and favouring breezes. Nonetheless, he is caught up in the furious hurricane and driven upon the shoals of death.” – Lucretius
The tenets of the Epicurean philosophical mind set push against the idea that any gods or a God made the world and they have any kind of control over the events of the universe – weather in included. Lucretius saw people cringing in fear of what the gods may do. (The Greek mythology that preceded him in history certainly didn’t hurt his case!). In theological terms, Lucretius denied providence. That a God or gods have a good intent for the world and act upon it. Of course this meant it would be foolish, pointless, to pray. Prayer would be irrational. This also means there is no such thing as a ‘miracle’. Observable change is always simply the unfolding of nature. You can’t attribute the good fortune or bad fortune of your life or your sea voyage to any ulterior motive of a god. (Homer’s Odyssey was also well known in Paul and Lucretius’ day.) So Lucretius not only denies providence, he also denies prayer, and miracles. This vail of darkness has set the stage for what Luke has to say and the way that he says it in Acts chapter 27.
It’s also interesting to note that Lucretius laid the groundwork for what would one day become our periodic table of elements. He believed that the world is made up of tiny particles that swirl about, colliding with other particles, yielding the creation of the world. If the capriciousness of the gods can’t be trusted, then there has to be a scientific reason for any changes that take place in our universe. Everything has to be drawn back to a randomness without the help of the gods for his philosophy to work.
In his book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt ties Lucretius early theories of how small movements of even smaller particles result in very large changes to our world shaped scientific and cultural thought from Galileo to Einstein. Fast track to the world around us. If professor Greenblatt is right, there is nothing new under the Sun… People still attribute the events of the world to the random collision of atomic particles and chance. How many people have replaced one fear for another? In running from capricious gods we now run to the capricious atom and its sub-particles. (Actually, we’ve learned a bit more about how the atom works – enough to build bombs out of them.) Lucretius is still peddling his doubt of the divine to all who will listen with boldness. “Understand how this world works and face your meaningless life and death squarely in the face! Accept the fate of randomness knowing that this is just the way it is.” To replace a street language bumper sticker for a slightly more appropriate one – “Atom Happens!”
But the true testimony of Luke through the book of Acts reminds us that a very capable, powerful, and personal God does care about the events of our life and is with us even in the worst circumstances, the fiercest storms, and life threatening pandemics! He does care if we are blown upon the rocks of immediate peril, and he hears and answers our prayers according to His very good purpose in our lives.
In Acts 27 Paul does not call out to the gods, but to the one God! The triune God who providentially cared for Paul and all who were aboard the vessel. And so they prayed… tossed about in the night…to see the light of day again. They prayed, not foolishly, not superstitiously…but thankfully to the God who provided bread to meet their hunger and comfort of his promise to ease their fears.
God hears… he intervenes… he delivers… Paul did reach Rome, after a few more stops and miracles along the way. In Romans chapter 8 he would write: “If God is for us, who can be against us… What shall separate us from the love of Christ?” This is the message that Luke wanted to convey to the Epicureans around him so that they would understand that God is not indifferent toward them. He is still the same, and His message is still the same. This God loves us! Beloved in Christ, he is all powerful to save, to deliver us from our sin and death, to intentionally love us and bring us home.