1. Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta.
Now Paul, his companions, the Romans soldiers, the prisoners, the captain and crew of the vessel, and any other passengers that were on board have all escaped safely to land, just like the Lord said they would. Arriving on shore, they learn that the island is called Malta, no doubt from the natives who come out to meet them. In Greek, the name is actually “Melita,” and means “Honey.” Most agree that this is the modern island Malta, which is why the New King James has changed it to “Malta.” The place traditionally called “St. Paul’s Bay” meets all the conditions for the scene of the shipwreck given in Scripture, and so is probably the very place talked about here in Acts.
2. And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold.
The natives come to help them, and show them unusual kindness, much to their credit. They do this by kindling a fire and making them all welcome to come and warm themselves at it. The weather that drove them here has not changed, and the cold rain is still falling. This warm and cheery fire must have been most welcome to these waterlogged and bedraggled survivors of the shipwreck.
The New King James has translated the word for these people here as “natives.” However, this is a fanciful rendering. The word in Greek is barbaros, and refers to people who are unable to speak Greek, but can only speak their own, native tongue. The result would be that it would be very difficult to understand or communicate with them. Paul uses this word in I Corinthians 14:11, when he says:
Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.
The word “foreigner” here is again the Greek word barbaros, and clearly refers to one you cannot understand. The Companion Bible suggests that this island was inhabited by Pheonicians, that seafaring people who lived on the coast to the north and west of Israel.
3. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
We know that Paul is not the kind of person to just stand back and let someone else serve him, but he is always eager to be doing the serving. Therefore, it should not surprise us to hear that he did not just stand by and wait for the islanders to gather the wood for the fire for them, but he went out to gather it himself. Apparently, he found a convenient bundle of sticks and picked them up to lay them on the fire. What he did not realize is that a viper had found the bundle of sticks before him, and had taken shelter within it from the rain and cold. When Paul lays the sticks on the fire, the viper feels the heat and comes out angry, fastening itself on Paul’s hand. This was a sad tragedy, and one that would have resulted in death for anyone but God’s representative on earth.
4. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.”
The islanders observe the creature hanging from Paul’s hand. No doubt he cried out from the pain as it bit him, and called their attention to him. Now they confer with one another, and come up with an interpretation of this event. They have learned that the ship contained prisoners bound for Rome. They decide that Paul must be a murderer, perhaps the worst of the lot. Drowning in the sea would have been a just end for him, but having escaped that, Justice is striking at him again to bring about his death by this viper. The Greeks personified Justice in this way, and viewed it almost like a god that would act to bring about its will in the world. These natives seem to be doing the same thing here.
There is certainly a lesson to be learned in the wild and completely inaccurate guess of the natives. They went by the common myth that bad things only happen to bad people, and they used what they thought they knew to attempt to interpret events in this world and come up with a logical meaning for them. We know the full story, so we know how wrong and completely opposite to the truth their guess was. And in this we can learn a lesson. There are many today who have a similar knack for interpreting every significant event that happens as having some underlying meaning. Their interpretations are whatever strikes their fancy at the time, and always fits with their own view and outlook on the world. Those who do this are almost always just as foolish and just as wrong as the natives of Melita were here. Interpreting some hidden meaning into current events is an unwise thing to do. The world is far too complex for us to know the underlying meaning behind every disaster, and sometimes there is no such meaning…it is just a disaster, a sad event. If these natives would have stuck with that and not tried to come up with some sensible interpretation, they would have been much better off.
The word “natives” here is again a translation of the Greek word barbaros. This is very interesting, as at the same time he admits the islanders did not speak the language most people of the day could communicate in, Luke also gives us exactly what they said translated into Greek. How is it that Luke knew what they were saying? We could always speculate, and imagine that someone, perhaps one of the sailors, knew some of the native language, and they were able to communicate that way. Yet this is unnecessary, for remember that this group has Paul, God’s apostle, in it. One of the gifts God gave his apostles was the ability to understand and to speak languages they had never learned. The reason they knew what the natives were saying is probably because either Paul or Luke or Aristarchus, or maybe even all three, had been given the gift of the native language so they could speak and communicate with them. Perhaps this was how they were communicating with the natives at all, and how they had learned what the island was called and so forth. The natives may only partially realize at this point that they are understood, and think that their comments about Paul’s fate are spoken in a language no one there will understand. If so, they are quite mistaken. Their language was no mystery to the Spirit of God, and He was able to grant His men the gift of being able to understand and to speak it.
5. But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.
However, contrary to the expectations of the natives, Paul has nothing to fear. God’s apostle shakes off the creature back into the fire and suffers no harm whatsoever. This should not be surprising at all to us, for it is in complete agreement with what God said would be true of His apostles in Mark 16:17-18, when He said:
17. “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18. they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Paul had done just this. He had, accidentally of course, taken up this serpent, and yet it did not hurt him. As a believer in the Acts period, he had complete protection from any such accident. Though this is late in the Acts period, yet God’s promises regarding that time have in no way waned. But we should keep firmly in mind that this was God’s promise to His people in the Acts period. We have no such promise today, and deadly snakes can still hurt us if we come in contact with them.
6. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
For Paul to feel no harm from this viper was the last thing the natives were expecting. They were watching him closely, waiting for him to swell up or to suddenly fall down dead. They were familiar with snakes like this, and so they knew that is what happens to one who has been bitten by one of them. Yet no such thing happened to Paul, though they waited a long time for it, much longer than the bite would normally have taken to work. How their minds must have boggled as they realized the tragedy they were expecting was not going to take place!
Now it becomes clear to the inhabitants of Melita that their first guess was not right at all. Paul cannot possibly be a murderer whom Justice was striking against, since he was immune from the bite of this viper altogether. However, they do not learn their lesson about attempting to interpret events as they happen in front of them. Instead, they now jump to another conclusion, one that must have made great sense to them, but which was equally wrong. They decide Paul must be a god! Just like the Gentiles in Lystra in Acts 14, they mistake the power of God working through a man to suppose that God is the man himself. This time, however, their mistakes are in the reverse order to those in Lystra. In Lystra, they assumed he was a god, then, when they learned he was not, they assumed he was a wicked man and stoned him. Here, they decide he is a wicked man, and when they learn he is not, decide he is a god.
7. In that region there was an estate of the leading citizen of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and entertained us courteously for three days.
Luke goes on with the story, which should be enough to make us pause here. In Lystra, when Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for gods, they ran in among the people, tearing their clothes, and insisted that they were not gods, just men like themselves. Here, Luke does not even mention Paul and his companions denying this error. Is Paul less zealous for denying this charge than he was the first time?
Certainly, Paul had no desire to pass for a god in the eyes of anyone. Yet we would note that there is a significant difference here. In Lystra, they were about to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul. Here, these natives seem to have no intention of acting upon their mistake. They are not worshipping Paul, nor planning to worship Paul. Thus it was not nearly so urgent that their mistake be immediately corrected. Yet it is interesting that Luke does not even mention them denying this mistake. I suppose we have to assume, based on our trust in Paul’s character, that he did.
Now we read that the place where they had landed just happened to be near the estate of one of the leading citizens of the island named Publius. The word for “leading citizen” is actually the Greek word protos, which means “first.” It is the same word as Paul uses when he calls himself the “chief of sinners.” Many have made it out as if Paul meant he was the worst of sinners, but this word clearly does not mean “worst,” but rather the foremost or leader. Paul was God’s representative on earth. Though he was a sinner, he was foremost among sinners, being the first or leader of them. He was chief of sinners, just like Publius was the leading citizen, not the worst man, on this island.
Publius means “Popular,” and from what the Scriptures tell us this name was fitting. From Publius’ actions, we can see he deserved his status, for he showed them no small kindness, just like the natives had done on the beach. First, he received them into his home. Then, he entertained them there courteously for three days. Since we know that there were 276 survivors of this shipwreck, this was very generous indeed! And since most of their goods were lost in the shipwreck, he could not have been paid much for his kindness. Yet, perhaps without knowing it, he has blessed an Israelite, and one who is God’s representative on earth besides. As God said of Israel through Balaam in Numbers 24:9, “Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you.” Publius has now blessed Paul, and so he will be blessed for doing so.
8. And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed, and he laid his hands on him and healed him.
It so happens that the family of Publius is going through a hard time at this point, for his father is lying sick from a fever and dysentery, a terrible bowel ailment. Many would die from such a condition in that day, so his future looked grim. Now, Paul sees a way to pay back their kind host. He goes in to Publius’ father, prays, and lays his hands on the man and heals him. Of course, this was nothing for God’s apostle to do, for he had the authority from Jesus Christ to do just this. Yet this must have been another staggering thing to the wondering natives of the island.
9. So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed.
After Paul had healed Publius, it did not take long for word of what he had done to spread throughout the island. Certainly, on a small piece of land like an island, it would not take long for news of such a spectacular event to spread. Moreover, there was one kind of person who would have paid particular attention, and that was anyone who was sick on the island. That a miraculous healer had landed in their little country must have been beyond what any of them had hoped, yet hearing this, they wasted no time in coming to Paul. Moreover, those who came were not disappointed, for Paul did not fail to heal them.
There are two very significant things we can point out about this. First of all, we would point out to our readers that there is no sign here that Paul’s ability to heal is in any way reduced at this time. Some have tried to make out that the ability to heal was something that the apostles started to lose as time went on through the book of Acts. Yet Paul shows no sign of any such thing here. He is just as able to heal diseases here on Melita as the twelve were in Jerusalem in Acts 5, when “a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.” Acts 5:16. The ability to heal is just as strong in Paul in Acts 28 as it was in the twelve at the beginning of the Acts period. The Kingdom of God was present in its representative on Melita, just like it was in Jerusalem in the apostles there. There has been no reduction in power at all.
Secondly, we would point out that, at least as far as the record the Spirit gives through Luke is concerned, Paul did not proclaim Christ to these people. Certainly, with their physical ailments being healed, there would have been some among them who would have been most eager to hear from Paul about the God Who had given him such power to save. Yet as far as we can tell, the apostles spoke no such message to them. This should be no surprise to us, if we have followed carefully the Lord’s actions and activities through His apostles in the Acts period to this point. The word started out to the Jews only. Acts 11:19.
Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.
God gave Peter a special commission to carry the word to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10. Then, Paul spoke to Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch after the Jews failed to believe in Acts 13:48. This was in accordance with Paul’s commission, as he explains it in Romans 11:11.
I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.
The “they” mentioned here are the Israelites, as is clear from verse 7. When Israelites stumbled at the gospel, they did not fall, but through their error, salvation came to the Gentiles to provoke the Jews to jealousy. Salvation did not come to the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch for their own sake, but because some of the Jews there had rejected the word.
Moving on through Acts, there is no specific mention of any Gentiles believing in Lycaonia. The Philippian jailer and his household, all Gentiles, believe in Acts 16. However, there is no mention of Gentiles believing in Thessalonica or Berea. In Acts 17, Paul speaks on the street in Athens, a most unusual occurrence in Acts. This results in him giving a unique address to the Areopagus in Athens regarding the things he taught. However, in Acts 18 it is back to business as usual, with Paul reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath. When he proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah to them and some opposed him and blasphemed, he promised to go to the nations, and left the synagogue and went next door to the house of one named Justus. There, he spoke the word both to interested Jews and Gentiles.
Next comes Ephesus. He reasons with the Jews in the synagogue, and they are interested, but he has to leave them for a time. In Acts 19, he returns and speaks to them for three months longer. When some become hardened and speak against what Paul is saying, he departs from the synagogue into the school of Tyrannus. Here, however, we read of no Gentiles being proclaimed to, but only all the Jews and Greeks in Asia.
This brings us to the end of Paul’s ministry, at least to places that had never heard the Word before. The only places we can confirm he spoke the gospel to Gentiles were Pisidian Antioch, Philippi, Athens, and Corinth. In Pisidian Antioch and Corinth, he speaks to Gentiles according to his commission mentioned in Romans 11:11 to provoke rejecting Jews to jealousy. In Philippi, the jailer may qualify under his commission to speak to “kings” in Acts 9:15, since he was a type of a ruler. Only Acts 17 and Athens stands out as being a case where he went to the Gentiles for their own sake. In Acts 17:16, this is explained as, “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.” Apparently, this resulted in a very special commission to go to the Gentiles in this case.
So there really is just this one precedent for Paul to go to Gentiles, and it is a special case. Yet even then, there were synagogues and Jews and Athens. There is no word of any synagogue on the island of Melita. For Paul to proclaim the word to the Gentiles here would be really an unprecedented thing, and as far as we can tell, it did not happen. God simply was not working with Gentiles like these through the gospel at this time.
That might raise the question how Paul could share his gift of healing with these islanders, then, if he could not share the gospel with them? Yet this is easily explained. As Balaam said of Israel in his third and greatest prophecy, “Blessed is he who blesses you, And cursed is he who curses you.” We have already read in this chapter of the great kindness the islander showed to Paul and his companions (verse 2,) and their leader Publius had done the same (verse 7.) Even if this was rather inadvertent since they were really being kind to all on the ship, still this qualified them for God’s blessing. They had blessed His representative on earth, and so He blessed them back with the gracious gift of healing. However, this does not mean He had to throw open the door of the gospel to them, and there is no indication that He did. For now, He healed only their physical infirmities. Their sins He would not offer to take away until the Acts period had come to a close, and the salvation-bringing message of God was made freely available to all.
10. They also honored us in many ways; and when we departed, they provided such things as were necessary.
Everything we have read about these islanders suggests that they were men of excellent moral character. Therefore, it should not surprise us to learn that gratitude was also one of their virtues. They sincerely honor Paul and his companions in many ways, as well they should have after receiving such a generous gift of healing from them. Moreover, they were not only generous while they were there, but also provided them with all the supplies they needed when the time came again for them to set sail. Remember, they had escaped from the sinking vessel with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Yet the islanders see to it that they do not leave their island just as empty-handed. They realize they have been honored to have Paul on their island, and they honor him back as they should have done.
11. After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose figurehead was the Twin Brothers, which had wintered at the island.
So with these generous, kind, and grateful islanders, they must have spent a very pleasant winter. After three months, the season of storms is past, and the time for them to set sail once more arrives. Once again, they board a ship from Alexandria, though this is a different one, of course, since the former ship had sunk. This ship is marked with the figure of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. These twin boys were supposedly the twin sons of Zeus, king of the gods, and Leda. They were especially honored divinities among sailors. Different ideas have been put forward as to why Luke mentions this fact, but we cannot really say for certain what his reason is, unless it is just to identify the ship. Perhaps this was the only ship of Alexandria thus marked, and anyone who heard this story from Alexandria could say, “Ah, yes, I know that ship,” and go confirm the truth of what Luke is writing.
At any rate, it is this ship that they board. This ship had purposefully wintered at the island, its captain and crew having been wiser in their choice of when to sail than those on the former ship had been.