Paul on Malta, 1-10

28:1 After we had safely reached shore, we learned that the island was called Malta. 28:2 The local inhabitants showed us extraordinary kindness, for they built a fire and welcomed us all because it had started to rain and was cold. 28:3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. 28:4 When the local people saw the creature hanging from Paul’s hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer! Although he has escaped from the sea, Justice herself has not allowed him to live!” 28:5 However, Paul shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. 28:6 But they were expecting that he was going to swell up or suddenly drop dead. So after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

We…safely reached shore – The site is now known as ‘St. Paul’s Bay’.

We learned that the island was called Malta – After the drama of the storm and shipwreck, they are so disoriented that at first they don’t know where they are!

The name ‘Malta’ (‘Melita’) is Phoenician, and means ‘refuge’.  Williams suggests that Luke might mean, in this verse, ‘We recognised that the island deserved its name.’

The local inhabitants – Marshall explains that ‘the people of Malta were of Phoenician extraction, and their native language was a Punic dialect. Especially in a country area the people would use their vernacular rather than Greek, and hence Luke refers to them as ‘barbarians’ (RSV natives), using a word which simply meant ‘ignorant of Greek’; there may be a hint that they were simple, rustic people.’

These local inhabitants are described as superstitious (in mistakenly identifiying Paul as a murderer, and then as a god, yet kindly (in providing hospitality and in honouring Paul and his companions).  Paul in return responds with kindness, healing first the father of the chief official of the island, and then many others.  The relationship between believers and nonbelievers does not inevitably have to be one of suspicion and hostility.

Extraordinary kindness – Unusual and unexpected, coming as it did from rustic pagans.

They built a fire and welcomed us all because it had started to rain and was cold – Commentators seem slightly anxious about trying to imagine the 276 members of the ship’s company huddled round a camp fire!  But the text does not require us to decide how many were actually warmed by the fire and how many would have found it to have been a heart-warming gesture.  The temperature in Malta during Autumn would probably not have been below 10 degrees C. – cold enough for those are wet, hungry and exhausted.

Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire – We notes, with Larkin, that ‘no act of service for the health and well-being of others was too menial for him or his Master, nor should it be for us.’

A viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand – There are no venomous snakes native to Malta today.  (Then again, there is no fire-wood to be found in the vicinity of St. Paul’s Bay.)  But to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s account on this ground is to disregard two millenia of human habitation (Williams).  In any case, we only know that the local people thought that the snake would harm Paul, not that it was actually capable of doing so.

Justice herself – There was a Greek goddess of justice, and there may have been a local equivalent.

Bruce cites a Greek poem that tells of ‘a murderer who escaped from a storm at sea and was shipwrecked on the Libyan coast, only to be killed by a viper’.

‘The islanders were following the conventional wisdom: “bad things happen to bad people.” Yet Paul’s innocence (23:29; 26:31) encourages Luke’s readers and us to take a second look at the significance of this snakebite. At the very least, it calls into question the adequacy of any worldview that solves the problem of evil in such a mechanistic fashion.’ (Larkin)

Some commentators, including Barrett, regard the incident with a snake as an instance of miraculous protection.  So Barrett.  Lk 10:19; Mk 16:18 might be cited in support.  The textual authority of the latter is in doubt, of course, and Marshall thinks that it is probably inspired by the present one, rather than vice-versa.

On Malta to this day is found a snake answering to this description.  Although non-venomous, it attaches itself to its victim just as described here.  This account is not necessarily of a miracle, but is rather a reflection of the superstition of the Maltese inhabitants, who, when Paul is attacked by the snake assume that Paul must be a murderer and then, when he shows himself to be unharmed think that he must be a god. (NBC, Peterson)

They changed their minds and said he was a god – ‘Apparently they never stopped to question how a god could have permitted himself to fall into Roman custody.’ (Williams)

This ‘wavering between two opinions’ may be regarded as ironical, almost comical.

Experience is not self-interpreting

‘The islanders’ about-face shows the power of a worldview for interpreting experience—and how a non-Christian worldview often won’t “get it right.” Those who have a non-Christian worldview and observe a “witness in sign” are likely to misconstrue what is happening unless an interpretation, a “witness in word,” is provided. Even then, unless the Lord opens the heart to understand the gospel witness, the miraculous sign will not serve to point unambiguously to the power of Jesus the Savior. The Maltese are not alone in misinterpreting a “witness in sign” (Acts 2:12–13; 3:12; 8:18–21; 14:11–18; 19:13–16). And today Luke calls the “signs and wonders” movement to reckon with this ambiguity and aim to make the Spirit-empowered, Spirit-illuminating proclamation of the gospel message central to any “power encounter.”’ (Larkin)

28:7 Now in the region around that place were fields belonging to the chief official of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us hospitably as guests for three days. 28:8 The father of Publius lay sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and after praying, placed his hands on him and healed him. 28:9 After this had happened, many of the people on the island who were sick also came and were healed. 28:10 They also bestowed many honors, and when we were preparing to sail, they gave us all the supplies we needed.

Publius…welcomed us and entertained us hospitably as guests – Perhaps the hospitality was principally intended for the centurion, but he had no intention of letting Paul out of his sight.

We do not have to suppose that he looked after all 276 survivors, but perhaps only the centurion, his prisoners, and their (including Paul’s) companions.

Many think that Publius was suffering from ‘Malta fever’, a disease arising from contaminated goat’s milk.

Many of the people on the island who were sick also came and were healed – Even if we do not regard the incident involving the snake as miraculous, instances of miraculous healing continue to the end of Acts (there appears to be no diminution of frequency).  This raises a question about the continuation of the ‘charismata’: did they die out with the apostles, or continue indefinitely?

Luke does not link these healings with the proclamation of the gospel.  However, we may assume that Paul did evangelise the people of Malta, but that Luke’s focus is on Paul getting safely to Rome.

They…bestowed many honours – possibly of a financial nature.

The unstoppable gospel

Wright reflects on the foregoing section:

‘The whole scene, of course, provides yet another example, before Italy itself is finally reached, of an official finding that Paul was a man to be trusted and valued, on top of the islanders finding that, despite an apparent accusation (via the snake) he was in fact innocent. This sets the narrative up for the final voyage, and the theology for its full meaning. The sea and the snake have done their worst and are overcome. New creation is happening, and the powers of evil cannot stop it. Paul may arrive in Rome a more bedraggled figure than he would have liked, but the gospel which he brings is flourishing, and nobody can stop it.’

Paul Finally Reaches Rome, 11-16

28:11 After three months we put out to sea in an Alexandrian ship that had wintered at the island and had the “Heavenly Twins” as its figurehead. 28:12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. 28:13 From there we cast off and arrived at Rhegium, and after one day a south wind sprang up and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 28:14 There we found some brothers and were invited to stay with them seven days. And in this way we came to Rome. 28:15 The brothers from there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. When he saw them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 28:16 When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

After three months – It is not stated that Paul used this time to preach the gospel, but it seems inconceivable that he did not do so.

Puteoli – is situated 25 miles west of Pompeii.  It is likely that since there were Christians in Puteoli, there were also some believers to be found in Pompeii (which was destroyed about 20 years later, in AD79).

The actual archaeological evidence for Christianity in Pompeii is thin, amounting to (a) the discovery of the word CHRISTIANOS (‘Christians’) inscribed in charcoal on white plaster on the wall of one of the houses, and (b) the discovery of a word-square believed to yield the solution Pater Noster with Alpha and Omega.  (F.F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p146.

We might wonder how Paul, a prisoner, could have been allowed to stay with the brothers at Puteoli for seven days.  No clear answer is available from the text, although any reader who has paid careful attention to the account so far will have no difficulty in proposing a plausible scenario.  In short, Paul was given respectful treatment and allowed a degree of freedom both on his journey to Rome and while a house prisoner in Rome (v16, etc.).

What is clearer is that this week-long stay allowed a message to be got to Rome to say that Paul was on his way, and for a deputation of brothers to come and meet him.

The Forum of Appius was 43 miles from Rome, and the Three Taverns some 33 miles.  We can only begin to imagine Paul’s joy in seeing these people, who he had so longed to meet, and has suffered so many difficulties before doing so.

The journey from Puteoli was by road (along the Appian Way), and therefore from from the hazards of sea travel.

Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him – This was not an exceptional arrangement.

Paul Addresses the Jewish Community in Rome, 17-31

28:17 After three days Paul called the local Jewish leaders together. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, although I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, from Jerusalem I was handed over as a prisoner to the Romans. 28:18 When they had heard my case, they wanted to release me, because there was no basis for a death sentence against me. 28:19 But when the Jews objected, I was forced to appeal to Caesar—not that I had some charge to bring against my own people. 28:20 So for this reason I have asked to see you and speak with you, for I am bound with this chain because of the hope of Israel.” 28:21 They replied, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, nor have any of the brothers come from there and reported or said anything bad about you. 28:22 But we would like to hear from you what you think, for regarding this sect we know that people everywhere speak against it.”

We might have expected Paul’s first move to have sought out a good lawyer!  But no: he is eager to speak to the Jewish leaders.

Some commentators have wondered why the Christians (some of whom had gone out to meet Paul) are not mentioned at all after his return.  But this is to ignore the selective nature of Luke’s writing.  He wishes to highlight ‘how Paul behaved towards the Jews, since the question of Jews and Gentiles in relation to the gospel is one of the dominant themes of the book.’ (Marshall)

“The Romans…wanted to release me” – ‘This is slightly strange. The Roman governors in fact had made no attempt to release Paul, and it was because Festus wanted him tried in Jerusalem that Paul had been compelled to appeal to Caesar. It was Agrippa who affirmed that Paul could have been set at liberty if he had not appealed to Caesar, and Festus may be presumed to have agreed with him at that stage. Paul’s statement, therefore, is something of a simplification of the earlier account.’ (Marshall)

The hope of Israel – We think of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles.  But he retains a deep love for his fellow-Jews, and a profound conviction about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

Marshall notes that ‘very possibly the Jews in Rome preferred to remain ignorant of the case; they would not have forgotten that earlier disputes over the Messiah had led to their temporary expulsion from the city (18:2 note).’

The Jews in Rome know something of the Christian ‘sect’.  There was, of course, a group of believers in Rome at the time.

28:23 They set a day to meet with him, and they came to him where he was staying in even greater numbers. From morning until evening he explained things to them, testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from both the law of Moses and the prophets. 28:24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others refused to believe. 28:25 So they began to leave, unable to agree among themselves, after Paul made one last statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah 28:26 when he said,
‘Go to this people and say,
“You will keep on hearing, but will never understand,
and you will keep on looking, but will never perceive.
28:27 For the heart of this people has become dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have closed their eyes,
so that they would not see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.” ’
28:28 “Therefore be advised that this salvation from God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen!”

The quotation is from Isa 6:9f (LXX).  This passage is also referred to by Jesus (Lk 8:10; cf. Mt 13:13–15; Mk 4:12;) and  John (Jn 12:39f.).  Paul himself had quoted in in Rom. 11:8.

In the light of everything that Paul has said, and will write, about the Jews, we must not take his words here as expressing God’s absolute rejection of that nation.  A careful reading of the present text (to say nothing of Rom 9-11) will not permit that conclusion.

Nevertheless, this passage does not a strategic change in the spread of the gospel.  As Marshall notes:

‘The final picture which is presented to the reader is of Paul’s last appeal to the Jews and his acceptance of a call to the Gentiles. The impression conveyed is that Paul felt throughout his ministry the duty to go first to the Jews and that it was when they refused the message that he went to the Gentiles. All this fits in with the emotional expression of Paul’s feelings regarding his call in Romans 9–11. It also gives a climax to the book in that the missionary programme of Acts 1:8 is now brought to a decisive point: the gospel has come to the capital city, and it is proclaimed without hindrance to the Gentiles; the church is on the brink of further expansion, with Paul’s hope of reaching Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28) in the background and indicating the direction for further advance. The church is thus given its marching orders: Rome is a stage on the way, and not the final goal. In principle it is free to ignore the Jews, at least for the time being (Luke 21:24), and to go to the Gentiles.’

There is an implicit warning to all of us here:

‘Once a person deliberately refuses the Word, there comes a point when he is deprived of the capacity to receive it. It is a stern warning to those who trifle with the gospel.’ (Marshall)
28:30 Paul lived there two whole years in his own rented quarters and welcomed all who came to him, 28:31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete boldness and without restriction.

‘[Paul’s] final arrival is told in such a way as to highlight the paradoxical nature of the kingdom: the powers of the world, whether they are corrupt magistrates, casually brutal soldiers, incompetent sailors, storms at sea, or even deadly serpents, cannot prevent Paul from arriving in Rome and, though under house arrest, announcing the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus as Lord “with all boldness, and with no one stopping him”’ (Wright, The Day the Revolution Began)

‘Through many dangers, toils and snares’ Paul had ‘already come.’  But none of these could stop the progress of the gospel.  In fact the very hardships that he experienced sent the gospel to the very corners of the known world, and now to its centre.