Do you sometimes see what I do in the writings of the apostle Paul? Usually, Paul is characterized as a man of action – always moving on to a new adventure. We see him casting out demons, weathering the difficulties and dangers of the road and the sea, speaking to thousands; on a constant trek from country to country, adventure to adventure.
We often glamorize a lifestyle of adventure like that of Paul, and think of how exciting it must have been for him. Many travelers of our own day seem to be only on a constant quest for new adventures. Some may think that this also may have been a motivation for Paul because it seems that he could not stay long in one place. However, if we look closely at his writings, we see that there is something else. There is another side to Paul that we do not often realize, but that we can sometimes detect in his writings.
I think in some ways, Paul longed for some stability in his life. He told the people in the city of Corinth, “For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7 NAS). He told them that he even wanted to spend the winter. I know it is not the same thing, but my mind returns to the pleasant winter that the Lord had recently allowed us to stay on our little farm in Wisconsin. Paul wanted to settle in for a little while and not be so constantly on the move.
I hope I do not read too much into what Paul says, but I sometimes think that he simply longed for a quiet life with a family. “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife?” he asked (1 Corinthians 9:5 NAS). Many times previous to this, when I have traveled alone and have so greatly missed my lovely Vivian, I have thought of these words of Paul.
Paul, I think, had a strength that I do not. For me there has always been a homecoming, but Paul’s life was one of constant movement. It was not given to him to have a home. I do not know if I could last long without homecoming. Sometimes when I have been on the road with this ministry, I think I am just holding out until the day comes when I can go home for a while.
Instead, Paul found his stability in something else. We are mistaken if we think that we do not need a measure of stability in our lives. Endless adventure can never fulfill every inner need. In some manner, we need constancy – something upon which we can depend. A home somewhat fulfills that need. And, of course, the true Constant is God Himself. It is only through a living relationship with Him do we find stability in our life. But allow me, for a moment, to keep things at ground level.
I think we can learn a little of the priorities in the life of Paul by an event told to us in the book of Acts, chapters 19 and 20. Here Paul was on his third missionary journey, stopping in city after city, demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. One of the cities in which he stopped was the city of Ephesus, which is on the west coast of Asia Minor. However, instead of just staying for a month or two in this city, Paul stayed there about three years – the longest time he stayed in any one place in his travels. There were extraordinary things that happened in Ephesus. We are told that people even carried handkerchiefs and aprons from Paul’s body to the sick with the result that the diseases left them and evil spirits went out of them.
However, there was something else of even more significance that happened in Ephesus. There was, in the city, a small group of men there who wanted to dedicate themselves to study. They wanted to go beyond the marvelous and miraculous. They wanted to grow in the truths and the knowledge of God. Faced with such spiritual hunger, Paul stayed to teach them. They met daily in the school of Tyrannus, as it was called (no, it had nothing to do with the dinosaur).
I think they must have been very interesting classes. From the words used to describe these classes, they were not simply lectures of Paul with the student taking notes in preparation for Friday’s exam. Instead, the classroom was filled with discussion and reasoning. They reached conclusions together with Paul as the teacher and the Scripture as their guide. The pastoral training classes with which I had been involved for many years in establishing in Latin America and now in the Pacific are designed to have much the same atmosphere. I cannot help to think that what we helped start in these classes is somewhat the same as the school of Tyrannus. I certainly hope that this is true.
After his years at Ephesus, Paul moved on to continue his journey. He made a wide swing throughout the region and then determined that he would return to Jerusalem. Paul was very goal-orientated and a little more driven than most. He felt that he could not spare the time to travel through Ephesus on his way. He wanted to be in Jerusalem for the day of Pentecost, if he could.
Nevertheless, neither could he pass by Ephesus without seeing his friends. He knew that if he went into the city that he would be too long delayed. Instead, he stayed at the coastal town of Miletus and called for his former students to come to see him. Paul loved these people. There was yet more that he wanted to establish in them that their faith would remain strong. It was a joyful reunion, but when the time came, it was a very difficult parting. They all thought that it may very well be the last time that they would see one another.
The account of their meeting at Miletus is recorded for us in Acts 20: 17-38. When they had all gathered together for this reunion, Paul begins by speaking to his friends and reminiscing with them about their time together:
You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials, which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:18-21 NAS).
Much that is hidden to us in the words of Paul was not hidden to those who knew Paul. His words brought many remembrances to the people present with him that day in that costal town. We know of some of their experiences together in Ephesus, some of the trials, some of the “plots” of the Jews, but we are like an in-law at the reunion of his spouse’s family. We may be able to identify a little with the “inside” family stories and jokes, but not having grown up with the family, much of it remains outside of our experience.
So it is with us in this reunion at Miletus. When Paul and the others present laughed at some experience they had, we may have laughed, but we may have only done so to be polite. When the people there felt tears welling up in their eyes over some trial that even at that time was very difficult, our eyes may very well have been dry. Had we been present at the actual reunion of Paul and his friends, we may have caught some more of the meaning in what was said, but this was mostly their private time. These were their memories.
After reminiscing for a few minutes, Paul goes on to tell his friends the purpose of the meeting:
And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20: 23-24 NAS).
Paul knows that “bonds and afflictions” await him. A few days after this time at Miletus, Paul would be on his journey to Jerusalem. As he would pass through Caesarea, a prophet named Agabus would take Paul’s belt and bind his own hands and feet and say this, “In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11 NAS).
This prophecy was no new revelation to Paul. He already knew what awaited him. As point of fact, he knew it from the beginning. When Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, the Lord sent a man named Ananias to heal him. The message that God gave to Ananias concerning Paul was that “He (Paul), is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My Name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16 NAS).
Paul knew what his end would be and he knew that he was now at the threshold of that final chapter in his life. How much nicer it would be to stay with his friends in Ephesus! Certainly they also faced afflictions there, as they had just remembered. But they were together! They were there for one another to strengthen and uphold one another.
It is perhaps a dangerous thing to try to attribute thoughts to Paul at this time, but if I had been in Paul’s position, I would have longed to delay my farewell. I would long instead to say those happy words that Paul had told them as he left from his first visit to their city, “I will return to you again, if God wills” (Acts 18:21). This time, he knew it was not to be.
And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more (Acts 20:25 NAS).
Paul then goes on to give advice and counsel to his friends. He warns them that after his departure “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
To those who were his students in the school of Tyrannus, he said,
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood... And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified... In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:28-35 NAS).
More was said. They talked further of their time together and remembered some lessons that they had learned. Then the moment came – the moment that they had all tried to keep out of their minds the whole time.
When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they were accompanying him to the ship (Acts 20:36-38 NAS).
So it was that Paul left his friends. He boarded his ship and ran a “strait course” to the island of Cos, then to Rhodes, and onwards toward Jerusalem. Only our imagination can put us into Paul’s thoughts as he stood on the deck of the ship as it sailed from Miletus – his friends on the dock and the shore waving and yelling their last good-byes – and he, waving and perhaps shouting some farewells. Who among us would choose adventure at a time like this? Would we not all, if the choice were completely ours to make, stay and settle down with our friends?
This, I think, was the inner tension of Paul. Yet, he continued on. He did not know exactly what would happen to him in Jerusalem, only that “bonds and afflictions” awaited him. But then again; he was already bound. He was bound in Spirit, as he said (v.22).
Later on his way to Jerusalem, in Caesarea, where the prophet Agabus gave his prediction of the binding, the local residents as well as Paul’s own traveling companions begged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
“What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart,” Paul said. “For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13 NAS).
Was Paul’s motivation, like many today, to live a life filled with adventures? I do not think so. One soon tires of adventure. Were Paul’s motivation adventure, I think he would have ceased after only one journey. Yet he said that he had been on “frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers in the wilderness, dangers in the sea, dangers among false brethren; [he had] been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:26-27 NAS).
What motivated Paul was that which he imparted to the people whom he got to know and call his friends. Even more so, what motivated Paul was the call of God.
This then, must also be the motivation for every servant of God. The opiate of adventure is romanticized by Hollywood films, yet truth be told, adventure for its own sake does not make for a life that is truly fulfilling. Like any obsession or addiction, it takes greater amounts to gain satisfaction, and the results are increasingly short-lived.
As enigmatic as it may sound and may seem, that which fulfills can only be a life bound in service. This was true in the life of Paul.
“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me” – the Apostle Paul (Philippians 2: 17-18).