The fellowship of believers gathered to hear the recent letter sent from the apostle, John, which had been delivered by a gentleman who appeared to equal him in age. As they quieted in anticipation of the message, there was a tension in the air. The apostle’s testimony and authority had been a matter of debate within their community in recent months, and it was certain that some would reject his admonitions.
The host escorted the elderly man to a seat prepared for him to address the people. He surveyed the crowd of unfamiliar faces, all pondering their visitor’s identity and his connection to the letter from John.
“It is a great privilege to carry the words of truth and instruction from my beloved friend and dear servant of our Lord,” he began reverentially. “He is the last of the Lord’s original disciples still walking among us, and his words should not be easily dismissed because newer, louder voices challenge his testimony.”
Several people sitting among the group shifted uncomfortably and folded their arms across their chests. The old man expected this reaction but chose not to acknowledge the obvious display of disapproval. If they held their arguments until he finished speaking, he would be glad to debate with them. There was a reason that John requested him to carry the message, and this was the first of several churches he would visit. He allowed his mind to wander back to the defining moment in his life. For his audience to comprehend its impact, they would first need to understand his life prior to his encounter with Jesus. With a voice that defied his age, he imitated the harsh rebuke of his father:
‘You are worthless! You shame and burden our family! I should give you over to the Roman soldiers, who might have an appreciation for one so frail and delicate as you!’
The old man paused to allow the horrific words to settle across his audience. Now that he had their attention, he proceeded to share the purpose of his visit…
That was just a sample of my father’s criticism of me throughout my childhood and into my early years of manhood.
You see, my physical weakness is not merely a matter of my advanced years; I was the smaller of a set of twins. In the womb, my brother grew strong while I diminished. I was born frail and sickly, with little expectation of survival. My brother grew into a strong, capable man like our father, and even my sisters surpassed me in physical strength. My father pushed me relentlessly as a child, hoping that my body would respond to his demands like an athlete in training. His efforts were futile, and the harder he pushed, the weaker I became. If not for my mother’s love and devotion, I would have willingly relieved him of his burden. It was a blessing when he finally gave in to her demands that he “stop killing her son in order to prove himself.” His compromise was to stop acknowledging my existence, and I was perfectly fine with that solution.
My mother never stopped believing that I would eventually find my place in the world. When self-loathing and hopelessness threatened to overwhelm me, she would sit at my bedside and with the help of the holy scriptures, she assured me that the Almighty did not share my Father’s opinion:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”
“I am he who will sustain you. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will sustain you, and I will rescue you.”
It was my mother who noticed my fascination with the letters and words in the signs at the temple, my skill at reproducing them with sticks in the soil, and my growing comprehension of their meaning. Recognizing the potential for this skill to change my life, she advocated for me until she convinced the teachers to invest their time and attention in developing them. For a season, my confidence began to grow.
As I grew into manhood, everything started to fall apart. My mentors began to assign me larger, more significant projects – and I failed miserably. Although my penmanship was without equal, my attention span was not. It seemed I could not copy anything of substantial length without errors – an inexcusable sin. I began to see all too familiar expressions on the faces of my teachers. Although they were more circumspect in their choice of words than my father had been, they could not conceal their skeptical attitudes toward me. Once again, I saw myself as that useless little boy cowering in the corner. As the week of Passover approached, I awoke each day certain that I would be dismissed from my position.
In the middle of the week, I was summoned to meet with my teachers. I arrived to find myself standing before a handful of elders, teachers, and a few members of the Sanhedrin. They looked me over intently, before exchanging affirming looks as if approving me for purchase. Shivers ran down my spine as I recalled my father’s threats to turn me over to the Romans, especially now that I understood exactly what he was implying.
Finally, they informed me that they had an assignment for me. For the next several hours, they detailed my mission – for I had been chosen for a specific role. They made no attempt to disguise the fact that they had chosen me for my’ pitiful, but sincere’ appearance. The Nazarene surrounded himself with the lowly and despised of the city while openly hostile to holy and respected men like themselves. He would be much more likely to respond to my questions in an unguarded manner, and they would be there to pounce on him when he did. In their eyes, if I did my part, their plan could not fail. To encourage my success, they gave me a full day’s wage – a denarius – in advance. They promised me another if our mission was successful.
We rehearsed for the better part of the day, and when they were satisfied, I was sent to the temple alone. After a suitable time, they followed. I had not directly encountered Jesus of Nazareth before that day, so I had formed no opinion of him. It did not even occur to me to feel guilty about my deception; I was just grateful for the chance to prove myself useful, especially to members of the Sanhedrin. I could not afford to fail. For the first time in my life, my frailty was an asset.
I entered the temple courts with the denarius tucked discreetly within the folds of my robe. I knew I should not have brought it through the gates, but I had no other options. I quickly found my target and worked my way to the front of his circle of attentive listeners. My timing was perfect. He paused in his teaching, leaving an opportunity to ask questions, just as my partners in our little drama arrived.
Drawing upon my years of acting experience with my father, I projected my most sincere and humble expression. Then I flawlessly spoke the words of admiration and respect that had been assigned to me.
“Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
I glimpsed at my companions as they prepared to attack. Inwardly, I celebrated my achievement while still retaining an outward display of humility. No one anticipated his response to the dilemma we presented to him. He closed the gap between us and offered what appeared to be a sympathetic smile. Then he motioned to the folds of my robe where my payment was concealed.
“Show me a denarius.”
My first thought was that perhaps he had spies within our covert little group. I hoped my partners would recognize the plea for help hidden behind the pretense of scanning the crowd for someone offering the requested denarius. When I received neither coin nor guidance, I reluctantly revealed my hidden treasure.
“Whose image and inscription are on it?”
He directed his words at me, but I prayed someone would divert his attention by offering an answer. After an uncomfortable pause, I knew I was on my own.
“Caesar’s,” I nearly whispered my response.
He nodded in approval; the gentleness in his eyes conveyed encouragement instead of rebuke. Then he folded my fingers over the coin and wrapped both of his calloused hands around my soft and smooth ones.
“Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
Both his facial expression and his tone of voice grew more assertive as he continued his instructions.
“…and give to God what is God’s.”
That seemed to be his final word on the subject, but he retained his grip on my hands. I waited for my companions to respond to his unexpected statement but heard only the quiet murmuring of the crowd. I nodded slightly, hoping that would convince him to release my hands. Instead, he stepped closer, waited until I met his piercing gaze, and spoke so softly that only I could hear his words.
“Go and learn what this means!”
He smiled and squeezed my hands before releasing them. Then, he turned to address a new question – probably another carefully planned inquiry with a hidden agenda. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with shame for my role in this deception. I did not dare to linger to hear what else the teacher might say. With the denarius clutched tightly in my palm, I left the temple.
Just a few days later, those strong hands that had held mine captive would be nailed to a Roman cross. His eyes would close, and his voice would be silenced. As expected, I was left with nothing but time to ponder his words. This single encounter changed the course of my life.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, I was among those who would be devastated by the powerful words of Simon Peter. I finally understood the meaning of the words he spoke to me in the temple that day. I “surrendered to God what was God’s” – everything – including my weakness, my failures, and my hopelessness. On that day, I was stamped with the image and inscription of Jesus, my Lord and Savior. I was his hidden treasure.
I didn’t come here today to tell you how wonderful my life has been since I first came face-to-face with Jesus or about the important things that I have done because of it. I came only to say that it did happen.
I never walked in fellowship with him, as John did. But I am one of the few living witnesses, still able to tell you that I looked him in the eyes, felt the touch of his hands, and heard his voice speak with the authority of his Father.
There are those among you who are falsely teaching that Jesus never really walked this earth as a man, that the Almighty cannot inhabit human flesh. They cast doubt on the testimony of his disciples, calling such a notion “blasphemy.” Do not let this falsehood take root within this community! Hold fast to the gospel that was spoken to you!
Jesus, our Messiah, came to earth as in infant. He was born of a woman, lived as a man for more than thirty years, and accomplished what you and I could not. He overcame the flesh and offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for a sinful world. Because he lived, died, and triumphed over the curse of death, he alone can serve as our High Priest. Because his blood purifies us from all sin, the Holy Spirit can dwell within us! It is beyond comprehension, but our Lord is not caged within the bounds of our limited imagination!
This letter I am holding is testimony directly from someone who witnessed these wondrous events! Someone who endured unimaginable persecution because of his faithfulness to this very testimony! What credentials do those who cast doubt on his word present to you?
I ask that you pay careful attention as I read. Listen to the many times that John victoriously declares, “We know…”
The believers looked on their visitor with new respect, as he turned his eyes to the letter and began to read…
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete…