When they had been brought safely through, then we found out that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us extraordinary kindness; for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold, they kindled a fire and received us all. 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 itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, “Undoubtedly this man is a 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. (Acts28:1-6)

The Lord had made it clear to Paul that after Jerusalem, Rome was his most important port of call – it was to be the focus of the apostle’s future ministry (next post). After another adventurous sea journey ending in shipwreck, Paul and his party arrive in Malta. Luke narrates that the native people showed them “extraordinary kindness”. That was in stark contrast to the kind of welcome he had received from many of his Jewish compatriots and in the context of recent posts is another example of common grace and natural theology. The former is indicated by the Maltese people’s kindness, the latter by their reaction to Paul’s misadventure with a venomous snake who fastened itself to the apostle’s hand (v3). It led the native people to believe Paul must be a murderer or suchlike: “justice has not allowed him to live” (v4). But whose justice one might ask? It could only be that of a higher being or the outworking of some universal law which in turn must indicate the existence of a higher power or force.

Likewise, the natives recognized that murder is wrong, should be punished and ultimately will be punished: “what goes around comes around” might have been stated in modern parlance. This is a typical trait of those who possess a moral compass and a right sense of justice, which with the early fathers I am asserting is the majority of people regardless of whether or not they have responded to the gospel. Such people are “of God” but being ignorant of the gospel and its Hero they will not know God in any personal sense. Some readers will regard such awareness as mere superstition – but it is a far better predisposition than that of those who reject or willfully rebel against the sense of justice that, whether people know it or not, has been provided to them through the spiritually derived faculty of conscience. [It should be noted from Scripture (e.g. Heb9:14) that, unlike any other organ or bodily faculty, the state of the conscience directly affects our relationship with God]. Those who consistently do rebel against such natural precepts are in a category of their own, examined in detail in part six of The Little Book of providence** – the chapter entitled “Children of the Devil”.

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