The Prisoner's Letter (NIRV)
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- Pages: 8
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Counsel to Aristarchus
May this letter find you at peace, my friend, and in good health. My affection and deepest love to you and your family at this time and always. My regards to Jonathan, the beloved teacher.
Alexander, I have but a short time in which to write this, my last letter to you, for tomorrow I am to be executed by the authorities. I urge you to read it carefully for it contains information of great importance. I want to explain these matters to you in detail, all the extraordinary events taking place here and what they have come to mean.
Do you recall that windy day of years ago, during the war, as we stood together outside the charred remains of what was once the beauty of Kashra? As we watched, the bravely fallen of our mercenary forces were hauled away in the wood carts. That very hour we pledged together our most solemn oath. We agreed, should a similar fate look to befall one of us, the one left standing would grant the other a final desire, a request to be fulfilled regardless of circumstance, whatever it may be. How well I remember that day as I sit here, recalling the vow we had sworn as death’s own procession creaked by, wondering which of us would be the first to feel its hand.
In view now of my imminent death, Alexander, I seek this day the honoring of our agreement, for you to kindly fulfill the promise we had placed upon our hearts those many years ago.
My request is a simple one: I ask that upon reading these words, you would not only accept them as a true and worthy account, but make every possible effort to pass them on to our countrymen. Though I realize you are but one man, my hope is the letter might be read by everyone in your considerable realm of influence.
Yet who can know, when one writes of such eternal things? Perhaps one day all of Greece might read it, the letter bearing an influence of its own, reaching far beyond the border of any one man’s desire.
My story begins in a place that even now I hesitate to recall....
I was lying in a cold, dark prison cell, half-frozen in the depths of what is called in this mountain city the Fortress of Antonia. A huge stone building, it is here the Roman governor quarters his numerous troops. They are needed in this rebellious town, at least according to Caesar. Words cannot describe a more troubled country.
In the rabid blackness around me, the sound of dripping water echoed through the chamber like a death bell. An ancient, musty smell clung to everything, even my skin. High near the ceiling, a small barred window framed the sight of a glorious expanse of stars. It was difficult to believe that the dawning of a new day would find me in such misery. Only hours before I had stood beneath the heavens and wondered if there was anything so beautiful.
Dining at the home of a close friend, we had just walked out under the evening sky when a large man suddenly charged at us from the trees. Grabbing my neck, he began screaming that I was a thief and had stolen a collection of rare vases from his home. I had barely begun my defense when a patrol of Roman soldiers stormed the grounds and arrested me. Dragged before the local magistrate, to my disbelief I was ordered imprisoned at the fortress, and led from the courtroom in chains. My freedom gone and my spirits broken, I remember each one of my feelings as I approached the forbidding walls of the castle. My hopes seemed to desert me as the soldiers led me down a long, dark stairway, torches in hand, and cast me into a cell, beating me unconscious.
Awaking in the bowels of a dungeon I could never have imagined in my nightmares, fearing for my life – they hang people on crosses, these Romans – I loudly cursed the fortune that had brought me to the hellish chamber. Declaring my innocence to every guard that passed by, I fell to the dungeon floor and wept when informed that my accuser was a man of high rank on the city council.
At the very height of my panic, wishing a swift end to it all, I was startled when a voice spoke to me from the darkness:
“Do not be frightened. You have nothing to fear in this place.”
I lifted my head from the floor. The gloom of the cell betrayed no human presence as the voice spoke again:
“The charges against you will soon be dismissed. In four days, they will release you.”
Four days? Release me? I was hearing voices! How quickly the madness of imprisonment had broken me; how else could I have explained it?
Lying back on the stone, angry that my fears had overcome me, I had just closed my eyes when the sound of a man’s breathing could be heard from the other side of the chamber.
Twisting my head and squinting into the darkness, to my amazement I saw a man sitting there, leaning against the wall not ten steps from me, barely visible in the soft rays of starlight that shone from the window above us.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What are you talking about?”
I could hardly make out the figure, the shoulders and head of a man who appeared to have been injured, his chest rising out of the shadows with each breath. I reasoned that they had thrown him into the cell while I lay unconscious.
“My name is Jesus. From Nazareth. Why are you so troubled?”
Why was I troubled? What was wrong with this man? Could he not know of our circumstance, what it meant to be waiting down here? From the edge of the blackness, I heard his voice again:
“You have no reason to worry. I have told you the truth. We will meet again, not many days after your release.”
Meet again? We were both going to be dead in a matter of hours, if not from the crosses, then surely from this cold.
As though reading my mind, he replied: “Death can only conquer those with no life within, my friend.”
At these words, Alexander, I began to feel something extraordinary was happening. I could no longer deny the force I felt move within me each time he spoke. There seemed to be a reason this man had been placed in the cell with me.
Once again, as though sensing my thoughts, he answered my unspoken questions:
“I am here to stand trial before the governor, before Pilate. I await him now. You may have heard of these things.”
Suddenly it came to me.
As you know, dear friend, though I am absent from the country for months at a time, I had heard something about a “Jesus” while at a merchant’s home in Joppa. From what I had learned, he was the cause of a very dangerous upheaval in the religious communities here, proclaiming a powerful message of a new and controversial belief. Some of the acts he had performed had been labeled as miracles. The city’s worshipers had gathered about the temple in protest of the man, denouncing the growing number of his followers as sheeplike and ignorant of the prophecies of old.
According to some reports, the man’s ideas had spread to distant regions as well. Journeying through the upper country last spring, I had overheard whisperings that he might be the coming “Messiah,” the Chosen One of God awaited by the faithful for centuries. A special man sent from Heaven, he would arrive in magnificent power and glory to establish a great kingdom, ending all foreign rule. Ushering his people into a new era, he would forever reign among them, blessing them with great joy.
Clearly, however, the broken figure who slumped against the stone across from me was not this Messiah. Whoever he was, if indeed he was the teacher known as Jesus, I soon began to pity him. It was evident some kind of mob had attacked him on his way to the fortress. Even in the dim light, I could tell he had been brutalized. I wondered if the captain of the guards had ordered him temporarily held like this for his own protection – at least while awaiting Pilate.
As I pondered his troubles, he again seemed to know my thoughts and began to reveal the true meaning of why he had come. As he started to speak, it was evident he certainly felt he was this “Messiah,” a special person from God. But there are many such claims in this city, especially in these times. Why was he any different?
But something radiated from his speech, a spirit and depth I had never encountered. These were not the words of someone misled. It was unmistakable; the way he spoke was beyond even the most unique of men.
Not realizing at first that his words would be the most important explanation of life I would ever hear, I simply listened....
“I am here to die for you, Stephanas – for everyone. That is why I came. If you believe in me, you will live forever. Whoever comes to me will see these things are true.”
He said that he would reject no one, no matter what they had done. He said he was the Savior of the world, sent by God, his father, to give his life for everyone’s wrongs. He said he wanted to bring those who believed in him to Heaven with him one day, that God’s closeness was the way it was supposed to be from the beginning. But then man rebelled and everything went bad. Yet God’s love wanted to change all that. To restore man to God. That was the plan.
He said he knew there would be those who wouldn’t want him or his father’s plan to rescue them, that those who made this decision would have to face the consequences of their wrongs and suffer eternal separation. He said his father did not want this, but wanted all to come and be forgiven. It was their choice.
His words had the true ring of authority to them as they came out of the void. Even from the muddy darkness, they ran as clear as a brook.
“I am the Way and the Truth,” he said, “and everyone who wants the truth comes to me. If anyone hears me and comes to me, I will not turn him away, but will instead give him real life.”
He said he was the one the prophets had spoken of. He said that though he sat condemned to die in this cell with me that he was the King many had been waiting for – a ruler not of this world, but of the next. And he said that he would come back – even after the execution that awaited him – to gather his people from the farthest corners of the earth.
He paused then and in that moment I wondered again whether I was not simply imagining all of this. Then from the darkness he asked me this: “Do you believe these things?”
I could not answer him, my friend. And as the moment lengthened and the sound of dripping water marked the time, he asked me yet another question:
“May I ask you then, what you do believe in?”
From the words I was hearing, Alexander, it was clear the man was very much in trouble. I didn’t even want to consider the possibilities of what might happen to him. As he looked up at the window, his face illumined in the quiet starlight, I understood why they had brought him here: The Romans allowed no dissension, not even from a man who appeared as innocent as he. Had he incited the people to some kind of revolt? It was a crime punishable by death in any part of the empire. His very statement to me an act of treason, I felt from my heart genuine sorrow for him.
Growing very tired in the cell, what the man had said began to recede. Thoughts of my own were pressing heavily against my mind, and I wanted only to rest. Sinking back to the floor, I buried my face deep in my arms. As I slowly drifted down to sleep, the man’s shadowy image faded from my thoughts like a dying candle.
I began to dream. Soon I was no longer in the dark chamber but out among bright fields I had played in as a child, the man still speaking with me as we walked together under the heat of a great glowing sun. In my dream, his question came back to haunt me. As he waited for a reply, I knew I could not escape. I had to offer up an answer, one I knew must come from deep within me.
“What did I believe in?” His question penetrated my heart like the sun. It pried into my secret corners, down through each layer of stubborn opinions and beliefs I had never really investigated – conceptions I had used to hide from who I really was inside and the world around me. I thought I’d known everything. But it seemed, now, that he held all the answers, and his simple question had stripped me of all my shields.
What did I believe in?
The horrible emptiness that had robbed my life was now made plain to me as I began dreaming of my past and the adventures of my youth....
Many years ago in my wanderings, I had dived for pearls near Pereta, a tiny coastal village near my father’s home. I remember the day I chose to sail to this secluded port, to find a share of the sunken gems.
I dove by moonlight, a map of the murky underwater caves etched upon my mind. Making my way down many darkened feet to the black mouth of a cave, my lungs nearly tearing themselves from my ribs, I searched within the cave until I came upon an entire bed of exotic shells. With a knife, I quickly freed several and burst to the surface and the air above me.
Over and over I dove, my body exhausted, my hands pale and frozen. And as dawn crept up, I knelt to pry open each barnacled treasure chest.
Imagine my heartache at finding nothing in any of them but a few sandy bits. I could have searched those depths forever and never found the treasures that I desired.
Is this what I feared from the man’s question? If I dove beneath the surface of myself, would I find nothing but worthless sand? That would have been too painful to bear. Was it the fear of emptiness that kept me from exploring my own heart?
Years later, on a voyage to Athens with my father, Curtisius, I had often walked about the ship in the evening hours, staring into the star-filled skies. Afraid of the most simple answers, what had drawn me to the more distant, elusive ones?
Compelled to search the heavens for these things, I spent many nights on the rolling deck of the Gloria Wind pondering the meaning of those stars. I had even fancied several of them were calling out to me through the darkness. From whose hand were they born? What was the message being sent? How I had longed for this, for a power greater than my own to bless me with true understanding, to reveal to me the reason I was alive, and where my next voyage, the one beyond this brief stay, would take me.
The sound of distant chains woke me from the dream with a shudder, the starkness of the chamber returning to my thoughts like a sudden storm. The anguished cries of men could be heard from above. Who knew what fate awaited them? A cold wind blew upon my face as I looked about the cell for the stranger. Had they taken him away as I slept?
I called to him, but heard no answer. Peering into the darkness, I saw he still sat in the rays of starlight shining from the window. No, they had not come to get him, not yet. I could see from the shadows he had lowered his head and was fast asleep.
Despite the man’s alleged acts of treason, I believed his crimes were unworthy of the punishment soon to be rendered him – the cross. I imagined the agony: The man was to be stripped of all clothing and stretched upon two fastened beams of wood. Iron spikes would be driven through his hands and feet. As those around him watched, he would then be lifted high above the crowds, the cross carving a sharp dagger into the sky. A slow and painful death would follow.
As I pondered this image, wind howled through the window above. How would they justify the death of a man such as this? He meant only peace.
Suddenly, without warning, a key rattled into the lock of our chamber. I could hear the footfalls outside of several men. I was frightened beyond belief.
A squad of four armor-laden soldiers crashed into the dungeon. Finding the man against the wall, one of the soldiers bent and slapped his face, as two others lifted him by the shoulders.
As he emerged from the shadows and they began binding his hands together, the man slowly raised his head and opened his eyes, looking straight at me. Alexander, I have never seen such a look.
His eyes penetrated me. An incredible peace began to calm me, and it was then I knew. This was all meant to be from the beginning, my false arrest, everything. My time with this man and the things he spoke of were something very valuable, for me and many others beyond myself.
I understood who he was then. That he was exactly who he said he was, a life-giver, a rescuer, not a man beaten by circumstance, but someone truly from above.
I found myself standing to face him, mindless of the danger. A soldier fixed me with a warning glare and ordered me to sit down. Yet from what I had seen and understood, I was unable to obey.
For in that moment, which could only be described as everything I had searched the heavens for, all that I had yearned to find, as he looked at me, what I beheld in his eyes filled the very emptiness of my soul … pearls of the greatest worth, a treasure I had never known, that I was cared about beyond the stars, and that life itself, everyone’s life, had great meaning to him. He was the Savior of the world and had come to save me, even me, reaching down into the darkest chambers of my own heart….
Alexander, the candle grows dim within the walls of my new chamber at the fortress, where I write this, and I must end this letter quickly. From the hall, I hear the moving of many chains; I will soon be led to my execution. I have but a few things left to say, matters which, I pray, I will have time to inscribe upon this manuscript.
Just as the man had predicted, I was released from the dungeon cell four days following my arrest for the theft at the councilman’s home. As you can imagine, I was overjoyed. But the experiences that were to follow, Alexander, would make this sweet moment crumble to dust by comparison.
As I wandered in the intoxicating air of freedom from the iron gates of the citadel, I met a youth who beckoned me to follow him. After a journey of several miles from the city, I was brought to a modest village home filled to the walls with courteous and smiling people. Standing in the midst of them, speaking words that were as familiar to me as when I had first heard them, was the man I had last seen being taken from the prison cell to be executed.
The breath seemed to go out of my body as I saw him once again ... even death could not hold him. And as I looked upon the man and this truth, Alexander, I saw my own destiny and purpose clearly – to follow him, even to my own death if required. Little did I know how soon I would be called to make this final decision. Within a matter of days, I was arrested and charged with treason when I began telling others of the things I had witnessed. My trial was brief. I refused to deny before the Roman judges the fact of his resurrection, that the man Jesus had actually risen from the dead and walked among us. They sentenced me to die.
Without shame, I endured the ridicule and indignities of a leper as I was cursed, spat upon, and led roughly from the courtroom.
But this is not the end for me, Alexander. I must share with you one final memory before closing this account....
Before my arrest, not many days following our gathering at the village home, he began to assemble a small group of his closest friends. To my joy, he invited me to accompany them to a nearby hilltop where he had often turned for solitude. As we made our way in the silence of early morning, he spoke to us carefully, instructing us to tell the world of the miracles we had seen, the truths we had heard. He told us that he loved us, and promised that his presence would always be with us.
Bidding us then to leave him with just his disciples, we descended the hilltop as a strong wind began to blow in from the east. Lagging behind the rest of the scattering group, I turned for a final look. A huge cloud had gathered itself about the mount and I fixed my eyes within it to see if I could spot him but once more. Suddenly I caught sight of a billowing robe deep inside the rising cloud cover. Was it my imagination – or had I seen a miracle too great to comprehend? An instant later, my friend, the cloud dispersed. He was gone.
Remember our oath, Alexander. I await you in the place he himself has reserved for all those who have believed in him and called out to him.
"I was in prison.
And you came to visit me."
– Jesus (Matthew 25:36)
There is no one closer to prisoners than Jesus. Have you met Him?
JESUS LOVES PRISONERS.
No matter what you have done, He will never turn you away....
“I will never send away anyone who comes to me.” – Jesus
JESUS ACCEPTS YOU.
If you call to Jesus, He will hear you. Jesus can be known. Tell Him everything that is in your heart. Tell Him that you want Him in your life. He is the one Friend who will understand. He knows what you’re going through, what you’ve been through.
“ … there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
JESUS FORGIVES YOU.
“Even though your sins are bright red, they will be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)
That’s why Jesus died, so your sins could be forgiven. The best decision you could ever make would be to ask Jesus to forgive you for every wrong you have done, and then ask Him into your heart. Will you do this?
“ … I stand at the door and knock. If any of you hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in …” – Jesus
After you have considered these things, you may want to pray a simple prayer similar to this one:
“Thank You, Jesus, for loving me. For forgiving me. I am sorry for all of the things I have done wrong against You and others. I need You. I know You have accepted me now, no matter what.”
If you have called out to Jesus from your heart, He has come into your life and will never leave. Learn more about Him in the Bible. The Gospel of John is a good place to start.
Tell others about what has happened to you. Go to church, if you can. Talk to Him daily. He loves you, and just wants to be close to You. He will be the best friend you ever had. May He bless you today.
Never forget these 3 things:
Call out to Jesus.
Ask Him to come into your life.
Ask Him to be with you!
Short story copyright © 1992 by Mark David Chapman
Story text revised 2015.