He Got on the Boat Anyway

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He Got on the Boat Anyway

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He got on the boat anyway. Over the last year that phrase has been repeatedly running through my mind. Why? Because it so encapsulates what God expects of us.

A year ago my wife and I and nearly 80 others were blessed to be able to tour a number of biblical sites in Turkey, including the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. One afternoon, a few of us took a side trip to the ruins of the city of Miletus, the next large ancient port south of the city of Ephesus along the west coast of Asia Minor.

Life is about choices. Perhaps none is so great as whom we will ultimately serve—God or ourselves. And God’s Word tells us that as times grow harder and as the days grow darker, the consequences of our choices will grow ever more serious. 

There’s not a lot to see at Miletus, since the city has been ravaged by time and earthquakes over the last 2,000 years. Most notable are a nicely preserved Greco-Roman theater, an enormous bath complex built in the late second century with funds donated by the wife of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (the emperor at the beginning of the movie Gladiator ), and the remains of a monument commemorating the victory of Octavian over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., which set the stage for Octavian to become Caesar Augustus and set the Roman Empire on its path to greatness.

The monument stood at the head of the primary harbor of Miletus, and a main street ran from there into the heart of the city. As our small group stood at that spot and tried to envision what the ancient harbor would’ve looked like, a thought struck me: The apostle Paul would’ve walked within a few yards of this very spot.

I’ve been to a number of cities that Paul visited—Jerusalem, Rome, Ephesus, Caesarea Maritima and Puteoli—but none had the emotional impact of standing on this spot in Miletus. Why? Because of what happened here and the example it leaves for us.

Paul’s visit to Miletus

Paul’s visit to Miletus took place near the end of his third and final recorded journey. As his trip was nearing its end, he “decided to sail past Ephesus … for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16 Acts 20:16For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hurried, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.
American King James Version×
).   

Because time was tight, Paul bypassed Ephesus, where he had stayed for two years earlier on that same journey (Acts 19:10 Acts 19:10And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelled in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
American King James Version×
). No doubt he had forged many dear friendships in Ephesus, and had he put into port there he would’ve spent days with those friends and wouldn’t have had enough time to make it to Jerusalem for the Holy Day of Pentecost.

So he did the next best thing. He stopped at the next major port south of Ephesus and sent word for the Ephesian elders to come meet him there (Acts 20:17 Acts 20:17And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.
American King James Version×
).

It had to be an emotional reunion, for they hadn’t seen each other for months. No doubt tears of joy were shed as they met there in Miletus. But these would soon be replaced by tears of deep sorrow.

The suffering of a servant

Paul’s path since his miraculous conversion more than 20 years earlier had not been an easy one. He had gone through the school of hard knocks and graduated, then gone back for more. Having grown tired of having to defend himself against enemies and false ministers who had boasted about how great they were in comparison to him, Paul let his record speak for itself:

“I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea.

“I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers … I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.

“I have worked long and hard, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which comes on me daily, the care of all the churches.
American King James Version×
, New Living Translation).

Paul had suffered a great deal. People hated him and had tried to kill him for the message he taught. They would keep trying, and he knew it. He also knew that division and apostasy would come after he was gone. So Paul felt compelled to leave these elders a sobering message.

Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders

That sobering message echoed in my mind as I stood there at the harbor of Miletus and thought about Paul’s last meeting with his fellow workers and friends. I reflected on his last words to them:

“You know that from the day I set foot in the province of Asia [in western Turkey] until now I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears … I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Gentiles [or other nationalities] alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.

“And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God. And now I know that none of you to whom I have preached the Kingdom will ever see me again”— that is, until that Kingdom comes (Acts 20:18-25 Acts 20:18-25 18 And when they were come to him, he said to them, You know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, 19 Serving the LORD with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: 20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable to you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, 21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: 23 Save that the Holy Ghost witnesses in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. 24 But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear to myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more.
American King James Version×
, NLT, emphasis added).

His words to them were both shocking and sobering. Paul then gave them both a work and a warning, telling them to feed and care for God’s flock entrusted to their care and warning that some among them would rise up to steal God’s sheep for themselves—a pattern that, tragically, has been repeated all too often over the years to the shame of men who loved power more than they loved God’s beloved flock.

Through God’s Spirit, Paul knew that his time of serving God as he had was nearing an end. Instead of being able to freely travel and teach God’s Word, suffering and imprisonment now awaited him. And he knew that in all likelihood he would never see these dear friends again.

Echoes of One who had gone before

In many ways Paul’s words to his friends at Miletus remind me of the words of another Rabbi who had earlier gathered His friends to leave them with a last, impassioned message. That had taken place in Jerusalem, where Paul would now go to meet his fate as he followed in the footsteps of His Master.

Life is all about choices. Jesus of Nazareth faced many choices during that last journey of His life as “He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 Luke 9:51And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,
American King James Version×
). Christ knew what lay ahead—suffering, imprisonment and death. He could’ve turned aside at any point, but He didn’t. Why? To fulfill His Father’s will, following the desire They both shared of eternal life for you and me. Jesus chose others, not Himself.

Paul, when it came time to make a choice, took the same path. He likewise knew where it would ultimately lead him—to suffering, imprisonment, and in the end, death. He never wavered, for he knew that he had been bought and paid for with a price, and that his life was no longer his own (1 Corinthians 6:20 1 Corinthians 6:20For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
American King James Version×
; Galatians 2:20 Galatians 2:20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
American King James Version×
).

He got on the boat anyway

Acts 20:36-38 Acts 20:36-38 36 And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. 37 And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him, 38 Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.
American King James Version×
records the end of Paul’s visit with his beloved friends at Miletus: “And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.”

It’s a deeply moving and heartbreaking scene, one that in many ways sums up the life of that deeply motivated and converted man. Knowing what lay ahead, he got on the boat anyway.

He could’ve turned around. He could’ve gone with them back to Ephesus and continued his work there. The whole of Asia Minor lay before him, where he could’ve gone anywhere. But he didn’t. Paul followed the example of Jesus Christ, who took that final, fatal trip to Jerusalem anyway, knowing the price He would pay.

Life is about choices. Perhaps none is so great as whom we will ultimately serve—God or ourselves. And God’s Word tells us that as times grow harder and as the days grow darker, the consequences of our choices will grow ever more serious.

When the chips are down, knowing what lies ahead, will we have what it takes to get on the boat anyway?