Bill McFarland

June 4, 2006


One of the most wonderful illustrations of the gospel and what it means and how we are to respond to it actually occurred on Paul’s way to Rome with the gospel, not while he was preaching it but while he was on his way.  It was the fall of the year 59 AD.  Having languished unjustly in Caesarea in prison for more than two years, the apostle Paul finally appealed to Caesar.  A ship was hired to take him along the way, and the ship that he was on made very slow progress for a number of days.  The time for safe travel in the Mediterranean passed, and to try to go on was dangerous at the least.  But when the majority decided to go ahead anyway and to try to find a more comfortable place, the ship was caught up by the dreaded Northeaster and it was driven helplessly along for days and nights without any view of the stars or the sun which were the only means they had to use for navigation.  The sailors frantically did everything they could to provide for the ship’s safety.  They undergirded the ship with ropes, they lowered the gear, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard, and they jettisoned the cargo, but nothing helped. 

And that is where we pick up the story in Acts 27, the part that so vividly illustrates the gospel and what it means for a person to depend on the gospel for his hope.  I want to begin at verse 20.  I don’t believe this is a story we can take sitting down, so I want to invite you to stand for the reading of the Lord’s word.  Acts 27, beginning at verse 20: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.  Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, ‘Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss.  Yet now I urge you to take hearts, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.  For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God in whom I belong and whom I worship and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar.  And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’  So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.  But we must run aground on some island.’  When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land.  So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms.  A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms.  And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come.  And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”  Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.  As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing.  Therefore I urge you to take some food.  It will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.’  And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.  Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves.  (We were in all 276 persons in the ship).  And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.  Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore.  So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders.  Then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach.  But striking a reef they ran the vessel aground.  The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf.  The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisons lest any should swim away and escape.  But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan.  He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or pieces of the ship.  And so it was that all were brought safely to land.”

I hope you noticed the phrases “we” and “us” in that reading.  Here is Paul, along with Dr. Luke and his friend Aristarchus, a Christian from Thessalonica, with 273 other people who included soldiers who guarded prisoners, prisoners on their way perhaps to their condemnation, and sailors who were in charge of the care of the ship.  And in the fate of these people we find lessons about God’s promises and our relationship to them that are so valuable for us.

Notice in the first place that God made a promise in the midst of a hopeless situation.  It was hopeless clearly for verse 20 said that all hope was at last abandoned.  It didn’t mean that they no longer wanted life, as you can imagine.  It just meant that they so no way that they were going to escape alive.  They had tried everything they knew to try.  Everything they could do, they had done and nothing had delivered them from the clutches of that storm which had driven them days and nights.  There was no reason to think they would be delivered.  And the realization that they had made maybe a poor choice in setting out across the Mediterranean past the time for sailing only made their feeling worse.

But into that situation, that dark hour, comes the authority of God.  Listen!  The authoritative word of God is never a bad thing.  It always injects guidance and light into a situation where there would be none.  And so here is a promise from the Lord.  It was a promise of his kindness.  It wasn’t something that they had deserved.  An angel of the Lord had stood before the apostle Paul and had told him not to be afraid.  Does that indicate that the situation was so serious that Paul had experienced some fear?  I think it does.  He had been praying about it.  He had even been praying for those on board the ship with him.  And this angels aid that Paul would stand before Caesar in Rome (God had a job for him there), and that God had granted him all those that were sailing with him (v. 24). 

And so here is a lesson for all of us as Christians in our tasks in this world.  Paul simply set God’s promise before his fellow passengers on that ship.  He said, “And now I urge you to take heart for there will be no loss of life among you but only of the ship” (v. 22).  Now that promise like any promise challenges the heart of the hearer.  It calls for a choice about whether you believe the one who made the promise.  Paul believed it because it was the God to whom he belonged and the God he worshipped.  But when he set that promise before the other passengers, there are questions.  What reason was there to believe that there would be no loss of life given their dire situation?  How could there be no loss of life if the ship was going to be lost and why take heart if they were only going to run aground on some island?  I don’t see a lot of things to reassure in that kind of statement, do you?  The only thing that is there is the promise of Paul’s God.  There is no reason at all to hope except that promise.  And when Paul said in verse 25, “Take heart for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told,” that issued the challenge.  Do you other fellows believe that promise or not?  Do you think this God is worthy of our trust?  Now folks, here is the first place where we get a glimpse of the meaning of the gospel.  This is how it is with the gospel.  God promises that on the basis of the offering of Christ, he will provide and can provide eternal redemption.  God promises that remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit is a possible possession for any of us.  Acts 2:39 says “the promise is to you and to your children and to all them that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.”  God promises eternal life, I John 2:25 says.  It is a promise that offers to us who would have no reason to think that we would get out alive, so to speak.  The opportunity for life! 

These are precious and very great promises which he has granted to us, as II Peter 1:4 says.  The question is whether we believe the God who made the promises.  Is he able to do what he promised as Abraham thought he was in Romans 4:21?  Is the one who promised faithful as the Hebrew writer said he was in Hebrews 10:23?  Is Christ evidenced enough to us that God can be trusted to keep his promise?  As with God’s promise to those aboard that ship driven across the Adriatic, so with the gospel believing that it will be exactly as God said is the key to introducing some hope into the world.  Do we believe it enough for our hearts to be changed by it?  Do we believe it enough to take heart merely because God has made a promise to us?  We may still pass through many tribulations, but the gospel says we can enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).  So we are confronting the gospel, not merely with talk of forgiveness or eternal life, but with a question of what we think of God.  There is a song in our book that says, “Without Him I could do nothing, without him I would surely fail; without him I would be drifting like a ship without a sail,” like they were that day.  Another line says “Without him, life would be hopeless, but with Jesus, thank God I am saved.”  The only basis for that would be the promise of God. 

So God brings a promise into a hopeless and dark, frightening situation.  But there is another principle in this story that follows close after, and that second principle is that benefiting from that promise required a full commitment on the part of those who believed it.  After Paul said he had faith in God and it would be exactly as he had been told, notice that the ship continued being driven across the sea by the storm.  I learned in working on this study that in total it was driven somewhere around 500 miles, without them having any idea of where they were or even in what direction they were headed.  The sailors suspected finally that they were nearing land (v. 28).  I take it that maybe they heard the sound of breakers on some far off shore, and they began to take soundings.  The first one said 120 feet.  The next one, taken a little later, said 90 feet.  Obviously, the water is getting shallower and danger is becoming more real.  And so fearing that they would be smashed on the rocks, they set down four anchors from the stern from the back of the boat and prayed for day to come.  I’ll bet that was a long night, don’t you?  Have you ever been in a situation where all you can do is try to put down an anchor and wait and pray?  And some of the sailors lowering the ship’s boats supposedly to put out anchors from the bough were actually intending to escape in an attempt to save themselves.  Forget about those other people on the boat.  Never mind the fact that they need us to sail that boat.  We are going to save our own necks.  They were going to watch out for themselves no matter what happened to anybody else.  And that is when Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (v. 31).  Now think about that.  The promise that there would be no loss of life turns out to be conditional.  The men had to stay in the boat. 

J.W. McGarvy in his commentary on Acts observed on this verse, “From this we gather the lesson that when God makes us any promise, the realization of which can in any part be promoted by our exertion, such exertion is understood as a condition of the promise.”  That is probably a helpful point.  But why is that they are being called on to stay on the boat?  I may think about this verse compared with verse 22.  How could there be no loss of life but only of the ship (v. 22), while at the same time they couldn’t be saved unless they stayed on the ship?  It looks like the think to do would be to get off of that boat and get out of there.  It turns out, you see, that God had a wave with this.  This was the line between whether they were going to try to be saved by their own thinking or by real faith in God’s promise.  It was the crucial moment when their faith was going to be decided by whether they went about it their way or his way.  And thankfully, at that moment, they committed themselves to dependence on God’s promise.  Look at verse 32. “Then the soldiers cut away the ropes and the ship’s boat was let go.”  That would be the lifeboat.  A while later in verse 40, they cast off the anchors.  Now they are without anything to hold them back and without anything to rescue them except God and his doing and his providential care.  Now the die had been cast.  They had chosen to trust in the Lord.  They had committed themselves to the promise that had been made to the apostle Paul.  Their entire hope now rested on his ability and on his faithfulness to his promise.  It was his promise or nothing for them. 

I hope you and I can think about the fact that here again we are reminded of how it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God has done something through Christ which is a sufficient ground of hope for all men everywhere.  It is his desire that all people be saved.  (I Tim. 2:4)  In fact, he calls them through the gospel to obtain glory. (II Thess. 2:14).  As with that ship, there are conditions.  What Jesus has done is enough to save anybody, but he can only save people who will commit themselves to his promise to the point that they are willing to rely on him and his way.  The fact is that the New Testament teaches that none can be saved unless they are in Christ.  And so a commitment has to be made in keeping with the Lord’s will and his word.  The time has to come when we cut loose other boats and cast off other anchors and entrust ourselves completely to God’s promise.  In the New Testament, that is what obedience to the gospel of Christ is about.  It is the moment in which one who believes that what God promises through Christ is the answer to his need, lets go of other things, and rests his hope entirely on what Christ has done. 

The conversion stories in Acts all illustrate this point.  My favorite is the story of the jailor in Acts 16.  This poor fellow has his whole world turned upside down.  He falls on his knees before men that he had jailed a few hours earlier and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  What has to happen for you to ask a question like that of people you have just locked in the deepest, darkest part of the dungeon.  They tell him to believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ and he will be saved.  There is a small problem.  Who is Christ?  What does it mean to believe on him?  The next verse says that they spoke the word of the Lord to him in his house.  Then it says that he took them and washed the stripes that had been inflicted on them unjustly and as an act of evil.  This man believes what he has heard to the point that he is changing his heart about it, and then it says that immediately he and his household were taken and were baptized into Christ.  Why did he do that?  There is the commitment we are talking about.  When he got back, Acts 16:34 says, that he rejoiced with all his house “having believed on the Lord.”  What it means to commit your way to the Lord is illustrated for us there.  This man has taken the step.  The die has been cast.  The commitment has been made.  He wanted to know what to do to be saved.  He was taught the gospel.  He believed it.  It changed his behavior, and he was baptized into Christ.  And then he rejoiced, having believed in the Lord.  That is the course for us to follow, also.  Remember the song in our book: “But we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the alter we lay; for the favor he shows and the joy he bestows are for those who will trust and obey.”  That is what this commitment is about. 

God makes a promise; then those who believe that promise are called on to commit themselves to it.  And then the third principle from this precious story is that those who had committed themselves to the promise began to live as if it were so.  Since not a hair was to perish from the head of any of them (v. 34), Paul urged them to start taking care of themselves.  Depending on the Lord’s promise didn’t mean ignoring the practical matters of life.  They needed to eat something.  Either they had been so seasick or so scared or so busy this whole period of time trying to stay alive, that they had left themselves without the nourishment they needed for 14 days.  If they would eat, it would give them strength.  Strength would enable them to do what needed to be done.  And even though the Lord was going to see them safely through, they would still need strength to live.  You can see here something of the kind of heart it takes to live when you are between the storm and the shore, which is where we are as Christians.  It takes thanksgiving which recognizes the blessings the Lord has provided.  Hence, in verse 35, Paul gave thanks for the food.  It takes the encouragement of someone who believes that promise, too, and who sets the tone, sets the example, of doing right.  And then it takes the wisdom which acts prudently.  They lightened the ship as much as they could preparing to steer it through the shallower water to the beach (v. 38).  Now think about it.  God didn’t keep his promise by stopping the storm or giving them an easy way to go.  But God kept his promise.  His promise didn’t mean that they could ignore their responsibility, but it did mean that they were safe in doing what he told them to do.  So they planned to run up on the place where they saw as their best chance to land, and then they got rid of the things that were weighing them down and loosed the rudders.  Then they raised the front sail and headed for land.  When the ship got stuck in the place between two seas and it was being battered to pieces, those who could swim were ordered to make their way to the beach, and included in that would be the soldiers who would be guarding the prisoners later, and the rest were to take hold of boards or whatever remains they could.  When they all got to land, another headcount was taken.  Can you imagine this?  274, 275, 276!  They were all brought safely to land just like they had been promised.

Friends, people who have obeyed the gospel of Jesus are like those 276 souls who were between the storm and the shore.  We live in hope of a promise.  We expect to be brought safely home, but we are not there yet.  We have committed ourselves to that promise in obedience to the gospel.  Our destiny is bound up with others who have done that same thing.  When we took hold of that promise, God didn’t remove us from the practical demands of life.  We still have responsibilities to meet.  Sometimes we have burdens to bear; sometimes we have circumstances to endure.  But God has promised to those that love him, if they endure he will give them a crown of life.  (James 1:12)  The thing for us to do, then, is to hang in there and meet the demands of life from day to day.  We ought to strengthen ourselves and be thankful and head for the shore and get rid of what hinders us and do our best.  We should devote ourselves to the Lord’s teaching, to loving each other, to remembering the Lord in prayer, to unselfish service, to honorable conduct and to gladness of heart like they did at the end of Acts 2.  We ought to remember, like the Lord did with these people, he will finally see to it that we are brought safely to land. 

Remember these three principles from this wonderful story.  Through the gospel God has made a promise in the midst of the hopeless situations of life.  That benefiting from that promise requires a full commitment from those who believe it, and that those who have committed themselves to that promise are in the meantime to live as if it were so.  On May 6, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln found himself trying to lead this country through its darkest hour.  The battle of Chancersville had just been fought, and the Union army had been embarrassed and out-generaled and defeated and made their way back across the river scattered and tattered.  War Secretary Stanton said that it was the darkest day of the war.  Doris Kerns Godwin in her book about Lincoln summarizes his action this way: “As he had done so many times before, Lincoln withstood the storm of defeat by replacing anguish over an unchangeable past with hope in an uncharted future.”  That is what we do when we give ourselves in obedience to the promise of God.  Maybe you are here today ready to make that commitment.  If we can help you, would you come while we stand and sing?