“Jesus Rescues!” That is the theme of our Vacation Bible Schools this year. A week from tomorrow, we’ll start tell the kids that when they’re lonely, Jesus rescues; when they worry, Jesus rescues; when they struggle, Jesus rescues; when they’ve done wrong, Jesus rescues; and when they feel powerless, Jesus rescues.
King David experienced all of the above as he wrote Psalm 69 – especially keenly as he wrote the first words: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” He was running for his life from King Saul, who wanted to kill him. But David believed that God would rescue him, so he could write further along: “But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.” And as the Psalm comes to an end, he had no doubt: “Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and all that move in them, for God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah.”
The Apostle Paul was in even more immediate danger in our story from Acts 27 this morning.
Paul had been in the Temple in Jerusalem when some Jews from the area that is now Turkey got other Jews stirred up because Paul had spread the Gospel in their homeland. The crowd started beating him, which continued until some Roman soldiers and their commander – Lysias – intervened. Lysias allowed Paul to address the crowd, which just about rioted.
When the Sanhedrin met to consider what Paul was teaching, the Pharisees and the Sadducees got into a violent argument, so Lysias had to intervene again. Paul was then sent to Caesarea to appear before the Roman governor, and the commander had to take steps to prevent an assassination by some of the Jews.
The governor – Felix – could not convict Paul of anything, but kept him under guard to keep the Jewish leaders happy. The same happened when Festus succeeded Felix as governor, but by this time Paul had had enough. He appealed to Caesar – which meant that he and his party had to travel to Rome.
So Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus – one of the Thessalonian Christians – boarded a grain ship and headed out. It was a slow trip – they had to make several stops, and it was getting late in the sailing season.
Paul was in no way a professional sailor, but he had been a passenger on many trips, so he suggested they spend the winter in port at Fair Haven. That sounds like a really nice place to spend the winter, doesn’t it?
Paul warned that if they didn’t go to Fair Haven, “our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” There were 276 people on board – including a centurion named Julius – who was in charge of the voyage.
The Roman government wanted grain shipments protected, because an army moves on its stomach. Julius heard Paul’s concerns, but agreed with the ship’s captain and the owner of the ship, who thought that Fair Haven was too small a place to dock for the season.
They wanted to go to the bigger harbor town of Phoenix – on the island of Crete – which turned out to be a big mistake. A nor’easter hit. The crew had to lash the ship together to keep it from breaking up in the surf. They threw some of the cargo overboard – then the tackle. Obviously, they did not eat during this lengthy storm.
Paul chided them for not listening to him, but then encouraged them:
… keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
In other words, “Jesus rescues.”
God’s word to Paul was that he would preach the Gospel in Rome – and everybody with him would survive because of that promise. But not everyone shared Paul’s faith in God’s promise. On night 14 of the storm – sailors dropped four anchors from the stern and a lifeboat from the bow – thinking they could try to escape a potential shipwreck.
Paul found out and told Julius the centurion and his men that they had to stop the sailors from using the lifeboat. As we read in verse 31: “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Thankfully, this time, Julius listened and the soldiers cut the lifeboat loose.
Just before dawn, Paul told everyone to eat. He took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread, and started eating. It was not exactly a full Presbyterian Communion liturgy, but our celebration of the Lord’s Supper demonstrates our faith that Jesus indeed rescues us.
And Paul was doing the same – Jesus had saved him from a life of trying to snuff out Christianity, giving him a commission to spread the faith. So Paul had no trouble believing that Jesus would rescue him and everyone else on board in this storm.
After eating – the crew threw the rest of the grain into the sea and cut the anchors loose so the ship would be lighter and drift closer to shore before running aground. They made a run for the beach – but the bow hit a sandbar and stuck. The waves smashed the stern apart, but everyone aboard was able to get off the bow and make it to the beach – either by swimming or by grabbing floating pieces of the ship and drifting in.
The soldiers were ready to kill the prisoners so they couldn’t escape – there were probably many more than just Paul – but Paul’s words about the angel’s message were still ringing in Julius’s ears: that Paul had to appear before Caesar in Rome, and that’s why everyone on the ship would survive.
Julius had learned – the hard way – to listen to Paul. Or more accurately, to the Lord, speaking through Paul. So Julius was not going to let his soldiers do anything to interfere with God’s promise.
Ironically, this journey to Rome would be Paul’s last trip. All indications are that he was martyred during Nero’s persecution of the Christians – sometime between 64 and 68 AD.
This may have you questioning whether Jesus really does rescue. He certainly did in this case – so that Paul could preach in Rome. But two years later, Jesus apparently did not rescue Paul.
But let’s look at the word “to save” used for God’s sparing the lives of everyone on board that ship. It is the same word used 105 other times in the New Testament – almost always to mean God’s gracious salvation of His people by the blood of His Son, Jesus. In fact, the first time the word is used in the New Testament is Matthew 1:21 – when the angel told Joseph that he was to give Mary’s Son the name “Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus rescues. Maybe not in the way we want or in the time frame we want, but He will rescue when it really counts.
Jesus will often rescue us from loneliness, worry, and powerlessness, sometimes from struggle, but always from our sin – if we trust in His ability to rescue. That is what mattered in the life and death of Paul: Jesus rescued him from the shipwreck, the angry mobs, and many other perils – but in the end, Jesus rescued him from spiritual death because Paul believed Jesus could.
And Jesus will rescue us from spiritual death if we believe He can. Believe that now and always – that Jesus rescues! Amen.