Though Trials Should Come
In life we face trials of various kinds, or “storms” to speak metaphorically. In this passage the apostle Paul faces a literal storm and shows us how not to be afraid, even while we are in it.
Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Darrell Bock
In a season where so much feels different, from changing school schedules to changing work arrangements to even changes in our worship gatherings, one of the things on which you can count is there will always be new things to fear. Just this past week in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, LeBron James expressed the fears of many in the black community of such an incident happening to them or one they love. Many feared the riots that followed. Others feared hurricanes on course for the southern United States. In many ways 2020 has felt like one big hurricane. When we’re anticipating or in the middle of such literal and metaphorical storms, we’re afraid, but then once they subside, our fear often does too. Well, in the passage at which we’re looking today, the Apostle Paul is in a literal storm during a literal sea journey. And during the storm actually, God comes to him and says: Do not be afraid, and during the storm, before it subsides, he is in fact no longer afraid. So also God says to you today, whatever trials you are facing today, and whatever trials you fear in the future: Do not be afraid of what trials may come, and we learn from this passage how even during the trial, we can not be afraid: Believe God’s promise, act with hope, and look to your final destination.
Believe God’s Promise
From the beginning of this journey, it’s difficult. The difficulties slow them up enough that they don’t end up really getting off until very late in the sailing season when the risk of storms was much greater. So in verse 10, Paul says he perceives that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of their own lives. But hey, Paul’s just a prisoner, so the centurion pays more attention to the pilot and owner of the ship than to Paul, and they press on anyway. When the Northeaster hits and they start throwing stuff off the boat, Paul’s perception appears to be vindicated, so much so that in verse 20 we read that neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, which on a boat means you have no way to know where you are or where to go, and while the tempest remained, Luke writes that “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”
In other words, they were afraid they were going to die, and it was rational for them to be afraid in such a moment. So also today there are rational fears where you perceive a real threat. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with holding on to that fear if God promises a different outcome, and that’s what God does here. On the heels of the hopelessness of verse 20, Paul recounts in the verses that follow how God sent an angel to him to say this, verse 24: “Do not be afraid.” Why? Because storms aren’t scary. No; the whole reason God had to say this is because storms are scary, and the trials you face or fear may be legitimately difficult and scary. But God can still say “Do not be afraid” because God is more powerful than the storm, and He had purpose for Paul’s life beyond this storm: You must stand before Caesar he says, and God has granted you all those who sail with you. Paul’s response in verse 25 is to tell the men to take heart, for he has faith in God that it will be exactly as he has been told. Faith in God means believing that God will do what He says He will do, even when it seems impossible based on what only your eyes can see.
Now God hasn’t promised you freedom from trials (Paul was really in a storm), nor has God promised your life will be preserved through any particular trial (eventually in fact, some trial will end your life, just as one eventually did Paul’s). God hasn’t necessarily said, “Whatever you fear isn’t going to happen,” but what we do learn here is that God reigns over all your fears. The storm wasn’t in control; God was in control. And whatever threatens you isn’t in control; God is. So here’s just some promises from God you can believe, and in fact you must believe, if you are going to not be afraid during the storm: None of your fears will be realized apart from God (Matt 10:29-31), He works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), and He will finish the good work He has begun in you (Phil 1:6). Just as God preserved Paul’s life to ensure that he got to Rome, so God will ensure that the gospel gets to all the nations of the earth. The mission that we are on is going to finish, and you too can know that your life will be preserved until the part God has for you in that mission is completed. As I heard one pastor say once, “We are bulletproof until our work for God is done.”
And God doesn’t simply make these promises from a distance either. Do you see how God sent an angel to Paul in the middle of the night? The God of the universe, who holds the galaxies together, saw the suffering of one of his followers on one night on a ship somewhere in the middle of a sea in the Middle East, and do you know He sees yours too, and if you’re a Christian, He actually dwells in you by His Holy Spirit, to be with you always in whatever trials you face, to take those promises in His Word and put them right into your heart, to draw you near to Himself in prayer, in your time of need?
So what trials do you fear? What if people you respect call you bigoted, intolerant, or stupid when you try to share the good news of Jesus with them? What if the job never comes, what if the money runs out, what if your health deteriorates, what if you end up alone? None of that will happen unless God wills it, and if God wills it, He will be with you through it, and He will work it for good. “What a comfortable thought this is to the believer, to know that, amidst all the various interfering designs of men, the Lord has one constant design, which he cannot, will not miss, namely, his own glory in the complete salvation of his people; and that he is wise, and strong, and faithful, to make even those things which seem contrary to his design, subservient to promote it!” – John Newton
That’s what to believe about the trials ahead, but what do you actually do then? Surely Paul, having believed God’s promise that they would all survive the storm, simply kicked his feet up and started a card game. No. The rest of the passage actually narrates a lot that Paul and the others did to make sure their lives wouldn’t be lost in the storm. So the second way we learn to not be afraid in the face of trials is to act with confidence.
Act with hope
Note the connection between verses 25 and 26. In verse 25 Paul expresses his hope that things will happen exactly as God said: they will not die. I’m talking biblical hope here, not “I hope this might happen,” but the sure confidence that it will happen. Then in verse 26 he says there is something they must do: They must run aground on some island. Why doesn’t Paul say, “It doesn’t matter what we do; we’re going to be safe!” Consider another example: In the part of the story, a group of sailors try to escape from the ship by getting in the rescue boat. In response, Paul says in verse 31, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Wait what? I thought God promised all the lives would be saved; who cares if the sailors stay? But Paul says unless they stay, they cannot be saved.
We get a bit more clarity in the next part of the story, when we read in verse 33 that Paul urged them to take food. Apparently they’d been rationing their food or perhaps not eating out of despair of their lives, but Paul tells them to eat to get strength, precisely because not a hair of their head will perish, according to verse 34. What’s he saying there? He’s saying precisely because we have the sure hope of survival, we should run the ship aground, keep the sailors on board to drive the ship, and eat something to preserve our strength. Paul realized what we all must realize: That God, in carrying out His government of the universe, ordinarily makes use of means. So when God says “All your lives will be saved,” He’s not saying, “Therefore, don’t waste your time running the ship aground, keeping the people on board who know how to sail the ship, and eating.” He’s actually saying, “Therefore, do run the ship aground, do keep the sailors on board, do eat something, because those are the very things I am going to use to preserve your lives.” When we trust God’s promises, it doesn’t stop us from acting. Rather, it empowers us to act with hope that our actions are actually leading somewhere good, under God’s government.
So here’s the principle, adapted from author Jerry Bridges: You can’t do what only God can do, but God won’t do what you ought to do. Let me repeat that: You can’t do what only God can do, but God won’t do what you ought to do. Paul couldn’t save himself or his fellow men from the storm: No way, no how. Left to themselves they gave up all hope. But God did not run the ship aground for them, God didn’t keep the sailors on board for them, and God didn’t put the food in their mouths they needed to eat. That was their responsibility, and they applied themselves to it vigorously when they went from the hopelessness of verse 20 to the faith in God’s promise in verses 24-25. Once they realized God reigned and they trusted His promise, they acted.
So if you know God’s promise that nothing will happen to you apart from Him, whatever does happen He will work for good, and the full salvation of His people will be accomplished, you don’t have anything to be afraid of. Instead, you can just ask, “What is my responsibility?” and act with hope. So you’re afraid to share the gospel because people might not like it. Ok, what is your responsibility? It’s not to make people like it. God has to do that, and in fact His promise is that He will bring all those He’s chosen to believe it. So then we don’t have to do anything, right? No, precisely because God is going to save His people, we go, because the means He says He uses is the preaching of the gospel. So what is my responsibility? I share the gospel with hope, gentleness, and respect, and I pray for God to do what only He can do.
In our Citygroups we’re having conversations about race, and it’s easy to be afraid that those are not going to make any difference. Racism is deeply entrenched in our city and in our hearts; what can we do? But God has actually promised to unite a people for His name from all the peoples of the earth who do justice and welcome one another. We can actually engage these conversations with great hope and confidence that God will use them to build His church among us. If you’re afraid of being alone, call someone to talk and pray with them, invite them to hang out, go on a date if marriage is what you’re looking for. If you’re worried about your finances, make a budget, stick to it, write up your resume, ask for help. You can’t control the outcome of those things, but God does. You can’t do what only He can do, but He won’t do what you ought to do. So Paul and the others are faithful to their responsibility, and the chapter ends with their safe arrival on the shores of Malta. But Malta was not their final destination. So let’s talk finally about looking to your final destination.
Look to your final destination
God’s promise to Paul was not ultimately that he’d arrive safely in Malta, but that he must appear before Caesar in Rome. Though Paul got through one trial, at the beginning of chapter 28 Luke narrates that Paul and his team pressed on to Rome and did arrive there. All took place exactly according to God’s promise, and what got Paul through even really difficult and scary trials was his faith in God that He would do exactly as He said, that on the other side of the storm he would make it to Rome, the end of the course and the ministry that he received from the Lord Jesus.
If your final destination, your aim in life, is something other than living the life God has assigned you, finishing the course He has set out for your life, then maybe you should be afraid. Because that stuff might not happen; God hasn’t promised it. But if your goal is no more and no less than to be faithful to the life God has given you, take heart. Do not be afraid. God will bring you safely to your final destination. He has prepared good works in advance for you to do, and He will make sure you do them. Yet even here as Paul reached his final destination in Rome, it wouldn’t be quite right to call it his final destination.
Paul wrote the letter of 2 Timothy at the end of his life after spending years in Rome, and listen to what he said there in chapter 4, verses 17-18: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” To really look beyond your final destination is not only to look beyond the storm to the shores of Malta, nor beyond Malta to Rome, but beyond Rome to God’s heavenly kingdom. God hasn’t given you a specific promise for how any of your individual trials will turn out; He’s given you something better. He’s told you what is on the other side of every trial of your life, of the entire storm we call life: All the Father gives Jesus will come to Him, and He will raise them up on the last day.
Yes, you and me, with all of our fears, with all of our sins, can have confidence today with Paul, that God will bring us safely through every storm, even the storm of death, and into His heavenly kingdom, because the God we trust is a God who first went through the storm for us. God was with Paul in this storm, but first God was with us in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, whose name means God with us. He was once on a boat in a storm, but he was asleep, because unlike Paul, he already knew how the storm was going to end. He woke up and without a professional sailor, without need of food, without running the ship aground, He simply spoke, and the waves were calmed. Yet on the cross, the great trial of His life, He opened not His mouth. He knew that this time His life would not be spared, but willingly offered in our place, condemned for our sins so that when He was delivered, when He rose from the dead and entered into His heavenly kingdom, He could take us there with Him.
What good is deliverance from your next trial if that’s not there on the other end? What good is it if God gets us through COVID-19 and then a few years later we just die of something else and that’s it? Trust in Christ, and you will receive in Him better promises and a better hope. You will join a mission that is guaranteed to succeed, and look forward to a final destination you are guaranteed to reach. Believe His promise, and act with great hope. Endure whatever trials may come to see this gospel go to all nations. Lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, keep looking to Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. That’s your final destination; do not fear the trials that come.