Acts Lesson Fifty-five: Acts 27:39-28:10 – Shipwrecked on Malta

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land but sighted a bay with a beach. They planned to run the ship ashore if they could. 40 After casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and headed for the beach. 41 But they struck a sandbar and ran the ship aground. The bow jammed fast and remained immovable, while the stern began to break up by the pounding of the waves. 

42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners so that no one could swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion kept them from carrying out their plan because he wanted to save Paul, so he ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to follow, some on planks and some on debris from the ship. In this way, everyone safely reached the shore. 

28 Once ashore, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The local people  showed us extraordinary kindness, for they lit a fire and took us all in, since it was raining and cold. As Paul gathered a bundle of brushwood and put it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself to his hand. When the local people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man is probably a murderer, and though he has escaped the sea, Justice does not allow him to live!” However, he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. They expected that he would swell up or suddenly drop dead. But after they waited a long time and saw nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. 

        Now in the area around that place was an estate belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us hospitably for three days. Publius’s father was in bed suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went to him, and praying and laying his hands on him, he healed him. After this, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 So they heaped many honors on us, and when we sailed, they gave us what we needed. (HCSB)

I’ll be splitting this lesson into two parts.

  • The shipwreck – verses 27:39-44.
  • Their time on Malta – verses 28:1-10.

The Shipwreck

As the sun comes up on the people aboard the ship, they come to the conclusion they didn’t know where they were. However, they did see a beach that offered the opportunity to sail the ship, so they hoped, onto land after their two-plus-week adventure of riding out a storm. Let’s take a look at this section.

  • The best way to get everyone to shore and assess the condition of the ship was to run it aground on the sand of the beach.
  • Since they now intended to sail the ship onto the beach, they no longer needed the anchors to hold them in place. The crew cut the rope securing the anchors to the ship.
    • A logical question would be, why didn’t they raise the anchors instead of cutting the rope?
    • It’s possible they knew the ship was beyond repair, and there was no need to keep them.
    • It could have been more dangerous to try and raise the anchors, either one at a time or all at once, under the current sea conditions.
  • The rudders of ancient ships were large paddles. During a storm, they would be raised and tied down on the deck of the ship. Now, it was necessary to lower the rudders and try and steer the ship onto the beach.
  • The foresail was in the front of the ship and was often a primary means of guiding ships as they sailed.
  • Their plan was going well.
    • They were moving again.
    • They were headed towards the beach, their intended destination.
  • Then, they hit a sandbar, and further forward progress became impossible.
  • Although Luke doesn’t specify, it would appear from the context of the passage, both this one and the preceding lesson, that the ship was now in an area where the waves were breaking as they neared the shored. 
    • The resulting waves crashing on the back of the ship were steadily breaking up the rear of the ship.
    • One gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds.
    • It is easy to estimate that each wave would have hundreds of gallons of water crashing against the ship. This would translate to thousands of pounds of force repeatedly hitting the ship, which wasn’t moving.
  • It became apparent to those on the ship they wouldn’t be able to stay onboard, and if they didn’t get off quickly, they were in danger of being injured or killed as the ship continued to break apart.
  • The soldiers then decided to kill the prisoners before getting off the ship was necessary. 
    • Roman law held guards personally responsible for those placed in their charge.
    • Guards who allowed prisoners to escape could be executed in these cases.
  • However, Julius stopped the soldiers from killing the prisoners because he wanted to preserve Paul’s life. Let’s look at some components of this truth.
    • We see another example of a Roman official who intervened to save Paul’s life.
    • It is evident that Paul’s presence on the ship was responsible for the preservation of the others on the ship, specifically the prisoners.
  • With the skiff now gone, the only way to shore was either by swimming or holding onto pieces of the ship.
    • Those who could swim were ordered to go first.
    • The rest made it to shore by holding onto floating pieces of the ship.
  • Luke then reiterates that everyone on board made it safely to shore.
  • From Acts 27:23 on, it is clear Paul’s presence on the ship and God’s protection of Paul were responsible for the deliverance of all 276 people on the ship.
  • In an interesting reversal of fortunes where many ancient shipwrecks were attributed to one person on board the ship, here the opposite occurred. Paul had advised against sailing, and if they had listened to him, they would not have experienced the storm. It was Paul’s presence that was the key to the deliverance of all on board.

Their Time on Malta

I will split this section into two parts.

  • Recovering from the storm – verses 1-6.
  • Ministry in Malta – verses 7-10.

Remembering back to Acts 27:39, all the people aboard the ship had no idea where they were. Even the seasoned sailors were now in a new location. For us today, exploring and visiting new places can be quite exciting; however, in the ancient world, that was not always the case. Sometimes those new locations didn’t want visitors, and the situation could instantly turn violent. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, as those aboard the ship all make it to land.

  • They found out they were on Malta. Luke doesn’t tell us whether or not anyone on board previously knew of Malta, but that isn’t relevant for the events that followed.
  • Although Malta wasn’t on their original path, it did offer a relatively easy journey to Rome.
  • From the actions of the residents of Malta, they may have become accustomed to shipwrecks along their shore.
    • They treated passengers with kindness.
    • They lit a fire to warm them and help them to dry.
    • It’s possible they also provided some type of shelter to protect them from the rain.
  • Paul, never afraid of hard work, assisted in the gathering of firewood. However, in gathering the firewood, Paul brought along an unwanted visitor.
    • Because of the cold and damp conditions, the cold-blooded snake was in a semi-hibernating state.
    • Whether the snake was directly in the fire or close, the heat revived the reptile, and as Paul placed the firewood, the snake bites and locked onto Paul’s hand.
    • The Greek term Luke uses to denote the snake is normally used to identify a viper. 
    • However, this presents a problem. Modern-day Malta has no poisonous snakes. 
      • It’s entirely possible in the intervening 2,000 years that all poisonous snakes have been eradicated from Malta.
      • It’s also possible the snake wasn’t a viper but a harmless species of snake.
  • Although there is doubt from the text on whether or not the snake was a viper, the natives of Malta had no such reservation. They viewed the snake as venomous and expected Paul to perish.
    • The residents of Malta obviously knew their island better than we do.
    • Their reaction to the situation is the best clue as to how we should interpret the classification of the serpent.
  • From the perspective of the residents and the fact everyone had survived a shipwreck, they were convinced that Paul was receiving divine judgment.
    • Paul may have survived the shipwreck, but he wouldn’t survive the snake bite.
    • Their view reflected a common ancient concept.
      • The Romans told a story of a prisoner who escaped a shipwreck but died from a snake bite while recovering on the beach.
      • Jewish tradition had a story of a murderer who was killed by a viper.
    • But Paul was no criminal, and he shook the snake off of his hand and continued with what he was doing, showing no adverse effects from the snake bite.
  • As the residents of the island realized Paul was suffering no ill effects from the bite, they changed their view of Paul.
    • Paul was no longer a criminal receiving punishment for his actions.
    • Instead, in their minds, Paul was a god!
  • The reader might expect Luke to expound upon this incident and provide details on how the islanders reacted when they decided he was a god and how Paul handled their reaction.
  • But that wasn’t the point for Luke in writing this section. Luke was emphasizing the fact Paul was completely under the protection  of God.
    • Paul was delivered from a storm at sea.
    • Paul didn’t die after being bitten by a viper.
    • In both cases, Paul was the beneficiary of miracles.
    • Throughout Acts, miracles are associated with service to God. The miracles provide the opportunity for sharing the Gospel. 
    • Although Luke doesn’t give any evidence that Paul shared the Gospel while on Malta, it would seem to be entirely out of character if he didn’t seize the opportunity to talk about Jesus with the residents of the island. 

Luke now switches scenes from the initial landing on the beach to Paul’s healing ministry on Malta. What Luke doesn’t specify is how much time elapses between the initial landing on the beach and what transpires beginning in verse seven. We could make an educated guess based on the normal sailing window in the Mediterranean, and it was around late September to early October when they encountered the storm. Include the accepted norm of sailing beginning again in February and the likelihood they would have started their trip as soon as it was possible, then anywhere from one to three weeks could have transpired between their initial arrival on Malta and the healing ministry beginning. Let’s look at these four verses in detail.

  • Publius is identified as the leading man on the island. Researchers have discovered inscriptions on Malta with the same name and title.
  • Luke says that Publius welcomed “us” and showed hospitality for three days.
  • Who are the “us” Luke is referring to?
    • It’s possible it includes all 276 people aboard the ship. However, that is unlikely given the fact that this is a substantial number of people to stay in one place, even if it was the residence of the leading official of the island.
    • It makes more sense Luke is referring to the small Christian delegation.
  • Publius’s father was sick with fever and dysentery. 
    • It may have also included gastric fever caused by a microbe in goat’s milk.
    • At one time, it was so common it was referred to as Malta fever.
  • Paul went to the sick man and laid hands on him while praying.
    • This is the only time in Acts where praying and laying on of hands occurs together in a healing.
      • They occur together in commissioning narratives.
      • Paul was healed of his blindness when Ananias laid hands on him, but prayer wasn’t mentioned.
      • The closest parallel is when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4:38f.
    • The news of the official’s father being healed spread like wildfire across the island.
    • Luke says the rest of those on the island who were sick came to Paul and were healed.
    • When it came time for everyone to continue the journey to Rome, the residents of Malta honored them and provided provisions for the remainder of their journey.
    • Luke’s emphasis on Maltese hospitality bears a closer look.
      • They welcomed the shipwrecked party with “extraordinary kindness.”
      • Publius welcomed them and showed hospitality.
      • The travelers were honored and given provisions as they readied to depart for Rome.
      • The hospital the Maltese extended reminds us of the hospitality the Sidonians showed in Acts 27:3.
      • Perhaps Luke was showing that simple pagan “barbarians” could extend hospitality to others and possessed the potential to become Christians.
      • Their hospitality would be a stark contrast to the reception Paul would receive from the Jews in Rome.


  • As we go through life, there will often be times when things don’t go according to plan. In this passage, it was the ship striking the sandbar and breaking apart. We shouldn’t be surprised when we hit “sandbars” in our lives. When that happens, we shouldn’t panic or lose sight of the end goal. Instead, make adjustments as necessary and continue forward with whatever God has for you to do.
  • Expect hospitality and friendship in unlikely places. It may not happen often, but God will present opportunities when we least expect it for us to be blessed and to bless others. Friendship and encounters with others should never be a one-way street unless it is us, blessing unbelievers. 
  • Use your talents and spiritual gifts whenever the opportunity arises. Too often, we try to live our “ministry” in a box instead of using it freely. For example, a former pastor of mine related a story about a very famous “healing” minister who was traveling through the area and charging fees to attend a healing conference in an auditorium. The former pastor said if this person really had a gift of healing, he should be visiting the hospitals free of charge instead of selling tickets and making a hefty “appearance” fee.  

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