All of us have our own apprehensions and fears. But we thank God that He takes notice of His children’s fears, and gives us comforting words to help us conquer them. More than ten times in the New Testament, the Lord says, “Fear not” – to those who needed encouragement and cheer. Among those who received these divine words of comfort were Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Jairus, the apostle Paul, and the apostle John during his exile on the Island of Patmos.
In this concluding part of our article, let us consider a “fear not” in the book of Acts where God assured the apostle Paul of his safe-keeping during a tempestuous voyage to Rome. What were the circumstances, and what lessons can we learn from the Lord’s message of cheer to His servant?
“Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee” (Acts 27: 24)
Acts Chapter 27 tells us that the apostle was on a voyage to Rome to appear before Caesar. Festus, the Roman governor, had earlier acceded to Paul’s request to be tried “at Caesar’s judgment seat” (Acts 25: 10) for the “many and grievous complaints against Paul, which they (the Jews) could not prove” (Acts 25: 7).
Paul and the other prisoners were put under the charge of Julius, a Roman centurion of Augustus’ band, on a ship bound for Rome. Apparently, Dr. Luke and Aristarchus accompanied the apostle (Acts 27: 1-2). Though he was a prisoner, Paul and his friends were treated kindly (v 3).
But after some days, the ship met with grave danger. Dr Luke – the writer of Acts and Paul’s fellow companion – described vividly the tempestuous seas and the despair of those on board: “… the wind not suffering us, we sailed under Crete, over against Salmone” (v 7); “much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past” (v 9); “But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon. 15 And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive. 16 And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat: 17 Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so were driven. 18 And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship” (vv 14-18).
After enduring the violent storm for many days, the passengers and crew feared the worst: “And when neither sun nor stars in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (Acts 27: 20). Without any heavenly bodies to guide them, the sailors found navigation impossible and they lost all hope of survival. Even the apostle Paul, a man of great faith, feared for his life in the violent storm. While the crew were desperately trying to save the ship, Paul was praying not only for himself, but for all his shipmates as well.
At this critical point when they utterly despaired of life, the Lord comforted His troubled servant with these cheering words, “Fear not” in Acts 27: 21-25: “But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said,… 22 And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship. 23 For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, 24 Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. 25 Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.”
The apostle Paul would survive the current danger and appear “before Caesar” as ordained by the Lord. Since God had clearly shown Paul His will – “for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23: 11) – none could thwart or frustrate it. Paul must be preserved for the Lord’s further service. Despite the tempest and the dangers that threatened Paul’s life, the sovereign and mighty Lord would see to his safe arrival in Rome.
“Whether he had before designed it, or whether it was a sudden resolve upon the present provocation, does not appear; but God puts it into his heart to do it, for the bringing about of that which he had said to him, that he must bear witness to Christ at Rome, for there the emperor’s court was” (Matthew Henry).
God promised, moreover, that none on board the ship would perish. Steadfastly believing God’s promise – “that it shall be even as it was told me” – the apostle assured the despairing passengers and crew that God would see to their safety – “there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you.” God had heard Paul’s prayers and would, for His faithful servant’s sake, preserve everyone in the ship – all 276 of them, including the non-believing crew members (Acts 27: 37). “Observe how God was pleased for Paul’s sake to save all that were with him in the ship; sinners are spared and saved for the saints’ sake, whom yet they hate and seek to destroy. The wicked are oft-times delivered from temporal destruction for the sake of the godly who live among them, and intercede with God for them; there were two hundred threescore and sixteen persons, all heathens, except three or four, saved for Paul’s sake, who no doubt begged their lives of God” (Matthew Henry).
But all of them had to remain in the ship to be saved: “Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved” (v 31). Paul gave this command because the sailors, under pretence of casting anchors, were about to abandon the ship to save their own lives: “And as the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship, when they had let down the boat into the sea, under colour (pretence) as though they would have cast anchors out of the foreship” (v 31). But the soldiers, heeding Paul’s instruction, “cut off the ropes of the boat”, thus foiling the mariners’ attempt to escape (v 32). Paul was right to stop the crew from fleeing in order to preserve all on board. From this account, we learn that though God is our Help, we must use every means within our power to help ourselves.
We learn from verses 42-44 that the ship later struck a reef and began to break apart. Fearing that the prisoners would escape, the soldiers determined to kill them. But Julius, apparently a kind man, intervened: “But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land: 44 And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land”. The ship and its cargo were lost, but God kept His promise and none on the ship perished. After some months, Paul and his company arrived safely in Rome (Acts 28: 16). As ordained by the Lord, His servant whose life He had preserved from danger and death, faithfully fulfilled God’s purpose through his preaching and teaching ministry: “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, 31 Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28: 30-31).
The above account of Paul’s adventures at sea teaches us that none can foil God’s purposes. What He has decreed will come to pass. The tempestuous seas might have terrified Paul and all on board, but the Lord assured them with cheering words of encouragement: “Fear not”. He would see Paul safely to Rome as He had ordained, and would preserve the lives of the apostle and his shipmates. Our God reigns supreme, and we can trust Him to keep us in the storms of life.
Believing God’s promise to save them, the apostle was able to comfort those in despair – and assure them that God would keep His Word (v 25). When we exercise faith in the Lord, we are able to comfort others with the same comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God (II Cor. 1: 3-5).
May we learn these precious lessons from the life of the apostle Paul, who was preserved by God for His own good purpose. May He also keep and strengthen us for the work He has for us to do. Amen