Children's Bible Stories
Amy Steedman, 1923
THE MESSENGER OF THE KING
Many long years had gone by since Jeremiah the prophet cried his warnings in the streets of Jerusalem, and every one of those warnings had come true. The Jews were now a conquered people under the rule of the great Roman Empire, and although they were allowed to have a king, he was only a vassal, or servant king. The people felt bitterly the loss of their freedom, and they longed more and more for the great Deliverer whom God had promised to send-the King who was to sit on David's throne and make them once more a free people.
The time was drawing very near now when that promise was to be fulfilled. The coming of the King was close at hand. As in the early morning before sunrise the sky in the east is lit by a slow, soft light, which begins to spread upwards, faintly at first and then glowing into full glory as the sun appears, so there were already signs that the great Dawn was near, that the dark night of sin and sorrow was to fade before the Light of the World. God was sending a messenger to prepare the way of the King, and to tell the people of His coming.
It was at the time when a cruel king called Herod was ruling at Jerusalem that there lived at Hebron an old priest, Zechariah, and his wife Elisabeth. Theirs was a pleasant home on the sunny slopes of the Judean hills. And it was a happy home, too, for both Zechariah and his wife served God and loved Him with all their hearts.
But although the home was a happy one, it was very quiet and rather lonely. No patter of children's feet had ever sounded there; no childish voices had ever broken the quiet. The old priest and his wife had longed to have a child; but the years passed on and they both grew old, and the hope died away. There was to be no son to bear their name.
Perhaps it was specially lonely for Elisabeth when her husband went to take his turn in the service of the beautiful Temple at Jerusalem; but she had grown accustomed to that. She never looked for any change, but just lived her quiet life day by day. She little thought that something was going to happen soon that would change her whole life. Zechariah had gone up to the Temple to begin his share of the service, as he had so often done before. His part was to enter into the Holy Place where God's altar stood, and to swing the great golden censer before the altar, so that the fragrance of the incense should rise in its sweetness to heaven, together with the prayers of the people who knelt outside. Now, suddenly, in the midst of his prayers, as he swung the golden censer, the old priest looked up, and saw through the blue smoke of the incense that he was not alone. There, on the right side of the altar, stood an angel, a shining messenger from God, a vision so glorious that at first Zechariah was afraid.
But the voice of the angel calmed his fears; and as he listened to the message which God had sent his heart almost stood still with joy.
"Fear not, Zechariah," said the angel: "for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elisabeth shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you shall have joy and gladness; aid many shall rejoice at his birth."
He was to be a very special child, the angel went on to say, and he was to do a very special work, for which he must be carefully trained.
It all seemed so wonderful that Zechariah could scarcely believe it could be true, even as he listened to the angel's words. The doubt in his heart made him long for some sign, that he might be quite sure that God meant to give him a son.
There was no need for a sign. It was Gabriel, the angel who stood in the presence of God, who had brought him the message. That surely should have been sufficient proof that the message was true. But because Zechariah had doubted, the sign was given.
"You shall be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed," said the angel, "because you Believe not my words."
This was the news which the old priest brought home with him when the time of his service was ended; this was the wonderful happening which was to change the whole life of Elisabeth, the patient, lonely old woman.
The words of the angel Gabriel came true. God kept His promise and sent a little son to gladden the hearts of Zechariah and Elisabeth. But through all the months before the baby was born the old priest was dumb. Not a word could he speak, until the child was eight days old and it was time to give him his name.
"You will, of course, call him Zechariah, after his father," said the rejoicing relations and friends.
But Elisabeth answered quietly, "Not so; but he shall be called John." That was not a family name, objected the relations; they were sure she was making a mistake. They would try, by making signs, to ask the dumb father what name he wanted.
Zechariah understood their signs, and as he could not speak he called for a writing tablet, and when it was brought he wrote clearly the words, "His name is John." Even as he wrote, proving by his words that he believed all the angel had said to him, God took away the punishment which had been sent to him because he had doubted. His speech came back, and he could now talk and thank God in beautiful words as well as silently in his heart.
It was all so strange, that as the people talked together and looked at the baby they asked each other, "What kind of child will this be? " Then God's Holy Spirit filled the heart of the old priest, and taught him the wonderful song which we so often sing in church, beginning, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for He has visited and redeemed His people; "and going on to say, "And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for you shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways."
In that far-away country in those olden days the roads were often very rough and badly kept, and it was the custom when a king was to pass by that servants were sent a long way ahead, to clear the path and make it as smooth as possible before the king came. They would remove the stones, clear away any branches of trees which might have fallen across the way, and tell all those they met to stand aside and leave the road clear for the coming of the king.
And this was the work which God had set for the little son of Zechariah and Elisabeth. Only it was not just an ordinary road that he was to prepare and keep clear, nor was it for any earthly king that the way was to be made ready. The King was Jesus Christ, the promised Deliverer; the road was the hearts of His people, who were neither ready nor fit to welcome Him.
As the little lad grew up, his father and mother would begin to tell him about the work he was to do; and they trained him carefully, too, as the angel bad directed, making him hardy and strong both in mind and body. The King's messenger would need all his strength and courage to prepare that rough and crooked road before the coming of the King.
THE COMING OF THE KING
It was springtime and the fields of Palestine were all decked with their spring flowers. The silver gray of the olive trees shone above a sea of scarlet anemones, the tender green of the vines was as fair as the flowers themselves. Round about the little village of Nazareth spring had smiled very kindly upon the land, and buds were unfolding on every side to meet her smile. The very name of the little village meant "flowery."
There, in one of the little square houses built of white stone, a maiden was sitting sewing, and she seemed to belong to the spring and the flowers. No slender lily of the field was fairer than she, no white flower was purer than the heart of this village maiden. She was thinking happy thoughts as she sewed alone in her room that glad spring day, but she little knew that it was to be the most wonderful day of her life.
Suddenly, in the midst of her work, she felt she was not alone, and she stopped and looked up. There before her stood an angel, Gabriel, God's messenger, who was looking kindly down upon her. He called her by her name, Mary, and bade her not be afraid. But there was no fear in Mary's heart, she was not even startled. Her thoughts were so often with God that His messenger was welcome at any time.
"Hail, you that are highly favored," the angel Gabriel was saying, "the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women."
Mary looked up, wondering. She could not understand the meaning of these gracious words, but soon the wonderful truth dawned upon her. The angel told her that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Son of God, the Savior and King, whose name was to be called "Jesus," for He would save His people from their sins.
There was no thought of self in Mary's heart. She did not say she was only a poor maiden unfit to be the mother of the King of Heaven. She was ready for God to use her as He would; she was His handmaid ready to fulfill His will.
It was in the happy springtime that the angel brought this message to Mary, but it was in the cold dark days of winter that the angel's promise came true.
Joseph, the village carpenter, Mary's promised husband, knew all about the angel's message, for God had told him too about the coming of the King, and had bidden him be a faithful guardian to his young wife.
Together one cold winter day they journeyed up to the little hill town of Bethlehem, to put their names upon the census roll, as the Roman governor had commanded. All the people had been ordered to go to their native cities to give in their names, and both Joseph and Mary belonged to Bethlehem, the city of David, for they were descendants of the shepherd king.
It had been a long journey, and Mary was tired, although she rode upon the shaggy back of the donkey which Joseph so carefully led. It was late, and the winding white road that led to the city gates was almost deserted, for they were the last travelers to come in. Already the twilight was darkening into night, and the stars began to hang out their silver lamps in the deep dark blue overhead.
At last the inn was reached, and Joseph inquired anxiously about a lodging. It was too late; every room was full, they could not possibly be taken in. Every house in the little town was crowded. The only thing to do was to shelter themselves for the night in one of the stable caves, where oxen and donkeys, camels and mules, were crowded together.
And it was here, in a poor stable, that very night, that Mary's Baby, the King of Heaven, was born. Such a poor welcome it seemed for a King! Only a handful of hay for His bed, only a wooden manger for His cradle, only a few swaddling bands to wrap round His little limbs, only His poor sweet mother to wait on Him, and the breath of the ox and the donkey to warm Him.
But although no one in Bethlehem knew that a King had been born that night, although no bells rang cut, no grand illumination marked His coming, yet His stars shone down in silent splendor, His angels sang His song of welcome, and Mary's heart was full of joy. She knew that it was God's Son she held in her arms, that the angel's promise had been fulfilled.
Outside the town, on the slopes of the hill, shepherds were watching their flocks, just as the shepherd boy David had done in the same fields long years before; and to them the herald angels sang their song, telling the news of the Baby's birth, while the golden gates of Heaven swung wide and showed the glory within.
Soon the shepherds were kneeling in the little stable, worshiping the King; and as they knelt they told the young mother of all that they had seen out on the hillside, and repeated to her the angels' message "Peace on earth, goodwill to men."
Later on, another company of men knelt to do homage to the Baby King. They were no rough shepherds from the hills this time, but stately men in rich robes who had journeyed from a far-distant land, led by a star to the place where the young Child lay. They brought to Him precious gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid them at His feet; but far more precious than any gifts was the worshiping love which both they and the humble shepherds offered to God d as they knelt before Mary's son, the King of Heaven.
All these wonderful happenings were treasured up in His mother's heart, and filled her thoughts as she rocked her little son in her arms. Most mothers think a great deal about the name they mean to give their babies, but Mary had no need to think of that. Long ago the angel had told her that He was to be called "Jesus;" and so as soon as it was possible, she carried Him to the great Temple, just as we carry our babies to church, there to give them to God to be His children.
It was a very common sight in the Temple to see a mother bringing her baby to the priest, while the father carried the lamb or pigeons which it was the rule to offer as a thanksgiving; and there was nothing special to mark the little company from Bethlehem as they entered the Temple, Mary carrying her Baby in her arms, and Joseph holding in his hand the basket in which were two white doves.
But there, in the Temple, two of God's servants, Simeon and Anna, were waiting to see the Baby King. They did not look for any earthly pomp or grandeur, rich robes or royal state. Simeon, the old man, knew that the poor looking woman was indeed a queen, the mother of the Lord, that the Baby she held so lovingly in her arms was the King of Heaven. So he took the child in his arms and thanked God as he called Him a light sent to lighten the whole world and to be the glory of His people Israel.
Surely this was all a happy time for the gentle mother. But there were anxious days in store for her. Herod, the cruel king, had heard of the visit of those Wise Men, and was uneasy in his mind. He knew that God had promised to send a great Deliverer, a King to rule His people; but he thought it would be an earthly king, and he feared that his throne was in danger. The Wise Men had talked of a wonderful new star which had appeared, a star which marked a royal birth, and they had gone to Bethlehem to look for the new-born King. He had bidden them come back and tell him if they found the Child. But day after day passed, and there was no sign of the return of the travelers. God had warned them that Herod was planning mischief against the Baby King, and so they had gone quietly home another way.
Full of anger, King Herod realized that he had been mocked by those wise travelers, and he determined to carry through a cruel plan. He sent his soldiers to the peaceful little town and ordered them to kill every baby in Bethlehem. In that way the Baby King could not possibly escape, he thought.
But long before the soldiers appeared, God warned Joseph, the faithful guardian, that he must take the Baby and His mother and steal secretly away from the threatened danger. And Joseph did not lose a moment. He saddled the donkey, and placed Marv and the Baby carefully on its back, and then started out by night down the winding road which led to safety. The fear of the cruel king might drive them far from home, but the Baby lay soft and warm in His mother's arms, where no evil could touch Him.
All His life angels were very close to Him. It was an angel who had brought God's message to His mother that glad spring day. Angels had sung His welcome on the Bethlehem hills. It was an angel who had warned Joseph to flee away before Herod's cruel soldiers could arrive.
THE BOYHOOD OF THE KING
The little family from Bethlehem had only been in far-away Egypt for a year when news came that the cruel King Herod was dead, and God's word came once again to Joseph, telling him it was now safe to take the young Child and Mary His mother back to their native land. But before they reached Bethlehem they heard that Herod's son was now king, and that he was as cruel as his father had been; so they were afraid to go on, and instead they turned aside from the road and went by the winding path that led through the valley to Nazareth. There, in the quiet little village among the flowery fields, they made their home again, and Joseph once more took up his trade of village carpenter.
The Baby Jesus was but a little child when they first came to Nazareth, but He soon grew into a strong, tall boy. Only His sweet mother could have told us stories of His wonderful baby days, but all these precious stories she kept in her heart. We only know that Jesus grew "in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man," that He must have been the happiest child that ever lived because He never did anything wrong, but was kind and unselfish and full of love, first for His mother and then for every one else. He loved all God's creatures too, and the flowers and the birds. Afterwards when He became a man, and was teaching the people, He often spoke of the many things He had learned to love as a child in the little village of Nazareth-the colored flowers that made the fields so beautiful in spring, and the common brown sparrows which were of so little value, but which were in His Father's care.
So the years passed, until the Boy Jesus grew to be twelve years old, which was the age when Jewish boys were allowed to go with their parents for the first time to worship at the beautiful Temple at Jerusalem.
It was in the month of April that the great festival called the Passover was held, and great crowds of people wended their way along the roads that led to Jerusalem from all the villages and towns round about. It was pleasant to travel along the winding road down the valley, through the flowery fields of Nazareth, to rest under the cool green shade of the trees during the mid-day heat, to pitch white tents at night, and rest until the sun rose next day and the journey once more began. It was a wonderful journey for the Boy Jesus; and when, on the fourth day, they came in sight of Jerusalem, the great city, and saw the sun shining on the golden roof of the beautiful Temple and on the dazzling white marble of its pillars, it must have filled His heart with a great happiness. He knew all about the history of that holy city, and that the great Temple was His Father's house, but there were many other things He longed to know, many questions He wanted to ask.
All through the days of the festival the Boy Jesus was to be found in the wonderful Temple. But it was not the call of the silver trumpets, the sight of the hundreds of white-robed priests, the beauty of all the exquisite colored marbles, or the glory of the golden treasures that drew Him there. He wanted to listen to the great teachers who taught in the Temple; He wanted to ask them questions, and to learn all that He could about His Father's house.
So, when the festival had come to an end and the people had started on their homeward journey again, Mary found that her son was missing. They had gone on for a whole day, thinking He was with the other boys, but at night discovered that He was not there at all, but must have been left behind.
Sorely troubled and in great distress Mary and Joseph turned back at once, and for three nights and days they never rested while they searched for Him. They looked through all the tents pitched outside the city, they searched through all the city itself, but in vain. At last, on the third day, they went to that part of the Temple where the great teachers were assembled together, and there in their midst they found Jesus, who sat listening, and asking questions.
The poor tired mother's heart was sore with grief and anxiety. Never before had her son caused her any pain or trouble, and now, as she stretched out her hands to Him, she cried out the reproachful question—
"Son, why have you thus dealt with us? Behold, Your father and I have sought You sorrowing."
Ah! but she was forgetting that He was not only her son but the Son of God, that before everything else He owed obedience to His Father, and must prepare for the work He had been sent to do. Surely she should have known that, and should not have been so troubled and afraid.
"How is it that you sought me? "said Jesus, wonderingly. "Knew you not that I must be about my Father's business? "
He did not mean to hurt His gentle mother, but she must understand that God's work came before everything else. It was necessary to tell her that. But afterwards He rose obediently to go with her, leaving those learned men to wonder who this Boy could be who had asked such deep questions and showed such wonderful wisdom.
It was not time yet to begin the great work, and Jesus was ready to go back cheerfully and obediently to the little home at Nazareth, to work with Joseph in the carpenter's shop, and help His mother in the house. But all the time, day by day, He was learning to prepare Himself to be ready for the time when His work should begin.
JOHN THE BAPTIST
All this time, while the Boy Jesus was living His quiet life in the little village of Nazareth, learning to prepare Himself for His Father's work, another boy, only a few months older, was also being trained to help in that work.
This boy was John, the son of the old priest Zechariah, of whom the angel had said that he should be the messenger sent before the King to prepare His way before Him.
It was not an easy life that John led. He had no fine clothes or soft bed or dainty food. Elisabeth, his mother, must have found it hard, too, not to give her only son all the pleasures and treats which boys so much enjoy. But she never thought of pleasing herself. She knew that the boy must be trained to endure hardness, to make him a fit messenger of the King, and she taught him from. the very beginning the two great lessons of obedience and self-denial.
As soon as he was old enough he left the comfortable, happy home at Hebron, and far away out in the wilderness he lived his hard life alone, without friends or companions. Robbers there were in those wild, lonely places, but there was nothing they could rob him of. Wild beasts prowled about at nights, but he was brave and fearless, and under the light of the stars he slept as peacefully as if he had been at home. ills dress was a rough garment, made of camel's hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was what the poorest beggars ate— locusts and the honey which the wild bees stored away in the rocks.
But in the loneliness of that hard life the King's messenger learned many things. God seemed very near in the quiet wilderness. God's voice sounded clearly when no other voice was in his ear. Night and day he thought only of the work that lay before him, until his whole heart was filled with the great desire to make the road ready for the King's feet. He knew how full of sin were the hearts of the people to whom the King was coming. He knew how much must be done before that road could be made a royal highway.
It was on the banks of the river Jordan that he began his work. There he stood and preached to the people, a wild, strange figure in his camel's hair coat, and leathern belt. His face was weather-beaten and sun burnt, his hair was untrimmed, and he wore rough sandals upon his bare feet. His appearance certainly would not draw any one to listen to him. But as soon as he began to speak the people were held spellbound, and crowds gathered round hire. The news of this wonderful preacher who spoke such burning words spread from town to town and from village to village, and the people flocked out to the wilderness to hear him.
It seemed a strange message that this wild-looking messenger preached. The King was coming, he told them, the King for whom they had waited so long; but they were not fit to welcome Him.
He did not only, say your hearts are evil and you are wicked; he told them exactly what the sins were that were making their hearts so black and unworthy of the King's approach.
There were greedy people who had all they wanted, and never shared what they had with other people. These, he said, must give of their good things to the poor, who had nothing. He told the rough soldiers that they must not be cruel, nor must they take away things by force from defenseless people. Rich and poor alike, he told them plainly what were the many bad things they were doing, and how they must put an end to them before the King came.
There he stood, a lonely man in the midst of a great crowd, one voice on the side of God sounding in the ears of men who were more accustomed to the voice of the Evil One. But he was never afraid. He never thought of himself at all, only of the coming King, and with all his greatness and power he was as humble as a little child.
The people who listened to him began at last to think he was a very great prophet-perhaps even the King Himself; and one day they came and asked him plainly if this was so, if he was indeed the Christ.
"No," answered John at once. "I am nothing. I am but the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord." He was but the servant going before; the King was near at hand, whose shoes he was not even worthy to stoop down and unloose.
Now, as John preached to the people and told them how bad they were, some of them were very sad at heart, and wanted to live better lives; and then John baptized them in the river, to show that they were really sorry. Just as unclean things can be washed in water and made clean again, so it was a sign to show that they wanted their black hearts to be made white.
But one day, as John was baptizing, he looked up, and saw the King there, standing among the crowd.
No one knew that this was the King. He had no royal robes, no crown on His head. His hands were roughened with work, and He wore the dress of an ordinary poor peasant. Even John himself did not know Him, though something told him that he was in the presence of One mightier and holier than himself. So, when the King drew near and asked to be baptized among the rest, he was not willing to baptize Him at first. "I have need to be baptized of You, and come You to me?" he said. He would rather have knelt humbly at His feet. But Jesus wished to set a good example to others; and as the King had made known His will the servant could but obey.
Then it was that John, who had not recognized his Lord before, knew indeed that the King was there, for the gates of Heaven were opened wide, and God's Holy Spirit like a dove came down and rested upon Him, while God's voice sounded through the blue, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
Others besides John heard that voice, and, hearing it, left their teacher to follow the great Master. There was never a thought of self in the humble heart of God's messenger, and he was glad that people should leave him to follow the King. " He must increase, but I must decrease," he said. "He must grow greater and greater, while I grow less."
It was quite true. In a few months the messenger's voice was no longer heard on the banks of the Jordan. John no longer breathed the free air of the desert. Shut up in a dark dungeon, he waited the pleasure of King Herod Antipas, whose soldiers had seized him and dragged him to the Black Castle which overlooked the sad waters of the Dead Sea.
John feared no man. He had not hesitated to tell even a king that he was doing wrong, and so King Herod had determined to silence his accusing voice.
For one long year John lived in that dismal dungeon, and when at last the door was opened, it was a door through which he passed into the presence of God.
Suddenly one night, when a mirthful birthday feast was going on in the palace, a soldier entered the dungeon, carrying in his hands a sword and a golden dish. With one blow the prisoner's head was cut off, and borne away to the banqueting hall.
It was an easy matter to kill the body, but no one could kill the soul of the King's messenger. They could only set it free like a bird from a snare. The servant's work was ended. The voice that had cried aloud to prepare the way of the Lord was silent now, but his words could never die.
Beheaded in a dark dungeon, lonely and friendless, the words spoken by the angel Gabriel before his birth, "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord," had indeed come true.
And the King, the Lord whom John served, said of His faithful servant these golden words: "Among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist."
THE WORK OF THE KING
At last the time came when Jesus must leave the little quiet Nazareth village, and begin His Father's work. There were so many poor people in the dark world waiting for the Light, so much suffering and pain and sin waiting for the healing touch of His hand and His gracious word of forgiveness.
But although He was God, the Light of the world, who could forgive sins, yet He was Man too, and He never saved Himself from any of our hardships and temptations. The devil tempted Him just as he tempts each one of us now; and He often suffered hunger and pain, and many a night He had no place in which to shelter, or pillow on which to lay His head.
The story of His wonderful work has often been told-how He opened the eyes of poor blind men, healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the sorrowful, brought back life to the dead, and, more than all, taught people to know that God was their Father, and loved each one of them. But among all the stories of this wonderful life, children always love to remember the special times when Jesus had time to think of them, and to speak to them as well as to the grown-up people, and how the children of long ago showed their love for Him as well.
It was one day when Jesus was passing a little village that He sat down to rest for a while under the cool shade of a wayside tree. He was very weary, and His disciples and friends who were with Him were anxious that He should rest quietly, and that no one should disturb Him. But the village people had heard that the great Teacher was there, and the joyful news quickly spread from house to house. The women hastily called the children together from their play. The little ones who could not walk they carried in their arms; even the tiniest babies were not left behind. These mothers knew how good and kind and wonderful this great Teacher was. They had heard how the very touch of His hand healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, and they wanted Him to lay those loving hands upon their children's heads, for they knew that His touch would bring a blessing.
Very soon a crowd had gathered, and began to move towards the place where Jesus was. The barefooted children in their scanty little garments pattered along the dusty road; the women in their coarse red and blue robes, with bright handkerchiefs over their heads, followed behind, carrying the babies in their arms. All hurried towards the place where that tired figure could be seen resting at the wayside.
The disciples of the Master frowned as they saw the approaching crowd. This was too bad. If there were sick people to be healed or anxious men who wanted to hear the Master's wise words, it would have been more easily excused. But to disturb Him for nothing more than a crowd of children and babies was more than they could bear. The women should have known better than to allow their children to come there and trouble the Master.
So the disciples hurried forward to check the little crowd and bring it to a standstill before it could disturb that quiet figure. The children were to go home at once, they said, and the mothers should be ashamed of themselves for being so selfish and thoughtless.
All the happy smiles began to fade upon the children's faces, and the mothers hung their heads with downcast looks when they heard the rebuking words. Slowly they turned to go back again without the blessing they had longed for. But in a moment their disappointment was turned into joy, for the Master, looking on, called to them Himself, and the sound of His dear voice could be heard by all.
"Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not," He said, "for of such is the kingdom of God."
He was displeased with His disciples for trying to send the little ones away. He wanted them, every one.
The children were not shy. They knew at once that it was the voice of some one who loved them, and they pressed happily forward as near to Him as possible, resting their little sun-browned hands confidingly on His knee, or clutching at a fold of His robe. The mothers, too, came near, and humbly asked if He would lay His hand in blessing on their babies' heads. Each little dark or sunny head felt the touch of that gentle hand as the children gathered round His knees. And not only that, but He took the tiny babies in His own arms, just as the good shepherd carries his lambs.
It was when His life on earth was nearly ended, that once more a crowd of children gathered round the Master. But this time they did not come to ask anything of Him, but to give Him all they had to offer their song of praise and worship.
The day before, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem amidst the welcoming shouts of the people. The men and women who went out to meet Him treated Him as if He were indeed a king. There was no procession of horsemen and chariots, no banners flying or trumpets blown, no royal robes or jeweled crown. The King, clothed in His peasant robes, rode upon a humble donkey, and there seemed nothing to show that He was a great conqueror. But that day the people hailed Him as their earthly king. They took off their garments, and laid them on the road as a carpet for Him to ride over; they cut down palms and silvery olive branches, and strewed them in His way. The air rang with the sound of their voices as they shouted, "Hosanna: Blessed be the King that comes in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest."
The children among the crowd listened to that shout of praise, and it rang in their ears until they too joined in the song. And later on, when the King entered the Temple, they gathered round Him, a little group of children, and sang out again with all their hearts the hymn they had learned: "Hosanna: Hosanna in the highest."
The frowning, white-robed priests were very angry as they listened. They were really more angry with Jesus than with the children, for they hated Him, and it made them furious to hear the people call Him a King. They dared not say what was in their hearts to Him, but it was safer to blame the children who were making so much noise in the Holy Temple with their hymn of praise.
"Hear You what these say?" demanded one of the chief priests of Jesus, with an impatient gesture of his hands towards the singing children.
But Jesus loved to hear those childish voices. It made Him happy to receive their praise and love, and He would not bid them be silent. It was perfect praise, He told the priest who wished to have them silenced.
With the same kind look in His eyes as when He took those village babies in His arms, He listened now to the voices of the city children, ready always, then as now, to receive their love and worship.
PARABLES, OR STORIES
Every one loves stories, and Jesus, as He taught the people, knew this. So He often wrapped up some special lesson in the form of a story, and hid the beautiful truth deep in its heart. Only those who looked carefully and listened with their hearts as well as their ears, found the hidden meaning of these stories, or parables, as they are called.
It was not the learned and the rich who crowded round most eagerly to listen to the Master's stories. It was to the poor, weary, toil-worn people that Jesus loved to speak His comforting words. Many of these people were not at all good; but that was just the reason why they wanted help, and needed to be taught to try and live a whiter, purer life.
It was once when He was among a crowd of these poor, sinful people, who were listening with eager, wistful faces to His words of kindness and hope, that He told the story of the Prodigal Son.
"There was once a father who had two sons," the story began. The elder was hard-working, steady, and obedient, one who never gave his father any trouble, but always did his duty. But the younger was a headstrong, difficult boy, idle and self-willed, fond of pleasure, and determined to have his own way. He did not want to work and earn his own living; he thought he had a perfect right to the money which belonged to his father.
"Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me," he said one day. He could not even wait until at his father's death he would receive his share. No, he wanted it now, and he did not stop to think how such a request must hurt his kind father.
The father knew that it was no use telling him how foolish and wrong he was. The headstrong, selfish boy must learn that lesson another way. So he quietly divided all his money, and gave the younger son his share.
There was nothing now to keep the boy at home. His home and his father meant nothing to him compared to pleasure and adventure. So he set off on a long journey to a far-away country, carrying his money with him.
At first everything was as delightful as he could wish. He had nothing to do from morning until night but to plan how he could best enjoy himself. The companions who gathered round him were ready to flatter him and help him spend his money. The flowery path of pleasure was very pleasant to tread.
But by-and-by everything changed. The mirthful banquets, the riot of delights, came to an end. All his money was spent. All his friends, as they had called themselves, left him. They had no longer any use for him when he had nothing more to give them.
There he was, all alone, a stranger in a strange land. And how was he to live? He had never learned to do skilled work, and it was not easy to begin to earn his living now. There was a great famine, too, in the land, and food was very scarce. Day by day things grew darker and darker. And at last he was so hungry and so poor that he was thankful to hire himself out as a swineherd, and go into the fields to feed pigs. The wages for that kind of work were very small, not nearly enough to buy him his daily bread; and often as he watched the pigs grubbing among their food, he was hungry enough to envy them, and to wish he could have a share of the husks upon which they fed.
Thoughts of home now began to haunt him. How kind and patient his father had been. What a comfortable, happy place home seemed. looking back upon it now. The very servants there were better fed, and not so hard-worked as he was.
And then suddenly one day, when these thoughts were crowding in upon him, he saw quite clearly, as if by a sudden flash of light, how wrong and foolish he had been from the very beginning. Out there in the fields, while the pigs grunted and fed around him, and there was no one to listen to him, he cried out loud the new thought that had come into his mind: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants."
It was not an easy thing to go humbly back, to say he had been wrong and ask for forgiveness, but it was the only way. And day by day the longing to see his father, and to tell him how sorry he was, grew stronger and stronger. He was ready to suffer any punishment, if only he might live at home again.
It was a long journey, but at last the poor, hungry, ragged boy came within sight of home. It was time now to take his courage in both hands, and go to meet his father.
But while he was still a long way off his father saw him. Perhaps he had been watching for that return, feeling sure that some day his boy would come back. He did not wait now for him to come humbly to the door. His heart was so full of pity and love that he ran out to meet him, and before the boy could say a word his father's arms were round him, and he felt his father's kiss of forgiveness and welcome.
"Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and am no more worthy to be called your son," the words came from the boy's trembling lips. He was more ashamed now than ever. But the father did not even talk of forgiveness; that was too well understood.
"Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him," he commanded the servants; "and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."
So there was feasting and rejoicing, and only the elder brother was vexed and angry. He did not like to see his wasteful, undutiful brother welcomed back into the home; he thought he deserved to be punished, and that the reward should have been given to the one who had stayed at home and done his duty.
Looking round upon the listening faces, Jesus, as He finished the story, saw many of His Father's poor, sinful children, who had been just as wicked and foolish as that younger son. He longed for them to know that their Father in Heaven was as pitiful and ready to forgive them as was the father in the story, even though the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees would have them punished as they deserved.
Those clever lawyers and priests who so carefully kept the law needed their lesson too, and it was to one of these that He told the story of the Good Samaritan, that they might learn the lesson of love to their neighbor.
There was a man one day, the story began, who set out to travel along the road which led from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a wild road, where robbers often lurked, ready to swoop down on any unsuspecting traveler if he happened to be alone and unarmed.
This man was going along the road, never dreaming of danger, when suddenly the robbers sprang out from behind the rocks and fell upon him. They took away from him everything he possessed, even his clothes, and hurt him so sorely that, when they went off and left him by the roadside, he was half dead.
Presently there came along the road one of the priests from the beautiful Temple, and he saw the poor wounded traveler lying there. But it was none of his business, he thought; he did not know the man or care about him. So he carefully drew aside, and passed by on the opposite side of the road. Then another man came along, one who also called himself a servant of God. He went close to the poor traveler and looked at him thoughtfully, but did not touch him or put out a hand to help him. It was not his duty to attend to wounded travelers, and no one could expect him to do more than his duty, and so he passed on.
The poor man would certainly have been left there to die if another traveler had not found him later on. This traveler was not a Jew, but a Samaritan and quite a stranger. He was not specially learned or anxious to do his duty. He never thought of duty as he looked at the poor stripped and wounded figure so sorely in need of help. Very gently he raised the traveler's head and bound up his gaping wounds; and then, lifting him upon the donkey, he led him carefully along that dangerous road until an inn was reached. There the poor man was carefully tended; and as all his money had been stolen, the good, kind stranger paid the innkeeper himself before he left.
"Now," said Jesus to the learned man who had listened to the story, "which of these three, think you, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? "
"He who showed mercy on him," came the answer at once. The lawyer was quick to see the lesson Jesus would teach, but that was no use unless he learned to practice the mercy He spoke of.
And so, "Go and do likewise," was the warning that fell from the Master's lips, as the story ended.
THE TRIUMPH OF THE KING
It seemed at the end as if the King's life had been a failure. Where was His throne? Where was His crown?
Cruel men had seized Him and dragged Him before the judge. The people who had once cried, "Hosanna to the King of Israel! "now shouted, "Crucify Him! crucify Him!" His only crown was a wreath of thorns which the mocking soldiers placed upon His head. His throne was a wooden cross to which they nailed Him, driving the nails through those kind hands which had brought comfort and healing and blessing to so many, and through the tired feet which had trod so faithfully the path of suffering.
To His friends, even perhaps to His dear mother, everything looked black and full of despair. All their hopes were as dead as the quiet body which they laid in the tomb of the silent garden.
That was upon Good Friday; but Easter morning was close at hand.
Very early on the third day, before there was any sign of light, while the stars still looked down on the quiet, sleeping world, a strange thing happened to the soldiers who were keeping guard over the tomb. The wicked men who had put the King to death had been afraid that His friends might steal His body and pretend He was alive, so they had set these soldiers there to watch. All had been quiet until the early morning, and then suddenly the earth shook, and the terrified soldiers saw that Heaven's gates had opened and an angel had come down and rolled away the stone which guarded the opening of the tomb. They were too frightened to stay there any longer, and they fled away from the garden and back to the city.
Though it was so early and still dark, a little company of women were on their way to the silent garden that Easter morning. There was a scent of flowers in the soft air, and as the light dawned in the east the birds began to wake and sing their morning songs. Spring had come. The trees which had looked so gray and dead were bursting into tender green leaves, and seeds which had lain buried in the earth were pushing up living shoots and tiny buds. But the women did not notice flowers or birds or budding trees. It was a dead world to them, because He, their King, was dead, and their own hearts, too, seemed dead with grief.
They reached the garden, and came to the tomb cut out of the rock. Surely some one had been there before them. In the dim light it seemed as if the stone had been rolled away. Trembling and frightened, they went closer, and, stooping down, looked into the tomb. It was empty. The body of the King was not there.
Could some one have stolen that precious body? The women looked at one another in bewildered terror. What should they do? One of them, Mary Magdalene, started at once to go back and tell His disciples; but the others waited there, too full of grief to do anything but just stand and gaze at the empty tomb. Presently they looked carefully in again to make sure; and suddenly, to their amazement, they saw the tomb was empty no longer. An angel sat there, clothed in shining white robes, whose face shone with a heavenly light.
"Be not afraid," they heard him say, as they knelt before him in their terror. "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: He is risen He is not here."
God's angels had carried many a message of joy from Heaven to earth, but never a more joyful one than this. The King was alive. He had conquered death, and was alive for evermore. It was the Resurrection morning, and just as spring was waking into life those seeds which had been buried under ground, so the bodies which slept in their graves would one day rise again through the power of the King of Heaven, who had Himself risen from the dead.
Presently two of the Master's disciples came hurrying into the garden, followed by the woman who had gone to call them. They saw the empty tomb and heard about the shining angel, and they were bewildered, and scarcely knew what to believe. They should have remembered how Jesus had told, them He would rise again; but it seemed too good to be true.
It was the poor, sorrowful woman, Mary Magdalene, who first saw the risen King. She was kneeling by the empty tomb and weeping bitterly, for she had not seen the angel, and she still thought some one had stolen His body away. Then through her tears she saw a man standing near her, whom she took to be the gardener, and she begged Him to tell her if He knew where the body of Jesus was. Her eyes were so dim with weeping that she could not see clearly, but her ears could never mistake her Lord's voice, the voice that now called her by name, "Mary."
It was the King Himself who stood there: her Lord and Master at whose feet she knelt.
One by one He showed Himself to His friends and followers, sometimes when they were in little groups of two or three, sometimes when there were many of them gathered together. Each one of them saw and believed, and the one who still doubted was shown in His Master's hands and feet the print of the cruel nails, and the mark of the sword- thrust in His side. There was no room for doubt. It was indeed Jesus, their Lord and Master.
For some little time yet the King remained on earth to help and teach His followers, and to show them that He was indeed alive. Summer had now come, the fields of golden grain were almost ready for the harvest sickle, and the time drew near when God's Son must return to His Father's kingdom once more.
On the grassy hill top of Mount Olivet the disciples were gathered together with Jesus in their midst; and as He blessed them He was parted from them, and ascended into Heaven, leaving them gazing upwards as a cloud hid Him from their sight.
Once more they were left alone, once more their King was taken from them, but this time it was no hopeless parting. At the side of the little group of men who still stood gazing upwards two angels now appeared, who told them that they ought not to be sorrowful, but, rather, full of triumphant joy. The King was only parted from them for a time. They would see Him again, for He would return in glory, even as they had seen Him ascend into Heaven, a King for evermore.
PETER AND THE ANGEL
Peter, the servant of Christ, lay in prison awaiting his execution, ready and willing to lay down his life in the cause of his King.
Many years had passed since that long ago day, when his brother had come to him and eagerly told him, "We have found the Christ," and he had first looked upon the beloved face of his Lord and Master. He had been a bold, active, young fisherman then, proud of his strength and his courage, and when the Master had called him to leave his nets and his boat, and to be instead "a fisher of men," he had thrown himself into the new work with all the energy and keenness he possessed.
Then came that dark, bitter time when the King had looked for courage in His bold follower, and had found cowardice—when Peter had deserted and denied his Lord. Could he ever forget how he had boastfully declared, "I will lay down my life for Your sake," and how the sorrowful answer had come, "Will you lay down your life for my sake? Truly, truly, I say unto you, the rooster shall not crow until you have denied me thrice."
He had wept very bitterly when those words had come true, and the crowing of the rooster had reminded him that he was a traitor and a coward. But no tears could wash away the remembrance of his Master's face when for a moment He turned and looked upon His cowardly servant.
All his pride then had been crushed and humbled, all his courage lost; but one true thing remained-his love for his Master. It was this love that had helped to make him once more a trusted friend and follower of the King. After that Resurrection morning his Lord had come to him, and had three times asked him the question which was to wipe out all traces of his three denials.
"Do you love me?" asked Jesus.
"Lord, You know all things, You know that I love You," cried Peter. And then came the command, "Feed my sheep." Ever since that day Peter had striven to do his Master's bidding. There had been no signs of cowardice now. He was the boldest of the followers of the King; and so it was that, when a great persecution of the Christians was begun, he was one of the first to be seized and flung into prison, with a special company of soldiers to guard him.
It was springtime, and soon all the earth would be decked with flowers, and new life would be waking everywhere. It was the time when, many years ago now, his Lord had risen, and made Easter day a day of triumph.
Now it had been decided that when Easter dawned the people should enjoy the pleasure of seeing one of the King's followers put to death, and Peter waited quietly in his dungeon for the morning to break.
All the Christians in their houses and secret meeting-places were praying for him. He was sure of this, and the thought comforted him; so he settled himself to sleep peacefully between his soldier guards, to whom he was bound by two strong chains. Outside in the starlight more soldiers were keeping watch, but in the prison all was dark.
Then, all of a sudden, the darkness vanished, and a light shone clear and bright. It was neither starlight nor the glow of dawn, but an angel stood there in shining robes, and the dungeon was filled with a glorious radiance.
"Arise up quickly," sounded a voice in Peter's ear, as the angel bent over him and roused him from his sleep. Peter struggled to obey, forgetting his chains; but as the strong hand of the angel helped him to rise, the chains slipped from his hands and left him free.
Again the angel spoke, and bade him clothe himself and put his sandals upon his feet and wind his cloak around him. All this Peter did without questioning. He was sure all this was only a dream or a vision. Presently he would awake, to find himself chained as usual to the sleeping guards.
But again the voice sounded, "Follow me," and Peter followed the shining messenger through the prison door and past the soldiers who kept guard outside. Every door silently opened to let them pass. Not a soldier challenged them; and when at last they came to the iron gate which led into the city, that too swung back to let them through. Into the city streets they went-streets which Peter knew well—and suddenly he found himself alone, with no guiding light and no angel companion.
It was not a dream. The cool night air blew upon his cheek, the stars were quietly shining overhead, and he knew every house of the street in which he stood. Then the truth flashed upon him. God had sent His angel to deliver him, and he was free. The people were baulked of their prey, and the Easter dawn would bring him life, not death. There had been no sleep for Peter's friends that night. In a house close by they were still praying and watching for the dawn, when a knock sounded at the door of the gate, and a young maid, called Rhoda, went hastily to see who was there. In those terrible times a knock might mean some fresh terror. The maid would not open the door until she knew who it was who knocked, and she listened intently to the voice which answered her from without.
It was a voice she knew, she was quite sure of it. Overjoyed and full of wonder, she did not stop to open the gate, but ran swiftly back to tell the others. The very man they were praying for was standing there, knocking at the door, she declared.
"You are mad," they answered her almost roughly. This was no time for idle imaginations. But there was no doubt she believed what she said. There was a ring of absolute certainty in her voice, and at last some of them began to think that perhaps it was Peter's spirit which had stood there.
But the knocking still sounded on the door. Could a spirit knock so loudly? At least it was wiser to open the door and see who was there. And so at last the gate was cautiously opened, and Peter stood before them.
The cries of surprise and delight were checked almost as soon as uttered. There was much need still for caution, and Peter held up his hand to command silence. Then, in breathless hush, they led him in, and he told them the story of his deliverance, and how at the angel's touch the chains had fallen from his hands, and the bolts and bars had slipped back.
So for a time Peter was still free to carry on his Master's work. But the end, when it came, was as welcome to him as the shining angel had been, for this time it was through the gates of death that he passed into the presence of the King.
We cannot be quite sure by what death the old fisherman saint glorified his Master, but people think that it was at Rome that he gave up his life. An old story tells us that Peter was fleeing away from that city to escape death, when, on the great road leading to Rome, he met his Master walking wearily towards the city, carrying a cross upon His back. "Master, where go You?" asked Peter.
"I go to Rome to be crucified in your place," answered the King. Then Peter knew that he had done wrong in leaving his post of duty at which God had put him, and he turned back bravely to meet his death.
It was the same death as that Master had suffered; only, to the humble, loving soul of His servant, it seemed too great an honor to die as his Master had done, and he begged that he might be crucified head downwards, to mark the difference between himself and his King.
SAUL, THE PERSECUTOR
In the far-off city of Tarsus, at the time when Jesus lived at Nazareth, a little boy was born, to whom his parents gave the name of Saul. He was a Roman citizen, because he was born in the Roman province; but he was also a Jew, and was brought up as a very strict Jew indeed. As soon as he could understand anything he was taught lessons out of the Old Testament; and the very first thing he learned would be to reach up and touch the metal box which was fastened to the side of the door, and which held some verses of the Bible written on parchment. Then he would reverently kiss the little hand which had touched the box, just as he saw the grown-up people do.
Although the Bible was his great lesson book, as he grew older there were many other and more difficult things he had to learn; and by the time he was a man he knew all that a strict Pharisee should know, and was very wise and learned indeed.
Rumors, of course, had reached the far-off city of Tarsus about the new Jewish teacher, whom some people called a prophet, and some even said was the Christ. There were tales of His wonderful cures and the miracles He worked; then the news of His Crucifixion and how His followers declared He had risen from the dead. But Saul only grew angry as he listened. The Christ he looked for was a king, not a peasant of Nazareth, and he hated the people who called themselves His followers and said He was the King.
It seemed no use to punish these people, to beat and imprison them, or even to condemn them to death. Nothing daunted them or silenced them. Day by day they grew bolder and bolder, day by day more and more people joined them and shared their belief. It was time to put an end to all this, and Saul eagerly threw himself into the work, determined to stamp out this new religion. Those followers of the Nazarene might try to hide, but his spies would find them and drag them out; they might think to escape him by fleeing to other cities, but he would follow them wherever they went. He was so busy hunting the poor Christians that he had now no time to do anything else.
It happened just then that one of the chief of those Christians, whose name was Stephen, had been seized at Jerusalem and dragged before the High Priest; and hearing this, Saul eagerly hastened to the great city, that he might help in the trial and punishment.
Surely, as he watched that trial, he must have wondered what made these men so bold and fearless. There stood the young man Stephen, alone among his enemies, who crowded round him like a pack of hungry wolves eager to devour a lamb. No sign of terror showed in his calm face. Absolutely fearless, he stood out to meet his accusers and make his defense. The lying witnesses could not meet his straightforward gaze, but watched him with shifty eyes, and acknowledged even to themselves that his face was as the face of an angel.
But all unmoved Saul looked on, and when at last the sentence was given that the prisoner should be stoned, there was no pity in his heart, but rather a fierce joy as he went to look on at the execution.
Steadfastly and unmoved, Stephen stood and faced his murderers. Then, looking up towards heaven, a great glory seemed to shine there as if reflected from above. Little wonder that there was no room for fear in Stephen's heart; for there, as he gazed upwards, he saw his Master's face, and knew that He was waiting at God's right hand to welcome His faithful servant.
The cruel stones came hurtling through the air. Little by little the life was beaten out of his body, but never a sign of shrinking did he show. Only as he knelt there the same prayer rose to his lips which his Master had prayed upon the Cross: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
That was the end. Death, stooping down over the poor, bruised body, showed none of its terrors, but was like a kindly sleep, bringing only healing, rest, and peace.
Saul, looking on, saw all this, but still he fiercely held to his own opinions. The man deserved to die. It was the murderers who were right, not the martyr.
But perhaps the remembrance of Stephen's face troubled him more than he knew, and made him try to escape from it by hunting the poor Christians more fiercely than ever, so that soon the very name of Saul was a terror to all the followers of the Master.
He hunted them from their hiding-places. Wherever they fled he followed them. It seemed as if he could not rest; and when news was brought to him that many of the Christians had found a refuge in the city of Damascus, five days' journey from Jerusalem, he prepared at once for a fresh hunt. Taking a guard of soldiers with him, he set out with all haste, anxious to reach Damascus as soon as possible.
At last the city came in sight in all its fair beauty of white buildings, set in a garden of green trees and silver olive groves. But Saul was not thinking of its beauty.
It was mid-day, and most travelers rested then in some shade where they might escape the blinding heat of the sun; but Saul was in too great a hurry to rest, and he pressed forward with his band of soldiers.
The fierce heat beat down upon the white road, and dazzled their eyes; but it was not the sunlight which suddenly wrapped them round with such a blinding glare that the whole company fell with their faces to the ground, as if struck by lightning. The light was brighter than any sunlight, and from the midst of the light came a strange sound—a sound which to the soldiers seemed only a confused noise, but which Saul knew to be the voice of God.
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" said the voice.
From the blinded helpless figure lying there upon the ground the words burst out, "Who are You, Lord?"
"I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute," came the voice again.
Saul's proud, fierce spirit was broken. He was as humble as a little child as he listened to that voice. "What shall I do, Lord?" he asked.
There, in the midst of the light, stood Jesus Christ, the King whom he had believed was an impostor. Now, seeing Him as Stephen had seen Him, he knew that it was the Master, the Captain of his soul, who spoke to him.
There was a great work before him, said the voice; but first he must go on to the city and wait there until a messenger should come and tell him what he was to do.
The terrified, listening soldiers began to recover. The light had vanished, the noise had ceased, and they stood up upon their feet again. But Saul still lay there, trembling and bewildered, and when they went to raise him they found that he was blind, and could only hold out groping hands in the darkness. So they went on their way as best they could, and led Saul stumbling along the road, until they reached the city.
There for three black days he waited. But in the darkness he learned to pray, and on the third day God's messenger came, and brought light and comfort. The blindness was lifted not only from his eyes, but also from his heart, and he saw clearly that now he must obey the King and fight His battles.
At first the Christians would scarcely believe that the man they so feared was now their friend, and they still distrusted him; but as time went on they were forced to believe in the great change. Just as thoroughly as he had once led the persecution, he now worked with all his might to help them, eager to show his love for the Master, no matter how much pain and suffering fell to his share.
And before many weeks were past he began to suffer with his fellow- Christians. As he had persecuted others, now he himself was the persecuted, and the Jews made up their minds that he must be seized and put to death. Soldiers were set to guard the city gates, and orders were given to arrest him if he tried to escape.
Now the city walls around Damascus were so solid and broad that many houses were built upon them, and their windows looked over the surrounding fields across the moat below. Some of Saul's friends lived in one of these wall houses, and they felt sure that if Saul was to escape the best plan would be to lower him from one of the windows, out of sight of the city guards. So they took a large basket, and fastened it with a rope, and when Saul had climbed into the basket, they lowered it slowly down against the wall, swaying to and fro until it touched the ground.
No one was in sight. It was easy now to cross the moat and make his way across the fields. Saul had for that time, at least, escaped his enemies.
PAUL, THE SERVANT OF CHRIST
Three years had passed since Saul-who was now known as Paul-had come proudly riding along the road that led from Jerusalem to Damascus, full of power and importance, backed by his guard of soldiers. Now he was stealing back that same way alone and friendless, fleeing for his life. Then he had been the hunter, now he was himself the hunted.
Others might think it a sad change, but Paul knew it was a glorious one. There was no fear in his heart, only a great joy; he did not feel in the least lonely, for he had found the best Friend of all, and he rejoiced to have the honor of suffering for his King.
There, at Jerusalem, he knew he would find many friends. Peter, the disciple of Jesus, might be there, and the old fisherman saint would tell him all he longed to hear about the wonderful life of the King, and would even repeat the very words which Jesus had spoken. These words now seemed to Paul more precious than any gold or silver.
No great welcome, however, awaited him at Jerusalem. His name was still held in terror by those poor, persecuted Christians. It seemed but yesterday that they had seen him watch with triumphant eyes the sufferings of Stephen, and it was difficult to believe that he was now their friend. The learned men and the rulers, too, looked upon him with suspicion. Here was a man who had been the keenest of all in persecuting the Christians, and now he came preaching their religion. The simplest and safest plan would be to have nothing to do with him at all.
And so Paul found no welcome at Jerusalem, and he made up his mind to return to Tarsus, his native town, and carry the good news to more distant lands. The Master had said, "Go you into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." Strangers and foreigners were to have a share in Christ's kingdom as well as the Jews. It was a dark world, full of evil and the power of Satan. Paul held in his hand the lighted torch which was to carry light into distant countries whose names even he did not know. At that very time Roman soldiers were landing on a far-away little gray island of the north, and holding it with a firm, conquering grip. It was a far cry from Tarsus to Britain, but gleams from the lighted torch were to reach even there in time.
Meanwhile Paul began his missionary work in places round about Palestine. There was little glory and much suffering in that work which he was doing for his Master. Many a time he was cruelly beaten, and with bruised, torn back, was thrown out of the city where he had been trying to tell the people about their King. Sometimes his wonderful words and the charm of his speaking held men spellbound, and the light spread in a marvelous way; and then again would come a check, and the very people who had listened to him and applauded him were ready to stone him to death.
It was necessary all this time for Paul to work with his hands as well as his head, that he might earn enough money for his daily bread, and he was a splendid worker as well as a preacher. His trade was tent- making, and as he sat and wove the strong haircloth, his thoughts would go wandering to those distant lands to which he longed to carry the light. How splendid it would be to go the whole length and breadth of the great Roman Empire—even to Rome itself, that queen city of the world.
Then one night as he lay asleep he dreamed a dream, and saw by his bedside a man from Macedonia, that country across the sea, who came with a message of invitation.
"Come over and help us," said the dream figure. The words rang in Paul's ears as he awoke, and the dream decided him. He would travel still farther afield; he would leave Asia, and cross over to Europe.
The Jews were not greatly loved in Roman cities, and Paul found many difficulties and dangers awaiting him. Once at the great town of Philippi he and his companion, Silas, were set upon by the crowd, and very roughly handled. There was every sign of a riot, and the Roman magistrates gave orders to the soldiers to beat the two Jews with rods, and to quiet the people. So Paul and Silas were dragged off to the market-place, stripped to the waist, and tied to the common whipping- post. In vain they declared they were Roman citizens, and not slaves. No one listened to them, and they were flogged in a terrible way, and afterwards thrown into the common jail, a place more fit for beasts than men. Here in the dark dungeon hole they lay, their feet fastened into the wooden stocks fixed in the wall, that there might be no chance of their escape.
Tortured and half-dead, in that noisome prison Paul and his companion never let go their courage for one moment. It was for their King they suffered, and that made all suffering easy. In the darkness they sang the old Jewish psalms they knew so well, and the sound of their singing went floating away to the other prison cells. It was a strange, almost awesome thing to hear music in that dreadful place, and the other prisoners listened in terrified wonder.
Night came on. The crowds that had gathered in the market-place around the whipping-post were scattered, and the rioters had gone home. All was quiet; not even a breath of wind stirred the still air, when suddenly a strange shiver seemed to pass over the city, a curious trembling in earth and air. Then came a low, rumbling sound, and a great rocking, as walls swayed and fell, doors burst open, and the very foundations of the great prison shook.
It was an earthquake. The head jailer, leaping to his feet, rushed to his prison wards. The doors were open, as he feared; the stocks were loosened from the walls. All the prisoners must have escaped, and that would mean death for him. In despair, he drew his sword to put an end to himself at once.
But Paul had seen the glittering sword and the jailer's despairing face, and guessed what he meant to do.
"Do yourself no harm," he cried, "for we are all here."
Hurriedly the jailer called for a light, and sprang into the prison. It was quite true—not one of the prisoners had attempted to escape; and in his relief and thankfulness he threw himself down at Paul's feet, and cried out, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" It had suddenly flashed upon him that what these men had preached was true, and that they were indeed the servants of the true King.
"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved," came the swift answer.
Then, later, in the jailer's house, when the two prisoners had had their wounds washed and dressed, and had been carefully fed, the whole family listened while Paul spoke to them, and told them how they too might serve the King. So the light of Christ shone into another dark place.
After many perilous journeys to and fro, Paul at last returned to Jerusalem, where, among his own people, he might have looked for safety and peace. But the Jews were more furious with him and his preaching than ever, and were determined to kill him, and would have torn him in pieces had it not been for the Roman soldiers, who rescued him out of their hands, and sent him away secretly to another place.
Then, after a weary time of waiting, he was at last brought to trial, and Festus, the governor, asked him if he would rather be sent back to Jerusalem to be judged by his own people.
But Paul answered boldly and decidedly: "To the Jews I have done no wrong: I appeal unto Caesar."
It was a bold appeal, and meant that the prisoner demanded to be taken to Rome; but it was an appeal that every Roman citizen had a right to make.
"Have you appealed unto Caesar? "asked the governor. "Then to Caesar shall you go."
Autumn was coming on, a time when wintry storms swept the seas, and Paul's voyage to Italy was a rough one indeed. He had spent much of his time among ships and sailor-men, and this was not the first time he had battled through a storm; so he knew, as they tore in front of the shrieking wind, and were carried mountains high upon the green waves, that shipwreck was surely ahead. In vain the sailors threw all they could overboard to lighten the ship, and cast out anchors as a drag they were drifting on the rocks, and nothing could save them.
The men began to lose heart, and to think it was no use struggling any longer, and then Paul took command. He told them God's angel had showed him in a vision that they would all be saved, and he bade them steer the ship into a little bay off the island of Malta, which lay ahead of them. The sailors listened to his encouraging words, and did as he said; and though in the end the ship was lost, every man on board was saved.
So at last, after many adventures, Paul arrived in Rome, the city of his dreams. But here again there was nothing but delay and weary waiting, while he lived the life of a prisoner, chained to his guard. Many were the letters he wrote in that weary time of waiting to the friends he had left behind; and he was also allowed to preach to the Christians who gathered around him, and that cheered him most of all.
Nothing certain is known about his death; but that he gave up his life in his Master's service is sure, and his triumphant words ring out today as clearly as when he uttered them: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."
JOHN, THE BELOVED DISCIPLE
The beautiful world which God in the beginning made full of sunshine and happiness was soon spoilt by the sin which so swiftly crept in, and ever since there has always been sorrow and pain waiting to dim the gladness and darken the light.
But there are some good gifts of God which no pain or sorrow can spoil, that shine out like stars in a dark sky, whose light nothing can quench, and that death itself has no power to dim.
Perhaps one of the best of these gifts, the most precious thing which God can give us, is a friend; some one who understands and loves us, and whom we love and trust with all our hearts. They are rare things, these friends, worth more to us than all the riches of the world, although sometimes we think them as common as the sunshine or the flowers.
When the King of Heaven came down to earth, to live the life of common men, He too had a little company of friends around Him, who truly loved Him, and whom He loved. But among them all there was one special friend, one special gift from God, John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved."
No one else seemed to live quite as close to Jesus as he. No one was as quick to understand the Master, to guess His wishes almost before they were put into words. John did not, like Peter, boast of his love and devotion, but he quietly followed his Master, and never left him.
Whenever it was possible, John was always to be found at Jesus' side. At the Last Supper, when all the sorrowing friends gathered round him, John was nearest, and even leaned his head against his Friend. When cruel hands had nailed the King to the Cross, it was John who stood close beneath, beside the only other person who had courage to be there—the Lord's dear mother.
The King, looking down, saw these two good gifts which God had given Him—His mother and His friend—and they were very precious in His eyes. To the friend He would give the most sacred thing which He had to leave behind Him.
"Woman," He said, "behold your son," and to John, "Son, behold your mother."
All through his life John's love had never failed. Like many other of the friends of Jesus, he suffered pains and punishments for his Master's sake; and at last, when he was an old man, worn out with suffering, he was banished to the island of Patmos, and left there alone, as it seemed, friendless and deserted.
It might well be that the lonely old man felt as if his life had been a failure, and was almost bewildered to see how evil had triumphed over good. He had not only suffered himself, but he had seen the terrible sufferings of many other servants of the King. There had been no pity for the Christians. Even young girls and children had been flung to the wild beasts, because they would not deny their Lord. The King had been his Friend; and yet here he was, old, worn out, and alone, deserted by every one, thrust away from the sound of any human voice.
But he was not really alone. His Friend was close at hand, who had never left him, and He lifted the veil which hung between them, and showed John a glimpse of Heaven, a revelation of unseen things. John's weary eyes had been looking at the mistakes and failures and puzzles of the world, until these seemed to him bigger than anything else; now he was to see with clearer vision how wonderfully everything had been planned by God. He was to see the friends of the King sharing His glory, all sorrow, sin, and suffering forgotten, since God had wiped away all tears from their eyes.
There, upon the throne, was his dear Master, bearing still the marks of the cruel nails, "a Lamb as it had been slain." There around Him, all things in Heaven and earth bowed down and worshiped Him.
Many were the glorious things shown to John by God's angel, and afterwards the lonely saint on the desert island tried to write down an account of the wonders he had seen. He wrote of a golden city with its walls of jasper and its gates of pearl, of the crystal river and the jeweled throne set around with a rainbow halo, of white-robed angels and golden harps.
But all these things were as nothing compared to the sight of his Master's face, to the knowledge that his King and unchanging Friend was there, ruling all things, and that some day He would come again, when every eye would see Him.
"Behold, I come quickly," had been the comforting words of the King, when for that wonderful moment the veil had been lifted; and John's answer rang out full of faith now as well as love—
"Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"