“So Paul warned them, ‘Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.’ But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.” – Acts 27: 9-11
“Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.’” – Acts 27:31
After Paul’s appeal to Cesar before Festus and Agrippa, Acts 27 begins the account of his trip to Rome under a Roman centurion escort named Julius. From the very start of their voyage, the winds were contrary, impeding their progress time and again until they landed at a place called Fair Havens where inclement weather again prevented their advance. They weren’t satisfied with the harbor and decided to push on to a better place to spend the winter. But Paul insisted he felt that pressing on with the voyage would only end in disaster. It shouldn’t have been hard to believe, based on all the trouble they had already encountered! However, in his hubris, the captain persuaded Paul’s Roman escort that all would be fine and, in defiance of Paul’s warning, they took to the sea again.
After they set sail in disobedience, at first, (verse 13), “the south wind blew softly,” and they surely must have laughed at the memory of Paul’s warning. Isn’t this the way it goes all too often? God warns us – tells us not to follow a particular course – and in our pride, we go just the way God and His messengers told us not to go. And at first, everything goes fine! We may remember the warnings we received, but out on the open seas with a balmy breeze at our back, those warnings are but a faint memory. And then everything goes wrong.
That’s what happened to those who disobeyed Paul’s warning. After facing a severe northern gale, they found themselves smashed up against a reef, pummeled by the relentless waves. Paul reminded them of his initial warning but told them God had shown him in a dream that, although they would run aground and lose the ship, He would spare every life on board who would remain with the vessel.
The sailors tried to avoid the coming trial which their disobedience had brought on the created. They attempted to steal away in the night, and escape from the ship on lifeboats. At this, Paul ordered the soldiers to cut the lifeboats from the ship. And fortunately, by this time, the centurion believed and heeded his instruction.
The great irony of the story emerges at this point. At first, God had forbidden them to get on the ship, but now He prohibits them from EXITING the same boat! Through every twist and turn–the arrogance of the captain, the deafness of the centurion, the storm, the reef, the lifeboats, and the panic of the sailors–God had purposed to use this situation to bring these people to a place of humble obedience to His will. Had they submitted to the voice of God through Paul in the beginning, their journey to humility would’ve been relatively quick and painless. They didn’t have to endure the harrowing voyage and the loss of their ship — they had to be reduced to a place of obedience to God, and the catastrophe wouldn’t end till they had learned that.
Even when we disobey Him — even when we find ourselves on a ship that is cursed by His Word or, like Jonah, we find ourselves in the belly of a great fish at the bottom of the sea — even then God is able to step into the circumstances of our calamity and show us the path to salvation. If at any point we are willing to start obeying, He can become God of whatever situation or disaster we find ourselves in. There can be a lesson in all our tempests of disobedience. We can yield and find that place of complete obedience to God–no matter how strange, contradictory or unlikely that willingness may seem.
In the end, Paul tells them that whatever happens, they must not leave the ship (the same boat he said to never board at the beginning). God has intervened in their journey to disaster — their very circumstance of rebellion — and He is giving them another chance to take the path of obedience to salvation. And would their compliance ever be tested! “Clinging to the ship” amounted to no more than clutching a fragment here and there – a beam or a plank – from its wreckage. But every single living soul on that boat drifted to shore and was saved ONLY by their obedience.
So, when we’ve disobeyed, when we’ve gone in the opposite direction of God’s will, when we have boarded the one ship He told us to avoid, and when our journey reaches the calamity and disaster He warned us of, even then, we must have faith that if we start obeying Him again, God can hijack this impossibility, too, and give us a word that will keep us afloat until our feet feel solid ground once more.
In the end, we will drift into our salvation on the planks from the destroyed vessel which He warned us never to board. But if we’ve learned to obey, the tide will wash us always into the safety of God’s harbor. And like Jonah — with our mouths and ears filled with sand and seaweed tangled in our hair, stinking of fish puke — we will rise. We will rise, marked more by the faith that brought us out of hell then by the failures that first took us there. Our past, our failures, and our newly-won triumphs will make us the most believable messengers the world has ever known. So, hear the word of God, find your plank from the wreckage and believe the shore is getting nearer. Don’t ever let your past failures make you doubt that it’s God speaking to you today and giving you a second chance to obey and find salvation after all.