Paul in Malta: Page 2 of 6 (series: Lessons on Acts)
by John Lowe
“For they kindled a fire” (or set fire to a large pile of wood).The rain continued after they made it to shore, and the storm had lowered the temperature making building a large fire the first priority. A large fire was needed because of the great number of people and the condition they were in. They had escaped their ship; some throwing themselves into the sea swam to the island; and the others arrived on shore clinging to boards and planks. There is no doubt about it; they were both cold and wet; so that nothing was more needed and more pleasant to them than a large fire.
“And received us every one.” They received us all, i.e., took us under their care. At first of course the hospitality would be shown by kind treatment on the beach, evidenced by their lighting a fire. Afterwards, they stayed for three months’ and during that time the sailors and prisoners (all 276 of them) would find quarters in the dwellings of the citizens. Paul, the centurion, and some others were received into the house of the chief magistrate.
“Because of the present rain, and because of the cold.” It was undeniably cold due to exposure to the water in getting to shore, standing in the rain drenched to the skin, and the coldness of the weather; which is a very miserable combination, especially if one is outside, tired and hungry. It was now in the month of October. They must have needed all the kindness that these kind and generous people showed them.
In some parts of Christianized Europe, the inhabitants would have congregated on the beach, and knocked the survivors on the head, so that they might convert the wreck to their own use! This barbarous people did not act in this way: they joined hands with God to make these sufferers live.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
“And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks.” The Apostle picked up some sticks—probably driftwood that washed ashore, or brushwood and furze which is said to be the only material growing near St Paul’s Bay of which a fire could be made—and made them into a bundle that he would personally put on the fire, for he did not think such an act was below him. This is further evidence of his great humility and condescension. Paul wasn’t the only one engaged in this activity because everyone was busy helping those exhausted by the long swim to the island. This is another sign of the active spirit of the Apostle. Whatever was to be done, if he were able to take part in it, he never hesitated to get involved, whether it was in consoling about a difficulty, in comforting under danger, or helping by bodily labor to relieve the general distress.
“And laid them on the fire.”In order to keep such a large fire going, fresh fuel is constantly needed and Paul immediately does what he can. Remember, he is probably just as wet, exhausted, sore and cold as everyone else. Paul was not like some modern-day preachers, who take special care not to soil their hands with menial labor, and who expects everybody to be ready to serve him, while he preserves his dignity and looks on.
“There came a viper out of the heat.” The viper was almost certainly in the bundle of sticks or limbs of trees which Paul had gathered, but was concealed, and was lethargic due to the cold weather. But when the bundle was laid on the fire, the viper became warmed by the heat. The viper that has lain motionless because of the cold now became far more active because of the heat given off by the fire. Now when this viper here is said to come out of the heat, the meaning is, that it came out from the sticks, which were laid upon the fire, being forced from hiding by the rapidly increasing heat.
Critics have accused Luke of making a mistake here seeing that there are no poisonous snakes on the island of Malta in the 20th century. Yet, this is due to the growth of human population on the island. The island now has a denser population than at any previous time, and such animals are driven away and destroyed by man as the population increases.
A “viper” is a kind of serpent, which gives birth to live baby vipers (no eggs). It could have up to twenty baby vipers, with only one born in a day. They are born wrapped up in thin skins, which break on the third day, and set them at liberty to begin life as a viper. It is said, that this remarkable reptile has the biggest and flattest head of all the serpent kind; its usual length is about half an 2ell, and its thickness is an inch; its snout is like that of a hog; it has sixteen small immovable teeth in each jaw, besides two other large, sharp, hooked, hollow, transparent, canine teeth, situate at each side of the upper jaw, which are those that do the damage: these are flexible and are ordinarily laid flat along the jaw, the animal never raising them except to bite. The roots or bases of these teeth, or fangs, are covered with a 3vesicle or bladder, containing the quantity of a large drop of a yellow insipid salivinous juice. It has only one row of teeth, whereas all other serpents have two; its body is not at all foul smelling, whereas the inner parts of the bodies of other serpents are intolerable. It creeps very slowly, and never leaps like other serpents, though it is nimble enough to bite when provoked. Its body is of two colors, ash colored or yellow, and the ground (the under belly on which it crawls) is speckled with longish brown spots; the scales under its belly are of the color of well polished steel. Its bite is exceeding venomous, and its poison the most deadly.
“And fastened on his hand.” It might have coiled around his hand and arm, or buried its fangs in his hand. It is not expressly stated that Paul was bitten by the viper, yet it is evidently implied; and it is utterly incredible that a viper, unless miraculously prevented, would fasten himself to the hand without biting.
The devil’s plan here was to destroy Paul, but he was deceived. So he desired to have Peter instead—“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat” (Luke 22:31)—but that was more than he could do.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
“And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand.”We usually apply the word “beast” to an animal much larger than a viper. It is called “venomous,” because its venom is so poisonous that it is one of the most deadly of all serpents. Though the viper fastened on Paul's hand, it does not appear that it really bit him; but those witnessing the event supposed that it had, because they saw it fasten on his hand—either by wrapping itself around it or burying its fangs into it. At least one good Bible commentator suggests that this was God’s way of turning all eyes on Paul right from the first moment on Malta.
“They said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer.”They might see he was a prisoner by the chain attached to his ankle or wrist, or might learn it from some of the ship’s company, and therefore took it for granted he had been guilty of some crime; and since the viper bit him, they concluded he was guilty of murder; for they might look at it in the same way the Jews did, that a murderer that could not be legally convicted, was sometimes punished in this way.The fact that the viper had fastened on him; and that, as they supposed, he must now certainly die, was the proof from which they inferred his guilt. They of course considered all the prisoners as convicts; and this occurrence led them to suppose that Paul had been guilty of some peculiarly atrocious crime.
Notice that these non-Christian natives are not inherently depraved. First they treated the shipwrecked victims with extraordinary kindness and secondly they had a sense of divine justice. These barbarians reasoned from great original principles... that there was a God of justice, and that the guilty (eventually) will be punished. One mistake they did make was to assume that all calamities are directly related to a specific sin in the life of the one suffering (see John 9:1-3). Some feel that by the term justice these natives mean a goddess who was called justice, the daughter of Jupiter; and it was her duty to take vengeance and to inflict punishment for crimes.