Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed. Acts 28: 1-10
Paul, our “passionate prisoner with a purpose“, the other sailors, and roman soldiers have arrived on the island of Malta after their harrowing crossing in the storm. The weather sounds miserable with rain and cold. Fortunately the people of Malta seem to be very welcoming and caring as they provide the castaways with food and a fire to warm them. Everything seems to be moving in a positive direction when something unexpected happens – Paul is bitten by a snake.
I have never been bitten by a snake, but I have had my share of snake encounters. I have encountered a den of vipers emerging from their winter slumber in Idaho, jumped over a timber rattler in Nevada, and I have seen plenty of water snakes here in Michigan where I now live. I am not sure why, but I confess I have an illogical aversion to snakes. I did not have any traumatic childhood experience involving snakes that I can remember. I just don’t like snakes.
My work as an exploration geologist took me to many western states that are home to rattlesnakes and I was born in eastern Washington state where certain areas have many rattlesnakes. As venomous snakes go rattlesnakes are not the most deadly or dangerous, and they at least try to warn you to keep away with their raspy rattling. The snake that affixed itself to Paul’s hand apparently did not provide any warning. It was probably really cold and wet too and had come near the fire to get warm.
As soon as the people saw the viper hanging from Paul’s hand they attached spiritual/moral meaning to the event “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” They placed the event into their own religious context. The men with Paul knew that it was not the goddess of justice but the God of the universe that saved both their lives and Paul from the storm and this snakebite.
Paul showed great poise with this viper hanging from his hand as he simply shook it off into the fire. Now that was certainly hard luck for the viper, but God has a plan for this event that apparently required sacrifice of the snake. The people of Malta, upon seeing this seemingly miraculous response to being bitten by a poisonous snake, proceed to place Paul in their own religious framework by making him a god, for only a god could survive such an event. Paul will redirect this wayward worship toward the God who saved him from the storm, the snakebite, and his own sins which included directing people to stone early God-followers to death.
Paul achieves this religious redirection by praying and healing in God’s name so that the people of the island can know the God who wants to carry each of them like a son or daughter through all of life’s storms and snakebites. The result of the snakebite miracle and healing is that many others on Malta brought their sick to be healed and the men were provided with the supplies they needed to complete their voyage. The passage does not mention where they got a new ship, but perhaps that is not the most important part of the story.
So what is the most important part of this story? I think the main point here is that Paul is getting into spiritual shape, God is preparing Paul to take the Gospel of Christ to Rome. Apparently part of the “training” required is for Paul to allow the Holy Spirit to fill him during numerous spiritual squalls. God knows that Paul’s future will involve many hardships and challenges as he shares the Gospel of Christ to Rome and beyond. These events, which seem rather challenging from an earthly perspective, are to develop metaphysical muscles. Paul will have to endure imprisonment, beatings, debates, and many other challenges to carry Christ to those who do not believe.
Many of the people he will be reaching out to will have very different religious backgrounds, just like the people of Malta. Paul’s training will make him nimble and resilient in the midst of confusing and contentious interactions, similar to those on the ship when the sailors and soldiers had lost hope and were ready to sacrifice all the prisoners. He needed to learn how to give hope to the hopeless. The leader lessons came in the form of seemingly hopeless situations that God helped Paul successfully navigate and survive with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The take home for me is that sometimes our “training” as followers of Christ will require navigating seemingly hopeless situations. It is in these situations that we are challenged to place all of our hope not in a resolution to our liking, but in God. That is what Paul is learning here. God’s will be done – regardless of the outcome from an earthly perspective.
Prayer: God help us to place our trust in You regardless of how hopeless or challenging earthly events may seem.