Perhaps, in retrospect, the centurion realized he wasn’t the best judge of seaworthiness. He needed a ship headed to Rome and this one seemed fine. All ships leak a little. If damp spots weren’t good for hauling grain, they were fine for hauling prisoners.
The trip from Caesarea to Sidon had gone well, the travel up the coast from Sidon to Myra, now a city on the coast of Turkey, had gone smoothly too, but this first ship wasn’t headed to Rome, so now they had found another. Perhaps this second ship, Luke doesn’t tell us the name, was the only one in the harbor. Perhaps it was one among a fleet of grain ships stopped on their way between the Egyptian breadbasket and the masses of the empire’s capitol. Luke doesn’t tell us that either. He only says they boarded, and from there the travels went less well.
Given the chance, Paul might have chosen differently. He’d traveled enough for three ships to sink underneath him. He’d spent a day and a night adrift on the Mediterranean already. Drifting after a shipwreck gave one time to think about what separated a good ship from a bad one. This one might have seemed like a bad one.
But Paul didn’t have a choice; Paul was a prisoner.
On the other hand, Luke volunteered. Roman law permitted a prisoner to bring a physician and a servant, and Luke may have filled that first role. It is thanks to Luke that we have the story today.
Going up the coast to Myra the trip had gone well, but now there were headwinds. Maybe the ship started to show its age. Maybe the damp spots were turning to puddles. First along the coast, then to the south side of Crete, they sheltered in a small harbor to wait for better weather. It was late in the year. Three or four weeks had probably passed since the trip began. Romans considered it risky to sail after mid-September, and suicidal after November 11. If it wasn’t already October, it soon would be.
Paul suggested they wait until spring where they were. He was ignored. There was a better spot 40 miles up the coast. It was just a little way. Not to worry.
The ship didn’t make it. The weather changed. Hurtling down off of the island to the north, the storm caught the sails and swept them out to sea. The small lifeboat, generally towed along behind, became a problem and was hauled on board. Twenty-five miles along, the ship was already battered. The sailors tied ropes from side-to-side under the hull to hold it together. Leaky boats aren’t nice, and winter storms don’t make them any nicer.
And this was quite a storm.
The Mediterranean is capable of generating its own small hurricanes, hurricanes that can travel 1,800 miles with winds reaching nearly 90 miles an hour. They usually last, at most, five days. Usually. This one lasted nearly three times that long. The crew threw most of the grain overboard near the start. The sailing gear soon followed. Anything to make the ship lighter. With clouds too thick to see the sky, they couldn’t navigate. They didn’t know where they were and worried about sandy shoals off the coast of north Africa. One week became two. They gave up hope.
Perhaps, during the long days and nights in the damp hold of a leaky ship, while prisoners and sailors worried about the storm, while a centurion thought about ships and seaworthiness, Paul thought about history. Nearly a thousand years earlier, another Jewish prophet was on this same sea in another ship in another storm. Jonah was fleeing his mission. He was supposed to tell people about God, to warn them of His judgment. Everyone on that ship, in that storm, would die if Jonah refused his mission. It was, in a sense, the whole history of Israel. They were supposed to be a lighthouse to all the surrounding nations. They were supposed to direct them to a safe harbor. Often, they refused their mission.
Perhaps, in the creaking and leaking hold, Paul saw the parallels. He had the same mission as Jonah. The Roman world was full of Ninevehs. He had spent more than two decades traveling from one to the next and telling them the story that had saved his life, and the story that could save theirs too.
Paul and Jonah were similar, but not the same. Jonah was running away from Nineveh, Paul was heading toward Rome. Jonah was running from God. Paul was running with Him. In a storm, this made all the difference.
As they came upon the fourteenth day of the tempest, Paul spoke up. He told them not to worry. The ship would sink, that part was true, but the people wouldn’t. There would be an island. If they followed Paul’s advice in this storm, they would all survive, God had promised. And Paul was right. The ship did run aground, and everyone did survive. They spent three months on an island south of Italy, over 470 miles from where the storm had started.
But that isn’t the end of the story. The storm and the shipwreck are the next-to-last chapter of Acts. The last chapter tells of Paul arriving in Rome and getting to work. Whether a Jew or a Roman citizen, whether free or in prison, Paul was following through on his mission. He’d been given it by Christ, and he wasn’t done yet.
That is where the book of Acts ends. Paul knew his mission. Do you know yours?
Notes taken from several sources:
1. Zondervan NIV Study Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Print.
2. Andrews Study Bible, New King James Version. Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 2010. Print.
3. Nichol, F.D. (Ed.). (1980). The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Vol. 6, pp. 442-464) Review and Herald Publishing Association.
4. Cavicchia, L.; von Storch, H. (November 2012). "The simulation of medicanes in a high-resolution regional climate model.” Climate Dynamics. Springer Science+Business Media.