When Paul’s ship was wrecked, all on board got to shore, as the Lord had revealed to Paul they would. Paul had explained this to the centurion who was in charge of the prisoners, and this man, who had certainly developed great respect for Paul during the time he had been in his custody, made sure Paul and the others were spared when the soldiers, in conformity with Roman custom, wanted to kill them lest any should escape. The text says, “He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety” (Acts 27:43-44).
When the castaways arrived on shore safely they discovered they were on the island of Malta and were pleased to find that the islanders showed them kindness. The residents built a fire and, as the stragglers came in out of the water, they tried to comfort them as best they could. Paul was not one to sit around, so he began to help out. He went around gathering sticks for the fire. Apparently in the middle of the sticks was a snake, described here as a “viper,” which had become stiff with the cold and was therefore mistaken for a stick itself. When the wood was placed by the fire, the fire warmed the snake, which then bit Paul.
The islanders, who were looking on and did not know anything about Paul except that he was one of the prisoners, jumped to an immediate conclusion and said to themselves, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live” (v. 4). However, after several minutes, when they discovered that Paul did not swell up, fall over and die, they jumped to another conclusion and assumed that he must be a god. Of course, they were wrong on both counts. They were wrong when they assumed that God (or Justice) was out to get him, and they were wrong when they assumed he was a god.
It is hard to say why people jump to conclusions, but we may remember that even the disciples of Jesus did it on one occasion. The story is told in John 9. When the disciples were leaving the temple with Jesus they saw a man who had been born blind, and they jumped to the conclusion that his affliction must have been the direct result of some sin, either sin in his life or the sin of his parents. They thought they had worked this through rather carefully and that all they needed was a little bit of divine revelation to carry them over what they could observe or figure out. Jesus explained that they were wrong in their conclusions since, in this case at least, neither explanation was valid.
I have frequently heard people do this in regard to someone else’s suffering. If something bad has come into a person’s life—if he has had an accident or there has been an untimely death or some such thing—they say, “Well, obviously, he or she has done something wrong. God must be trying to teach the person a lesson.” That may be true sometimes. That is why, when bad things come into our lives, one of the questions we have to ask is whether God is trying to teach us a lesson by it. But we need to understand that this is not necessarily the case. In the case of suffering, we must never make the easy one-to-one equation of suffering and sin.