What was Paul up to before he spoke to the Athenians?
The little boy walked up to the man and tugged on his robe to get his attention.
“My grandfather tells stories like you do. Come and hear.” And because of the insistence of the child, the man was happily compelled to walk as the boy led him by the hand to the house of Dionysius, the boy’s grandfather.
Paul settled himself on the cushions provided by the servants of the house. He was given a cup and held it with both hands looking over the rim at Dionysius. “Tell me what you know of Jesus, the Nazarene.” Paul spoke softly but firmly. “I have heard from your wise grandson that you often tell stories of strange happenings and wondrous sights which you beheld while in Jerusalem. I would like very much to hear them.” Paul smiled at the child sitting next to him and ruffled the boy’s hair with his callused hand.
Dionysius looked at the man sitting across the low table that held the fruit and bread he had offered his guest. Paul did not sound like a mocker. Dionysius had been mocked constantly since he returned from Jerusalem 21 years ago. His stories were once a source of mystery, but Dionysius’s fervent retelling of them and the inevitable dulling caused by the passage of time degraded the stories to fantasy or whim. Or, perhaps, desert hallucinations.
Paul continued to look at Dionysius with interest. Their eyes were fixed on each other. Paul’s weathered face held a hint of a smile, but none of the raucous laughter that had followed Dionysius for these many years.
Dionysius sighed and looked away from Paul through an open window and saw the hills beyond the city as he began his story.
“I was a merchant. I was successful. I continue to benefit from the fortune that I found when I was a younger man. My strategies for increasing profits included expanding my customer base. So, I looked for ways that would reap the greatest profit with acceptable risk. Always an equation for success! Yes?”
Dionysius looked fondly at his grandson and continued. “I mapped out a trip to Jerusalem for I had heard that the entire country gathered at that city to celebrate a custom called ‘Passover’. I thought that this would be a perfect time to sell my goods, and the Jews, a perfect customer to buy them. I planned the trip and gathered my goods. I prepared myself to sell as much in that one trip as I usually sell in two years here, in Athens.
My trip was uneventful. Oh, the travel was hard, but that is the case anywhere. I had never been far from these beautiful hills and found the trip to be an adventure. I saw many wonders, to be sure, but nothing like what I beheld in Jerusalem itself! My first day there, my very first day, I sold half of my goods to other merchants that were near the temple of the Jews. My little doves were in high demand because of their pure white color and cheap price, although, I don’t mind telling you, Paul, I more than tripled my selling price when I saw the demand was so high. A businessman must do business!”
Dionysius sipped from his cup and continued. “I had no more than made my first sale when I saw a man go into the temple and throw all of the merchants out! He walked right in and saw the sellers and money-changers and took off his belt and corded it into a whip. He stood right there unnoticed, I’m told, before he raised his voice and his hand. It was so crowded I could not go into that area, but I heard about it again and again from other people in the streets and inns and, well, it was on everyone’s tongue and in everyone’s ear.
“I could not understand it. My precious cargo that had traveled safely with me all those miles was being driven out of the temple! But I did not linger in the area. That kind of activity drew the wrong kind of crowds and the Roman guards were everywhere.
“I went to the market and was able to sell more of my doves. Later that day, I settled into my room and prepared for sleep.”
Dionysius nodded to a servant and waited while Paul’s cup was refilled. He continued with his story. “The city was buzzing. There was a charge to the air that I have not experienced since, and it has been these 21 long years! The religious sects were snipping at each other, the politicians were scrambling for positions, and the country folk were excited to be in the city of David. Many families were reunited and much revelry was taking place. The night was lit up like the day. Wine flowed like water and money exchanged hands in torrents. I did well selling my doves to the pilgrims coming into the city. They seemed especially pleased at the high quality and, ahem, low price at which I offered my goods.
“About five days later, I heard a rumor about a trial taking place at the courtyard of Pilate. Since I had sold all of my doves by this time, I indulged in a little leisure time and followed the crowd to the place of the trial. My surprise could not have been measured when I saw that the man on trial was the same man that had driven the merchants out of the temple. I at first thought that this was a harsh way to treat such a simple threat to the safety of the city, but I soon learned from others in the crowd that this fellow, his name was Jesus, was trying to destroy the religious ways of the Jews by proclaiming himself to be the Son of God! They said he told all who were near him that anyone that believed in him would believe in the one that sent him, and he claimed to be sent by God! He said that a truly religious person was one that would serve others, not strictly follow all of the laws of the Jews. He had travelled all across the land telling the populace that they no longer needed to sacrifice because a greater sacrifice was among them. Let me tell you, that statement upset the religious rulers! Telling the Jews not to sacrifice was like telling us Greeks not to study the stars or not to drink wine! Not only that, but he was reported as claiming himself to be the King of the Jews! Herod must have been furious. His grasp of that area was slipping anyway and now this peasant usurper appears on the scene!
“I looked at the man on trial, this Jesus, and I didn’t see a king. He looked more like a peasant. In fact, as I looked around the crowd, I thought he looked a lot like the people that surrounded me. But the crowd didn’t seem to think so. When offered the choice to free Jesus or Barabbas, the crowd yelled to free the thief, the rabble rouser, and kill Jesus.
“Crowds are odd beasts. They think that they are independent, free range animals, when they are really little more than beasts of burden, penned in by men of position and power. Their boundaries are defined by the will of those who have been given the power to lead men.” He sighed, “Sometimes I feel we are all being led down into a pit. Well, this crowd was being herded to enact a decision by several men placed on the edges and throughout the center of the courtyard.”
Dionysius paused and sipped from his cup. He noticed that Paul’s face looked somewhat drawn. “Go on”, said Paul, though his voice was broken. “Please, continue. I am taken by your story. I must hear more.”
Dionysius sighed. He had hardened himself somewhat to the rest of the story, for it became not only gruesome, but deadly. But Paul seemed to have jumped ahead in the story, for now he was openly crying. Tears course down his face and disappeared into his graying beard.
“The next day, the entire city turned out in a carnival atmosphere to line the streets that led from the room where Jesus was held to a little hill outside of the city walls. The people that lived along the route sold tickets to those who could afford such extravagance and let them hang out of their windows and off of their roofs to look on the one who proclaimed himself their king.
“I had heard that just at the beginning of this very week many of these same people were hailing Jesus as their king! And now they mocked him and railed at him. Several threw stones at the man as he carried his cross along the road. But the man was already cruelly treated. I stood outside the walls of the city and waited to see what was going to happen. When Jesus appeared, he was no longer able to carry his cross. Another man was conscripted to carry it and several people mistook him for Jesus as they hurled insults and stones, and spat on him. Jesus followed behind his cross, but he was not recognizable. The Romans had tortured him. His face was swollen and little of his hair remained. He had thorns on his head. The thorns had been plaited to look like a crown and were pushed deep into his skin. Blood flowed from his back where the whip had removed his skin.
“I thought that Romans were the only ones that could be so cruel to another human, but the Jews were vicious in their attacks on one of their own. Although they used Roman hands to kill Jesus, they murdered him in their hearts. Everyone knew that Jesus was innocent of the trumped up charges But blood lust was thick in that city.
“I followed behind the crowd as they traveled up the slope to the killing ground. The crosses were laid down. Jesus was going to be crucified with two others, thieves, I think they were. They stretched the victims on the wood and held them down as they pounded spikes into them. The screams were horrific. The crowd cheered at each blow as the maul drove the spikes through the flesh of Jesus. They were nearly hysterical as the crosses were raised and then dropped into place in the earth.
“For several hours the crowd continued to harass those that were dying before their eyes. Eventually, the lust of the killing left the hearts of those standing outside the walls of the city. The crowd drifted away until the only ones left, besides me, were a few women and the guards.
“The women cried as they gazed at Jesus. The guards gambled at the foot of the center cross, just out of reach of Jesus’ blood as it fell from his body and flowed into the soil.
“The end came suddenly. I can’t believe I stood there for the entire agony. The legs of the two thieves were broken and they died within minutes. They looked at Jesus and decided he was already dead, but to prove it, the Centurion had a soldier thrust a spear into the side of Jesus. He was dead. It was at that point that other things took place. Unexplainable things. The sky grew dark, but it was not a storm cloud that hovered over the city. The sky itself appeared to grow angry! It tossed and turned, tumbling over itself in fierce winds. Lightening lit the frightened faces of the guards as they hurried to take the bodies off the crosses. The women had sent for a friend to bury Jesus. Their grief had not given way to the fear that held the Romans. I stood just outside this circle of activity. I watched the entire play unfold, but I never determined what the plot was.
“I wandered around for hours. The things I saw, the things I heard, I cannot understand enough to even tell in a story. My mind has locked the meaning away and the ability to tell of them is locked as well. I sit here some days and struggle to re-examine the events of that time to try to reason it all out. I fail every time and always vow to give up the story forever. You have coaxed one more telling, Paul. Thank you for the memories you have let me relive, although I still cannot make sense of it. I feel that some key understanding is missing. Some central theme is hidden from me that if I only knew, would solve this puzzle in my heart and bring all the pieces into an understandable whole.
“But the most amazing thing I witnessed was when I was leaving the city of Jerusalem. I was ready to rid myself of the filth and clamor of that place. It had seemed so exciting at first, but had turned rotten to me so I gathered my belongings and turned my thoughts toward home. My journey would start at the city walls and take me through a garden along the edge of the killing ground. I left the inn before dawn broke the hold of night and headed east. I had to pass the hill of crucifixion and hoped to be out of the city before the first rays of light poured over the hills.”
Dionysius stopped talking. His eyes were focused on the events that happened so long ago. His mind cast over the memories again, searching for the meaning that had to be there. His voice was quiet as he continued. “As I made my way out of the city, I passed through streets that were emptied for the night. Suddenly there were screams of fear coming from all over the place. Entire families raced out of their houses and held their hands to their faces as they ran away from people walking around in their grave clothes. These ‘risen dead’ people looked fine to me. Except for the grave clothes, they could have been those people out in the street.” He gestured toward the window. “But the families that raced into the street were screaming about how these dead people were returned to haunt them for the wickedness they had just done. I spoke to one of the risen dead. He stood in the street watching his past family careen wildly away from him. He seemed agitated, excited. He told me strange things! One thing he said was ‘It is finished!’ which was interesting because those were the last words I heard Jesus say before he died. He also said ‘the grave has no more power’ and ‘Jesus holds the keys to Death and Hell’. The man walked a few feet down the street and vanished before my eyes. Just disappeared.
“Day broke as I passed near the hill of crucifixion. I saw two women who had been at the cross weeping in the garden there at the base of the hill. They were standing before an open tomb. I could not understand why they were there in front of an open tomb and not in front of the tomb where Jesus was. I took a step toward them to ask this when I saw a glowing being hover just over the tomb. It seemed to appear out of the sunrise. The being had a shimmering robe and sparkling wings. It had the face of a man and spoke like a man. It seemed to know them, for it said ‘Why are you weeping, Mary?’ the woman did not turn. She said, ‘They have taken the body of my Lord away. I cannot grieve for Him. I cannot complete the burial process. I cannot see Him this last time.’ Her voice was breaking with grief. She sobbed and cried as each sentence connected with her heart.
“The being spoke to her, ‘He is not here, because He is not dead. He has risen. Go and tell the others not to look for Life among Death. Tell his disciples that He has risen from the dead and that he will meet them in Galilee.’ Mary turned and saw the being, then took off at a run. The other woman followed after her and I interrupted my journey home to follow these women. I glanced back at the empty tomb wondering what had happened. The being rose from the rock it had been sitting on and stopped, looked at me and pointed to where the women had run, then disappeared.
I turned and ran. I have never run so hard in my life. I saw glimpses of the women as they hurried back toward the city. The path turned and twisted through a section of rocky outcroppings and I could not see very far ahead. I nearly ran over them as I rounded a corner near the end of the path. They had fallen to the ground at the feet of a man. I looked into his eyes. I knew right away who he was, but I couldn’t believe it. I could not comprehend how a man I had seen crucified on a cross just days before could be standing completely healed and whole before me. He was not farther away from me than you are, Paul. I saw him. I saw him alive. His wounds were visible, but healed. I saw his feet! The wound marks were there from the spikes. My heart could not take this. I backed up around the corner so my eyes would no longer be filled with this wonder. Jesus was alive! Returned from the dead! I had seen the others that had said they were returned from the dead, but I had seen Jesus die. I saw them puncture his side. I saw what I saw!”
Paul’s face had changed again. He now glowed with joy. ‘Just like the women did when they saw Jesus’ thought Dionysius.
Dionysius stopped his narration. He put his cup down and picked it up again. He fidgeted, looking this way and that, not daring to continue his story. Not daring to once again be left wondering what it all meant.
Paul sensed the hesitation. He spoke out loud but not to any of the people in the room with them. “Open his eyes, Lord. Let him see You with the eyes of his heart. He has seen You in Your hour of sacrifice and in Your hour of triumph, let him fully understand what that means.”
Paul turned his focus to the man across the table. “Finish your story, Dionysius. You will not be disappointed if you will listen and hear the explanation. I have been sent to many people to tell them the very thing that you wish to know. I have been given the answer and desire to give it to you. Tell me the rest of your story, and I will tell you mine.”
Dionysius lifted his eyes from his hands. He looked beyond the window while he struggled to hold his feelings in check. Finally, someone had given him hope of knowing the answer, the reason he had seen what he had seen.
Someone had the answer and was about to give it to him. This realization broke the dam that held his emotions back. Tears fell from his eyes and rolled down the creases in his face. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his robe and drew in a deep breath his voice quivered as he continued.
“I looked around the corner again, expecting this risen Jesus to have disappeared like the other risen ones had. But to my surprise, I saw him standing there, waiting for me. The women had left to go tell the others what had happened. But Jesus, he just stood there and smiled at me. Oh, the feeling that I had when I looked at him. I knew that there was something powerful in him, but not power for powers’ sake. No, this was a power that comes from measureless peace. I don’t know how I knew this, I just knew. You, Paul, I see some of this same peace in you.
“He spoke to me. His voice seemed to be in me. The words filled my mind. He said, ‘You have seen many things, but you do not yet believe in me. You must hear the Gospel. I am that Gospel, but you will know of it from another. You must return home and, in time, you will hear of me. One of your sons’ sons will bring a man to you. Go in peace and look diligently for the messenger that brings the Gospel.’”
Dionysius sat up as he looked at his grandson sitting at the table nibbling on the fruit that remained before them. He looked at Paul, then to his grandson and then back to Paul. The realization of who Paul was struck him to his core. “You are the one, aren’t you? You are the messenger that brings the Gospel! Tell me please. I have waited so long to know the truth. I have lived so many years longing for peace. Please,” Dionysius pleaded, “please tell me the Gospel so I can understand and believe.”
The men sat in silence, each reliving the past, walking through the memories Dionysius’ words had stirred in them.
Paul remembered following Jesus around Jerusalem that week. He saw the things Dionysius had seen and more. And less. If only he had seen Jesus resurrected. That would have removed some of the feeling of guilt he still held on to.
How to begin the explanation – that he, Paul, had a hand in killing the Messiah, the Promised One, and that he was not alone. All men would be found guilty of that crime and would be found to have innocent blood on their hands.
Paul broke the heavy silence. “As I entered your house, everywhere I looked I saw statues of gods in places of honor. We all search for answers, for reason, for truth. I, like you, saw Jesus that week that you described. I, however, was not merely an observer as you were. To my shame, I was a participant. But God’s grace endures forever!”
Shock gave way to curiosity as Dionysius listened to Paul begin his explanation.
Paul sighed and then continued, “I was a Jews’ Jew, and a Roman. I knew and obeyed the Law and I vigorously defended that Law. In fact, I can see from this distance of years what I could not see in my youth: the Law had become my god. I saw any deviation from what was taught from the books of the prophets and the Law as I interpreted it, and many others with me, I might add, to be blasphemous, slanderous, vicious and vile. Each effort to replace the Law with other ‘religions’ was met with stiff, fierce opposition. I became threatened by change. Again, to my shame, I tried to thwart the very Word of God. I became a foe to any that challenged the belief system we had set up. Even if it be the Lord God of Creation!
“You know that some believe in many gods, some in a few, some in one and still others in no god at all. I thought that I believed in the One God. The God of Creation, of our prophets and kings. But instead, I believed in what I understood of Him, not God Himself. I made my god out of the Laws He had given us and the laws we added to them. Yet even in the Law, God shows us a glimpse of His grace.
“That statue over there, on the pedestal, what is that?” Paul asked Dionysius.
The older man shrugged. “I do not know. I do not know its name or its purpose.”
“It is made of stone”, Paul responded. “A lifeless material. It was crafted by hands that are dead in sin and decay in the grave. The same can be said of all the images you have placed in your home.
“But the man you met, the Gospel, the Good News, is God indeed and as you know, is alive even though he was dead. You saw the death of Jesus. You saw him alive afterwards. Your mind has been filled with questions and your heart has been filled with longing. Our prophets told of Jesus’ birth, miracles, death and resurrection. They told us things that we could not understand unless his Spirit lingered on us.” Paul paused again. He closed his eyes and rubbed them. “I must get to the point. The Truth.”
Dionysius leaned forward, listening intently to Paul. “The Truth is profoundly simple on the surface, but it is deep beyond understanding when we strive to learn more of Him. Since a lifetime of study will not scratch the surface of God, I will tell you the simple Truth.”
Paul sipped from his cup, then spoke, “Man was created by God. We are His creatures. Adam fell from God’s Grace by sinning. The fellowship that we were to provide God was broken, and we did the breaking.
“Sin is hereditary. It is in the blood. Passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. There is no escaping it and no remedy can be created by man to cure it.
“God, however, did have a remedy. You are well aware of the custom of blood sacrifice. In fact, it was that custom that brought you all the way to Jerusalem during the Passover.” Paul sighed as he reflected on the significance of the term. “Passover”, he explained, “began when the Hebrew nation was in slavery to Pharaoh. The final plague that Pharaoh endured was the Angel of Death. The Hebrews were told to sacrifice a lamb and coat the doorway to their house with it’s blood. By this act, the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Hebrews and they were spared. The Egyptians suffered greatly.
“In this case, as in every case of sacrifice, innocent blood had to be shed. A life had to be taken to spare others.
“That was the purpose of your trip, yes? To sell doves for sacrifice. And that was the purpose of Jesus. To become a lamb for sacrifice. To look for and save the lost. He is The Way for salvation, he is Life and he is Truth.
“You saw Jesus cleanse His Fathers’ House. You saw Him being led to slaughter as a lamb. You saw the sacrifice of the Lamb, the Son of God. You saw the payment required by God for our sin made in one transaction when you saw Jesus, the innocent lamb, slain for our sins.”
Paul paused and thought of his own complicity in the crucifixion of Christ. The spying he did for the Sanhedrin, the prodding he did to condemn Jesus. The joy he felt at hearing of the sentence of death. And he didn’t stop there. He persecuted the followers of Jesus. He tracked them, hounded them and murdered them. Stephen’s face flashed before him. He couldn’t stop it even after all these years.
Unaware of the grief that played itself out behind the eyes of his guest, Dionysius watched as Paul rubbed his face. With his hands covering his eyes, Paul whispered, “God’s Grace endures forever.”
Paul looked up to see Dionysius staring at him. “You keep saying that”, Dionysius quoted Paul, “’God’s grace endures forever’, what does that mean?”
“Grace”, said Paul, “is a gift from God. It is by His grace that we live and breathe…that we prosper, that we exist. His grace is poured generously on us all. It is His saving Grace alone that saves us. This Grace removes our sins forever. They no longer count against us, so we cannot be judged for them. Praise God! Saving Grace flows from God to those who have His Salvation and covers them completely. He has given me His great salvation. Therefore, since God has saved me through the sacrifice of Jesus, and lives in me through the blessing of the Holy Spirit, I am not only covered with His Grace, but filled with His Grace. That Grace has removed the damnation of my sin from my past, present and future. God’s Grace has eliminated it completely. There is nothing against my account with God. Now, I still sin. It is strange, Dionysius, but when I think to do the things I know I should do, I don’t do them. But my body seems all too eager to do the things I know I shouldn’t do. Yet these sins do not exist on my account. I am filled with Grace. When God looks at me, He sees the sacrifice Jesus made and he sees His Grace. He doesn’t see the sin, it has been removed. Forever. Praise God! His Grace endures forever!”
Paul smiled as he looked at Dionysius. “You are looking for that Grace! You saw the sacrifice of the Christ. You have been told that man and God have been separated because of sin, and that the price of that sin was the life of Jesus, the Son of God. You have all of the pieces. What will you do with them?”
Dionysius looked lost as he tried to fathom the idea that Jesus, the God-man he had seen killed and resurrected, had gone through that awful death for him; a lowly, sinful Greek. Dionysius knew in an instant what he would do with this puzzle. Why God would give him salvation, he would never know. “I need that Grace that you speak of and that God offers. If He offers it to me, then I readily accept it. There is no other decision that I can make.
“Paul, you must stay here in my house. I will lodge you, feed you and comfort you. I must hear more of what you have to say.”
“I will gladly stay in your house, my brother. I have much to say to you and to all who will listen to me in this city. But, come, it is time for me to continue my work here. Will you take me to the place where the men of Athens gather to discuss weighty things?” Paul’s eyes shifted to the place in the wall where the unknown god sat. “God has given me the words to say, and I must say them.”
The two men rose from the table and walked through the courtyard into the heat of the day. The doors to the street were opened by servants as they approached and the noise of earthly life grew in their ears.
As they walked through the streets, deep in conversation, they did not notice the little boy, Dionysius’ grandson, following in their footsteps. Nor did they see the glow of peace in his face. The Peace that only comes from God.