The account of Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Melita is well known to most of us as a gripping story of danger and deliverance. It is interesting to note that although Paul was shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:25), God chose to record only this one, suggesting that there was something exceptional about this event.

Its uniqueness lies in the whole scale of the event. Life is like a voyage, a perilous voyage. It is full of delays; hampered by storms, fears, quicksands, darkness, uncertainty, failing vessels, beating of waves, lack of anchorage in a safe haven, loss of material things, plunges into the deep and so on. And from all these dangers there is a safe refuge: the kingdom of God. It is a shore which may be reached; a firm anchorage; a land where, secure from danger, we shall be welcomed, and honoured by the world as messengers from God.

The whole story is, in essence, a parable of finding life in the kingdom after enduring life’s difficult journey now. This is why the language of redemption is embedded in the narrative. The ship in Acts 27:2 was from Adramyttium—a word which Thayer informs us means “I shall abide in death”. This points to the key element of the parable—it is a journey of a group of believers seeking life, seeking to escape the inevitability of death; prisoners seeking release from imprisonment. It is a journey where the travellers have to make a decision: do they listen to the words of Paul or do they listen to the words of others? Our decisions are no less important.

In the end, 276 people plunged into the dark depths of the ocean, grabbing hold of boards and floating debris, trying to make it to shore, with Paul’s words ringing in their ears (Acts 27:22): “there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship”. How true it is, that the righteous will “scarcely be saved” (1 Pet 4:18). As we picture them crawling up the shore on to Malta, the waves breaking over their heads, the undercurrent tugging at their exhausted bodies, we see their struggles come to an end. They are cold and soaking wet, perhaps even with hypothermia setting in, but brimming over with the joy of their miraculous salvation. This is indeed a graphic picture of our deliverance. As we enter the kingdom, it will be in the realisation of how weak we are and how much this salvation has been in the power and the mercy of God.

When we turn to the narrative itself we learn a great deal about Paul. He is central to the story. You discover the true mettle of a person when they are facing crisis and trial. For Paul, this whole event from Caesarea to Rome is characterised by a prolonged, intense, unrelieved, unrelenting series of trials and delays. At every step of the way, his patience and endurance were being tested to the limit. How would we fare in these circumstances? Patience and fortitude are not qualities that come easily and we are often guilty of losing our cool when obstacles are placed in our path which frustrate our own desires and plans.

For Paul, it is the constant uncertainty and delay that dogged his every step, even though he was told that he would bear witness of the Lord in Rome (Acts 23:11). Nothing was straightforward, because from the time this promise was given to the time he arrived in Rome, 2–3 years had passed. Yet in all of this we see a wonderful example of trust in God and a courageous acceptance of these delays.

A little of Paul’s greatness is revealed to us in Acts 28:3-5: “And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand… and he shook off the beast into the fire”.

This is an intriguing event because we ask ourselves “what is Paul doing picking up sticks?” He has been battered by the waves; he is cold and soaked to the skin. He is in desperate need of care and warmth, along with everyone else. The inhabitants of Malta were busy helping the survivors so there was no real need to pick up sticks. But here he is doing just that. This is the measure of the man. He had been spurned by the captain, opposed by some of the sailors who wanted to escape in the life boat and rejected by some of the soldiers who sought his execution. Yet here he is labouring for the welfare of others! He could have sat back and accepted the hospitality and kindness shown to the survivors. But that is not who he is. He has to be there helping, comforting and looking after the needs of others. His whole life was one of ministration and service. And this extended to the practical and needful things of life, not just the spiritual. How much we can learn from this seemingly simple act!

The second thing we note is that after surviving a most gruelling shipwreck and in the course of helping others, Paul is attacked by a venomous snake. We could argue: “Hasn’t he already been through enough? Why would God allow further mishaps to occur, especially when he is helping others?” But life isn’t necessarily like that under the providence of Almighty God. The Father will extend His care towards us but this may involve experiencing further trials.

Can you imagine the shock of being bitten unexpectedly by a deadly snake which refuses to let go? Those sharp, vicious fangs are biting into the flesh and the apostle would have doubtless felt the poison being pumped into his body. Yet the reaction from Paul is one of absolute calm as he brushes off the attack by shaking off the beast and casting it into the fire. Normally you would have to take hold of the snake’s head and carefully extract it to ensure that the sharp fangs didn’t penetrate deeper. Not so with Paul.

What produces such calm assurance in the face of a terrifying attack like this? There were no hysterics; no shouting; no calling out in fear; just a swift shaking of the arm and the release of the animal into the fire. This calmness rests on an absolute belief in the promises of God. Christ had promised Paul that he would stand before Caesar to testify. Earlier he had promised the disciples of his generation that they would take up serpents and there would be no harm (Mark 16:18). Paul believed this and this created within Paul a peace of mind “which passeth all understanding” (Phil 4:7). Isaiah speaks of this kind of trust in Isaiah 26:3: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” We too need to have a similar sense of unswerving trust in God’s power to strengthen and sustain us throughout our spiritual voyage.

This unswerving trust was not a one-off event— during the voyage the apostle was apprehensive, but the Lord’s words, “Fear not, Paul” (Acts 27:24), were enough to push aside these unwelcome feelings. He was able to accept this reassurance in absolute faith and was able to stand before them all and offer hope. We can imagine the wind howling across the deck and Paul clinging to some rope as he stood up in their midst and shouted out these words of comfort!

Here is good spiritual leadership. It is born of faith and trust in the power of God and it is able to guide others in times of need. Are we able to demonstrate a similar perspective? Are we fully persuaded of the promises of the gospel to such an extent that we are able to encourage others to hold fast? That journey was dark and dangerous, and to the natural eye there was little hope of survival; yet this man stood up in their midst and said (v 22), “I exhort you to be of good cheer”! He could not have spoken these words if he himself was not radiating cheerfulness. He could not console or encourage others if he himself had not been moved by the promises given to him. Many people can readily sense hollow words and empty clichés, but there was a peace about Paul when they heard him say (v25), “Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me”. The ESV translates the verse this way: “I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told”. We need that same kind of steadfast faith.

A strong faith can invigorate and infuse us with courage, and that same faith can also edify others. The apostle’s resolute courage gave his sailing companions fresh hope, leading them to readily listen to what he had to say. If he hadn’t been moved by the message that he spoke, no-one would have paid the slightest attention to what he had to say. It is the same with us. If we wish to strengthen and encourage others, we need to be moved by the Truth we advocate.