Reflections on Acts 27
Acts 27 fascinates on many levels. It gives us a vivid, first-person account of a hair-raising nautical adventure, complete with danger, intrigue, shipwreck, and survival. It showcases what courageous Christian leadership looks in a chaotic situation. It advances the narrative of the book of Acts as Paul journeys towards Rome to bear witness for Christ.
By all accounts, Acts 27 gives us an engaging story. But it does more: it gives us practical theology. Specifically, it shows us how the doctrine of God’s sovereignty plays out in the storms of life. But we can put a finer point on things: Acts 27 provides a case study of how the apostle Paul—the New Testament author most associated with the teaching on God’s sovereignty—put his theology into practice in real time. In other words, in Acts 27 we see the practical implications of Paul’s theological understanding related to God’s sovereign control of the world.
As the storm rages, Paul announces good news to the ship’s crew and passengers (verses 21-26). God, through an angelic messenger, had shown him what would happen to all of them. Paul recounts the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you” (24). Paul’s confidence in God’s power and promise spill out in his encouragement to the frightened crew: “So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told” (25).
Paul knows how their voyage will turn out: shipwreck but survival for all on board. The end of the journey has been predestined; God has a pre-determined ending for this trip. Yes, there will be loss of material (ship, cargo); but no, there will not be loss of life.
So how does Paul respond in light of his confidence in God’s promise? How does knowing the outcome of the story affect him for the rest of the journey? Here’s where it gets interesting. As we watch Paul in action, we see how Paul lives in light of God’s sovereignty. And what we see may surprise us.
Even though Paul believes in God’s promise to save everyone on board, he sees human actions as still having great significance for good or ill. When Paul learns of the sailors’ plan to escape in the lifeboats, Paul warns the soldiers to stop them: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (31).
Notice Paul says if the sailors leave, lives will be lost! We want to say, “Wait a second Paul, you know God has decided to preserve all onboard the ship. Why do you feel an urgent need to stop the actions of the sailors? Why are you so concerned their actions will prove fatal? How can any lives be lost if God has pre-determined all will survive? Are you implying human choices can contravene or over-ride God’s purposes and plans?”
As we reflect on how Paul’s confident declaration (all will be saved) relates to his urgent warning (you cannot be saved), we run into the mystery of divine sovereignty intersecting human agency. We also discover an important corrective for those who push either side of the tension too far.
- If we see God’s sovereignty as editing out human agency and responsibility, we don’t see it the way Paul did.
- If we become passive or careless about life, believing that whatever God has pre-determined will automatically happen, we are not following Paul’s example. By the way, this was the error of the minister who allegedly told missionary William Carey: “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do without your aid or mine!”
- If we treat human choices and actions as irrelevant in the outcome of life’s story, we are offsides with Paul.
Paul’s understanding of God’s sovereignty did not remove his belief in the importance of human choices and actions. He understood human agency still carries historical efficacy. The sailors and soldiers could not do anything they wanted and still count on being saved by God’s sovereign power. Their actions would affect the ending of the story. People are not chess pieces moved by a divine hand; God has granted humans the power to impact outcomes by our decisions.
God’s sovereignty and human choices both matter. They are two sides of the same coin—with God’s side being the “head” and ours the “tail”! In ways we cannot fully explain, they merge into life’s story in an amazing way. Like gears that move in opposite directions but still mesh together, divine sovereignty and human agency work together to accomplish God’s purposes.
Is God sovereign? Absolutely. Will his purpose and promises always play out as He determines? Completely. Do human choices matter? Significantly. Can we explain how this works? Not fully.
Acts 27 shows us that, in the midst of life’s storms, God’s sovereignty plays out through human choices and actions. He accomplishes His will, but does so through our thoughts, decisions, and actions. So, in the midst of your storms in life, rest in God’s sovereign concern and control. But also seek to take wise actions as you trust Him to accomplish His good purposes.