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Bible treehuggercomThe 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 28:1-6

Paul on Malta

28 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people[a] showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice[b] has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

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We are now in the final chapter of Acts.

Last week’s post discussed the providential safety of all 276 persons who were on the ship which ran aground in Malta during the raging storm.

Luke, the author of Acts, was there, hence the first-person narrative (verse 1). He noted that they learned they were on Malta, which was part of the Roman Empire at that time.

The reason that no one knew where they had landed was probably because the shipwreck took place on a part of the island that was unfamiliar to them.

John MacArthur explains (emphases mine):

The reason they didn’t recognize it when they arrived was because they came by way of a little bay now known as St. Paul’s Bay which was not the normal port. The normal port was a place called Valletta … and this was not Valletta. The sailors and the soldiers probably had been to Malta before but wouldn’t have recognized this part of the island. It wouldn’t have taken them very long, however, since it was a mile only 17 miles and 10 miles wide.

Valletta is the capital of Malta and some distance from St Paul’s Bay.

Interestingly, the place where they landed — St Paul’s Bay — is now the largest town in Malta, as the city’s Bay radio station reported in 2018:

St Paul’s Bay is officially the biggest town in Malta.

The popular seaside resort, which includes Bugibba, Qawra, Xemxija, Burmarrad and Wardija, has seen its population soar in recent years to 23, 112.

St Paul’s Bay has overtaken Birkirkara as the largest town in Malta, according to official figures from the National Statistics Office.

Birkirkara is now in second place with 23,034 residents, with Mosta third and Sliema in fourth place.

Mdina has the smallest population in Malta with 235 residents, followed by Għasri in Gozo with 421 people.

The figures show that Malta’s population now stands at 460,297 – and almost one in eight residents are aged over 65.

The Maltese were very kind to Luke, Paul and the other shipwreck victims. They lit a huge bonfire in order that they might warm themselves (verse 2).

In older versions of the Bible, ‘barbarous’ is used instead of the word ‘native’. That was not an insult, but, Luke, as a Greek speaker, used the word to denote any non-Greek speaking people: barbaroi. From this, we got the word ‘barbarian’ and ‘barbarous’.

They were pagans at the time, but as the Bible shows us, unbelievers were sometimes kinder to those in need than God’s own people. The Samaritans are a case in point.

Matthew Henry’s commentary expands on this:

So far were they from making a prey of this shipwreck, as many, I fear, who are called Christian people, would have done, that they laid hold of it as an opportunity of showing mercy. The Samaritan is a better neighbour to the poor wounded man than the priest or Levite. And verily we have not found greater humanity among Greeks, or Romans, or Christians, than among these barbarous people; and it is written for our imitation, that we may hence learn to be compassionate to those that are in distress and misery, and to relieve and succour them to the utmost of our ability, as those that know we ourselves are also in the body. We should be ready to entertain strangers, as Abraham, who sat at his tent door to invite passengers in (Hebrews 13:2), but especially strangers in distress, as these were. Honour all men. If Providence hath so appointed the bounds of our habitation as to give us an opportunity of being frequently serviceable to persons at a loss, we should not place it among the inconveniences of our lot, but the advantages of it; because it is more blessed to give than to receive. Who knows but these barbarous people had their lot cast in this island for such a time as this!

Paul, as ever, made himself useful by gathering sticks — brushwood — to keep the fire going, when he was bitten by a viper (verse 3).

Paul loved to serve people and, in doing so, imitated Christ. MacArthur points out:

Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto” – but what – “to minister and to give his life a ransom for many.” This is always a quality of true leadership. So we ought to add it to our study … True leadership includes the mentality of a servant; the eagerness to do the humble task as well as the exalted one.

Humility is absolute to true spiritual leadership. Look at Jesus in John 13, washing the disciples’ feet and he says then to those 11 leaders, or Judas, of course, would not be included in the ultimate fulfillment but he says to them, “You do what I have done to you.” In other words, you lead with a servant mentality. You stoop to meet the needs of each other. If you’re too important to get dirty, you’re too important to wash feet, if you’re too important to pick up sticks you’re not as important as you think you are.

The presence of the viper is still a subject of lively debate unto this day. Malta is not known to have poisonous snakes, yet these people recognised that this beast was venomous. In 2014, the Times of Malta published an article by an expert in local flora and fauna who says that Luke was wrong; they all landed on neighbouring Melita, which does have venomous snakes. However, it is also possible that, as a Maltese historian posits, humans introduced venomous snakes, which died out over time.

Luke’s words — ‘fastened on his hand’ — meant that the snake injected venom into it.

The Maltese watched what was happening and believed that Justice — a goddess of theirs — would not allow Paul to live. They wrongly assumed he was a murderer who must die for his deeds as punishment (verse 4).

However, Paul shook off the snake, which landed in the fire (verse 5).

Henry says:

It was well they did not knock him down themselves, when they saw he did not swell and fall down; but so considerate they are as to let Providence work, and to attend the motions of it.

After the Maltese saw that Paul was unharmed by the snakebite, they revered him as a god (verse 6).

Henry says that we can view Paul’s shaking off the snake as an allegory about resisting temptation:

He carelessly shook off the viper into the fire, without any difficulty, calling for help, or any means used to loosen its hold; and it is probable that it was consumed in the fire. Thus, in the strength of the grace of Christ, believers shake off the temptations of Satan, with a holy resolution, saying, as Christ did, Get thee behind me, Satan; The Lord rebuke thee; and thus they keep themselves, that the wicked one toucheth them not, so as to fasten upon them, 1 John 5:18. When we despise the censures and reproaches of men, and look upon them with a holy contempt, having the testimony of conscience for us, then we do, as Paul here, shake off the viper into the fire. It does us no harm, except we fret at it, or be deterred by it from our duty, or be provoked to render railing for railing.

Both commentators point out the fickle nature of mankind, as the Maltese onlookers displayed in this narrative. Within minutes they changed their mind about Paul, who went from murderer to god in their estimation.

Henry makes this observation and reminds us of another time in Acts when something similar happened:

See the uncertainty of popular opinion, how it turns with the wind, and how apt it is to run into extremes both ways; from sacrificing to Paul and Barnabas to stoning them; and here, from condemning him as a murderer to idolizing him as a god.

Of course, Paul would have disabused them of such a notion.

However, the purpose of this miracle was to ready the Maltese for the Gospel — and more miracles among them.

Next time — Acts 28:7-10

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