After receiving a kind welcome in Malta there is an openness to the Gospel which comes about by miracles of healing.
After receiving a kind welcome in Malta there is an openness to the Gospel which comes about by miracles of healing.
Welcome to this episode as we come very near to the end of our incredibly dramatic story of the Church and its growth and development, in the book of Acts. If you’ve been following what I have been teaching, you will know that in Series 6 we have Paul’s focus on moving from Asia Minor, or Turkey and Greece, where he was working before, to Rome. He felt prophetically God was calling him to go to the capital city of the Empire. He wanted to meet the church there; he wanted to testify about Christ, even possibly to the Roman Emperor himself.
Introduction and Background
We have been following the story in Series 6, with many dramatic incidents because first of all, Paul went to Jerusalem, where he was arrested. There was a riot in the Temple and he was nearly killed. He was detained there for a couple of years in prison and then appealed to the Imperial Court in Rome, as a Roman citizen. So, the governor was forced to send him to Rome and that is what brought about the events we have just been looking at - the sea journey across the eastern Mediterranean and the incredibly dramatic shipwreck.
If you were with us in our last episode, you will have heard me tell the extraordinary story of the survival of Paul and everybody on board the ship. Let me retell the story briefly again, especially if you didn’t hear the last episode. They took a journey from the province of Judea, modern Israel, by sea along the coast of countries which are now Lebanon, Syria, and southern Turkey; then changed ships at a port there called Myra and went on to Crete. The journey would seem to be going okay but from that time problems arose. I described an incredible journey from Crete as they were pushed by violent storms and extreme winds, westward across the Mediterranean and the captain and the sailors more or less lost control of the ship. They had to throw things overboard. There were 276 people on board the ship and it looked as though the ship could sink at any time. We have this incredible story where they didn’t see the sun or the moon because of the storm clouds and the rain and the hurricane winds for many days at a time. At the end of the last episode, I recounted how they were shipwrecked on the island of Malta which is immediately south of Italy, the central country in the Roman Empire. The survival of everybody was nothing short of a miracle. Paul anticipated a miracle because whilst the ship was in the storm, he had a remarkable experience when an angel of God appeared to him, Acts 27: 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.’Acts 27:24, NIV
We read at the end of Acts 27, how the ship actually broke up just off shore in Malta. The captain forced people to jump off the ship if they could swim, or get hold of a piece of the ship as it was breaking up to hold on to and they just drifted ashore. All 276 people survived, which is nothing short of a miracle. Many of them couldn’t even swim. There was 50 to 100 metres to go, probably, to get ashore, but every single person got ashore safely. What an incredible story that was! It was a miracle. They arrived in Malta with nothing. They were like refugees. Malta is a relatively small island and the population of Malta, at about this time, would perhaps have been about 5,000 people, or perhaps slightly larger than that. When the Maltese people found that 276 refugees had landed on their shores after their ship had been sunk and they’d lost everything, that was a very sudden and surprising experience for them.
Kind Reception in Malta
We will see what happens in this episode as Paul, his companions, the Roman guards who were guarding him, the sailors on the ship and the other passengers, all arrive on the island of Malta. We are going to read Acts 28:1- 6, and pick up the story there.
1 ‘Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul 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. 4 When 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, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happened to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.’Acts 28:1-6, NIV
Let us think a little more about this scene. These islanders in Malta lived a quiet life; they had a small population; they were under the authority of the Romans; the Romans had a ruler there. We’ll meet the ruler in this episode, in just a moment. They had considerable engagement with sea trading because of their ports and the fact that it was a place of transit to go between Italy and other parts of the Roman Empire. This was a quiet, steady community living relatively securely under the watchful eye of the Roman authorities. We notice that as this sudden influx of people came, the islanders interestingly are very friendly. There is a very positive side to this story. It is a really significant story for us in the modern world where we have so many refugees. There are more refugees and migrants in the world today than at any time since the end of the Second World War. For all sorts of reasons, people are moving. Here we have people who were suddenly shipwrecked and in real need because they brought virtually nothing with them from the ship because of the disastrous circumstances of the shipwreck. The initial welcome of the islanders is great. They make a big fire. They want to dry out people’s clothes, and they would be extremely cold, extremely wet, and extremely shocked. They had come through a storm that was in the night time, so they had experienced all this under the cover of darkness, which was very disorientating for them. A huge fire was built by the islanders who were nearby at the place of landing.
Luke was there. You’ll remember that I have told you that in many parts of the book of Acts, Luke is an eyewitness. We know for certain that he was on board the ship with Paul, and he watched everything that happened. He was one who had to get ashore. We don’t know whether he could swim or whether he had to get a bit of a plank of the ship to get ashore but he got ashore safely. Luke was always observing, - a great observer - and he wrote down all sorts of very detailed things about what happened, especially in this last part of the book. We know and can be confident these things happened because Luke actually saw it and he wrote it down for himself. There is this remarkable circumstance. Interestingly, Paul is immediately on the front foot, if they’re building a fire he will help. This is the character of Paul - a man full of energy, full of engagement. He has been helping the sailors and the soldiers and other passengers on the ship. He has been encouraging them, comforting them, telling them everything is going to be okay. He has been thinking of them and not just his own safety. Now, once they get ashore, he doesn’t just let the islanders gather the wood, he is helping to gather the wood himself. Here is the heart of the man Paul, just in that tiny little detail.
But then comes the snake. In the ancient world, and in many modern cultures in the developing world today, snakes have a big symbolism and significance, and obviously they are feared. Many snakes are poisonous and can kill you. They were very concerned when a snake attached itself to Paul. They wondered whether this was a sign from the gods that they believed in, that somehow or other this man - they didn’t know anything about him at the time - who had come off the ship, was actually, secretly a murderer, a criminal, and this was a divine act of justice, in order to identify him. This snake was going to bite him and then he would die. They were watching to see what would happen, as people do today when people are bitten by a snake. Sometimes you just have to watch and see what is going to happen. But the snake wasn’t on Paul’s body, or his arm for long. He shook it off, threw it back into the fire, and as they watched and watched and watched, nothing happened.
They changed their opinion very quickly. Such is the way with people who are superstitious. We all know that in many cultures, there are many people who are superstitious about certain actions. They thought, ‘Well if he can withstand a snake that’s attached itself to him, maybe he has miraculous powers; maybe he’s even a god who’s landed on our island; maybe even this incredible circumstance of the shipwreck is some kind of a divine sign; maybe he’s come to the island to help us in some way’. This was the thinking of the people round the fire - the local people. They believed in all sorts of gods and goddesses. The one referred to here, in verse 4, the goddess Justice, is a Roman goddess, Justitia, who at that time had a temple and a statue in the city of Rome, and was often pictured holding weighing scales, which of course is the symbol of justice in many cultures. They were thinking of this goddess. Was she going to judge this man for being a murderer? But then no, he didn’t get any sickness, he didn’t get a snake bite, or he miraculously escaped from it. So, they changed their opinion and being superstitious people, they thought, ‘Maybe he has got miraculous powers’. This is the sort of thing that happened to Paul from time to time amongst the communities that he evangelised. There is a similar situation that took place in the city of Lystra, as recorded in Acts 14: 11 - 12. When Paul had performed a miracle, it says in Acts 14,
11 ‘When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.’Acts 14:11-12, NIV
That was another instance of when people, once they think you have got miraculous powers, attribute great authority to you as a prophet or even a god visiting the earth. The ancient people in the Roman Empire were always hoping that the gods would appear to them in human form, not be far away in their temples but would actually appear in order to help their communities. This is one of many very dramatic things that happens to Paul. You go through the book of Acts and there is drama on every page: miracles; risky situations; narrow escapes and here is another one.
Paul Meets the Roman Official
From this story we move on to something more significant even than that, but that was a positive start. The islanders have welcomed the people gladly and their attention is immediately drawn to Paul. Out of all the 276 people, they are already thinking about Paul. Now we come to Paul and his companions meeting the Roman ruler, the chief official of the island. Let’s read Acts 28:7 - 10:
7 ‘There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. 8 His 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. 9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. 10 They honoured us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.’Acts 28:7-10
Publius is ruling over Malta. It is a small island with a small population but every island in the Mediterranean had some kind of ruler looking after it on behalf of the Romans. Publius welcomed Paul and his companions into his house. It doesn’t appear that he welcomed 276 people into his house, which of course would not be practical. It appears that he picked out Paul and his companions, and probably the Roman guards as well, who were the most senior people on the ship, and were responsible for Paul’s safety. Remember that Paul is still a prisoner. The guards are still responsible for him, and their job is to get him to Rome. Despite all the circumstances of the shipwreck, he is still officially a prisoner under guard, and on his way to Rome. We don’t know what happened to the 276. What we do know is that the time of year now was about November, and in the wintertime ships, generally speaking, didn’t sail. The whole group of people, the whole 276, were confined to Malta for about three months. They must have found lodging and accommodation in different places but we don’t know all the details. What we do know is that the chief official, Publius, took an interest in Paul and his companions and invited them to his house and gave them hospitality.
But then a characteristic thing happens, which happens so often in Paul’s ministry. The key that unlocks any situation is a miracle. This is a very personal situation, Publius’ father is sick in bed with fever and dysentery, and Paul invites himself, no doubt, to go and meet his father and to talk to him. Luke is there, bearing in mind that he is a doctor, so he is an eyewitness, and also a doctor, and he is there when Paul is talking to this man. They talk together, Paul prays for him, and Paul characteristically lays his hands on him. Amazingly, his fever leaves him; energy comes back and his body comes into order and he feels better immediately. This would probably be quite an old man and the effect on the chief official Publius is amazing. He can’t believe that there has been a shipwreck, this man has come into his house and his father, who he has been very worried about, is suddenly completely recovered.
This is an open door for Paul to share about Christ, no doubt, to Publius and his household. But, as so often happens in these situations, news gets out very quickly to the islanders. It is only a small island and as I mentioned, we probably have about 5000 people in the community. News gets out that this amazing man, who managed to avoid dying from a snake bite, who is probably a god of some sort, or a prophet, has been to the chief official and has healed his father. People begin to come to Paul and they bring their sick people to him. He starts praying for people. This must have happened over a number of days. We don’t exactly know where Paul is staying because there were three days in the house of Publius but we don’t know where he stayed for the next three months. But some accommodation would be found for him and probably all the way through that time, people kept coming to him and saying, “Can you pray for my father? Can you pray for my mother? Can you pray for my child? Can you pray for this sick person in my family?” Many people were healed - a very remarkable circumstance, which reminds us of something very similar that happened in Jesus’ ministry. On one occasion, in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he was staying at the household of Peter, his chief Apostle, as recorded in Matthew 8:14, and whose mother-in-law was in bed with a fever.. A relative is in bed and Jesus comes and heals the mother-in-law and then the story goes on,
‘When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.’Matthew 8:16, NIV
Miracles open up opportunities and draw people’s attention to the fact that the Kingdom of God has actually arrived in a remarkable way. Luke records this very carefully and with great interest. We find that Paul becomes very well-known across the island almost instantaneously. The whole community is aware of who he is.
God begins to move through these circumstances. Luke doesn’t specifically say what happens through Paul’s preaching but undoubtedly, he would have preached about Jesus Christ in this context, and there would have been people coming to faith at that time. All the history and tradition of Malta from that day to this, suggests that a church was started in Malta, as a result of Paul’s visit. There is an Early Church tradition that suggests that Publius, the chief official of the island, also became a Christian and perhaps became a church leader in Malta. It doesn’t say that in the Bible, but some Early Church tradition says it. This suggests that Paul had a significant impact on the island and it has had a strong Christian tradition from that day until today.
Verse 10 tells us that during these three months, there was such a good relationship between Paul and his companions and the islanders, that ‘they honoured us in many ways’. What would this mean? Hospitality, gifts, maybe some sightseeing around the island? What a wonderful experience they had. Three months of relative peace and security. What a total contrast to the ship journey. The time spent at sea was turbulent, difficult and dangerous for Paul but for three months, they had a peaceful and positive time in Malta.
As they were getting ready to leave, the Maltese citizens gave them many gifts and supplies for the final part of their journey. The next verse just concludes our story for us. Acts 28:11:
‘After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods of Castor and Pollux’.Acts 28:11, NIV
A ship from Alexandria. Probably another ship carrying grain, because Alexandria supplied grain from Egypt to Rome. Off they went on their journey. We’ll talk about the final part of the journey in the final episode next time.
In the meantime, let’s think about what we can learn from this rather unusual and quite interesting story - rather a surprising story - at the end of the book of Acts. First of all, it tells us something about when we as Christians end up in unexpected circumstances and places. Has that happened to you? Paul was never expecting to go to Malta. It wasn’t part of the itinerary. It wasn’t the intention to land on the island. It happened purely through the storm at sea. Paul never expected to be there. We find, in our lives as Christians, there are things that we just don’t expect to happen; they are not in our plan. Maybe it is a very difficult circumstance, you may have to leave your town and move to another area. There may be persecution or difficulties for you. There may be some health challenge that changes your job situation. There may be some fundamental economic problem in your country that forces you to leave the country. There can be so many different circumstances that can affect us and cause us to be in unexpected circumstances and places. But what we learn here is that Paul always embraced the unexpected. He took it as an opportunity, even if it was difficult. He embraced the problems of the voyage at sea and then came an unexpected blessing at the end - three months of profitable activity for the Gospel, and rest in Malta. Let us embrace unexpected circumstances and places that we have to go to, and trust that God is in it, even if we don’t understand why we got to that position.
The second reflection I have from this episode is that the Church always needs to overcome superstition, folk religion and witchcraft. Here we have the folk religion and the superstition of the Maltese people described in the first part of our episode and the Gospel overcame it by miraculous acts and the proclamation of Christ. We must seek to do the same.
A third reflection I have on this concerns the status of Christian leaders. Paul was sometimes treated very badly and disrespected but sometimes he was highly acclaimed and was considered even to be a divine figure. Here is one instance. There’s another one that I mentioned in Lystra in Acts 14. What is the right way to understand Christian leaders? The honour and respect that the Maltese gave Paul was appropriate. It is appropriate to honour Christian leaders but to give them a very high status and consider they have some sort of divine power, is always a terrible mistake. Church leaders ultimately, are servants of the people they are looking after and reaching. Jesus said that,
“even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 10: 45. Honouring and respecting leaders is good but putting them on a pedestal, where we give them almost divine status, or prophetic status that can’t be questioned, is always a mistake and dangerous. We need to find that balance. because Christian leaders are servants.
My final reflection, as we bring this episode to an end, is to be very appreciative of the fact that here is a very favourable response to the Gospel amongst the Maltese people. Paul has not always had a favourable response. Many times, the opposition to Paul has been such that he has had to leave the area quickly. Many people have opposed him, often the Jewish people, as we have seen throughout the book of Acts. But here the Gospel has an open door. In God’s providence some times and in some places, the Gospel has tremendous success and reaches whole communities in an absolutely miraculous way. That is what we should be praying for in our countries and in our areas. We know that it doesn’t always happen but it can happen, and it did happen in Malta. Even in that three-month period an incredible amount was achieved for the Gospel.
Our story is not finished. Paul is not yet in Rome, and that is what is going to take place in our final episode and I very much hope you will join us for it.
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.
- What do you think about the surprises that come in your life? Could they be for good?
- If miracles open up opportunities for the gospel, what miracles are you praying for?
- What do you think and do about the refugee crisis in the world today? What is your church doing?
- Using a map from the time of Paul, trace the journey Paul is making to Rome - starting from Jerusalem.