But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. – Acts 28:3
Sometimes the journey we have in the Spirit involves shipwrecks. There are times when we go through threatening experiences, experiences that shake us, shock us, even smack us around. But difficulty doesn’t mean we aren’t walking in the Spirit, it simply means He has seen fit to have us go through such times for His purposes. We may not know all His purposes this side of glory, but we trust Him by faith regardless of how smooth or stormy the waters of life are for us.
There is a well-known poem by Mary Stevenson called Footprints in the Sand that conveys a truth about the presence of God in challenging times.
Footprints in the Sand
One night I dreamed I was walking
along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed that
during the low periods of my life, when I was
suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord, “You promised me
Lord, that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods
of my life there have only been
one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?”
The Lord replied,
“The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you.”
– Mary Stevenson
In His word God has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Jesus said, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus said of the Holy Spirit, “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18). The Lord is always with us. The Holy Spirit is the One who makes the presence of God known to us. What are the signs to communicate to us that the Holy Spirit is working? How can we know the Holy Spirit is acting?
I wonder if the Apostle Paul ever questioned if he was on the right road with the Spirit? When he was going through the stormy waters of the Euroclydon, did he wonder, “Lord, is this your will for me? Holy Spirit, did I make a wrong turn?” Of course we know from Paul’s testimony in Acts 27 that God sent an angle to him to assure him that he and all aboard would be saved if they followed God’s instructions. And as we will see in the concluding chapter of Acts, Paul will arrive safely in Rome, God’s destination for him.
But what about us, how can we recognize the Spirit at work in our lives? When it looks like there are only one set of footprints, how can we be comforted that God, the Holy Spirit, is carrying us? In these final words of Acts are a few signs in the sand that the Holy Spirit is working in your life. These signs are assuring and help us to keep moving forward even when times are difficult. Let’s look at the Spirit’s signs in the sand.
Safely on the Shores of Malta?
Acts 27:39-44 – “When it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible.
The Spirit can lead in shadowy ways. Just as those on the ship didn’t recognize the land or fully know where they were, when the Spirit leads, sometimes you will only be able to recognize, “a bay,” or “a beach” and will have to trust Him as you head toward the shore of your destination. We walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We need to walk through the doors the Spirit opens, but sometimes we will not know they are open to us until we try them.
40 And they let go the anchors and left them in the sea, meanwhile loosing the rudder ropes; and they hoisted the mainsail to the wind and made for shore.
The Spirit leads in a way that discards the unnecessary and uses the necessary. The anchors had served their purpose and now it was time to let them go. Now the sails needed to be hoisted so they could make for shore. If we listen, and ask the Spirit, He will tell us what to let go of and what to hoist up for us. Don’t cling to things. Be open to the direction of the Spirit.
41 But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves.
The Spirit will often break up what is no longer needed. Just as the ship was broken up because it had served its purpose, the Spirit will break up what is no longer needed for His purposes. When that happens, don’t try to build up, or salvage that which the Spirit allows to be broken. Simply move on with the Spirit.
42 And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape.43 But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land,
The soldiers of this world are willing to kill that which they fear losing. The Spirit moves on the lost to raise up protectors and give God’s people favor with them. The soldiers were ready to kill the prisoners of which Paul was one. But the centurion stepped in to protect Paul. Was the centurion saved? We have no evidence he was. But the Spirit moved on his heart to protect Paul and trust Paul to not try to escape even if he made it to land. This was the Spirit’s doing.
44 and the rest, some on boards and some on parts of the ship. And so it was that they all escaped safely to land.”
The Spirit works to save all. All were saved from this shipwreck. The Bible says the Lord, “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” and salvation (2 Peter 3:9). This doesn’t mean God doesn’t at times exterminate His enemies and the enemies of His people. But even in such situations we are told, “As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11a). If ever we are in doubt about the salvation of a person, we should always assume God’s will is fo that person to be saved. You are probably one of God’s efforts to reach that lost person in question. God has a heart for the world, to save them (e.g., John 3:16). The Holy Spirit desires to save all.
And just as the Lord had promised (27:23-25), they all escaped with their lives (27:44). Here again we see the faithfulness of God exhibited in the storm. By obeying the words of the Lord given through Paul, they were all saved from death at sea.
Finally they came ashore on Malta (28:1). The safety of the crew and Paul was secured just as the Lord had told Paul it would happen (27:25). Paul had the spiritual gift of prophecy and exhortation as seen on this ocean voyage. God was faithful to fulfill his word of comfort to Paul.
Acts 28:1-6 – “Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta.2 And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold.
The Spirit moves on people’s hearts to act kindly toward His servants. The “unusual kindness” of these Indigenous people toward the survivors of the shipwreck is a sign of the Spirit’s comforting work. The suffering of God’s people can move the hearts of the lost.
3 But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
The Spirit moves us to serve continuously. Paul had just survived a hellacious storm and shipwreck. Did he reach the shore, plop himself down and say, “Well, I’ve done my part for the day, let someone else collect the wood for the fire”? No. It was in the nature of the Spirit filled Paul to serve, serve, serve, and then serve some more. There was no limit to Paul’s service. For Paul, serving was like breathing, it never stopped.
The Spirit’s moves are often countered by Satan’s attacks. They had just survived a shipwreck and were being comforted on the shores of Malta. The devil doesn’t fight by the Marquis of Queensberry Rules. The devil doesn’t fight fair. But his attacks shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that the Spirit is against us. Quite the contrary, it was because Paul was proving faithful and steadfast moving ahead with the Spirit that the devil attacked him trying to discourage and deter him from carrying on.
4 So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.”5 But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.6 However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
The Spirit moves to make the servant of the Lord alert and energized to use every opportunity to minister to people. Paul, bitten by a snake who clamped onto his hand, just shook off the serpent into the fire and carried on. It was no big deal to Paul. Paul didn’t set up a “Super Almighty Snake Defeating Ministry” and start drawing attention to himself or trying to profit from the Spirit had done. Paul simply continued as usual until it dawned on the people that “he was a god.” Now it doesn’t say Paul refuted such claims, it simply assumes he did. The one who had earlier tore his clothes in abhorrence to such a thought, would surely have done the same thing here it is assumed (compare Acts 14:11-16).
As we mentioned above, it’s possible that the storm at sea was generated by Satan to try and destroy Paul (see Job 1:18-19). It would not be beyond the strategy of Satan to try and thwart the Spirit’s work and it was the will of God for Paul to go to Rome (23:11). This causes us to wonder how many of the catastrophic natural disasters in the world are really generated by Satan. Unfortunately, the world often attributes such disaster to God as an “act of God.”
When Paul gets to the beach of Malta, Satan it appears just won’t give up as Paul is bitten by a snake. The people respond with a superstitious view that Paul must be a murderer if after he escaped a storm at sea he is now bitten by a snake (28:3-4). Paul shakes off the snakebite matter-of-factly as though it were some feeble attempt to deter his mission (27:5). This fulfilled Jesus’ Great Commission proclamation that He would protect his disciples from snakebites (Mark 16:18; Luke 10:19). Some, such as the Jolo snake handlers of the South have taken such verses to an extreme and incorporated rattlesnakes in their services. These churches are dying out as the snakes they handle bite more people. Such practices are tempting God and ought to be avoided (see Matthew 4:7).
We need to remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, we might say Satan the snake (Genesis 3), bites Paul with a snake. We can learn two things here.
First, Satan does not easily give up. If the storm was from him, he was not deterred by God’s victory over the storm he brought, but as soon as Paul was on shore and apparently safe, he struck again. This is a strategy of Satan; he often strikes after our victory and his defeat. When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, as soon as they descended the mountain, they encountered demon-possessed boy that the disciples could not heal (Matthew 17). Beware the times after victories because they are often the times of counterattack by the enemy.
Second, we should not let our guard down but always walk in the Spirit and shake off the snakebites. The enemy prowls around like a roaring lion looking for some fresh meat, or some Christian who is living a carnal life of the flesh (1 Peter 5:8-9). It is that straggler he will attack. Paul was ship wreaked and snake bit, but through it all he was not shaken, but continued in the Spirit. Paul learned to shake off the snakebites by the power of the Holy Spirit. How about you, are you being bitten by snakes? Walk in the Spirit and shake them off.
Acts 28:7-10 – “In that region there was an estate of the leading citizen of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and entertained us courteously for three days.8 And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him.9 So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed.10 They also honored us in many ways; and when we departed, they provided such things as were necessary.”
The Spirit heals people. While some abuse the healing ministry of the Spirit, that should not sour us to the fact that the Holy Spirit does indeed heal people at times. There are “gifts of healings” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, and 30). We, like Paul, should be ready to be used by the Spirit to heal people.
Paul was always ready to serve and minister to those in need. He had just been shipwrecked and snake bitten, but none of these things moved him (20:24) from ministry the Spirit brought his way.
Acts 28:11-31 – “After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose figurehead was the Twin Brothers, which had wintered at the island.12 And landing at Syracuse, we stayed three days.13 From there we circled round and reached Rhegium. And after one day the south wind blew; and the next day we came to Puteoli,14 where we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them seven days. And so we went toward Rome.
The Spirit provides through brethren as we journey in His way. Where God guides God provides. This doesn’t mean taking advantage of God’s people. But the Spirit does put it in people’s hearts to support and help financially and when He does we should not be too proud to receive what he provides.
15 And from there, when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns. When Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage.
The Spirit sends brethren to support and instill courage in us to carry on. As Paul journeyed the Spirit put it on the hearts of brethren in the area to come and see and encourage Paul. The Spirit knows we need encouragement and will send it to us when we need it and will urge us to encourage others when they need it.
16 Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him.
The Spirit can create a captive audience to listen to the gospel. Do you think Paul ministered to this soldier that guarded him? Legend has it Paul won him to Christ. The Spirit can use tough times like captivity to turn the tables on the enemy and win them to Christ.
17 And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: “Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans,18 “who, when they had examined me, wanted to let me go, because there was no cause for putting me to death.19 “But when the Jews spoke against it, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar, not that I had anything of which to accuse my nation.20 “For this reason therefore I have called for you, to see you and speak with you, because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.”
The Spirit acts to address potential conflicts preemptively. Once in Rome, Paul sought to meet with “the leaders of the Jews” to assess if they had been influenced by false negative rumors about him. Paul did this to address anything that might hinder his ministry regarding “the hope of Israel” which was the reason he was bound in chains. The Spirit always moves to remove barriers to ministry. Be aware of that.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he states, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). When we walk in the Spirit, if we are paying attention, He frequently enables us to anticipate problems and prepare for them. Sometimes, like we see here with Paul, He will direct us to address potential problems before they become problems. Part of this is having a spiritual, holy attitude over against getting in our flesh or sinful nature. The Spirit does this through the love He pours into our heart (Romans 5:5). When the love of Christ is compelling us, when we seek to do everything in the fruit of the Spirit which is love, we can avoid or at least deal with a lot of problems in a holy God-glorifying way.
21 Then they said to him, “We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you.22 “But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.”
The Spirit acts by preparing the heart of those to be ministered to. They hadn’t received any notice of the situation with Paul. They had heard of “this sect” of followers of jesus as Messiah who were “spoken against everywhere.” When the Spirit acts He will prepare the hearts of those in front of us so that they will say, “we desire to hear from you what you think.” But it might also mean that our reputation as Christians precedes us that we are “spoken against everywhere.”
23 So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening.
The Spirit acts by using the word of God. A time to meet and discuss the gospel was set, and Paul was ready and raring to go to share. When he spoke to the Jews he did so “from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets.” Paul used the word of God to minister.
The Spirit acts empowering to minister. In the Spirit Paul was empowered to minister “from morning till evening.” The Spirit gives us energy to minister.
24 And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.
The Spirit acts but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is going to agree with us. Paul spoke in the power of the Spirit, but these people didn’t all believe what he was sharing. Our “success” is not how many respond to the gospel and get saved, that is the Spirit’s work. Our “success” is being faithful to share when the Spirit directs us to.
25 So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers,26 “saying, 1 ‘Go to this people and say: “Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; And seeing you will see, and not perceive;27 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.” ’28 “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!”
The Spirit acts through those unwilling to compromise and who will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – in love. Paul didn’t sugar coat his message but when they rejected Jesus, he quoted Isaiah’s words about such people (in particular Jewish people). Paul didn’t coax his Jewish audience to give in and follow Jesus. Paul merely shared the truth and trusted the Lord to do the rest. But remember, we aren’t to use the sword of the Spirit to hack people up (Ephesians 6:17). What truth we speak is to be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). Such love is from the Holy Spirit (e.g., Galatians 5:22-24; Romans 5:5).
29 And when he had said these words, the Jews departed and had a great dispute among themselves.30 Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him,31 preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”
The Spirit acts and empowers us to carry on faithfully to the end. We are not told of Paul’s hearing in Rome. We do know historically that he was released and had a time of further ministry. He was eventually arrested again and martyred in Rome.
Paul took three days to rest (28:17) and then got right down to ministering. The gospel was known in the outskirts of Rome and Rome itself but “spoken against everywhere” (28:22). Paul taught them about the Kingdom of God as it relates to Jesus based on a study of the Law of Moses (i.e., Pentateuch) and the Prophets (e.g., Isaiah 53). He taught them from morning to evening and therefore his teaching must have been thorough (28:23).
Paul’s ministering the gospel of the kingdom was met with mixed responses, some believed, and some did not (28:24). To those who rejected the gospel Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 which is not only an assessment of these people but is characteristic of much of the people encountered in the book of Acts. Warren Wiersbe makes the following comment:
For the fifth time in Israel’s history, the prophecy of Isaiah 6 was fulfilled. Over 700 years before, God had told Isaiah that Israel would reject His Word and refuse His message. When Christ was accused of being in league with Satan (Matt. 12), our Lord quoted this same prophecy as He gave the Parables of the Kingdom (Matt. 13:14–15). At the close of His ministry, Jesus spoke of this prophecy again (John 12:37–41). Paul quoted it in Rom. 11:8; and now he used it for the last time. God had been speaking to His people for over 700 years—what patience! (Emphasis added.) Verse 28 does not mean that for the first time Paul went to the Gentiles. It simply means that, now that Israel in Rome had been given an opportunity and had refused, Paul would turn to the Gentiles. Paul’s hands were free of their blood; he had given them the opportunity to be saved. This had been Paul’s pattern from the very beginning (Acts 13:44–49).
A major theme in Acts is a compelling and sad account of the rejection of Jesus and His Spirit-filled disciples who are offering the Jews news of their long-awaited Messiah, who is the risen Jesus. Consequently, Acts is about the Jewish people slamming the door of their hearts in the face of God and His representatives and the Spirit turning to and opening a door to non-Jewish peoples. This movement led to the creation of the Church. Acts is a book about the work of the Spirit to reach the lost and the resultant creation of the body of Christ, the Church. But God still has a plan and purpose for Israel, but that is another study (e.g., Romans 9-11; Revelation 7; 11; 14).
The final word on Paul is that he continued preaching and teaching about Jesus with confidence and boldness (28:31). There is reason to believe that Paul never wavered in his calling and for the rest of his life walked in the Spirit fulfilling the calling of God on his life.
Paul is a brother in Christ who we can look to as a shining example of humility, obedience and service for Christ that was compelled by the love of Christ he experienced in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit chose to focus on Paul in the last chapters of Acts. I do not believe that focus was an accident. I believe the Spirit is willing to raise up more Paul’s from the pool of Saul’s in this world. You might be one of them. The Spirit is right here, we only need to ask Him to do His work in us (Luke 11:13).
The Spirit wants to exalt Jesus in and through us. It is only the power of the Spirit working in and through us that can do this. That is the message of Acts. Let the Spirit act in and through you! And along the way, don’t forget to pay attention to the signs in the sand, they will assure you, direct you, and comfort you along the way. Amen.
Wiersbe, W. W. 1997, c1992. Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (Ac 28:1). Victor Books: Wheaton, Ill.