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Bible boy_reading_bibleThe 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 27:27-32

27 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. 28 So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms.[a] A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms.[b] 29 And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. 30 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, 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go.

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Last week’s entry discussed Paul’s revelation of the vision he had of the angel of God — whom Paul worshipped and to whom he belonged — of deliverance from the storm. However, he said, they would have to reach land in order for it to happen.

Now they had been in a relentless nor’easter for a fortnight in the Adriatic — not the present day Adriatic Sea, although that is what it was called in the Ancient World — when the sailors had reason to believe they were nearing land, around midnight (verse 27).

John MacArthur explains the location (emphases mine):

Adria, in ancient times, referred to the central Mediterranean, that whole area. And they didn’t really know where they were, other than that they were somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean in the Sea Adria. Well, “as they were driven up and down in Adria” – and that gives you an idea that they had no idea where they were going because they didn’t even know if whether it was up or down – “about midnight the sailors deemed that they drew near to some country.”

Even in those days, sailors had sounding instruments of some sort to check sea depths, so those on Paul’s ship found a depth of 20 fathoms. Further on, they took another sounding and found a depth of 15 fathoms (verse 28). One fathom is approximately two yards or two meters.

It being dark, the crew feared a shipwreck, so they let four anchors down to stabilise their position and prayed for daylight (verse 29).

Matthew Henry gives us a practical application of their situation:

When those that fear God walk in darkness, and have no light, yet let them not say, The Lord has forsaken us, or, Our God has forgotten us; but let them do as these mariners did, cast anchor, and wish for the day, and be assured that the day will dawn. Hope is an anchor of the soul, sure and stedfast, entering into that within the veil. Hold fast by that, think not of putting to sea again, but abide by Christ, and wait till the day break, and the shadows flee away.

I know of a Catholic four-year college in the US that used to have a class ring with a Cross with two anchors crossed beneath it, diagonally. Those are the anchors of faith.

The sailors were understandably frightened. They decided to lower the lifeboat into the sea, climb aboard and desert the ship to somehow save themselves (verse 30).

Henry warns against such treachery:

having the command of the boat, the project was to get all of them into that, and so save themselves, and leave all the rest to perish. To cover this vile design, they pretended they would cast anchors out of the fore-ship, or carry them further off, and in order to this they let down the boat, which they had taken in (Acts 27:16,17), and were going into it, having agreed among themselves, when they were in to make straight for the shore. The treacherous seamen are like the treacherous shepherd, who flees when he sees the danger coming, and there is most need of his help, John 10:12. Thus true is that of Solomon, Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth or a foot out of joint. Let us therefore cease from man. Paul had, in God’s name, assured them that they should come safely to land, but they will rather trust their own refuge of lies than God’s word and truth.

However, Paul saw what they were doing, went directly to the centurion — Julius — and his men. Paul told them that, unless everyone remained on board, no one would be saved (verse 31).

Henry says that, even if the sailors had deserted, God would no doubt have saved Paul and everyone else in some way.

Henry then provides thoughts on the adage that is not in the Bible but is nonetheless applicable to a life of faith: God helps those who help themselves. This is Henry’s brief analysis, which is well worth remembering:

Duty is ours, events are God’s; and we do not trust God, but tempt him, when we say, “We put ourselves under his protection,” and do not use proper means, such as are within our power, for our own preservation.

Returning to the story, the centurions quickly cut the ropes tying the lifeboat to the ship, preventing any cowardly escapes by the sailors (verse 32).

MacArthur says:

I’m not sure Paul advised them to do that because they could have used that dinghy. They could have used it to get to shore later on. As it turns out they’re going to have to swim. But, apparently, the centurion thought it necessary to stop them.

I would like to cover nautical and historical information that MacArthur gives. Cauda, which he mentions, is called Gavdos today and is the southernmost Greek island. It is located just south of Crete:

Verse 27 then indicates that the sailors heard the surf pounding. It’s interesting to look at a little bit of nautical insight into this. Now mark this. The distance from Cauda, on your map, to Malta, is 476.6 miles. Now, Mediterranean navigators have supplied information that indicates that such a ship in a gale or hurricane wind would drift about 36 miles every 24 hours.

If they were fighting into the wind to try to compensate, they would be able to go about 36 miles every 24 hours. Now, if that was true, it would take them exactly 13 days, one hour and 21 minutes to be driven from Cauda to Malta. You add one day from Fair Havens to Cauda and you have the sum of fourteen. So navigational information, nautical judgments corroborate, specifically, the fact that is in fact a 14-day journey if you happen to take it in a hurricane.

Now, according to further calculations, and as I said at the beginning of this study last Lord’s day, many archeologists and many historians have studied this passage for its nautical information. And so many secular minds have been applied to this passage. But according to these calculations, it would be on the 14th day that they would have been less than three miles from the entrance of the harbor at Malta that today is called, for obvious reasons, Saint Paul’s Harbor. So the nautical people tell us that in exactly 14 days at that speed they would be three miles from the entrance to Saint Paul’s Harbor.

Now notice that Malta is a dot in the Mediterranean. You have to see here the providence of God, don’t you? There’s no other conclusion. The Scripture is so accurate. The soundings that they then took indicate that they are passing Koura. Notice that Melita, or Malta on the map, the very east point of it is called Koura, K-O-U-R-A. And by the time they would have passed Koura, they would have been about a quarter mile from shore, and that’s why they would have heard the pounding. A quarter mile from the east point shore, three miles yet to go until they would come right into the harbor, now called Saint Paul’s Bay.

That harbour is still known as St Paul’s Bay, although, strangely, the Apostle is not the town’s patron saint.

Koura is today known as Qawra, which is Maltese.

Continuing on with MacArthur’s explanation:

And do they heard the pounding of the furious surf being driven by the wind to crush the shore. Well, of course, as soon as they heard that they wanted to find out how near they were, so verse 28 says, “They sounded,” – that is they dropped sounding devises into the sea to determine the depth. – “and they found they were twenty fathoms.” A fathom is approximately six feet, so you can multiply that and figure out they’re about 120 feet. And then they went a little further it says, probably about a half an hour. “They then sounded again and found it fifteen fathoms.” And even today it’s interesting that the – that the geography around Malta supports this very text, that these are very accurate features. “And they found it fifteen fathoms,” so they were really moving toward the shore.

I have found an essay online, complete with maps, which discusses St Paul’s journey. I will write about it once I finish covering this perilous sea journey — which continues next week.

Next time — Acts 27:33-38

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