Paul Thanked God & Took Courage
As Gary mentioned, today we celebrate 14 years of God’s faithfulness to us as local church. Our vision statement remains the same: we exist to equip God’s people to delight in his glory and to declare his glory to our neighbors and the nations. That’s our mission. Pretty straightforward. From the overflow of our delight in God comes declaring his glory in Christ to the world.
But what if I added this to the picture. In your equipping, in your delighting, in your declaring, you’re going to face the following types of obstacles: unbelief, ridicule from religious people, threats, arrest for preaching, imprisonment, stoning, execution, people stirring up mobs against you, pagans misunderstanding your ministry, large riots, fear of death, sickness, demonic influences, slander, unjust governing authorities, back-alley pots against you, doctrinal confusion among Christians, self-righteousness in the church, people lying in the church, people complaining in the church, false converts in the church, leaders disagreeing over strategy, false teachers rising, poverty, hard goodbyes, hunger, loneliness, abandonment, strangers, storms, shipwreck, stranded, and just before you reach your destination, a snake will bite you.
Who’s with me?! Any hands after that list? That list represents obstacles the church faces in the book of Acts. Whether due to fallen people or the fallen creation, the church faces many obstacles in the mission. Luke doesn’t gloss the reality or the severity of these obstacles. But he has a purpose. Again and again, Luke reveals how God is sovereign over these obstacles. None are outside his control. None will stop his purpose. Indeed, he even works through the obstacles to reveal his power and advance the gospel of his grace. That’ll be no different in today’s passage.
Paul has to sail to Rome as a prisoner. In chapter 27, a storm pounds their ship off course. They wind up shipwrecked. They’ve just swam ashore on some strange island where they stay for three months. But none of it means that God’s work is on hold. No, I want to focus on four ways God is working for, in, and through his servant Paul. But let’s read the passage first, beginning in verse 1…
1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 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. 4 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 has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 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. 7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed. 11 After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 16 And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.
1. God cares for his servant.
Four ways God is working for, in, and through his servant Paul. Notice first how God cares for his servant. The circumstances aren’t ones we’d choose? Who chooses cold, rainy days after a shipwreck on some strange island? Yet through it all the Lord continues to prove his care for Paul in several ways. In verse 1, Luke is still amazed that they were brought safely through the storm and shipwreck. It’s the second time he mentions it. The first was 27:44. God delivered him.
Notice also in verse 2 how the natives showed them unusual kindness. The word behind “natives” often gets translated elsewhere as “barbarians.” They’re outsiders to Roman culture and language. Yet they show unusual kindness to these Romans. They kindle a fire. They welcome Paul. Their chief entertains them several days. The whole group stays three months. In verse 10 the natives honor them, giving all they needed.
In light of Luke’s larger story, how should we view this? Whatever his servants need for the mission, the Lord provides. The Lord provides even if that means using the kindness of pagans. In 27:3, it was the kindness of Julius the centurion. Here it’s the island people. There’s precedent for this when Jesus sent out the seventy-two. In Luke 10, whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat whatever is set before you.
More than that, the Lord also cares for Paul through fellow Christ-followers. We noted their care last week in Sidon. This week we find their care in Puteoli and Rome. Verse 14 says, “There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days.” Then verse 15: “The brothers there [in Rome], when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.”
Not only had he provided his food in the mission; the Lord also provided Paul with family. We found “brothers.” One of the primary ways God cares for his servants is the local church. It didn’t matter if they’d never met Paul before. The blood of Jesus united them. They were brothers in Christ, sisters in Christ. The Lord bound them together as family, and family cares for its members. Keep that in mind. It’s not simply a matter of praying, “Lord, please care for my brother;” it’s, “Lord, please care for my brother, and use me to be the extension of that care.”
God cares for his servants in the mission. That doesn’t mean nothing terrible will happen to us. That doesn’t mean everything will be comfortable and pain free. That doesn’t mean your plans will always work out in your way. But it does mean that for whatever number of days the Lord gives you, for whatever relationship the Lord sets before you, for whatever suffering you face in the path of obedience, God gives his servants everything they need. God cares for his servants.
The Lord will care for you. As Jesus teaches us, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matt 6:25-30). Or consider the assurance Paul himself gives the Philippian church while he’s in jail: “…my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
2. God authenticates his servant.
Second, notice how God authenticates his servant. He does this through a few signs and wonders. One could be this viper fastening to Paul’s hand and he walks away unscathed. We’ll talk more about their response in a second. But the situation says there’s something unique about Paul. It seems that he’s bitten, but even if the viper just wrapped around his hand, the Lord uses the situation to distinguish Paul.
What’s more clear are the healings he performs. In verse 8, Paul heals Publius’s father who was sick with fever and dysentery. Note that Paul prayed and put his hands on him. In other words, Paul himself didn’t possess the power to heal. The risen Lord Jesus healed the man using Paul. Then in verse 9 we see Jesus healing others through Paul as well: “those who had diseases…came and were cured.”
These signs function no differently than the rest of the signs in the book of Acts. God uses them to authenticate his servants as they preach the kingdom of God. The same happened with Jesus. Acts 2:22, Jesus was “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and signs and wonders.” People couldn’t deny God’s hand was on Jesus. Likewise, people shouldn’t deny God’s hand was on Paul. Or better, the risen Lord Jesus was now working through Paul, performing many of the same signs he performed.
Paul puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 12:12, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.”[i] Let’s not reduce things too far. Christ-like endurance was also part of the authentication picture. But signs and wonders were also used to mark Paul and the others as messengers of God’s kingdom. That’s a point we need to remember. Luke assumes that we’re familiar enough with the framework in which he’s operating, that some things go without saying. It was never about bare signs. Signs were accompanied by the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom set the framework for understanding the signs.
For instance, these healings were the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. By atoning for sin, Jesus secures our total liberation from disease and death. We learned this a while back from Jesus’ use of Isaiah 53:4 in Matthew 8:16-17. True healing is possible only when God deals with sin. We don’t experience the fullness of that liberation yet. But one day we will. The healings become little, temporary manifestations of God’s kingdom breaking into the present age. They’re little glimpses of what Jesus’ kingdom brings: holistic liberation. They were testimonies to Jesus being powerful to transform the present evil age into a new age free from all brokenness and death.
Within that framework, these temporary signs gave concrete expression to the message of the kingdom Paul was preaching.[ii] The signs said, “Yeah, this is Jesus’ man and the message he’s preaching about the kingdom is real!” When the signs were understood properly in light of the King and his kingdom, they should lead people to repent and place their faith in Jesus.
God may still choose to authenticate his messengers this way, especially when the gospel penetrates new places.[iii] It happens; we hear the missionary stories of how the signs confirm the messenger. But once the gospel takes root, God’s primary means of authenticating the gospel message is the local church. God displays his reign through his people. When his people love and serve and sacrifice and give and forgive and use their gifts to build one another up and treasure the gospel in the power of God’s Spirit, it causes outsiders to worship God and say, “Surely, God is really among you.”
Might God use miraculous signs to authenticate his word still? Absolutely! They’re part of the new age in Christ. At the same time, we just shouldn’t overlook his primary means for the exceptional means. Regardless, though, I’d encourage you to think about this: should we not pray for God’s power to authenticate the gospel in our lives, period? Whether it’s his ordinary means or his exceptional means—shouldn’t we pray for God to work mightily through us, period?
Should we not pray like the apostles in Acts 4: “…grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Shouldn’t we pray for him to do far more abundantly than anything we can ask or think? Should we not pray for God’s Spirit to so empower our actions and shape our attitudes that our lives authenticate the message we preach? That is, they give further confirmation that the gospel is real and powerful to save. I want that; I should want it more than I do.
Do you want that? So that wherever we go, wherever we work, wherever we study, wherever we eat, wherever we live, the people around us see God’s power at work in our lives confirming the message we preach. You might say, “Yeah, but you don’t understand what we’re dealing with right now. You don’t get how hard it is for me. You don’t know how dull people’s hearts can be, or how weak their investment is in the mission, or what costs we might incur, or what obstacles face us in reaching that community for Christ.” You’re right. I don’t know the full extent of any of those things.
But I see here a God whose power isn’t determined or limited by any of those circumstances, and who loves doing the impossible so that he gets the glory in and through your life. As William Carey once said, “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Pray for God to work mightily through us.
3. God keeps his word to his servant.
A third way we see God working for, in, and through Paul: God keeps his word to his servant. Turn back to 23:11. Paul is alone in Roman custody. His own people just rejected him. It then says, “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage [note that], for as you’ve testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” In 28:14-15 we see once again that God remained true to his word: “and so we came to Rome.” End of verse 15: “Paul thanked God and [he] took courage.” God keeps his word to his servant.
Now, we spent some time on this last week. God’s faithfulness to keep his word to Paul was further grounds for us to trust that God will keep his word to us. We can take God’s promises to the bank, because he’s trustworthy. I want to expand on that.
Notice, God never fails to keep his word, even when the fulfillment seems to come rather slowly. At least four years have passed since Paul was first convinced by the Spirit that he needed to go to Rome (Acts 19:21). Four years! They haven’t been comfortable years either; they’ve been wracked with rejection, pain, sorrows, uncertainty, unexpected shipwreck. Then finally the promise is fulfilled.
How many occasions during that four years would lead you to doubt God’s word? Our lives are wracked with numerous obstacles that can make us feel like God’s promises won’t come through, like God has just forgotten his word to us. Some of you have may’ve even grown rather jaded with the Lord about his slowness. You’ve stopped reading his word, stopped praying, stopped hoping.
You may be right in the middle of a chaotic, confusing season of life; and you’re questioning whether God will come through on his word to make all things new. Maybe you look at the church and see divisions and controversy and people not investing in each other, and you’re questioning whether God will come through on his word to build his church. Maybe you look at the slowness of your own sanctification and that alone causes you to question whether God will come through on his word to purify you and present you blameless for the day of Christ Jesus. Maybe you see your wife dying of cancer and you wonder some days whether God will come through on his word to provide all you need in the days ahead. Maybe you see the injustice swallowing the world, slaughtering the innocent, corrupt leaders prospering, and you wonder whether God will come through on his word to judge the evildoer and right all wrongs.
True stories like the one here remind us that God is true to his word. He doesn’t lie. He’s not slow about his promises as some count slowness, but is faithful toward you. He has reasons—good, wise, perfect reasons—why his promises get fulfilled when they do and in the way that they do. But this we can rest assured of: God keeps his word to his servants. And not just part of his word. He keeps all of his word. Trust him, beloved. Let this story re-plant your feet on the rock of God’s trustworthiness. What he has assured us about here in his word—he will do it.
4. God reaches the nations through his servant.
Lastly, God reaches the nations through his servant. The nations must be reached for Christ. These island people are kind. But they’re still lost and without hope. Notice what they make of the situation with Paul and the viper.
This creature is dangling from Paul’s arm, and they conclude, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” Think about that. They’re dead wrong about Paul, since he’s innocent. They’re also wrong to suggest that suffering necessarily means divine retribution. But they do seem aware of what’s morally right and wrong. Murder is wrong. It even deserves punishment by a divine being. It’s likely they have a particular god in mind. That’s why the ESV capitalizes the word Justice. “She didn’t get him at sea, but she has struck him on the land”—this goddess of Justice is how they’re thinking. But their reaction confirms what we read in Romans 2 that the work of the law is written on people’s hearts, their conscience even bearing witness of what’s right and wrong.
Their second response confirms what we read in Romans 1. They exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. Paul shakes off the critter. He’s fine. Nothing happens to him. What do they say? He must be a god. They worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. Romans 1 and 2 explain that everybody outside of Christ is like this, that everybody knows there’s a God who will hold the world accountable for what’s right and wrong. But they get him dead wrong and end up worshiping and serving the creation rather than the Creator.
The consequence is that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness such as this. The nations need to be saved from their ignorance. The nations need to hear of the one true God. The nations need to hear that he offered up his only Son to reconcile them to himself. The nations need to hear that he raised that Son to put the world to rights and bring his people into a new creation. And so Paul says in Romans 1:14, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians [these natives right here], both to the wise and to the foolish.” Under obligation to do what? Preach the gospel.
That’s what God is doing here. He may be shipwrecked on an island. But Paul has three months to give them the gospel, while that gospel is being confirmed with signs and wonders. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16-17). To embrace the gospel is to escape our desperate plight under the wrath of God and gain a right standing before God. And if we’ve experienced that deliverance ourselves, we can’t be anything other than debtors to those for whom Christ died.
Just because things aren’t going the way you planned doesn’t mean God’s work through you is somehow delayed. Some of us get the impression that if things haven’t gone according to our plan, then God’s work is somehow delayed. We act like, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to wait till all this is over to actually get my ministry going again.” No. Paul has been locked up for 2 years. He just spent a half month stranded at sea, three months on this island; and every step of the way he sees it as an opportunity to live for Christ wherever the Lord has him.
And that brings us full circle, doesn’t it? Back to our mission statement: we exist to equip God’s people to delight in his glory and to declare that glory to our neighbors and the nations. In whatever circumstances you find yourself, look for opportunities to make Christ known. The spread of the gospel isn’t limited by the obstacles we face. The obstacles just become another context in which to announce the worth and power and glory of Christ. Before announcing it to others, though, let’s enjoy announcing the gospel to one another as we gather around the Lord’s Supper.
[i]See also Acts 2:43; 5:12; 14:3; 15:12; Rom 15:19; Heb 2:4.
[ii]For more on how signs and wonders legitimate the apostles intrinsically, see the helpful treatment by Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 248-54.
[iii]Throughout Acts “signs and wonders” are performed through the apostles, as well as a few others. See those performed by all the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12, 16), Peter and John (Acts 3:1-10), Peter alone (Acts 5:15; 9:32-34, 39-41), and Paul (Acts 15:12; 19:12; 20:11). Others included Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7), and Ananias (Acts 9:17-18).
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