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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Our Time – His Hand


"And so we came to Rome."

Acts 28:14

The first section of Acts 28 is about Paul’s stay on the island of Malta.  Verse 11 tells us the length – 3 months.  3 months on an island in the Med!  You wouldn’t want to leave!  After the ordeal of Acts 27, you definitely wouldn’t want to leave by boat!  But, in those days, the airport wasn’t finished - so they had to!


The time had come. Verse 10 says, ‘when we were ready to sail…’  After 3 months they ‘were ready to sail.’  Would I be after what happened 3 months back?  I reckon after 3 lifetimes I’d still be saying, ‘No, let’s wait a bit longer before we catch the ferry!’  Now, ‘when we were ready to sail’ is mainly a reference to the passing of winter.  The threat of severe storms had withered, as early spring had blossomed.  But before we leave Malta, let’s stop at the dock.  Let’s consider that other way in which they’d’ve been more ready to sail than before?


Time has passed.  The physical and emotional wounds from their ordeal would’ve healed somewhat.  Scars would remain.  But the outlook now was different to that first morning on that beach.  After the passing of time, they’re ready to sail again.  Time.  We’ve probably heard of the expression, ‘time is a great healer.’  To move on from difficult, emotionally charged, experiences, there may be many things we need.  But we’ll need this – time.


This idea really hit home with me this week. At our Tuesday prayer meeting we gave special thanks for our church weekend away.  And there was a prayer request submitted beforehand which asked us to give thanks for the honesty and openness there was to share our struggles and reflect on our journeys to bring us to this point, where the pain of the past has less impact on us all.


Many of us have experienced pain in church life in the past.  It’s been rough.  It’s been tough.  But time has passed.  The impact of that pain has changed.  And we’re ready to sail again.  What a thing to give thanks for! – At Riverside we’re sailing again – on the Christian voyage together!  Who’d have thought this could happen?  Well God didn’t just think.  He knew.  What did it take?  Two things.


And David tells us them in Psalm 31 15.  Life had been rough for David.  But something else had been for David - God.  David had taken refuge in him.  His downcast eyes were now lifted to him.  And David says this, ‘My times are in your hands.’  Two things - my times… your hand.  Time can be a great healer.  But time in God’s hand.  That’s time well spent!  Time can be a great healer.  But our God?  He’s the best!


It’s so easy to have the reaction of ‘never again!’  But let’s endeavour to James Bond our lives - and never say never again!  But to allow time.  And allow for the wonder working hand of our God.


Paul and the others are ready to go.  Verse 10 records the islanders’ generosity – ‘they furnished us with the supplies we needed.’  They’d landed on that island with nothing.  They leave it well supplied.  We can easily be overtaken with the how-on-earth of our lives next supply.  We worry.  Particularly when life’s purse looks light.  And what we’re gunna need looks heavy.  In Matthew 6 25-34, Jesus said, ‘do not worry.’  He said it cos he knows we will.  Jesus didn’t say, ‘don’t worry’ because he saw that we hold more in our hands than we think.  He said it because he knew that, through him, God’s hand holds us.  Your life - your hand - may be empty.  But - through Christ – God’s got it in hand.


Jesus said, ‘Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”   For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’  Is this true?  Well, it was in Paul’s life.  There’ve been very few who’ve put the kingdom of Christ first, like Paul did.  And very few who’ve gone to such lengths as Paul to spread the news of God’s righteousness gifted in Christ.  How can failing people like us be made right with God?  Not by believing in the right what we’ll do.  But by believing in what Jesus has done.  Then we’ll have a rightness with God that can’t be trumped.  He’ll open his arms to receive us in Christ.  And he’ll take our lives in hand too.


So it was with Paul here.  He’s refitted and ready to go.  Not heading for home – he’s heading for Rome!  In verse 11, Luke gives us a surprising detail!  ‘It was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.’  That detail ties us in with Matthew 6, where Jesus reminded us not to think like pagans.  This ship had a pagan figurehead rooted in the false practice of astrology.  Astrology is the idea that by observing the movements of the stars and planets, the future movements of our lives can be predicted with accuracy.  Because Castor and Pollux are the Gemini twins. 


There’s a constellation in the northern sky called Gemini.  It’s an arrangement of stars.  Its two brightest stars are called Castor and Pollux – they’re the leading lights.  In ancient myth, they represented two twin gods with those names – Castor and Pollux.  Those gods were believed to be responsible for protecting sailors.  That’s why this ship had them at the front.  It made people feel safer at sea.


Luke mentions this detail so casually.  That figurehead probably had artistic value.  Luke probably marvelled at the skill of the sculptor.  But why’s this Christian taken up with this detail.  Isn’t it all a bit dodgy?  Well, it would be if Luke was telling us that they were kept safe because they had the terrible twins on the front of their boat.  But he isn’t.  It may have had artistic value.  But that was it.  Luke would’ve viewed that idol figure in much the same way that his friend Paul views idols in 1 Corinthians 8.  Paul says, ‘an idol is nothing’.  Luke can safely mention this detail – even admire it.  It won’t harm him.  But neither will it help him.


The whole Acts account aims to show us where our help must come from.  Not the leading lights of Gemini.  But the leading light of the whole of God’s word – Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.  Paul’s help came from there.  And Paul was kept safe despite everything that was set against him.


And we’re off.  Under divine protection - in God’s hand - still.  Verse 12 has the party stopping at Syracuse.  That’s on the island of Sicily, just over 100 miles from Malta.  Then they reach Rhegium.  Where’s that?  Well, you may know that Italy is very much boot-like in shape.  Some of you may have been following Euro 2024.  That’s a competition where lots of boots are kicking lots of footballs.  Italy is like that.  It’s shaped like a boot which is kicking the football of the island of Sicily – albeit it’s kicked it so hard that the ball has burst!


Rhegium is on the toe of Italy.  Yes, they’re almost there.  They’ve reached the mainland.  They’re on the boot itself.  And in an observation to make you groan – Paul’s journey is on its final leg!


Favourable conditions soon have them at Puteoli.  That’s on the far side of the Bay of Naples.  Pompeii is on the other side of the bay.  Less than 20 years from now, Pompeii will be buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  These are explosive times in more ways than one. 


And yet, look at the calm of this moment.  Look at what they found, in verse 14, in the Bay of Naples.  Brother and sisters in Christ – ‘who invited us to spend a week with them.’  Imagine those believers listening open mouthed as they heard the account of God’s hand in the whirlwind of life.  What an opportunity to build up faith in the Lord!  Perhaps they heard the whole travelogue that week.


Cos the beginnings of Paul’s journey to Rome are found in Acts 19 21.  Just before the riot in Ephesus, ‘Paul decided to go to Jerusalem’ and ‘said’, ‘after I have been there, I must visit Rome also.’’  We’ve seen that journey unfold.  When Paul made that decision, it had huge implications for his life.  Sometimes we’re at that point in life.  What do we do?  Often, we compile a list.  We may get some paper.  We may do a mental list.  There are two columns on that list and two headings - pros and cons.  For going and against.  If there’s more on the pros side, we’ll go.  If there’s more on the cons side, we won’t.  But imagine if Paul had done that beforehand with knowledge of what lay ahead.


These are the cons – these are some of the things that were set against Paul reaching Rome.  We’ve seen them!  A riot.  Evil conspiracy.  Sorrow and weeping. Friends telling him it was an awful idea – that is a tough one!  A prophet predicting prison.  Prison.  A beating by a crowd.  The threat of public flogging by the authorities.  Rejection.  Depression.  Plots to kill.  More prison… abandoned there for two years.  Trial in court.  Storms and Shipwreck.  And snakebite.  And I’ve skipped the really bad stuff!


So, what was under the pros?  What was for Paul going?  All those things against him.  But, only 6 letters for him.  C H R I S T – Christ!  That was the reason to go.  And that was what Paul had going for him.  I think the Bible wants us to pause here and consider those lists.  And only then read the conclusion.  Not 6 letters.  But 6 words.  At the end of verse 14 we see that what was for Paul had won the day.  ‘And so we came to Rome.’ 


Some time before this, Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome.  He told them that he was ‘so eager to’ visit and ‘to preach the gospel’ to them (see Romans 1 15).  In Romans 8 he compiled a list of things that were set against believers living in a world of sin.   And it doesn’t skip the really bad stuff.  It’s all in.  And then he says something outrageous.  All you need to balance all those things out is just one thing.  And one thing only.  ‘The love of God…in Christ.’  ‘If God is for us, who (or what) can be against us?’


It's an outrageous thing to write.  It’s an outrageous thing to believe.  But Paul’s life proves it true.  And I believe ours will too.  In Christ, Paul’s life was in God’s hand.   So much against.  But God, in Christ, for.  ‘And so we came to Rome.’


It was a time of rejoicing.  Look at verse 15.  The church in Rome has had advance warning of Paul’s arrival.  What would they do?  Get everyone to the church building to have a spring clean?  Get rid of the dust to impress the apostle?  No.  They ran into Rome’s dusty streets and kept running until they reached him.  Not to impress him.  But to encourage him. 


The Forum of Appius is over 40 miles from Rome.  And the Three Taverns over 30.  Not everyone could go.  And some could go further than others.  But they met him where they could.  What a gift to Paul’s life in that moment.  I’m pretty sure Paul would’ve thanked them for coming.  He certainly gave thanks.  ‘Paul thanked God.’  Why?  Because ‘every good and perfect gift is from’ his heavenly hand. (see James 1 17).


Paul has reached the outskirts of the world’s capital.  Imagine the sights that he’s going to see tomorrow.  But today, God shows him something better.  Monuments of grace.  People whose lives were once in ruins.  Now rebuilt by God’s love in Christ.


And then we have something else given to Paul, in verse 16.  At first glance it appears like just another incidental detail from Luke.  But it’s yet another door of opportunity given by heaven’s giver.  Paul prayed and prayed - and asked others to pray - for doors of opportunity to be opened.  To a God who’s willing to put his hand on the doorknob of lost lives.  And we read, ‘When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.’


Can you imagine how that went?  Well, we don’t have to.  Cos Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians.  Which he wrote while in Rome awaiting his audience with Caesar.  The Philippians were worried about Paul’s suffering and perhaps about how Paul’s witness was being curtailed by being under house arrest.  He was a captive, so he couldn’t get out and preach.  Oh no!  But, oh yes!  This captive had a captive audience.  Made up of a steady stream of soldiers sent to guard him.


Paul said this to the Philippians, ‘Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.’  ‘The whole palace guard.’  You couldn’t make it up!  It’s laugh out loud funny.


Paul’s life in Acts has looked a bit like Job’s at times.  Where everything seems to go wrong.  Job’s that righteous guy in the Old Testament – the one who loved his good God and hated bad stuff.  At the beginning of that book, we have the account of Satan mocking Job.  He tells God that Job only loves God because of all the good things that God’s hand lavishes upon Job.  He asks permission to take those things away so that they can watch what happens.


And God grants permission.  And they watch.  Life takes a set of almost unimaginably horrific turns for the worst.  He loses almost everything.  All bar his faith.  His life gets badly shaken.  And some of his words come out a bit rattly.  But faith endures.  And he becomes an example of perseverance.  Only because his faith and his life remain - in God’s hand.


It’s easy to imagine a similar thing here.  Satan being allowed to bring all those terrible things to Paul after he says he’s committed to go to Rome in Acts 19.  Satan mocking.  Watching to see how committed Paul really is.  And being confounded again.  Because Paul remains committed.  Only because his faith and life remain in God’s hand.  And now in Rome, it’s like Satan’s last roll of the dice.  He wants Paul kept under house arrest.  So that Paul will stop preaching.  He’s given permission.  And they watch.  And they see ‘the whole palace guard’ listening to the message about Jesus.


Roman records show that soldiers on watch often rotated in 4-hour shift patterns.  It must’ve been a boring job.  Perhaps you’d get lucky.  And be guarding a prisoner like Harry Houdini!  Someone who’d look for escape opportunities.  That’d keep you more alert than three cups of Starbuck’s finest!  But this prisoner had no intention of going anywhere.  He’d practically volunteered for prison!


You can imagine a fresh soldier arriving on shift.  He looks at Paul and rolls his eyes.  And says, ‘I’ve drawn the short straw.  I’m here for the next four hours.  Bad news!  Let’s chat and make the time pass.  Mate - have you any good news worth sharing!’


And, like Philip with the enquiring man in Acts 8, Paul would begin there ‘and tell him the good news about Jesus.’


Not just one soldier.  But the whole palace guard!  Satan had played his best hand.  But the hand of God is always better.  In fact, for his people, those who’ve come into restored relationship with him, through faith in Christ.  There is no better place for our times to be - than in the hand of God.


God’s hand is one of awesome power.  Through our sin it was set against us.  But because of Christ.  And what he did at the cross.  Sin – our sin - is done for.  And now, God is for us. 


Jesus says this about his people in John 10 28-30.  ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.’


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