Rescue at Sea
Splash Canyon has been the theme of this year’s Vacation Bible School. Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday evening skits, lessons, music, crafts, recreation, and treats all centered on water-related topics. How God was with His people and helped them, even in troubled waters, such as how God helped Moses when he was floating in the Nile River, how God healed Naaman of leprosy when he was in the Jordan River, and how God was with Jesus when He was in the Jordan River.
Last Sunday morning, Vacation Bible School was kicked off by considering something that happened in the Book of Joshua, which was God helping His people cross the Jordan River so they could step into the Promised Land.
Today, the message will feature one more water-related passage, this time a huge body of water. The Mediterranean Sea. For that, chapters 27 and 28 of the New Testament Book of Acts.
But first, let me set the stage. As I did last week, I will attempt to condense a whole lot of history into a few or several minutes. For that, we will start back in chapter 8 of Acts, and actually, even before that.
Following the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples He left behind, the early Christian church grew extremely rapidly. One of the amazing facts is that in response to just one of the apostle Peter’s sermons, 3000 people accepted Jesus as Savior. An encouraging fact is that those who came to a belief in Jesus were fully engaged in their Christian faith, seen, for example, in their interest in learning from the disciples and having fellowship with other believers, which attracted even more to accept Jesus.
There were a few problems in the early Christian church, but by and large it grew very quickly in numbers, which became an increasingly strong irritant to the leaders of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem. An irritant that soon turned to violence, including the stoning to death of Stephen, one of the early leaders of the Christian church.
One of the Jewish leaders who approved of Stephen’s stoning was a man named Saul. He was a very important Jewish leader. He was a natural-born Jew, a member of the Pharisees, one of the most educated Jews of the day, likely the most dedicated of all the leaders in fighting against the early Christian church, doing that to maintain the Jewish faith.
When Stephen was stoned to death, Saul approved. According to Acts 8, while he did not take part in throwing the stones, Saul watched as he held the coats of those who did throw stones. By watching and holding the coats, Saul was involved.
Right after that, a greater persecution arose against the Christian church in Jerusalem. An unintended consequence was many, many Christians fleeing Jerusalem, moving to other places in Israel and beyond. I say unintended because, instead of stopping the growth of Christianity, the persecution caused the spread of the Christian message to places it might not have otherwise gone.
So it was that Saul decided he needed to take his anti-Christian work beyond Jerusalem. He asked for and was given permission to travel north to Damascus, in Syria, to search for Christians there. Not just men, but women as well. The permission he had was to find those in Damascus who believed in Jesus, arrest them, tie them up, and send them back to Jerusalem where they would be imprisoned and killed unless they recanted their faith in Jesus.
Such anger. Such violence. Those two words completely describe Saul as he left Jerusalem, headed for Damascus.
However, as he neared Damascus, a very strange thing happened. Suddenly a light flashed. An extremely bright light from Heaven, which caused Saul to fall to the ground. Maybe the horse he was on threw him, or maybe the light disoriented him enough to cause him to fall.
Then a voice was heard. Those with Saul also heard the voice, but they did not see the one who spoke. “Saul, Saul,” the voice said, “why do you persecute Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
The light and now the voice most certainly got Saul’s attention. I wonder what Saul thought. Jesus had the power to do anything. Even Saul had seen Jesus’ power during at least some of the Lord’s ministry. He had at least heard about Jesus rising from the grave and then ascending into Heaven. He had just been struck by a light from Heaven. I wonder if Saul expected Jesus to kill him, especially after all the harm he had done and hoped to continue to do against the followers of Jesus.
Saul might have braced for death. Then he heard, “Rise and enter the city. There you will be told what to do.”
Then it was quiet again. And the light was gone. Whereupon Saul stood up. However, he was blind. He did indeed go the rest of the way and enter Damascus, but he had to be led by the hand. The great and strong Saul was helpless. For three days he was without sight. For three days, he neither ate nor drank.
For three days, Saul remained in Damascus. Then he met Ananias, a man - a Christian man - the Lord had persuaded to go meet Saul. Ananias was afraid to meet Saul. Saul’s anti-Christian reputation preceded him. But, the Lord told Ananias he, Saul, had been chosen to go, not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles, who were hated by Jews, to tell all about Jesus, His love, and His salvation.
“What?” Ananias said. “You want me to go to who and for that reason.” Ananias was afraid, but he obeyed the Lord.
When he met Saul, Ananias touched him. Immediately, Saul regained his sight. Then he was baptized before taking food and being strengthened.
Right away, Saul’s Christian ministry began, which should have been a good thing. It was a good thing for the Christian church. However, non-Christian Jewish leaders grew very upset and angry about what they saw as Saul’s betrayal. How dare the educated, enthusiastic, dedicated Saul, who soon came to be called Paul, turn away from his Jewish background and begin preaching in favor of Jesus.
From that time on, Paul experienced an emotional roller coaster.
He started many Christian churches. He preached at each one, sometimes many times. He appointed pastors for at least some of the churches. He wrote several letters, including the ones we have in the New Testament. Paul’s reputation continued to grow, not anymore as an enemy of Jesus, but as a minister of the Lord. So dedicated a minister that he often referred to himself as a servant or a slave of the Lord. Those were not derogatory words, but descriptions of how loyal he was to Jesus. The words indicate he spoke the Lord’s words and did the Lord’s will, no matter what. In addition, Paul traveled a lot, not only to start churches, but to encourage them after they were started.
However, many places Paul went, he ran into trouble with the Jewish leaders of the areas he visited. The result? Sometimes he was imprisoned. Sometimes he was beaten. Once he was stoned. That was so severe an attack they thought he was dead, but Paul, with prayer, woke up and got up - and went back into the city and preached some more.
Over and over again, Paul faced very dangerous situations. He still had a wonderfully successful Christian ministry, but he was hounded mercilessly.
Then, at one of the trials Paul faced, he appealed to Caesar, the emperor of the Roman Empire, which brings us to Acts 27 and 28, where another proof of God being with and helping His people is shared.
Paul, along with some other prisoners, were delivered to a centurion - a Roman army officer - named Julius. They boarded a ship and set sail for Rome. They set sail on the Mediterranean Sea, leaving from Caesarea.
The next day the ship docked at Sidon. After that, they sailed north of Cyprus. Going north was the route because westerly winds made a straight west path difficult.
In time, the ship made it to Myra. There the centurion found a merchant ship, registered in Egypt, sailing for Italy. Paul and the other prisoners, along with Julius, went on board that ship. From there they sailed slowly for a number of days, and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus. Again a west wind made sailing difficult. Because of that, the ship headed straight south to Crete, making it to Fair Havens.
The name of that port indicates it would have been a nice place to stay. This all happened in the late fall of the year. Sailing was always dangerous at that season, so it was that Paul advised the crew to spend the winter at that nice port. He predicted that continuing to sail would bring injury and loss of both cargo and ship.
However, the captain of the ship pushed to continue the voyage, perhaps because Fair Havens offered little except peace and quiet from the weather. There would be little for his crew to do through the winter.
The decision was to press on. The plan was to go just a short distance to Phoenix and spend the winter there.
When the ship left port, the wind was favorable. That made the ship’s captain and the centurion happy, but soon a wind - a tempestuous wind - a dangerous wind - struck, coming at the ship from the island of Crete, making it impossible to stay close to shore. The ship was driven to Cauda.
There, the ship was secured. It was undergirded with ropes, hoping to hold the ship together. They were then caught by the wind again and driven farther into the Mediterranean Sea. So dangerous were the waves, the next day the crew began to throw some of the cargo overboard. Two days later they cast into the sea all the non-essential equipment of the ship.
For many days, the great storm raged. Neither sun nor stars appeared. It was so bad, all hope of being saved was abandoned.
That is when Paul took over the situation.
He began with the words no one wants to hear. “I told you so.” He said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss.”
He added, though, “I now bid you take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.”
“Yeah, right,” must have been the response. But Paul went on. “This very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship. The angel said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul, You must stand before Caesar. And lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So, Paul repeated, take heart, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. It will be dangerous, but we shall have to run on some island.”
Sometime later, the sailors suspected they were nearing land. That was in fact the case. In anticipation of that, four anchors were dropped in an attempt to slow the ship so a crash might be survivable.
The next day, just before dawn, Paul came up with what sounded like a crazy idea. He urged everyone on board to eat.
Eat? The sense is that even the toughest, most experienced of the sailers had been suffering from seasickness for days. Now Paul instructed everyone to eat, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. I urge you to take some food. It will give you strength. And remember, not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you. That is what the angel told me.”
With that, Paul ate. Guess what. So, too, did everyone else on board eat.
Re-strengthened, the crew lightened the ship some more by throwing overboard the rest of the cargo - the wheat on the ship. Then land was spotted. A beach was seen. That is where they hoped to put the ship, and they almost made it. Instead, they struck a shoal. The front of the ship - the bow - stuck and remained immovable. The stern - the back - continued to be beat by the waves from the storm that continued. The stern was broken up.
The soldiers under the authority of Julius, the centurion in charge of the prisoners, wanted to kill the prisoners, lest any of them swim away and escape, but Julius said no because he wanted to save Paul. Instead, he ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard and make for land. Those who could not swim were instructed to grab onto planks or other pieces of the ship and float to shore.
So it was that all escaped to an island called Malta.
It was there Paul and the others spent the next three months. That was with the help of the chief man of the island. Help that came because Paul, through the power of Jesus, was able to heal the chief’s father and many others.
After that, Paul and the other prisoners found another ship. On it they sailed to Syracuse, then Rhegium, then Puteoli. From there Paul was escorted to Rome.
It is not recorded in the Bible if Paul ever met Caesar, though it is assumed historically he did. But Paul did have the opportunity to preach to Jewish leaders and others in Rome. The Book of Acts closes with these words. “For two years, Paul welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered.”
* * * * *
During Vacation Bible School we talked about Moses. The trouble he faced at his birth was the Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish baby boys be killed. To try to save him, his mother set him afloat on the Nile River. Through a miracle of God, Moses was saved.
We talked about Naaman. The trouble he faced was leprosy. To help him, he was told by a man of God to dip himself into the Jordan River seven times. If he did that, he would be healed. Which he did, and he was.
We talked about Jesus going into the Jordan River. He did not face trouble at that time, but He was directed there by God. In the river Jesus was baptized. Right after that, He received the Holy Spirit and He heard the voice of God affirming He was God’s Son, with whom God was pleased. What an encouragement that was for Jesus as He was about to begin His ministry.
Last Sunday we talked about God’s people entering the Promised Land. For centuries, those people had suffered from famine and slavery and 40 years in a wilderness, yet God got them across the Jordan River into the land He had promised them. Him doing that proved His presence and His help for His people.
Today, Paul was in great danger on the Mediterranean Sea. Even there - even in that troubled water - that troubled time - God proved His promise to be with and help His people.
The point is the same as was shared last Sunday. You - I - we - may find ourselves in situations we do not plan on being in. Some of those situations might be dangerous, but even when strange or difficult times surround us - even when the waves of life slam against us - the promise is that God is with us and He will help us.
And yes, we may have discouraged feelings, but such feelings can be overcome. They will be overcome if - when - we take the time to know that, just as God helped His people in the Old Testament and as He helped Paul, He will help His people even now.
Let’s remember and rely on and live by the promise that God will be with us to help us. Let’s be determined to let Him help.
The closing song for this service is None Is Like God Who Reigns Above. In celebration of all that was discussed before, during, and now following Vacation Bible School, let’s rejoice that God is with His people and that God has helped, does help, and will help His people. What a wonderful thing to know and live by.
None is like God, who reigns above.
So great, so pure, so high;
None is like God, whose name is Love,
And who is always nigh.
In all the earth there is no spot
Excluded from His care;
We cannot go where God is not,
For He is everywhere.
He is our best and kindest Friend,
And guards us night and day.
To all our wants He will attend,
And answer when we pray.
O if we love Him as we ought,
And on His grace rely,
We shall be joyful at the thought
That God is always nigh.
God, thank You for Your greatness, Your purity, Your love. Thank You for being everywhere. Thank You for answering when we pray. Thank You for being the source of joy. Thank You for being with us. Thank You for helping Your people. Thank You. Amen.