By Joseph Ametepe
But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, 'Undoubtedly this man is murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.' However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. But they were expecting that he was about to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god" (Acts 28:3-6).
This is an interesting story. It is a story that is replayed often in human history. The main spiritual lesson in this story is this: Man is so quick to make judgments based on false assumptions.
Having been brought safely through a violent storm that destroyed their ship, God provided a place of refuge for Paul and all on board on the island of Malta (Acts 28:1). On their arrival, God sovereignly and supernaturally worked in the hearts of the islanders to show Paul and his fellow travelers unusual kindness by building a fire to welcome them all. They needed warmth because it was a cold and rainy day for the storm-tossed travelers (Acts 28:2). No sooner had they began enjoying the warmth of the fire and relief from the relentless fury of the fierce and ferocious waves at sea than tragedy struck. Although in chains, Paul demonstrated his heart of service. He gathered a pile of sticks and laid them on the fire. It is very interesting that the Holy Spirit chose to give us this account. As a prisoner, whose hands and feet were chained, Paul had every reason to sit back and let others do the work. He could have said to himself, "My hands and feet are chained. So let someone else do the gathering of sticks and put it on the fire to keep the fire burning." But Paul didn't think of using this excuse to exempt himself from serving. I like that. Paul saw a need and he took it as an opportunity to serve. He didn't mind that his hand were in chains. What an example Paul is to us! Paul's example of service demonstrated in this passage is more compelling because of his circumstances. His circumstances were not the best. Remember, he was a prisoner in chains! Yet when the opportunity arose for service, he pounced on it and made the most of it. What about you? When an opportunity arise for you to serve, do you make the most of it? Or do you let it go to waste?
Please understand that Paul's service of gathering sticks and putting them on the burning fire was not just for his own personal good. It was for the good of all who had escape death at sea. Unfortunately for Paul, a venomous viper, driven out by the heat of the fire, came out and fastened itself on his hand. Apparently, when Paul gathered the bundle of sticks, a viper was in the bundle. Paul didn't know that. It seems that the viper was on a mission of revenge. After all, Paul was the one who had disturbed its peace. If Paul had not gathered the pile in which it was hiding, it would not have found itself in the fire. It is as if the viper was saying, "the hand that moved me from my restful abode would be the hand I fastened myself to."
The startling scene of a viper fastening itself to Paul's hand led to an instant and inevitable judgment. The natives or the islanders were quick to make judgment on the shocking situation they were beholding. There was no doubt that this was a shocking and startling spectacle. Without wasting any time after overcoming their initial shock, the islanders pronounced their judgment. Their judgment was swift and sharp. Not only that, their judgment on this sudden and surprising development was made with great confidence and conviction of heart. Observe that in their own words: "And when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, 'Undoubtedly this man is murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live' " (v.4).
The islanders knew how fast and fatal a viper's bite was. Rarely does a person survives its venomous strike. I remember a time in my life when I met a deadly cobra on my way to school in my hometown. I was then in elementary school. Part of my route to school went through a grassland which was a good habitat for snakes. On that particular day, I happened to be the first person on the path going to school. My mother used to tell me to look down and ahead of me when I walk. She kept telling me that because I had the strange habit of looking up most of the time when I'm walking. Her motherly advice saved me that memorable day. As I looked down and ahead of me on the path, lo and behold, there was a deadly cobra just a few feet away from me. It was poised and positioned to spit out its venom and strike at me. Having overcome the initial shock of this startling spectacle, I quickly turned around and took off at top-speed to run for my life. I did not stop nor look back until I got to safety-hundreds of yards from where I saw the cobra. My heart was literally pounding and racing within me. The thought of facing that deadly cobra and the horror it brought to my heart still remain vivid in my mind today. It was one of the unforgettable events in my life.
Perhaps, the fastening of a viper onto Paul's hand remained vivid in his mind for years-not so much because of the horror it might have caused him, but because of what happened afterward. He experienced firsthand how people are so quick to make judgment based on faulty or false assumptions. The islanders thought that the reason why the viper fastened itself to Paul's hand was because he was certainly a murderer. For them, Paul was a convicted killer. But their assumption was completely wrong. Paul was not a murderer. He was a missionary. He was a messenger of God. He was a minister of God. He was a man of God. In their judgment, the islanders went on to say that though Paul escaped the watery graves of the sea, "Justice" has not allowed him to live. They were saying Paul deserved to have died at sea. But he didn't. Now "Justice" (Greek: dike) has not allowed him to live. The word "Justice" is a personification of a goddess. You see, the islanders were pagans. Their worldview was paganistic. Their assumptions in this situations were faulty and false. You see, God had specifically told Paul that he would get to Rome alive, not as a corpse. God intended for Paul to witness to His cause in Rome as he did in Jerusalem (Acts 23:11). He assured Paul that he would definitely stand before Caesar (Acts 27:24). God's word to His servant cannot fail. And yet the islanders of Malta were so sure that this was Paul's last day on earth. And so they waited expectantly for Paul to swell up and suddenly fall dead. But after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to Paul, they changed their minds and said Paul was a god. Again, their judgment was quick. Again, their judgment was made with great conviction-he was a god. Again, their judgment was based on a faulty assumption. Paul was not a god. He was God's chosen servant to carry His message to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15). Perhaps this experience with the islanders opened the door for Paul to point them to God and His truth and worldview. I find it very interesting that Paul didn't ridicule or rail at the islanders at the fireside on the beach for being so quick to judge him based on faulty assumptions. He respected them and waited for God to open the door for him to present His truth to them.
We live in a world in which people are quick to judge. We are told, "everyone is entitled to their opinion." Unfortunately, most of man's judgments are based on faulty premises. The only valid premise on which to make sound judgment is the Word of God. Why? It is true. It comes from the only true God who cannot lie. Therefore, it is trustworthy. It is dependable, It is reliable for matters of this life and the life to come. As a believer in Jesus Christ, are you allowing the Word of God to shape your worldview? Do you base your judgments on what the Bible teaches about this life and the life to come? Do you show respect to the people whose views are not in line with the Bible and wait for God to open the door for you to present His truth to them? That's what Paul did. He showed great respect to the islanders and waited for God to open the door for him to present His truth to them. May you rely on the Spirit of God to saturate your heart with God's Word! Allow the Spirit to shape your worldview through the renewal of your mind! Share God's truth with respect and in all gentleness to those who haven't yet experienced its life-changing power!