It’s been said that approaching the Bible strictly as a historical document makes for bad history. Not because it isn’t history, but because it’s selectively historical and reads more like a story than a historian’s take on the big names, dates, and events of a particular era. This is especially true for a book that claims to be God’s story first and foremost, which is another way of saying its theological agenda trumps all other agendas — historical, instructional, moral, or otherwise.
One of the many places in the New Testament where this becomes apparent is the book of Acts, which is often reduced to a church planting manual or, more broadly, a “how to” on the evangelistic side of the Christian life. This is common for readers of the Bible to do — categorizing books topically so we have a broad-brush starting point for understanding their meaning. “Nehemiah is the book on leadership, Jonah is the book on global missions,” etc. But when we start to actually read the stories we find that such categorizations are overly simplistic and even at times unbiblical. Like square pegs in a round hole.
Take Paul’s shipwreck story in Acts 27 as a textbook example of this.
Acts 27 recounts one of the worst maritime disasters in the whole Bible, yet one of the most survivable at the same time. On his way to Rome to appeal to Caesar, and under the supervision of Roman centurions, Paul and company run into a veritable hurricane on the Mediterranean. After days of tumultuous winds, little food, and constant fear of death, the ship is finally broken apart and the crew and prisoners need to swim for shore on an island called Malta. Miraculously, everyone survives. I like to compare it to the movie Sully about the US Airways flight in 2009 that water-landed on the Hudson River after running into a flock of birds, another true story where catastrophe and almost certain death are met instead with a 100% survival rate. In both stories, the main characters, Paul and Sully respectively, exude an almost other-worldly steadiness and calmness, one that reminds us of Jonah on the boat in his own storm on the same sea hundreds of years before, and even more, Jesus, who slept soundly amidst the storm on the Sea of Galilee while his disciples cried out for their lives.
And that’s our first clue that there’s more to this story than history alone. Paul is a type of Jesus here. His insistence that “not a hair from any of your heads will perish” in verse 34 reminds us of when Jesus consoles his disciples with the exact same words in Luke 21. So, far from simply a lesson on how Christians should replicate the same kind of faith when we find ourselves in similar kinds of disastrous situations, this is Jesus’s word of grace to us about how comprehensive his blood is when it comes to our redemption. His blood saves every single molecule and atom in our bodies — the smallest particles, the smallest of hairs, the most ingrained sins, even things we don’t realize are there, things we can barely see, but are still keeping us from God. He covers it all. There really is nothing to fear.
Paul also continues in Jesus’s footsteps by calling the crew away from “continuing in suspense” (v. 33) to sitting down to rest and to break bread together. The words used in Acts 27 are an almost verbatim copy of what Jesus says at the Last Supper, which is intentional. This dramatizes how the gospel calls us away from our fears, worries, and especially our active efforts to save ourselves from the storm of our sin, and instead to trust in the broken, bread-like body of God’s Son alone. Verse 38 adds, “When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.” Jesus is the grain, the bread that will eternally satisfy, but we see here that this grain suffers. In a surprise (and unfair?) twist, it’s the innocent grain that gets thrown into the sea first, even before the guilty prisoners. In the same way, it’s not just Jesus’s body, but his crucified body that saves us. It’s the scandal of the ages, when God would bear the greatest of injustices on our behalf, so we can unfairly, yet graciously, have our loads lightened.
As we keep reading, we find that we’re not done reading about broken things, as one more significant object gets torn apart in the storm: the ship itself. It says, “The stern was being broken up by the surf … and the centurion ordered the rest who couldn’t swim to make for land on pieces of the ship. In this way, everyone reached land safely.” Now, the ship isn’t just about the ship. It’s a picture of something more, namely Jesus Christ himself, who in his ministry fell asleep “on the stern” in Mark 4, linking him linguistically with the broken stern in Acts 27. But what’s most helpful is to see that it’s the broken ship that provided flotation devices to get everyone safely to land, especially those who couldn’t swim. It had to be broken, you could say — like Jesus’s body — or the way to land wouldn’t have been possible.
This is the gospel. None of us can swim spiritually. The centurion’s message wasn’t “Train hard to become an Olympic swimmer!” but “Hold on to the ship’s planks!” And so it is for us. The whole of the Christian life is characterized by holding onto something — or, someone — rather than trying to become better versions of ourselves. Looking back and looking ahead, we find even our successes and victories in life were purchased by the suffering of another and were not products of our own spiritual efforts. We’re all castaways. But that’s a good thing because God is at work saving those who know their need, and who know they can’t swim. He loves us too much to act otherwise. Like the grain, he jumps in first, and like the broken ship, he jumps in with us, breaking up with the waves, so in the face of our own shipwrecks from hell we remember he not only is with us in the storm, but he takes the worst the storm can offer for us. The ripple effects of Calvary move forward into this part of the Bible, whispering to us how much we’re nourished and buoyed by his grace alone, not by our works. That’s the message of Acts 27, and ultimately, the whole Bible.