“When the fourteenth night had come, while we [Luke speaking here] were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected they were approaching some land. They took soundings and found the water was twenty fathoms deep; when they had sailed a little farther they took soundings again and found it was fifteen fathoms deep. Because they were afraid that we would run aground on the rocky coast, they threw out four anchors from the stern and wished for day to appear. Then when the sailors tried to escape from the ship and were lowering the lifeboat into the sea, (while pretending that they were going to put out anchors from the bow), Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.’ Then the soldiers cut the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it drift away.
“As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day you have been in suspense and have gone without food; you have eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for this is important for your survival. For not one of you will lose a hair from his head.’ After he said this, Paul took bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat. So all of them were encouraged and took food themselves. (We were in all two hundred seventy-six persons on the ship.) When they had eaten enough to be satisfied, they lightened the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea” —Acts 27:27-38
Did we read that right? Two full weeks had passed—and the storm showed no sign of weakening? No one had seen the sun, the moon, or the stars for several days. Since ancient sailors navigated by the stars, this meant they had no idea where they were. The ship was at the mercy of the wind. All hopes of survival were gone. Some preachers argue that this was obviously the work of Satan, and don’t get me wrong, it could very well have been, but the text doesn’t tell us that. It could have been simply nature being what it is: unpredictable. What we see, though, is the perfect stage being set for our omnipotent God to intervene! When times are at their darkest—then there will be light!
Have you ever noticed how often YHWH brings men to this point before He intervenes? He promised an elderly couple they would have a son, and then waited 25 years to make sure it would be a miracle. Then that child—Isaac—was born, just as He promised. YHWH put Israel between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, so there appeared to be no way out. That is when He parted the sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground. YHWH instructed Gideon to reduce his warriors from 32,000 to 300 men—and then ordered him to wage war on the Midianites, who were as numerous as “the sand on the seashore.” Needless to say, YHWH gave Gideon the victory. The Assyrian army surrounded King Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites were hopelessly outnumbered, but the angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 in one night, so their enemy withdrew and went home. A federation of Arab countries attacked Israel in 1967—greatly outnumbering Israel and attacking on three side—yet Israel defeated their enemies in six days! With, by the way, an untrained military and weapons left behind in the desert from previous nations who possessed the land.
Whenever I look at Israel’s history, I am always reminded of what the Israelites say: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations . . .“ (Deuteronomy 32:7). YHWH loves impossible situations, because when He does the impossible, no man can lay claim to any part of the glory that belongs only to Him.
Conditions are now conducive for the deliverance of Paul and his shipmates. In one sense, they all hoped for land, but not during the night where they would be dashed to pieces on the rocks. So, throughout the night, the sailors kept testing the depth of the water. Their soundings revealed that they were approaching land. The depth of the water continued to decrease (from 120 feet to 90 feet). Being afraid that they would run aground in the darkness, they put out anchors to slow their approach to land until daylight.
The most dangerous moment for a ship in these conditions was making land in a storm like this, and the sailors knew it. They started thinking that their chances of survival were much better in the lifeboat than in the ship. Normally this would have made a lot of sense. The ship’s draft (the depth to which the ship’s lowest point extended below the surface of the water) would be considerably greater ina lifeboat. A small boat could float until it was close to the shore, while a large ship would strike bottom while they were quite away from shore.
Now here is an honest description of men’s heart. The sailors decided to save themselves by using the lifeboat for themselves. The text tells us that the sailors tried to escape from the ship while pretending that they were going to put out anchors from the bow. The lifeboat was only large enough to hold them, but no one else. In effect, this was putting a death sentence on all the other passengers because they wouldn’t know how to navigate this ship safely to land. I suppose they figured these were all prisoners heading to execution, so “What the heck, they don’t deserve to live anyway . . .” We don’t know that for certain, but still, those sailors were only looking out for themselves. I guess they had never heard the old adage, “Passengers before the crew.”
Paul’s discovered their plans—whether by witnessing it, or by Divine guidance—but he told the centurions about it. The reality was that the ship was still in one piece, at least for the moment, but they had tossed most of the ship’s gear overboard, and the ship was down to its essentials for navigation. For the past two weeks, they were blown around by the winds and no one knew where they were or what kind of land they were heading for. If they were going to arrive anywhere safely, they would need skilled seamen.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Story of Acts