Shocking drowning incidents occur at a number of places in the Bible. The Flood is the first and most terrifying (Ge 7). There is also the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14) and the frightening storm on Galilee (Lu 8:22). Then there is the book with a near-fatal drowning at its heart: Jonah. In each the Lord saves his people out of deadly horror. Acts 27 is a fifth such story.
Luke, the author of Acts, is back on Paul’s team (v1 – “we”) and so our account has the evocative detail of an eye-witness. Alongside Luke is Aristarchus from Macedonia (v2). The boat they are on stops at the Phoenician city of Sidon, where the Centurion in charge of Paul kindly allows him to spend time ashore with friends (v3). There’s a clear theme in these verses: it’s among Gentiles that Paul now finds welcome rather than his own people, who want to kill him (Ac 23:12). In fact, that’s part of why Paul is heading to a trial in Rome: he simply wouldn’t have a hope of justice in Jerusalem (Ac 25:6-12). Israel has squandered years of opportunity (Ac 2:39,40) and hardened her heart. So Jesus removes his witnesses (v4), leaving the Jews to face what he prophesied (Lu 21:20-24). It is a terrible thing when the Lord takes away the voice of witness, whether from a people or an individual. It warns us against failing to listen to Christian folk in our lives who try to warn us of our sin. We must respond lest we lose the opportunity given to us to repent.
Back in Asia Minor (v5), Paul becomes a passenger on one of the regular grain ships which feed Rome from Egypt (v6). After following the coast a little way, it moves out into the open sea of the Mediterranean but the voyage is hard going (v7), forcing them to take, with difficulty, a route along the southern side of Crete (v8). Having lost time, the coming weeks look bleak for travel, so Paul speaks up for pausing the journey (v9). Why is Paul so wary? It may link to his ministry. Luke notes that they’ve passed the date of the “Fast”. This refers to the Day of Atonement (Le 16) in the autumn, when the High Priest enters the temple’s Most Holy Place (He 9:7) to deal with the sins of the nation through sacrifice. But Israel isn’t confessing her sins; she is refusing to admit her killing of the Christ (Ac 3:13-15). So the most recent Day was a worthless exercise and Israel faces punishment. Now Jesus told the Jews that he would be to them a sign like Jonah (Lu 11:29-32); Paul is part of that sign. Jonah was called to preach to the Gentile city of Ninevah. He refused, nearly drowned in a storm and then, finally, fulfilled his duty. His message was only of destruction, but the city repented and the Lord relented – much to Jonah’s anger. Well Paul, like Jonah, has preached to Gentiles and seen them repent. He has testified to Israel of this fact (Ac 22:21; 26:17, 20). So they should have seen a sign from the Lord in Paul’s Jonah-like ministry! Sadly, they didn’t. But Paul is aware of the significance of his work. Which may be, therefore, why he is so wary of this storm (v10): it has too many echoes of Jonah’s terrifying experience.
However, as with Jonah, the crew try every other means to save the day (v11), thinking that safety lies in a bigger harbour on Crete (v12). Initially, it seems their plan is a good one (v13) but the whole situation soon turns sour (v14) and they are driven by a powerful wind in a direction they don’t want to go (v15). The weather gets so bad that they the small boat towed at the back is, with great effort, dragged up onto the deck (v16). Then the main hull is secured by passing cables around it (v17). Yet even then, the fear is that the boat will be broken apart by the sand banks they seem to be heading towards. By the next morning the crew are lightening the ship in every way possible, by dumping both cargo (v18) and, later, its equipment (v19). The storm, however, worsens leaving them frightened in the dark both by day and night (v20); a situation of despair.
Christian are to expect points in life like this. Societies are rocked by tragedies and Christians are caught up in them. We know that the right response is that of Ninevah: humility before the Lord. In that, there is hope. Though Paul warns the crew of disaster, he will soon bring prophetic comfort too. Christians also can be at peace in life’s storms, for our Lord is the master of creation (Lu 8:22-25). Though we may fear losing everything, we can be assured that our Saviour will not fail us in the end. So, ultimately, we can be grateful for our ‘Jonah moments’. This is the way our God often works, with plans to bring his strength to our weakness. Paul certainly learned that lesson in his own life and we can learn the same by God’s grace (2Co 11:24-30; Ph 4:11-13).