Paul’s voyage to Rome: more than a travelogue?

Paul shipwrecked, Acts 27

Paul shipwrecked, from a collection of Bible drawings by Otto Semler and others, many based on the engravings by Carolsfeld.

What are we to make of the 27th chapter of Acts?

It describes Paul’s voyage from Caesarea to Rome, using three ships and running into a life-threatening storm at sea. It doesn’t describe any conversation in which Paul may have shared the gospel.

Is Luke so wrapped up in geography that he forgets his spiritual purpose? Or does this chapter contain any spiritual meat for us? 

Throughout the book of Acts, Luke describes the spread of the gospel. Most of it traces Paul’s missionary journeys. We see him traveling from place to place establishing churches.

He spoke in synagogues until he wore out his welcome. Then he turned to Gentiles. He never lost an opportunity to preach the gospel. He even preached in chains during his imprisonment in Caesarea.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 Paul describes his hardships. Luke describes only a few instances. Often he treats Paul’s ministry so briefly that it leaves us begging for more information. And not just about the beatings and physical abuse.

Now, in Acts 27, whatever Paul said about Jesus in conversation gets pushed to the background, and we get to see what kind of person he was in ordinary relationships.

What Paul’s traveling companions could have known about him

Roman ship model. Acts 27

Reconstruction of an ancient Roman transport ship sunk and found near Elba.

At first, all anyone could have known of him was that he was a Roman citizen and prisoner being escorted to Rome.

With Luke and Aristarchus with him, he must have appeared to have enough social standing to have two slaves with him.

But the centurion took such an instant liking to him that he allowed Paul–a prisoner, let’s not forget–shore leave at the very first port they came to.

So we see Paul as friendly and trustworthy.

Along the way, he also gave some good advice, which the owner and captain of the boat rejected. We may ask, who asked his opinion? And why did he think anyone should pay attention?

First, his aristocratic bearing would have given him instant credibility in a time when class distinctions mattered so much. Second, he was a seasoned and experienced traveler. He had been on ships before in all kinds of conditions.

During the storm, when Luke says everyone despaired for their lives, Paul must have also despaired and at least come close to giving up hope of living to see Rome. But after an angel appeared to him, he became a beacon of courage to everyone else on the ship.

He broke bread and gave thanks to God for it in the presence of everyone else. No Christian can read that description without thinking of the Lord’s supper, although, since Paul didn’t distribute bread, that’s not what happened. But the others followed his example.

By the way, he wasn’t above saying, “I told you so.” But he never became unpleasant or overbearing. He never withdrew friendship from those who had rejected his advice.

Shipwreck

Three Roman merchant ships on the Copenhagen Sarcophagus from the late 3rd century AD.

So the ship neared some unknown island. The crew decided they’d sneak off, save themselves, and leave the rest to drown.

Paul didn’t stay to himself or just hang around the centurion and close acquaintances. He must have habitually given careful attention to everyone on board.

His sensitivity to others enabled him to warn the centurion of the crew’s intentions.

Before going ashore, the soldiers decided it would be prudent to do was to kill all the prisoners so they wouldn’t escape.

Paul had gained such favor with his captor that the centurion refused the suggestion.

And so, as the angel told Paul, everyone on board made it safely to land, although the ship and cargo were all lost.

The story of the voyage continues into Acts 28, where we find that they had landed on Malta, part of the Carthaginian empire. The natives were ethnic Phoenician, They were therefore probably not well disposed toward Romans, but they treated these shipwreck survivors kindly.

Paul did his share of the work to build a fire. A serpent came out of a bundle of brushwood and bit him on the hand. The islanders assumed it meant that Paul deserved death and that Justice (the name of a local deity) would see that he died.

Instead, he shook the snake into the fire and suffered no ill effects. So then they decided he must be a god. When the people of Lystra reached that conclusion in Acts 14, Luke describes Paul’s and Barnabas’ response in detail. Here? Not a syllable.

The chief official (and probably Roman governor) invited at least the socially important people into his house, where Paul healed his father. Again, no follow-up details.

Did Paul talk to anyone about Jesus on this trip? Certainly. Did he preach on Malta? Maybe.  Did he and his companions worship and pray where others could see and hear them? Certainly. Surely none of the cargo ships had private rooms for anyone. Did he win any converts? Maybe. Luke doesn’t say.

But for anyone wondering throughout most of Acts how Paul interacted with people when he wasn’t preaching or disputing, this passage shows the answer. His kindness, courage, lack of pride in his social standing, and loving attitude made him easy to like.

Image credits:
Paul shipwrecked. Some rights reserved by pcstratman
Roman ship model. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Roman ships on sarcophagus. Photo by Gun Powder Ma. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *