“Come on then Rachel… and cover your head,” Elizabeth directed as she started through the gate into the street.
Heart pounding fearfully, Rachel pulled her shawl over her hair and walked with her mother. As she had told her mother, it was true that she was curious as to why that man’s prayer had worked, and the rabbi’s prayers had not. But she would not have chosen to attend a meeting of these people. She would rather have sought an opportunity to ask him privately; when he came to her grandfather’s shop perhaps.
Elizabeth took her arm so they would not be separated, and they tagged on to the end of a group of people, listening to what they were saying. “Pay attention, Rachel. If we are joining a different group, we will have to leave them.”
Rachel had never been with so many strangers, and hoped her mother knew what she was doing.
Wanting to make sure she was going where she wished to go, Elizabeth paid particular attention, listening to the comments made by people walking near them.
“This might be our last chance to hear him, he is very old.”
“It is good that he has come all the way out from Ephesus...”
“He has been visiting all of our fellowships.”
Elizabeth exchanged glances with her daughter. “It must be him,” she murmured. “A very old man, visiting ‘all of our fellowships’, ‘from Ephesus’. These are the correct people.”
Keeping pace with them, mingling with the group who seemed to know where they were going, Rachel was glad of her mother’s tight hold on her arm. She didn’t want to be lost in the crowd.
When the people stopped, they were standing in front of a large home.
“Is this where the meeting is?” Elizabeth found the courage to ask the woman next to her.
“Yes. The meeting room is upstairs.” Looking at her more closely, the woman said, “You are not from this village.”
“No, my daughter and I arrived from a farm in the country just today.”
“God has blessed you indeed. The Apostle is going back to Ephesus after this meeting, and this is an extra one. Usually, it is only on Holy Days that there are two meetings.”
Then there was a space ahead and the people behind pushed them. “Go on, up the stairs.”
As they were jostled up the stairs, Rachel overheard someone near her say, “I hope the Romans leave us in peace.” She turned to her mother to ask what they could have meant, then heard someone answer, “Lookouts will have been posted as usual. They will let us know if any soldiers appear.”
She wondered what on earth her mother was leading them into.
Elizabeth had heard too but was determined that now she was here, she was not leaving. She smiled distractedly at her daughter and kept a firm grip on her as they entered the room, moving to the side of the doorway to see what was happening.
People passed them and, finding a space on the floor, sat down.
Elizabeth anxiously scanned the room, looking for the section for the women. There was none.
Rachel was alarmed when she realized the men and women would sit together in the same room. Hanging back, she whispered, “Aima,” but her mother did not answer.
“Aima,” Rachel repeated urgently. “There is no segregation of men, women and children in this group.” She tugged her mother’s arm to make her look at her, hoping she would signal that they should leave.
Elizabeth, although she too was a little troubled, had seen no impropriety. She whispered to her daughter, “If you want to leave, you can.”
Shocked, Rachel stared at her mother. Did her mother mean she would leave too? Surely she was not suggesting that she would allow her daughter to walk the strange streets back to the house alone. With all the bustle around them, it was not possible for her to discuss what her mother meant. She said, “I am uncomfortable being here, but I will stay with you... only can we please find somewhere to sit near the way out?”
“Move in and find somewhere to sit,” someone said as they squeezed past.
Looking around the room, Elizabeth noted that it seemed that most people had simply found a space on the floor and sat there, without a rug, or a cushion. Taking her daughter’s hand, she led her to the back of the room where they would not be in anyone’s way and there was a clear passage to the way they had just come in.
They barely had time to settle when there was movement at the front of the room. Elizabeth sat up expectantly when she recognized John.
The man with him waited for the last of the people to find somewhere to sit, then spoke about how blessed they were the Apostle was giving them this extra meeting.
“I know you are all as happy as I am that he is able to be with us a bit longer. However, I must ask you not to delay him with questions afterwards. It is important that he returns to Ephesus before sunset. As we all know, those were the terms of his release.” With that he moved aside and went to stand with some other men at the side of the room.
John looked around the assembled group. A wave of love flowed over him as he realized that these were some of the people his cousin, and Savior had died for. At that moment, he knew what he would speak about at this extra meeting. Another man stepped forward and led the group in prayer, then he announced they would sing a psalm.
Rachel gripped her mother’s arm. “What is this?” she whispered, fighting her apprehension.
Elizabeth smiled and swayed slightly to the melody. “Listen to the words, they are praising God. It is a psalm that Timon had to learn.”
But Rachel did not want to be swept up into whatever was happening and after frowning at her mother, fixed her eyes on what was going on at the front of the room. Her eyes brightened. Was that the great-grandson among the group at the side? He was singing the psalm and watching his great-grandfather.
“Time to hear our visitor from Ephesus.” After leading John to a couch at the front of the room, the elder moved to the side beside some other men.
“Greetings, and God bless each one of you. I will use this extra meeting to tell you about something our Savior did. It was another of the signs pointing to Who He was.”
The meeting room was hushed, and faces turned expectantly to the old man seated in front of them. Little children, well fed and a little sleepy, curled into spaces around their mothers and settled comfortably. Husbands sat with their wives and families, eager to hear what John would say.
Rachel looked around at the faces watching him with rapt attention. Involuntarily, she tensed. Did they worship this man? she wondered. If so, this was wrong.
Elizabeth leaned toward her daughter and whispered, “Just remember it is the old man who comes into the shop.”
Anxious, uncomfortable, but curious nevertheless, Rachel sat and looked at him.
John started speaking, “Every one of the signs Jesus gave, proved His Messiah-ship. The resurrection of Lazarus, which was the last of the signs Jesus performed before His death, proved to be the last straw for the religious leaders. They became more determined to put an end to Him.”
Noticing he had their complete attention, John related the episode, so clearly etched in his mind. “We were nowhere near Jerusalem when a messenger came from Martha and Mary, Jesus’ close friends who lived in the village of Bethany. We were in an area called Perea.”
Benjamin, standing at the side, near Bartholomew, the elder of the group, listened carefully, knowing he would have to record this memory.
“When He received the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it’.”
Rachel shifted uncomfortably and her mother put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. She guessed what she would be thinking; after all, she was having similar thoughts.
“After two more days, Jesus said to us, ‘Let us go back to Judea’. This caused dismay among our group. Some had wondered why He didn’t go immediately after the messenger had delivered the news, others thought that when He said that Lazarus’ sickness would not result in death that he would recover anyway. ‘But Rabbi,’ some said, ‘a short while ago the Jews tried to stone You, and You are going there?’” John paused and looked to see that they were listening before continuing, “By this time we all knew He was set on a particular course but we did not know what it was.”
The door from the outside stairs opened quietly, and Elizabeth looked in that direction.
Two faces paled, and two women gasped as Elizabeth and Rhea stared, shocked, at each other.
“Come and sit down,” a woman said softly to Rhea, as she stepped carefully across the floor, trying not to stand on anyone’s feet.
“I am glad you could come, even if you have missed some of the meeting,” Mary whispered as Rhea sat down beside her.
Rachel was watching Benjamin as he concentrated on what John was saying.
Always alert to what was happening in any group he addressed, John continued speaking as he watched the new arrival make her way into the room and sit down. Repeating what he had said, “Lazarus’ sickness is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’”
Looking carefully at the people before him, assessing their understanding, he noticed a familiar face. Pausing briefly while he worked out where he had seen the woman, the few seconds allowed his listeners a chance to absorb the importance of what he had said. As he studied her, John recognized her. She was the woman who had come to see him about the prayer that God had mercifully answered for the healing of her child.
As their eyes met, Elizabeth had felt a sense of peace that she had never felt before, and she relaxed.
Benjamin, noticing that his great-grandfather was briefly distracted, followed the old man’s gaze and saw Rachel with the woman who had come to their home to speak to Saba. His forehead furrowed as he wondered what they were doing there. He dismissed the thought they could be spies, sure the Roman authorities would not send Jewish women to spy on the meeting.
John continued, “When we arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. His sisters were deeply distressed. Perhaps more so because they had hoped that Jesus would return with the messenger they had sent days before.” He threw some questions at the group seated before him, “What should we think? How do we see this? That Jesus intended to impress on His friends the seriousness of sin’s consequences? That God, the Father, Who was in control of all His Son did, keeps His own timetable? Or as others have thought... that in waiting four days, none of the scribes and Pharisees could explain it away… Which they might have done with the time Jesus brought Jairus’ daughter back to life or when he restored the widow’s son to life.”
There were a few questioning looks and some smiles.
John stressed, “Lazarus was dead. Dead, and buried according to Jewish custom. When Jesus called him from the tomb, He demonstrated that He, through His Father, had been given the power over life and death.”
Waiting till the whispered conversations died down, John continued, “So if you are thinking that because He had the power over life and death, why were the Jews able to crucify Him? As He said in His own words ‘No one takes My life from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.’”
The puzzled looks that he saw people exchange, reminded John of the disciples’ reaction to the statement. With a gentle smile, he added, “The Father was in control. When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, He knew that what He asked would be fulfilled. Everything He did was to prove the Father had sent Him, and He had the authority to teach about the Kingdom of God.” John glanced at Benjamin, wondering if he would remember their conversation months earlier about what asking the Father in the name of the Son meant.
Benjamin gave a wry smile and nodded.
“It was not the Father’s will to preserve the physical life of His Son... Jesus Christ was the Savior, who was prophesied of, recorded in the beginning of the first book of Moses.”
John turned and looked at Elizabeth and her daughter, and using the Jewish term, said deliberately, “Yeshua HaMassiach is the Son of God sent into the world as the true Passover sacrifice.”
Rhea risked a hurried look towards Elizabeth and her daughter. If they were believers, why were they attending a Jewish Feast of Tabernacles? If they were not believers, why were they here?
Rachel looked at her mother in dismay. Was this heresy... or was it true? She knew what her father thought of people like the old man who was speaking, but there was sincerity in his words. He spoke with the confidence of one who had seen the things he talked about, not with the smooth tongue of glib deceivers.
John continued with his remembrance. “When Lazarus was raised from the dead, many believed in Jesus... Only the Messiah could have power over life. But others went and reported to the Pharisees.”
Smiling he remembered, “Alarm would best describe their reaction. They knew that this could not be explained away as they had been able to do with many of the other signs. Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said that it was ‘better for one man to die for the people than that the whole nation perish’. From that day, they plotted to take His life.”
Even now, John had mixed feelings about the way the high priest and his supporters had behaved. He knew Jesus had to die as the Passover Lamb, but he mourned over the hardness of heart in the nation Christ had been sent to; the people who had rejected Him.
Rachel looked at her mother; questions, although unspoken, brimmed in her heart. She, growing up in a Jewish family, had been told a much different story. She had listened to her grandfather’s comments to this man, and heard his answers. She also knew what her father thought. How did she know what to believe?
Elizabeth looked at the man, convinced that his prayer had caused her daughter to be healed and struggled to understand his account of that Man raising someone from the dead after he had been buried. If only she could tell him about her great-nephew and his need.
John finished speaking and nodded to Bartholomew. Signaling to one of the deacons to be ready to close the meeting, Bartholomew came forward and thanked the people for their attendance. He escorted John and Benjamin from the room.
“I will see you tomorrow, Mary,” Rhea said. “There are visitors at Mistress Sara’s home and I must hurry.”
Mary nodded and watched her friend leave inconspicuously. One day she would ask Rhea how she did that.
The deacon who had been alerted to take over, came forward and spoke. “Let us pray for the safety of the Apostle John as he makes his way back to Ephesus and thank God for His truth...”
Shifting uncomfortably on the floor and looking toward the exit, Rachel paid no attention to the prayer.
The prayer over, the deacon announced, “Arrangements have been made for a shared meal downstairs. Thank you to those who prepared the food, and please know that all of you are welcome to stay and join us.”
As the women who were organizing the food left, the deacon went on to give information about the next day’s Holy Day meetings. Elizabeth took advantage of the opportunity to go; they had been gone long enough. Catching her daughter’s hand, she let her know that she was ready to leave. “Now would be a good time for us to slip out quietly.”
It was not so easy for mother and daughter, unfamiliar with the meeting room, to leave unobtrusively. Their early departure caught the attention of some of the people on the other side of the room. One was a regular customer at ‘Old Simon’s’ shop.
“I wonder what she is doing here,” remarked Abram, who with his wife were visiting relatives for the festival.
She looked in the direction he was gazing and saw a middle-aged woman and a young one, possibly her daughter, hurrying toward the exit.
“You know those women?”
“The young one. She works in her grandfather’s shop in Ephesus where I buy writing supplies.”
At Martha’s puzzled look, he told her, “The family is Jewish.”
Before his wife could respond, people around them were rising, greetings exchanged and they were caught up in conversations.
As Elizabeth and Rachel hurried out of the building, they met the small group comprised of the local elder, John and Benjamin. Wondering if this was one of those signs from God that she thought John had spoken of, Elizabeth approached him. “You prayed for my daughter and she is now well.”
The elder went to move her aside, but John halted him. “Let her speak.”
“I wanted to see you, to thank you...”
“It is God you should thank.”
Elizabeth considered what he said, then before she lost her courage, or she lost the opportunity, she said, “The son of my niece has the fever. He is a baby, the only son of an only son... his family do not expect him to live. Will you pray for him?”
John looked at her steadily. He saw she had faith. He also knew that her family were Jewish, and would reject the prayers of a heretic.
“Please,” she pleaded while the girl with her, the other daughter, held her arm.
Rachel studied the man wonderingly. The way he had spoken, the love he had for the man he called the Messiah was so different from anything she had ever heard. She had tried to resist being swayed by the atmosphere, but the meeting had been an astonishing experience. Men, women, children... even girls had been sitting in the room, listening. At that moment, she too believed that his prayers would be heard.
Benjamin waited restlessly by the donkey’s head, worried about getting his great-grandfather home before sunset for the last day of the Feast.
“Wait,” John told the others, and drawing Elizabeth apart asked her what was wrong with the baby, then motioned her to kneel, as he did. With the scant information he had, he prayed for the child.
Waiting with Benjamin, Rachel felt at a loss. Should she say something to him... if so, what?
The decision was taken from her when he spoke to her. “I was surprised to see you and your mother at one of our meetings. You work with your grandfather at his shop where we purchase supplies. In fact, you brought us some supplies because of the shortage. The last time I was in your grandfather’s shop, I think I caused you a problem with the... ” His thought continued although he did not voice them. ‘With the arrogant Jewish official’. She too was Jewish.
She heard his words, but did not take them in. She was standing next to the man who had rescued her at her cousin Aminta’s wedding and had haunted her unwary thoughts for years. A man whom she had no right to think about; a heretic, but one who left her strangely agitated as she stood here with him.
“My grandfather stayed in Ephesus, keeping the festival with my brother and some friends who are too old to want to travel. We have been keeping the Feast with Levi ben Nathan, but my cousins Chanan and Aminta have a baby son who was taken sick. We came here, to my Aunt Sara’s home to have some medicine made for the baby.”
“Levi ben Nathan? My father supplied the lamps for their wedding... I attended Rabbi Solomon’s school with Chanan,” he stopped, suddenly remembering why she had always seemed familiar. “You were the girl dancing...”
“You saved my sister and me from...”
“Your father is Meshua ben Simon.”
They both spoke at once.
Remembering her father’s hostility toward the fellowship of the Way, he asked, “How is it you and your mother were allowed to come to one of our meetings?”
“My father doesn’t know. Remember, I did explain when we brought you the supplies, he went seeking supplies of parchment and papyrus. He didn’t arrive home in time, so he wasn’t able to join us at the farm. He is spending the festival in Patara.” Warily looking around, she whispered, “No one knows we are here.”
Thoughts tumbled through his mind as he considered the risk the women had taken and he assured her, “I will not tell anyone.”
“Since your great-grandfather prayed for my sister, she has not been ill once, even though she had the sickness all her life and it seemed to be growing worse. My mother seems drawn to know more. When she heard your great-grandfather had a meeting here, even though we had just arrived, she wanted to come and hear him speak.”
He wanted to ask her what she thought of what she had heard but realized that would probably be unfair of him. He watched her expressive features as she nervously explained, then turned as her mother approached.
“And when we tried to hurry away and met him, also leaving, I thought it might be a sign...” Elizabeth added lightly as she joined her daughter and Benjamin.
“Go in peace, my daughter, and may God give you His peace,” said John.
“Thank you... rabbi?” Elizabeth queried, unsure if he was a rabbi or not.
“I am not a rabbi, just a servant of the Most High God.”
Nodding her head, Elizabeth turned and caught her daughter’s arm, “We’d better hurry; we might be missed.” What she really meant was, ‘We might be seen.’ She became aware of how it might appear. Her daughter standing in a public place talking with a young man, a heretic at that! As for herself; she had been kneeling on the ground with the old man. Still, she felt confident about the outcome. She was sure his prayer would heal Jacob. She felt like going back and telling Rhea she no longer wanted the mixture. Rhea... oh dear. What did she say to Rhea?
Benjamin stepped forward, “And we had better hurry too, Saba. I had hoped to reach home safely well before sunset, but the hour is later than we intended. May God protect us from the Roman soldiers.”
Responding to Benjamin’s urgency, John said his farewells to Bartholomew, who had patiently waited through the encounter.
“Who were those women?” he asked, as he watched them hurry away. “I haven’t seen them before; they aren’t part of my fellowship.”
“For their sakes, it is better that you don’t know,” John said kindly.
“Ah, people that God is working with but...”
John nodded. Who but God knew what he was doing with them? Giving Bartholomew a brotherly hug, he thanked him for the hospitality he and Benjamin had enjoyed.
“Saba! We must leave.”
Responding to Benjamin’s urgent bidding, John climbed up onto the bench at the front of the donkey cart. “My old bones will cope better at the front than bouncing around in the back,” he stated.
“I apologize for my impatience, Saba… but you know as well as I, the Romans have been watching all of us more closely of late,” and he began leading the donkey down the road.
“I understand, my boy,” John said, before being lost in thoughts of the meetings, and of the woman who had risked so much to attend.
Although watchful of what was happening around him, Benjamin thought of the girl. The first time he had seen her in her grandfather’s shop, a memory had stirred, but it had slipped away before he could catch it. Now, he remembered clearly watching her dance when he, instead of Alexander, had been sent to see to the lamps at the wedding of Levi ben Nathan’s son, Chanan. He remembered he had wondered then how old she was, and how long before she would be married off.
“Safe journey, Saba, someone called.
John acknowledged the greeting with a wave.
“I remember the girl,” Benjamin briefly turned his head and glanced at his great-grandfather. “It is strange that she has not been married yet, as is the custom with the Jews.”
John looked at his great-grandson through wary eyes. Was he interested in a Jewish girl? It would only lead to heartache. Sighing, he thought, ‘something else to pray about.’ He did not want to see his beloved great-grandson hurt because of a girl again.
Benjamin had turned to look at the road ahead, guiding the donkey carefully. Even the smallest hole in the road could upset the cart; then they would most certainly not arrive home by sunset.
“Her father probably has already arranged a match for her,” John cautioned.
“She has always been very polite and helpful in her grandfather’s shop. Remember, she showed me how to cut the papyrus into sheets?”
“I wonder if her father has found another supply of parchment,” John said, changing the subject.
“I hope so,” Benjamin replied. “If not, we have enough parchment to continue your writings, but not make copies. We will have to make them when the supplies arrive.”
“As we discussed before,” John reminded him.
“Yes,” Benjamin replied absently, his mind already on other matters. He wondered if God was drawing the girl and her mother. If so, he wondered what fellowship group they might attend.