ACTS 28:1-10

“Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer, for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

“There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.”

After a long and terrible storm in which the ship and its contents were eventually lost and the two hundred seventy six passengers escaped only with their lives, Paul and his company, along with the other passengers, experienced hospitality on the island of Malta for three-months. Reflection on these verses reveals spiritual truths important to ministers.

Are People Good Or Are People Bad?

There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it hardly behooves any of us to criticize the rest of us.

In these verses are three indications of the goodness of the islanders: “unusual kindness” in building the fire in vs. 2, their recognition that “Justice has not allowed him to live” in vs. 4, and at the end of the story they “furnished us with the supplies we needed,” in vs. 10. These people were not Christians or Luke would have referred to them as believers rather than “islanders.” Recording such good behavior by non-Christians, these verses bring up an important Theological and Philosophical question about the fundamental moral nature and inclination of the human race.

Are people bad or good? Our philosophy of evangelism and ministry depends on our understanding of this question. Some think people are bad, but that with each reincarnation or lesson in life have the opportunity to improve. If people are fundamentally bad, it is understandable that we would significantly lower our expectations of humans and thereby not attempt to bring out the best in them; we would, rather, naturally expect bad from them.

On the other hand, some think people are good and therefore need no salvation. To them, what Christians call “sin” simply does not exist; the immorality of the human race is excused by the guise of amorality.

Even some Christians fall into these two camps of thinking people are fundamentally bad—not expecting good—or fundamentally good—merely needing to be accepted with all moral differences tolerated. Furthermore, by observing behavior in the human race, people in both camps find evidence for the theory they choose to believe. What does the Bible say?

Some verses indicate the goodness of mankind. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). “Rule over . . . every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Originally, mankind was created good, in the image of God revealing individuality and plurality mutually submitted in love, cooperation, and unity, with dignity and dominion, and with God’s own personal approval—God said it was “very good.”

Other verses record the sinful nature of mankind. Mankind is now fallen helplessly, hopelessly, and deeply into sin. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jer.17:9)? “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good . . . All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:1 – 3). “‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’” Rom. 3:10 – 18

These two divergent streams—that man is bad and our expectations should be lowered, or that man is good and all differences are to be tolerated—can be combined to reach a biblical synthesis. Created good, man became bad. Man, in his fallen state, is bad, but retains the potential to once again become good. No matter how deeply into sin man has fallen and wretched he has become, there is permanently stamped in him the image of God which can yet be restored by salvation. On the other hand, no matter how good unsaved people may appear or how noble their behavior, they remain sinners in need of the Savior. The gospel is efficacious even for those who appear beyond redemption and still necessary for those who seem to be so good they do not need it. Both of these sides of the issue argue for the validity and eternal worth of Gospel work.

Unbelievers’ Sense of Justice Argues For a Moral Authority in the Universe.

When the snake fastened itself on Paul’s hand, the islanders said, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live” (vs. 4). The islanders assumed he would die from the snake bite and that the cause of justice would be served thereby. Their assumption, that there was such as thing as justice, judgment for wrong doing, and that the cause of justice would be served by Paul’s death, informs us that these non-believers knew the difference between right and wrong. They knew wrong should be punished. This raises an enormous anthropological and philosophical question: Who says wrong, right, and justice exists, and that punishment ought to exist? Why does every language in the world have words like “ought,” “righteous,” “guilt,” “fair,” or “unfair”? If the human race evolved from mere molecular substance, what is the basis for morality among men?

Mankind’s sense of justice is strong evidence of the image of God remaining in even non-believing and un-regenerated non-Christians. What is the conscience of the human being, if it is not a vestige of the moral framework with which we were originally created in the image of a God who had a very clear sense of moral right and wrong?

Let’s make a comparison with another incident in the Bible that illustrates the same thing. In the Old Testament, Abraham once traveled out of the land of Canaan to the foreign county of Abimelech, the “heathen” king. Abraham told them beautiful Sarah was his sister, not his wife, in order to protect his own life—and endangered Sarah’s chastity. The king consequently took her into his harem. After Abimelech learned in a dream from God that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, he charged Abraham, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done. . . . What was your reason for doing this” (Gen 20:9&10)? Why did non-Jew, heathen Abimelech have a sense of guilt—and a sense of justice that even surpassed Abraham’s—and how did the islanders of Malta become aware of justice?

God has stamped deep into the human spirit an ability to know right from wrong. Abimelech, the islanders, and millions of other non-Christians experience guilt and, with tactful and gracious help from Christians, can learn how to be free from it. Human beings are not descendents of animals; we are dignified, sovereign beings, created with an awareness of moral right and wrong. Humans can make moral choices. Every time the conscience of a non-believer reminds him of right or wrong, the human conscience is producing new evidence of the sense of the morality deposited by the Creator in the human race.

The removal of guilt remains the greatest benefit of becoming a Christian. Physical healing, health, wisdom, acceptance into the fellowship of the Christian family, improved living conditions, and, due to the removal of expensive immoral habits, often improved living standards, are all benefits of becoming Christian. But the removal of guilt remains the prime and eternally most valuable benefit of becoming a Christian. Jesus removes sin, its quilt, and its power and mankind’s sense of morality argues for the eternal value of this provision.

Peoples’ Opinions Are a Poor Source in Forming Our Self-Image.

“When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer.’” (vs.4) “. . . but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.” (vs. 6) In the brief span of a few dramatic moments, the islander’s opinion of Paul shifted from believing he was a murderer to thinking he was a god. This raises a question concerning how much we allow people’s opinions to affect our self-appraisal. How much should other’s opinions be considered as we formulate our opinion of ourselves?

We all are thankful for our mothers who usually unconditionally believe the best about us and, by believing in us, encourage us enormously. Our mothers normally are a gift of God to bolster our self-confidence. On the other hand, most of us would rather develop in our character than stumble along through life ignorantly happy with the mediocre. So we are grateful for honest friends who tell us when we are wrong. Pr. 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” But the issue raised by the islanders’ repeated misunderstanding of Paul, thinking first he was a murderer and then that he was a god, forces us to address the question of how we ministers handle peoples opinions—bad or good? How do we resist becoming discouraged by negative opinions—when we are so sincere? When other people think more highly of us than we deserve, how do we resist pride?

The Bible tells us who we are in the Lord. We can and should be self-confident, but our self-confidence comes from the presence of Christ in us. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). If we allow the Word of God to be our mirror and personal evaluation plumb line, we will not be swayed by people’s opinions. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23). It is doubtful that Paul internalized either of the two errant opinions the islander had of him. He was not likely to feel, “Oh no, my ministry is ruined. The people of this island think I am a murderer. How will I ever be able to influence them to believe in Jesus?” And neither was he likely to say, “Ah, at last! People recognize what a gift I am to the human race. Now my success will really begin. They think I am a god.”

To be sure, God will allow people into our lives to keep us humbly trusting God and he will use others to encourage us. He marvelously helps us keep humility and self-confidence balanced. But in neither instance should we internalize people’s opinions—good or bad. We should maintain the balanced position—that we are able to do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but that this is possible only through Christ. The Bible provides appropriate push and pull between dependence upon Christ and awareness of His strength within us.

Incidentally, while we are addressing the matter of human opinions, it is better to be used to be an encourager than as a discourager. No weapon formed against God’s children will prosper. If you want things to go well for you, be an encourager of God’s children.

On Interpreting Signs and Drawing Correct Conclusions.

Human beings reason by observation, formulating a premise and then drawing a conclusion. Often this process leads to correct conclusions, but because the observer is subject to human error, the process does not always work perfectly. Everyone naturally thinks their perceptions of observed phenomenon are correct and usually they are, as was the case on Malta. More often, it is our faulty premises that cause us to draw incorrect conclusions.

In the case before us, the islanders accurately saw the viper fastened on Paul’s hand, but following the premise that Justice will be served even through happenstance events, they incorrectly concluded he was a murderer. Their observation was correct, the viper did fasten itself to Paul’s hand. Their premise was incorrect, because not always in this life is justice served. Some people do get away with murder and some innocent persons suffer enormously at the hands of evil persons. On Malta that night, the islanders’ wrong premise led them to a wrong conclusion—that Paul was a murderer.

With the passing of a few moments they observe correctly that Paul did not die—that nothing unusual happened, though, in fact, it would be usual, not unusual, for a person to die from a poisonous snake bite. (As an aside, if they had known what Jesus said to His disciples, they would have known that Christian believers would be supernaturally protected. Mark 16:18, if we accept it that these verses missing from the earliest copies of Mark really belong in Mark, records that Jesus said, ". . . they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.”) Once again a wrong premise—that only gods can endure poisonous bites and live—leads them to a wrong conclusion—that Paul, therefore, must be a god.

If it were true that justice is always served in this life and that Paul did deserve to die because he had killed another, their conclusion would have been correct. And if their premise that only gods survived poisonous snake bites were true, their conclusion that Paul was a god would also have been accurate—since Paul, in fact, did not die. The reasoning process works fine as long as the observation of phenomenon and the premises used to interpret the phenomenon are both correct.

In both these cases, however, their premises and therefore their conclusions were wrong. Assuming that we all have fine, reasoning, and reasonable minds, what kind of original thinking or intellectual courage would it take for us to question various commonly held premises? How many of our assumptions are incorrect? How much of what we “know” is not really true? How many of our logical conclusions are inaccurate because our premises are incorrect? Our premises are our assumptions, and if they are incorrect, even accurate observations of phenomenon will lead us to wrong conclusions. How does this apply to thinking people in our generation?

There are two great misunderstandings many non-Christian Indians have regarding Christianity. Both of them, as we will see, are due to incorrect assumptions—the premises are incorrect. Inaccurate assumptions have led many fine Indian people to false conclusions. On a broader scale, even in non-Indian contexts, the belief in relative truth, in spite of the fact that it is illogical, is rampant. I will argue for universal and absolute truth in the philosophical and Theological domains based on the logic that mathematical and/or scientific fact is true regardless of location or cultural context. If something is true anywhere it is true everywhere.

The first problem is the assumption that a local geographic area can have its own local gods—the belief that truth can be different in one geographic location than in another. This problem is as old as the civilizations of Ur, Babylon, and ancient Egypt. The hard sciences of math, physics, engineering, and any field of study dealing with facts and truth—including Theology—deal with universal truths. The word ‘fact’ and the word ‘truth’ have the same meaning—scientific fact and Theological truth both deal with statements that are an accurate reflection of reality. The power of gravity is as true in Africa as it is in Europe where Isaac Newton first taught it. Two plus two equals four in Nepal just as in America. Truth, facts about the invisible world of God, spirits, devils, angels, prayer, and answers to prayer, since true, are universally true and therefore as true in India as they are in Argentina. Indians are not the first to think, incorrectly, that beliefs about God could differ from one location to another.

As mentioned, the civilizations of Ur, Babylon, and Egypt also believed in the logically inconsistent notion of a local deity. This is all the more reason to seriously consider the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews, whose scripture, unlike other civilizations of their time, did not begin with the story of their founder, in their case, Abraham, but rather a record of a universal creation (Genesis 1), universal flood (Genesis 6), a table of all the nations of the earth (Genesis 10), and an explanation for the formations of the many nations and languages (Genesis 11). Genesis 1 – 11 is, therefore, powerful evidence in favor of the Christians’ God since it deals with universal issues not just Abraham’s story. Reasoning from the scientific fact that truth is universal, the Hebrew’s record of a universal God, logically, philosophically, and scientifically is the only possible rational view. Interestingly, experientially all over the world, this view is being accepted more and more to be correct—that an intelligent and personal God created the cosmos, including humans, and wants a benevolent relationship with us. The Indian false assumption that local deities could exist, leads Indians to wrongly conclude that Christianity is a “foreign” religion not useful to India. The illogical statement, “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me,” is just as deceptive in other places in the world. The belief that truth (fact) about God is not universal, while truth (fact) about the hard sciences is universal, is simply inconsistent and unacceptable.

A second application of this insight, not totally unrelated to the first problem, relates to the assumption that there are many gods. This assumption has produced the conclusion that Jesus is just another among the many. Jesus, Himself, said of Himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In making the claim to be the only way, Jesus did not leave any middle ground for us to believe He was just another of many possible ways. He either is what He claimed to be—the only way—or He is a lunatic and should be completely dismissed. If He did not tell the truth, He does not deserve to be one of the possible ways—He should be totally rejected. If He did tell the truth, He should be believed and trusted as the only way since that was His claim. The assumption that there are many gods, all deserving to be trusted, leads us to the wrong conclusion that Jesus is just another one and a deluded one at that. The similar assumption that there are many religions all leading to one God forces one to be tolerant of mutually exclusive claims. This is flagrantly illogical and irrational. How can intelligent, scientifically enlightened people possible believe that?

Just as the islanders of Malta were led to wrong conclusions based, not on wrong observations, but on wrong assumptions, so some today are being led to wrong conclusions because of wrong assumptions. Truth is universal; the true religion could not possibly be a “foreign” religion anywhere. Just as surely as gravity pulls unsupported items to the earth all over the earth even though this fact was first explained by Isaac Newton in Europe, so Jesus redeems people to God in all nations even though His death occurred in Palestine. If truth/facts are true anywhere, they are true everywhere. Jesus is who He claimed to be, not just a possible way among many alternatives.

God Provides Material Needs in Exchange for Spiritual Ministry.

The previous four observations in this study were philosophical, theoretical, and intellectual. This fifth observation is extremely practical, and yet it, too, demonstrates the wisdom of God and His kindness to provide for his children. “They built a fire and welcomed us,” in verse 2 was one sort of needed provision. This is followed, later in the story in verse 10, by, “They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.” The fire was provided even before the islanders had received any benefit from Paul’s ministry among them, but verse 10 records what appears to be a deliberate and generous response to healings as answers to prayers.

The chief official of the island, Publius, had a father who was sick from fever and dysentery. When, after prayer, he was healed, the rest of the islanders came and were also cured. The islanders’ provision of what the team needed to continue their journey is linked in sequence by Luke to these healings. In other words, the islanders received the benefits of Paul’s ministry of healing and Paul’s team received the benefits of the provision the islanders supplied. Spiritual ministry was exchanged for material provision. Is this proper? Should we expect that? Is that the way God works?

The New Testament teaches that those who benefit from spiritual ministry should reciprocate in material provisions. “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Gal. 6:6). Corinthians is even more direct and clear.

“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” (I Cor. 9:7-11).

Biblically, the spiritual minister may receive monetary provision in exchange for his ministry.

In addition to that, those who provide gifts for ministries can expect their own needs to also be provided by the Lord. “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). The experience of Paul and his team on Malta seems to prove the faithfulness of God to provide for his own.

However, as God’s ministers, it is necessary to distinguish between God as our primary Source and people as the secondary sources through whom He makes provision. To God belongs all the glory for the provision. We can express gratitude to people and present them with an opportunity to participate in a ministry, but any manipulative or undue emphasis on thanking people or coercing an offering may indicate dependence on people, not God. When we acknowledge God as our primary Source it becomes much easier to thank people without becoming manipulative, greedy, unduly expectant, or inappropriately desirous of material provision from them. When, from our hearts, we ministers acknowledge God as our primary Source, is it less likely that we will manipulatively put a burden on people. If people feel they cannot say “no” to us, they cannot say a true “yes” to us. Compliance is different from agreement. Any time we collect an offering in which people are coerced to give what they did not want to give, we ministers are in danger of violating those people.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).

Conclusions: Each of these five lessons demonstrates a kind of provision God makes for His children. The salvation provided by God is good enough for the worst among us and needed by even the best among us. People have a sense of justice without Christ, but it is only in Christ that there is adequate provision for forgiveness. God’s Word provides a mirror which can give us a steady, stable, and dependable view of ourselves—adequate in Christ, yet dependent upon Him. God’s Word provides a plumb line—universal truth that remains true in any environment and free from the nonsense of “relative” truth. Even material provisions are given to God’s faithful workers.