Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 27:13-20

The Storm at Sea

13 Now when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to the shore. 14 But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land. 15 And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda,[a] we managed with difficulty to secure the ship’s boat. 17 After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship. Then, fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear,[b] and thus they were driven along. 18 Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. 19 And 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 no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

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Last week’s entry discussed the decision of the Roman crew to set sail for Phoenix — Phenice — in Crete to spend the winter. Paul had warned against it, but Fair Havens was not a place where they could spend the winter, despite its gentle name.

Therefore, centurion, crew, prisoners, cargo, Paul and Luke — with possibly another of their companions — set sail along the sheltered coastline of Crete, helped by a gentle southerly wind (verse 13).

Then, a violent wind from the north east struck (verse 14). The ship was no match for it, so they had no choice but to let the wind control the ship (verse 15).

Matthew Henry posits that they might have been near Phenice at the time but God had other plans for them (emphases mine):

It is probable that they were very near the heaven of Phenice when this tempest arose, and thought they should presently be in a quiet haven, and were pleasing themselves with the thought of it, and wintering there, and lo, of a sudden, they are in this distress. Let us therefore always rejoice with trembling, and never expect a perfect security, nor a perpetual security, till we come to heaven.

His description of the storm is excellent:

The ship was exceedingly tossed (Acts 27:18); it was kicked like a football from wave to wave; its passengers (as it is elegantly described, Psalms 107:26,27) mount up to the heavens, go down again to the depths, reel to and fro, stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. The ship could not possibly bear up into the wind, could not make her way in opposition to the wind; and therefore they folded up their sails, which in such a storm would endanger them rather than to them any service, and so let the ship drive, Not whither it would, but whither it was impelled by the impetuous waves …

John MacArthur says that the gentle southerly wind they encountered was often the precursor for a northeaster, the calm before the storm:

“Well the south wind is nice and we’ll at least stay along the edge of Crete and if we don’t get all the way to Rome, at least we can hang in there at Phenice. Then you have one of the biggest words in this whole story. Verse 14, “But,” – got to watch those gentle south winds. – “Not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind called Euroclydon.” That was the sailors’ term for a nor’easter. It comes from two words, one Greek, one Latin. The Greek word is Euros and it means an east wind. The Latin word is aquilo and it means a north wind.

It would come down from Asia, just blowing down and it was a severe wind. They gave it the name Euroclydon because it was so fierce and it was one of the greatest feared winds of all winds. It was a wind of hurricane or typhoon proportions. They were in a hurricane. They were in that little thing. It was like a pod floating on the ocean, bobbing up and down and being pummeled and beaten by the northeast wind. This was a typhoon. This was a hurricane with all of the concurrent airflow that comes together and swirls the clouds and swirls the sea. This is what they were in the midst of.

And you all have seen on television hurricane somebody, hurricane Bertha or Edna or Agnes or something and you know what it’s like. That’s exactly what this little wooden thing got trapped in. And the little gentle south wind wafted them on was replaced by a threatening treacherous, deadly nor’easter.

The wind drove them temporarily to a place of shelter, the island of Cauda — present day Gavdos, south of Crete — where they were able to secure the ship’s lifeboat with some difficulty (verse 16).

After hoisting the lifeboat successfully, they then secured the ship’s structure and lowered the ‘gear’ — whether anchor or mainsail — hoping to avoid the Syrtis (verse 17).

MacArthur explains verse 17 in more detail. At this point, they had sailed only 23 miles from Fair Havens:

there was a great fear among all those who sailed the Mediterranean. And the fear was of Euroclydon because Euroclydon sent ships to the graveyard known as the Greater Surtis.

The Greater Surtis – archeologists have studied and dug up there many things for many years – was the graveyard of ships. Whenever a great northeastern wind would come of hurricane or typhoon dimensions, it would blast ships into the Greater Surtis. And it would reef them there and shatter them and smash them, and lives would be lost there on the coast of North Africa. And so they were afraid. They had two options: if the hurricane didn’t dump them into the sea and capsize the ship, then the hurricane would drive them into the graveyard of ships known as the Greater Surtis.

Then they did three things.

The first thing they did was to secure the boat. Every sailing vessel had a dingy. And a dingy doesn’t have to be super small, but it was a small enough boat so that when you harbored a boat you could get in it and get to shore. It was a very important thing to have. It was also a rescue boat. In any case – in the case that the larger ship would break up, this was a lifeboat. It was very important to hang on to that thing. In sailing, normally, the dingy was attached to the stern of the boat by a rope and just pulled along. But immediately upon any stormy weather they would have to get that thing inside or it would be swamped with water and it would drag. And, eventually, it would sever the rope and it would be lost. And so with great difficulty they first thing they did was get the swamp dingy into the main ship. They probably swung the yardarm out and used it as a hoist. And they all worked hard, but they got it in.

The second thing they did – and this is something you may never have heard of – they frapped the ship … Verse 17 says, “When they had hoisted it,” – hoisted the dingy in – “they used fraps undergirding,” – or frapping – “the ship.”

… in the days that we’re talking about they built ships without the use of bolts. In other words, when the planks ran along the side, they couldn’t run large girders down and then bolt the planks to the girders because they didn’t have any bolts. And the only way they could really secure it, they used pitch. They would use anything they could. I was reading, recently, a tremendously interesting article in National Geographic about the Phoenician sailing boats and how they used to cover them with certain kinds of things that would seal them. Well, that’s fine until you get into a hurricane.

When you get into a hurricane and you’re in a single-masted vessel, there is no distribution of stress. That is in a multi-sailed vessel, the stress is distributed all over the entire hull. In a single-masted situation, the stress is directed at one area and it begins to split the ship. And it will literally splinter the entire hull unless something is done. So there were cables that were wrapped around these hulls. And when stress came they would winch these cables tight. Just like wrapping the ship up with rope in order to keep it secure. And so they diligently set about to frap the ship or undergird the ship.

The third thing they did, “fearing lest they should fall into the quicksand.” Now you say, “Wait a minute, quicksand in the middle of the Mediterranean?” Right. That’s another one of those terrific translations. The Greek word is Surtis. They were afraid of winding up on the Surtis. … Here’s it’s the form surtin, that ending, but the same word. And it probably means the reef, the shoal, the sandbar. It can have a reference to the sandy beach where it could be dumped and then smashed. And they had a fear of this.

So what were they going to do? It says, “They struck sail,” in the King James. What it literally says in the Greek is they lowered the gear. I think what it means is they dropped the mainsail. Well, whatever they did it worked.

Henry has a simpler explanation for undergirding:

They bound the ship under the bottom of it with strong cables, to keep it from bulging in the extremity of the tempest.

The next day, they jettisoned their cargo (verse 18) to lighten the ship. They kept some food with them, as we will see later in the chapter.

On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard (verse 19).

This was a desperate situation. Add to this the fact that the violence of the storm was such that, having seen no daylight or starlight for ‘many days’, they abandoned all hope (verse 20).

They were cold. They were wet. They could not bear to eat. Their nerves were frayed. They were afraid. They had no light. They could do nothing but allow this storm drive them to an unknown destination.

They were no longer in control — of anything.

Henry points out that Jesus might have chosen seafaring men as Apostles for a reason:

See what hardships those often undergo who are much at sea, besides the hazards of life they run; and yet to get gain there are still those who make nothing of all this; and it is an instance of divine Providence that it disposes some to this employment, notwithstanding the difficulties that attend it, for the keeping up of commerce among the nations, and the isles of the Gentiles particularly; and Zebulun can as heartily rejoice in his going out as Issachar in his tents. Perhaps Christ therefore chose ministers from among seafaring men, because they had been used to endure hardness.

He also puts forth an interesting question: why did Paul not quell the storm? He then answers it by saying that no apostolic miracle was ever wrought for personal comfort. All of their miracles gave glory to God:

Why did not Paul, by the power of Christ, and in his name, lay this storm? Why did he not say to the winds and waves, Peace, be still, as his Master had done? Surely it was because the apostles wrought miracles for the confirmation of their doctrine, not for the serving of a turn for themselves or their friends.

MacArthur says the desperation that the storm wrought showed that God was controlling everything here. It was probable that Paul, and possibly Luke, knew everything would turn out for the best, according to His will:

Now God says, “That’s exactly what I want. No one has any resource, no one has any hope, no one can turn to anybody or anything. You are hopeless. Now I will announce My presence.” Beautiful! One of the principles that God has used over and over and over again in the word is that God comes in response to man’s absolute hopelessness, right, and announces who He is. And He had just the man. He had his man, Paul, who was probably just going along with it all saying, “Well Lord when is the time? It’s going to be soon, I imagine.”

In fact, through the storm, God was leading them very close to Sicily — to Malta:

Isn’t it interesting that with the sail down, with the storm swirling about them everywhere and the inability to see the stars for the clouds, they couldn’t see anything day or night. Which means they couldn’t what? They couldn’t navigate, they sailed on a direct course to the harbor of Malta. Now, you look at that little dot there and you figure out who was steering that ship. Amazing. This is all in the plan of God.

Here is a map of Gavdos. Here is a map of Malta. If you look to the right — eastwards — on the map of Malta, you can see the southernmost Greek island of Crete, our Apostle’s starting point.

However, no one on-board knew that, and the sense of hopelessness continued.

Next time — Acts 27:21-26

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