God's Sovereignty Through The Storms of Life
Topic: The Sovereignty of God Passage: Acts 27:1–44
Three years before the Apostle Paul got on this ship he wrote a letter. He wrote a letter to the church that is in the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, a city that Paul had never been to. He did not plant this church, he doesn't know the people of this church were from that city personally and he said these words three years before (Rom. 1:13): “I do not want you to be unaware brothers that I have often intended to come to you but thus far have been prevented in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles so I'm eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Rom. 15:24) I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain and to be helped on my journey there by you once I have enjoyed your company for a while.” And then just two years before he gets on the ship here right after he was almost beaten to death in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to him in his jail cell and made him this promise (Acts 23:11): “Take courage [Paul] for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem so you must testify also in Rome.” I'm going to get you there. Yeah, it's not the way Paul planned it. He was on a mission trip to Spain and he imagined himself being free, being helped on his way as he stops off in Rome. But now he's on his way to Rome and that is chapter 27. And this is a microcosm of the Christian life.
Those of you who love the Lord Jesus, who are teenagers and in your 20s and young, you have not been on many ocean journeys yet in life. You might have been on a couple, but those of us who are older (I've been walking with the Lord longer), we've been through a number of storms. The way God works with us, with all of us, is that he will get us from point A to point B, but many times there are storms, anxieties and even shipwrecks on the way in our lives, there are destinations that we have in this temporal world that God may have had for us or we just thought he did. And from point A to point B it's usually never the route we think that we would have taken. Short destinations like will I even finish college, should I go to college, I thought I would be doing X as a career and Here I am 10 years later doing Y, I didn't think I would still be unmarried at this age but here I am, I never thought I would be married, now married with kids, I never expected this illness to divert the entire course of my life, I never expected that job loss or that derailed marriage or the death of a loved one to send me on a course I never imagined. Storms of life, shipwrecks happen and then doubts arise. God are you really in control? Are you really sovereign? And let me assure you and me, his answer is yes, he is.
There are short journeys, there are long-term destinations, there are destinations that we are assured, God has guaranteed to us and promised us and here's one example: Paul, I will get you to Rome, you will testify there. And here's one for every one who loves the Lord Jesus, for every one who is in Christ throughout the centuries: in this very day nothing, no thing or experience shall be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39). He will get you to the resurrection of the just. It's just the journey that gets very stormy at times. It's that journey that tests our faith, as Cathi read this morning. It's the test of our faith that is part of God's journey for us, plan for us, again and again, bring us to the brink. Do I trust your providences? Oh God, do I really believe that the whole world is not out of your control? That's your life and that's why I think Luke gives so much detail. He spent so much ink on this one story which is unprecedented throughout the book of Acts because it's a demonstration of God's providence, of his sovereignty. It's a picture of God orchestrating human decisions and natural events in order to accomplish his will.
So if you're there let's begin with verse 1, Acts 27:1. So here's Paul, he's a political prisoner. Julius is a Centurion, he's over a hundred soldiers and he has the responsibility to get Paul and a number of other prisoners all the way to Rome so that they stand trial before Caesar. The journey is about 1,500 miles by sea. Paul was allowed to have two of his closest friends with him, doctor Luke, who is our writer, and Aristarchus, who was a long-term traveling companion of Paul’s. If you remember back in Ephesus during that horrific riot, he's one of the two guys that were dragged into the theater. He's been with Paul all these last number of years in Judea and so now they sail. We do know that the safest time to sail in the Mediterranean is from the beginning of April, May, June, July, August, September, throughout spring and throughout summer. And then it starts to get very dangerous and we know that when they take off here, now summer is essentially just ended. We know that because of verse 9 (Acts 27:9). The fast here refers to the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. So we know that they're most likely into the beginning, close to the middle of October, and they already are a little skittish sailing.
Look at verse 3 (Acts 27:3-4). Lee just means shelter, under the shelter of the island of Cyprus, because the winds were blowing against us so strongly. (Acts 27:5) And when we had sailed across the open sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia that [this is why the maps in the back of your Bible are so important, you just get a grasp of what he's talking about] we then came to Myra in Lycia. And so now they're in port there, and evidently Julius doesn't think they're moving fast enough. While they're on this about a 60 foot long ship that's meant to sail close to the cove, I mean, just on a girls softball field that's the plate to first base, that's how long it is. So look at verse six (Acts 27:6). Now these Alexandrian ships were much bigger, like three times longer. This is probably around 180 feet long and forty-eight feet wide. These were the largest ships in existence at the time. They are cargo ships, not as big as the ones right down over here which Peter and Alex sail on, but these were their cargo ships. And coming from Egypt and Alexandria, this ship is carrying cargo food, wheat six feet high, down beneath, under the berths just with weight and wide and almost the entire length of the ship. It's extremely heavy now. Any captain who could deliver wheat to Rome in the winter gets paid extra money.
Now, it doesn't say it, but again these guys are pushing it. They're taking huge risks. It seems like that's what this captain and the owner wanted to do. Look at verse 7 and 8 (Acts 27:7-8). So here they are now on the island of Crete, at Fair Havens. Since much time had passed and winter itself is getting closer and closer and the voyage was now dangerous because even the fast was already over, Paul advised them, a prisoner, saying, “Sirs, I don't have a good feeling about this.” Soon as I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss not only of the cargo and the ship but also of our lives. But the Centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said, and because the harbor was not suitable to spend the winter in, the majority decided to put out to sea from there on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete facing both Southwest and northwest and spend the winter there.
So Fair Havens is not a good place to park your ship during the winter. The waters evidently become very shallow and when a storm comes it's gonna just tear the ship up. They want to get forty miles down the coast of the same island of Crete, to Phoenix, that town in that harbor, and then just sit for a few months until spring. And they take a vote on it and they decide to go. And because they did, over the last two thousand years, now this has become one of the most famous shipwrecks in the history of the world.
Verse 13 (Acts 27:13): now when the south wind blew gently and supposing that they had obtained their purpose. This is nice, put sails up, let's get on down the road forty miles. They weighed anchor and sailed along creeks close to the shore, (Acts 27:14) but soon a tempestuous wind called the northeaster struck down from the land. Almost hurricane type wind, the northeaster, coming out of the north and east, blowing south west struck down. Where was God's sovereign control here? That's what people ask right now with people dying of the coronavirus, with the economy being killed, people's livelihoods. Where's God? He's right there. He's in absolute control of all of it and he's in control of this. "But soon a tempestuous wind called the northeaster struck down from the land and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind we gave way to it and were driven along carried out to sea. Running under the Lee of a small (it is a small, tiny island out there)." Again, once we finally got to the other side, that little island, “we were able” - that means the sailors, to lift up this lifeboat in the back, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship's boat, because that lifeboat is usually towed behind with a rope. And therefore, when you're in a storm the lifeboat can hit a wave and go smack into the back of the ship, which is made of wood. And then you got a hole in it and now you're all dead.
So they at least got a chance in this horrible storm to get that boat up. Now, see what Luke has begun to do and what he's going to be doing then, he is describing how much panic and fear was on that ship with the sailors and everybody else. If a screenwriter took what Luke is doing and wrote it well, and they put it on film, we would probably really feel what Luke wants to communicate. I mean, I think this is a pretty big aspect of his own life and what he went through. And so they get this lifeboat up to protect the ship from getting a big hole in it and sinking and then because they feared that the ship would begin to break apart this is what they did.
Back then, with these wooden ships they had ropes and they had cables in order to try to wrap the ship, tie it together the best they can so it wouldn't bust apart. That's how fierce the storm is. Look at verse 17 (Acts 27:17), after hoisting up that lifeboat, they used supports to undergird the ship, then fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis. Let's pause for a moment. The Syrtises are a bunch of huge sand bars. Now, when they took off from Crete, those sand bars, the Syrtises are 350 miles away off the coast of Africa. Many ships went to their graveyard on top of those things and they don't know how far they're going to be drifting at the whim of the storm. And so they lowered the gear sails and thus they were driven along since we were violently storm-tossed they began the next day to jettison the cargo. Think about that. That's why these sailors (I don't know if there's a hundred of them, 75 of them, the owner of the ship, the pilot of the ship) - that's why they're at work. That's how they get their money, and they start to throw the wheat overboard, which could take hours, if not even days. And so, why are they doing it? That's how desperate they are. This is life or death for them.
And on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their hands. That's not an offensive lineman or fishing hook’s tackles. The pulleys and the gears and the ropes for the sails. And so who knows how long it took them to get a bunch of guys to lift this stuff up and throw it over there. Trying to lighten the ship the best they can. Just think of the movie (if you've seen it), The Perfect Storm. Now, it's a bigger ship, but this is scary.
Now they have no way to really guide themselves. They've already locked the rudder. They don't want any sails. Storm is horrific. All of these things they just did were ultimate, desperate acts, because they all knew they were on the verge of drowning to death. So they did the best they can and then Luke tells us in verse 20 (Acts 27:20): “Now when neither sun nor stars appeared,” (just storm, rain clouds, who knows, 75 mile an hour, 80 mile an hour winds) “neither sun nor stars,” couldn't see them, they don't have compasses back then, they can't navigate, they don't know where they're going... “neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and no small tempest (the wind was horrific) lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned." I think Luke is saying, “I knew I was dead along with all of them.”
And so what about Paul? What's happening in Paul's soul in light of the promise that Jesus made to him (Acts 23:11): “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem so you must testify also in Rome.” Is the God of creation actually in complete control of nature, hurricanes, storms, winds, and human decisions? That's the underlying theme weaving its way through this story.
So at this point now, here's Paul, one of the prisoners. You've got a bunch of sailors making their money, and the captain and the owner. You've got the Centurion with bunches of soldiers with him and I don't know how many prisoners. Here's one of the prisoners now, who stands up to offer hope and encouragement to these 275 persons. And he says, “I told you so,” but I really don't think he said it with that I-told-you-so kind of attitude. I really think what he's doing is saying, maybe now I might have a little bit more credibility as a voice of reason, which if you would, hear me out. Now verse 21 (Acts 27:21): since they had been without food for a long time Paul stood up among them and said, “Men you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart for there will be no loss of life among you but only of the ship...” I just pause for a moment. Paul was not a superhuman. He's a human, a sinner like you and me who struggles like you and me. He feared. We know this because one of the messages that we’ll see in a second, God gave it through the angels, “don't be afraid.” Who wouldn't fear? He wavered, but God acted as he so often does with his children in mercy. He was gracious to Paul as he is so often gracious to us in our weaknesses and our feebleness. To Paul he sent an angel, to reaffirm the promise that he would make it safely to Rome. And so Paul says, “look, none of you are gonna die, so just take courage now. You know, yes the ship’s gonna be lost. None of us on this ship will die and this is how I know: (Acts 27:23-25). So what Paul says, "that's what he said to me. Therefore, take heart men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told."
So let's reflect for a few minutes on how Paul's faith should encourage us in the storms of life. Paul knew God was sovereign over these horrific circumstances. He knew two things: God is in control and God gave me a clear, specific promise. For Paul, those two were inseparable. Paul knew that if God promised, that there is nothing outside of God that can ever thwart or prevent his promise, his will from being done. Paul knew God was masterfully in control of these horrific circumstances. So he knew he can trust God's promises in the midst of horrific circumstances. And just for a moment here's a promise for every single one of us in this room and at home: Paul wrote three years earlier, we Christians, who are justified by faith, “we rejoice in our sufferings” - and that's not the promise yet, he says that's how we walk. Here's the promise, because we know something: “we know that suffering produces endurance and that endurance produces character and that character produces hope and that hope does not put us to shame because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:3-5). There's a promise to hope in, in the midst of life's storms.
Now here's Paul, he maintains his confidence in God even when shipwreck looks absolutely inevitable and certain. Paul kept his trust in the Lord in the midst of, look, it's gotta be very frustrating, anxiety-producing circumstances. I can see Paul down there in the hull of the ship, "Jesus you promised to get me to Rome. Why all these seemingly unnecessary happenings? Okay, just get me to Rome." Paul's temper cools a bit and he gives in. It's like we do, "yes lord, help my unbelief, help me, you still are in absolute control." And thus this very scary and difficult journey leads Paul and Aristarchus and Luke to an even deeper dependence upon God. The longer any of us walk with the Lord, the more we will experience this way, from our viewpoint, seemingly unnecessary detours. My shipwrecks, when I have to go to a shipwreck, get on another ship. Eventually what I have to go through, this detour, that detour instead of being where I know I ought to be right now. And at times these circumstances though, they bring us to the point of self-examination (which we are so needful of). Do I really love you? Do I really trust your word and this promise here? Do I trust that you're caring for me? And that's God's purpose, the testing of our faith, that exposing of our sin, that exposing of our love for the world is a gift of God's grace that grows us from one degree of experiencing his glory to a deeper degree of experiencing his glorious presence. It's what he does in the storms of life.
And another lesson in this passage is this: it teaches us to never draw wrong, unbiblical conclusions from the doctrine of God's sovereignty. Never draw unbiblical applications from the doctrine of God's sovereign control over all things. In verse 26 (Acts 27:26) Paul tells them that the way we're gonna all survive is by running the ship aground on some island out there, that's what I've been told. It’s what he knows, and then the rest of the passage has Paul telling these men what to do and what not to do in order that you don't die. Okay God, again he's just told them, and he says the angel has told me none of us are going to die, and then he threw out the rest of the passage, goes on to tell them, do this, don't do that or you will die. Which one is it? Are they all going to be saved because of God in His sovereignty or is it going to happen because of their obedience to Paul's instruction? The answer is yes. Our trust in God’s sovereign purposes evidences itself in our acts of obedience.
Let’s read on for a moment, verse 27 (Acts 27:27): “When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea about midnight, the sailors suspected that they were nearing land.” We don't know, maybe they off in the distance heard waves crashing against rocks or something. And so they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. They dropped the line, the rope way down with a big heavy lead at the bottom and see if they can hit the bottom of the ocean and they did. And they found that it was a hundred and twenty feet deep a little farther on they took a sounding again and found it fifteen fathoms. It's only now ninety feet deep. They go, look at this we're running into a mountain from the bottom of the ocean it comes up above the water, which we call an island and fearing that we might run on the rocks they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship and had lowered the ship's boat into the sea under the pretense (pretending they're laying out the anchors from the boat), Paul said to the Centurion and the soldiers, about these sailors unless these men stay in the ship you cannot be saved. Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat and let it go.
God is sovereignly saving from death every person on board that ship through their obeying Paul's instructions. The angel told Paul everyone will survive. That did not lead Paul to passivity, “Que sera sera,” then it doesn't matter what we do. That's a wrong conclusion of the doctrine of God's hidden will, sovereign will. It did not lead him to neglect wisdom, appropriate actions. Paul, playing on the field of life is not God. He assumes correctly here that they need the sailors when it becomes light and they can finally see somewhat of the land and get this ship to get as close to it, if not even on a beach so that they're all saved. And so he says, "you can't let these sailors go, all you soldiers are gonna die with us if you do."
In the midst of this coronavirus time that we're in right now, the Apostle Paul would not walk into a nursing home and go room to room and get in the faces of these older people and start talking to them and breathing on them and as someone says, "why are you doing it?" Oh no, no God is sovereign. God has ordained the day of their birth and he's ordained the way in which and the time of their death. Therefore what I do makes no difference. Only fools think that way. Paul does not understand God's sovereignty to be a freedom for us human beings to have no responsibilities. In other words, just because God promised that everyone on board that ship would survive, Paul did not assume that that would happen apart from proper means.
God promised to save souls, men and women, boys and girls from every people, every language, every tribe, every nation. And because he promised, we can be absolutely assured he will do it. But none of those persons will be saved unless they come to Jesus through hearing the gospel preached by us, the church. How are they going to believe in him of whom they have not heard? How are they going to hear without a preacher? How are they gonna preach unless they're sent? (Rom. 10:14-15). God is sovereign to save every single one of the elect, but he does it through the means he has also ordained sovereignly, the preaching of the gospel.
Let's finish this long passage and wrap it up. So here we have this prisoner now, the one who trusts in God, and now seemingly he's in control, verse 33 (Acts 27:33-42). Now the reason they're freaked out if they lose a prisoner, this is how it worked for them: they lose their life. “But the Centurion, wishing to save Paul,” (Acts 27:43) Luke's made it clear this guy Julius really liked Paul. He kept them from carrying out their plan and killing the prisoners. There's another sign of God's sovereign protection. And so he ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship and so it was that all were brought safe to land (Acts 27:44). "Paul, I promise I'm going to get you to Rome to preach the gospel. Paul, I didn't promise you how. I didn't promise you it would be smooth sailing (pun intended)." This was pretty rough. That was frightening. That was testing. The question is, is that the loving Savior that you know? Have you experienced that kind of journey from point A to point B? I bet you have experienced numbers of them in differing degrees. I have. Here's the great, great part of what we've seen: it means nothing will ever stop God's purpose and will for your life, nor for the Church of Jesus Christ.
In our day where secularism is like a tidal wave going over us, nothing will ever ever be able to separate us from God's sovereign purposes and will for our lives. He does not promise a life free from suffering and trials and fearful experiences, which are calling us again and again to trust him. But God has promised in the gospel, God has promised through the good news of Jesus Christ an eternity that is unimaginable, that we cannot even grasp how wonderfully good it will be for every single person who loves him and is called according to his purpose. He has promised that we will be with him, as we sang this morning, see him face to face. He has promised that we will be resurrected from the dead just like Jesus was and that death will be no more. Sin in us will be gone, there will be no more tears of sadness and grief and fear. Right now in our mortal lives, we who believe are called by God to continue to trust his promises written in Scripture, placing our hope anchored there in the inheritance laid up for you in heaven. And it is from that trust that our obedience will be strong, as we say along with the Apostle Paul, “so take heart, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” And it will be. Christ purchased every promise and made them yes and amen in him.