Crispus was determined. Saul would be heard. That determination hardened through the week as he poured over the Scriptures and prayed for wisdom and talked again with Saul. There was something about this unlikely Messiah that called to him, that seemed strangely fitting for his surprising God.

The fact that Sosthenes didn’t like it only strengthened his resolve. His old rival came with Berekiah to counsel against a repeat performance. When Crispus informed them that Saul would speak again, the next Sabbath, their counsel dissolved into warnings and threats. He knew to take their threats seriously. His decision would cost him dearly, no doubt.

But if Sosthenes and Berekiah are opposed to Saul’s speaking, Crispus smiled to himself, there has to be something good in the man’s message.

So, for the second Sabbath in a row, Saul stood before the congregation and told his story. They listened well enough, at first. But already there was suspicion in their listening, as if, in the week just passed, they’d decided they really didn’t want what he was selling.

He’d seen it before, of course. Initial interest dissolving into mere politeness, then cold hostility. It made him feel like a rejected suitor. He loved them, but the feeling was not returned. He offered them his heart, they showed him the door.

The rejection always hurt in the past. He could see in the Corinthians’ folded arms and stony faces that it was likely to hurt here as well. But what could he do? He had to try.

He did not mean to repulse them. But there was something about his manner, about his message and the stubborn insistence with which he spoke it, that set synagogues on edge. No matter how calmly he reasoned, no matter how kindly he spoke, he always managed to poke his own people in painful places.

He saw it happening again today.


II

“But how can a man condemned by our leaders and executed by the Romans … how can such a man possibly be God’s Messiah?” The questioner stood against the side wall of the synagogue. His voice was strident, demanding.

Paul could see a vein throbbing in the man’s forehead. He put a hand to his back and shifted weight to the other foot.

It had been a long morning. The strain was beginning to tell.

“It wouldn’t be the first time our leaders condemned a godly man. We have a rich history of killing prophets and rejecting the very people God has sent. Remember Jeremiah? Remember Zechariah, murdered on the Temple steps?” Paul kept his voice even. He did not want to offend with his tone. The words, he knew, were offensive enough.

“But why would God allow such a thing to happen to his Messiah?” a voice called from the back.

“Listen to what Isaiah says:

But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and fill him with grief. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”

“Yes, yes, Saul,” Sosthenes stood. He’d not intended to speak, but he could not stand Saul’s abuse of Scripture. “You quote Isaiah well enough. But do you understand him?” He turned to face the congregation. “The Prophet is not speaking of the Messiah here. For this is the same Prophet who said:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

“Now, Saul, how can the Prophet say, on the one hand, that the Messiah is to be crushed and made to bear our sins, and yet, on the other hand, that he will not falter or be discouraged? Scriptures do not contradict each other, do they?” He looked around the crowd for support. “You say the Messiah was crucified. Crucifixion would discourage me!” A laugh spread through the congregation. “I think a cross would make even the Messiah falter!” The laughter increased. Sosthenes waited for it to die down. “God promises to uphold his Messiah, not crush him. You can’t have it both ways.” To a chorus of ‘Amens,’ Sosthenes sat down.

“If Scripture does not contradict itself, Sosthenes, you must have it both ways. Both passages speak of the Messiah. He will be crushed. But he will not falter or be discouraged as a result. He will suffer our stripes and bear our punishment. But God will uphold him as he does so. The Chosen One was nailed to a cross, but he died to establish justice on the earth.” Paul stole a glance at Crispus. “We must be true to all Scriptures, Sosthenes. Not just the ones we like.”

Sosthenes threw his hands into the air, as if to say, There’s no reasoning with this fool.

“What about the Scripture that tells us anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse?” another voice challenged. “How can you say the blessed Messiah was crucified?”

“Jesus Messiah was crucified. And the Scripture is true: he fell under God’s curse.” A rumble rose up from the crowd. These were dangerous words. Paul waited. “He became a curse for us. How could it be otherwise? If he took our sins on himself, if he bore our transgressions, of course he was under a curse. How else can a Holy God deal with sin?” He paused and looked around. “We fall under God’s judgment because of our disobedience. But Jesus became a curse in obedience to God’s will. He was innocent. There was no sin in him. And yet, in obedience, he allowed himself to be arrested and crucified. And because of that obedience, God exalted him to the highest place.” He looked directly at Sosthenes. “That also is what the Prophet says.”

Crispus listened carefully. Saul handles himself well, he thought, relieved. He knows his Scripture. And he doesn’t let himself get in the way of his message. It was a quality Crispus admired.

He glanced up at Hester, to gauge what she was thinking. Her eyes were fixed on Saul, watching every gesture, every expression. Even when others were asking questions, still she watched Saul. She’s waiting for him to slip, Crispus realized. She’s looking for any lie behind the words. He had not seen any. Have you, Hester?

He dragged his eyes from his wife and looked for faces in the crowd. Old friends. Young men and women who’s vows he’d witnessed. Children he’d held in his lap. Widows who’s husbands he’d buried. So much invested in these people. So much at stake.

He lost the thread of the argument as he thought about his people. Will you believe what this man is telling you? he wondered. Have I prepared you well enough? To know the Scriptures? To understand the heart of our God? That was a concern to him. He felt a father’s responsibility to train his children well. But you’re old enough to make your own decisions now, aren’t you? he asked them. Choose well, my children. Choose wisely.

He looked up at the sound of a chair scraping and the rustle of robes. Berekiah stood. He spoke in a low voice that reached into every corner of the room. “I don’t like the way you abuse Holy Scriptures, Saul. I don’t like the way you abuse our hopes in the Messiah. Frankly, I don’t like you.” A spattering of applause rose to that. “But for the record, I don’t like the accusations you level against the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Are you saying that our leaders—the keepers of the Temple, the members of the Holy Council—are so corrupt that they would knowingly kill an innocent man, a man who was guilty of no crime? Are you saying they’re so blind to God that they couldn’t recognize a man of God when he stood right in front of them? Who do you think you are, Saul of Tarsus?”

Everybody held their breath. They wanted to hear Saul’s answer to that. The naked animosity radiating from Berekiah made most listeners uncomfortable. But it also made for high drama and the most interesting synagogue service any of them could remember.

At the question, Paul felt a tremble, a crack in his defenses, as though the dam that held back his regrets threatened to gave way. It was a question to which he was particularly vulnerable. His answer was almost a whisper.

“Who do I think I am? I’ll tell you, Berekiah. I was one of them. A student of Gamaliel. A Pharisee of the strictest sort. I’d risen as high in the ranks of Jerusalem’s leaders as my age would allow. In knowledge and in zeal, I surpassed my peers. My obedience of the law was faultless. I knew God’s will. I knew God’s Scriptures. I knew what was best for God’s people.” He said it with all the pride he once felt, granting them a taste of the man he had been in another life.

“And this Jesus of Nazareth threatened it all. He was dangerous. I was glad when they decided to kill him. And, after, I was eager to hunt down and kill his followers. I widowed women and orphaned children and imprisoned the sons of old men in my passion to protect God’s people from this Galilean heretic.”

Paul was visibly shaking, his voice trembling with emotion. “And I was blind! I was wrong! I did not recognize God’s Messiah. I did not understand God’s will at all. Who do I think I am?” He looked around the silent room with tortured eyes. “I am one of them. I have his blood on my hands. When I condemn them, I condemn myself. When I accuse them of being deaf to God, I confess my own deafness. I, who was so proud of keeping the law, turned out to be the worst kind of law breaker. I, who thought I was one of God’s favorites, ended up killing God’s Son!”

A wave of nausea washed over him and he grasped a chair to steady himself. Oh, God, forgive me! Why should they listen to me? Who do I think I am, after all? He looked around at the faces fixed on him, some softened by sympathy, but so many others filled with alarm or distaste. The silence in the room was thick as olive oil—a viscous, sticky quiet that threatened to smother him.


III

He went back to the shop with a crushing headache. Stripping off Aquila’s sweat-drenched robe, he lay on the sleeping mat and turned his face into the darkness of a corner. He lay there through the afternoon and into the night and through the next morning when Aquila came downstairs to open the shop, trying to keep as still as possible, waiting for the knife behind his eyes to dull. He slept some, when the pain permitted. But mostly he prayed and stewed. He stewed about how stubborn, how ugly people could be, especially about matters of faith. He’d seen it in himself often enough. He conjured imaginary debates in the synagogue, hearing the biting accusations in his head and shouting back the biting, harsh responses his flesh craved. He raged at himself and at them and even at God, demanding to know why sharing good news should be such grinding work, leaving him so worn and brittle. And then the pain in his head would hit again, reducing him to prayers for relief, for the oblivion of sleep, for an end to the hurt, an end to all the hurt.

Just when he was feeling most miserable and sorry for himself, just when he was tempted to tell Aquila to please stop banging around the shop, he heard a voice coming from the street and, in an instant, the headache was gone.


IV

“I can’t believe you’re here!” Paul repeated yet again, drinking in the two of them like they were flagons of cold mountain water set before a man who had just crawled through the desert.

Timothy spread his arms. “It’s us. We’re here. A bit road weary. Silas more than me, of course, because of his advanced age. But other than that, we’re fit and ready for duty.”

Silas rolled his eyes and grinned at Paul. “I tell you, Paul, I’ll enjoy having some adult conversation for a change. Traveling with this overgrown child limits talk to complaining, girls, and bodily functions.”

Timothy looked insulted. “I don’t complain.”

Paul laughed heartily at them both. He put his hands on their shoulders, looking from one to the other with affection and a great sense of relief. “I’m so glad you’ve come. Your timing couldn’t be better. Do you bring news from Thessalonike?”

“And from Philippi!” Timothy patted a bulge beneath his tunic. “Letters. And coin!”

Paul felt as though someone had just wrapped a warm blanket around him. His eyes watered. “Quick. Let me see the letters.” He drew the two of them into the shop, and made Timothy hike up his tunic and remove the money belt he wore next to his skin.

Paul stood there, weighing the belt in his hands, torn between the desire to be with Timothy and Silas and hear their stories or to tear into the letters that pulled at him with an almost physical urgency.

It was their filth and fatigue that made his decision. Their legs and tunics were spattered with mud. Silas had weary bruises under his eyes. And there in the confines of the shop, the odor of sweat and grime and unwashed bodies was overpowering.

Paul wrinkled his nose. “Boys, I am truly glad to see you. But I would be equally glad not to smell you.” He fished into the belt and pulled out a silver denarius. “Take yourselves down to the baths and try to chisel off some of the dirt. And buy yourselves a good meal.” He led them back into the street and pointed to the Temple of Apollo, its roof towering above the shops. “Make your way to that temple. Ask someone for the Lechaion Road…”

Aquila interrupted. “Paul, I’ll take them.”

Paul turned. He’d forgotten Aquila in his excitement. He grabbed Aquila’s arm and dragged him forward. “This is my very good friend, Aquila. Aquila, this is Timothy and Silas.”

Aquila shook their hands and then gestured with a nod. “Come on. It’s just a few blocks to the baths. I think they’ll let you in even though you’ll pollute the city’s water supply before you’re clean.”

Timothy grinned self-consciously. “It’s that bad?”

“Worse,” Aquila marched ahead of them down the street, hoping he was walking up-wind.

Paul watched them go and then hurried back into the shop for the pouch.

He was not a greedy man. His need for material things was minimal. The coin in the belt meant only that he could devote most of his waking hours to more important things than stitching leather. He set the purses of coin on the table and promptly forgot about them.

But the letters were another matter. He was greedy for the letters, for the news they contained, for the tangible connection to people loved and missed. As he piled them on the table, those folded scraps made his heart quicken and his hands shake. He sorted through them, fingering the wax of the seals, feeling the grain of the paper. So much invested in these people. So many stories behind each note. He scooped them from the table and held them against his chest and rocked back and forth for the longest time—giddy as a child, anxious as a parent.

Finally, he placed them back on the table and, selecting one, broke the seal and bent his head to read.


V

When Timothy and Silas returned from the baths, freshly scrubbed and smelling faintly of hibiscus, Paul was done with the letters. He was ready to listen.

So, through the evening and late into the night, they recounted their travels, telling Paul about the churches of Macedonia. He was a relentless listener, ravenous for details, impatient with any omission in their story. He wanted it all, in detail. He questioned them closely about Thessalonike. Their report and the letters from that city worried him. He made them go over their visit repeatedly.

By the time they spread their bedrolls, too tired to take off their boots, the two travelers could not decide if the road or Paul’s interrogation exhausted them more.

Paul was not exhausted, though. Their presence energized him. Their news and the letters they’d brought left him feeling better, more hopeful, than he’d felt in weeks. He sat up through much of the night to read the letters again, watching over the sleeping forms of his friends and thinking about what lay ahead.