Summary: This is the final message in my series through the book of Acts.
“Island of Adventure”
August 24, 2008
Next week, Paul will find his way at last to Rome, as we end the study that has consumed us for many, many months. Today, we pick up the story with the weary travelers having all made it to shore, as God had promised the apostle Paul; not one was lost to the storm at sea.
I. Maltese Hospitality - :1-2
This is not where Paul planned on ending up, and he wouldn’t have chosen the means either: shipwreck following two-week hurricane! When they washed up on this beach, the 276 folks onboard ship had no clue where they were. Where they were, was Malta. Malta is an island in the Mediterranean, about 18 miles long and 8 miles wide, situated 58 mile south of Sicily and 180 miles north and east of Africa. It was a territory of Rome, but one granted a significant amount of autonomy to govern its own affairs. Augustus Caesar settled a number of military officers on the island, as well as placing a governor there; we learn in this passage that when this shipwreck took place, the governor was a man named “Publius”, who also founded the grocery chain Publix. Or not…
On the screen behind me are a few pictures of modern-day Saint John’s Bay, where it is believed the ship wrecked with these beleaguered travelers. So confident of that fact are the Maltese folks that this chapel, “Saint Paul’s Shipwreck Chapel”, was erected there. The island of Malta was a pretty prosperous place, actually, named for a word that meant “refuge”, and that suited the island quite well; interestingly, the villagers lived up to that name through the care they took for Paul. As you can see, the area is hilly, the hills rising right up out of the sea, and I’d imagine that many of the villagers had watched from the hills as this ship had broken apart, as folks swam and floated to the shore; we can easily imagine some of the folks from the island venturing into the surf to help rescue the weary travelers. And when they heard the people speak, the stranded travelers didn’t recognize the dialect they spoke, so the people there spoke the language of kind deeds, kindling a fire and making it plain that it was their intent to help the sopping wayfarers.
II. Maltese Fickleness - :3-6
One of the things I notice about last week and this is the “regular guy” status of Paul. He’s not above helping out with keeping the fire going that the natives built; he just goes and grabs firewood instead of expecting somebody else to do it. For his trouble, though, Paul gets bit by a viper, some type of venomous snake found in those days on this island of Malta. Now, I don’t know about you, but what’s happened to Paul would constitute, pardon the pun, the “perfect storm” for me: though I love the water, I’ve always thought that drowning would be, for me, a horrible way to die, and you can ask my family what’s at the top of my personal fear list: snakes. Paul nearly drowns (though God had promised him he wouldn’t), and then escaping that by the grace of God, a deadly snake latches onto his paw. I don’t know for sure what Paul thought, but I’m pretty sure my thoughts would be on the order of, “what next?”
These natives were not uncultured barbarians, but they were superstitious believers in the gods, and the Greek goddess Dike was apparently venerated by these Maltese islanders. Dike was “the personification of justice and revenge” (Stott). Their assumption that Paul’s being latched onto by the viper was that, though he’d cheated fate on the high seas, he couldn’t get away with the murder that he’d undoubtedly committed. One Statyllius Flaccus composed and recorded in the Greek word The Palatine Anthology an epitaph for a shipwrecked sailor who suffered just this fate:
“O, he escaped the storm and the raging of the murderous sea. But as he lay stranded in the Libyan sand, not far from the beach and heavy with sleep, at last, naked and destitute, weary as he was from the terrible shipwreck, the viper struck him dead. Why did he struggle against the waves? He did not escape the lot which was destined for him on land.”
There are today no venomous snakes on Malta—sounds like just the place for me, but it’s not unusual for an island as small, populous, and civilized as Malta to be now ridded of such vile beasts. This, though, was a viper that the natives just knew was sure to kill this man who was obviously about to face the death penalty inflicted by the gods for some terrible behavior.