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What Should We Make of Paul’s Shipwreck Narrative?

What Should We Make of Paul’s Shipwreck Narrative?

Observations of the primary narrative tension and its accompanying resolution gave us hope that we could sift through the flood of details to discern the author’s main point in this chapter.

When our church’s team of preachers decided to preach through Acts, I knew chapter 27 would be a doozy (notice how I cleverly ignored this chapter in my interpretive overview of Acts). I have always been confused by this chapter and its role within the book, and though I’m sure compelling sermons have been preached on this text, I have yet to hear one of them. I’m used to hearing otherwise fantastic preachers punt on this chapter, in the name of practicality, to talk about “weathering the storms of our spiritual lives.” So the extraordinarily detailed travelogue of Acts 27 is reduced to a parable and a few minor observations (typically surrounding verses 23-25) seeking to inspire us toward deeper trust in Christ—a wonderful thing to be inspired toward, of course!

Therefore, since I’m in charge of managing our sermon schedule, I made sure to assign Acts 27 to someone else. Pro tip: When you don’t know what to do with a text, require a friend or colleague to deal with it instead. This resulted in one of the most exciting “aha!” moments in my Bible study this year.

A Key Structural Observation

The sucker fortunate fellow to receive the assignment was a good man and marvelous student of the word named Tom Hallman. Tom eagerly set himself to observe the text inside and out, to give him the raw materials for a series of interpretive questions. Our practice is that our team of preachers gives feedback on every sermon before it is preached. We collaborate in two phases: the study of the passage and the delivery of the sermon. So in that first phase, Tom regularly laid before us the fruit of his study for comment and evaluation.

And Tom made a key structural observation that shed tremendous light on the passage for me. In following the narrative’s plot, Tom observed that the main conflict centers on the centurion’s failure to listen to Paul’s counsel in Acts 27:11. This led Tom to recognize a few arcs within the plot:

  • Acts 27:9-20: Paul speaks, and the centurion pays more attention to others. The result is that all hope of being saved is abandoned.
  • Acts 27:21-44: Paul speaks, and the Romans start listening to him. The result is that all are brought safely to land.

These observations of the primary narrative tension and its accompanying resolution gave us hope that we could sift through the flood of details to discern the author’s main point in this chapter.

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