Monday, May 27, 2013

Sailing on a Pagan Ship

Today is the first day of our twenty-first week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:
  • 2 Sam 13-14; Acts 28
  • 2 Sam 15-17; Romans 1; Psalms 3, 63
  • 2 Sam 18-20; Romans 2; Psalm 34
  • 2 Sam 21-23; Romans 3; Psalm 18
  • 2 Sam 24; 1 Chr 21; Romans 4
Today, I want to focus on just one verse.  Acts 28:11 says:  "After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead."

The twin gods, Castor and Pollux
About this verse, Matthew Henry writes:
"Those little foolish pagan deities, which the poets had made to preside over storms and to protect seafaring men, as gods of the sea, were painted or graven upon the fore-part of the ship, and thence the ship took its name. I suppose this is observed for no other reason than for the better ascertaining of the story, that ship being well known by that name and sign by all that dealt between Egypt and Italy. Dr. Lightfoot thinks that Luke mentions this circumstance to intimate the men’s superstition, that they hoped they should have better sailing under this badge than they had had before."

Since Paul was a prisoner, he really had no choice as to the vessel upon which he would sail.  Sailing on a pagan ship with these pagan deities certainly would have been abhorrent to any good Jewish man.  As a "Pharisee of Pharisees," Paul must certainly have looked disdainfully upon the craft.  Yet, I pose this question:  If Paul were free to travel on any vessel he chose, would he have avoided this one?

To my knowledge, there is no Old Testament prohibition against sailing on a ship that's marked with an idol.  Yet, we do know that Jews in Biblical times would avoid entering the homes of pagans and unbelievers.  We also know that OT heroes regularly attacked idolatry, even pulling down other people's idols and destroying them.  In Acts 19:19, Paul's evangelistic efforts result in the people of Ephesus destroying their witchcraft books--no doubt, other pagan articles, including idols, were fuel for that fire.  Jewish Christians in the NT were so skittish about idolatry that they wouldn't even eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  The church at large believed that unity in the body of Christ was so important that it even encouraged Gentile believers who didn't share the same convictions about idol-meat, to avoid it for the sake of their Jewish brethren (Acts 15:19).  

Paul's stance on the matter of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols was both lenient and strict.  In 1 Corinthians 8:4, he argues, "Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”  So the meat is nothing, either.  It is simply meat.  If he wanted to, he could eat it with a clear conscience.  Yet, he says in verses 7-13:

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

So, would Paul have chosen to sail on the Castor and Pollux ship?  I suppose it depends on whether or not he had any people with him who would object to it on a religious basis.  The ship, in and of itself, would not have been a problem for Paul.  But offending a brother or sister in Christ would have been a great sin.

Can you think of an similar issues today?    Where are the areas where you can exercise your freedom in Christ--and even assert your right to do so?  On the other hand, what are the issues where you ought to give up your own freedoms, for the sake of a weaker believer?  What do you think?

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