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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 12

Paul’s dangerous voyage to Rome

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 27:1-44

Paul is transported to Rome by ship but in adverse weather conditions. On changing ships, it was decided to keep going. A storm hits the ship and eventually it is wrecked but all the people safely land on Malta - just as God had promised Paul.

Paul is transported to Rome by ship but in adverse weather conditions. On changing ships, it was decided to keep going. A storm hits the ship and eventually it is wrecked but all the people safely land on Malta - just as God had promised Paul.


Thank you for joining us for this episode as we continue the extraordinary story of Paul’s adventures and the dangers that he faced in his life.

Background and Introduction

During the last seven episodes, which I hope many of you will have seen as you have followed through the sequence of events, we have been following the story of Paul whilst he was in the city of Jerusalem. He had been travelling to Jerusalem with the deliberate intention of meeting the church there and giving them a large financial gift because of the economic needs of the Christians in Judea and Jerusalem. When he got to Jerusalem, he entered into difficulties almost as soon as he arrived because of the opposition of the religious authorities, who saw him as somebody who had fundamentally betrayed Judaism. He was a traitor, he had swapped sides; he used to be on their side but now he was a follower of Jesus, since the Damascus road experience that Paul had had. Paul entered into great difficulty because there was rioting in the Temple of Jerusalem when he walked in. Then he entered into Roman custody, and a whole two-year period followed, which has been described in the last seven episodes in detail by Luke, who was an eyewitness, in which, for the most part, Paul was in prison. He was held by the Romans as a prisoner while they tried to decide what to do with him. They did not agree with the Jews that he had broken any laws; they felt it was a religious dispute between Paul and the Jews, and the governors hesitated to know what to do about it - first of all, Governor Felix then, when he was replaced, Governor Festus. In the meantime, Paul was in prison for two years in the Roman capital city of Caesarea.

This process came to an end when Paul decided to appeal to the Roman Emperor, Caesar. “I appeal to Caesar”, he said in Acts 25: 11. This was his legal right as a Roman citizen and meant that the governor had to transfer Paul to Rome, to be tried at the Imperial Supreme Court. This is now the situation that we’re looking at in this particular episode. Governor Festus is making the arrangements for Paul to be transferred to Rome.

Setting Sail for Rome

We are going to follow the story of this voyage, which was longer, more dangerous, more complex, and more adventurous than anyone could possibly have imagined when they set out on board the ship leaving Caesarea. Acts 27: 1 - 2,

1 ‘When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. 2 We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.’

Acts 27:1-2, NIV

International travel in those days was mostly by sea, if at all possible; it was much quicker and easier than to go by land. Ships tended to sail along the coastline for safety, and the best season to travel was between the spring and the autumn. This becomes significant in the story because in the winter it was more of a stormy season. Julius, the Roman centurion, has a number of prisoners who are being taken to Rome, Paul is one of them. It says here that ’we’ got on board. That means Luke was actually on-board the ship and so was another man called Aristarchus. So, Paul had two of his friends travelling with him, a group of three: Paul the prisoner, and two of his friends, travelling to Rome by sea. There were a number of soldiers on board, whose job was to guard the prisoners.

The First Part of the Voyage

This voyage fell in two halves. The first half was fairly uneventful and the second half was entirely the opposite. Let us read Acts 27:3 - 12 telling us about the first half of the voyage.

3 ‘The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. 4 From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5 When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea. 9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbour was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbour in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.’

Acts 27:3-12, NIV

They are travelling along the coast and stop at Sidon. Notice the kindness of the centurion who had been told by Paul that there was a church in Sidon, and Paul was allowed to get off the ship for a short time, under guard, and go and visit his friends who gave him hospitality, prayer support, no doubt some food and some financial gifts. They sail along the coast of what is now Lebanon, Syria and southern Turkey, right to the western side of southern Turkey, as it is today, to come to the port of Myra, where they change ships.

It is interesting that the centurion chooses a ship that is coming from Alexandria, a port in Egypt, and heading towards Italy. This is very significant because Egypt, the northern part of Egypt, was a very fertile area and produced enormous amounts of grain. You may remember the story in the Old Testament, how Joseph in Egypt was able, in good weather conditions, to gather in a massive harvest of grain. It was an incredibly fertile area in the Nile Delta. It was a food supply for the Roman Empire. Ships from Alexandria, carrying large quantities of grain, very often stopped in this particular port of Myra. They went due north to Myra and then they travelled across to the West to head to Rome. It is almost certainly a grain ship that the centurion decides is going to be the ship to take the prisoners to Rome. These grain ships were very important because the population in Italy, in particular the large population in Rome, was always short of sufficient grain and they arranged it so the grain would come in from the provinces into Italy and into Rome; it was a very crucial part of the food supply network. These ships were also rather large. We find later on in the account, that 276 people are on board. That is a very large ship by the standards of the day and only a few of those people would have been prisoners. There would have been soldiers, other travellers, the sailors and those responsible for this huge cargo. Already as they are travelling along, the weather conditions are not good. They are fighting against the prevailing winds and time is passing. Luke notices that the time of the Day of Atonement is coming, and that is roughly in early October; so the season of the year is not favourable for sailing. They are heading towards November, December, January, the worst times to take this voyage across the Mediterranean.

In the next part of their voyage, they have to cross over to Italy without staying close to the land because of the nature of the way the land lies. They have to be further away from the land, and so the danger of storms increases, as in this case. The difficult weather conditions are developing as they are sailing against the wind. Paul has this sense in his heart that it is going to be a difficult voyage and he encourages them to stop sailing, to stay on the island of Crete, and to wait until the winter is past. This was a decision many people had to make when travelling by sea in the ancient world; if you are travelling in the autumn, do you continue travelling into the winter season with much greater danger? It was a tactical decision and some people wintered, as they said, in harbour. They would spend many weeks in harbour before they were willing to move on with their journey because of the season of the year. This was the decision that had to be made by those responsible for the ship. They decided against Paul’s advice, "We’re going to carry on, even though the weather looks bad and the season isn’t good."

The Second Part of the Voyage

So, we come to the second half of the voyage, where the ship encounters an astonishingly prolonged storm with hurricane conditions. We are going to read Acts 27:13 - 26,

13 ‘When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, 17 so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis. They lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. 21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”’

Acts 27:13-26, NIV

It is a serious storm if you can’t see the sun, the moon and the stars for several days because of the clouds and the wind and the rain. But that is exactly what happened. They are crossing over the Adriatic Sea in the Mediterranean, and unable to see the sun and unable to control the ship significantly. Safety measures are taken. These are severe measures. This shows the real danger. They take the lifeboat on board, rather than have it tied to the rear of the ship, as was the standard practice. They didn’t want it to be separated in the storm. They put ropes around the hull of the ship, which was a common practice but only used in very severe conditions. The pressure of the sea water in stormy conditions could force a leak in the hull, and so this was prevented to some degree by passing ropes round the ship. They lowered the anchor to slow the ship down because the ship was moving too fast. The storm was pushing it. It was out of control. They had taken the sails down. They even threw the cargo overboard, and some of the ship’s equipment. Spare sails and spare ropes were thrown overboard. These are severe actions that tell us that it was an emergency. There was a real risk of sinking and they didn’t know where they were. They had lost their sense of location: they couldn’t navigate by seeing any land; they couldn’t navigate by the stars; and they couldn’t navigate by any means whatsoever. They were just drifting along and despairing when Paul brings his message that everybody’s life will be saved because an angel has spoken to him miraculously in the night. What a terrible situation to be in. Men and women feared for their lives literally because if the ship sank, there was no chance of survival, no chance of rescue in those circumstances, far out at sea in the middle of a storm.


Acts 27:27 - 44 tell us where they landed and what happened in that perilous landing as they struck land shortly after the events just described and the ship was wrecked.

27 ‘On the fourteenth day we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. ’(or 37m deep)’ A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet ’(or 27m)’ deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away. 33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without any food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea. 39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting 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. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf. 42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But 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. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.’

Acts 27:27-44, NIV

What an extraordinary story! At night they approach land. Nothing could be worse than approaching land at night. Almost no visibility. The soundings indicated that the depth of the water was diminishing quickly and sailors always knew what that meant. Land was very close and there was a risk of running aground. The sailors planned to escape in the lifeboat, fearing that the ship would sink offshore and they wanted to escape but they were prevented from doing so when the soldiers cut the lifeboat adrift. This is dramatic stuff. Paul is watching all this happen. He has got this faith that God is going to preserve everyone, but no one else has that confidence; they’re terrified. It is a terrifying situation. But Paul said, "Eat some food". So, all of them ate before throwing grain into the sea. Do you notice the grain is the cargo? That is the clue that suggests to us that this is a grain ship from Egypt. If you throw the cargo into the sea, you are throwing the most precious commodity, something that you could sell for a great price. Some of the grain had been thrown to sea before but now some more was thrown overboard. Finally, they see the land and they try to land safely with the ship but they are unable to do that because of the sandbar. The ship literally begins to break up. Not everybody could swim but those who could, swam ashore safely. Other people just held on to planks, and anything that they could get from the ship and, amazingly, nobody died.

Reading this story without knowing of God’s miraculous word to Paul, that every life would be saved, you would think that, ‘Surely somebody would have died in that situation - so much danger, so many people, such confusion, such high risk.’ But every single person survived, including, of course, Paul, Luke and Aristarchus, the little group who are travelling together to Rome, under the watchful eye of the centurion. It turns out that they have landed on the island of Malta. The chances of them actually reaching that particular land are very remote. The storm could have taken them past Malta very easily because Malta is a relatively small island in a very big ocean. They could have travelled much further into the open sea but they landed on Malta, just in time before the ship was destroyed. They have travelled in this storm, approximately 350 to 400 km out of control. They had not been able to control the ship. They had not been able to use the sails. The rudder was not powerful enough to control the direction of the ship because of the intensity of the storm. This is an absolutely terrifying experience. But even in this storm Paul’s faith is strong, and God speaks to him yet again. We have seen many times in the book of Acts, where God speaks directly to him. The Macedonian call, the difficult situation in Corinth, in prison in Caesarea and now out at sea in the middle of a brutal storm, in the middle of the Mediterranean.

At last they land in Malta, as we discover from Acts 28: 1. We are going to look at what happens when Paul unexpectedly arrives in Malta, a place he never imagined he would ever visit. in the next episode.


What can we learn from this passage? First of all, it affirms the sovereignty of God over our lives because we all experience storms of one sort or another. Here is a physical storm and maybe you have experienced in the natural world in your own life, some very dangerous conditions. Many of us have. Maybe you have experienced other types of storms, terribly difficult circumstances that are prolonged and intense and disempowering, where you feel that you are out of control of what is going on around you. During that time, we need to remember this story and remember, God is sovereign, even over the storm. He can stop it. He can act within it. He can act through it. He can act despite it, as he did in the situation with Paul. He saved Paul. He saved all those people. Paul began to preach the Gospel in Malta, which he never intended to do.

The second thing we can learn from this is again the book of Acts emphasises the role of angels; angelic visitations. Angels are there to help the Church. They are hidden from view but they might be operating in your life to protect you in ways that you never really know and understand. Sometimes you may have an encounter with a divine angelic being, just as Paul did himself. Such encounters are witnessed throughout Church history.

Another reflection is the importance of fellowship in times of hardship. Don’t forget, there were three Christians on this ship. It wasn’t just Paul on his own; Luke, Aristarchus and Paul could meet together, could pray, could encourage each other, could talk together, could share their feelings together throughout these many difficult days of the storm. Fellowship encourages us. Don’t forget that the Christians in Sidon had encouraged Paul. He’d been to visit them. They’d probably given him some extra food rations and some extra money, lots of prayer and support along the way. In times of hardship, fellowship with our fellow Christians is important. Even someone as great as Paul as a leader, needed people around him to encourage him. That is what Luke and Aristarchus did for Paul on this trip.

It is an amazing story, and it’s very surprising what happens, if we have never read it before. Now Paul is much closer to Italy because Malta is directly south of Italy. It is a relatively short trip by sea to get from Malta to Italy. The centurion and the soldiers have all arrived in Malta. There is going to be a pause there. They are going to spend some time there and then the centurion will arrange for Paul to get to Rome. We will hear about what happens from this point onwards in our final two episodes, where we look at the events of the last chapter of the book of Acts, Acts 28. So, I hope you will join us for those episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What storms of life are you going through? Ask God to help you. Be specific.
  • Discipleship
    1. What help is fellowship to you?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to see when angels appear. Why do they come and what is their message?
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