Acts 27 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Acts 27)
Verses 1, 2.   Not long after the interview with Agrippa, Paul saw an immediate prospect of departing upon his long-purposed voyage to Rome. The answer to his prayers was about to be realized, and the promise made him by night in the prison of Claudius Lysias that he should yet testify of Jesus in Rome as he had done in Jerusalem, was about to be fulfilled. This was being accomplished, not by any direct divine interference, but by a providential combination of circumstances. The machinations of the Jews, the corruption of Felix, the indecision of Festus, the prudence of Paul, and the Roman statute in behalf of citizens, had all most strangely, yet most naturally, combined to fulfill a promise of God made in answer to prayer. (1) "And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort, named Julius. (2) And embarking on a ship of Adramyttium, we put to sea, intending to sail to places along the coast of Asia, Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us." Here, again, we find the significant "we" of Luke, showing that he was again in Paul's company. The last time we met with this term was upon the arrival of the apostolic company in Jerusalem.{1} He had probably not been far from Paul during the two years of imprisonment in Cæsarea, and was now permitted to accompany him to Rome. Aristarchus was also a voluntary companion of the prisoner, as we infer from the manner in which his name is mentioned. There were, however, other prisoners on board.{2}

As the ship belonged to Adramyttium, which is on the coast of Mysia, it was now homeward bound, and was not expected to take the prisoners further than its own destination. But as they were about to touch at several "places along the coast of Asia," they could calculate upon falling in with some vessel bound for Rome.

Verse 3.   The apostolic company are now fairly launched upon their voyage, the details of which constitute a peculiar and most interesting passage in sacred history. (3) "And the next day we landed at Sidon: and Julius, treating Paul humanely, permitted him to go to the friends, and partake of their kindness." Here we learn that Paul found friends, who were, doubtless, brethren, in the city of Sidon. Thus we find that both the Phenician cities, Tyre and Sidon, to whose wickedness the Savior once so significantly alluded, had, ere now, received the gospel. With the brethren in the former place Paul had spent a week on his voyage to Jerusalem, and now the beginning of another voyage, not much less mournful, is cheered by the hospitality of those in the latter.

Verse 4.   "And having put to sea from that place, we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were contrary." As the proper course of the ship was westward, the contrary wind must have come from that quarter. With a favorable wind she would have passed to the south of Cyprus; but in tacking to make headway against a contrary wind, they necessarily passed to the east and north-east of that island, leaving it on the left. An additional reason for taking this tack may have been a desire to take advantage of a current which flows westward along the southern shore of Asia Minor, as far as the Archipelago, and greatly favors the progress of westward-bound vessels.{3}

Verses 5, 6.   Passing around the north-east point of Cyprus, the vessel entered the open to the south of Cilicia and Pamphylia. (5) "And when we had sailed across the sea along Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia. (6) There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria, sailing for Italy, and put us on board of it." Thus, according to expectation, they fell in with a vessel bound for Italy, and left the ship of Adramyttium. Their new vessel was one of the many grain ships which supplied Rome with bread from the granaries of Egypt.{4} She was a vessel of good size, accommodating, on this voyage, two hundred and seventy-six passengers.{5} She had, probably, undertaken to sail direct from Alexandria to Rome; but the same contrary winds which had thus far retarded the progress of the other vessel had compelled her to sail far to the northward of the direct route.

Verses 7-8.   The wind was still contrary when they left Myra. (7) "And having sailed slowly many days, we reached Cnidus with difficulty, the wind not favoring us, and sailed under the lee of Crete, over against Salmone; (8) and coasting along it with difficulty, we came into a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea." From Myra to the island of Cnidus is only one hundred and thirty miles; hence it must have been slow sailing to be "many days" reaching that place. From that island their course to Cape Salmone, which was the most eastern point of the island of Crete, was a little to the west of south. The wind, to turn them this much out of their course, could have been but little, if any, north of west. The lee of Crete, under which they sailed, was the southern shore, which but partially protected them from the wind, rendering it difficult to keep near the shore until they reached the harbor called Fair Havens. This was about half way the length of the island.

Verses 9-12.   The voyage, thus far, had been so tedious that winter was approaching, and it was deemed unsafe to attempt to complete it before spring. It became a question, however, whether they would spend the winter where they were, or seek a more desirable winter haven. (9) "Much time having now elapsed, and navigation being already unsafe, because the fast had already passed, Paul admonished them, (10) saying, Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with violence and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives. (11) But the centurion believed the master and the owner of the ship rather than the things which were spoken by Paul. (12) And the harbor being inconvenient to winter in, the majority advised to depart thence, so as, if possible, to reach Phoenix, and spend the winter there, a harbor of Crete looking to the south-west and north-west." Paul's advice to the mariners was the beginning of an activity in behalf of the ship and crew which forms the chief matter of interest in the remainder of the voyage. We will yet see how nearly his prediction was fulfilled. He did not claim for it the authority of inspiration, and, therefore, we should not claim it for him; but he had some experience at sea, and expressed the result of his own judgment. It was quite natural, however, that the centurion, who seems to have had control of the matter, should put more confidence in the judgment of the owner and the master than in his. He had not yet learned to appreciate his prisoner as he did subsequently.

The description given of the harbor of Phoenix had occasioned some perplexity to commentators. As the wind was blowing from north of west, a harbor "looking to the north-west and south-west," from the shore, would be entirely exposed to the weather; whereas this description is given to show that it was a safe harbor in which to spend the winter. Mr. Howson is undoubtedly right in assuming that Luke supposes the beholder to be looking from the water, where a vessel would lie at anchor, toward the inclosing shore, and means that to him the harbor would look to the north-west and the south-west. Such a harbor would be safe against any wind in the quadrant from south-west to north-west, and was precisely such as was needed at that time.

Verse 13.   The harbor called Fair Havens lay on the east side of Cape Matala, which they would have to round in order to reach Phoenix; but it could not be rounded in the face of a north-west wind, hence they had to wait for the wind to change. (13) "Now when the south wind blew moderately, thinking they had gained their purpose, they weighed anchor, and sailed close by the shore of Crete." They felt that all was secure, and even had their boat swinging astern, as they tacked slowly along the smooth sea under a gentle southern breeze. It was deceitful lull, the prelude to unexpected disasters.

Verses 14-17.   (14) "But not long after, a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon, struck, against her, (15) and the ship being seized by it, and unable to face the wind, we gave up and were driven by it. (16) And running under the lee of an island called Clauda, with difficulty we were able to secure the boat. (17) When they had taken it up, they used helps, undergirding the ship. And fearing lest they should fall into the Syrtis,{6} they lowered the sail, and so were driven." It was just as they were rounding Cape Matala, and expected to be borne by the southern wind directly to Phoenix, that they were whirled away by this tempest. The direction from Crete to Clauda is south-west; the wind, therefore, must have been from the north-east. This is indicated by the name Euroclydon, which Bloomfield translates "the wave-stirring easter." Such a wind, varying from north-east to south-east, is said still to prevail in those seas.

While passing under the lee of Clauda, the island checked the violence of the storm, and enabled them to take some precautions which were impossible in the open sea. The first of these was to "secure the boat," which had thus far drifted astern, and was likely to be dashed in pieces. The second was to undergird the ship, a process called frapping in modern style, which consists in passing heavy cables under the hull, and fastening them securely on the deck, to prevent the timbers from parting under the force of the waves. The third precaution was to lower the sails, so as to prevent the vessel being driven too rapidly before the wind.

Verses 18-20.   (18) "And being exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day we lightened the vessel, (19) and on the third day, with our own hands we cast out the tackling of the ship. (20) And as neither the sun nor the stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, at last all hope that we should be saved was taken away." The sailors now began to realize the truth of Paul's prediction about the character of the voyage, and they were prepared to listen to him with more respect when he addressed to them the following speech:

Verses 21-26.   (21) "Now, after long abstinence, Paul stood in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, you should have hearkened to me, and not have sailed from Crete, and gained this harm and loss. (22) And now, I exhort you to be of good cheer; for there will be no loss of life among you, except of the ship. (23) For there stood by me this night an angel of God, whose I am and whom I serve, (24) saying, Fear not, Paul; you must be brought before Cæsar; and behold, God has given you all those who are sailing with you. (25) Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God, that it will be even as it was told me. (26) But we must fall upon a certain island." Paul's former prediction was already fulfilled in part, and they all believed that it was about to be in full. His reference to it was designed both to rebuke them for not heeding it, and to remind them of its correctness. His present prediction conflicted with the former in reference to loss of life; but their lives had been so completely despaired of, that they were not disposed to find fault with the former prediction, even in this particular. The present, however, was certainly spoken upon divine authority; and if we suppose the former to have been also, then the security of their lives may be regarded as a boon granted to Paul in answer to prayers offered subsequent to the first prediction. That their safety was in some sense owing to him, is evident from the words, "God has given to you all those who are sailing with you."

Verses 27-29.   Notwithstanding the assurance of final safety, their danger, for a time, became more imminent. (27) "And when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven along in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors supposed that they were drawing near to some land; (28) and having sounded, they found it twenty fathoms. And going a little farther, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. (29) Then fearing lest they should fall upon breakers, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for day." From this time till day-break, the ship lay with her bow to the shore, where the waves were dashing fearfully over the hidden rocks; and was held back from inevitable destruction only by the four anchors cast astern. It was a period of fearful suspense, rendered hideous by the darkness of the night and the raging of the storm. They "wished for day," but they knew not whether it would bring relief, or only render them more certain of destruction.

Verses 30-32.   Under circumstances like these, both the nobler and the baser traits of human character have fair opportunity to exhibit themselves. The strong and skillful have often been known to save themselves without concern for the more helpless; while, at times, the utmost magnanimity has been displayed by the few. Both traits of character were exhibited here; one by the sailors, the other by Paul. (30) "Now the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and letting down the boat into the sea, under pretense of casting anchors out from the bow; (31) when Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, Unless these remain in the ship, you can not be saved. (32) Then the soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat, and let her fall off." Here we see that while the sailors, who alone could have any hope of steering the vessel safe to land, were selfishly leaving the passengers to their fate, and the soldiers were so paralyzed with fear as not to discover their design, Paul was perfectly self-possessed, and was watching for the safety of all. He had an assurance from God that no lives would be lost, yet he was just as watchful as though no such promise had been given; and he assured the soldiers that they would not be saved if the sailors were permitted to leave the vessel. We have here a happy illustration of the manner in which God's decrees and human free agency harmonize to produce a given result. It was a decree of God that the passengers and crew should be saved, and it was certain to be accomplished; but the voluntarily watchfulness of Paul, and the desire of self-preservation on the part of the soldiers, were contingencies on which the result depended, and which contributed to it. In determining, therefore, that a thing shall be done, or declaring that it will be done, God anticipates the voluntary action of parties concerned, and only interferes, by miracles, where such action would fail of the contemplated result. In the matter of salvation, we should act as Paul did in this case: be as watchful and laborious as though God had promised us no assistance, yet as confident of divine assistance as though all were dependent on it alone.

Verses 33-36.   In a time of extreme danger like the present, a man who is able to maintain complete self-possession has great control over those who are alarmed. Paul had already displayed his coolness and watchfulness to the soldiers, and had outgeneraled the sailors; consequently he became at once the leading spirit in the whole ship's company. During the entire inactivity of the crew, while swinging at anchor and waiting for daylight, he endeavored to impart his own calmness to them all. (33) "Now while day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take some food; saying, This is the fourteenth day that you have been waiting, and continued fasting, having taken nothing. (34) Wherefore, I beseech you to take some food; for this is for your preservation; for not a hair shall fall from the head of any of you. (35) And when he had thus spoken, he took a loaf and returned thanks to God before all, and broke it, and began to eat. (36) Then all were of good cheer, and they also took some food." The remark that they had taken no food for fourteen days must be interpreted in the light of the circumstances. It is not a remark of the Luke addressed to his readers, but one of Paul, addressed to his hearers. If they had taken any food at all during the time, which they certainly did, unless they were sustained by a miracle, they could but understand him as merely expressing, in strong terms, their severe abstinence. Such was undoubtedly his meaning. If Luke had been describing the fact in his own words instead of Paul's, perhaps he would have stated it to us with some qualification. Here, again, the apostle assures them that no harm shall befall them, yet in the same breath urged them to eat heartily, as a precaution for their safety. Their safety, though certain, was still dependent upon their exertions, and, in order that they might have strength for the labor before them, it was necessary that they should break their long and exhausting fast.

The cheerfulness of Paul, as he gave thanks to God, broke the loaf, and began to eat, inspired them all with new courage. As their excitement subsided, their appetites returned; and a hearty meal, which generally smooths a rough temper, and acts as a sedative upon all mental excitement, completed her restoration of general cheerfulness, and prepared them to undertake, with alacrity, the work yet to be done.

Verses 37-38.   The gathering of the whole ship's company to partake of this meal seems to have suggested to the historian to mention, here, the number of persons on board. (37) "Now all the souls in the ships were two hundred and seventy-six. (38) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, casting the wheat into the sea." This was all done between the time of eating and daylight, and was no inconsiderable labor. It was designed to lessen the draught of the vessel, so that when run ashore she might float into the shallow water.

Verses 39-41.   All was now done that could be, until daylight should reveal the nature of the shore ahead. (39) "And when it was day they did not recognize the land. But they discovered a certain inlet having a sandy shore, into which they determined, if it were possible, to thrust the ship. (40) And having cut away the anchors, they abandoned them to the sea; at the same time loosing the rudder-bands, and hoisting the foresail to the wind, they held toward the shore. (41) And falling into a place between two seas, they ran the ship aground; and the bow sticking fast, remained immovable; but the stern was broken by the violence of the waves." At every point, except the one to which the vessel was steered, the shore was rocky; for this point was selected because it had a sandy shore. It required some seamanship to land where they did. While lying at anchor, the rudders, which were merely paddle-rudders, one at each side of the stern, had been lashed up, to prevent them from fouling with the four anchor-cables also astern. These were loosed to guide the vessel; and the foresail was unfurled to give the vessel the impetus necessary to a successful use of the rudders. By a skillful use of both she was steered clear of the rocks, and stranded on the sandy beach. Here "two seas met;" that is, the waves from two different points met each other, and spent their combined force upon the stern of the vessel, and she was rapidly going to pieces.

Verse 42.   At this critical juncture there was exhibited by the soldiers an instance of depravity even greater than that of the sailors the night before. They owed their present prospect of safety to the watchfulness of Paul, yet they felt no apparent gratitude to him, and while hoping to escape themselves, they were regardless of the lives of himself and the other prisoners. (42) "Now the purpose of the soldiers was, that they would kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out and escape." Such is the depravity of human nature, when void of religious truth, and trained to the cruelties of war.

Verses 43, 44.   But God had a purpose and a promise to fulfill, which did not admit of such a disposition of the prisoners, and the more cultivated nature of the centurion was the means of saving them. The incidents of the voyage had made an impression upon his mind most favorable to Paul, and he would not ignore the gratitude which he owed him. (43) "But the centurion, determined to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded those who could swim to cast themselves out and go first to land; (44) and the remainder, some on boards, and some on fragments of the ship. And thus it came to pass that all escaped safe to land." Paul's last prediction was literally fulfilled, and his fellow-prisoners owed their lives to the centurion's partiality for him.

      {1} Acts xxi: 17, 18.
      {2} Verse 42.
      {3} For the nautical information connected with this voyage not found in the text, I am indebted to Mr. Howson's most exhaustive chapter on the subject, Life and Ep. vol. 2, chap. xxiii.
      {4} Verse 38.
      {5} Verse 37.
      {6} An extensive sand-bank to the north of Africa, still known as Syrtis.