Acts 27: A Metaphor for Building Zion

Luke is an eyewitness of the amazing 2,000 mile sea voyage that Paul takes to Rome. Paul’s friend Aristarchus (Acts 27:2) accompanies Paul and Luke on this journey. The fact that Paul’s guard Julius allows Paul to take liberty while on shore at Sidon tells us that Paul was trusted to return to the ship (Acts 27:3).

The progress of the ship as it hits the storm and eventually disintegrates has many applications in our lives. Initially Paul tells those in charge that with winter fast approaching, it would be wise to put the ship in harbor until spring. The fast mentioned in Acts 27:9 is the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. After this date, between September and October of each year, the waters were unsafe for travel until the weather calmed down in early spring. Paul’s warning went unheeded, and so they continued on their way.

A great storm arises with what Luke calls “a tempestuous wind” (Acts 27:14). The ship was towing a rescue lifeboat of sorts (Acts 27:16).  The lifeboat was interfering with the progress of the ship, making it challenging for the sailors to steer the ship where they wanted it to go.  The sailors “with much work” (Acts 27:16) hoisted the lifeboat up out of the ocean. They then proceeded to pass ropes or chains under the ship to help hold it together (“they used helps” – Acts 27:17).  Imagine the scene! You are surrounded by tempestuous seas, tossed for days, with the ship you cling to for life being held together by rope! The next day the sailors began to throw tackling out of the ship to keep it from sinking (Acts 27:19).

Luke records, “neither sun nor starts in many days appeared, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (Acts 27:20). All hope lost! All is darkness! It is at this moment when our heroes would be tempted to abandon themselves to destruction.

In the midst of this darkness, we gain prophetic insight. Paul says to the frightened men on the ship, “I exhort you to be of good cheer; for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve. Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (Acts 27:22-25).

For fourteen days and nights they struggle. The sailors believe that they are approaching land and use a sounding line to test the depths. Twenty fathoms is about 120 feet, fifteen fathoms is about 90 feet (Acts 27:28). At this point the sailors cast their anchors off the ship (Acts 28:29), and desire to leave the ship in the lifeboat (Acts 27:30). Paul tells everyone that they need to stick together- if the sailors leave, they will not make it. So they then ditch the lifeboat (Acts 27:32). Paul again tells everyone on board that they will live (Acts 27:34).

Everyone on board is continually throwing items off of the ship. From the tackling (verse 19) to the anchors (29), to the lifeboat (32), and finally their food (38). Everything that can sustain life is cast away. Initially I looked at this as a necessity, something that made sense in light of their dire circumstances. While this is true, I believe that there is a deeper meaning to this account of Paul’s life.

This is a story of building Zion. To make it to Zion, we must follow the counsel of our prophet. Just like the sailors on the ship had a choice: whether to heed Paul’s counsel or not, so too must we make a choice. To build Zion, we need to let go of all things telestial, all the things that we think are important must take a second place standing to our love for the Savior. When all 276 men make it alive on shore, all that they have is each other. All the “things” that they thought were so important were cast aside. Teenagers can relate with this. Somehow, some way, the Lord will have a Zion people, and a Zion people will know how to relinquish their tight grip on the things of this world.

As the ship hits bottom (Acts 27:41) it starts to break into pieces, forcing everyone to abandon ship. Some can swim to safety, others cling to whatever they can to float to shore. They survive, forever changed by the experience. I assume Paul will use this adventure as his faith in the Lord increases- he knows where safety lies, where his trust should be placed. The metaphors abound. The comparisons are commanding. Some questions to consider and principles to emphasize are:

1. What does the boat represent? The idea that the boat could represent our family is a theme that comes up in the Old Testament as well as in two accounts in the Book of Mormon text. This ship can also be symbolic of our commitments, or our covenants. The ship is “bound”, or tied together to keep it from sinking. We too, like the ship, like our families, are tied to the Savior. None of us are perfect, in fact, we may resemble the ship more than we care to think!

2. There are circumstances in the story where certain individuals first reaction is to leave the ship. Why? How are we like these men?

3. What does the storm represent?

4. Why the progression of abandoning all their necessities? What do these things represent? How are “things” an obstacle to building Zion?

5. What evidence in this story do you see that God is mindful of Paul? Of the soldiers?

6. I love how the Lord through Paul tells us to “Be of good cheer” amidst incredible affliction. I believe that as we pass through the incredible trials which the world will face in the upcoming years that a main theme the prophets will emphasize is the importance of having a good attitude. We learn that amidst the conflicts leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ that the saints will build Zion. We read that Zion “shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another” (D&C 45:69).

7. God will get you to Rome. This is a continuation of the theme in Acts 23:11. Paul knew he would not die, that he would make it to Rome. Trust the Lord that he will accomplish his designs for us as we faithfully follow him. Our mission here on earth will be worked out provided we follow prophetic direction.

8. We are never alone. Paul had at least two dear friends in Luke and  Aristarchus on board the ship. I believe Julius, even though he was a centurion, was also a friend to Paul. God will never abandon us. Even when Joseph Smith was in Liberty Jail, he was among dear friends. He was not alone at Carthage. God will never abandon us.

Be of Good Cheer

Paul’s attitude during this experience is truly inspiring. I find that the more I read of his experiences, the more I want to be like him. I wanted to share some excellent quotes that relate to the Lord’s command that we have a good attitude. While I have had many heartrending experiences in my life, I have found that in my deepest distress the tendency to want to crack a joke to lighten everyone’s mood. Morale matters. Even when we are in great emotional or physical pain, it helps to have a good attitude. I believe that Jesus Christ has a great sense of humor. I know he is a buoyant character because that is how I feel when I have his spirit with me.

  1. Jeffrey R. Holland:

Elder Holland“We all ought to be concerned about a problem that is universal and that can, at any given hour, strike anyone anywhere.  I believe it is a form of evil.  At least I know it can have damaging effects that block our growth, dampen our spirits, diminish our hopes, and leave us vulnerable to other more conspicuous evils.  I know of nothing that Satan uses quite so cunningly or cleverly in his work…I speak of doubt (especially self-doubt), of discouragement, and of despair.” 1

“It would seem that discouragement, depression, and despair are our contemporary ‘Black Plague’.” 2

Elder Richard G. Scott:

“Satan can have no influence over a righteous person unless that person yields to temptation or allows fear to overcome faith.” 3

C.S. Lewis:

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’  I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night…’   In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.  Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented…It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty…“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things- praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends…not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.” 4

President Howard W. Hunter:

“Despair, doom, and discouragement are not acceptable views of life for a Latter-day Saint…I want you to know that there have always been some difficulties in mortal life, and there always will be.  But knowing what we know, and living as we are supposed to live, there really is no place, no excuse, for pessimism and despair…So I hope you won’t believe all the world’s difficulties have been wedged into your decade, or that things have never been worse than they are for you personally, or that they will never get better.  I reassure you that things have been worse and they will always get better…  “Here are some actual comments that have been passed on to me in recent months:  This comes from a fine returned missionary: ‘Why should I date and get serious with a girl?  I am not sure I even want to marry and bring a family into this kind of a world.  I am not very sure about my own future…’  “Here’s another from a high school student: ‘I hope I die before all these terrible things happen that people are talking about.  I don’t want to be on the earth when there is so much trouble.’  “This from a recent college graduate: ‘I am doing the best I can, but I wonder if there is much reason to even plan for the future, let alone retirement.  The world probably won’t last that long, anyway.’

“Well, my, my, my.  Isn’t that a fine view of things.  Sounds like we all ought to go eat a big plate of worms.  Contrary to what some might say, you have every reason in this world to be happy and to be optimistic and to be confident.” 5

President Gordon B. Hinckley:

“We will not become perfect in a day or a month or a year.  We will not accomplish it in a lifetime, but we can begin now, starting with our more obvious weaknesses and gradually converting them to strengths as we go forward with our lives.” 6

Lowell Bennion:

“To have God as the personification of the good life and to emulate Jesus Christ as an ideal is one thing and altogether wholesome, but to hold oneself to their state of perfection is, it seems to me, an unwise goal.  Why?  “The first problem we encounter in seeking ultimate perfection here and now is know what perfection is…We do not see as God sees, feel as he feels, thing as he things, create as he creates, love as he loves.  How can we, from our mortal perspective, fully understand the mind and character of God?…Man’s idea of perfection will always be imperfect, limited by his thinking…  “A second danger in pursuing our vision of absolute perfection is that it lays us open for repeated failure…In my experience with people in depression, it is often caused by their having set expectations that were too high for themselves and then falling short of their unrealistic goals…  “A third difficulty in pursuing perfection is the chance that we might think we have arrived…  “A fourth difficulty that may arise in our pursuit of perfection is undue preoccupation with self…I once had a student, a college freshman- bright, conscientious, idealistic- whose chief concern was the perfecting of himself.  He kept elaborate records in large, well-organized looseleaf notebooks of his every thought, feeling, word, and deed.  In fact, he spent most of his time keeping track of himself.  His life became self-centered, and quite the antithesis to the Savior’s wisdom (see Mark 8:35).” 7

Patricia T. Holland:

Patricia T. Holland

Patricia T. Holland

“Our Father in Heaven needs us as we are, as we are growing to become.  He has intentionally made us different from one another so that even with our imperfections we can fulfill his purposes.  My greatest misery comes when I feel I have to fit what others are doing, or what I think others expect of me.  I am most happy when I am comfortable being me and trying to do what my Father in heaven and I expect me to be.  “For many years I tried to measure the oft times quiet, reflective, thoughtful Pat Holland against the robust, bubbly, talkative, and energetic Jeff Holland and others with like qualities.  I have learned through several fatiguing failures that you can’t have joy in being bubbly if you are not a bubbly person.  It is a contradiction of terms.  I have given up seeing myself as a flawed person because my energy level is lower than Jeff’s, and I don’t talk as much as he does, nor as fast.  Giving this up has freed me to embrace and rejoice in my own manner and personality in the measure of my creation.  Ironically, that has allowed me to admire and enjoy Jeff’s ebullience even more.

“Somewhere, somehow the Lord ‘blipped the message unto my screen’ that my personality was created to fit precisely the mission and talents he gave me.  For example, the quieter, calmer talent of playing the piano reveals much about the real Pat Holland.  I would never have learned to play the piano if I hadn’t enjoyed the long hours of solitude required for its development.  This same principle applies to my love of writing, reading, meditation, and especially teaching and talking with children.  Miraculously, I have found that I have untold abundant sources of energy to be myself.  But the moment I indulge in imitation of my neighbor, I feel fractured and fatigued and find myself forever swimming upstream.  When we frustrate God’s plan for us, we deprive this world and God’s kingdom of our unique contributions, and a serious schism settles in our soul.  God never gave us any task beyond our ability to accomplish it.  We just have to be willing to do it our own way.  We will always have enough resources for being who we are and what we can become.” 8


1. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, However Long and Hard the Road, p. 1

2. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, General Conference, October 1993

3. Elder Richard G. Scott, BYU address, 12 September 1999

4. C.S. Lewis, The Quotable Lewis, p. 606

5. President Howard W. Hunter, Ensign, October 1993, p. 70

6.  President Gordon B. Hinckley, BYU devotional address, 10 November 1998

7. Lowell Bennion, I Believe, pp. 54-55

8.  Pat Holland, LDS Women’s Treasury: Insights and Inspiration for Today’s Woman, p. 104

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
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