After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.
Understanding And Applying the Text
The men from the ship came crawling onto the beach. The foam and filth of the sea covered them. They were stiff from the cold. It was raining. The threat of drowning had gone. Now they were on an unknown island threatened with hypothermia.
But God provided. There were people living on the island. They met the castaways as they crawled out of the sea. The island was Malta. Malta goes by the same name today. It is in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily. It is a small island only 18 miles long and 8 miles wide. The ship had traveled 625 miles in the storm. Malta means “a place of refuge.” Phoenicians settled it about 1000 B.C.
It is easy to come to an incorrect conclusion about these people. The ESV and NIV translation translated verse 4 as “native people.” The ASV and KJV translate it as “barbarians.” Later we hear they had a chief. This could lead us to conclude these were primitive tribal people. We imagine them in grass huts. No, they were under Roman authority. The “chief” was the “chief authority” This becomes clear in the NET translation. Which translates verse 4 as “local people” and verse 7 as chief official. Also, the name of the chef is Greek.
It was raining and cold. The island resident built a fire to warm the castaways. The fire allowed them to warm themselves. This was the first opportunity they had to rest in days.
Paul gathered wood to feed the fire. A snake, warmed by the heat of the fire, jumped out and attached itself to Paul’s hand. The island people saw this and thought Paul would die. Not only would Paul die. They believed Paul deserved death. He must be a murderer. The assumption was bad things don’t happen to good people. You get what you deserve. Paul had survived the sea but justice would not allow him to continue to live.
Let’s explore that idea. Did Paul deserve to die? Was Paul a murderer? Would Paul’s death serve justice? Yes. Remember Paul had imprisoned and killed men and women for declaring Jesus’ name. Paul was a murderer. The people were correct.
We tend to forget Saul. We remember only Paul the apostle. We tend to forget or ignore our sins. They are in the past. We tell ourselves they are not that bad. All the good things we have done outweigh the bad. When we judge ourselves we come out looking pretty good. But when a righteous and holy God judges us, we do not fair as well. Our sin reveals the hideousness it is. Justice demands our punishment. Justice demands our death. But God’s mercy allowed Christ to paid that penalty. Christ died in our place. Christ paid the debt we owe. There was both justice and mercy. Christ fulfilled the requirements of justice. And all the while God was merciful.
It is a common belief that misfortune is due to a particular sin. We get what we deserve. This is untrue. Think back to Job. Remember the man born blind. (John 9::1-3) Their affliction had nothing to do with them. Their afflictions were for God’s glory.
The snake jumping out was not a random act. God used this snake to further establish His apostle, Paul. Everyone was sitting around the fire waiting for Paul to swell up and die. But he did not. Nothing happened. The people went from thinking Paul was a murderer to Paul was a god. We judge by prosperity and adversity. In doing so, we deceive ourselves.
The islanders also made a second error. They believed justice was swift. Often God’s justice is slow to arrive. This too is because of God’s mercy. He allows sinners to repent. I thank God daily He does not strike me down when I sin. But He allows me to repent.
Paul shook the snake off and into the fire. Paul had no idea what was going to happen. He knew God had told him he must stand before Caesar. But God had not promised him good health.
Some have said the snake was not poisonous. But that does not fit the narrative. It does not fit the language used. The Greek word translated “creature” is applied to dangerous animals and poisonous snakes. There is no reason to think the islanders’ could not identify the snakes on their island. They would know rather or not it was poisonous. So there is no good reason for us to think the snake was nonvenomous.
When Paul did not die or at least swell up they declare Paul a god. This reminds us of the events in Lystra. (Acts 14:11-20) The people there call both Barnabas and Paul gods. Men tend to think in extremes. They went from murder to god in a short period of time.
But put yourself in their position. What do they know? They know if a snake bites a man the man dies. But Paul did not die. That violated the know facts. That must mean a snake did not bite a man. But they saw the snake hanging on his hand. They all saw it. It was not an illusion. They all saw it. So it was not a snake. Or it was not venomous. But there it is in the fire. They all saw it was a snake. They could tell what type of snake it was. This was a poisonous snake. They all saw it. But if a snake bits a man the man dies. That leaves only one possibility left. Paul was not a man. If he was not a man what was he? He must be a god.
Do you see the logic? It was all very reasonable. That is the same reasoning men use today. They will state as an undeniable fact, “there is no god.” But they look around and see design everywhere. Design requires a designer. Since there is no god i.e. there is no designer. So there cannot be design. But they see the design. So they conclude they only think they see a design. Because they “know” there is no god. They never question the original premise. it is the original premise that is wrong.
Luke does not tell us how Paul convinced them he was not a god. But it appears he did. Or at least they did not worship Paul.
The island’s chief official’s name was Publius. This is a Roman name and he may have been a Roman citizen. That would explain the hospitably he showed the centurion and the others. They all stayed with Publius for three days.
Publius’ father was sick. He had a fever and dysentery. The Greek words suggest repeated feverish attacks. It is thought the sickness was Malta fever. It is caused by the milk of Maltese goats. Paul went to him, prayed for him, and laid hands on him. As a result, Publius’ father recovered. News spread about Publius’ father’s recovery and so many others came and received healing.
When it came time to leave the islanders loaded the ship with everything they needed.