On Malta

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In April 2003 it was discovered that pre-written draft obituaries of several world figures were available on a development area of the CNN website.  The pages included tributes to Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan.  Some of these obituaries were very much in draft form and several contained fragments copied from others.  So the site pointed to the Pope's 'love of racing', and in a copy-and-paste from a page on Ronald Reagan, described Fidel Castro as a 'lifeguard, athlete and movie star'.  It also became apparent that the obituary to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had been used as a template.  Dick Cheney for example was described as the 'UK's favourite grandmother'.

It must be a strange thing, to read your own draft obituary.  Strange to think that a news organisation is preparing to report on your death when you're still alive.  Admittedly as I now segue seamlessly into talking about the Apostle Paul in Acts 28, that's not really what's going on for him.  No-one is preparing his obituary.  But maybe they should have been.  Surely by rights or by the law of averages or something this guy should be dead by now.  He's just been through his fourth shipwreck, to say nothing of all the other dangers he's faced in his life.  And yet he's not dead.  He's alive.  Against all the odds, and only because of the power and protection of a sovereign good God, Paul is still alive.  He should be dead by now, but he's still going.  That's what our passage tonight is about – our sovereign God overcomes death with life.

Where have we got to?  Well, we're now almost finished the whole book of Acts.  Lately we've been following Paul on a long and complicated transition from Jerusalem to Rome, which is where the risen Jesus has promised to take him so that he might testify about him there.  Plenty has seemed to go wrong on this journey.  Paul has endured several years of delay in prison under false accusations, defending himself in occasional trials and hearings, and in chapter 27 when he was finally put on a ship for Rome it was caught in a storm and shipwrecked on an unknown island.

It has all been pretty pathetic – not impressive at all.  This is the great apostle to the Gentiles, miraculously converted by a direct encounter with the risen Jesus.  And yet he's been stuck in prison, caught in a two-week long storm and now he's lying face-down on a wet beach, cold, soaked, sand in his clothes, salt water in his mouth, trying to catch his breath and probably not even able to balance well enough to stand up on solid ground after two weeks of being tossed back and forth on the Mediterranean Sea.

And yet, we have had the chance to watch from our comfortable, dry seats as the God who is sovereign over all creation has ordained all of this to happen and through it all has been working to fulfil his promise to take Paul to Rome.  And as the passengers and crew of the ship wash up on land we get to see God at work one more time before our author, Luke, takes us there to Rome.

Big Idea: Our sovereign God overcomes death with life

Headings:

1) God rescues everyone from the shipwreck

2) God saves Paul from a venomous snake

3) God brings healing to many onMalta

4) God provides for his work to continue

Please open up the blue bibles to p791, Acts 28.

1) God rescues everyone from the shipwreck

Look down and follow as I read from ch 27 v39

     39When daylight came, they did not recognise the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41But the ship struck a sand-bar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

     42The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43But the centurion wanted to spare Paul's life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.

     28:1Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.

Notice that there is no miraculous calming of this storm.  We're used to seeing storms miraculously calmed in the Bible, like when Jonah was thrown overboard or when Jesus stood up and rebuked the wind and waves, but there's no miraculous calming here.  The ship hits a sand-bar and is smashed under the feet of those on board.  Some swim for land, others drift to it on fragments of the ship, clinging on to anything that would float.  And yet Luke says, 'in this way everyone reached land in safety.'  They made it.  All 276 of them had made it onto land, without any loss of life, just as God had promised Paul, but also with the comprehensive loss of the ship, also just as God had promised Paul.  And as they start to gather themselves they discover that the island they have reached is Malta.  Let's revisit our map from the last couple of weeks: [MAP UP]

First bear in mind that what they were trying to do was sail from Fair Havens on Crete, which wasn't a great place to tie up a boat for the winter, to Phoenix, also on Crete, which was a much better harbour about 30-40 miles along the coast.  What's actually happened is that the storm has driven them all the way to Malta.  Malta is a tiny little island, just over twice the area of the borough of Gateshead.  It has less than 90 miles of coastline, very little of which was pointing at Paul and co as they limped towards it on the ship.  So it's amazing that they hit it at all.  It's more amazing because the gale force wind was supposed to be a north-easterly, which would have driven them from Crete to Syrtis in the bottom left.  That's what the crew feared would happen, that they would hit the sand-bars of Syrtis, ch 27 v17.  But instead they were driven to Malta.

Even more remarkable is that Malta is not too far off the beaten track when you're trying to get from the wrong side of Crete to Rome.  It doesn't seem an overstatement to say that God has kept them on course in the storm.  Not the conventional route, but not far off it at all.  Not only has God ensured the survival of every soul but in his grace he's kept them more or less on course for Rome.  By rights, by the law of averages and in their expectations, they should have died in that storm, but God has rescued them all, just as he promised, and brought them to safety at a place that is not far at all from the route they had planned.  That's the first pointer towards our big idea.  God overcame that scenario of death with deliverance and life.

Next there's this business of the snake.

2) God saves Paul from a venomous snake

Read v2-6

     2The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." 5But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

Some of the islanders – who I learned this week are called Maltese, not Maltesers as I had hoped – some of the Maltese spot the wreck, or spot the 276 people washing up on the shore and they come down to offer help, first by building a fire so that everyone can get warmed up.  Paul gets involved gathering fuel and picks up a bundle of sticks with a snake lying inside.  Luke describes it as a viper, meaning it's a venomous biter, not a squeezer.  Putting the wood on the fire drives the snake out.  Luke doesn't explicitly say that it bit Paul; he says that it fastened itself on his hand, and then that the islanders saw it hanging from his hand and expected him to swell up and die, so I think it's pretty strongly implied.  And look at what they say in v4:

"This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live."

It's interesting to note how every culture has a sense of justice.  In fact I think every person has a sense of justice, absolute right and absolute wrong, and the desire that right be rewarded and wrong be punished.  How many great films and TV shows centre on false accusation against a character who fights to clear his name, and how many feature a long plot line eventually leading to the bad guy getting what's coming to him?  We want justice – the desire for it burns inside us.  C.S. Lewis wrote, "[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?"  That's a bit of an aside that some of you will want to chew on more than others and I don't want to stray too far from the narrative.

The islanders assume along with the soldiers on the ship that Paul is a criminal, even though we know he was found to be innocent by several of the rulers who heard his case.  Agrippa and Festus agreed Paul could have been released except for his appeal to be tried before Caesar in Rome.  So Paul, who is innocent of the charges against him, was delivered from the storm by Jesus and likewise then from this venomous snake.  They assume the goddess Justice is in control here, but in fact control rests with the sovereign God, who is just and who therefore saves Paul, overcoming death with life.

But I think there's another nuance worth noticing.  Our first reaction is to say that Paul is innocent, and he is innocent of the charges brought by the Jews.  But let's think back through Acts for a minute.  Let me show you a few verses.

First, back in Acts 7, there's the account of the stoning to death of a Christian called Stephen:

57At this [the members of the Sanhedrin] covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at [Stephen], 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul (who is Paul).

Acts 7.57-58

Just one chapter later we find Saul preparing to go to Damascus to persecute Christians there:

1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

Acts 9.1-2

Then this from Paul's own testimony to the crowds in Jerusalem at the start of our sermon series:

4"I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison…"

Acts 22.4

And from his hearing with Agrippa:

9"I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them."

Acts 26.9-11

Our first instinct when we read the assumption made by the Maltese is 'No, of course Paul isn't a murderer!'  But that's not easy to defend from the book of Acts.  It doesn't say he physically killed anyone, but murderous threats, incitement to blasphemy (a crime punishable by death), casting his vote against people, guarding the possessions of those killing them… it's just about as close as you can get.  And that's to say nothing of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, when he links God's judgement against murder to his judgement against anger and hatred.

On the one hand, Paul is innocent and shouldn't really be a prisoner, and God overcomes the death by snake-bite with life instead.  Paul shakes off the snake and the Maltese decide that in fact he must be a god, or more likely a representative of the gods.  But on the other hand, Paul is not innocent and is deserving of death, as we all are for the way we've treated God, turning our backs on him, treating others, who are made by God in his image, with hatred and anger.  In the bigger picture, Paul is guilty and so are we, and yet through the death and resurrection of Jesus God overcame death, the death we deserve, with life, life that we can have.

What about the next bit then:

3) God brings healing to many on Malta

     7There was an estate near by that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. 8His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.

What a good guy Publius is.  His father is very seriously ill, and yet he plays host to 276 guests for three days… 276 guests who have eaten very little over the last couple of weeks, and kept down even less.  Maybe he only took in a small group and just sorted the rest out elsewhere.  It doesn't matter.  His father has fever and dysentery, possibly from a micro-organism traced to the milk of Maltese goats, which caused so-called Malta Fever, a condition lasting on average four months and possibly up to two or three years.  Such are the details we read in commentaries when there seems to be little of spiritual note going on.

But there is.  Paul goes in to see him, prays, expressing his reliance on God rather than his god-like abilities, referring back to the Maltese conclusion after the snake incident, and then by the power of God, he heals him.  Not only that but just like the time Jesus healed Simon Peter's mother-in-law, the whole community brings out the sick to be healed, and they are.  Luke says the rest of the sick on the island were cured.

That's pretty good news for the Maltese.  Remember Paul and the crew were supposed to winter in Crete. Malta was never part of the plan.  And yet what a blessing for the Maltese that out of the trial and hardship of storm, shipwreck and snake-bite comes healing and restoration, death overcome by life, to keep to the theme.  And although Luke doesn't mention it, I think we've got to assume that Paul spent these three months on Malta preaching the gospel.  That's the pattern of Acts – where there's a miracle there's a message about Jesus.  In which case there's even more for the Maltese to be thankful for – the unplanned, unscheduled arrival of the gospel on Malta, life from death again.

It's an interesting twist on our suffering.  In the last few weeks we haven't really considered that our trials and difficulties might be part of a bigger plan that brings long term blessing not only to us but to others as well – another aspect of the sovereignty of God.

Lastly then, v10

4) God provides for his work to continue

10They honoured us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

The islanders on Malta recognise that that shipwreck brought a great deal of blessing to them.  They respond with gratitude, kindness and generosity, supplying everything they needed to set sail again for Rome.  Verse 11 tells us there was another ship wintering in the island that could take them onward.  And in times when you had to bring your own supplies for the journey, including your own food, the islanders generously provided for them.  Again we see God at work here.  It's no small thing to make packed lunches for 276 people, never mind breakfasts, dinners and everything else.  But because of God's power at work in Paul they are moved to respond.

And if we just drift down a little into next week's passage as Luke ties up the loose ends, just a few details of the stops they made, down in v14 we find six little words: And so we came to Rome.

There's a lot in that word 'so', isn't there?  And so, in this way, by these things, we came to Rome.  How?  Beating, arrest, imprisonment, trial, assassination attempt, transfer, trial, two years more in prison, another assassination plot, another trial, a hearing, a sea-journey, a storm, a shipwreck, a snake-bite, three months on Malta and an uneventful final leg of the journey.  And so we came to Rome.

Even though those years of transition between Jerusalem and Rome have been filled with all sorts of difficulties, crises, pain and reasons to doubt and even disbelieve, the sovereignty of God has stretched out over all of it like a great all-encompassing canopy, or lain underneath it all like a solid foundation.  Again and again God has demonstrated in the circumstances that he has ordained that he is in control, he is working out his purposes, he is keeping his promises, he is acting in his timing.  And more than that.  God has demonstrated that he is good, he is merciful, he is gracious, and above all that his business is overcoming death with life.  It's the heart of the gospel and it's painted out for us in these chapters with bright, vivid colour.

As we watched Paul set sail in chapter 27 we wondered what there would be for us to learn from three sermons about this journey.  I wonder now if these aren't some of the most encouraging events in the whole book.  As I head to bible college I do not know where the money is going to come from to care for my family.  It's unnerving.  Or as you face uncertainty over medical tests or exam results or job security or any number of other worries and desperate troubles, what are we going to do?  How are we going to get through all these things?  Well, we can have the confidence that comes from knowing that we have a sovereign, good God who keeps his promises and finishes what he starts.  That doesn't mean things are going to be easy.  It doesn't mean there will definitely be happy endings within this life, although in God's grace there often are, and we would do well to keep careful record of them for our encouragement.

What it does mean, more than anything, is that when it comes to our greatest enemy, death itself, we are guaranteed a happy ending if we're following Jesus.  The God who overcame death in a storm, a shipwreck and a snake-bite is the God who overcame death at the cross and the empty tomb.  He is the God who overcomes death with life completely, finally, absolutely.  Our lives might be filled with all sorts of trouble, but we know that just as Luke recorded their arrival in Rome, so we are guaranteed to be able one day to say "And so I came to heaven.  And so, in this way, by these things, I came to heaven."

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