GETTING THE MESSAGE/Looking only to Jesus
In Acts 28 Paul finally arrives at Rome, as the Lord Jesus had promised. The year would have been around 59 AD. Paul would have been a Christian for a little over 25 years, and tradition says he was beheaded by Emperor Nero about 5 years after he arrived in Rome. Paul’s dedication to Christ and his zeal for the souls of men is the Scriptural example for all Christians.
Acts 28 begins with Paul on the island of Malta. He was shipwrecked along with all others on the ship, the result of a terrible storm. The natives built the cold and wet men a fire, showing, “unusual kindness” (Acts 28: 2). When Paul was adding sticks to the fire, a serpent came out and fastened onto his hand. Then natives wait for Paul to swell up or fall dead, but he showed no ill effect from the bite.
One point of this story is that nothing, not a storm or a serpent, can keep Paul from arriving in Rome according to the promise of Christ. But I think we also see symbolism of both salvation and Paul’s ministry. Storms on the sea are symbols of God’s wrath and the serpent is a symbol of Satan’s rebellion against God and attacks on God’s people.
Paul was saved from destruction on the sea, and the serpent’s bite caused him no harm. Likewise, Paul’s ministry, from the beginning to the end, trampled over demonic opposition, and though Paul suffered greatly his faith did not fail, and the gospel spread through many areas.
Satan is represented as a deadly serpent, and he has infected men with rebellion against God. In Numbers chapter 21, the people of Israel complained about being delivered from Egypt, saying they hated the food God gave them. The rejection of God brought condemnation. Serpents came among them, and those bitten died.
When the people of Israel sought mercy, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze serpent was cured from the venom of the serpent’s bite. Jesus said in John 3 that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him would have eternal life.”
The bronze serpent in the wilderness was ordained by God as the only way the people who were bitten by the serpents could be healed. Nothing else could substitute in its place. So Christ’s death is the only means of salvation for sinners. If Christ is unknown, neglected, or rejected, the soul will perish. There is no other cure for sin and the devil’s poison.
When Paul was bitten by the serpent on Malta, the natives surmised that he was a murderer and that justice had found him out (verse 4). They were wrong in judging providence that way, but we know Paul was a former murderer of Christ’s people. He had a self-admitted satanic-like fury against Christians. But he was cured from that by looking upon Christ.
Paul’s cure, like all who know Christ, was final in one sense. He was freed from the venom of the devil. He was no longer in rebellion against God, but was a servant of the Lord. But in another sense the cure is gradual. We need to look to Christ again and again, to keep always looking, looking only to Jesus on the cross. Because demonic forces will never cease their assaults on the people of God in this world.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were on the coast walking on a nature trail. The trail led right to the edge of water in a swamp. A lookout ramp was raised over the trail before you got to the water. When we stepped up on the platform, I looked down below us in the grass and there was a serpent coiled up right beside the trail. Thankfully, we had not walked any further on the trail.
It reminded me of Paul’s admonition to Christians in Ephesians 6 of the battle of faith Christians must wage against demonic powers. There is a day coming (Roman 16) when Christ will crush Satan under our feet, but that day is not yet. He prowls around seeking whom he might devour.
The natives concluded Paul was a god when he didn’t die from the serpent (verse 6). He wasn’t. But he did know Christ, the Son of God, the only Savior of sinners. And Christ had promised he would get to Rome. No one who trusts in him will be put to shame.