Acts 27:27 – 44
On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 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. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 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. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”
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. 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.” 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. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lighted the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
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. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the rope that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 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.
The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kep them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
From the last scene, in which Felix reads the letter explaining why Paul has been sent to him, and this scene on the open sea, the committee that selected the fresco theme skips past several trials before Felix, Festus, and eventually King Agrippa. The king decides to send Paul away to Rome to have his case decided. Committees and bureaucracies… boring images. Let’s get to the good stuff and have a ship wreck instead!
Rather, when we look at the prior two scenes, we may see contrasting ideas about the physical and metaphysical experiences of life. Jesus is present with Paul, connect the spiritual and material worlds. Paul’s introduction to Felix is set within specific historic details. Now, we see not only a detail filled account of a ship wreck (e.g. the depth of the soundings, how many anchors were put down; grounding on a sand bar rather than crashing into rocks), but prophecy.
Paul initially scolds the sailors for attempting to slip off the boat to rescue themselves while abandoning the cargo and passengers. Is he making a spiritual statement about their fate, or merely pointing out that being in a small craft would be hazardous, or shaming them into staying with the ship? Later, he proclaims, more boldly, that no one on the ship will be harmed. As the account ends, all are safe on shore.
We see an other dramatic special-effect scene. The challenge for an artist is to show motion and action on a two-dimensional, static surface. The artist creates the effect of wind and waves with the billowing sail behind Paul, the sweeping cloaks and hair of all of the characters in the scene, and the splashing of waves near the tops of the gunwales of the ship. Behind Paul’s right foot is a blue object. I am not sure whether this is a bucket, suggesting the need to bail out the hold, or a soilder’s helmet abandoned as the sailors attempted to jump ship. Paul stands with his right hand gesturing upward, and left hand positioned to calm the other passengers.
In contrast to episodes in which Jesus calm the storms, Paul does not try to create a miracle to save the crew and passengers. Rather, he foretells that all will be saved. Now, jump in the water and swim, or grab a plank to drift ashore. Keep that in mind the next time you are in one of those storms of life (hint, that’s a Randy Travis song reference).