On February 19, 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez set sail for Mexico with a fleet of 11 ships and 553 soldiers. The indigenous population in the Yucatan Peninsula upon his arrival was approximately 5 million. From a purely mathematical standpoint, the odds were stacked against Cortez by a ratio of 7,541 to one.
This daring undertaking was made even more insurmountable by the fact that for more than 600 years, conquerors with far more resources at their disposal who attempted to colonize the Yucatan Peninsula, never succeeded. What Cortez is reported to have done next is an epic tale of courageous proportions. He issued a three-word order to his men that turned his mission into an all-or-nothing proposition—burn the boats!
It was a decision that should have backfired. For if Cortés and his men were on the brink of defeat, there wasn’t an exit strategy in place to save their lives. Remarkably though, the command to burn the boats had an opposite effect on his men because now, they were left with only two choices — die or fight for victory.
About a thousand years before, the world’s greatest empire builder, Alexander the Great, burned his boats upon arrival on the shores of Persia. By burning his boats, Alexander committed his men to victory over the Persians, who far outnumbered the Greeks.
There are moments in our lives when we need to burn the boats of our past. There are times in our journey with Christ when He calls us to a “road less traveled.” The old road, the familiar ways aren’t working. We know in our heart that God is telling us to burn the boats of the past and fight for a new future. We must burn the boats named “Failure,” “Shame,” “Divorce,” “Addiction,” and even past “Success.” We must burn the boats by making a choice to stop what we’ve been doing and commit ourselves to a new way of life. No turning back.
On Sunday, I was speaking in front of a church. I had been asked a question about the vision of discipleship and I answered: “At our church we are building all in, burn the boats, wholehearted disciples of Jesus!” I like that definition. I believe it’s what Elisha did in burning his plow and killing his oxen in 1 Kings 19:21 to follow Elijah. It’s what Joshua did when he committed Israel to crossing the Jordan River in flood stage (Joshua 1-4) to take the Promised Land. It’s what Jesus meant when He said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25 NLT)
I know it’s difficult to imagine burning our boats, crossing the Jordan, and losing our life for Christ. It’s because all we can see is our past. But if you will have the courage to burn your boats and lose your life, you will discover that you didn’t need those boats anymore, and Jesus will empower a new life, and He will get the glory!
Burn the boats!
Steve Holt D.D. MA