Rev. Erik Veerman
Malta to Rome: Hospitality and Thankfulness
We’ve reached the last chapter in Acts! Chapter 28. You’ll find that on page 1114. I know some of you are thinking, “finally!” As I mentioned last week, rather than wait until January to finish Acts, we’re going to wrap up next week. Then we’ll do a short advent series.
Last week, we considered chapter 27 in its entirety - the harrowing account of the shipwreck at sea. God delivered the apostle Paul and Luke. He delivered all 276 passengers, which included the soldiers and sailors. At the very end of the chapter, their ship ran aground on a reef. But before the ship broke apart, they either swam ashore or held on to pieces of wood.
They were, of course, exhausted and soaking wet. It was the middle of November. I looked up the average temperature of Malta and in November, the highs would have been in the mid-60s Fahrenheit. With the storm and overcast skies, and the fact that it was morning, it was likely in the low to mid-50s. Not freezing, but when you are tired and wet, that’s pretty chilly.
That’s where we left off.
On the morning of September 11, 2001… there were about 4-5,000 airplanes in the sky over North America when the 9/11 attacks began. As you may know, all those planes were ordered to land at the closest airport. At the small international airport outside of Gander, Newfoundland… in Canada, 38 jetliners landed. On them were about 7000 passengers from over 100 different countries. At the time, Gander’s population was only about 10,000 people. Quite overwhelming.
Yet, an amazing story unfolded. The entire town came together to care for these stranded passengers. The took them in, fed them, and provided for them for several days! There weren’t enough houses or hotels for all the passengers to stay, but the town set up cots in schools and churches and community centers. Interestingly, the bus drivers happened to be on strike that day, but they, of course, went back to work to help.
New friendships were established. A couple met there and are now married. And as a thanks, the passengers raised college scholarship money for the children of Gander. As of 5 years ago, 2 million dollars have been raised. What a beautiful picture of hospitality and thankfulness. And it’s very similar to the hospitality and thankfulness we find at the beginning of Acts 28.
Despite the sinfulness of the human heart. Despite the eternal consequences of that sinfulness, God, in his mercy, displays his goodness in all humanity. We call that common grace. It means, in one way, that all humanity, Christians and non-Christians, have a sense of God’s goodness. We are all created in God’s image and reflect God in many ways. That image was fractured in the sinful fall of humanity … YET, God still displays at times… that common grace through the kindness and care of all people.
That’s what happened in the town of Gander, and that’s what was happening throughout these verses. The hospitality and kindness was displayed, first, through the people of Malta, clearly non-Christians, as we’ll see... But that hospitality and kindness was also on displayed by the Christians as Paul’s journey continued to Rome.
And if hospitality and kindness and thankfulness were on display by all people, how much more should we display hospitality and kindness to all people. Not only because of God’s common grace to us, but also because God has given us his saving grace. In other words, out of hearts thankful for the salvation we have in Christ, we should even more display the love of God in our hospitality and thankfulness… all in the name of Christ.
That’s where we’re headed today.
Hospitality and Thankfulness on Malta
Malta, by the way, is a small island 60 miles south of Sicily. Sicily is the big island off the southwest coast of Italy. Malta was at one time ruled by Carthage, but Rome took over in 218 BC. That’s 250 years prior to the shipwreck. The common practice was to leave the native people of the island in place, but control it through laws and leadership. So a local proconsul was assigned – sort of like a mayor. Given Rome’s rule, some of the islanders would be conversant in Greek, the common language throughout the Mediterranean.
So when Paul and the rest of the passengers arrived, they would have been able to communicate, at least through some of the locals who knew both Greek and their native language.
And immediately, the people of Malta sprang into action. Notice Luke’s word choice in verse 2. “the native people showed us unusual kindness” and “welcomed us all.” They built fires on the beach. They must have built multiple bonfires. There were, after all 276 people to warm up and dry off.
And talk about springing into action. Paul jumped right in and started to gather sticks. That’s just like we envision Paul, isn’t it? No matter the occasion, he would help and serve. Always working hard. A model of a true servant. One time I asked my hard-working grandfather, “are you ever going to retire?” He responded, “did the apostle Paul ever retire?”
So, Paul was gathering sticks and the people of Malta were helping to build fires, demonstrating their kindness. And next, a very interesting thing happened! As Paul was carrying a bundle of sticks, a viper suddenly sprang out of the pile. It “fastened on [Paul’s] hand” as verse 3 tells us. The Greek word for viper is the word for a venomous snake. So the people fully expected Paul to swell up and maybe drop dead.
Their first reaction was to think that Paul was a murderer. They knew he was a prisoner, so the viper biting him must mean that their local gods were angry. One of their local gods, named Justice, they thought had prevailed. Paul may have escaped the sea, but Justice would get the final word. So they thought.
And so they waited. And they waited. Probably wide-eyed, glancing toward each other. Murmuring around the fires. But nothing happened. No, Paul just shook the thing off into the fire and went on! I think Luke, the author of Acts, who was there… I think he was amused by what happened. How the people of Malta decided that instead of being a murder, Paul must have been a god. They were very superstitious. Talk about from one extreme to another. From a murderer to a god in a matter of minutes.
A similar misunderstanding occurred back in chapter 14. Only the opposite thing happened. Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra. They healed a man by the gate, and immediately the people thought they were gods. Do you remember that? Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul, Hermes, their local gods. But after the people of Lystra were convinced they weren’t gods, instead they stoned Paul, leaving him for dead. That was cancel culture 101 – at first worshipping him, and then trying to kill him.
Well here, it’s the opposite. From a murderer to a god. We’re not given any of the dialog between Paul and the people on Malta, but in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes when the people tried to worship them. Paul, undoubtedly sought to quickly correct their thinking.
There’s also something deeper going on in this snake encounter. Back in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, Jesus said to his disciples and the others he had sent out: “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” Paul was an apostle. He held a special role as the church went forth. As Luke highlighted this unique event, he was alluding back to Jesus’ promise and was also further establishing Paul’s authority as an apostle.
The next few verses give us some insight into their time on Malta. By the way, which lasted 3 months. And that included a grand hospitality and welcoming by Malta’s leader. Verses 7 and 8. “Publius” was either his name or title. That word has Latin roots and means “first.” He would have been appointed by the Romans. Either he was a Roman, himself, or a native leader that submitted to the Roman authority and allowed to lead.
Publius opened his estate. He welcomed them, entertained them. Paul was there at least with Luke. Luke used the pronoun “us.” We don’t know if the entire 276 people were with them, but we get the sense that there were many. The word “hospitably” is used. Again, we’re talking about common grace kindness. Paul, Luke, and the others had been through that harrowing storm on the sea. They had little to eat. They were strangers on an unknown island. Yet Publius hosted them for three days.
It’s Thanksgiving weekend. This kindness and help should remind us of a very similar hisstory. A similar length journey on the open sea, similar time of year, through similar storms and a safe arrival. And a similar 3 days of hospitality and food. Let’s go back just over 400 years to 1610s.
• A group of faithful Christians were being persecuted in England for their beliefs. They desired to worship God according to the Bible, according to what the Scriptures taught, and not according to the civil magistrate.
• These Puritans, as they were known, would not submit to King James. No, their king was Jesus. Their guidance for faith and worship was God’s Word. Many were imprisoned for their beliefs. So, some fled.
• And a particular group sought religious shelter in nearby Holland. But even there, they didn’t have the freedoms they desired. They worried they would lose their culture and identity.
• So this group, who we call today Pilgrims… boarded a ship, known as the Mayflower, and they set sail to the new world. Some of you know the story well.
• The journey was 66 days. It was long and hard. In the middle of one storm, the mast of their ship cracked. Yet, they safely landed in New England. It was November 1620.
• Without much time to build adequate shelters, the winter hit them hard. Sadly, half of the pilgrims died.
• However, over the next few months, they befriended and made a peace treaty with a tribe of natives - the Wampanoag tribe. With their help, the Pilgrims learned how to plant corn, work the land, hunt, and fish.
• And in the fall of 1621. In fact, November of 1621 – exactly 400 years ago this month. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag celebrated together for a 3-day feast. Sound familiar? 90 Wampanoag including chief Massasoit and the 54 remaining Pilgrims. A mix of cultures and languages and experiences and food, yet they came together. The Pilgrims gave thanks to the one true God for his provision. Thanking God for their new friends who so graciously helped them.
On Malta, this three day event included Romans, natives from the island, Luke who was a Greek, and Paul with his Jewish roots. A mix of backgrounds and languages all coming together in a similar display of kindness, thankfulness, and hospitality.
And as part of that event, Paul displayed his calling by God as an apostle. He healed Publius’s father. It was another confirmation of Paul’s role as apostle. You see, similar to the other healings in the book of Acts, this was an apostolic gift given in that time. As the Gospel began to go to the ends of the earth, the healings testified to the one true God.
As you can imagine, word got out. Others from the island, who were sick, came to Paul. And Paul healed them as well.
Over their three months on Malta, there was much giving and receiving… kindness and hospitality and healing and thankfulness for this God ordained time together. When Paul and the others set sail, the people, it says in verse 10, “honored them greatly.” They gave them provisions – whatever they needed for their journey.
Now, we are not told about any conversions to Christ on the island, nor any conversations, or sermons that Paul gave. However, I want to make a case that there most likely were all of those. Gospel conversations, sermons, and conversion to Christ. Hear me out:
• First, we do have historical records that within 250 years of the shipwreck, Christianity had spread all over the island. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century, wrote about Christianity on Malta. Chrysostom said that its roots went back to the apostle Paul’s shipwreck.
• That’s not surprising. And here’s my second argument: everywhere Paul went, he testified to the Gospel of Christ. He spoke of who Jesus was, the promises of God, why Jesus came, his death and resurrection, and the call to faith and repentance. That’s who Paul was, that’s what he did.
• Third, apostolic healing in Acts affirmed the one true God. It pointed to him as the one and only, true God, and it testified to the Gospel. In other words, part of the apostolic healing ministry included Gospel witness. That’s the reason God gave the apostles that gift. Malta was yet another culture, another Gospel stop on the “ends of the earth” journey in Acts.
• And fourth and finally, I think it’s very reasonable that the honor that the people showed Paul and the others in verse 10 was due to the Gospel. A deep thankfulness for the life transforming work of Christ that they brought to Malta.
None of those points individually make a solid argument that saving grace came to Malta during Paul’s time there. However, cumulatively, there’s a strong indication that the Gospel took root as a result of Paul’s ministry.
And this leads to a principle for us. A takeaway from this first section: Receive common grace kindness and reciprocate with saving grace thankfulness.
Again, common grace is God’s work in and through all people – believers and unbelievers. To receive common grace kindness is to recognize that we all have needs at various times in our lives. And just as Paul and the other passengers received the hospitality and kindness from the Maltese people, so we should receive kindness and help from others when we are in need.
• Maybe that’s God’s common grace work in the medical field. Receiving treatments from someone with the knowledge and skills to treat the mental and physical ailments we have.
• Maybe that’s receiving help when we’ve lost our job or run into some other kind of shipwreck in our lives. Sometimes our pride gets in the way, especially for guy. “I don’t need your help. I can do it myself.” But, no, we all need help at various times in our lives.
So the first part is humbly receiving kindness. And the second part is reciprocating – returning the favor with saving grace thankfulness. Saving grace is God’s work of salvation in Christ in the hearts and minds of people. And God uses our words in that work. So, when we experience the kindness of others, the most blessed thank you gift in return is showing them Christ. Revealing the saving hope of God for them. We don’t have the apostolic healing gifts that Paul had, but we can offer the gift of faith – faith in Christ who accomplished salvation on the cross.
Receive common grace kindness and reciprocate with saving grace thankfulness.
Final Journey to Rome
Well, the journey continued. And so did the hospitality and thankfulness.
They departed Malta on new ship. Their first stop was at a port on the eastern side of Sicily, named Syracuse. From there, they sailed to the tip of mainland Italy, Rhegium. This time, the weather was in their favor. The winds came from the south, and in just over a day, they cruised along the western coast of Italy about 180 miles. And they arrived in the city of Puteoli.
It’s there that they met other believers. Christians. Verse 14. This time, the Christians were the ones displaying hospitality. They welcomed Paul and the others and hosted them for 7 days. Another respite on the journey. From there, they travelled to Three Taverns – which was a place only about 33 miles from Rome. This time, word had gotten out and more believers came from Rome and greeted Paul.
These encounters with other believers were a great encouragement to Paul. Verse 15 says that Paul “thanked God and took courage.” Part of that was certainly their care and hospitality. But in addition to that, Paul was being blessed through the church in Italy. The thing is, he didn’t have direct involvement in bringing the Gospel there. Yes, Paul had written to the church in Rome 3-4 years earlier. He even knew several believers there, but Paul had never been to Italy, at least after his conversion. But the work of spreading the Gospel and establishing new churches had been continuing. Other disciples and apostles, like John and Peter and Barnabas, were also participating in the work. Churches were sending out other missionaries to other parts of the world, and they planted new churches. It’s no wonder Paul was greatly encouraged. What a tremendous blessing to experience God’s work continuing to go forth.
So finally, Paul arrived in Rome… with a community to care and provide for him. Even the Roman soldier displayed kindness to Paul in allowing him to stay in a home. Rome at last.
Well, if the first 10 verses point us to reciprocating common grace kindness with saving grace thankfulness. Then these last 6 verses point us to a second principle: Give and receive hospitality and thankfulness with one another
This principle is about the church. Paul’s time with the Christians at Puteoli went both ways. Besides Paul receiving their hospitality, what an encouragement for them to be with Paul. And did you note, Paul was with them seven days. That means they also worshiped together!
When we exercise hospitality and thankfulness to one another in Christ, the body of Christ, the church is built up. It’s strengthened for the work to which God has called her. Our relationships with one another are deepened. Our love and care for one another is displayed to the watching world. When we receive and give to one another, we’re exercising the covenant community blessings as the church… serving and loving and helping and caring for one another all in the name of Christ.
Let me take just a minute and extend the principle one level further. Even though these verses don’t demonstrate the hospitality of the church to the community around them. That’s the next logical level of hospitality, one, in fact, that the church in Rome was known for. Exercising that hospitality and kindness to those outside of the body of Christ. Gospel Hospitality as it’s been recently coined by author and speaker Rosaria Butterfield. In the name of Christ, it’s welcoming those around you into your home and through acts of kindness. Loving and caring for neighbors and through that speaking of God’s truth and grace in Christ. Butterfield herself, experienced a radical conversion through the ministry of that kind of hospitality. She writes this in her book, The Gospel Comes with a Housekey “Our post-Christian neighbors,” meaning our neighbors that don’t have any Christian influence or background, “Our post-Christian neighbors need to hear and see and taste and feel authentic Christianity, hospitality spreading from every Christian home that includes neighbors in prayer, food, friendship, childcare, dog walking, and all the daily matters upon which friendships are built.” And through our authentic Gospel-centered hospitality in the name of Christ, God will be at work in Christ.
So, Give and receive hospitality and thankfulness with one another in the church… and with those around you in the name of Christ.
In summary… from Malta to Rome (and Gander and Plymoth!). Kindness, hospitality, and thankfulness. In Malta, a people believing in a false God named Justice, to experiencing the healing ministry of the one true God. Even without knowing God, they exercised common grace kindness and hospitality which more than likely led to experiencing the saving grace ministry of Christ.
And on the journey to Rome, more hospitality, this time from the Christian community. It led to thankfulness and encouragement in Christ.
May we be a people giving and receiving kindness, hospitality, and thankfulness, all because of the grace we’ve been given in Christ.