“Paul Ministers on Malta”
Lesson Text:Acts 28:1-10
Background Scripture:Acts 27-28
Devotional Reading:1Thessalonians 5:12-22
Acts 28:1-10 (KJV)
1And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
To relate the events immediately following Paul’s shipwreck and his ministry on the island of Malta.
To show that faithfulness in difficult storms of life often opens the door for ministry to others.
To encourage and strengthen others by letting our light shine, even in the midst of our own trials.
Castaway: What Does It Mean?
People are fascinated by stories about castaways marooned on islands. Robinson Crusoe is considered a classic in this regard almost 300 years after it was written. American TV audiences in the 1960s watched the comedy Gilligan’s Island, which depicted the experience in a deliberately unrealistic way. The 2000 movie Cast Away offered a serious depiction of the experience. More recently, global TV audiences tuned in to Lost, a complex tale about survivors on a mysterious island.
So which of these stories tells what it is really like to be a castaway? Probably none! But we do not need much imagination to put ourselves into the experience. Even the hardiest individual would find it a challenge to live as a castaway.
This week’s lesson is one of the earliest accounts of castaways. It tells of events immediately after one of Paul’s shipwrecks, as Paul and his shipmates found themselves on an unfamiliar island. To be sure, they were not castaways in the fullest sense of that word since they quickly were welcomed by the island’s inhabitants. But the potential hardships and uncertainties were real.
Time:A.D. 59 or 60
Place:Island of Malta
Last week’s lesson focused on the details of Paul’s sea journey to Rome, especially with regard to the storm that led to shipwreck. Thus the background for that lesson is the same as this one.
The new factor in today’s lesson is an island called Melita in the King James Version. The island’s modern name is Malta. It is a rocky island of about 120 square miles, located in the Mediterranean Sea. It is about 58 miles south of Sicily and some 500 miles west of Crete, from which Paul’s ship had last set sail. While there is some uncertainty that the island named in the text is indeed the same as modern Malta, most of what we know about Malta fits the details of the story well. (See Bible Land Map #123.)
Modern Malta, like many Mediterranean islands, is a popular tourist destination. Simply to mention a Mediterranean island today is to suggest an idyllic paradise. But the outlook in Paul’s time was much different. Islands like Malta were isolated, far from the benefits of civilization. People did not vacation in such places. In fact, these places were often where the imperial government exiled enemies and prisoners (see Revelation 1:9).
Among pagans in Paul’s time, a shipwreck was commonly understood as a sign of the gods’ displeasure. Likewise for Bible-believing Jews, being the victim of a storm might appear to be a sign of God’s wrath. After all, Jonah had famously been the victim of a storm that God sent. Was this the case for Paul, who emerged from the shipwreck to find himself on a remote island? Was the whole story of Paul’s imprisonment, leading to this disastrous climax, an indication that Paul was God’s enemy? What adversity meant for Paul lies at the very center of this story.
A WARM WELCOME (Acts 28:1-2)
1. What is the setting for this week’s lesson? (Acts 28:1)
The sailors had not recognized the land to which they fled from the storm (Acts 27:39, last week’s lesson). Now they learn—probably as they communicate with the natives who find them on the beach—that they are on the island of Malta(which means "refuge").
At this point (28:1), we should not mistake what the text is emphasizing. The term translated were escaped implies not just that Paul and the others managed their unlikely survival, but that someone—God, of course—has brought them safely through a perilous situation. We remember that Paul is safe because of God’s action, not cursed because of hardships. Now the question is what will happen in this isolated place where the survivors find themselves.
2. Why does the author refer to the natives as “barbarous”? (v. 2)
The word barbarous does not mean that the inhabitants of the island are savages or crude persons. Rather, it only implies that they do not speak the common Greek language and so are not the beneficiaries of Greco-Roman civilization.
Nevertheless, the people show the survivors kindness. The Greek word here for kindness comes across literally as our English word philanthropy. This implies that the response is generous and openhanded. The place may be isolated, but its natives prove hospitable to their unexpected visitors.
The first order of business is to build a fire. The storm, the time in the sea, and the continuing rain put the survivors in danger of hypothermia and death, thus the need for warmth. We recall that the tally of us every one is 276 (Acts 27:37). For the natives to be willing to help so many people is indeed generous! God is providing for Paul throughout his hardships, giving him just what he needs at just the time he needs it.
What Do You Think?
What was a time when you saw unbelievers act in a way that could serve as an example for believers to emulate? What did you learn from the experience?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
In an emergency | In a nonemergency situation involving a one-time need
In a nonemergency situation involving an ongoing need
A DEADLY SITUATION (Acts 28:3-6)
3. What happened to Paul as he was helping build a fire? (v. 3)
What happens next is notable, not just for the event itself, but especially for the way it is understood by the local people. It will begin to shape their view of Paul and his message.
Despite being one of the cold, wet, and exhausted people for whom the fire is being built, Paul joins in the task of gathering wood for the fire. This demonstration of unselfish service is not the main focus however. A snake apparently has been asleep among the pieces of wood being gathered by Paul. As he was placing the brushwood on the flames, the heat caused a poisonous snake that was hiding in the sticks to crawl out and attach itself to his hand.
4. How did the islanders interpret the event surrounding Paul’s snakebite? What did they conclude about Paul? (v. 4)
As the event unfolds, the people begin to interpret the scene according to their view of the world. Many ancient peoples interpret unusual events as omens—signs indicating some unseen reality or some impending event. In their understanding of the world as being governed by various gods with various realms of power, ancient pagans look for signs of the gods’ will and actions. Thus the sudden, unexpected appearance of a deadly snake is easily interpreted as a powerful omen.
These natives know that Paul had been aboard the ship as a prisoner. They superstitiously assumed that even though the apostle had eluded the wrath of the storm the gods would not permit him to survive any longer. This is the first conclusion of the bystanders, but it will not be their final answer. Their familiar interpretation of adversity is about to be modified.
5. When Paul suffers no harm from the snakebite, what new conclusion did the islanders draw? (vs. 5-6)
Paul’s action when bitten by the snake is natural and instinctive: he shakes it off immediately (v. 5). We assume that Paul then continues doing what he has been doing as he suffers no harm. We can imagine the bystanders waiting expectantly, anticipating with each passing moment that something bad will happen to Paul (“he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly”). But after a great while, they are forced to the conclusion that they have been wrong in their previous assumptions. Yet despite the errors of their conclusions in verse 4, the bystanders still believe that they know what all these events mean.
Their new conclusion is no less wrong: that because Paul suffers no harm from the snakebite, then he must be a god himself. Pagans of this time widely believe that the gods sometimes assume human form temporarily. In another instance, people witnessing Paul’s healing of a lame man similarly concluded that Paul and Barnabas were gods, but Paul immediately corrected them (Acts 14:8-16). While the text before us does not mention him doing so here, we can be sure that Paul addresses the crowd’s amazement, not just to correct their wrong belief about himself, but to introduce them to the true God whose power is at work in him.
What seem to be disasters for Paul are thus turning out quite differently. His shipwreck on a remote island leads to an eager welcome. Bitten by what seems to be a deadly snake, he proceeds unharmed. Each adverse event leads to something that provokes those around him to wonder what power is at work in Paul’s life. Through the difficult circumstances that come into Paul’s life, God provides repeated demonstrations of His power at work in the good news that Paul preaches.
What Do You Think?
What are some ways that hardship might confirm or challenge someone’s worldview? How can we use such times as avenues to spread the gospel?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Physical suffering | Economic hardship | Estrangement or alienation | Hardship caused by the actions of others
MINISTRY AND MIRACLES (Acts 28:7-10)
6. Who was Publius and what hospitality did he show to Paul and his shipmates? (v. 7)
The setting for what happens next is the region near where Paul and his shipmates arrived on shore: the “same quarters” are the territories nearby belonging to the chief official of Malta, a man named Publius.
To have landholdings indicates that he is highly influential on the island. The informal designation chief man of the island reinforces the picture of Malta as an out-of-the-way, loosely governed place.
As the chief official on Malta, Publius served under the governor of Sicily, to which province Malta belonged. Luke writes that Publius gave the shipwreck survivors a gracious reception – he received them and provided a place for them to stay for three days.
7. What unexpected benefit did Publius receive for his hospitality to Paul? (v. 8)
As the story continues, so do the adverse circumstances. But now the adversity is not Paul’s but another’s: Publius’s father is ill with fever and severe intestinal distress, or dysentery (bloody flux). Such conditions are common in the ancient world, given rudimentary sanitation.
Paul’s actions have made clear that the islanders at the beach were mistaken about his being a god. The fact that Paul prays to God on behalf of Publius’ father means that Paul is not exercising a power of his own, but is calling on God to exercise His almighty power. Laying hands on the afflicted man is a posture of prayer for God’s blessing on this individual – signifying the impartation of a divine blessing, in this case the restoration of health. All of Paul’s actions show that the power at work belongs entirely to God, not to Paul himself. The result is that the man is healed. God does not simply protect His servant Paul in his own adversity, but also empowers him to minister to others in their adversity.
8. What was the response of the islanders to Paul’s healing of Publius’ father? (v. 9)
When Jesus or one of His followers healed a person, word spread throughout the region. As a result, people brought their sick to the healer for similar help (Luke 4:40; 5:15; Acts 5:15, 16; 8:7, 8; 19:11, 12).
First with Publius’s father, then with the larger number of other afflicted people, God makes His power visible. The most important outcome, however, is not that the sick are healed, but that the gospel now can receive a credible hearing. God’s power at work in Paul has overwhelmed the people of Malta. Their worldview is overturned!
Paul heard about someone who was sick, and he offered to do what he could. Likewise, with God’s help we, too, can create our own opportunities by simply offering to do what we can for others in need. The incentive to do so comes from Galatians 6:10. There Paul encouraged believers to do good to everyone-whenever the opportunity arose-and especially to those who belonged to the household of faith.
What Do You Think?
What are some things our church is doing (or could do) to give people a chance to see our faith in action?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Meeting one-time local needs |Meeting ongoing local needs | Responding to emergencies or disasters
9. How did the people of Malta show their gratitude when Paul and the others left? (v. 10)
In response to the healings, the man who was first thought to be a murderer is now venerated along with his companions. That the people bestow “many honours”implies a particularly strong response of esteem. This esteem is more than words and handshakes as the people generously provide for the destitute shipwreck survivors as they depart.
Paul and his friends had washed up on shore with nothing. They now leave Malta well supplied by the populace, who give in gratitude and respect. The Maltese knew nothing of the true God when Paul arrived, let alone knowing anything about what God has provided through Jesus Christ. Now they have an introduction. God in His providence certainly will bring more messengers to them in the future.
What Do You Think?
How did other believers help you make your own decision to follow Jesus?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
The witness of a family member | The witness of a complete stranger | The witness of a coworker | The witness of a preacher
POINTS TO PONDER
1. Even in the midst of difficult circumstances, God plans wonderful things for the Christian believer. (Acts 28:1-2)
2. Sometimes God works through our faith to teach others. (vs. 3-4)
3. God can give us a sense of calm and control as we trust Him in our difficult situations. (vs. 5-6)
4. Be strong through your trials and let God use you to be a blessing to others. (vs. 7-9)
5. God always provides and meets the needs of His people. (v. 10)
God’s Power at Work
We are all familiar with adversity. We may never have been shipwrecked, though some of us have probably been through circumstances just as harrowing. In the middle of those painful circumstances, we may wonder whether God will do anything to demonstrate His power in us. We may hope for something as dramatic as what God did with Paul.
Such dramatic deliverances do not always come, however. But we can be sure that God is no less at work in quieter ways. Remembering that the drama of Paul’s experiences on Malta came after long months of imprisonment and two weeks of desperation at sea reminds us that God’s ways and timing are not always as direct and immediate as we want for ourselves. But clearly or subtly, quickly or slowly, He brings glory to himself as His power works through the people who belong to Him.
Central to today’s passage is what Paul’s hardships meant. They were in no way signs of God’s disfavor on him. Rather, they became occasions for God to demonstrate His power among His people. The God we serve is the God of the cross, who brings salvation to the world by taking the world’s adversity on himself in the person of Jesus Christ. He calls His people to bring the good news of the gospel to all people, despite—and even through—difficult circumstances.
When we face tough times, we can and should call out to God for deliverance. But let us not forget also to offer ourselves to God as His servants in adversity. Let us ask God to use us in adversity as His witnesses, demonstrating His almighty power to a world that needs Him desperately.
Almighty God, please teach us to rely on Your power when times are hard. We offer ourselves to You in both joy and pain so that Your power can be manifested in the earthen vessels of our lives, in the name of Jesus, who died for us. Amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Expect God to work through adversity.
ANTICIPATING THE NEXT LESSON
Next week’s lesson is “Paul Evangelizes in Rome” and tells how Paul faithfully shared the good news of Jesus with people in Rome. Study Acts 28:16-31.