We are all contending in our own ways with the surreal state of affairs suddenly brought on by a vicious, invisible virus. Medical experts use the best of the science available to project likely outcomes in different locations. Meanwhile, government officials at all levels scramble to do the right thing to protect their people, with little confidence of what that right thing is.
Businesspeople, workers and investors watch helplessly as their financial security slips away. Families, colleagues, church members, and friends learn new ways of staying connected while keeping their distance. And of course, career politicians scout for ways to exploit our collective misfortune for the advancement of their own agendas.
All of this has coincided with my journey through the book of Acts. The Spirit shows me how Scripture comes to life in these peculiar circumstances.
The last chapters of Acts document Paul’s emotionally challenging journey to Jerusalem, against the wishes of just about everyone who knew and loved him. The Holy Spirit warned him repeatedly of the “chains and afflictions” that awaited him there (Acts 20:23). His response? “I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13). Never has mortal man been more determined to finish his course and ministry, whatever the cost.
Sure enough, he did not experience a warm welcome from the Jews at Jerusalem. They plotted day and night to ambush and kill him. Nevertheless, he resolutely testified about Jesus to Jews in the temple, to the mob outside, and to the Sanhedrin.
For his safety Paul was whisked away by night to Caesarea, where he witnessed to two governors. Neither of these governors found probable cause to arrest Paul, but they imprisoned him anyway, “to do the Jews a favor” (24:27). There are purely political animals in every place and generation, I guess.
Eventually, because the Jews would not cease harassing and threatening him, Paul appealed to Caesar. Once that happened, it was like it is on cop shows when a suspect asks for a lawyer. All the questioning stops. Governor Festus declared, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go” (25:12).
You may already detect some parallels to the political dynamic in America. But here is where the application to our current dilemma gets most interesting. Paul was to be transported to Rome on a cargo ship under armed guard, surrounded by pagan crewmen. Though the centurion in command treated Paul kindly, Paul was not among brothers and sisters in the Lord. Also, winter was coming on, so the weather was unpredictable. No one could insure safe passage all the way to Rome.
Analysis of the rest of the story could be a dissertation for a student of sailing. The commander and the sailors ignored Paul’s advice to wait in safe harbor and sailed headlong into a ferocious storm. They tried every sailing technique in the book to save the ship from sinking or wrecking. They girded the ship with ropes, pulled anchors, dropped anchors, trimmed sails, loosened sails, jettisoned cargo, threw tackle overboard, and tried to escape on lifeboats. Finally, they just figured they’d die, and stopped eating.
I am far from knowledgeable about sailing technique, but I do know something about human behavior, with and without the influence of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it strange that when we are ignorant of or disobedient toward the will of God, we will try every natural means to solve our problems, but they rarely succeed?
Paul was an apostle who had learned to hear from the Spirit very clearly. Luke often mentions the Spirit’s intervention in Paul’s itinerary by an angel, a dream, or direct revelation. Often his plans were changed without notice.
But on this miserable boat ride, what Paul knew without a doubt was that he was going to make it to Rome to appear before Caesar. Therefore, he could say definitively that all who were with him would also survive the trip. They just needed to stay with the ship and listen to the Lord’s counsel through him.
Paul’s demeanor is calm, gracious, and confident throughout the trip. He’s quite like Jesus sleeping on the back of a different ship before being awakened to calm a different storm.
This is how Paul brought comfort to the distraught seamen:
After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island” (27:21-26).
It did happen exactly as God told Paul. They landed safely on Malta and were greeted very warmly. The crewmen watched as Paul was unharmed by a viper’s bite and while he healed many sick islanders by the miraculous power of God.
Here’s the gist. Can you or I say, “I have faith in God” that whatever he has willed for us will come to pass? Because if we can, whatever “nevertheless” might follow, we can keep our peace. We are likely to face financial loss before this is over. People we know may get sick. Most will recover, but we will hear of those who don’t. Will this shake our confidence in the goodness of God? Or will it serve to confirm it?
Paul had pagan unbelievers watching him, and though the text doesn’t confirm it, I’ll bet some of them came to the Lord because of what they saw in him. Paul maintained his faith in God’s providence and protection in the face of great fear and uncertainty all around him.
Who is watching me and you, and what will they see in us as we weather this storm?