Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
Why didn’t the centuiron listen to Paul’s sailing advice?
Paul, the zealous Pharisee. Paul, the man who met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, the travelling preacher. Paul, the tent-maker. Paul, the letter-writer. Paul, the prisoner. But no, despite all these things, Paul was not an expert sailor.
When advice comes, we all tend to filter it slightly depending on who has said it. If we trust their opinion, or know their reputation, or have seen their credentials, we’re probably more likely to accept their advice. But all too often we’ll ignore advice from people who clearly know nothing about the matter. At work today someone was having trouble with a website I had made, and told me that it was not working and that I should fix it immediately. Of course, I’m a professional web developer, and they struggle to use a keyboard, so my immediate reaction was to ignore them, because they were almost certainly using it wrong. Only after a bit of back-and-forth did we eventually confirm that the website was indeed broken, and I needed to fix it.
But that’s the way it usually works, and most of the time it’s a perfectly valid way of approaching problems – you trust the person with the most experience. So how do we learn to recognise those moments when the inexperienced opinion is right? How was the centurion to know that Paul’s advice would have saved them from shipwreck? How can we be expected to know whether a stranger’s advice is worth taking seriously, just in case it’s God speaking through them?
I don’t really have a clear answer to this one. I want to say that we should prayerfully consider the advice and try to descern whether the advice is Godly or earthly. But from my experience that’s easier said than done. I make the centurion’s mistake all too often. I think I know best. I think I’ll know God’s voice when I hear it. I think I know the Bible well enough to know what it says about anything. Maybe I need yet more humility. As long as that doesn’t jeopardise my own confidence and experience. There’s a careful balance to strive for, it seems, somewhere between our competency and our humility.
How did Paul have so much faith in his safety, even in the face of danger?
In some ways it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise; after all, Paul has been in danger before. He’s had mobs of angry Jews shouting at him, and in some cases stoning him to within an inch of his life. But there’s something about the sea that is particularly scary. It’s big – reallyt big. And deep. And uncontrollable. And some scary things live in it too. People can be stopped; the depth of the ocean can’t. It’s cold and unforgiving and relentless, and when a storm starts brewing it can be a terrifying experience.
And yet Paul is confident in God, even in this situation. It all rested on the vision he’d been given, the promise that he would present his case to the emperor, and so this couldn’t be the end for him. Paul had confidence that God kept his promises, even if it looked as if nature was about to get in the way.
Do we have that confidence in God’s promises? When I was putting my kids to bed this evening we read a bit from Isaiah 40, about how God looks after us and strengthens us and protects us, holding us in his loving arms. And I could relate to that a little, because I need that reassurance – my job is less than secure right now, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future looks like. What Acts 27 and Isaiah 40 remind me of is that God has promised to look after me, so I have nothing to fear. God is bigger than my employer. And Jesus has promised that each of us is important to him, that no one is forgotten, that no one slips under the radar. Even if I have to face my own shipwreck in the form of redundancy, I know that God’s promise endures, and that his strength sustains me.
“And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” Praise God!