A few weeks ago my wife and I returned from an adventurous trip to Turkey. We were on a journey to experience the events and places of the New Testament. All we needed was our Lonely Planet book and our GPS.
Among the many stops on our itinerary was the ancient port city of Patara. Acts 21 tells us that Paul and Luke stopped there to change ships on their third missionary journey. Among the city’s ruins, the 5,000 seat amphitheater teases the imagination. There’s also a complex of Roman baths, a cistern, a colonnaded market, a parliament building, and the scant remains of the Temple of Apollo.
Yet, with much of the city still buried in the shifting sands, Patara remains mostly undiscovered. The thing that caught my attention was the remains of an ancient lighthouse just recently unearthed.
Archaeologists have concluded that this lighthouse was built between A.D. 64 and 65. While roaming through the scattered stones, I saw an inscription bearing the name of the man who commissioned it––Emperor Nero.
That inscription immediately brought to my mind those two men: the emperor Nero and the apostle Paul.
I was struck by the significance of the legacy that they left behind. These two men, though living at the same time were, in life and character, an eternity apart.
The dates from the inscription rang familiar to me because at that same time, hundreds of miles away in Rome, Paul sat in a dungeon awaiting execution under Nero.
Nero had reached “the height of earthly power, authority, and wealth.”1 His name “made the world tremble” and “his frown was more to be dreaded than a pestilence.”2 He was the personification of selfishness. The shocking details of his life are too many to mention here. The most significant of Nero’s experiences was when he came in contact with Paul. The scenes of Paul’s last trial before Nero reveal the true nature of these two men.
Standing before the emperor was the aged apostle. There was a mysterious sense of peace on his face. He was not intimidated by all the pomp of Rome. Even the glory of the mightiest empire on earth was nothing compared to “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
These two men, though living at the same time were, in life and character, an eternity apart.
Paul’s life was an example of self-sacrificing service on behalf of others. Keeping his “conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16, NIV) was the secret to his boldness. It was love for the kingdom of Jesus––not wealth or earthly power––that enabled him to bear witness to the gospel during the last trial of his life. Paul had the opportunity to preach before Nero and his court. Ellen White writes:
“The people and the judges looked at him in surprise. They had been present at many trials and had looked upon many a criminal, but never had they seen a man wear a look of such holy calmness as did the prisoner before them. The keen eyes of the judges, accustomed to read the countenances of prisoners, searched Paul’s face in vain for some evidence of guilt. When he was permitted to speak in his own behalf, all listened with eager interest” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 494).
The words that he spoke on that day “were destined to shake nations and to live through all time” in the hearts of men and women.3 But eventually, after Nero had spent more time with his tortured conscience and wrestling with Paul’s compelling testimony, Paul would be led to the execution chamber for his beheading.
Only a few soldiers were allowed to witness Paul’s martyrdom (for fear of his influence). And even those hardened warriors were amazed at the aura that surrounded him. “More than one accepted the Savior whom Paul preached, and erelong fearlessly sealed their faith with their blood.”4 That’s the power of a Spirit-filled life. Even those Roman soldiers were drawn both to him and his message and eventually followed his example.
The legacy of Nero, on the other hand, is pitiful.
Shortly after the scenes of Paul’s trial, Nero, at the age of 32, was fleeing from his own people and terrified for his life. The consequences of a life of selfishness had caught up to him. Afraid of being captured, he attempted suicide but lacked the courage to go through with it. Finally, he asked his slave to stab him in the neck. And that was the end of Nero.
But Nero’s greatest tragedy occurred after his death. He was so hated that the Romans pulled down all his statues and monuments as the succeeding emperor sought to remove his memory from Rome.
So there I was on the southern coast of Turkey, daydreaming in front of the few remaining traces of Nero’s name. He sought to preserve the memory of his life by chiseling his name on stones.
I walked away from those ruins thinking of Paul. His memory lives on. His legacy is engraved, not on stones, but in the hearts of men and women throughout history who have been inspired by his life. May we all strive to live, day by day, lives of self-sacrificing service for others. May our love for the Kingdom of Jesus eclipse all the vanity of earthly glory.
And may our dedication touch the hearts of those around us so that “those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
1Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 493
3Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 495
4Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 510