I’ve been listening to a podcast called Deep Cover, the wild, true story of an FBI agent who, in the 1980s, goes undercover, posing as a member of a biker gang, digging up info about drug trafficking the gang is involved in. As the months go by he earns the trust of numerous people in the gang, all the while learning about their supply chain and the people involved. Their drug ring is deeper and wider than he ever imagined. He goes on trips with them to various parts of the USA to meet the suppliers, and he gains their trust too. The months turn into years, and he just keeps rising up the ranks, learning how far-reaching this drug scheme goes. Three years in, some FBI agents show up at his door, surprising him and his wife with the news that members of the biker gang have discovered his true identity and they are out to kill him. He and his wife have to leave immediately to a secure location, while the FBI tries to deal with the threat. After three years, most of which was an adrenaline-soaked life undercover, he is now alone with nothing to do in the middle of a secluded forest, just waiting for a phone call from the FBI to say they are in the clear. You’d think he would feel a sense of relief or peace, now that he was away from the storm of undercover life. The opposite happens. The storm of anxiety breaks over him with ferocity. He struggles hard with uncontrollable anxiety.
Ever had that happen to you? That is literally what happens to me. I make it pretty well through tough situations, but it sure hits me hard when a bit of calm might come. What do you do when it seems like the storm of life is pounding you, and it won’t let up? Turn to Acts 27, because Paul was in both a literal and figurative storm. What he says just might be what we need to hear today.
Last week we studied Acts chapters 24-26, all of which took place in Caesarea, the Roman town on the northwest coast of Israel. There Paul testified before two Roman governors and King Agrippa. At one point, Paul, a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar, an appeal which the one governor, Festus, granted. We learned at the end of chapter 26 that Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul had done nothing wrong, and he could have gone free, if he had not appealed to Caesar. Now Paul will continue his journey to Rome, right in line with the vision Jesus gave him in chapter 23 verse 11, when Jesus said to Paul, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, you must also testify in Rome.” But Rome is very far from Israel, even by today’s standards. Given the transportation technology available in the first century AD, it felt like a world away.
So turn to Acts 27:1. In verses 1-12, Paul’s journey to Rome takes to the seas. First of all, in verse one, notice the word “we.” The author is including himself among the group sailing with Paul. Luke was on the boat! We also learn that Paul is not the only prisoner, and a Roman centurion named Julius commands of a group of soldiers guarding the prisoners. The group of travelers also includes one of Paul’s friends, Aristarchus, from Thessalonica, who we met before, though briefly.
In verse 3 we learn that they stop in Sidon, and the centurion Julius allows Paul’s friends to care for his needs.
They soon sail again, eventually making it to the port of Myra, where they board a different ship. The author of Acts, Luke, tells us that it was an Alexandrian ship, which is a reference to the city of Alexandria in Egypt. So the ship was coming from Alexandria, heading to Italy.
Scan down to verse 18, and we learn that this was a cargo ship, a freighter. I also want us to peak ahead to verse 37 where we learn that not only was it carrying grain (some scholars believe it was probably corn), but there were also 276 people on board.
Hearing that I have a whole different vision in my mind of what kind of boat this was. When I think of ancient boats, with the exception of Noah’s Ark, I think of small boats, like Jesus and his disciples would have used to catch fish on the Sea of Galilee. But this is some boat. Think about how big that ship would have to be to carry 276 people and a load of grain? I had to know. So I did some digging.
One author notes that, “There is little doubt that the ship in question was one of a very special fleet, designed and constructed by the Romans expressly to transport grain from the fertile land of the Nile to Italy, particularly to Rome.” (Hirschfeld) She goes on to cite ancient sources which describe the immense size of these grain boats. If you’ve ever been to Boston and seen the USS Constitution, one of the huge US Navy battleships that fought in the War of 1812, it is about the size of the boat Paul was traveling on. This is a big, big ship Paul is sailing on.
That raises a question: why was a cargo ship carrying that many people? Sailing was a major method of transportation in the ancient maritime world, such as the Roman Empire. In our day and age, when we think of ocean travel, we think of cruise ships, traveling the ocean for pleasure. When we think of transportation from country to country, we are used to traveling by air. Can you even travel on a passenger ship anymore simply for the purpose of transportation over any distance beyond a barge that carries cars across a river? The days of the Titanic are over! But in the ancient world, because sea travel was so prevalent, even cargo ships would carry passengers, as a way to make additional profit. That means this was not a passenger ship with rooms below deck. The passengers likely spent most of their time on deck, in the open air, a reality that will become very important in this story.
Back to the story, it seems that they boarded the grain boat in hopes of a quicker journey to Rome by sea. They could have taken the land route from Myra to Rome, but it would have taken much longer. Unfortunately, the sea route turns out to have terrible weather. They suffer through head winds and the going is slow. At the port of Fair Havens on the island of Crete, Paul warns the people that if they proceed further, it will be disastrous for them. This doesn’t seem to be a prophetic warning, but instead a reading of the meteorological situation. Paul has now added “weatherman” to his resume!
But the Roman centurion, Julius, believes it best to keep sailing to a better port on the island of Crete, one that they could pause their journey for the winter. That port is named Phoenix. Considering how far they had sailed already, this would only be another 50 miles or so by sea. No big deal, right? The majority agrees, against Paul’s warning of a bad weather forecast. What happens? Check back tomorrow and we’ll find out.