Ever since the last Feast of Tabernacles, this phrase has been repeatedly running through my mind. Why? Because it encapsulates what God expects of us. He got on the boat anyway.
While traveling during the Feast, my wife and I and nearly 80 others attended the Feast biblical study tour in Turkey. On the tour we visited the sites of the seven cities written to in Revelation 2 and 3, plus a few other significant ancient sites.
One afternoon, a few of us took a side trip to the ancient port city of Miletus, the next large port south of the city of Ephesus along the coast of Asia Minor.
There’s not a lot to see at Miletus, since time and earthquakes have ravaged the city over the last 2,000 years. Still 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 emperor Marcus Aurelius (the Roman emperor 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. That famous battle set the stage for Octavian to become Caesar Augustus and establish a world of peace, roads, and free trade that made travel in Roman Empire possible.
The monument originally 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 of them 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 missionary journey. Now his trip was nearing its end, and he “decided to sail past Ephesus . . . for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16).
Paul knew time was tight, so he skipped Ephesus, where he had stayed for two years earlier on that same journey (Acts 19:10). No doubt he had forged many dear friendships there, and had he put into port at Ephesus he would have spent days with those friends and would not have had enough time to make it to Jerusalem for Pentecost.
So he did the next best thing. He stopped at the next major port south of Ephesus and sent word for the elders in Ephesus to come meet him there (Acts 20:17).
It had to be an emotional reunion, for they had not seen each other for months. No doubt there were tears of joy as they met there in Miletus.
But soon their joy would be replaced by other emotions, with the 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—literally—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, New Living Translation 2015).
Paul had suffered a great deal. People hated him and had tried to kill him. They would keep trying, and he knew it. And because of that fact, Paul needed 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 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 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” (Acts 20:18-25, NLT 2015).
Paul then gave them both a work and a warning. First he told them to feed and care for God’s flock entrusted to their care. Then he warned some among them would rise up to steal God’s sheep for themselves—a pattern that, tragically, has been repeated all too often within the Church of God to the shame of men who loved power more than they loved God’s beloved flock.
Guided by God’s Spirit, Paul knew 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 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 us of the words of another Teacher who had earlier gathered His friends to leave them with a last, impassioned message. This 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 in the last journey of His life as “He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He knew what lay ahead—suffering, imprisonment and death. He could’ve turned aside at any point, but He didn’t. Why? For you and me. He chose us, not Himself.
Paul, when it came time to make a choice, took the same path. He likewise knew where it would ultimately take him—to suffering, imprisonment and in the end death. He never wavered, for he knew he had been bought and paid for with a price, and his life was no longer his own (1 Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 2:20).
He got on the boat anyway
Acts 20:36-38 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 a 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. 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 who we will ultimately serve—God or ourselves. God’s Word tells us that as time grows harder and as the days grow darker, the consequences of our choices will grow ever more serious.
When the ships are down, knowing what lies ahead, will we get on the boat anyway?