Two thousand years ago a shipwreck of extraordinary importance to human history happened. 276 souls survived the total loss of the ship and its cargo, but that is not what made it so great. Nor was it even the fact that among them were several key disciples of the first-century church, Paul and Luke. Between them, they wrote much of the New Testament. The importance to history lies rather in what they wrote about the “unusual kindness” of the natives. Their divinely inspired choice of words tells the wonderful story of how God and men relate at the level of conscience.1
How these barbarians2 of the island of Malta helped the shipwreck survivors tells us something revolutionary about the high esteem in which God holds men who do right. It is only revolutionary because you cannot find this same “high esteem” for men of conscience in all of Christian history and theology. Let’s learn to view these extraordinary men as Paul and Luke did — these “barbarians” who gave them and all the other 274 survivors much more than a cup of cold water to drink.3 As the Savior Himself said, each of these men “shall by no means lose his reward!”
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” (Acts 28:1-4)
The noteworthy thing about these “barbarians” was that they were still led by the knowledge of good and evil within them. God gave this knowledge to all men in their conscience after the Fall.4 It was their safeguard from moral corruption. Another name for this knowledge is the natural law. Those who live by it, Paul said in Romans, do “by nature the things in the law.” According to his gospel, they are therefore “a law to themselves,” justified as “doers of the law.”5
Of course, those who do not do what conscience demands are condemned by this same law, whether they have ever heard of the Law of Moses or the New Covenant or not. They pushed past the restraints of conscience to ignore the sufferings of their fellow man and to do the things they knew to be wrong.
We know by two things that the natives of Malta did by nature the things of the law: They showed kindness to the needy, and they had the certain knowledge that “Justice” would not allow a murderer to live. When they saw Paul happen to be attacked by a venomous snake after he had survived the perilous sea, they thought he must be a murderer. “Justice has not allowed him to live,” they said to themselves.
Truly, their consciences agreed with the judgment of God, which requires the death of a murderer:
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Genesis 9:5-6)
As Paul wrote in Romans 2:15, such men as these “show the work of the law written in their hearts.” Their actions and their words speak together and loudly. They see in mankind the image of God worth preserving. If a man were to escape the proper vengeance of men for taking a human life, he would not escape the vindictive justice of God.
Also, the kindness shown them was very unusual compared to the kindness Paul and Luke had received elsewhere. You could say that it far exceeded what the “civilized” inhabitants of the Roman Empire had shown them. Luke’s choice of words is striking. He uses the Greek word that the modern word philanthropy comes from, the root of which is the word for brotherly love. The barbarians of Malta were benevolent, kind, and loved others — even the stranger. This is according to the natural law that God placed in the heart of every man. It is how men of good conscience have ever behaved in every culture and in every time according to the knowledge of good and evil they have.
The natives of Malta were hospitable not just in the moment of dire need by expertly building a fire in the rain for the soaked and chilled survivors. They provided for their needs until they could take care of themselves again, and when they resumed their sea voyage, “they put on board whatever we needed.” (Acts 28:10)
How great was their kindness! “Unusual kindness” indeed! Taking such thought of others is the love God shows to man through man as they represent His likeness to one another. Paul uses this same word for kindness in describing the special love of God for mankind in sending His Son:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared… (Titus 3:4)
Loving kindness in this verse is the same Greek word translated kindness in Acts 28:2. Surely, the gift of God’s Son is the greatest expression of this love for man. But this same kind of love still resides in the hearts of men to varying degrees according to the state of their conscience. Obviously, it resided in the hearts of these special men of Malta to a great degree. Evidently Luke did not consider these unchurched “barbarians” to be depraved and incapable of doing good, as Calvin would have us believe.
As Paul said in Romans 2, some men’s consciences accuse them for their evil deeds, and others acquit them:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:14-16)
The evidence documented by Luke is that these unsaved men of Malta had and showed the love and kindness which even an unregenerate man can have if he carefully guards the image of God he was born with by keeping a good conscience. Indeed, showing such love as they did to their fellow man is proof that they live according to the covenant of conscience given all men at the Fall. The first book of the Bible records this covenant in Genesis 3:16-19, which God added to in Genesis 9:1-7. Isaiah the prophet calls this the “everlasting covenant” in Isaiah 24:5-6.
According to Paul’s gospel, even though their consciences do accuse them for their shortcomings and sins, such men are clearly “justified as keepers of the law.” The law written on their hearts was certainly the only law these “barbarians” of Malta had, yet they would be rewarded according to the Savior’s gospel (the same as Paul’s, by the way) for simply doing good deeds, as He said in John 5:28-29. But these men had even more in store for them by their kindness to disciples. They had transferred over to the special class of men at the judgment, those who “were kind to these brothers of Mine.”
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?”
The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Of course, if any of them received the gospel from Paul and Luke, were baptized, and somehow formed a community of the Redeemed, they would have an even greater reward as awaits the holy, that is, Messiah’s brothers. That is sure. But it is equally sure that all those who didn’t, who merely loved and were kind, helping “these brothers of Mine,” will not lose their reward, even the eternal kingdom prepared for them.
Matthew 25:34 is the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham and his seed, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, that God would bless all those who blessed them. And as Paul wrote in Romans 11, God can not revoke His gifts and calling.6
Were the natives idolaters who worshipped false gods? If “Justice” were a goddess, as some translators imply by capitalizing the word, their concept certainly represented what a god should be to those groping to know the true God.7 These men had the natural, instinctive law of God on their hearts, and even more, they practiced what they knew to be right. They walked humbly and justly before God, loving mercy, but knowing God to be just and an avenger of innocent blood. They knew that God, whoever He was, would be Justice and Mercy.
They had the sensitivity to honor God’s special and chosen emissaries. In return for all their kindness, Paul healed many of the sick among them, beginning with the father of the chief man of the island, the Roman governor, Publius.8 The compassion of God was released on them in a special way, much as it had in far different circumstances on the people of Nineveh when Jonah the prophet visited them.
The names of such men will be found written in the Book of Life when all men are judged according to their works.9 How could such unusual kindness go unrewarded?