It had been raining without pause for 14 nights, violent waves tossing the ship like a child’s toy in a bathtub. Ropes were strapped around the battered vessel in an attempt to keep it from splintering into a thousand pieces, but the ship’s low groan signaled the inevitable: It would soon be swallowed by the sea.
The weary, seasick crew fought to keep the vessel afloat. Finally, they resorted to taking orders from a Hebrew prisoner named Paul, despite the fact that his instructions to stay on the boat were counterintuitive to their inclination. “I urge you to keep up your courage,” he told them, “for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” To encourage them further, Paul added that they wouldn’t lose even one hair from their heads (Acts 27:22, 34).
The physician Luke was among Paul’s shipmates, along with a handful of officials tasked with transporting accused criminals. The rest were prisoners like Paul, who were to be tried before Caesar in Rome. Their days were cloaked in darkness and salt water blistered their skin, yet Paul gave thanks to God, broke bread, and encouraged everyone to eat. Then the ship ran aground.
Here’s where Paul could have fled. But when God sent an angel to tell Paul His plan to spare the lives of the men on board, He also mentioned that the apostle would still have to stand trial in Rome. Although the shipwreck might have been a brilliant exit strategy, God had something else in mind: the salvation of a small island called Malta.
Malta was just a blip on the journey to Rome—a detour, a glitch in the plan. Yet Paul left a wake of Christ followers wherever he went.
Did Paul contemplate escaping anyway? Perhaps he eyed the deadly swell of the sea and thought of Jonah, chased by a storm of equal strength and punished in the belly of a fish for disobeying.
Both Paul and Jonah preached unpopular messages in pagan cities, but Jonah was a fugitive from God’s commission. Paul was merely a prisoner, inconvenienced by chains but joyfully surrendering his life to God’s call. So as the ship dashed against Malta’s rocky coast, Paul chose obedience.
Located to the south of Sicily, Malta was, like much of the known world, under Roman control. The islanders were hospitable, and they built a fire to help the men get warm and dry. When a viper came out of the kindling and sunk its fangs into Paul’s hand, the superstitious natives assumed he was a murderer. Seeing that he didn’t die, however, they proclaimed him a god (see Acts 28:1-6).
Publius, the chief official on the island, invited Paul and friends to his home. His father was near death with fever and dysentery, so Paul did what Jesus called His followers to do: He prayed, laying hands on the ailing man and petitioning God for health.
How interesting that Luke accompanied Paul to the home of Publius; he could easily have offered his medical expertise to aid the dying father. But God chose Paul to be His agent of healing because, while a doctor can assist in curing the physical body, only the Creator can make both body and spirit completely well. God received all the glory that day. And as people came from around the island to be healed, the song of redemption rang out over Malta.
This island was just a blip on the journey to Rome—a detour, a glitch in the plan. Yet Paul was compelled to further the kingdom no matter the circumstance, and he left a wake of Christ followers wherever he went.
The apostle was eager to proclaim the name of Jesus, whereas Jonah was repelled by his call to Nineveh, a city whose culture, ethnicity, and politics the Israelites despised. The Ninevites were their enemy. As one of God’s chosen people, Jonah felt spiritually superior to them, and when the Lord asked him to shine a light of salvation on the lost city, he said no—at first. Rotting in the belly of a fish for three days does something to a man, and when God asked again, Jonah went. He wailed God’s message in the streets, and they repented. “Let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands,” the king ordered. And “the people of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5, 8).
Storms may chase us, and our plans may be knocked off course, yet God will continue to take islands and cities for His glory.
Imagine the people in a cultural epicenter like New York or Los Angeles falling to their knees in submission to God. An entire city transformed—that calls for celebration, right? Sadly, Jonah didn’t share God’s vision of every tribe, nation, and tongue coming to faith. “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity,” Jonah said. “Therefore now, O lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life” (4:2-3). He was angry that the Ninevites had pursued all sorts of debauchery, and then, after one breath of remorse, God spared them. Why? They weren’t even included in His covenant with Israel.
God used a simple plant as a metaphor to expose Jonah’s hard heart. A vine grew to shade him from the sun, and the next day as it withered, he mourned its loss. “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow,” God said. “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons?” (vv. 10-11). The account ends there, with God’s words slicing the air like a sword.
It seems Jonah knew what Paul knew—that God’s word never returns void. “It will not return to me empty,” He declared through Isaiah, “but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11 NIV). The Lord moves forward with His vision, whether we catch it or not. In fact, as Paul explains in Romans 1:20, God is more than capable of making Himself known: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen.”
In the end, the same salvation that was accomplished in Nineveh reached Malta. One missionary wrestled with God’s call while the other embraced it with courage and faith, even during the detours. Storms may chase us, and our plans may be knocked off course, yet God will continue to take islands and cities for His glory. We can choose to abandon ship or remain hardened to the lost. But if we rely on the Lord, He may use us as beacons of hope where it’s least expected.