On Acts 28:1-15

Acts 28:1‑15  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 11
The land to which they escaped they subsequently learned to be Malta. This ought to be beyond controversy. Yet has it been contested even to our own day. The first who argued for the islet in the Gulf of Venice called Meleda seems to be Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who hazarded this opinion in his work on the Administration of the Empire, one of the Byzantine historians and of weight in what he personally knew. But he, like the few who adopted his view of the scene of the apostle’s shipwreck, had not duly considered the revealed account, any more than the actual facts of the two places as fitting in with that account. The direction of the wind favors Malta, as it blew them from Crete and Glands, toward the dreaded Syrtis. This could not have driven toward the north of the Gulf. Nor is there any need to narrow the Adriatic to that Gulf; for it is well known, that in ancient usage, and by such careful writers as Cl. Ptolemy, the famous geographer, it comprehended the open sea where the ship really drifted to Malta, and considerably farther. Then again there is nothing in the local features, soundings, anchorings, “rough” or rocky places, creek with a beach, place with two seas, which can apply to Meleda as to Malta. And the argument founded on “the barbarians” is quite invalid; for the Romans like the Greeks applied the term to those who were, not savages, but speakers of a language strange to themselves. Nor am I aware of any proof, even if the word meant “savages,” that this then applied to the inhabitants of Meleda more than to those of Malta, though it is difficult to suppose that insignificant isle would have such residents as Publius, his father, and those that honored Paul and his friends with many honors and kind supplies, to say nothing of the universal kindness to the soldiers and ship’s company. Malta, from its position and value from of old to this day, has been an important island, never Meleda.
Scaliger and Bochart with their usual discernment and massive learning had no hesitation in refuting the medieval mistake, and vindicating the claim of “St. Paul’s Bay” in Malta as the true scene of the wreck and the escape. Bryant’s reasoning, and later still S. T. Coleridge’s pleas in behalf of Meleda against Malta, have no real groundwork.
“And when got safe we then ascertained that the island was called Melita. And the barbarians [or natives] showed us no common kindness; for they kindled a fire-heap and took us all in because of the then rain and because of the cold. But when Paul gathered a certain quantity of sticks and laid [it] on the fire-heap, a viper came out through the heat and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the beast hanging from his hand, they said one to another, Certainly a murderer is this man, whom though got safe from the sea, justice refused to let live. He however shook off the beast into the fire and suffered no harm. And they expected that he would be inflamed or fall down dead suddenly; but when they were long expecting and beheld nothing amiss happen, they, changing their mind, said that he was a god” (Acts 28:1-61And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. 2And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. 3And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. 4And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. 5And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. 6Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. (Acts 28:1‑6)).
Mr. Smith has well explained that there is no difficulty in understanding how the crew and the officers failed to make out the locality, even if ever so familiar in a general way as an Alexandrian ship with the great harbor of the island. They had drifted there in the dark, and there is no such definite landmark on the adjacent coast as to make identification easy; and, whatever peculiarity may be there, they only discovered when they got close in before the ship ran aground. But the barbarians or men of a foreign tongue1 behaved with unusual philanthropy, which puts to shame what has too often been experienced on British shores and other coasts alas! since Christianity. They lit not a “fire” merely, but one so large that the term employed is one usually applied to a funeral pyre (πυρά); as indeed would be needed to meet the urgent need of such a dripping crowd, with rain falling heavily, and severe cold.
This gave occasion to the incident related so graphically in verses 3-6. The apostle, with his usual earnestness and lowly love, gathers a fagot of sticks near the spot and laid it on the fire-heap, when a viper, no doubt before this dormant in the neglected wood, was roused as well as irritated by the heat and seized on the hand of Paul. It was ordered of God to verify the promise of the Lord Jesus (Mark 16:1818They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:18)), and as a sign to the kind heathen, and so much the more as they quite mistook its import at first, by leaving out God as unbelief habitually does. For when they saw the noxious creature hanging from his hand, they were assured he must be a murderer, escaped from the sea, only to meet a just retribution. But when he shook off the serpent into the fire without suffering anything out of the way, and they looked long in vain for either virulent inflammation or sudden falling dead, all was changed, and they called him a god. Such is the worth of human opinion outside its own sphere. Little could they conceive that he was a man of God, a prisoner in heathen hands because of the deadly hatred of God’s people, the Jews; and this really because of the good news of Christ he preached to the Gentiles. But moral enigmas in this world are more surprising than the greatest of intellectual difficulties. Of one thing we may be sure, that the natural man is here invariably astray.
Nor was this all. The signs of Christianity are characteristically beneficent, samples of that power which in the age to come will banish the evil one and chase away the dire effects of sin, when mankind as a whole and pre-eminently Israel shall sing, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, Who forgiveth all thine iniquities, Who healeth all thy diseases” (Psa. 103:2-32Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: 3Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; (Psalm 103:2‑3)). That day has not yet dawned on Israel and the nations; but meanwhile for the inauguration of the gospel and in honor of Him Who was crucified by men but now exalted of God in heaven, there was, wherever it seemed fitting, a display of the powers of the coming age, not only over a vanquished enemy, but in pity for his poor victim, suffering man. Thus another of the signs to follow those that believed was soon after added: “they shall lay hands on sick persons, and they shall be well” (Mark 16:1818They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:18)).
“Now in the country surrounding that place were lands belonging to the chief2 of the island, by name Publius, who received and entertained us three days courteously. And so it was that the father of Publius lay ill of a fever3 and dysentery; unto whom Paul came in and laid his hands on him with prayer, and healed him. This then being done, others also that had sicknesses in the island came and were cured; who also honored us with many honors, and on sailing put on board [or, laded us with] things for our need” (Acts 28:7-107In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously. 8And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him. 9So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed: 10Who also honored us with many honors; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary. (Acts 28:7‑10)). Here then we have the gracious healing power attached to the Lord’s name, but no pretentiousness on the apostle’s part. He prayed and laid his hands on the sick man. The healing of one so prominent arrested attention. Many others in the island came with their sicknesses and were cured; for grace is no respecter of persons. Nor did Paul or Luke decline their attentions and kind offerings, though assuredly they sought nothing at their hands. Indeed it is of all consequence that the Christian, while valuing as our Father does even a cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, should render a simple and true testimony that the gospel, the grace and truth of Christ, has everything to give; it is never to gain what self seeks in this world. God is a Giver Himself, the Giver of the best and indeed of all good, and loves that His own keep up the family character in this respect as in all others (2 Cor. 9:77Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)). On the other hand, it is very far from the ways of Christ to cherish a narrow, hard, and unappreciative heart where kindness is meant, especially because of His word and work. It is only the Holy Spirit keeping Christ before the eye of faith that can enable us to discern the path in the midst of difficulties and dangers on all sides.
“And after three months we sailed in a ship of Alexandria after having wintered in the island, with Dioscuri4 for a sign. And landing at Syracuse we tarried three days; and thence having gone round we arrived at Rhegium, and after one day when! a south wind sprung up we came on the second-day unto Puteoli, where we found brethren and were besought to tarry with them seven days; and so we came unto Rome. And thence the brethren having heard about us came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae; whom when Paul saw, he thanked God and took courage” (Acts 28:11-1511And after three months we departed in a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux. 12And landing at Syracuse, we tarried there three days. 13And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli: 14Where we found brethren, and were desired to tarry with them seven days: and so we went toward Rome. 15And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum, and The three taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage. (Acts 28:11‑15)).
We have seen how the Lord attracted hearts by His gracious power to that truth which is for heaven and eternity, but received only here by faith and here productive of good and holy and godly fruits to His praise, the comfort of love among His own, and no small testimony to His name among those that are not His, if peradventure they might be won and called out of darkness into His marvelous light.
In the early spring they took ship again, this time also of Alexandria that had escaped the storm, which had wrecked their former ship because the master and crew had slighted the warning of the apostle. We do not hear of preaching, though we may be sure that the grace of Christ and the love of souls did not slumber in the hearts of His servants. But we see the place given to them and to Paul in particular by their past experience rising more and more as God saw fit to use each occasion where man’s wisdom or power was unavailing.
Syracuse, a famous city of Sicily, was soon reached but after a stay of three days they compassed the coast and came to Rhegium and the next day to Puteoli. The former was in the south west extremity of Italy, a port of Bruttium on the sea. The latter, in the Bay of Naples, was celebrated for its thirty-three mineral wells which indeed gave it its name, as well as for its earth valued for its uses even to this day. Here brethren were found who entreated that the apostle and the rest should remain with them seven days, the old term of a visit so natural among Christians who valued above all the joy of fellowship on the Lord’s day and at His supper, along with the manifold opportunities of edification, prayer and the word, meanwhile. “Then we went unto Rome.” What a contrast with the great ones of the earth, victor or vanquished, who had so often taken the same road! “His be the Victor’s name” was their life-song and brightest triumph — His Who “Trod all His foes beneath His feet, By being trodden down.” His servants tread in His footsteps, though it was His alone to suffer for sins.
But ere they reached the metropolis of the world, a fresh witness of love greeted the apostle and his company, how refreshing to his spirit! From Rome, when the brethren heard of their arrival in Italy, “they came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae.” The former was less than forty miles; the latter more than thirty miles from the great city. Neither place enjoyed a good repute even in heathen eyes. A classic poet has left a lively record of his passing through the more distant of the two with its low yet extortionate taverns and squabbling bargemen. How different the meeting of the apostle of the Gentiles with those saints of Rome to whom he wrote not long before he was taken prisoner! He was nearing brethren he had longed to see that he might impart some spiritual gift for their establishment, or as he humbly and beautifully put the matter, that he with them might be comforted in them, each by the other’s faith, both theirs and his. And now two companies had come forth to welcome him; for this is made plain by the mention of places distant by a few miles, but both no short way from Rome in days when traveling was far from as easy as it is now. None of these was troubled by the badness of the water, nor complained of mosquitoes or marsh-frogs or bantering slaves or lazy boatmen; no elation in the company, great friends or good cheer, still less by the wordy wars of buffoons while they dined. But debtor to Jew and Greek he that prayed for fruit to God’s glory through Christ the Lord gave Him thanks and took courage when he saw those whom love in the truth had brought from Rome to welcome him. And what a joy for men delivered from the false glitter of the world and their selfish profit from its grinding tyrant, the many-headed Beast, to recognize by grace in Paul the prisoner the most honored servant of the Lord, the inspired writer to them of an Epistle yielding to none in depth and comprehensiveness of treating and enforcing the foundations of a saint’s relationship with God, and the walk and service proper to it now!
It will be noticed that there is not a trace of Peter either now or subsequently, any more than in the Epistle more full of personal notices in its last chapter than any other in the New Testament. How unaccountable if the great apostle of the circumcision were then at Rome in any capacity whatever, still more if he there held the position assigned by some tradition-mongers! And if Peter did not found the church in Rome, certainly no other apostle had a hand in it. Indeed Paul near the beginning and before the end of his Epistle to the Romans gives us two statements irreconcilable with that ancient fable. In Romans 1:1313Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. (Romans 1:13), he evidently regards the head of Gentiledom as falling within his province, no less than heathen lands east of it, whilst the Epistle itself from the first chapter to the last is the fullest proof of a large number of saints already there, even both Jews and Gentiles. Then again in the chapter before the last he lays down what was the regular and constant aim of his ministry, his labors where Christ was not named and avoidance of building upon another man’s foundation. For, as already noticed, there was a lack in Rome of what an apostle could best supply (Rom. 1:1111For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; (Romans 1:11)), which it is inconceivable to suppose asserted if Peter or any other apostle had visited the city before he wrote or went. We may therefore dismiss absolutely what Eusebius states in the Armenian text of the Chronicon, followed as it is in the main by Jerome (Catal. 1) and by heaps of Romanists, that Peter visited Rome as early as A. D. 42! and stayed there twenty years! (Jerome and others, say twenty-five years); a statement as impossible to stand with what scripture tells of Peter as with what we learn there of Paul.
Yet do we see him needing to take courage, as he drew near the city he had so longed to visit in the Lord. He seems as deeply conscious of weakness and fear and trembling as when preaching at Corinth years before. His experience of the Lord’s gracious care on the last perilous voyage and wreck, the proofs of His power accompanying him with their effects on all at Malta, did not hinder this. Indeed it is in weakness that the Lord proves the sufficiency of His grace, as he had taught the Corinthians after no less real experience of delivering power in Ephesus (2 Cor. 1:1212For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward. (2 Corinthians 1:12)). And here the Lord works not by such a vision as had sustained Paul when in danger of yielding to depression (Acts 23:1111And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome. (Acts 23:11)) but by the faith and affection of the brethren from Rome. For it would seem that the delay at Puteoli, due to brethren there who would have him stay a week in their midst, gave occasion to the tidings of his arrival in Italy reaching the saints in Rome and of their coming to meet him. And no difficulty, it is clear, was interposed by the authorities who held him a prisoner: such was the moral respect inspired among the Roman officials, and not least in the centurion who had witnessed his ways and words all the journey from the east to the west.
But how sweet and wondrous the dealings of grace to know from indisputable authority that the saints he was going to help so mightily were used of the Lord for the cheer of the apostle himself on the road: the best comment on his own words written to them beforehand — his desire to have mutual comfort among them, each by the faith that was in the other, both theirs and his! How practical is the truth that the body of Christ is one and has many members set each one in the body even as it pleased God! And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee; or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary; and those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness, whereas our comely parts have no need. But God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Such is the church called to be on earth the answer to Christ in heaven. Oh! how soon the declension, how far the departure, and how universal the ruin. Do we feel it, judge ourselves, and seek His will?