John Bunyan's 17th-century classic Pilgrim's Progress traces the journey of an allegorical character named Christian from his sin-burdened condition in the City of Destruction to the relieving of his burden at the cross and empty tomb and on with the journey to the Celestial City. All along the way Christian faces dangers that test his faith, strengthen his confidence in the Lord, and sanctify him as he prepares for Celestial City. After his conversion Christian travels to an encouraging refuge, the Porter's lodge. Before he reaches the Porter, he faces a narrow path with lions on either side. Previously he had met other characters, Timorous and Mistrust, fleeing from the same lions. So Christian approaches the path with trepidation, not realizing that the lions, though ferocious, are chained and cannot harm him. Mustering his courage, he presses forward past the lions to the Porter's lodge.
The Porter at the lodge, whose name is Watchful, perceives Christian's fear and cries, "Is thy strength so small? Fear not the lions, for they are chained, and are placed there for trial of faith where it is, and for discovery of those that have none. Keep in the midst of the path, and no hurt shall come unto thee."
Trials often reveal and even strengthen faith in believers. Even natural disasters can test one's faith and provide an opportunity for the faithful exercise of Christian grace. How can believers minister during times of natural disaster? Paul's trial at sea provides insight.
I. Lurking danger (27:13-20)
No one wants to be in the midst of a nor'easter on a rickety ship in an angry sea; but that is exactly where Paul, Luke, Aristarchus, and 273 other soldiers, prisoners, and shipmates found themselves. For two weeks they faced the unexpected. Paul, either by discernment after a lifetime of seasoned seafaring or by revelation, anticipated the storm and "great loss" (27:10). Neither the captain nor the ship's owner agreed with Paul's prediction. Soon, though, the severe storm came and then raged for days.
The reality of what Paul and his companions faced is seen in the crew's true desperation. Luke narrates firsthand the actions by the ship's crew to avert the danger, but nothing they did could change the wind or the sea (27:15-20). After days of desperate struggle, those on board gave up any hope of being saved (27:20). In this setting the ministry of Paul—the Christian—shines.
II. Sound action (27:21-38)
In times of natural disaster, desperation often gives way to panic and confusion. Sound leadership is essential in helping the fearful and suffering to find stability, even in chaos. Paul effectively and actively ministers in the midst of chaos and fear.
First, he exhorts them to keep up their courage. Panic follows sustained fear, and despair follows hopelessness. Paul's shipmates were in despair, yet Paul counseled with the promises of God (vv. 21-26). The light of God's promises cheers despairing hearts. Who better to declare these promises than those who "believe God"? (v. 25).
Second, Paul remained calm. Though Paul had offered encouragement, the sailors still did not agree with the rest of those in the ship. They sought to escape, but their plans were foiled by Paul's calm action (vv. 27-32). Calm thinking in crisis can avert desperation and foolish decisions.
Third, Paul attended to basic needs. Neglecting basic necessities of life is easy in crisis situations, but that neglect imperils one's health and strength. No feast was set before the people, just simple bread (vv. 33-38), but the result of attending to this necessity brought encouragement (v. 36). Often little things such as food and rest can nurture the whole life during disaster. "
III. Faithful ministry (28:1-10)
After two weeks in typhoon winds and churning seas, the ship struck a reef near the island of Malta. By God's gracious hand, all aboard the ship escaped safely to land where the Maltese people treated them with "extraordinary kindness" (v. 2). We observe how Paul conducted himself on Malta. First, we see his practical service (vv. 1-3). The apostle never gravitated toward a high-and-mighty attitude but joined in serving others. This is a true demonstration of Christianity: service for the good of others. While Paul was gathering firewood, a viper latched onto him; Paul calmly shook it into the fire. The Maltese thought that the gods of the sea and of vengeance had finally caught up with Paul; but when he did not swell up or die, they began to proclaim Paul to be a god (v. 6).
Even in that, Paul teaches us a valuable lesson. When attention is directed to a Christian, his or her first response should be redirecting the attention to Jesus Christ. Rather than accepting praise, Paul prayed for the good of others (vv. 7-10). God was pleased to bring healing to many on the island through the apostle's ministry. Christ healed through the apostle, and he faithfully presented the message of the Great Physician to the islanders.
We usually cannot predict when disaster will strike our community, but we can prepare ourselves spiritually to be faithful ministers of Christ in any situation. Disaster calls for sound action and faithful ministry of God's people to those in need. In such crisis situations God may be pleased to show forth His might and kindness.
Hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers spring into action during natural (or man-made) disasters. They offer hurting people a smile, food, clothing, and an encouraging prayer. They specialize in bringing calm into crisis situations and helping with the basic necessities of life until the hurting can regain composure and function normally. The joy of service, not personal recognition, motivates these special volunteers to those in need.