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Acts 28:1-10

Last week, we saw that Acts chapter 27 contains an elaborate picture of the church age. It was a lot to
absorb in one hearing; so today we are first going to review what we learned, to get that picture in better
focus. And that will help to get us started in our last chapter in the book of Acts.

We have seen that the sea voyage that was to take Paul to Rome reflected the church age from the time
when the gospel began to go out to the Gentile nations until the present day. In this picture, Paul represents
the Word of God, which is how the church has known Paul down through the centuries – through his letters
in the New Testament.

When the church began in Jerusalem, the Word of God was freely taught, and the Word went out from the
Jews to the Gentiles with liberality. But just as Paul entered Jerusalem free, and then was taken prisoner, the
Word of God became bound. The Word of God has generally been restricted during the church age, as it
has come under the authority of men; the gospel has not been freely preached, and the Word has had
thinking added to it, taken from it. This renders it powerless.

Paul was taken aboard a ship, under the authority of Julius, a centurion. We know that Luke and
Aristarchus traveled with Paul. They put out to sea; Jerusalem and Caesarea were now left behind by the
ship, which contained Paul the prisoner.

In the picture, the ship represents the church itself. As it journeys, it is primarily a reflection of
Christendom throughout history – those who profess to believe in Jesus, but have never really submitted to
Him, to receive His life.

The action of the ship leaving port reflects the period of church history sometimes called the late apostolic
age. In the book of Revelation, Jesus admonished this church for having left their first love – Jesus (Rev
2:4).

As the early church grew, its love for Jesus became less fervent, as more and more of its members merely
professed to believe in Jesus, without having a genuine relationship with Him. The church was
characterized by good works, but apart from the life of Jesus, they amounted to nothing (Jn 15:5) – nothing
of any eternal value.

The ship next pulled into port in Sidon. The centurion permitted Paul to visit his fellow believers while
they were there, and they received him and took care of him. Because of adverse winds, the ship sailed
under the protection of Cyprus, and then made port in Myra, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor.

This reflected the next period of church history, when the church came under persecution by the Roman
Empire, which is shown by the contrary winds and the name Sidon, “hunting”. The Word of God helped to
keep the church at this time, as they carefully watched over it, to protect the truth from corruption.

Persecution kept the church strong and pure. Jesus had forewarned this church, in His address them in
Revelation, that the persecution would increase in severity, but that they must be faithful unto death – for
He would reward them with a crown of life – Life everlasting, in a body of glory. Under the loving
protection of Jesus, the church was able to endure.

In Myra, the centurion found a larger ship, a grain vessel of the imperial fleet – one of the Roman
emperor’s vessels – and transferred his entire party to it. This ship then sailed slowly along the coast of the
province of Asia, as the wind was still contrary. Finally, the ship went off course, giving in to the wind and
sailing south. The ship came under the protection of Cyprus, and made port on the south side of the island.
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This reflects the time in history when Constantine became the emperor of Rome. Constantine made
Christianity the state religion. Suddenly, all persecution against the church ceased; but at the same time, the
church became compromised, as Constantine and succeeding emperors introduced pagan symbols, idols
and rituals into the church. We see this in the centurion changing ships to one of the emperor’s ships, and
with the ship giving in to the wind.

Because of the slow progress the ship had been making, the time of year was now approaching when the
Mediterranean would be closed to cross-sea traffic. Paul counseled the centurion that the ship should go no
further, for the voyage would end in disaster and much loss.

But the owner-captain of the ship gave different advice, based on his vested interest in the ship and its
cargo of wheat. He advised that the ship go just a little further along Crete to a safer port, where it would
be better able to weather the winter storms. The centurion heeded the advice of the owner-captain over
Paul’s counsel, and headed for the port of Phoenix – if by any means they could reach it.

We saw in this the period of church history when popes controlled the church, both as religious as well as
political rulers – they were its owner-captains. Their goal was to preserve the institution of the church, and
to maintain their power over the people. This was done through an elaborate system of religious works, by
which one supposedly could, by these means, reach heaven.

And just as the ship never made it to Phoenix, not one soul who tries to get to heaven by religious works
ever gets there. Instead, they come into the storm of God’s judgment – as Jesus said that those who hold to
this doctrine will, in His address to this church in the book of Revelation (Rev 2:22-23). Although the
period of papal domination over the church had a distinct end, there is still part of Christendom under a
pope today, and this will continue until the end of the church age.

In the next leg of Paul’s sea voyage, a tempestuous wind overtook the ship. The men on board secured the
ship, undergirded it, and lightened it, trying to preserve the ship in the midst of the storm.

This reflects the period of the Reformation. The Reformation was founded upon the right understanding by
certain individuals that the church had gotten off course, and that it had developed into an institution apart
from God. But instead of recognizing the need to be completely separate from Christendom, men tried to
reform it – thus the name, Reformation.

The reformed version of Christendom got away from the pope; they strengthened the institution with
church doctrine; and they got rid of many of the images and rituals of the church; but the hierarchical
structure remained, and the religious system of works remained.

In His revelation to John, Jesus said to this church that they had a name that they were alive – but they were
dead (Rev 3:1). In reality, it was still the same ship. Reformed Christendom is still present in our day, and
will continue until the end of the church age.

On the sea voyage, the ship continued many days in this condition. Without sun or stars to guide them, the
men eventually gave up all hope, that they could save themselves. It was then that Paul spoke to them
again, telling the men to take heart – for the Lord had shown him that, although the ship would be lost,
everyone who sailed with Paul would be saved. They would be cast upon a certain island.

By the fourteenth night, the sailors determined that they were nearing land. Some of them decided to try to
make land in the life boat; but based on the counsel of Paul, the centurion cut away the skiff. They would
all stay together, in obedience to the word of Paul. It was the only way that they could be saved.
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Just before day dawned, Paul urged the men to eat, breaking bread and eating it in their presence. Then the
men were encouraged, and ate. When they had their fill, they threw out all the wheat into the sea,
lightening the ship.

This pictures the missionary age of the church, marked by revival in Europe and the United States. Men
were convicted of their sin, and recognized that they had no means to save themselves. They turned to
Jesus as their Savior, the Bread who came down from heaven to give Life to the world (Jn 6:33).

Men took in that Jesus had been crucified to pay the penalty for their sins, so that they did not have to. And
as men feasted on the life and the light and the love of God, they desired to share with others, that they too
might partake of the Bread of Life, and live.

That was the wheat cast out into the sea (Acts 27:38) – the Word of God cast out upon the sea of humanity
– and that Word will not return to Him void, but would accomplish what He wills (Is 55:11) – that none
should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). Although the missionary movement has
passed its prime, the work of missions will still continue until the end of the church age.

When the day had dawned, the men could see the land, although they did not recognize it. They tried to
bring the ship into the bay, to run the ship aground on the beach, but the ship became caught on a sandbar,
and the waves began to destroy it. It never did make it to the shore; but every man aboard did, just as the
Lord had promised: all those who sailed with Paul were saved.

This reflects the last church age. Christendom will be left behind in judgment, while all of those who
believe the Word of God, believing God for His Christ, will be saved alive; they will find that Jesus is their
refuge, their escape from the condemnation to come.

Understand what this last part of the picture shows. It does not imply that everyone in Christendom will be
saved. Christendom is the ship, and it is utterly destroyed. What would have happened if any of the people
remained in the ship? They would have been destroyed, with it. Only those who came out of it were saved
– that’s the true church. And its salvation is complete and sure.

This brings us to the last part of the book of Acts – the final chapter, 28. And remarkably, we will see that
the picture continues in this chapter, tracing the progression of the Word of God through to the last days.

Now, we will see that this picture is not as clear for us as the picture in chapter 27 had been. It very much
follows the pattern of Jesus’ revelation to John, where we see the church age described most distinctly, but
details beyond that age, to the end of time, are less clear.

This week, we’ll look at the first part of chapter 28. Having seen the effect of the Word of God on
Christendom – particularly in what we might call the civilized world, this part of chapter 28 will now show
the effect of the Word of God in the uncivilized world.

This gives us a picture of the gospel being carried to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8) through the
missionary movement, which as mentioned before, continues right to the end of the church age. This is the
effect of the wheat, the good seed of the Word of God, being cast out into the sea of humanity, as we saw
pictured in the last chapter (Acts 27:38).

The action continues right from chapter 27.


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v. 1 The island of Malta used to be called Melita – you will find that name even in some Bible translations.
It is a small island, about 17 miles long and 9 miles wide, lying about 60 miles south of Sicily. The island
was first named by Phoenician seafarers. Melita is a Canaanite word for “refuge”; I’m sure sailors found it
to be a refuge on many occasions, with the storms of the Mediterranean.

Now, this first verse is connected to the action of the last chapter. Luke was continuing the account of
“they” and “them” – that is, the men, who had gotten off of the ship. The men had all abandoned the ship,
and by swimming or floating, had made it to land – every one of them.

Notice that this verse says they had escaped. The word escape in the Greek literally means “to save from”.
It means to be preserved; to be brought safely through danger. What had the men been saved from? They
had been saved from death. And they had been saved from the ship, which was slated for destruction by
the storm. Their lives were preserved – how? By getting off the ship, and getting to land. The land was
their means of escape. And that’s what Malta means – escape.

This verse is likewise connected to the picture in the last chapter. You may remember that the men had
sighted a bay with a beach (Acts 27:39). The word “bay” in Greek literally means the bosom or breast.
This is the catching up of the true church to be with her Lord; Jesus will gather her in to his breast, the
place of intimacy and affection. That’s her place of refuge, her escape from the storm of judgment that is
coming upon the earthdwellers.

The next verse begins with “and”, which connects it with the previous verse; but now, Luke resumes with
his “we” and “us” narrative. This verse begins the record of the encounter of the believers who had
escaped from the ship – Paul, in particular – with the natives whom they found on the island.

Now, all the men escaped the ship, and made it to shore, including Paul, Luke and Aristarchus; and I’m
sure that all of the men were treated kindly by the natives; but what I want you to note is that Luke had
been speaking of the men, through chapter 27, and including verse 1 of chapter 28, but in verse 2, he begins
to speak just of the believers again, for that is what the Holy Spirit is emphasizing.

v. 2 “Natives” in the Greek are literally barbarians. We think of barbarians as uncivilized people; savages.
But the Greeks used the term to describe anyone who did not speak the Greek language; that is, one who
spoke a foreign tongue, a strange language.

Of course, the Greeks did consider such people uncivilized. That’s a very common prejudice, isn’t it? To
think of people who are culturally different – in their language, or customs, or style of dress – as culturally
inferior; even uncivilized.

The Greeks did not expect kind treatment from such “uncivilized” people; they were strangers to the
Greeks. But these natives extended generous hospitality to the shipwrecked men – even though the men
were strangers to the natives. Here Luke was contrasting for his readers the kindness that these natives
gave to strangers, against what they would have known of Greek racial prejudices.

The natives of this island were largely of Phoenician extraction, and spoke in a Phoenician dialect. Some
Roman citizens and retired soldiers also lived there.

But Luke specifies that it was the natives who gave the shipwrecked men a gracious reception, with just
what they needed – a warm fire. It was still raining, and it was cold – for it was early winter, and the storm
had not yet dissipated. What a blessing that warm fire must have been to these waterlogged men!
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Not only that, but the natives made the men feel welcome. In the Greek, this means “to admit to one’s
society and fellowship”. The natives not only took care of the men’s material needs; they extended
themselves personally, availing themselves to the men; they made them feel at home. These natives
displayed a generous and open spirit.

Now a large fire would have been desirable for such a large party of people – remember that there were 276
men on board that ship. And what would they need for a large fire? Wood – lots and lots of wood.

v. 3 Do you think there would have been others gathering the wood? Of course – to build a large fire
would have required many hands, and in fact, the natives would have primarily been doing the gathering.
But we note that Luke only records Paul as gathering the wood.

As Paul did so, he unknowingly picked up a serpent residing in a bundle of sticks – an asp viper, a
poisonous snake. The viper was concealed amidst the other sticks, and was inactive and stiff, due to the
cold. But as Paul laid the other sticks on the fire, the viper quickly came to life. It lashed out at Paul’s
hand, and fastened itself there. Now, since vipers do not coil, this “fastening” can only mean one thing.
The viper bit Paul’s hand – which would release its venom.

v. 4 You can be sure that the natives of the island know their wildlife. So they recognized this asp viper
for what it was – a poisonous snake. Their experience told them that the bite of this creature meant certain
death. But their superstition told them that this was retributive justice, and that Paul must have been a
murderer.

Now, why would they think that? Well, it was a common assumption among pagan societies that people
were often punished by divine vengeance in that part of the body which had been the instrument of the sin.
Since the natives saw that Paul was bitten on the hand, they assumed that his hand was the instrument of
sin. Since murder was usually committed with the hand, they made a leap in logic that Paul must be a
murderer.

Having cheated death once, in escaping the sea, divine justice had now caught up with Paul – in the form of
a viper. Here the natives speak of justice personified; there was a goddess of justice among the Greeks
known as Dike; this may have been a parallel deity of Phoenician origin.

That both cultures would have such a goddess is not surprising. Since God has written His law in the heart
of every man, and the conscience bears witness to it (Rm 2:15), it is natural that men who do not know God
would explain such a sense of right and wrong in the form a god of their own creation.

What we can see is that these natives knew that there is a God of justice. They knew that the guilty will be
punished by Him. And they knew that the justice of God is retributive – He punishes the guilty according
to their sins.

Their logical deduction failed them on only one point. This was not an act of divine judgment. Sometimes
a snakebite is just a snakebite.

v. 5-6 Paul just matter-of-factly shook off the viper into the fire; that viper wouldn’t be biting anyone else.
You can just visualize this scene. Paul continued stoking the fire, adding sticks, warming himself and the
other men. Meanwhile, the natives were watching every move he made, and waiting – expecting that, any
moment, Paul’s hand and arm would become inflamed from the toxin, and that he would keel over dead.
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But as time passed, and Paul remained unaffected, the natives changed their minds about him. He wasn’t a
murderer after all – in fact, he was no less than a god! Once again, their superstitions influenced their
thinking.

Clearly, they knew this species of asp viper – and they knew that its bite was inevitably fatal. But they did
not know Paul’s God – and that He had the power to protect His servants from harm.

Jesus had given His disciples authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the
enemy, declaring that nothing would by any means hurt them (Lk 10:19). And Jesus said those who believe
in Him will take up serpents, and that they would be unhurt (Mk 16:18).

This viper had no power to hurt Paul, for Paul was under the protection of Jesus. But the natives had no
knowledge of Jesus, and that He had the power to protect those who were His. So when Paul survived,
these natives could only conclude that Paul was no mere mortal; for Paul to survive the bite of the viper, he
must be divine.

You may remember that this was not the first time that Paul had been mistaken for a divinity. In Lystra, he
and Barnabas had been mistaken for Hermes and Zeus. Of course, a short time later, the Lystrans stoned
Paul – for people are fickle (Acts 14:11-19). But this time, things would come to a more fruitful
conclusion.

v. 7-8 “Leading citizen”, or first man, chief man was the proper title of the governor of Malta, as found in
Greek and Latin inscriptions. The name Publius is a Latin name; the governor might have been a Roman,
or as the top official of the island, he may have received a grant of Roman citizenship. The second is more
likely, since he has family on the island (his father, verse 8).

The governor reflected the same hospitality as his people. Now, who does it say that he received, and
entertained? Verse 7 – “us” – that refers to at least Paul, Luke and Aristarchus. It is unlikely that Publius
lodged all 276 men at his estate, but he probably lodged Paul and his friends, as well as the centurion.

Perhaps the snakebite had even served as the means for Paul to gain entrance here – Publius may have had
his curiosity sparked by the reports he heard concerning the incident. It is likely that, as a high government
official, Publius knew Greek as well as the native tongue, and was able to communicate directly with the
believers.

After three days, the father of Publius was stricken with an attack of a recurrent disease known as gastric
fever, or Malta fever, which is caused by a microbe found in raw goat’s milk. This disease used to be the
scourge of Malta. It is a malaria-like illness characterized by fever and diarrhea.

When Paul learned of the illness of his host’s father, he went to see him. Paul prayed – what would have
been his prayer? Perhaps something like, “Lord Jesus, if it is your will, make this man whole”. Then Paul
laid his hands on the man; and Jesus healed him. Now, the father of Publius was not just healed of this
outbreak of the disease; Jesus freed him of the disease completely; he would never be under its power
again.

v. 9-10 Just as Publius had undoubtedly heard word of Paul’s miraculous survival of the bite of the asp, so
word of the healing of the father of Publius spread throughout the island. All those who suffered from
various diseases came to the believers, and every one was healed. This went on over the three month
period that the men were on the island (v. 11). Jesus had said to His disciples that they would lay hands on
the sick, and they would recover (Mk 16:18).
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Now, do you think that Paul and the other believers merely healed the natives, and sent them on their way?
Of course not. Luke, in summarizing the account, does not mention that Paul and the others preached the
gospel to the natives of the island, but of course they did. They would have to have done so through
translators, perhaps the Romans who lived on the island – but you can be sure that the gospel was preached.

It was for this very purpose that Jesus was healing the natives of Malta; so that He could heal them, spirit,
soul and body. The works of healing were intended to authenticate the words that Paul and the other
believers preached; that they were the words of God, just as the healings were the works of God.

You can be certain that just as the natives of the island received the men in the first place, many received
their testimony, for Luke’s account says that the natives honored the believers – in many ways. They
showered Paul and the others with favor, in return for the good news of the great favor that God had done
them, in Christ. This took the form of the natives making material provision for the believers’ journey to
Rome – as all on board the ship had lost everything in the shipwreck.

Had the natives rejected the gospel, no amount of healing could have evoked this kind of response, for this
response speaks of love, and there is no room for love when unbelief occupies the heart.

Now as I mentioned at the beginning, this first part of chapter 28 continues the picture of the progression of
the Word of God through the last days. In chapter 27, we saw the effect of the Word of God in
Christendom – what some might call the civilized world. In that picture, Paul was in chains; because in
Christendom down through the ages, the Word of God has been bound, under the authority of men.

But as we come into chapter 28, we have the sense that Paul is free. In reality, he would have to have been
unchained in order to make his way safely to shore, during the storm. And we have no sense that he was
ever chained again while there; he had been gathering firewood; he had laid hands on the father of Publius,
to heal him.

We have the sense that Paul was free while on the island. And why not? The island was small; there was
nowhere to escape to. And Julius had come to completely trust Paul, especially after the events on the ship.

This is what we see as we consider the Word of God going out to the uttermost parts of the earth – the
wheat cast out on the sea of humanity. The movement to send the gospel out to what some term the
uncivilized parts of the world was initiated during the Missionary Age, but it still continues right into our
present day.

The psalmist declared, “Sing to the LORD, bless His name; proclaim the good news of His salvation from
day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples” (Ps 96:2-3). That is the
calling to missions, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all peoples.

Now, what has been the barrier to people – all through the world – hearing the good news of Jesus Christ?
Language. Turn to Romans chapter 10. Paul was writing of the salvation to be had in the Lord Jesus, for
all who will believe in Him; that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. Then he posed a
series of questions.

[Romans 10:13-15] During the Missionary Age, men and women responded to the Lord’s leading to be
those preachers who would be sent out to areas where people had never heard the name of the Lord. But
when they arrived, those missionaries had to first learn the language of the people.
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Once they began to master the language, what do you think would be the first thing that they would
routinely have preached to the people? The gospel; the Word of God. And once they began to put down
that language in writing, what would be the first thing they would routinely have printed? The Bible; the
Word of God.

So unlike in Christendom, where the Word of God was bound, the Word of God has generally been free in
the so-called uncivilized world; it has been held forth in all of its purity and power. This is what we see
with Paul free on the island, amongst the natives there.

Notice the reception of the natives – the believers (“us”) were received with kindness, and given a warm
welcome (v. 2). Unlike the reception we find in Christendom, the Word of God and its ministers tend to
find a more open reception among people of distant lands; although language and custom may present
some interesting challenges.

The image of Christendom was the ship – dead wood that floated above the sea of humanity. It wound up
wrecked in the storm. On the island, there were sticks that were gathered by Paul, and were placed into a
fire (v. 3). The sticks became a part of the fire, with every stick on fire. Can you see the picture? The
natives had been dead wood, but those who were gathered to the Lord through the gospel received the life
of the Holy Spirit – they were now on fire for the Lord, a part of Him.

Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah, “I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My
salvation to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6b). And as those on the ends of the earth receive the Light of
Christ, they become Light as well; and they also are warmed with His Love, and then they radiate that love
of Christ, which warms others.

As the smoke of that fire rose into the air, so the offering of these souls to the Lord rose to the heavens – an
offering that was well-pleasing to Him. Malachi prophesied, “From the rising of the sun, even to its going
down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and
a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations” (Mal 1:11).

These were the sticks which Paul was gathering, and placing on the fire. But what was concealed in the
midst of those sticks? – a viper. The serpent is subtle (Gen 3:1). While the sticks were content to remain
cold, dead wood, the serpent rested himself in their midst. But once the sticks were aglow, the viper was
spurred to action, for his home had been disturbed.

Satan has a stronghold in many lands where the Word of God has not been heard, and he will strike out at
anyone who threatens his base of operations. And what did the viper bite? Paul’s hand (v. 3). In Scripture,
what does the hand speak of? It speaks of the doing. Satan will attempt to poison fruitful work. But the
Lord will prevail, through the members of His Body; His Word will suffer no harm (v. 5); it will accomplish
His purposes; that none shall perish; that all may come to repentance.

The very thing that Satan uses to try to undermine the work, God often uses to show His own power and
authority, to make Himself known to the people. This is what we saw in the bite of the viper; when Paul
didn’t die, the people recognized the power of God in his deliverance – even though they wrongly
attributed it to Paul, at first (v. 6).

The Lord used this circumstance further – to create an audience for the Word, where it may never have
been heard – in this case, at the governor’s estate (v. 7). It was in this position of high visibility that Jesus
healed the governor’s father of his recurrent sickness through Paul (v. 8). This is what Jesus offers to all
sons of Adam; to heal them of their sin sickness, to release them from the power that sin has over them.
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Jeremiah prophesied, “Therefore behold, I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know
My hand and My might; and they shall know that My name is the LORD” (Jer 16:21).

Through the power of the healing, the LORD was making Himself known to these natives; and they
responded to Him; they came to the believers for healing. All the rest of those on the island who had
diseases came and were healed (v. 9). The Lord will heal anyone who recognizes that he is sin-sick, who is
willing to come to Him, believing the Lord can and will heal him; and the Lord does.

Then there is that sweet response of the ones who have been healed of their sin-sickness. Jesus had laid
down His life for them, and they offer back to Him such things as they possessed, for the furtherance of His
work. It is the reasonable response of love, to Love. The Psalmist wrote, “A people I have not known shall
serve Me. As soon as they hear of Me they obey Me; the foreigners submit to Me” (Ps 18:43b-44).

What we see reflected here in the so-called uncivilized world is the gracious and ready welcome the pure
Word of God receives from those who have never heard it, and the joyous response of their hearts to so
great a love as this - Love, who would lay down His life - for them.

Next week – finish Acts.