“28:1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people  showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice  has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly,  and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.” (Acts 28:1-10 (ESV)
So Paul ends up converting the island of Malta. The ESV translates Luke’s “barbarians” as native people. In Greek a Barbarian was simply a person who didn’t speak Greek. Here they still spoke a Phoenician dialect closely related to Arabic, as was pointed out last week the inhabitants of Malta are still strongly anchored in Catholicism, and their word for God is Allah.
The conversion begins with Paul getting bit by a snake. Today there aren’t any poisonous snakes on Malta, but we have no idea what may have been there at the time. The people recognized the snake as being poisonous and we have no reason to doubt that it was. The island is actually closer to the coast of North Africa than it is to Italy, and there has historically been a lot of trade between Malta and the rest of the Mediterranean, any number of snakes could have found their way to the island through such trade, or have been natural inhabitants that later died out from the island.
In any case, the people thought for sure that Paul would die. But he doesn’t. This always brings to mind for me passages like Mark 16. That the disciples would be bit by snakes, and not be harmed was something that Jesus had alluded to during their first missionary journeys also. And though there is much reason to believe that Jesus was speaking figuratively of spiritual matters, there is also this sort of concrete fulfillment of it. Missionaries to this day, as well as faithful pastors, can relate many similar instances when death seemed imminent and yet was overcome. Though my dad ended up going to a hospital for treatment, I still remember when he was stung by a scorpion gathering firewood in Botswana, and not realizing it had let venom work its way quite perilously into his system before life saving measures were taken. There was something of chance related to him getting the medical attention he needed in time, and the rest of us were quite thankful for his survival. To see a fulfilment of Mark 16 in such things makes much more sense than the practice of putting God to the test while visiting the Ozarks. You don’t see Paul here doing any sort of “snake handling”. He throws the snake into the fire is what he does. He doesn’t seem to have been a St. Francis in the making.
When Paul doesn’t die the people go from believing he is a criminal to believing he is a god, which in ancient thought didn’t necessarily rule out being a criminal…. But here you see a religious mindset common to all strata of class in antiquity. It was largely the gospel that did away with what today we would call superstition. But as society is doing away with the gospel as “the last of the superstitions,” it seems superstitions of this type are coming in to fill the void again. Today, people are spiritual not religious. And that isn’t just a pick up line. It’s an actual description of society, where Christianity is seen as superstition, but palm reading, horroscopes, crystal healing and so forth are accepted more and more. The Maltese seemed very eager to do away with such superstition in favor of Christianity.