Lost at sea, in the midst of a raging storm. No sight of the sun or stars for days on end. Cut off from the land, anticipating the panicked suffocation of drowning…
To my imagination, few situations would be more terrifying or feel more hopeless.
But this was the predicament of the Alexandrian vessel that had been hired to bring the apostle Paul to the emperor. We could understand if the passengers and crew felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, ready to give up and die. We could understand if even the physician Luke himself, along for the ride as a companion to the apostle, felt death was near and had given up hope.
But what about Paul himself? Did he fear for his life, or did he remain calm, knowing that Jesus had already promised that he would see Rome?
The way Luke tells the story, you might think it was the latter. Jesus, after all, slept through a storm on the Sea of Galilee while the Twelve shrieked in terror. So too we might imagine Paul, the Lord’s chosen witness, calmly standing up to encourage the men as the deck below him pitched madly. Luke writes:
Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.Acts 27:21-22, NRSV
Much of the food had probably been spoiled by seawater or washed overboard. And with the constant tossing of the waves, perhaps nobody thought they’d be able to keep anything down anyway. (Tossing waves, tossed cookies. Makes sense.) They were empty of any strength of will or body. Thus Paul, filled with Holy Spirit, stood gallantly on deck and said:
“I told you so.”
Gee, thanks for the encouragement, stranger. High fives all around.
Even if we were to see Paul as remaining fearless in that situation, he apparently wasn’t above wagging a rhetorical finger at people for not taking his advice.
But Paul wasn’t fearless, either. He tells the men why he hasn’t given up hope:
For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”Acts 27:23-26
“Do not be afraid.” Earlier, in Corinth, Jesus had spoken those same words to Paul in a vision (Acts 18:9); later, he gave Paul similar encouragement in Jerusalem (Acts 23:11), promising that he would yet preach the gospel in Rome. And as we’ve seen, Paul himself, in his letters, makes no bones about the depth of his suffering and his occasional bouts with fear and despair.
When the angel tells Paul not to be afraid, therefore, it’s because Paul is indeed afraid and in need of a boost to his courage. Thus the promise is renewed: You must stand before the emperor; you will make it to Rome alive.
But note that the encouragement is not simply that Paul will live, but that he and all of his shipmates will live. That tells us something about Paul. He was not merely concerned for his own life, but the lives of those around him. He was ever the pastor, even when circumstances seemed to be crashing in all around him.
Did his word of hope make a difference? Hard to say. Except for his own personal companions, like Luke and Aristarchus (Acts 27:2; cf. 20:4), it’s likely that no one on the vessel had a clue about the God he worshiped, the God who had delivered the good news.
In other words, they weren’t done being afraid just yet.