Acts 27:31

ESV Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
NIV Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, 'Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.'
NASB Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, 'Unless these men remain on the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved.'
CSB Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, "Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved."
NLT But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, 'You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.'
KJV Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.

What does Acts 27:31 mean?

Julius is a centurion of the Augustan Cohort. He and his soldiers are charged with bringing a collection of prisoners from Caesarea Maritima to Rome. At least one of them, Paul, is going because he has appealed his case to Caesar and will face Caesar's court. Despite Paul's prisoner status, Julius respects Paul; when they reached Sidon, Julius allowed Paul's friends there to see to his needs (Acts 27:1–3).

Julius, his soldiers, Paul, and Paul's friends Luke and Aristarchus boarded an Alexandrian ship on the southwestern coast of modern-day Turkey to sail across the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea to Rome. Since they boarded, the weather has been uncooperative. Faced with winds from the northwest, they barely managed to make the southern coastline of Crete where the tall mountain ranges protected them. They reached the port city of Fair Havens which, despite its name, does not have a harbor protected enough to spend the winter (Acts 27:5–8).

As the ship's owner and pilot discussed what they should do, Paul interjected himself into the conversation. He warned them that if they left Fair Havens they would lose the ship, the cargo, and the lives of everyone onboard. The centurion trusted the owner and pilot; the sailors chose to sail a little farther west to Phoenix which has two good harbors. They had barely set sail before the winds shifted and blew them away from the island and into a typhoon-like storm (Acts 27:9–15).

Not long after the ship entered the storm, the crew realized the lifeboat, which typically is towed behind the ship, was in danger of swamping and sinking. They struggled to pull it up to the deck and fastened it to the bow of the ship (Acts 27:16–17). It has now been fourteen days of wind, waves, and negligible visibility. Paul has apparently been praying because God has told him although the ship and cargo will be lost everyone will live (Acts 27:21–26). The crew finally realizes they are nearing land, but it is night; they can tell where the land is, but they can't tell if there are rocks or reefs between the ship and the shore. They have lowered the anchors in the stern to keep the ship from going forward. Now they pretend to lower the anchors in the bow to keep the waves from spinning the ship around. Instead, they're lowering the lifeboat to escape (Acts 27:27–30).

Julius had sided with the ship's owner and pilot in Fair Havens, but he's done humoring them now. When Paul warns him of the crew's scheme, Julius sends his solders to cut the boat loose and force the crew to stay. Paul encourages everyone to eat, and the crew manages to get the ship close enough to the shore for everyone to get to safety (Acts 27:32–44).

This passage suggests some interesting questions about God's promises and human actions. Two years prior, God had promised Paul he would get to Rome (Acts 23:11). Why did Paul warn that everyone onboard would die? Was his warning informed by God's revelation or by his extensive travel experience—he had been shipwrecked three times and spent a night adrift (2 Corinthians 11:25). And how does his second warning—that the ship and cargo would be lost but all lives would be saved—fit with his warning here that if Julius doesn't act, he and the soldiers will die?

In the first instance, it appears Paul gave a general warning based on his experience. Surely, he trusted God's promise that he would get to Rome, whether because of the actions of the crew or because of God's supernatural intervention (Acts 8:39). In this second instance, God promised Paul everyone would live, but the fulfillment of His promise involved the actions of the soldiers—which God foreordained. The passengers will die if the crew abandons ship, but God has plans to prevent it.
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