God’s Word for You
Acts 27:42-44 Prayer, planks and flotsam
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, March 11, 2021
42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none of them could swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land. 44 The rest could get there on planks or on flotsam from the ship. And so it was that everyone escaped safely to the land.
We have seen before that the Romans held guards responsible for the life of a prisoner. If a prisoner escaped, the guard’s life was forfeit. Paul kept the jailer in Philippi from killing himself when the prison was damaged by the earthquake (Acts 16:27), and King Herod had the guards executed when Peter was rescued by an angel (Acts 12:19). So it’s no surprise that the soldiers automatically planned to kill the prisoners. But Julius the Centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and bring him safely through the danger. He could have ordered Paul to be spared and the others to be killed, but he remembered Paul’s prophecy delivered through an angel that all their lives would be saved. Whether Julius was becoming a believer or not isn’t implied here. He didn’t want to stand in the way of a message from God (or the gods). Whether this was the dawn of faith in this man or just superstition, our true God worked through it to bring about his own plan.
Julius stopped the soldiers and ordered everyone to get to shore in whatever way they could: the swimmers to swim, the floaters to float. Since this was Paul’s fourth shipwreck, he was probably one of the swimmers, having “spent a night and a day on the open sea” (2 Corinthians 11:25). The planks for the “floaters” became available as the stern of the ship broke apart. Flotsam (the Greek text says literally ‘the things that were from off of the ship’) consists of the things left floating on the water after a ship sinks (as opposed to jetsam, items thrown overboard or jettisoned on purpose). Any wood that is not severely waterlogged will float, and there may have been other things such as wineskins that would float. Even without any instinct to kick with the legs, the floating survivors would be carried to shore by the surf and the breeze. Luke ends the chapter with the satisfying resolution to the whole voyage: “And so it was that everyone escaped safely to the land.”
Luther cites this passage together with Genesis 19:19-22 to show the power of the believer’s prayer. “It was God’s will that the city of Zoar should be destroyed together with the others; but because Lot intercedes for it, God changes his will and does what Lot wants. Similarly, because of Paul alone all who were sailing in the same ship were preserved in the shipwreck” (LW 3:290).
God invites us to pray confidently, without doubting and without hesitating. But we still leave everything up to the Father’s will, as even Jesus does (Matthew 26:42). There is a tendency today in some Christian circles to say they will pray “over” a thing. Normally we would say we pray “for” something or someone, or “that” something would or would not be, or “about” something we’re concerned about or confused about. When we pray “over,” it’s really to be physically “over” a person (or animal) who is sick (James 5:14; cp. Proverbs 12:10). But one gets the impression that when some people say they will pray “over” a subject, they mean either that they will pray until they “feel” they have an answer, or they will pray in order to teach God what he should do. We don’t pray to get a feeling. We pray to tell God what is in our hearts. And we don’t pray to teach God anything. We pray for his mercy. Hosea says: “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him, ‘Forgive all our sins, and receive us graciously, that we may offer you the fruit of our lips [that is, praise]’” (Hosea 14:2). God will not turn away from a broken or a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). So even if he has resolved to do a thing according to his will, he can also do something else simply for the sake of one who prays to intercede and ask him to do something else. Had Paul not been aboard this ship, it’s probable that everyone aboard would have been lost. But God wanted Paul to survive, and Luke as well (we think that Aristarchus might have disembarked in Lycia, Acts 27:5, but he could perhaps have remained aboard).
How many things in the world happen for the benefit of God’s people? We need to understand that the answer is “all things.” Paul says: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Certainly some things happen that are sinful, that are done in rebellion against God or out of unbelief. But he can still use those things for good in some way; if not today, then perhaps tomorrow. If you are not sure of the path God has laid out ahead of you, consider the good that might come from it. Expect good things from God in your life. He is the one who forgives the past and supplies blessings for the future. He says, “All nations will hear about all the good things I do, and they will be in awe and will tremble at the prosperity and peace I provide” (Jeremiah 33:9). And he promises in another place, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love. It is time to seek the Lord until he comes and showers righteousness on you” (Hosea 10:12). Trust in him, even if you think you’re up to your neck, treading water, or barely holding on. If he chooses not to carry you in to shore and to joy and comfort in this life, he will carry you to a perfect shore and everlasting joy and comfort in the next. Pray to him, and trust in him.
Pastor Timothy Smith