Paul’s Voyage as Suggestive of Church History — by Charles A. Coates

Acts 27: 1 – 44

In verses 2 and 3 of this chapter we get a hint of the happy conditions which were found in the assembly when it was marked by the work of faith, the labour of love and the enduring constancy of hope. “Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us”. What a comfort to Paul to have with him that kind of companionship — the company of those who were his glory and joy! (See 1 Thessalonians.) In those days of first love the saints were characteristically Paul’s friends, and there was much “consolation of love” amongst them and refreshment of heart.

Then in verses 4 – 7 “the winds were contrary”. The prince of the power of the air raised every kind of opposition. “Satan has hindered us”, Paul says. There was great persecution and many contrary elements. There was slow sailing and difficulty. It was for the Jewish believers a transitional stage from the old order to the new, and this rendered movement slow.

In verse 8 they came to Fair Havens. This was the place God intended for them, and where they should have stayed. It answers to “without the camp, bearing his reproach”. This would have been a safe place, but it was “ill adapted”; the outside place and the reproach of Christ are never comfortable to flesh and blood. And verse 9 tells us that navigation was “already dangerous, because the fast was already past”. I think there is moral import in that. There is always danger when self-restraint is given up and self-indulgence begins.

Paul counsels them in verse 10. This very much corresponds with what we have in Acts 20:17 – 35. That was a solemn moment; it was like the pilot leaving the ship, but giving a solemn warning as to the perils of the voyage before them.  But we find in verse 11 that the official class will not heed Paul. It is striking how soon an official class were found in the church who disregarded Paul’s teaching — a clerical order soon sprang up who would not listen to the apostles. The effect of their counsel was an effort to reach Phoenice, a place which looks north-east and south-east; that is, it faces in two different directions, which rather suggests trying to make the best of both worlds. This brings us along in the history to Constantine’s time and after, when the church and the world came into unholy union.  For a time the south wind blew softly (verse 13) and all seemed favourable. When we are going wrong Satan does not stand in our path as a roaring lion; he rather makes things easy for us.

But soon the storm broke, and there was no power to stand against it. The true state and position of the church having been departed from, and an official class being in authority who did not heed Paul, there was no power to stand against the evil influences which broke like a tempest upon her. The head of the ship could not be brought to the wind. There was no spiritual power to face or to resist the pressure of evil; the ship was caught and driven before it.

Certain efforts were made in verses 16 and 17 which had their correspondence in church councils and the formulation of creeds, which helped to preserve things a little as to outward forms. But spiritually there was great surrender; “the next day they threw cargo overboard”. All heavenly truth was given up. How could the worldly church retain the truth of association with a risen and heavenly Christ, or what was connected with the presence and power of the Spirit down here? So her precious cargo had to go.

Then on the third day “with their own hands they cast away the ship furniture”. I suppose that church order remained for some time after the church had practically given up the heavenly calling and her true affections and hopes. For example, we may conclude that all was in outward order at Ephesus (Revelation 2) though first love had been left. But presently all that rightly belonged to church order was thrown overboard.

Then for many days “neither sun nor stars” appeared. There was no heavenly light. People speak of those days as ‘the Dark Ages’.  No doubt God had His witnesses in many a hidden corner, but as to the public history of the church it was dark indeed. And there was no enjoyment of food; “they had been a long while without taking food”.  Light and food go together.

Then after “a long while” Paul speaks again. “Ye ought, O men, to have hearkened to me”. If Paul’s teaching had been heeded, the church would have been preserved. But in spite of all this he now comes in with the cheering word that there should be “no loss at all of life” — everything vital would be preserved. I think “Paul” spoke again at the Reformation and since. Justification by faith brought in vitality; it became a question of believing God, not the church. “I believe God”. The just lives by his faith.

In verse 27, “the sailors supposed that some land neared them”, and they take soundings. It began to be realised that the voyage would end in shipwreck even as Paul had warned them long before. The attention drawn to dispensational and prophetic truth, and the application of these truths to the present circumstances of the church were very much like taking soundings. This led to the position being realised. Ruin and apostasy were the only future to be contemplated here, but this was learned in the light of all that the assembly was according to the divine thought, and the hope of the Lord’s coming and the church’s previous rapture came distinctly into the view and affections of saints. It began to be widely felt by all exercised persons that we were in the last days, and that the coming of the Lord drew nigh. And every sounding is less and less.Even thirty years ago people would have been shocked at the things which are widely preached today, and religious infidelity gets bolder every day.

Then in verse 30 there is another movement. The sailors wish to flee out of the ship and to go off in a boat, but Paul will not suffer this to be done, though it was ostensibly to serve a good purpose. The “boat” seems to suggest the dissenting principle which recognises that the ship — the public profession — is in a bad state, but proposes to remedy matters by forming little churches on a narrower basis than that of the assembly of God. But this is not really the divine way; Paul’s doctrine does not allow it. The sad plight of the ship must be faced and owned, but the divine preservation is in being with Paul. “God has granted to thee all those that sail with thee”. If we are with Paul we shall hold to the truth of the assembly, of which he was minister, and we shall not admit any sectarian or ‘little church’ ideas. Without attempting to form anything we shall walk with fellow-saints on the principles Paul laid down in 2 Timothy.

To go off in a boat suggests to my mind a giving up of the truth of the assembly. Christians associate together on the basis of certain truths, but practically give up what is the distinctive truth of the present time — the truth of the assembly. Many things have become a “boat” in which saints have gone off from assembly truth. At different times there have been movements amongst those professing to walk together in the truth which have involved the practical giving up of divine assembly principles, and those movements have led to divisions amongst saints. It is a real exercise not to go off in a boat where we shall not be in company with Paul! We have to hold to every divine principle and to every part of assembly truth, whatever the outward ruin may be.

In verse 33, “while it was drawing on to daylight, Paul exhorted them all to partake of food”. The light of a coming day begins to break. Peter speaks of the day dawn and the morning star arising in the hearts of saints. This is pretty much what the Spirit has been giving to many hearts in recent years. And along with the light of the coming day, food has been provided for saints. Light and food always go together; if God gives light He also gives food to build up the constitution of His saints. Salvation is found in the food supply.

Then verse 35 is strikingly suggestive. In connection with Paul’s voice being heard the breaking of bread comes in. It is one of the most distinctive features of these last days that the breaking of bread has been revived. It was lost in sacramentalism for many centuries, but it has been revived and it seems to indicate a special activity of the love of Christ just before, and in view of, the end. It is wonderful that such a precious and divine rallying-point should have been restored, and that the saints should be exercised to get away from all sacramental and formal ideas, and to enter into what the Supper was in the heart and mind of the Lord Jesus when He instituted it, and all that He intended it to be to them as the witness of His love, and the answer to that love — so deeply valued by Him — on their part.

“He gave thanks to God before all”. How sweet to think of this! The breaking of bread and thanksgiving to God go together, and both are revived in the power of divine love just before the end.

Then “having satisfied themselves with food, they lightened the ship, casting out the wheat into the sea”. I do not know whether we might take this as suggesting that a satisfied people have something to cast upon the waters — there is a widespread testimony of grace in the glad tidings.

Verse 41 is close to the end. Two powerful forces of evil meet with destructive effect. Superstition and infidelity — ritualism and the sacramental system on one side, and rationalism on the other, and between the two everything is breaking up. Nothing will get through but the energy of individual faith, and vitality comes out in this. This is what we see in 2 Timothy.

Chapter 28: 1 – 10 is suggestive of the time to come when those who show favour and kindness to the people of God will come into blessing (Matthew 25:31 – 46). Paul’s character is seen in his readiness to gather sticks for the fire — a ministry of warmth and comfort; and Satan’s power, figured in the viper, is dispossessed and nullified. Then we see the powers of the world to come in the healing of the father of Publius and others. The restlessness and bloodshed which now mark the nations will be healed when Christ lays His hand upon them. God will make the favour of the nations to be comfort for His people (Isaiah 60:9, 10, 16, etc.).

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