What is culture? Ask five people, and be prepared for six different answers. For some, “culture” is something to be celebrated for its lavish diversity. For others, “culture” is something to be feared and avoided. “Culture” is basically the way we answer the question: “What does it all mean?” Music, art, technology—these are all things we use to figure out what life is supposed to mean.
There was a day when we looked for meaning in the pages of the Bible. No more. Now, we live in a world of many competing cultures, many competing stories. There are many different—often conflicting—ways of explaining what life is supposed to mean. This is what we mean when we say we live in a “post-Christian” world. If you look to God and His Word, you risk being labeled out of touch with today’s changing times.
God’s Word tells us to “seek the good of the city” we inhabit (Jeremiah 29:7). This means that each of us is called to be a missionary to the world around us. We look to the example of Paul, who continues on his journey to Rome. We’ll lift some principles from his sea voyage to understand how to relate to today’s post-everything world.
DESIGN, NOT DISASTER
Acts 27:1-44 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment.
First, God’s missionaries see design where others see disaster. To understand this better, we have to look beyond this chapter and see Paul’s journey as a whole. He was destined to go to Rome (Acts 21:10-13). Everything else that came his way was part of God’s plan. This doesn’t mean that God causes disasters such as hurricanes and shipwrecks. But it does mean that God is at work in every circumstance working it for His good.
Whether we experience tragedy or merely witness it, it’s tempting to look for someone to blame. Political opponents. Corporations. Maybe even God. But the question we should be asking is simple: “Does God know about this?” Yes, that’s sarcasm. God knows. The storms of life don’t care about you. Don’t know you. God knows you, and God cares about you.
SUPPORT, NOT SOLITUDE
2 We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us. 3 The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.
God’s missionaries seek support where others seek solitude. Notice the “we” in verse 2? Luke, the author of Acts, is actually one of Paul’s travel companions.
Too often we can view church community as optional. If there’s nothing else on our schedule, if our vacation’s over, then we attend church…or at least come twice a month or so. This makes sense when church is a duty and an obligation. But for Paul, Christian community was neither of those things. It was a joy, born from necessity. When facing persecution, community shifts from being optional to being vital.
4 From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5 When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.
9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.
Do you understand what’s going on here? The “Fast” refers to the time surrounding the Jewish holiday of the Day of Atonement, typically celebrated in the Fall. If you were a good sailor, you knew the phrase mare clausum—literally “the sea is closed.” Sailing didn’t usually happen between mid-September until February at the earliest. Paul seems to understand this, and that’s an important point. Paul’s trust in God’s design didn’t stop him from exercising wisdom along the way. Sadly, this wisdom was waved aside like the flags on the White Star Line.
13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
The final verse says it all. Not only were they facing a storm, but they lacked the sun and stars that usually helped them navigate. Our world is full of those who insist that we “trust our hearts.” “Look within,” we’re told. But neither trite slogans nor personal introspection are of any use when you’re lost at sea.
CONFIDENCE, NOT COMFORT
21 After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24 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.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
God’s missionaries have confidence where others seek only comfort. Paul had hope when all seemed hopeless.
Comfort is a fragile thing. It can be taken away in an instant. Yet if we’re honest, we find our value in the idols of comfort, convenience and control. Outside the walls of the church this is understandable. Inside the walls, it becomes toxic. We judge our spiritual experiences not by what we invest into them—but by what we get out of them. “I’m not being fed,” we complain. And so the demand for comfort corrodes our souls and our communities.
27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.
COMPASSION, NOT CRITICISM
33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food– you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
God’s missionaries display compassion where others display criticism. The language here of breaking bread is similar to the language of the Lord’s table (cf. Luke 24:35). With so many unbelievers present, it’s unlikely that this was a communion service. But I think we’re meant to see this conversation as representing God’s incredible love for the world. Paul still confronted the errors that he saw (27:21). But his love went beyond merely saying “I told you so.”
When something troubles or offends you, what’s your first impulse? Is it prayer? Or a rant on Facebook? When political decisions don’t go our way, when a beloved celebrity does something shocking, we should respond with bended knees and bowed heads—not with clenched fists.
SACRIFICE, NOT SECLUSION
39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf. 42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
Finally, God’s missionaries pursue sacrifice, not seclusion. Christians are (in)famous for living in a “bubble.” We remain “pure” by creating a sub-culture. Christian music. Christian books. Christian coffeehouses. If we’re careful enough, we might never have to meet a non-Christian. And apparently it’s working. The magazine Christianity Today recently reported that an increasing number of non-Christians have never met an actual Christian. This should shock us. This should trouble us. And this should provoke us to the same sacrificial love of Christ. The cross shows us that sacrifice always leads us further into the world—not away from it.
In the Old Testament, we see another missionary, and another storm at sea. Like Paul, Jonah was called to reach a group of Gentiles and bring them back into fellowship with God. But unlike Paul, Jonah refused. Jonah got on the boat to flee his calling, Paul got on the boat to fulfill his calling. The message of this contrast is simple: God will always fulfill His purposes. He will accomplish His mission through us, or He will accomplish His mission in spite of us.
Which one is your prayer?