Acts28v1to10: PAUL IN MALTA
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
Paul never planned to visit Malta. He and his companions spent the three winter months on the island. On the whole it was a pleasant interlude for the intrepid apostle and brought many blessings to the inhabitants.
There are five points of interest in Luke's account of the Maltese experience.
(A) A pagan people showed Paul and his companions unusual kindness.
The 276 survivors of the shipwreck reached shore in a pitiful condition - exhausted, shocked, wet and cold. The islanders, descendents of Phoenician colonists, built a great fire to dry them out and warm them up. The ship's company receive a warm welcome! Publius, the governor, went further. He generously entertained some of the more important folk from the grain carrier, including Paul and his friends, for three days. Then at the end of their three-month stay the local people who had honoured the Christians in many ways provided them with the supplies they needed for the journey to Rome.
It is nonsense to suppose that natural man is incapable of acting in a way that pleases God. I have heard times without number preachers quote Is64v6: All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. In the preceding verse Isaiah writes: You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. Man is fallen but not totally depraved. He still bears the Creator's image. So all men can tell right from wrong and from time to time are capable of disinterested acts of kindness.
There are several instances in the Old Testament of men and women showing kindness. The book of Ruth is a celebration of kindness. Ruth was kind to Naomi, Boaz treated Ruth with generosity and thoughtfulness and Naomi had the best interest of her daughter-in-law at heart. It is difficult to read the book of Ruth and to believe in man's total depravity. The Widow of Zarephath, a Canaanite, took some of her tiny supply of flour and made Elijah a small loaf during time of famine. See1Kings17v7to16. The well-to-do woman of Shunam provided a nice little room where Elisha could stay in comfort on his travels. See2Kings4v8to10.
Last week the famous English football manager, Brian Clough, died. There is no doubt that Brian Clough was flawed. He could be very cruel. His language was known to be foul and brutal. He was addicted to alcohol. Humility was not one of his obvious virtues. However there were several letters in the press paying tribute to his kindness. I very much liked the one quoted below:
I am glad the former pastor wrote that letter of appreciation to the kindness of Brian Clough. We do the human race a disservice when we fail to acknowledge those virtues that persist despite the fall. What men, including Brian Clough, need saving from is a broken relationship with God. That is how we are dead in trespasses and sin.
(C) A small example of practical Christianity.
Paul was not the sort of person who was afraid to get his hands dirty. There he was collecting sticks for the fire along with everyone else. If my father had been amongst the survivors in Malta he, too, would have been collecting brushwood for the fire. He loved a fire! When my father, on a pastoral visit to Alice, found her blocking up rat holes in the foundations of her clay lump cottage he told her that it wasn't a job for a woman. He got on his knees and did the job himself. I shall always remember him going into the chapel on winter Sunday mornings to switch on the heaters. There was no task, however humble, that he wasn't willing to undertake.
I found the Daily Telegraph obituary of Beyers Naude very interesting. Beyers Naud left the Afrikaner Dutch Reformed Church over its policy of supporting Apartheid. He was welcomed into the black equivalent! Beyers Naud was known as 'Oom Bey' (Uncle Bey) by anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa. His obituary recorded: For reasons he was never able to explain, he was a brilliant backyard mechanic in his spare time, being able to restore and put back on the road the oldest and most derelict of vehicles. He used his hobby to provide transport for blacks fleeing into exile..... "My small contribution to a struggle I knew was right," he joked later.
Christians should never forget that Jesus was a carpenter.
(D) The snake strikes back.
The blunt nosed viper - the most venomous European snake - is extinct in Malta today but I noticed a report in the Daily Telegraph only last week that a boy on holiday in Cyprus with his family was bitten by such a snake, swelled up and suffered a near fatal heart attack.
It seems that Paul picked up a bundle of brushwood, called a faggot in my youth, to place on the fire. A viper, hibernating in the brushwood, awoken by the heat of the fire, grabbed hold of Paul's hand. It is almost as if the old enemy, the Serpent, is striking back at Paul who, in the will of God, has triumphed over adversity.
Satan invariably strikes back whenever we act in accordance with God's will and please Jesus. About a year ago I took quite a difficult funeral service. There was a family disagreement about who should conduct it and so it was not easy for me. I showed forbearance and understanding. After the committal was finished I went back into the chapel. I stood next to a very old friend. She looked at me and said, "My son reckons he is a better Christian than you are - you are such a misery." The Serpent struck back. I kept silent, but it destroyed my peace, and took a way such satisfaction as I felt for doing God's will.
(E) Jumping to conclusions.
The superstitious Islanders jumped to conclusions. When they saw the viper hanging from Paul's hand they were sure that he had been poisoned and would die. So, they concluded that the man who had escaped from the sea must be a murderer and that the Greek goddess of Justice - Dike - was taking her revenge.
When it became clear that nothing untoward was going to occur to Paul the Islanders changed their minds. They were convinced that he was a god. It is impossible to know whether Paul's preservation was a miracle or due to natural causes. Maybe the viper was only half a wake and grabbed Paul's hand to escape the fire hardly knowing what it was doing. It's hold was not very secure because Paul was able to shake it off.
There remains a tendency to draw the same conclusions as the ancient inhabitants of Malta. If disaster strikes - especially in business - we tell ourselves that it must be deserved. If a man is successful it is easy to suppose that this is because God is pleased with him. But this is not always the case.
I know of a very honourable dealer who bought £70, 000 worth of grain from local farmers and sold it on to a big exporter. The exporter went bankrupt leaving the Christian businessman with a debt of £70, 000 that he felt duty bound to honour. It was an undeserved calamity for an honest man. I used to have a near neighbour who made a vast amount of money organising car boot sales on Sunday mornings. He was always paid in cash - very convenient for his income tax returns. This man once took a friend of mine out to lunch in London. After an altogether satisfactory meal Mr G. made a completely unwarranted complaint. His bill was reduced by 50%. That is how he was - unscrupulous and predatory. He has greatly prospered!
Jesus made it clear that when disaster befell a man he was no more deserving of it than any one else: Of those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke13v1to5. Jesus does not explain why some suffer accidents and others are spared them. He suggests that they are a sign that all is not well with the world of men. Catastrophes should make us examine our lives and ask if we are ready to face our Maker. If not then we should repent before it is too late.
(F) Kindness has its own reward.
Publius benefited from showing Paul hospitality. The apostle healed his father of fever and dysentery. The Islanders who had welcomed the 276 survivors from the wreck at some personal cost to themselves were able to bring their sick to Paul for healing.
It is often true that those who help and care for others are rewarded. A few weeks ago I read the obituary of Alison Eade who was a gifted financial journalist with the Daily Telegraph. She had a far from easy life. Alison was born with a hole in the heart, in her 30's survived bowel cancer and then at the age of 48 contracted Motor Neuron Disease. Her husband and children cared for her as the horrible disease took its toll. In latter months, she lost the ability to speak, but managed to communicate by spelling out words on a board. On Tuesday night, her last message for her husband and children was to put down the letters: S M I L E.
Alison Eades' family was given a fine example of cheerfulness and courage by the one they cared for and loved.
The Widow of Zarepheth was rewarded for caring for Elijah - he restored her only son to life. Elisha gave the rich woman of Shunnem her heart's desire - a son.
Whenever a non-Christian people welcome Christian missionaries they are rewarded in many different ways. Paul Brand in his book, 'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made', describes the work of his mother in the hills of India. The mountain people eventually accepted her. This allowed his mother to achieve a medical breakthrough at the age of 85. For years Granny Brand had treated the nasty abscesses on the legs of Indians caused by the guinea worm. She worked out that it was picked up by country folk wading in water. So she toured the villages on horseback and persuaded the inhabitants to build stonewalls around their shallow wells to prevent foot contact with water. By such means an old lady, single-handedly, caused the eradication of guinea worms and their resulting abscesses in two mountain ranges.
Jesus laid down the principle: "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy." Mt5v7. See exposition on Mt5v7. He also said: "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple. I tell you the truth; he will certainly not lose his reward. Mt10v42.