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What’s the Gospel?
As we approach our story this morning, there really should be a certain missionary zeal and excitement burning within us. This is the last chapter in Acts, and it’s the chapter when Paul is finally brining the gospel to Italy (or, to Rome). We see, here, the gospel making its farthest reach west across the Mediterranean Sea, through the apostle Paul’s ministry. And it’s at this juncture, especially as we consider our passage this morning, where it would hurt to quickly back up and ask the big question. What is the gospel of Jesus Christ? Exactly what gospel is Paul brining to Rome?
No doubt, there are many ways to answer this question. Christians talk about this all the time—and we should. “What’s the best way to describe the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ?”. It’s an excellent question. Although, I fear that many times, we talk of the gospel almost as though it were an idea. We think of it as an idea that we need to proclaim, that others would be convinced of it. The idea, as we might put it, is that (1) we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, (2) therefore, we’re under his wrath and judgment, (3) therefore, we need to be saved from our sin and God’s wrath, (4) God sent his son to accomplish that salvation, which is to be freely received by faith. That’s how we often talk about the gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. It’s an idea—or, a concept—to be understood and received by faith. And missions is about spreading that idea.
This morning’s story reminds us that the gospel is much bigger than an idea. It’s not simply an idea that he’s the savior who hung on a cross. It’s a proclamation that Jesus is both (1) Savior (2) and that he’s Lord. He’s Lord; he’s king. He really is alive, he’s really is reigning with “all authority in heaven and on earth”, he really is demanding his people’s loyalty, and he really is sovereignly orchestrating all things together for the good of his people. This is a real kingdom, with a real king—it’s not an idea. It has real life consequences—much more than a lofty idea that sprung out of something which happened 2,0000 years ago. The gospel isn’t just good news about Jesus’s salvation at the cross. It sprung out of Jesus’s salvation and ever-present sovereignty.
The Gospel of Jesus’s Kingdom in Acts 28
Think about it with reference to our passage, this morning. Does it bother you that there’s no mention of Paul preaching Jesus crucified and risen to these islanders on Malta? There’s no mention of it at all. There isn’t mention of any salvations, even. Does that bother you? Paul has made it all this way—and he doesn’t preach Jesus crucified? (Or at least, Luke doesn’t think it’s important enough to mention, here in our story?) Isn’t that odd?
Literaly, in all of Acts 28 (even in next week’s story when Paul is in Rome), we see no explicit reference to the word “gospel” or “evangelize” or “witness” or “Jesus’s death and resurrection” at all. Isn’t that odd? Wasn’t that Paul’s mission—to bring the gospel to Rome? Did Luke forget to put that in there?
This passage reminds us that the gospel is much more than some idea of Jesus’s death and resurrection. No doubt—his death and resurrection is the foundation of the gospel. It’s “of first importance”, as Paul says in First Corinthians 15. Yet in this final chapter of Acts, we see Paul providing a testimony to Jesus as the Sovereign King who rules over all (not merely the crucified Savior). Paul is showing us the risen king and his kingdom who has power over every mark of the curse—stormy waves, snake bites, sicknesses and death are all under King Jesus’s sovereign control.
His sovereignty is shown forth to us, here in Acts 28—and, so are the blessings he richly pours out upon his people as their King. Paul is fully committed to trusting in and proclaiming King Jesus as he enters Rome, here. We can’t miss that, in our understanding of the Gospel. He’s savior and Lord. As we’ll also see next week, that’s what he proclaims in Rome. He testifies to “Jesus’s Kingdom” (see verse 23 and 31, if you want to look ahead). He’s not bringing and idea to Rome, but a kingdom.
That’s what we’ll see this morning. We’ll see the blessings—or good (gospel) news of King Jesus. We’ll see (1) King Jesus’s protection, (2) king Jesus’s mercy, and (3) King Jesus’s provision.
1. King Jesus’s Protection
Let’s take a moment to consider the Lord’s protection—and, we’ll spend a fair amount of time on this. If there’s anything a good king ought to provide for his people, it’s protection from any and all enemies and forces of evil. Isn’t that what you want in a king? Isn’t there a certain peace, and security, and prosperity in knowing you’re safe from enemy attack? It’s shocking to think of the protection Jesus provides for us, folks. Look at those two verses from chapter 27 (verses 43 and 44), as they lead into the first verse of our passage this morning.
43 But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land. Acts 28:1 After we were brought safely through…
Do you hear that? “All were brought safely to land. After we were brought safely through…”. Luke reiterates that word “safely”, there, two times in order to make sure we get it. Paul and his companions were safe.
This is where any sane person might stop reading and say, “excuse me?! I’d say this whole escapade that Paul and his ship had gone through was anything but safe!”. Think of what they’ve gone through. They have been completely lost at sea for more than two weeks. They hadn’t eaten. It had been weeks since they had seen the stars to navigate by, given the clouds from the storm. They had thrown all of their cargo overboard. They ditched their secondary boat that would have helped them get ashore. Their boat was beached on some random reef (again, they didn’t know where they were), and the sailors and soldiers had each tried to kill Paul and the prisoners. In the end, the beached boat had was torn up by all the rocks and surf, and they’re shipwrecked into cold, autumn ocean seas.
This was anything but safe! Paul literally had the seas trying to kill him, and the soldiers trying to kill him, along with the hundreds of other prisoners on board with him.
Yet somehow, the story ends with two emphatic reference to safety. This reminds me of when I was young, and my family went out to a trip to Mt. Rushmore to visit my brother who was a freshman or sophomore in college at the time. My brother—who at the time, wasn’t known for his attention to details—had taken up a hobby of rock climbing. Guess what he wanted to do when his family shows up to visit him in the Rocky Mountains? He wants to take mom, dad, and his two little brothers rock climbing. To this day I can remember him hanging fifty feet up off a cliff, trying to reassure my petrified mother, “don’t worry! I know what I’m doing! this is safe!”. Imagine that, as your three sons are all hanging by ropes tied and jimmy-rigged by your oldest (sometimes forgetful) son.
Safety really is something, isn’t it? It’s necessary—but in so many ways, it’s relative. Whether you’re rock climbing or traveling across oceans, safety is ultimately a matter of “who is in charge?”. As we saw last week, the trip was perfectly safe for all 276 persons on board that ship. Again, who was in charge? The risen Lord Jesus was in charge—he was in charge of the seas. He raised up the seas, and he put the clouds in the sky to disorient the sailors. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, the risen Lord Jesus says to his disciples. Who gave him that authority? God, the creator. If God the creator gives you “all authority”, you can bet that means “all authority” over every square inch of this shifting and unpredictable universe. “Therefore go, and make disciples of all nations”. That is to say, “Go, advance the kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Everything that happens to you will be within the realm of my authority.”
By the way—what happens when you’re safe? You can be confident, bold, fearless, productive.
I love the confidence of Paul through all of this. On the ship, before they even abandoned ship, do you remember what Paul did? The Lord had given Paul a revelation that “you must testify about me in Rome”. So, Paul knew he’d get off the ship. Then we were also told that Jesus revealed to him on the ship that not a single soul will be lost to this shipwreck. So, when the day of salvation came, before they swam to land, Paul essentially made a toast to the king. Remember verses 33–35 from last week?
Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34 Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35 And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.
That’s a toast to the king. Eat, drink, and be encouraged, “for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you”. Why? Because the king who rules the seas and the storms and the world and all that is in it had spoken.
Paul was confident through all this—and, it’s really jarring. He knew he was safe in the Sovereign Lord’s care. Everything he’s saying and doing, here, in the presence of all, was a testimony to the power and salvation of his king.
Yet, Paul’s confidence continued into our story at Malta. I love the story of the snake. It’s almost comical. We’re told that when they were brought safely through, the people “learned that the island was called Malta” (28:1). If you have a map of Italy, you’ll notice that at the southernmost tip of Italy has a big island called Sicily (where Syracuse is). Then, south of Sicily is a small island called Malta.
Imagine being in that position. You’ve just shipwrecked your ship, and now your marooned on an island full of natives you know very little about. Verse two calls them barbaros in the Greek. It’s where we get the word “barbarian” from. The ESV translates the word “the native people”—and, I think that’s fair. At the very least, the word “barbarian” referred to someone who didn’t speak Greek as their native language, and wasn’t culturally Greek. These were foreign islanders.
How are you feeling at this point in the trip? Perhaps a little edgy? Uncertain about your new barbarian hosts? Then also in verse 2, you’ll learn that “it had begun to rain and was cold”. Add that to your experience. More cold, more rain—you’re on an island with foreigners. Then, you get bit by a snake.
What do you think your gut reaction would be in a moment like this? This is a downward spiral of suffering and misery. Paul is getting walloped by the curse, here. If there’s anything in the Bible that expressly personifies evil and the curse—it’s the stormy seas and deadly serpents.
Perhaps you’ve been there—walloped by the curse. How do you react? The Psalms teach us that there are all sorts of godly ways to respond. The Psalms remind us that we can plead to God for deliverance. We can praise him for his promises. We can even cry out to him in our pain, with our complaints—so long as they are spoken with an unwavering confidence and faith in God’s salvation. “God, this is painful?!”. In the words of Psalm 13, “How long, O LORD, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” That’s an appropriate way to express the pain that we bear as we live in this cursed and broken world—even as the Lord may at times appear to hand us over to much suffering. Yet, we remain confident. Psalm 13:5, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love, my heart shall rejoice in your salvation”. That’s confident complaint in Psalm 13, designed to stir the soul into recognizing that while the curse is certainly powerful, God’s promises are more certain.
In our passage, I don’t think Paul was even phased by all the curse and misery that had come upon him. Again–it’s almost comical. He shakes it off—just like that. He shakes the snake off of his hand and dropped it in the fire. Why would he do this?
Again, the Lord had spoken. “You must testify [about me] also in Rome”, was Jesus’s words in Acts 23:11. Paul knew the Lord would provide the way. If he gets sick from this bite, so be it. The Lord will sustain him. If he doesn’t, all the better. The Lord will provide the strength, the healing, and the power he needs—for, the Lord has spoken. So, Paul was hysterically confident—even seemingly unphased by all these things that were happening to him.
Imagine having such a confidence in the King’s sovereign power and promises as Paul. Do you all realize that by trusting in Jesus for salvation, you don’t merely have him as your Savior who has saved you from your sin and God’s wrath—you have him as your king who is using all of his sovereign power and resources to defend you and protect you, and keep you from any meaningful harm? He protects his people according to his purposes, folks—and Paul, here, is a shining example of this. The Lord Jesus had purposed Paul to testify of his kingdom and sovereign power in Rome—and that’s exactly what Paul was doing even on his way to Rome.
Now, look what happened because of all this. These barbarian, native peoples of Malta were completely flipped head over heels as they witnessed this Paul guy in action. Not only was he steady and unconcerned about the snake—he wasn’t harmed at all! They didn’t know what to do with this. From their perspective, Paul was a prisoner who was just shipwrecked at sea. Now, he’s getting bitten by a snake. If this isn’t karma—than what on earth is it? Verse 4—
4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.”
The capitalized word “Justice”, there, is referring to a pagan deity that some commentators link to a god whose name we get “vengeance” from. The god of vengeance always comes around, doesn’t he (so we might say)? It’s a cruel world out there. That’s how many in our world think, even today. “What goes around, comes around”. That works, in some ways, until you throw Jesus into the equation.
You see, when Jesus is involved, suffering brings glory, not vengeance. It’s a totally different perspective on life, isn’t it? Jesus led the charge in this—he suffered unto glory, and he calls us to follow suit. That’s can be so hard for us to understand, can’t it? This means that if you are a faithful, repenting Christian who is suffering, it’s because God loves you—not because he is judging you. For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is “no condemnation”—Romans 8. God’s wrath against you and all your sins is totally emptied and satisfied at the cross, and he is now pleased to look upon you through the righteousness of Christ. So, your suffering isn’t a show if his wrath upon you.
So, what do we make of suffering, if it’s not God’s vengeance or wrath? If we were to boil it down to two answers: (1) It’s his way of disciplining you, that you might learn to trust in him more, and (2) it’s his way of showing through you, to the world, that his grace and power and fellowship is sufficient for joy and happiness. It’s the most peculiar thing to the world—when a person under great suffering is also brimming with unshakable joy and peace. That’s a testimony to the king and his kingdom, right there.
That’s what these islanders saw in Paul, and it dumbfounded them. They didn’t have a category for this—“if it’s not vengeance from the gods, then he must be a god!”. They didn’t have any category for a God who inflicts suffering for our good. That doesn’t compute to the natural mind. So when they saw that he was confident and at peace, and not getting sick, they concluded that he is a god.
Did Paul use this as an opportunity to correct them and preach Jesus’s kingdom to them? We don’t know. The passage doesn’t say—but, let’s be real. He’s Paul. I’d hardly believe he’d take the credit. Yet for purposes, it may be beside the point. This story is written down for our encouragement, folks. That’s what Luke tells us at the beginning of Luke and Acts. He wrote this down with us in mind. What are we supposed to learn from this (given the details Luke provided)?
We’re supposed to see King Jesus protecting and providing for Paul—giving Paul opportunity to testify to the king—even through all this suffering. We’re supposed to see that Jesus’s kingdom is founded upon a sovereign king whose purposes and promises cannot be thwarted by the curse. Jesus wanted Paul in Rome—so, Paul was going. Stormy seas or snakes or murderous sailors or cold and rainy days weren’t going to thwart that mission. If anything, they enhanced the mission as Paul testified to the king through these things.
This is our King, folks—and he’s still reigning. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)—and, he’s turning the curse on its head for his glory now, just as he did with Paul. If he wants you to get shipwrecked and bitten by snakes on an already cold and rainy day so that you might show forth his power, it’ll happen. If he wants you to lose family members or get cancer or get in a car accident or lose your job to glorify him as your supreme treasure—it’ll happen. If he wants to take your kids from you or leave you in economic poverty, it’ll happen. Yet, for those who are in Christ Jesus, these are all opportunities to show forth the power of Christ to defend us and prosper us by faith, as he works these things together for our good. That’s what king Jesus sovereignly does. He works the curse together for our good.
If you turn in your hymnals to page 871, you’ll see a question from our Westminster Shorter Catechism—and, it’s a question that has always landed on me with a certain sense of peace. It’s question 26, which reads—
Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.
Isn’t that a comforting summary of what it means for Jesus to be king? He subdues us, then rules over us with a most perfect protection and prosperity? In this story, we see the Lord doing the same through Paul. Jesus had subdued one of his most vehement enemies—Saul of Tarsus—to himself. Jesus then protected Paul from just about every deadly constituent of the curse: stormy seas, murderous sailors, homelessness, and deadly vipers. That’s our king.
So, we’ve seen Jesus’s Royal Protection in this story. King Jesus is protecting Paul, to show forth his power. Now, consider Jesus’s royal mercy, as it’s on display in this passage.
2. King Jesus’s Mercy
Every good king isn’t simply a haven of protection, but also of mercy. Good kings are merciful. They are rich with mercy, even as they are lawful and just. It’s a shocking balance of wisdom that a good king (or anyone in authority) must know how to navigate well. Parents—when is it time to dish out justice? When is it time to be merciful?
As our passage unfolds after verse 7, we are reminded of Jesus’s tender mercies. We learn about one of the leaders on the island whose name was Publius. Publius, we’re told in verse 7, “received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.” We don’t know exactly who Publius received. It just says “us”—I’d hardly believe its all 276 people from the boat. Maybe it was just Paul and Luke, maybe more people. We don’t know. We also don’t know why Publius took them in. Maybe he also thought Paul was a God. Maybe Publius was converted through Paul’s witness. It’s all a mystery. (So probably, it’s not what we are supposed to focus on in this passage).
What are we supposed to see, here? We’re supposed to see Jesus. I don’t know how you could read this passage and not think, “hmm… that sounds a lot like Jesus’s ministry.” We have someone getting sick. Then, Paul visits the sick, prays for the sick, lays hands on him, and the man is healed. This sickness was an illness that many think was related to the goats on the island. They call it Maltese fever—it was much like Malaria. It was chronic, and the acute sickness would come and go throughout the years of a person’s life. Paul—or more accurately, Jesus through Paul’s prayer—heals this man of his chronic illness.
What happens next? You know the stories of Jesus. The crowds gather. They gathered restlessly around Paul, just as they did around Jesus. What does Paul do? He indiscriminately heals everyone who needs healing. Verse 9,
9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.
This really is a shocking display of Jesus’s mercy. It’s most presumable that not everyone in this crowd—perhaps most in this crowd—do not believe in Jesus. Again, we have no indication that the gospel was even preached—we can only assume it to be so.
Yet, I think we’re supposed to again see the kingdom of God protruding through this story. That’s what seems to be emphasized, here. The king in all his mercy is on full display, as he approaches the royal seat of the Roman Empire in Italy. As Caesar Nero (at this time) is restlessly seeking to keep the pax romana and establish justice and order throughout his empire, there’s this small island south of Rome that is reaping the benefits of Christ’s kingdom. Here’s a truly merciful king, sovereign even over sicknesses and diseases—and willing to bestow his blessings upon any who would receive them. Through the Apostle Paul, King Jesus was making an appearance. The kingdom of God was visibly approach Rome with unchallenged power and authority. It’s unmistakable—this is what his kingdom is like.
When he was on earth, Jesus indiscriminately healed the crowds for the same reason. He was demonstrating the power and blessings of his kingdom. I’ll never forget preaching through Mark last year in Arizona, and feeling awe-struck at the healings Jesus must have performed. Word got out about his mercy and healing power, and people from all over Jerusalem and Samaria (and at times, beyond) travelled to meet him in Galilee, to be healed. His message was clear—“the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), he says as he opens up his ministry. Then, he demonstrated his kingdom through his miracles, and declared it through his preaching. It’s a kingdom—a gospel—that starts with repentance and faith for forgiveness, and it ends with complete healing and restoration before God. Is that not what we pray for, by faith? “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”.
So, we’ve considered King Jesus’s Protection, and King Jesus’s Mercy. In this passage, it’s all here to show us just how good and powerful Jesus is as our King and Lord. Let’s close with a quick reference to his Provisions.
3. King Jesus’s Provision
A good king provides for his people, doesn’t he? He doesn’t just provide protection, but just laws which cultivate the prosperity of his land. He provides decrees and promises which he always makes good on. He provides direction and resources for his military. If a people or military is ever lacking, it always has a way of reflecting poorly upon the king.
What I want you to notice is that in all that Paul experienced, it seems quite clear that he never suffered lack. When he was storm-tossed at sea, the Lord gave him certain and sure promises to hold fast to. When he was shipwrecked, the Lord provided planks for the non-swimmers to stay afloat with. When Paul landed upon the shore, the Lord provided a native people who showed “unusual kindness” (verse 2). Isn’t that something? It doesn’t simply say that they provided kindness, but unusual kindness. This was most unexpected and abundant—even from these foreign barbarians.
The Lord provided a snake to bite Paul with, so that Paul might demonstrate the power and goodness of his king. The Lord provided the healings, which in turn led to Paul and his companions to be “honored greatly” (verse 10). This, in the end, all led up to the barbarians putting on board “whatever we needed”. Presumably, all the extra food and supplies which the sailors threw overboard during the sea was replenished—even with a new boat.
The Lord does not leave his people lacking. It’s a promise, folks. I’m reminded of Psalm 84:11, which states this—
Ps 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
Isn’t that something? It’s a promise, from God who holds all things. “No good thing does he withhold”—essentially, from those who love and fear him, by faith. Thomas Watson says this about this verse—“If it is good for us, then we shall have it. if it is not good for us, then the withholding of it is for our good.”
Paul was given everything he needed to fulfill his calling in this passage. The same is true for us. The King isn’t a cruel master who requires us to make bricks without straw, as Pharoah did. He gives us everything we need, and then some. In his promises and salvation and fellowship and Holy Spirit, by faith, we have everything we need for joy and contentment. He truly is a lavish, wise, and merciful king.
So as we have seen, King Jesus offers (1) protection, (2) mercy, and (3) provision. That, and so much more. These are among the infinite blessings which Christ himself purchased for us at the cross, through the gospel. The gospel is all-encompassing. Jesus is Savior and Lord. There’s no point in receiving one without the other. They’re both good, ripe with hope and peace, and worthy of our faith and submission. Let’s pray.