God @ Work

Acts 28:1 – 28:16

Malta to Syracuse – 120 miles

Syracuse to Rhegium – 100 miles

Strait of Messina between Rhegium and Puteoli – Scylla and Charybdis! Scylla, a sea monster who lived underneath a dangerous rock at one side of the Strait of Messina, opposite the whirlpool Charybdis.

Rhegium to Puteoli – 225 miles

Puteoli to Rome – 130 miles

2005 miles by sea, 130 by land, 2135 total

Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome has been anything but normal. Deceptively uneventful to start, it has become increasingly unnerving and dangerous. Now, in fulfillment of Paul’s prediction, 276 travelers have washed up on the shore of Malta with only the salt-water drenched clothes on their backs and at the mercy of the native people who met them. Those responsible for the ship certainly had a different itinerary and destination in mind, yet we must not think the events of the last chapter and this are without design or Designer.

Q7: What are the decrees of God?

A7: The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass. WSC

Just as all things to this point were ordained of God, so the events of this day and the remainder of Paul’s life were part of God’s plan from the beginning. The snake bite, a sick father, and scores of needy natives all had a part to play in this divinely directed drama.

A. divine preparation vv. 1-6

Considering Paul’s physical condition, it is remarkable that he chose to help in this way.

2Co_11:24-25 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;

Written from Ephesus during his third missionary journey, Paul’s description of his treatment did not include the present misfortune. Approaching sixty years of age, Paul had been mistreated in ways that would have made it extremely difficult for him to even move, much less “feed a fire” given the weather and the soaking he just received. His servant’s heart shows through here as he leads by example, not expecting the native Maltese to wait on them hand and foot.

Then, in the middle of doing the right thing, Paul is bitten by a venomous snake. How easy it would have been for him to say, “I give up!”, found a place close to the fire and pouted. The snake and its potentially deadly bite was not an unavoidable accident; it was strategically placed by the hand and purpose of God to serve an important end.

It is not clear from the text when the natives determined that Paul was a prisoner – it is unlikely that he was chained to his guard but his status might have been obvious in other ways. Certainly word would travel fast on a small island like Malta and all would know before long that Paul was not presently a free man. Whether it was based on this knowledge or merely superstition the islanders’ first impression was that he was finally receiving his just deserts. Yet his miraculous preservation from harm soon convinced them that Paul was worthy of their honor, respect and trust, something he could never have orchestrated on his own.

The circumstance of this viper, seems to have been graciously ordained by the Lord, to answer much good. …from the different sentiments, induced in the minds of those islanders, from what they saw; first, in supposing him a murderer, and then making a transition to fancy him a god; who shall say, what might follow by grace on the hearts of some of them, during the three months Paul remained there, in bringing them to the knowledge of the truth. Hawker, Poor Man’s Commentary

B. effective ministry vv. 7-10

Consider how this encounter with the snake positioned Paul for interaction with those connected with government of the island as well as with the natives. Publius was the leading Roman civil servant of Malta, holding office similar to a magistrate under the oversight and authority of the governor of Sicily. Publius was responsible to see that the needs of Julius and those under his command were met. This did not mean that he was obligated to bring Paul and his traveling companions (Luke and Aristarchus) into his home for three days.

Something about the course of events there on the beach convinced Publius that he should extend hospitality to Paul. It is entirely possible that Publius’ father lived with him on his estate and so his infirmity would have been obvious to Paul.

Undulant Fever, also known as brucellosis, is an infectious disease caused by various species of bacteria of the genus Brucella. Human beings acquire the disease through contact with infected animals or by drinking their raw (unpasteurized) milk. The disease has been known as Malta fever, Bang’s disease, Mediterranean fever, rock fever, and goat fever. The acute form is characterized by weakness, chills, and high night fevers and often results in central nervous system disorders, painful joints, and miscarriage.

Publius could also have made a request of Paul that he do what he could to help the sick man. In any event, it was obvious from Paul’s method that he was merely an instrument of healing and not the source of healing power – he prayed. The divine intervention and use of Paul by God in this way positioned him to be of great help to many others on the island.

[P]ersons may do good to others in outward things, and for this world. They may help others in their external difficulties and calamities, for there are innumerable kinds of temporal calamities to which mankind are liable, and in which they stand much in need of the help of their neighbors and friends. Many are hungry, or thirsty, or strangers, or naked, or sick, or in prison (Mat. 25:35, 36), or in suffering of some other kind: and to all such we may minister. We may do good to others, by furthering their outward estate or substance; or in aiding their good name, and thus promoting their esteem and acceptance among men; or by anything that may truly add to their comfort or happiness in the world, whether it be in the kind word, or the considerate and benevolent deed. And by endeavoring thus to do good to them externally, we are under the greater advantage to do good to their souls. For, when our instructions, counsels, warnings, and good examples are accompanied with such outward kindness, the latter tends to open the way for the better effect of the former, and to give them their full force, and to lead such persons to appreciate our efforts when we seek their spiritual good. Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits

Word spread for Paul just as it did when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. See Mar_1:30-34 Whether it was Moses or Jesus or Paul, God never performed miracles gratuitously – simply because he could do it; he always had a specific purpose in mind.

They authenticate the miracle-workers themselves as God’s representatives and messengers (cf. Exo_4:1-9; 1Ki_17:24; Joh_10:38; Joh_14:11; 2Co_12:12; Heb_2:3-4), and beyond this, they show God’s power bringing about salvation and executing judgment, despite all opposition. The miracles of the Bible are not absurd, irrational, or mere displays of power undertaken for their own sake. They directly fulfill God’s purposes and are consistent with His majesty and holiness. New Geneva Study Bible, Miracles

Often Jesus’ healing miracles were accompanied by spiritual awakening of the individual to whom he was ministering. Although Luke doesn’t record specific details there is no reason to think that Paul kept quiet about his faith as he ministered to the sick and diseased on Malta. Paul never squandered opportunities to share the Gospel at other times but neither was he offensive in the way he went about evangelizing.

The response to Paul’s three-month ministry was one of respect, great honor, an outpouring of support when it came time to leave. Paul presented the Gospel so winsomely by word and deed that as hearts were won to Christ they saw a genuine brother in Paul.

C. ministry of encouragement vv. 11-16

God in his very nature is relational – he is one God in three Persons, all in a relationship to each other in unity. Since God determined to create man in his own image, it should be no surprise that man is also a relational being, designed from the start both to give and need companionship. That aspect of man’s nature is seen often in Scripture both by example and precept.

God declared that Gen_2:18 – it is not good that man should be alone; Gen_4:13 – Cain’s sentencing to wandering vagrancy is more than he can bear. Positively, Barnabas’ seeking out Paul, traveling 125+ miles from Antioch to Tarsus to do so – Act_11:25 Paul himself encouraged Christian companionship and fellowship in much of his teaching – the church as the body of Christ, reference to other believers as “brothers”, exhorting the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

Yet God does not expect us to do all the work of encouragement ourselves; he regularly by having “ordained all things that come to pass” orchestrates the movement and activities of his people so they are positioned to be of assistance, comfort and encouragement to one another.

The presence and counsel of Christian brethren is often of inestimable value in encouraging and strengthening us in the toils and trials of life. Barnes’ Notes

Paul has been on the emotional and physical roller coaster ride of his life – used by God, shipwrecked, used by God, beaten, used by God, imprisoned, thrill followed by discouragement time after time. Here, Paul has been shipwrecked and then used greatly of God to bring physical and spiritual healing to many on the island of Malta; now he is on his way to present his appeal at the highest court of the empire, Nero’s very presence.

Jesus, when he appeared to Paul in prison at Caesarea, told him to “take courage” since his future ministry in Rome was assured. Here on the road to Rome, the Appian Way, as Paul was perhaps wondering if he had done the right thing by appealing to Caesar, he providentially receives encouragement from brothers of the Roman church. It wasn’t the stuff they brought, it wasn’t new revelation from God they passed on to Paul, it was simply their presence that encouraged Paul and caused him to take heart. That they had made the effort to travel five days just to meet Paul on the road showed their concern for Paul and their dedication to the cause of Christ.

Therefore, the brethren did, by this their dutifulness, testify their godliness toward Christ; and Paul’s desire was more inflamed, because he saw fruit prepared for his constancy. For though he were endued with invincible strength, so that he did not depend upon man’s help; yet God, who useth to strengthen his by means of men, did minister to him new strength by this means. Calvin

D. God’s use of means

  1. contrary weather and a winter storm that drove a helpless boat 600 miles

  2. a ship that runs aground and finally succumbs to the relentless waves

  3. a struggle to reach shore drenched and without belongings but safe

  4. a venomous snake hibernating in a brush pile

  5. a conduit for miraculous works of healing

  6. a week of R & R with Christian brothers in Puteoli

  7. a “chance” meeting of fellow believers on the Appian Way

Many of these are the sorts of things we would never choose as ministry enhancements. We wouldn’t even wish them on our enemies, much less our friends. But they are the means God used to bring about his purposes in the lives of countless people including the apostle Paul.

Do not think little of means, seeing God works by them; and he that has appointed the end, orders the means necessary for gaining the end. Do not rely upon means, for they can do nothing without God, Mat_4:4. …If the means be unlikely, he can work above them, Rom_4:19. If the means be contrary, he can work by contrary means, as he saved Jonah by the whale that devoured him. That fish swallowed up the prophet, but by the direction of providence, it vomited him out upon dry land. Thomas Boston

What are the things, the means, that God is providentially using to fit us for his service; to open up opportunities of ministry individually and corporately; to enable us to minister to a world that in the words of Jonathan Edwards is “in suffering of some kind”? If Paul is any example, the things that seem most unlikely and most difficult to endure offer the greatest opportunities for God to work his plan through us.

The means are not inconsequential – they are just as much a part of what God has ordained as the ends are. They have a purpose in themselves beyond just getting us to the end God has in mind. We should not grumble at the means God has chosen to use, but rather see them as divinely appointed ways intended to produce good in us and others as well as bring glory to God. May we be like Paul who, while he was serving faithfully, told the Philippian church,“But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal – my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ. Php_3:13-14 Phillips

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