Acts Lesson Fifty-four: Acts 27:1-38 – Sailing for Rome

When it was decided that we were to sail to Italy, they handed over Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion named Julius, of the Imperial Regiment. So when we had boarded a ship of Adramyttium, we put to sea, intending to sail to ports along the coast of Asia. Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us.  The next day we put in at Sidon, and Julius treated Paul kindly and allowed him to go to his friends to receive their care. When we had put out to sea from there, we sailed along the northern coast of Cyprus because the winds were against us. After sailing through the open sea off Cilicia and Pamphylia, we reached Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. Sailing slowly for many days, we came with difficulty as far as Cnidus. Since the wind did not allow us to approach it, we sailed along the south side of Crete off Salmone. With yet more difficulty we sailed along the coast and came to a place called Fair Havens near the city of Lasea. 

By now much time had passed, and the voyage was already dangerous. Since the Fast was already over, Paul gave his advice 10 and told them, “Men, I can see that this voyage is headed toward damage and heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship but also of our lives.” 11 But the centurion paid attention to the captain and the owner of the ship rather than to what Paul said. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided to set sail from there, hoping somehow to reach Phoenix, a harbor on Crete open to the southwest and northwest, and to winter there. 

13 When a gentle south wind sprang up, they thought they had achieved their purpose. They weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 But not long afterward, a fierce wind called the “northeaster” rushed down from the island. 15 Since the ship was caught and was unable to head into the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 After running under the shelter of a little island called Cauda, we were barely able to get control of the skiff. 17 After hoisting it up, they used ropes and tackle and girded the ship. Then, fearing they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the drift-anchor, and in this way they were driven along. 18 Because we were being severely battered by the storm, they began to jettison the cargo the next day. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s gear overboard with their own hands. 

20 For many days neither sun nor stars appeared, and the severe storm kept raging. Finally all hope that we would be saved was disappearing. 21 Since many were going without food, Paul stood up among them and said, “You men should have followed my advice not to sail from Crete and sustain this damage and loss. 22 Now I urge you to take courage, because there will be no loss of any of your lives, but only of the ship. 23 For this night an angel of the God I belong to and serve stood by me, 24 and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul. You must stand before Caesar. And, look! God has graciously given you all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 Therefore, take courage, men, because I believe God that it will be just the way it was told to me. 26 However, we must run aground on a certain island.” 

27 When the fourteenth night came, we were drifting in the Adriatic Sea, and in the middle of the night the sailors thought they were approaching land. 28 They took a sounding and found it to be 120 feet deep; when they had sailed a little farther and sounded again, they found it to be 90 feet deep. 29 Then, fearing we might run aground in some rocky place, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight to come. 

30 Some sailors tried to escape from the ship; they had let down the skiff into the sea, pretending that they were going to put out anchors from the bow. 31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 Then the soldiers cut the ropes holding the skiff and let it drop away. 

33 When it was about daylight, Paul urged them all to take food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been waiting and going without food, having eaten nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For this has to do with your survival, since none of you will lose a hair from your head.” 35 After he said these things and had taken some bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all of them, and when he broke it, he began to eat. 36 They all became encouraged and took food themselves. 37 In all there were 276 of us on the ship. 38 When they had eaten enough, they began to lighten the ship by throwing the grain overboard into the sea. (HCSB)

I will split this lesson into two parts.

  • Smooth sailing – verses 27:1-8.
  • Stormy seas – verses 27:9-38.

Smooth Sailing

As the journey begins, we should note that Luke is in the travel party since he used the term “we” were to sail to Italy. There were sections in Acts where Luke was separate from Paul, but that is not the case as the journey begins. Let’s take a closer look at this section.

  • Two people are identified in the party besides Paul.
    • Luke may have been allowed to accompany Paul as his personal physician.
    • Aristarchus was most likely Paul’s personal attendant.
  • In addition to Paul, there were other prisoners on the ship.
    • A closer look at the original Greek shows the meaning to be “others of a different kind.”
    • These other prisoners were going to Rome to be executed and not to stand trial.
  • The prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius.
    • Being a member of the imperial regiment meant Julius was part of the auxiliary forces comprised of the local population.
    • Julius could also have been a special officer representing the emperor and not attached to a specific military unit.
  • The group boarded a ship from Adramyttium.
    • Adramyttium was the seaport of Mysia, southeast of Troas.
    • The ship was most likely a coastal vessel. These would travel along the short and stop at various ports along the journey.
    • It would have been unusual to find a ship sailing directly to Rome from Caesarea.
    • Julius probably took the first available ship with the intention of transferring to another ship later in the journey.
    • The ports along the southern coast of Asia (modern-day Turkey) would offer many chances of finding a ship bound for Rome.
  • The first stop was at Sidon, approximately seventy miles north.
    • Most likely, the ship needed to load or unload cargo there.
    • Paul was also allowed to visit Christian brothers and sisters in the city.
    • The establishment of a church in the city may be linked to early mission work mentioned in Acts 11:19.
    • Receiving “their care” was a reference to Paul receiving food and supplies for the journey since passengers were expected to provide for themselves.
  • Julius extended kindness to Paul by allowing him to visit these Christians.
    • It is apparent Paul garnered a high level of trust and esteem from the centurion.
    • It also testifies to the generous spirit of Julius.
    • Once again, Luke portrays Roman military leaders in a positive light.
  • Once the ship left Sidon, it sailed along the northern coast of Cyprus, using the island to block unfavorable winds. 
  • The ship then headed north from Cyprus to sail along the southern coast of Asia, skirting the regions of Cilicia and Pamphylia before reaching the port Myra located in Lycia.
    • Lycia was the southernmost portion of Asia.
    • Myra was the main port for ships that carried supplies throughout the Roman empire.
      • Grain from Egypt passed through the port.
      • It was the main hub for ships sailing between Alexandria and Rome.
      • Grain ships were often quite large, often in excess of one thousand tons and over one hundred feet in length.
  • From the context later in the chapter, it is evident the group now boarded a grain ship headed to Rome.
  • It was customary for grain ships to sail to the north of Crete as they made their way to Rome.
  • The distance from Myra to Cnidus is approximately 130 miles and shouldn’t have taken “many days.” 
  • However, the winds were not cooperating, and as the ship approached Cnidus, located in modern-day southwest Turkey, they needed to divert course and sail south of Crete.
  • Instead of sailing north of Crete and off the southern coast of Greece, the ship is now pushed far off course.
  • The trip was getting more arduous, and with difficulty, the ship made its way to Fair Havens.
  • It was time for the group to take stock of the situation and decide how they should proceed.

Stormy Seas

Up to this point, Luke had given precise details regarding the route of travel. Now, he provides a fairly precise clue as to the time of year. Luke lets us know the “Fast” was already over. He is referring to the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur since these events took place in either a.d. 59 or 60, which would place it towards the end of September or the beginning of October. The time the lost from Myra to Fair Havens had resulted in a delay where navigation on the Mediterranean was problematic. It was well known that navigation in this part of the Mediterranean was dangerous after September 14th and impossible after November 11th, and didn’t resume until the beginning of February. Let’s consider some points as they discuss whether to continue or not.

  • Paul may not have been a ship’s captain, but he was familiar with the Mediterranean and would likely know they were now entering a time of the year where travel would be extremely dangerous.
  • They had already encountered bad winds, which had blown them off course and delayed them.
  • The port at Fair Havens was not considered a suitable place to spend the winter.
    • It was open on a 180-degree arc and faced to the east.
    • The dangerous winter winds were generally from the east and northeast.
  • The ship’s crew knew of another port, Phoenix, a short distance to the west, where the opening of the port faced northwest and southwest, creating a better shelter from the winds.
  • Whether or not Paul’s words about the dangers of continuing the journey were prophetic, we don’t know for certain.
  • Since this was likely an imperial grain ship, the centurion would make the final decision.
  • After what was most certainly a lively debate about the pros and cons, the centurion decided to listen to the captain’s advice and continue the journey.

They left the relative safety of the harbor and began what they thought would be a short journey along the southern coast of Crete to Phoenix. However, not long after leaving Fair Havens, the winds again became their enemy. Let’s now take a closer look as the storm begins to rage.

  • As the ship left Fair Havens, a gentle southerly wind began to blow, and the sailors felt this was a positive sign they could make it safely to Phoenix.
  • The total distance from Fair Havens to Phoenix was about 35 miles in total.
    • They would travel six miles west and round Cape Matala.
    • The route would proceed north and then due west again.
  • With a favorable wind, this should have only taken a few hours.
  • The topography of Crete now likely came into play.
    • Crete has numerous mountains, some rising 7,000 feet above the sea.
    • Anyone who has ever lived around mountains knows it is not unusual to get powerful downslope winds.
  • The Greek word Luke uses to describe the “fierce” wind is typhonikos
    • In both Greek and English, the word describes a whirling, cyclonic wind formed by opposing air masses.
    • Luke called it the “northeaster,” the deadly winter storm of the Mediterranean.
  • Ships of that day were not built to withstand such storms. Instead of trying to fight against the wind, they would have shortened the sails and attempted to make progress the best they could towards Phoenix.
  • However, the ship was pushed about 25 miles southwest past an island called Cauda.
  • As the ship passed along the southern coast, they were offered a brief respite from the wind and were able to secure the ship as best they could.
    • The first step was to pull in the lifeboat. This was completed with some difficulty and likely required the assistance of some of the passengers since Luke uses the term “we.”
    • Then they used rope or cables passed under the ship to help reinforce the hull.
    • Finally, they lowered the drift anchor to slow their progress.
  • They were fearful of running aground on Syrtis.
    • Syrtis was a series of sand bars and shoals located off the North African coast.
    • They were located about 400 miles south of Cauda.
    • They were a well-known menace to shipping, and the sailors were taking no chances about the ship running aground.
  • In a storm of this magnitude, there wasn’t much a 1st-century ship could do.
    • They likely had lowered the sails.
    • Those on board were spectators as the storm drove the ship along.
  • It’s reasonable to conclude the ship was developing leaks as they began to throw the cargo overboard.
    • They may have thrown some of the grain overboard, but we know from later in this passage they didn’t throw all of it overboard.
    • Non-essential gear would also have been some of the first to go.
    • The crew was playing a balancing act; how much to discard to keep the ship afloat without throwing too much away.
  • The crew had now lightened the load to the point that the ship could stay afloat. For days those on the ship didn’t see the sun or the stars, only an ominous gloom as the storm continued to rage.
  • With no compass, the crew could only guess their location, and they were on a downward spiral of losing hope of being saved.
  • Luke may have intended a hidden meaning by the use of the phrase “being saved.”
    • He could have meant their physical salvation.
    • He could have meant their spiritual salvation.
      • For the Christians on board, they were already saved in a spiritual sense.
      • The same couldn’t be said for the pagans.
      • Luke doesn’t say whether or not Paul had preached to those on board during the storm, but it would seem, given the circumstances, that Paul didn’t miss an opportunity to share the Gospel.
  • As we read the account of this storm, we are reminded of the storm during the voyage of Jonah.
    • In the case of Jonah, the crew also threw cargo and equipment overboard.
    • They feared for their life.
    • Ultimately, the ship and crew were delivered.
    • However, there is a significant difference between the two events.
      • Jonah’s presence is the reason for the storm, and when he was thrown overboard, the storm ceased, and deliverance was ensured.
      • In the events in Acts, it’s Paul’s presence that leads to the deliverance of the ship and all those on board.
  • In the depths of their despair, Paul comes and speaks a message of encouragement.
    • Paul begins with an “I told you so” moment. It would be easy to misunderstand and think Paul was chastising them. 
    • Paul’s previous message was prophetic. He warned of the danger, was ignored, and it had come to pass.
    • In the same way, Paul’s current message, that everyone on board would be saved, was prophetic. Paul had been correct with his first message. Now, they needed to trust that he was speaking the truth once again.
    • The message was given by an angel to Paul during the night. The angel’s message contained two promises.
      • Paul would appear before Caesar. This was God’s plan, and it wouldn’t fail.
      • All those on the ship would be delivered from the storm.
      • Once again, unmerited grace will deliver people when all seems lost.
    • The situation now changes from one of despair to one of hope.
  • The deliverance does come with one caveat; the ship would have to run aground on an island. The implication is the ship would be lost in the process of its deliverance.
  • It was now the fourteenth day since the ship had been driven by the storm across the Adriatic Sea. The location needs some clarification. 
    • In modern times we understand the Adriatic Sea to refer to the body of water between Yugoslavia and eastern Italy. However, ancient writers referred to it as the Gulf of Adria.
    • In ancient times the Adriatic Sea was understood to mean the north-central Mediterranean between Greece and Italy and extending south to Crete and Malta.
  • The ship had been blown across 475 miles from Cauda to Malta.
  • On the northeastern tip of Malta, there is a feature known as Point Koura. The breakers against Point Koura can be heard for miles. It may have been the sound of these breakers that alerted the crew to approaching land.
  • The crew then began to take soundings. With the depth decreasing on two successive soundings, the crew realized the ship was rapidly approaching shore, with the inherent danger of hitting the rocks and breaking apart.
  • To avoid that possibility, the crew dropped four anchors to slow the ship and keep the bow pointed towards the coast. This was a common practice among ancient seafarers.
  • In a scene reminiscent of the shipwreck of Odysseus, the pagan sailors now prayed to their “gods” for daylight and deliverance. 
  • Their prayers would be ultimately answered, not by their “gods” but by Paul’s God.
  • However, before their final deliverance occurred, there was still some drama to unfold.
  • Some of the sailors demonstrated a lack of faith in their future deliverance and decided to take matters into their own hands.
  • Under the pretense of putting anchors out from the bow of the ship, which would help to stabilize it and was not an unusual practice, some of the sailors attempted to use the lifeboat and escape to shore.
  • Paul, knowing their intentions, informed the centurion that unless everyone stayed aboard, they wouldn’t be saved.
  • Obviously, Paul’s advice now went unquestioned as the soldiers immediately cut the ropes holding the lifeboat before anyone could get in.
  • The sun now began to rise on their day of deliverance.
  • Paul, knowing they would soon be headed to land, urges everyone to eat. Whether those on board had not eaten during the fourteen days or they had eaten very little because of the storm. Eating to regain energy was now essential.
  • Paul also tells them eating is connected with their deliverance, and none of them will suffer loss as they make their way from the ship to shore.
  • Paul then conducts what some have mistakenly interpreted as a form of the Lord’s Supper.
    • The breaking of bread and giving thanks was a traditional Jewish form of blessing a meal.
    • Paul was practicing this custom in the presence of a predominately pagan group.
    • Luke often depicted Jesus in meal scenes.
    • The implication is that Paul and other Christians are reminded of how Jesus broke bread with his disciples and continues to do so, as well as continuing to be present in the lives of believers.
    • The meal would have a meaning to the Christians on the ship that the pagans didn’t share. The Lord was always present with His people. The meal was more than sustenance; it was a sign of Jesus’ presence in their deliverance.
  • Paul’s confidence rubbed off on his shipmates as they all ate.
  • One might wonder why Luke would include the exact number aboard the ship, 276. The most plausible reason is to show this was a significant event, a host of people were saved from certain death at sea, and no one suffered any harm.
  • After everyone had eaten enough, they made final preparations to beach the ship. This involved throwing the remaining cargo overboard to lighten the ship and allow it to get closer to the shore before running aground.


  • Acting in a trustworthy and courteous manner will often lead to better treatment and acceptance from others, even if the two parties are on opposite sides of a dispute. Paul’s conduct had been above reproach, and the Roman soldiers treated him with respect and some measure of freedom. As we face struggles and persecution, we would do well to remember this. Too often, our present world would say we need to fight and be aggressive as we confront opposition. Except in confronting the Sanhedrin’s lies, Paul’s conduct had always been the pinnacle of cordiality.
  • Even if our message isn’t accepted, we should still speak the truth in whatever situation we find ourselves in. If our message has been rejected in the past, it shouldn’t prevent us from speaking the truth in the future. It’s easy to become discouraged and withdraw if we are consistently ignored or rejected. However, we need to continue to speak the truth no matter how often we are rejected.
  • If we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, do we act in a calm and faithful manner, or do we panic and look for the nearest exit? Sometimes the exit will lead us into bigger trouble. Go to God in prayer and surrender your situation to Him.
  • Give thanks even during your storms. Sometimes the storms come to test our faith. Sometimes the storms are to shape us for future service. We never know when God is using trials to mold us into what He desires. We are created to worship and serve God, not ourselves. 

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