Author: Timothy Roettger
It was a cold cell made worse by the pitch black chocking darkness. The sounds of water dripping from an unseen source didn’t seem to take his mind from where he was. The stench was almost unbearable. Lock a bunch of people in small cells with no accommodations over a period of time and the smell will get unbearable. You would think that eventually you would get used to it. But in the end you begin to even taste it.
Alone scarred and unsure of the decision he was going to make. The same question had to be addressed by more then just himself. The cells were full of his brothers and sisters forced to make the same decision. Deny him or die. Hushed whispers and sobs John knew were heart felt prayers spoken out of the depths of anguish and fear. Question after question went through his head as he attempted to sort out why and what he would do.
“John.” A hushed whisper from a cell mate jogged him from his thoughts. “John…I want to live.”
“You are not going to…”
“Yes, I think I will. God will forgive me. I know it. But I want to live. I don’t want to die. I want more. Its not fair that we should have to die for this. In my heart I will not deny. Its only words. Its only words without meaning or roots.”
“But what about all we learned, all we’ve been taught. If we deny Him, he’ll deny us?” It was more of a question then a statement, John was looking to be convinced. He wanted to live too. He didn’t want to face death, the pain and just death scarred him. “I mean…Won’t he?”
“Our God is merciful, He will understand. He will forgive us. I know it. When this is done, I will flee, I will find somewhere it is safe where I can follow God in peace and where I can do his will.”
This didn’t set well with John and as john drifted off in thought again, he could hear his cell mate continue to whisper to himself, trying to convince himself that denying The Son would be the answer and John knew that it didn’t sit well with him either. But that was the key to John’s thoughts, each one seemed aimed at trying to find a way to live. To deny the one he knew as Lord, as savior and as friend, or to die a death in pain and suffering for not saying “I deny the Christ”. He knew in his heart to speak these words were wrong. Even if he escaped with his life, he would not be the same. Words burned in his mind. “Deny me before men and I will deny you before my father.” John was forced to answer the question, what is more important to me. To live in a lie or to die in truth. With that John went off in prayer, he too silenced his thoughts and began to add his hushed whisper of prayer to be added to the others. And in fear and humility he asked God for strength. He asked God for endurance, and for power of the fear. To stand the test, to finish the race and to walk as a light that would witness to all.
Light! It was bright and burned his eyes. He shut his eyes even covering them with his hand to shield him from the blinding light. It had been so long that they’d been in this dark, even the dimmest light was bright, even painful to behold. It was a guard. And slowly as John’s eyes adjusted enough to take short looks he noticed that the smell too bothered his Guard, and in some ways that made him laugh.
“You two come out of there. Its your time.” The hinges of his cell door screamed out as the Guard opened the rusty iron bars. Come. John still fearful was filled with a boldness and determination that startled him. In stark contrast his cell mate was timidly following the guards commands. John knew it was time.
As the exited the Guard felt free to make his feelings of the smell clear with a gentle kick of his foot in his back. John hitting the ground and even in pain noticed that it didn’t affect him as he thought. He was sure the decision he would make. He got up, not needed to brush himself off, he was covered in filth and dirt and he wasn’t even sure the longest washing would have ever cleaned him. As he exited the cell block, the smell diminished. He found himself praising God for the semi stale, but clean smelling air that not filled his lungs.
“Shut up! There will be none of that. You’d best keep those words far from you if you want to get out of this with your life.” With a chuckle the Guard kicked him again, this time it seemed even harder and John Again got up and walked boldly following the guards directions. He was taken to a small room, dimly lit, which pleased him as his eyes still had not adjusted. His cell mate was brought to a corner and thrown to the floor. Shackles now bound his wrists and feet with a large chain to the floor, and he weep loudly. John was sat on a small chair in the opposite corner. Facing him was a guard that sat that seemed to have a kind face but his eyes ruined the appearance giving away a heart that enjoyed that which was shortly to come.
“John is it? My name is Marcus. I’ve got an opportunity for you.”
“I don’t want it. I will not deny My Lord. I will not deny the truth.” John burnt with passion, it engulfed him, it over came him and he was set a blaze by a love and peace that transcended all understanding. It empowered him and he knew this pain was only for a moment.
“Now John. Why are you rushing? At least take the time to consider my offer, what harm can come?”
“More then you know could be lost if I considered your offer. But even a thousand offers wouldn’t change my decision. Truth is truth and I cannot do but to speak of it.”
“Speak of What! Of a impotent God that would let His followers suffer and burn for Him?” The man’s kind appearance changed suddenly. The anger on his face was more derived more from fear then it was outrage and hatrid. “I’ve seen better men then you sit in your chair and deny this ‘truth’ and a few hours from now you’ll do the same. Everyone has a limit. I’ll find yours, and you too will cry out denying your ‘Christ’.”
John could only smile. He didn’t have any doubt at this point. He knew no measure of pain or suffering, or anything the hand of this man could do to him could separate him from God’s love. And God’s grace came even in pain. He stayed himself. He began to speak silent praises to God. A joy and peace welled up in his heart and the silent praises began to be ushered on his lips blocking out all that was going on around him. He knew only this moment of praise, he felt the presence of God more real then his right hand, more true then the chair he sat on, and it too overpowered every sense that he had. Somewhere in the distance he could sense that it had began. Torture, physical harm, yelling, attempts to break him down. But John knew that a dead man couldn’t be broken. His life was hidden in Christ with God and not the strongest arm of man could step inside of that. At this moment, John gave every ounce of himself over to this worship, All to God doing all he could to utter the praises on his lips.
John slowly began to be more aware of his things around him though God’s presence had not left. John found his lips didn’t work to utter praise so well now. In fact he recognized his body was in much worse a condition then when he’d left it.
“John, can you see yet the wisdom of listening. The wisdom of considering what I have offered you.” There was a wicked sneer on his lips but the look of a wild beast afraid for his life in his eyes, and John knew that God was working on this Marcus. Maybe his life would bear some last fruit through even this.
“I will….” It took a while for John to utter his thoughts, his mouth wasn’t fully obeying his commands, and his whole body shook with exhaustion. There was the smell of burnt flesh in his nostrils and John could feel the pain of where his legs and feet had been burnt. “listen to what you have to say, if you listen to what I have to say.”
“John…”Marcus made the attempt to take it in stride “Let me show you how easy it can be.” Marcus slowly walked to John’s cell mate who at this point was white with terror. His breathing was slow and he looked more like a ghost then a man. Marcus knelt before the form of a man. “Do you deny this Jesus? Think wisely, a well spoken word will bring freedom.”
The man looked at John examining him slowly, each wound, each burn left a visual emotional scar on the man. “I…I” he was having trouble speaking the words but even before they came out all knew the words they would be. “I deny this Jesus. He is nothing to me.”
“Well spoken my friend.” Marcus helped the man up, motioning for the guards to come help him as well. In a well planned move, the guards came over taking the man, treating him as a long lost friend bestowing promises of a bath, clean clothes, and of course a good meal. The man’s face was visually relieved and blood began to flow back in his face. He began to believe it was in deed the right thing to do. As the man was escorted to the door, Marcus inquired about anything he might say to John.
With a new found passion he spoke “John… Its not worth dieing for a god that would allow you to suffer what you’ve been through. Any real ‘loving’ God would have prevented one he called his son from suffering such. Deny him.”
“Then your god was never My God. If you knew my God, you would endure a thousand such sufferings for His name sake, praising Him through it all.” Tears streaming down John’s face, and disgust on his former cell mates, it was evident that their paths wouldn’t cross again. John faded into prayers, weeping both for the man’s soul and because the presence of God was so great. Each new beating and torture that John endured brought a new praise to his lips, and with every praise he spoke, Marcus’ resolve diminished, And John kept praying.
Soon the time came. It was the end. He had endured, they were certain he would not relent and with that they brought John outside. His guards and tormentor were warmly dressed, seeking to keep out the cold. John was stripped naked. His cloths cast away and his feet bare, he was led down a path. He knew what lay ahead. Over ice and snow and through a wind that cut through flesh and bone he was lead to an opening on a frozen lake. There was a large whole that was cut in the ice, even now a thin layer of ice began to form over the opening. John stopped at the edge very little fight left in Him.
“Last opportunity John. Deny and live, or embrace and die. The choice is yours.” Tears began to flow down Marcus’ cheeks. His eyes no longer filled with hate and fear, but envy and desire, even concern.
And John knew the look, he’d seen it before. The fruit was ripe, the fields were ready for harvest. “I would tell you one thing before I sleep here in my sweet bed. I would say that God is life, and even in this death you seek to thrust upon me that life will carry me through. It will transform me in the love and Blood of God’s own Son and in the end, in that great day I shall rise again. To sleep now, to be with Him. I’ve endured, I’ve stood firm when I could stand no longer. Love, God’s great love is there with me. And I forgive you. God will forgive you. Will you join me?”
Restraint had ended and Marcus was in full sob now, he grabbed onto this man and gave him an embrace of a brother long lost. “I want this Jesus, I will not deny Him.” With that the guards ragged in anger and hatred, thrusting John in the lake, they soon stripped Marcus as well and cast him into share the fate of the man whom he had just finished torturing. With tears and joy mixed, he called to God, asking forgiveness, not just for his actions today but for a list longer then he cared to remember of sins long past. They both felt the life flee from them, gathering together they shared encouragement. John quickly forgave Marcus and Marcus soon entered into the same peace and presence that John had been enjoying. Marcus had taken John’s Lord and savior as his own, and together they praised him. While life slipped away, and the guards laughed and mocked, they both knew soon they’d finish the race and receive the Crown of life.
Slipping below the waves, they slept. Embracing true life, forsaking the appearance of life in this world, they embraced the knowledge of God, receiving the gift of eternal life.