In the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Acts we read the narrative of the voyage, which, in the providence of God, Paul took as occasioned by his appeal to Caesar when he was indicted before Festus (Acts 25:10f.). But before Paul had made his defense before that governor he had received by promise the Divine assurance that he would be safely brought to Rome (Acts 23:11). At least that far back the Lord was forging links in the chain of events according to His sovereign ordination to bring about the realization of that expressed in our theme. Everything recorded in this eye-witness description is in marvelous accord with the science of navigation, making it possible for the account to be substantiated by nautical knowledge. But we are not interested in the investigative results of practical or theoretical seamanship, except as they may reveal the many agencies God predetermines and employs to execute and attain His eternal purpose. For if we obscure, or worse, remove from this chapter, the counsel of God, we have nothing remaining more distinctive than the Greek classics describing ancient marine travel and commonly occurring shipwreck. Therefore, that which is primarily taught here is not merely salvation from the dangers of the sea, but also the final salvation of men from the dangers of eternal destruction. With this in mind, we consider, 1) the prediction of the danger (10), 2) the reassuring revelation (23-25), and 3) the ultimate escape (24, 34, 44).
Not entering into all the details of the chapter, we note first of all that Paul in his voyage to Rome set out from Caesarea in a ship of Adramyttium (now Edremit, Turkey) as a prisoner, with his “companions in travel” and fellow laborers, Luke (“we,” v. 1) and Aristarchus (Acts 19:29, Philemon 1:24). Over the sea of Cicilia they sailed, buffeted by contrary winds, until finally they, after changing ships at Myra, came through strong winds to Fair Havens on the island of Crete. Here Paul advised them to remain, this being the safest course for the ship and all aboard it. This wise counsel was directed to the Roman centurion, and the master and owner of the ship, to the effect that they should be exposed to the danger of hurt, damage and of life (v. 10). In Paul’s mind, this was a general premonition from God, although the particularities were not yet made known to him. That this is the meaning of the word “perceive” is made plain from Amos 3:6-7, “shall there be evil in a city (or on the sea!), and the Lord hath not done it? Surely, the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets.” But Paul’s counsel was not adopted, and this is quite understandable for why should not Julius the centurion give more credence to the opinion of the merchant marine than to a prisoner on board? So the convictions of these men became the occasion of the following disasters.
Yet something more was necessary in addition to premonitions, promises and assurances in order that this gift of souls to Paul could be enjoyed—something without which it could not be. That something was the ordering of incidental, yet concatenated occasions, and the use of instrumental causes and means. Not that God’s eternal purpose is dependent upon human agency or secondary causes, for His purpose includes all these things. In fact, God’s purpose, specific and particular, embraces what will occur, how it will occur, the mutual dependence of events flowing from His decree, gear, wheel, pulley and lever in proper connection in the entire machine of existence. So is determined the number who shall be saved, the individuals who shall receive life, and the fact that their salvation is infallibly certain, and they cannot be lost.
One of the subordinate causes was Euroclydon, a typhoon (14) which drove the ship for “many days” (20), so that all hope of being saved from shipwreck and death “began to be taken away” (Gr.), which does not imply that Paul, or even every one of the others, actually lost hope; but rather that, for the majority, hope was waning. They experienced this as a result of the disregard they showed to Paul’s warning (9, 10); but it only prepared them to listen to him in the future, when he said to them, “Sirs (not ‘Brethren’), ye should have hearkened unto me . . .” Notice from vv. 22-26 how very courteously Paul speaks to them, not using a severe tone, insulting words, nor an overbearing manner. Paul had too much of the joy of the Gospel in his heart to be either pompous or petty. And this joy he would share with them, for he would comfort them, not by the strength of his personality, but with the Word of God revealed by an angel.
This brings us into the heart of the passage (20-26). Here we have the prediction of shipwreck, the endangering of life, yet that not one life should be lost. Paul exhorted them to good cheer, because hope of being saved was something they did not and could not expect. What Paul brought them was no Stoical courage to die like men, nor an adventurer spirit “to go down fighting,” no self-inflated hope which, in all that darkness, they somehow were able to muster. No, he brought them an “I believe God!” And good cheer his address would be to them if they could believe both it and him. In order to secure their believing, Paul adds that God had informed him that He had given him all that sailed with him. God made a present to Paul of 276 souls, men who had been condemned to death, and on their way to death in Rome (cf. v. 1 with I Co. 15:32), yet had been granted not to Caesar, but to Paul. They were already, in God’s view of it, his. For the decree of God is eternal, and the grant was made in eternity: “God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.” So they learn that they are Paul’s by the gift of God, and Paul is God’s whom he serves. Why such a Divine grant to Paul? Why, if not that at least some of them would be brought to confess with Paul, “I believe God”! For God causes desolations and catastrophes in the earth as a means of converting His elect to Himself. Ezekiel gives proof of this: “Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I the Lord build the ruined places, and plant that that was desolate: I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it. Thus saith the Lord God, I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them, I will increase them with men like a flock” (Ezekiel 36:36f.). Paul himself makes this clear when he informs us that he did “endure all things (including thrice suffering shipwreck, a night and a day in the deep, in perils in the sea, II Co. 11:25f.) for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (II Tim. 2:10). As examples of this Paul might mention the Philippian jailer, Onesimus and they of Caesar’s household!
Thus the safety of all in the ship is assured; not one of them can be lost in the storm, for the will of God cannot be disappointed. When He settles a matter, it shall come to pass. This is the undeniable teaching of Scripture: “Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand . . . For the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back? . . . He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, ‘What doest Thou? . . . the people . . . were gathered together for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel foreordained to come to pass’ (Gr.) . . . For God hath put in their hearts to fulfill His will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled” (Isa. 14:24, 27; Dan. 4:35; Acts 4:27f.; Rev. 17:17). Our Reformed Confessions are not in any stronger, more “Calvinistic,” or more “objectionable” (!) language.
But the certainty of the decree of God as revealed to Paul did not make him fatalistic, careless, or think that all exhortation was needless. For Divine exhortation is often the means of realizing a promise. Such was the case here, “Except these abide in the ship; ye cannot be saved” (31). Was Paul referring to a condition in the decree of God? Is His purpose not absolute, but conditional? the condition being that all remain in the ship? So the Arminian would understand it saying that it was in the power of these men to leave the ship and so frustrate God’s purpose. If the men had not stayed on the vessel, God’s purpose could not have been realized as planned. He would have to resort to the emergency measure bf a miracle! The implication is concerning any sinner? that he cannot be saved without his own efforts. Scripture denies this. The promise (24) is as absolute as possible. Verse 22 declares the preordained end of the decree of God, and in that end He could have saved them by a pure miracle; but He did not. He rather ordained the use of means (31) to that end. Predestination is not inconsistent with human freedom, nor does it remove all motives for human exertion. It was absolutely certain that all those who were in the ship with Paul were to be saved. Yet it was equally certain that in order to secure this end, the sailors had to remain aboard. Both end and means are sovereignly and certainly fixed in the decree of God, and so neither must nor can fail. The means was the seafarers remaining in the ship, and the means are always inseparably connected with the end. There is no end to be expected without the means God has ordained to the end. And failure or refusal to use God-ordained means is to tempt God (Luke 4:9, 12). So the one means of remaining with the ship was secured by another relative means, namely this very exhortation of Paul (31), and its effect on the soldiers related in the next verse. One of the means God employs in executing His purpose is to frustrate the purposes of men (cf. v. 42f.). But God leaves nothing to chance, contingency or the whims of man; for under such circumstances God’s purpose would be a failure, and the possibility would remain that not a man in the world would be saved.
Just so in the matter of the salvation of the soul, it is all settled in the ordination of God, and is, therefore, certain, absolute, unconditional; and as the decree of God is infinite, eternal arid immutable, so necessary and certain is our salvation. This is the predetermined soteric end. The means are regeneration, faith, holiness, and perseverance, and are just as predetermined, for without them there is no salvation. Even such an insignificant means as eating (34) is not by God’s purpose overlooked. For their strength must be kept up for the extreme exertion soon to be required of them in making their escape from their perils. Ordained means are to an ordained end, infallibly so, for it is not possible that the Word of God (24) should ever fail! Prayer too is one of these means. For when Paul “had thus spoken, he took bread, 2nd gave thanks to God in presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat. Then were they all of good cheer, and they also took some meat.” (35, 36). This teaches us that grace at meals is to be said, even when we are in public, and is not to be omitted on such occasions, as it is just as essential then to confess God as the source of every blessing as when we eat in private. This, Paul’s action, confirmed his words, showing that he sincerely believed them himself as more than pious platitudes. He practiced what he preached. This became another means that God used to hearten the men, and to bring them to do as bidden.
The fact that the centurion kept the soldiers from their purpose to kill the prisoners (42, 43) is another Divine means through which the original promise (22) is realized. We say again that the veto of ungodly men is a means God uses to attain His own purpose. But why was this centurion “willing to save Paul,” and to veto the overture of the soldiers? Because “when a man’s ways please the Lord, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him . . . (and) a man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps” (Prov. 16:7, 9). This according to the principle, “The first thing in purpose is the last thing in execution.”
What then is the ultimate reason for that which we read in the words, “And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land” (44)? This: “the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). Here we have the full realization of the Lord’s promise to Paul. Not one was lost. All this is a N.T. type of our salvation. We are safe and secure in Christ because we are predestinated unto eternal glory. For no one embraced in God’s plan of salvation shall be allowed to perish. Salvation is our destined end. Yet we are at the same the saved through the use of means which include the hardships we experience in the way, afflictions, persecution, storms, quicksands, darkness, the beating waves, a leaky ship, clinging to bits of wreckage: in fact, all things which seem contrary to our ultimate salvation, yet nevertheless work together for our good. So that just as it was absolutely certain that Paul would be taken to Rome, so it is equally certain that the people of God shall be brought to heaven. “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ . . . For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, wh6m He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified them He also glorified” (Phil. 1:6;Rom. 8:29f.).
The good news of the Gospel is ordained to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. God could realize this purpose by directly and individually revealing the truth to the heart of men without the use of any means. He could let down from heaven in a great sheet all the Bibles necessary to all men to read the truth. But this is not His method. The Gospel is not spread in this way. God uses the agency of His church to disseminate the Word and preach the tidings of comfort and joy. There is, then, nothing of truth in the contention that the effect of faith in God’s absolute, unconditional decree is to render all exertion needless and of no avail. Fatalism and carelessness are not the result of faith in the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. Such a faith quickens us to the use of God’s appointed means, For we are elect (Eph. 1:4.) unto faith (Eph. 2:8) and the use of many God-ordained works (Eph. 2:10). Therefore we are assured that “there shall be no loss of any man’s life,” that God hath given us (the elect) all those that are in the Ark of safety, that “there shall not an hair fall from the head of any,” that only the ship (the reprobate shell) shall be lost, but we escape “all safe to land.” “So shalt thou dwell within the land.”