God’s Word for You
Acts 28:3-6 The snake on the beach
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, March 15, 2021
3 Paul gathered a big pile of dry wood. When he set it on the fire, a viper was driven out by the heat and fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “Surely this man is a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live!” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were expecting him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happening to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Here we see Paul fulfill Jesus’ promise before his ascension: “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons. They will speak in new tongues. They will pick up snakes with their hands, and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all. They will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:17-18). Of course we do not do any of these things ourselves, as if we can prove our faith or our “Christian power” or authority by handling snakes or by summoning demons so that we can also drive them out. But Christ allows such miracles in order to attract the attention of unbelievers and to put his stamp of approval on the preaching of the gospel.
Before we talk about the snake, we should be sure to notice that Paul himself set to work gathering more wood for the fire. Until the Twentieth Century, Malta had small forests despite its stony reputation. A fairly well-known photo of the destruction of the cargo ship Talabot (March 26, 1942) in the harbor of Malta shows at least three or four varieties of trees, including fruit trees and a species of palm. It is also possible that some of the “dry wood” Paul gathered was driftwood. “Dry wood” really means wood that was no longer attached to a living tree, but we remember that it was raining. Paul was not a man to let other people do the work while he stood around the fire talking. His characteristic energy took him up and down the beach and into the trees to gather up as much wood as he could, probably making several trips, since the Greek word for his pile is plethos “a large quantity, multitude” (James 5:20; 1 Peter 4:8). For Paul, service meant serving; not just setting an example but really getting something accomplished. Those of us who serve in the ministry should take Paul’s example to heart.
Now, about the snake. We need to listen to the Barbarians and pay attention to their expectations. They did not identify the snake, but they expected that Paul’s hand might swell up or that the stranger might suddenly fall dead, therefore they were well acquainted with poisonous snakes (vipers). When commentators and critics argue that there are no poisonous snakes on Malta, they miss the expectation of the natives. Those people knew about poisonous snakes and even what symptoms to look for. There are indeed snakes and poisonous snakes on Malta:
- Green (Western) Whip Snake (Coluber viridiflaviorus), has yellow and green stripes and can be four feet long. It has a gland that produces a mild venom that causes illness and has a furious bite.
- Il Blacco (Coluber viridiflavus carbonariu). An all-black and more ferocious variation of the Green snake native to Malta and southern Italy that grows up to six feet long.
- Algerian Whip Snake (Coluber algirus or Hemorrhois algirus). This smaller snake might not be native to Malta but numbers of them often arrive on cargo ships from Italy, Sicily or North Africa. It is not poisonous.
- Leopard Snake (Elaphe situla). This 3-foot long brown snake is not venomous but is very common on Malta.
- Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax). This grey or pale brown snake has dark bands and is a constrictor. It has venom and a vertical pupil giving its eyes the look of a cat.
Since three of these snakes have some form of venom, we should dispense with the claim that there are no venomous serpents on Malta. There is also the possibility that one or more varieties of Maltese snakes have gone extinct since Paul’s time.
This passage preaches the law by exposing the idolatry and superstition of the Barbarian islanders of Malta. It teaches the third use of the law (the law as a guide) by showing Paul’s good example of rolling up his sleeves to do his bit in gathering firewood. But this passage mostly preaches the gospel. God’s mercy had saved these shipwrecked mariners. Paul was bitten but was not seriously hurt. The snakebite served to attract the attention of the local people. God had opened the door to a more direct preaching of the gospel. There are times when we need to see our lives in this way. Rather than focus on what we think are problems, we should pay attention to what might be opportunities for the gospel. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble (Job 2:10)? Will I, by living through the troubles I have, be able to touch more people, different people, with the word of Christ? We might not suffer like Job, but God is always working out his plan through me and through you. Look for opportunities to share Christ. And remember the words of David: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).
Pastor Timothy Smith