Misunderstanding might be our national pastime. We misunderstand each other, our circumstances, our identities, affiliations, and priorities. Sometimes the misunderstandings seem to be intentional like with the killers in San Bernardino and a stubborn official refusal to believe that a terrorist ideology was behind it—that what was in their heads and hearts had anything to do with what they had in their hands and the carnage they committed with it. Sometimes the misunderstandings are unintentional and sometimes they just happen because we get sloppy with our facts and figures…or our Scriptures.
Today’s passage of Scripture combined with a few others in the Bible, can lead us to places we don’t want to go, if we get sloppy.
So, let’s spend some time today setting the record straight.
Paul and his companions last week you’ll remember were having a rough sea journey and ended up with all 276 aboard becoming castaways on an island. The Alexandrian grain ship being used for transporting the passengers, including prisoners like Paul, ended up hitting a sandbar and the pounding surf broke the ship apart. All 276 made it to shore safely whether by swimming or clinging to debris from the ship.
The island, we find out today, is called Malta. The island of Malta is actually one of 3 islands in the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean. If you think of Italy as a boot and Sicily as being kicked by the boot, Malta is about 1/ 4 of the way from the bottom of Sicily to Libya. They were far south of their target of Rome because of that nor’easter driving them off their planned course.
Fortunately, the islanders were not only friendly, but went above and beyond with kindness.
Acts 28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.
The islanders, literally barbarians, didn’t speak Greek which is why they were considered barbarians. Let’s set the record straight: just because someone doesn’t speak your language or is a stranger to you doesn’t mean they don’t know how to be kind. These barbarians were immensely practical as well. They built a fire—the winter season of cool rainy weather (think November or March for us)—was upon them and they’d need warmth to survive and to dry out from having come ashore.
Paul, we’ve mentioned before, was the kind of person who made friends wherever he went. And we know he was smart, but let’s set the record straight: he was also a hard-working man. You can’t say that about all theologians and pastors.
Paul was a tent-maker and used to working with his hands. He wasn’t just some smart guy who spent his time in a book and refused to get his hands dirty. Paul knows that without firewood the fire wouldn’t last so he pitched right in. He’s not like on Gilligan’s Island where the Skipper and Ginger and the Howells never seem to do much. The professor is often doing brainy things with gadgets instead of working on, say, a life raft and all the work is left to Mary Ann and Gilligan who was a notorious goof ball and screw-up. No wonder they weren’t rescued for 98 episodes over 3 years. Poor Mary Ann was doing just about everything, but that’s ok because she was a farm girl and was used to it. Paul was used to hard work too.
3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.
And now we begin the items that people misunderstand.
First, there was a “viper” and there are still vipers on Malta, but none of them are poisonous. Some people misunderstand thinking this proves the Bible isn’t true. Maybe there used to be poisonous ones but they were eradicated. No one knows. All we can do is take Luke’s word for how the islanders reacted. Luke was thoroughly accurate in his description of the sea journey, why start lying over a snake? Let’s just trust that there’s a good answer for this misunderstanding.
4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.”
Second misunderstanding. The islanders assume Paul is a murderer. Justice, a Greek goddess named Nemesis, comes around to bite you. What goes around comes around and Paul must be a murderer. Ah, but..
5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.
Here’s another misunderstanding. This one is attached to none other than the disciple Mark of Mark’s Gospel…the Mark who deserted Paul way back when and became as a son to Paul in his final days. The disputed final chapter of Mark says,
Mark 16:14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. 15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” 19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
This viper and deadly poison thing is not a litmus test for true Christianity. I’d strongly recommend against picking up poisonous snakes (for that matter, any snakes) with your hands or drinking deadly poison just to test out the theory. Maybe Paul did the viper thing, but it was purely unintentional. He thought it was a stick because it was so cold and it wasn’t until being brought closer to the fire that it moved. So yes, Paul had a viper stuck on his hand and he shook it off into the fire and he was fine. But the Holy Spirit is proof that Paul is a Christian, not some snake-on-the-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-fire thing.
But it only made way for more misunderstanding:
6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
OK, this may be where the Ewoks and C-3PO did a little biblical reenactment. But the Bible is true and Star Wars, even the third in the trilogy, was just a box office success. The islanders think that Paul is a god. While Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly that Paul disputed that notion, Luke has already set the record straight on that one way back in
Acts 14:11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”
Paul, as you may remember, stated that he and Barnabas were just men! This is an instance in which silence doesn’t mean that Paul conferred godhood on himself. Paul’s track record was already established (been there, done that) and Luke had something else he wanted to highlight on the island of Malta. Luke wanted to emphasize a healing ministry.
7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. 8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. (you can tell it’s physician Luke writing this) Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.
There was a whole lot of healing going on…and while Luke was a physician and no doubt had a role in that, it’s important to see that Paul went in. Paul prayed. Paul placed his hands on this islander and God supplied healing through Paul and probably Luke also. Here’s something of Luke’s interests and vocation peeking through the text…kind of like his watermark authenticating these words as being those of a physician…and of the Holy Spirit through a physician.
Moreover, there’s something to be said for practical ministry. So let’s set the record straight. It’s not just about going to church and sitting in a pew. Remember Tabitha, also called Dorcas? A servant lifestyle communicates great things to a watching world in which so many people are watching out for #1 only. They witnessed, they came, and they were cured. It probably led to some conversion as well. Practical ministry has spiritual benefit!
I’ve been praying about what God will have me do when Acts is finished here. God has a strange way of answering prayers. If the past week is any indication, my next “ministry” may be as an unpaid volunteer doing storm water management and watershed conservation advocacy. When Warren and I were walking and talking about this and how ill-equipped I feel about doing it and how I really don’t want to do it, Warren asked, “Does a servant of the Lord do what she wants or what God desires and expects?” I coulda slugged him. God gives us spouses so we can be hit upside the head with truth that hurts and we’ll still love and be loved. Servant work is rarely glamorous or sexy…and oftentimes it’s not particularly satisfying work on its own. It’s who you’re serving—God Himself—that makes the work a joy.
So it was with Paul. Whether he was preaching or teaching or collecting firewood or making tents or healing people with dysentery, let’s set the record straight: Paul had a servant’s heart.
So the barbarians…at the end of all this,
10 They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
The generosity, the welcoming, the caring, were a gift during the winter, but the kindness of the barbarians supplying everything that these 276 people needed to make the journey by sea—including a ship that had overwintered on the island—was honor upon honor. The captain, the crew, Julius and the officials, the prisoners including Paul, Luke and the other passengers would set sail with everything they needed to get from port to port and eventually to Rome.
So what’s our take home from today? I’d like to encourage you in 3 ways:
- Be a careful student of the Scriptures and don’t be led to litmus tests for Christianity except the one the Bible says: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit guaranteeing our inheritance, promised to every believer.
- Be observant of actions and don’t be led astray by prejudice. Barbarians can be generous hosts instead of being labeled as savages.
- Be open to God’s will and don’t despise servant’s work. There is no retirement from serving God. We serve Him here until we die and then we serve Him in heaven. With an openness of heart and a gracious spirit recognizing it is Jesus we serve, our service will be a joy. We don’t outgrow serving God even if our roles change as we age.
Even Jesus said Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” That’s what we’ll remember in a few moments at the Lord’s Table through the ordinance of Communion. So let’s go to the Lord in prayer and thank Him for setting the record straight on Paul and on the spiritual benefit of practical ministry.