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Sketches From The Life of Paul

by Ellen G. White

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Chapter 24: The Voyage and Shipwreck

The centurion gave orders that all who could swim should cast themselves into the sea and get to land. The rest seized hold of planks and other fragments of the wreck, and were carried landward by the waves. When the roll was called, not one was missing.
The centurion gave orders that all who could swim should cast themselves into the sea and get to land. The rest seized hold of planks and other fragments of the wreck, and were carried landward by the waves. When the roll was called, not one was missing.

Illustration © Review and Herald Publ. Assoc.

"And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus' band. And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us."

Adramyttium was situated upon the west coast of the province of Asia; therefore the travelers could perform but a part of their journey in a ship bound for that city. But in some of the larger ports at which the vessel touched, they would be likely to find a ship in which they could embark for Rome.

In the first century of the Christian era, traveling by sea as well as by land was attended with far greater difficulty than at the present [p. 262] time. The arts of ship-building and navigation were not then matured as now. Mariners directed their course by the sun and stars; and when these did not appear, and there were indications of storm, they were fearful of trusting their vessels to the open sea.

The season of safe navigation was already far advanced, before the apostle's ship left Caesarea, and the time was fast approaching when travel by sea would be closed for the year. Every day's delay increased the peril of the voyage. But the journey which would be difficult and dangerous to the ordinary traveler, would be doubly trying to the apostle as a prisoner. Roman soldiers were held responsible with their own lives for the security of their prisoners, and this had led to the custom of chaining prisoners by the right wrist to the left wrist of soldiers, who relieved each other in turn. Thus not only could the apostle have no movement free, but he was placed in close and constant connection with men of the most uncongenial and absolutely repulsive character; men who were not only uneducated and unrefined, but who, from the demoralizing influence of their surroundings, had become brutal and degraded. This custom, however, was less rigidly observed on shipboard than when prisoners were ashore. One circumstance greatly lightened the hardships of his lot. He was permitted to enjoy the companionship of his brethren, Luke and Aristarchus. In his letter to the Colossians, he speaks of the latter as his "fellow-prisoner." But it was as an act of choice, because of his affection for Paul, that Aristarchus shared his bondage, and ministered to him in his afflictions. [p. 263]

The voyage began prosperously, and the day after they started, they cast anchor in the harbor of Sidon. Here Julius, the centurion who had listened to the apostle's address before Agrippa, and had thus been favorably disposed toward him, "courteously entreated Paul," and being informed that there were Christians in the place, he "gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself." The favor was highly appreciated by the apostle, who was in feeble health, and but scantily provided with comforts for the long journey. His brief stay in Sidon was like an oasis in his barren and dreary path, and proved a comfort and encouragement to him during the anxious, storm-tossed weeks upon the sea.

Upon leaving Sidon, the ship encountered contrary winds; and being driven from a direct course, its progress was very slow. At Myra, in the province of Lycia, the centurion found a large Alexandrian ship, bound for the coast of Italy, and to this he immediately transferred his prisoners. But the winds were still contrary, and the ship's progress slow and difficult. Says Luke, "When we had sailed slowly many days, and scarce were come over against Cnidus, the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salmone; and, hardly passing it, came unto a place which is called the Fair Havens."

At Fair Havens they were compelled to remain for some time, waiting for favoring winds. During this time the Jewish season of navigation ended. Gentiles considered it safe to travel until a later date; but there was no hope of completing the voyage. The only question now to be decided was, whether to stay where they were [p. 264] or attempt to reach a more favorable place to spend the winter.

The matter was earnestly discussed, and was finally referred by the centurion to Paul, who had won the respect of both sailors and soldiers. The apostle unhesitatingly advised that they remain where they were. Said he, "Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives." But the owner of the ship, who was on board, and the majority of passengers and crew, were unwilling to accept this counsel. They urged that the harbor of Fair Havens was but imperfectly protected from the wintry winds, and that the neighboring town, being so small, would afford little occupation for three hundred sailors and passengers during a stay of several months. Port Phenice, but thirty-four miles distant, had a well-sheltered harbor, and was in all other respects a far more desirable place in which to winter.

The centurion decided to follow the judgment of the majority. Accordingly, "when the south wind blew softly," they set sail from Fair Havens, with the flattering prospect that a few hours would bring them to the desired harbor. All were now rejoicing that they had not followed the advice of Paul: but their hopes were destined to be speedily disappointed. They had not proceeded far, when a tempestuous wind, such as in that latitude often succeeds the blowing of the south wind, burst upon them with merciless fury. From the first moment that the wind struck the vessel, its condition was hopeless. So sudden was the blow, that the sailors had not a moment in which to prepare, and they could only leave the ship to the mercy of the tempest. [p. 265]

After a time they neared the small island of Clauda, and while under its shelter they did all in their power to make ready for the worst. The boat would be their only means of escape, in case the ship should founder; but while in tow it was every moment likely to be dashed to pieces. The first work was to hoist it on board the ship. This was no easy task; for it was with the utmost difficulty that the seamen could perform the simplest duty. All possible precaution was taken to render the ship firm and secure, and then there was nothing left to do but to drift at the mercy of wind and wave. There was no place into which they could run for shelter, the wind was driving them, and even the poor protection afforded by the little island would not avail them long. Such was the disastrous ending of the day which had begun with soft breezes and high hopes.

All night the tempest raged, and the ship leaked. The next day, all on board—soldiers, sailors, passengers, and prisoners—united in throwing overboard everything that could be spared. Night came again, but the wind did not abate. The storm-beaten ship, with its shattered mast and rent sails, was tossed hither and thither by the fury of the gale. Every moment it seemed that the groaning timbers must give way as the vessel reeled and quivered under the tempest's shock. The leak rapidly increased, and passengers and crew worked constantly at the pumps. There was not a moment's rest for one on board. "The third day," says Luke, "we cast out with our own hands the tackling of the ship; and when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope [p. 266] that we should be saved was then taken away." A gloomy apathy settled upon those three hundred souls, as for fourteen days they drifted, helpless and hopeless, under a sunless and starless heaven. They had no means of cooking; no fire could be lighted, the utensils had been washed overboard, and most of the provisions were water-soaked and spoiled. In fact while their good ship was wrestling with the tempest, and the waves talked with death, no one desired food.

In the midst of that terrible scene, the apostle retained his calmness and courage. Notwithstanding he was physically the greatest sufferer of them all, he had words of hope for the darkest hour, a helping hand in every emergency. In this time of trial, he grasped by faith the arm of infinite power, his heart was stayed upon God, and amid the surrounding gloom his courage and nobility of soul shone forth with the brightest luster. While all around were looking only for swift destruction, this man of God, in the serenity of a blameless conscience, was pouring forth his earnest supplications in their behalf.

Paul had no fears for himself; he felt assured that he would not be swallowed up by the hungry waters. God would preserve his life, that he might witness for the truth at Rome. But his human heart yearned with pity for the poor souls around him. Sinful and degraded as they were, they were unprepared to die, and he earnestly pleaded with God to spare their lives. It was revealed to him that his prayer was granted. When there was a lull in the tempest, so that his voice could be heard, he stood forth on the deck and said:—

"Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and [p. 267] not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer; for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar; and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island."

At these words hope revived. Passengers and crew roused from their apathy, and put forth all possible exertion to save their lives. There was much yet to be done. Every effort within their power must be put forth to avert destruction; for God helps those only who help themselves.

It was the fourteenth night that they had been tossed up and down on the black, heaving billows, when, amid the sound of the storm, the sailors distinguished the roar of breakers, and reported that they were near some land. They "sounded, and found it twenty fathoms; and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms." They were now threatened by a new danger, of having their ship driven upon some rock-bound coast. They immediately cast out four anchors, which was the only thing that could be done. All through the remaining hours of that night they waited, knowing that any moment might be their last. The leak was constantly increasing, and the ship might sink at any time, even if the anchors held.

At last through rain and tempest the gray light fell upon their haggard and ghastly faces. [p. 268] The outlines of the stormy coast could be dimly seen, but not a single familiar landmark was visible. The selfish heathen sailors determined to abandon the ship and crew, and save themselves in the boat which they had with so much difficulty hoisted on board. Pretending that they could do something more to secure the safety of the ship, they unloosed the boat, and began to lower it into the sea. Had they succeeded, they would have been dashed in pieces upon the rocks, while all on board would have perished from their inability to handle the sinking vessel.

At this moment, Paul perceived the base design, and averted the danger. With his usual prompt energy and courage he said to the centurion and soldiers, "Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved." The apostle's faith in God did not waver; he had no doubt concerning his own preservation, but the promise of safety to the crew had been conditional upon their performance of duty. The soldiers, on hearing Paul's words, immediately cut off the ropes of the boat, letting her fall off into the sea.

The most critical hour was still before them, when the skill, courage, and presence of mind of all on board would be tested. Again the apostle spoke words of encouragement, and entreated all, both sailors and passengers, to take some food, saying, "This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing. Wherefore, I pray you to take some meat; for this is for your health; for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you."

Paul himself set the example. "When he had [p. 269] thus spoken, he took bread, and 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." That worn, drenched, discouraged throng of two hundred and seventy-six souls, who but for Paul would have become despairing and desperate, now took fresh courage, and joined with the apostle in their first meal for fourteen days. After this, knowing that it would be impossible to save their cargo, they righted up the ship by throwing overboard the wheat with which she was laden.

Daylight had now fully come, but they could see no landmarks by which to determine their whereabouts. However, "they discovered a certain creek with a shore, into the which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship. And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves unto the sea, and loosed the rudder bands, and hoised up the mainsail to the wind, and made toward shore. And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmovable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves."

Paul and the other prisoners were now threatened by a fate more terrible than shipwreck. The soldiers saw that in this crisis it would be impossible for them to keep charge of their prisoners. Every man would have all that he could do to save himself. Yet if any of the prisoners were missing, the lives of those who had them in charge would be forfeited. Hence the soldiers desired to put all the prisoners to death. The Roman law sanctioned this cruel policy, and the [p. 270] proposal would have been executed at once, but for him to whom soldiers and prisoners alike owed their preservation. Julius the centurion knew that Paul had been instrumental in saving the lives of all on board, and he felt that it would be the basest ingratitude to allow him to be put to death; and more, he felt convinced that the Lord was with Paul, and he feared to do him harm. He therefore gave orders to spare the lives of the prisoners, and directed that all who could swim should cast themselves into the sea and get to land. The rest seized hold of planks and other fragments of the wreck, and were carried landward by the waves.

When the roll was called, not one was missing. Nearly three hundred souls, sailors, soldiers, passengers, and prisoners, stood that stormy November morning upon the shore of the island of Melita. And there were some that joined with Paul and his brethren in giving thanks to God who had preserved their lives, and brought them safe to land through the perils of the great deep.

The shipwrecked crew were kindly received by the barbarous people of Melita. A rain having come on, the whole company were drenched and shivering, and the islanders kindled an immense fire of brushwood, and welcomed them all to its grateful warmth. Paul was among the most active in collecting fuel. As he was placing a bundle of sticks upon the fire, a viper that had been suddenly revived from its torpor by the heat, darted from the fagots and fastened upon his hand. The bystanders were horror-struck, and seeing by his chain that Paul was a prisoner, they said to one another, "No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath [p. 271] escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live." But Paul shook off the creature into the fire, and suffered no harm. Knowing its venomous nature, they watched him closely for some time, expecting every moment to see him fall down, writhing in terrible agony. But as no unpleasant results followed, they changed their minds, and, like the people of Lystra, said that he was a god. By this circumstance Paul gained a strong influence over the islanders, and he sought faithfully to employ it in leading them to accept the truths of the gospel.

For three months the ship's company remained at Melita. During this time Paul and his fellow-laborers improved every opportunity to preach the gospel. The Lord wrought through them in a remarkable manner, and for Paul's sake the entire company were treated with great kindness; all their wants were supplied, and upon leaving they were liberally provided with everything needful for their voyage. The chief incidents of their stay are thus briefly related by Luke:—

"In 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. And 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. So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed; who also honored us with many honors; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary."

Click here to read the next chapter: "Arrival at Rome"


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