God on the Move: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” – Acts 27

Journey to centerThe nineteenth century novel (published in 1864) by Jules Verne called in English “Journey to the Center of the Earth” has become one of the literary classics of the science fiction genre. Verne offered readers a tale about a German professor Otto Lidenbrock who insisted on testing his belief that there were volcanic tubes that led from the surface of the earth all the way to the core of the planet. To prove his theory, he led an expedition with his nephew Axel, and their guide (Hans) into the earth beginning at an Icelandic volcano. The fantastic journey included adventures such as engaging prehistoric animals and traversing perilous hazards of untamed nature. In the end, they emerged at the Stromboli volcano on the tiny Stromboli Island in the Tyrrhenian Sea west of southern Italy, and north of the large island of Sicily. The science in Verne’s book is quite crude by modern standards, but the story line is both engaging and captivating. In my view, few have mastered tactile description better than the classical writers of that period, and Verne is an exceptional example of his time. If you haven’t read the book, take the time… it is a wonderful experience.

Admittedly, I didn’t title this lesson “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as an homage to Jules Verne and his writing. I have in mind a different journey – this one of a first century Roman citizen making his way to Rome – the place at the center of his political world. If you have been following the story of his life and ministry, you will recognize that I am referring to the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions. If you have read the dramatic narrative of Dr. Luke’s record in the Book of Acts in the past, you know this journey seemed nearly as perilous and just as engaging as Verne’s writing of fictional travel – but this journey was very real, indeed.

Come back on the journey with me again for a few moments…By now in the time line of our studies we have finished with Paul’s mission travels. We observed as Paul defended his faith in front of a mob, then a college of Jewish leaders, followed by two provincial governors and a finally a Jewish king and queen. In this lesson we trace his journey to face the Roman Emperor, in spite of the fact that the recent news Paul could hear from Rome was deeply and increasingly unsettling. The record of the physical journey also unfolds – but the record holds a secret. Paul wasn’t just traveling – he was being led by God to do the Master’s bidding. He wasn’t just “passing through” the circumstances; he was experiencing God’s superintending of them. Here is the truth that Luke recorded in a dramatic tale…

Key Principle: God provides practical help to guide us through the storms of life.

It comes as a surprise to virtually NO ONE that our life has storms. These are the unforeseen events that collide with us – in spite of our careful preparation in so many areas. Yet, just as it is true that trouble will come in our lives – so it is true that God will guide us through troubles into His arms. This story offers us a series of brief reminders about how God directs our lives to get us to where He wants us. I think each of them “pop out” of the story as you follow it in Acts 27 and into 28. First, note that…

God directs our lives by having a plan long before we know what it will be.

Acts 27:1 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy…

This doesn’t sound very profound, but it is actually an incredible encouragement when a storm hits us and “blind sides” our world. Look at the words that open the account – a decision was made. Paul wasn’t in charge of the decisions – but even if he had been – it would have made little difference. The fact is that we can plan and plan and plan – but if a storm hits us, it will likely be at a time we didn’t expect and in an area for which we didn’t prepare. Isn’t it comforting, even a little bit, to know in times like that the truth that God is still at work. Circumstances don’t happen to us – God works a plan and signs off on the things that hit my life. We could look in the book of Job for help on this, but that would sound far too negative, and you are doing that badly… so let’s look at other truths about God’s direction…

God directs our lives by putting the right people at the right time into our story.

I love that my life is being staged by God, and that He provides people to take the journey along with me. Look at Luke’s record of the people accompanying Paul…

Acts 27:1b”… they proceeded to deliver Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort named Julius. 2 And embarking in an Adramyttian ship, which was about to sail to the regions along the coast of Asia, we put out to sea accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica. 3 The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul with consideration and allowed him to go to his friends and receive care.

When you read the passage carefully, you see the following people are mentioned as part of the journey with Paul.

Other prisoners: Paul wasn’t being transported alone; there were others who were destined to face a Roman tribunal. You could look at that with a negative eye, like “I am on a ship of thieves and cutthroats.” At the same time, there is an obvious positive to the company… The events on the trip could serve as a backdrop to a larger testimony that could spread to new places in the mouths of these men. They may not have been our chosen audience – but they were the ones selected by God to be on the vessel.

A spiritually lost but temporally powerful man: Paul’s guard was of high rank; a centurion of the Imperial guard named Julius. We know little of his personal resume, but we know something of his accomplishments and character that would have been essential to reaching such a station. We also know something even more important…we know who put him in that place.

Companions in ministry: The text offers a little note of two other men who were standing by Paul during this journey. The first was found in the simple word “we”, which of course refers to Luke. Another man is named – a man God inserted into Paul’s life, at least for the time being; a man called Aristarchus. Luke was likely listed on the ship’s log as Paul’s personal physician (something the wealthy and sickly could afford to do), but that doesn’t help us understand how Aristarchus traveled with them. A number of scholars have posited that Aristarchus listed himself as Paul’s personal slave in order to help on the journey! This idea was used by believers later…

As a young person, I had been told of the story of the two Moravian missionaries to St. Thomas and St. Croix who were willing to be made into slaves if it was the only way to reach the slaves. In Copenhagen they made the offer, but an official told them, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.” One offered his carpentry in trade instead. They sailed on Oct 8, 1732, and arrived in St. Thomas two months later on December 13. While living on the islands and preaching to the slaves, they began a ministry that transformed lives for fifty years. Moravian missionaries baptized 13,000 converts before any other missionaries ever arrived on the scene.

Why is the record of Aristarchus and Luke so important? The reason is simple: the storms of life and troubles of the journey weren’t meant to be weathered alone. God didn’t just provide a ship, he provided friends to make the rough trip beside. As the old saying goes: “a shared joy is double joy and a shared sorrow is half a sorrow”.

Christian friends and prayer partners: One day into the journey the vessel stopped off at Sidon and Paul just happened to have Christian friends there…another gift from God to help secure him along the way.

Never underestimate the encouragement you offer someone by being a friend who showed up while everyone else just thought about showing up. Make the call. Do the visit. You will find that many people are facing storms and the waves look even more treacherous than they are, because they feel they are facing the storms alone. Don’t let them!

We aren’t near done our story, we have just begun. It is important that we recognize how much God does behind the scenes in our lives…

God directs our lives and has the “detours” worked out – but they are actually the plan.

Sometimes the detours appear as “alternative directions” – and God doesn’t seem to be cooperating in the natural world. Luke told the story this way:

Acts 27:4 From there we put out to sea and sailed under the shelter of Cyprus because the winds were contrary. 5 When we had sailed through the sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy, and he put us aboard it.

Since weather has always been in the hands of God, we can surmise that God was watching as the men sailed into the contrary winds, and that slowed the journey down dramatically. Have you ever been in a hurry and found yourself stuck in a long line of traffic? If you have, you know what travel on a ship that is facing the wind and being slowed to a crawl feels like. Well behind schedule, the Centurion landed in Asia Minor looking for a larger vessel bound for the Bay of Naples, and found one.

Was God keeping Paul from making a particular appointment? We don’t know. Remember, we have already noted in a previous study that God’s will for us may not be about us. It is very possible that God was doing something completely different than we would surmise based on the record. We humbly admit this, however. God is in charge of the plan. If we are “detoured to another destination” or “delayed by the unforeseen” and things “out of our control”, we must learn to rest in God’s superintending.

Usually the detours look like they are wasting precious time – but I have noticed that often God doesn’t seem to be in the hurry that I am. I guess being eternal and timeless changes His perspective from being on a 100 year body lease. Luke wrote:

Acts 27:7 When we had sailed slowly for a good many days, and with difficulty had arrived off Cnidus, since the wind did not permit us [to go] farther, we sailed under the shelter of Crete, off Salmone; 8 and with difficulty sailing past it we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.

I want you to notice the way Luke told us the detail here. He said: “we sailed s-l-o-w-l-y for a good many days”. Can you hear the boredom in his voice? He noted “the wind wouldn’t let us go.” Wait? Don’t you serve God? Doesn’t He control the wind? Here is the point: When God is superintending the journey and you don’t know what He is doing, don’t assume He has forgotten you. Every difficulty was perceived by the men as part of God’s plan for them. That didn’t make seasickness any easier, and it didn’t guarantee them they would live through the experience – but it did mean things didn’t ‘just happen’ to them – their steps were ordered by the Lord (or should I say their swells and waves were ordered…).

If you aren’t frustrated with the truths in this passage yet, the next one is for YOU…

God directs our lives when people don’t take us seriously.

Many of us have reconciled God’s control of the weather. Some of us have even reconciled God’s control of our traffic jam – but the idea that God is behind any part of simply writing off what we have to say is really tough! Luke recorded:

Acts 27:9 When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul [began] to admonish them, 10 and said to them, “Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be with damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11 But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship than by what was being said by Paul.

God gave the men a perfectly reasonable warning in the words of Paul He simply told them “Don’t go if you don’t want to lost at least the ship and possible all our lives!” The warning was unheeded because the pilot and captain pressed the Centurion with the view they could make it without trouble. Why they believed this so late in the year isn’t known – but their voice was heard and Paul’s was dismissed. I would like to say this was a unique circumstance, but I cannot. I have been in the position many times of watching people ignore warnings given by a believer, and instead follow people who appear confident – but cannot offer reasonable assurance on their position. Doesn’t that frustrate you? Since as a believer, I need to be kind, I don’t even get the opportunity for the big “I told you so!” when the problem blows up!

Here is the point: God is at work even when people reject your words. Don’t think that God cannot use their rejection. In the case of the Gospel, you may be there so that they can reject, and later on God will bring that rejection to their attention. The same fragrance of Jesus that is life to the saved in 2 Corinthians is the stench of death to the lost.

Here is another hard one…

God directs our lives when we are outvoted in the board room.

Look at how the men gathered to decide what to do next in Acts 27:12…

Acts 27:12 Because the harbor was not suitable for wintering, the majority reached a decision to put out to sea from there, if somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest, and spend the winter [there].

Did you see the words “the majority reached a decision”? Paul’s warning was very clear, yet they took a vote on the next phase. Let me say this to anyone who is struggling because your faith is calling you to stand out – and you wonder if there is something wrong with you… In the history of mankind, the majority was seldom on the side of God, and seldom on the side of right. Most people get life wrong – so don’t be bothered by a call to distinct living for God.

It may really frustrate you to have your voice discounted in the public square – but that isn’t the most important thing. There are people in your life that WILL listen, and you can have an influence on others if you will faithfully follow God. Don’t worry if SOME don’t listen – do your part where God places you!

For economy, let me suggest that a careful reading of the journey can be found in verses thirteen to seventeen. In that portion you can see how the journey became perilous for the group as they moved along the shoreline of Crete and got pounded and driven by a northern wind that drove them out to sea.

Acts 27:13 When a moderate south wind came up, supposing that they had attained their purpose, they weighed anchor and [began] sailing along Crete, close [inshore]. 14 But before very long there rushed down from the land a violent wind, called Euraquilo; 15 and when the ship was caught [in it] and could not face the wind, we gave way [to it] and let ourselves be driven along. 16 Running under the shelter of a small island called Clauda, we were scarcely able to get the [ship’s] boat under control. 17 After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on [the shallows] of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and in this way let themselves be driven along.

Nothing will get under your skin more than watching people go through trouble when you gave them a full and complete warning about the moves they were making before they did – especially when their choice imperils you and your family. This is one of the reasons many believers are so frustrated with the social experimentation of our age with things like “no fault divorce”, “naturalist education” and “a new marriage definition”. In each case, believers warn carefully of coming troubles, get ignored, and then have to watch patiently as the things they warned about come to pass. Do not fear: God has not abandoned us. He is still directing even when people aren’t listening! We don’t really know His plan for our future, except that it ends in our death or His return –everything else is speculation! We must keep pressing on for a complete picture…

God directs our lives when we have to rid ourselves of things we thought were precious.

There are, no doubt, some things you think you simply “cannot do without”. That is only true until you don’t have them – and then you “make due” and find another way to keep going. Keep reading…

Acts 27:18 The next day as we were being violently storm-tossed, they began to jettison the cargo; 19 and on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing [us], from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned.

First they lost the cargo, then the ship’s tackle, and eventually their hope got tossed into the sea as well. Rescue seemed further and further away. Optimism gave way to the toss of the waves. Do you know the feeling?

Some of the people I know have lost homes due to turmoil and unrest in their home villages. Others have lost cars, burned by bandits and looters in the midst of chaos. Some have lost their most precious possessions in tornadoes or vicious storms. Here is what I know: Loss is hard, but often we aren’t very good judges at the line between “need” and “want” in our lives.

I enjoy reading about “tiny houses”. Recently I found that they have a television show on a cable channel and I could get access to some of the episodes on the internet. A tiny house, for the uninitiated, is a home that is usually smaller than five hundred square feet. The average American home is more than four times that size. One of the hardest parts of moving into a “tiny home” is learning to rid ourselves of the many things we have accumulated over the years that we have come to believe are absolute necessities.

Did you ever move your home after living in it for a long time, only to discover you own a great deal more than you thought you did? Down-sizing can be hard in life. Some have sold off much of what you bought in your lifetime. Others have even gotten to the place where they have turned in their driver’s license. Losing precious things can be very hard – but God is still directing your life and with you as you sit in the smaller pile of what is left. Remember: You brought nothing into this world, and you will take nothing out. All of your stuff will be disposed of at some point. It is only stuff. Take care of it. Steward it well… but don’t put too much of your emotional energy into it. Life here is temporary.

We saw the men losing hope, but keep reading, because there is yet more to learn…

God directs our lives when our resources are gone and our strength is fading!

Look at what happened in the midst of the failing men…

Acts 27:21 When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, “Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss. 22 “[Yet] now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but [only] of the ship. 23 “For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, 24 saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.’ 25 “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. 26 “But we must run aground on a certain island.”

Did you see what happened? God sent an angel to them! He could have sent the angel a week before and they would have avoided this mess – but NO!. He could have revealed the storm to Paul before he ever stepped on the ship – but NO! He didn’t send word in the beginning of the peril – he said nothing while the food was dwindling and the ship was breaking. God literally waited until they practically gave up every hope of making it through with their ship. In other words, God let them exhaust themselves before He made His presence overtly known – and then it was up to Paul to assure the men onboard. The point was that they had done all they could, and God was about to do a work to raise up His man on board. God is still at work when you have almost nothing left to give. He is directing your path…

God directs our lives when they seem long, hard and drawn out – while He proves that He keeps His Word!

Acts 27:27 mentioned a fourteenth night when they began sounding depths. Verse 33 made clear that they needed to be encouraged to, at long last, take some food. Verse 37 marked out the fact that there were two hundred seventy-six people on board the vessel. Verse 38 made clear they ate and then tossed the rest of the grain overboard, committing them to finding shore soon, or forcing them to starve in its search! Verse 40 ends with the perilous words that remind us after they had done all they knew how to do, they were heading for a rough grounding.

Pick up your reading in 27:41. Luke recorded:

Acts 27:41 But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern [began] to be broken up by the force [of the waves]. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none [of them] would swim away and escape; 43 but the centurion, wanting to bring Paul safely through, kept them from their intention, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, 44 and the rest [should follow], some on planks, and others on various things from the ship. And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land.

God told Paul they would all live, and he told the men they would live. God then disassembled the ship – and they graphically saw God do exactly what He promised. By the end – everyone knew that God knew, and more than that, they knew that Paul knew – because he knew God! The testimony was the point of the drama!

Recently, I heard a Pastor share a story about a woman who was a part of the church where he serves. She was passing through a storm of cancer when she dropped by to see him. When she told him about her fight, she said: “I believe I am ready for whatever happens.” She stopped and looked down. She said, “You know, I guess it is time for me to start really practicing that faith I have been talking about for all these years. The Pastor said to her, “I disagree!” She was surprised. He said: “Carol, I think you are ready because you HAVE BEEN practicing your faith all along!”

We will all pass through storms. They may have different sized waves, and they may have different ways of knocking us off balance… but we will face storms. Thankfully, this passage reminds us that God provides practical help to guide us through the storms of life.

Chuck Swindoll introduced this story years ago, but it is perfect to illustrate what we have been studying and it makes me smile every time I recall it. It was a true story…

Chippie the parakeet never saw it coming. One second he was peacefully perched in his cage. The next he was sucked in, washed up, and blown over. The problems began when Chippie’s owner decided to clean Chippie’s cage with a vacuum cleaner. She removed the attachment from the end of the hose and stuck it in the cage. The phone rang, and she turned to pick it up. She’d barely said “hello” when “ssssopp!” Chippie got sucked in. The bird owner gasped, put down the phone, turned off the vacuum, and opened the bag. There was Chippie — still alive, but stunned. Since the bird was covered with dust and soot, she grabbed him and raced to the bathroom, turned on the faucet, and held Chippie under the running water. Then, realizing that Chippie was soaked and shivering, she did what any compassionate bird owner would do . . . she reached for the hair dryer and blasted the pet with hot air. Poor Chippie never knew what hit him. A few days after the trauma, the reporter who’d initially written about the event contacted Chippie’s owner to see how the bird was recovering. “Well,” she replied, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore — he just sits and stares.

Have you ever felt that way? I’ll bet if you did, you know what a storm feels like!