By J.R. Miller
Paul had been eager to go to Rome. His eagerness was not that of a tourist or explorer--but that of one constrained by the love of Christ, desiring to carry the gospel to the world's great capital. At last his longing is being realized. He is going to Rome--but in a strange way. He is going as a prisoner. The remarkable providence in this, is that he is carried on his great missionary errand--at the cost of Rome itself!
Paul was the only man on the ship whose hope and courage did not fail in the storm, which overtook them. In the midst of the tempest an angel stood by him and assured him that he must be brought before Caesar, which meant that he could not perish in the sea. He was assured also that for his sake--all the people on board should escape, though the ship should be lost.
At first sight, it seems a contradiction. Paul, noting the attempts of sailors to escape in one of the ship's boats, said, "Except these abide in the ship, you cannot be saved." Yet Paul had said before that there should be no loss of life on the ship. He had received this assurance, too, from an angel of God. If it was the divine purpose that no life should perish in this storm--why did Paul say here, that unless the seamen stood at their posts, the passengers could not be saved? The divine assurance of safety--did not do away with the use of all proper means for securing deliverance. Indeed, it implied that these means should be used. We say that every man's life is a plan of God--that God's plan extends to the most minute things in our condition and circumstances. The purpose of God here, was that Paul, and all with him on the ship, should reach the shore in safety; but the fulfillment of His purpose depended upon the faithfulness of those who had the care of the ship.
Paul's appeal had its effect. "The soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away." The sailors had let the lifeboat down, intending to escape in it. The soldiers foiled their plan by cutting the ropes and letting the lifeboat drift off. Thus the sailors were kept on the ship and compelled to do their duty.
There is a story of a little girl with a warm heart for animals, who prayed that the rabbits might not be caught in her brother's traps. After praying very earnestly, she whispered to her mother that she knew they could not be caught. When her mother asked her why she was so sure, she said she had destroyed the traps. We must work--as well as pray.
Paul's common sense appeared again a little later. "Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat." For fourteen days they had been fasting, eating but little, losing rest and sleep, and without regular food. It was very necessary that they should take food to be ready for what lay before them. We must always care for our bodily health. No matter what our danger may be--we need food. When Elijah was fleeing from Jezebel's threat, despairing because of the seeming failure of his work, an angel found him lying under a juniper tree wishing he were dead. Instead of giving him good advice, or even reminding of the divine promises--the angel brought him something to eat. Then, after he had eaten, he slept. Food and sleep were what Elijah needed. There are times when what people need is not a gospel tract, nor good advice, nor even words from the Bible, or a prayer--but comforts for their bodies, something to eat, clothes to keep them warm!
There are beautiful things in Paul's bearing during this storm. One is his calmness in the hour of danger. It was not merely his physical courage and self-control, that gave him this serene composure; it was his confidence in God. He knew that the Lord ruled on the sea and in the storm, and that he was safe in God's strong hands. Like Moses, he endured, as seeing Him who is invisible. Every Christian may have this same peace in time of danger or trial.
Another fine thing in Paul here, is his thoughtfulness for others. He forgets himself and tries to cheer his fellows in their fear. There is no truer test of the spirit of Christ--than sincere interest in others.
Another thing in Paul's conduct is his noble confession of Christ. He was not ashamed of his religion.
Paul set the example of eating. Then the rest followed. By being brave, cheerful and composed in time of danger--Paul lifted up the whole ship's company into the same confident mood. By his cheerful manner and loving interest in the others he inspired them all with confidence. There are few things the world needs more than just such influence.
The next step was to lighten the ship; the wheat was thrown out into the sea. There come experiences in life when material things must be sacrificed for the sake of higher interest. In this case, the cargo was thrown overboard in order that the ship might be beached and the men's lives saved. We cannot reach the haven of eternal rest, laden down with the things of this world. When a vessel was burning near the shore, and all were leaping into the water to swim to safety, there was one who tied his gold about his body, thinking to carry it to shore; but the moment he leaped into the water, he sank to the bottom like a stone. If he had been willing to give up his gold--his life might have been saved.
We have an illustration of this truth in the history of the flight of Cortez, on that fearful night when the Aztecs compelled the invaders to escape for their lives. The vast masses of gold that had been accumulated, were more than could be carried off, as each soldier would have to fight his way through the host of the enemy. Each man was allowed to take what he would--but their commander warned them of overloading. Said he, "He travels safest in the dark night--who travels lightest." The more cautious men heeded the advice--but others were less self-restrained. Some bound heavy chains of gold about their necks and shoulders, and some filled their pockets with the bulky gold ingots until they literally staggered under their burdens. All who tried to carry off the gold, became an easy prey to the lances of the enemy. On that fearful night, poverty itself was the greatest wealth.
Even the anchor chains were cut, and the anchors were left in the sea. Anchors are very important--but there is a time when even they must be cast off. There are other anchors which hold many people from salvation or a full consecration to Christ. Sometimes a secret sin is the chain, sometimes a human companionship or friendship, sometimes love for the world's riches or pleasures. Whatever, it is that keeps a sinner from salvation, or a Christian from greater nearness to Christ, should be cut off. Christ made this very strong when He said that if our hand or our foot cause to sin, we should cut it off; that we would better escape into life, halt or maimed--than keep both hands and feet and perish. We should be very honest with ourselves in this matter. We should see whether there is anything holding us back from the shore of safety, keeping us out of the Church, or hindering us from getting near to Christ. If we find that there is any such thing, no matter how dear it is to us--we should resolutely cut it off and cast it away.
Paul's common-sense action had commended him to the centurion in charge of the prisoners, for when the soldiers proposed to kill the prisoners, "the centurion, desiring to save Paul, stopped them from their purpose." The soldiers forgot all that Paul had done for them during the storm and, to avoid further responsibility for themselves, proposed killing all the prisoners.
After a battle, a wounded enemy within the lines piteously cried for water. An officer ran to him and gave him drink. Refreshed and revived by the water, the wounded man, seeing that his benefactor was of the opposite army, drew his pistol and shot him. Something like this was the spirit of those soldiers. The centurion, however, shows us the reverse spirit--gratitude. He remembered how much they all owed to one particular prisoner, and checked the evil purpose of his men, not only saving Paul himself--but for his sake all the prisoners.
The first chapter in the dramatic story is simply told. The advice was given by the centurion that "He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety." We have here a beautiful parable. The voyage itself is a parable of the Christian's life-voyage. The island represents heaven. Everything has to be given up to reach it. But it will be noticed that not one person was lost--all reached the land. However, all did not get to the shore in the same way. Some swam out, gaining the land easily, while others had to cling to pieces of board, thus barely escaping. So not all Christians reach heaven in the same way. Some enter triumphantly, victoriously, with song and shout; some are barely saved, gaining the shores of glory only on the shattered fragments of their earthly hopes. Happy will we be if we get into heaven at last in any way, through any difficulty or earthly loss. But it is possible for all to have the "abundant entrance," and we should strive so to live that we may secure it.