St. Paul's Night Before

St. Paul’s Night Before
© Copyright 2021
Registered Writers Guild of America, East

THE CITY OF CORINTH had become a bustling center of trade by the time I arrived–a virtual “boom town,” offering luxury, merchant trading opportunities, a multitude of religions, and sensuality of all kinds. Located in the isthmus that connected the Peloponnrsia to the mainland, between the Gulf on the west and the Aegean Sea on the east, the city also held a strategic location of ports of commerce. Having grown up in Jerusalem, this brought me a new and entirely unexpected experience—the droves of strange looking people, sites and aromas I had never known before, buildings and temples that were foreign, merchants, soothsayers, all served to both intrigue and unsettle me.
I accompanied a small group of people who formed to travel with a man named Paul, the Apostle, a man of notable reputation. In addition to me, his top aides, Timothy, Silas, Luke, Priscilla, and Aquila were there. Personally, I felt more in common with Paul’s newer converts like Crispus, Stephanus who were the first converts to the Way, in Achaea. Then there was Erastus, a Corinthian city official of high rank—the only one acquainted with the athletic games and served as our guide. I didn’t ask but assumed he had converted to a follower of the Way, otherwise there would be no logical reason for his accommodating us through the city.
My brother Trois and his wife Jenia with whom I lived had become followers of the Way after meeting Paul. They suggested I accompany him on this missionary journey to Corinth. They felt strongly it would provide me with a spiritually rich experience. Paul had spent two evenings with us prior to leaving for Corinth. I admit Paul’s physical size surprised me; I expected a physically larger person.
My expectation came from hearing my brother speak of Paul’s having been imprisoned, shipwrecked, survived the bite of a poisonous viper, beaten and left for dead. People were healed by the touch of his handkerchief. He had been chained in prisons full of rats and disease. He had been robbed, deserted, and betrayed.  He alone, stood his ground and preached to the Pharisees in the Temple, and faced the Romans authorities. In terms of brilliance and debate he stood unmatched even by the scholarly Pharisees and Scribes, and on and on it went.  In my naivety I expected someone of that reputation to look more physically formidable.
A small group of us sat together and listened as he outlined his strategy for the Corinth trip.  Because he couldn’t afford the time it would take to visit every Mediterranean port it would be much more effective to make disciples of the Way in Corinth because people from all walks of life and other countries would be there both for trade and the Isthmian athletic games. Bringing them in as converts of the Way would, in turn, carry the message beyond Corinth once they departed.  Paul referred to his strategy as the power of duplication. I knew little of such matters, but if following the Way impacted others as life changing as it did my brother and his wife, I could see no limit to its expansion, and going to Corinth would be an aid in that.
This great city hosted the Isthmian athletic games every two years, drawing hordes of people who arrived by ship, horse and on foot from all points, swelling the city. Merchants, business owners, dignitaries, athletes, delegates, hucksters, pickpockets, priests of various religions, common thieves and a host of visitors activating the city and surrounding areas. Corinth played host to them all.
As the Isthmian games approached, Paul modified the strategy assuring that the Gospel we were to preach would engage visitors both attending and participating in the games. There would be no lack of customers for the tents and leather goods he crafted during the preceding weeks. Paul believed in making his own way by making tents and leather goods. He would not miss a single opportunity to sell his goods and offer the Gospel in the same transaction.
His ability as a strategist was impressive which extended to the use of his name. His Jewish name was Saul, but he was also a Roman citizen. He went by Paul, his Roman name, because it opened more doors. Although no one would ask him, some believed that his father had rendered some signal service to the Roman army in order to be honored with Roman citizenship, but no one knew for sure.
One of the team members told me that there were many occasions when Paul’s father gave tents and leather goods to Roman soldiers when they didn’t have the money. Most Roman soldiers were paid poorly, but they were protected by being in the military. Later, the Romans, it was assumed, repaid his generosity by offering Roman citizenship to his family. Whatever the case it provided an incredibly valuable asset for a Jew who needed to move from place to place. I would come to greatly appreciate and apply Paul’s lessons on spiritually strategic thinking later in my own life.
From the time he encountered the call to be an apostle through an impactful event with the resurrected Christ, on the road to Damascus, he determined to fulfill that single purpose in life. I heard him tell this very story one evening in camp. All of us were mesmerized by the powerful clarity as Paul spoke of his life before and after his encounter with Jesus. When he clarified his purpose, he uttered with great and total conviction, “This one thing I do. I forget the past and move upward to the high call of Christ.”
Compared to the others who were called as apostles before him, who had been actual daily companions of Jesus, Paul stood as odd man out because he had not walked with Jesus. However, as far as Paul was concerned, the encounter on the Damascus Road provided that specific reality. Regardless of the odds he remained unstoppable, driven and focused like no one I ever met before.
 It didn’t take long before I came to reevaluate my original assessment of him and to realize that his physical size was inconsequential, his power came from elsewhere—a man of constitutional toughness and spiritual depth. I had wrongly made an assessment based on the physical, but he dealt in something much, much bigger, a source of cosmic power.
Once we arrived in Corinth, Paul decided it would be wise to have a firsthand look at the competition—specifically the spiritual atmosphere of city and the athletic games. As we walked the city, I overheard some discussions  among the crowds about how the athletes were gathering for some sort of sacred ritual, so I picked up my pace and caught up to Paul and Erastus. I told Paul what I’d heard.
“Follow along,” Erastus said. I had overlooked the fact that Erastus held familiarly with all this. We made our way into the temple of Poseidon. Paul thought it valuable to see first-hand the work of the opposing forces, entities he referred to as spiritual authorities in high places.    Except for occasional wall mounted torches, the passageways were dark, muggy, and musty. We stayed in a tight grouping as a form of protection because from time-to-time thieves would hide along the passageways and mug likely looking loners. We continued through the maze of passageways within the temple and finally entered a large open room, already crowded with people, a mixture of visitors, curious onlookers, and devout worshippers.
Flickers from large torches set in the ground blended with the flames from a large open pit, cast the room in a pulsing, deep reddening glow. Many of the worshippers carried sacrificial jugs of oils which they cast into the pit as though feeding the voracious flames. I didn’t feel very comfortable. There was nothing like this in Jerusalem, at least not that I had ever seen, and I thought naively, like most young people that I had seen it all.
The ceremony had already started, and everyone’s attention focused on a group of younger men who were straining with all their strength, pulling ropes by which they dragged a tenaciously struggling young bull toward the large burning pit. The bellowing of the bull marked its duress as it kicked and contorted various body postures. In the next few moments, the bull’s valiant struggle was subdued. A heavily robed man wearing a headdress looked on carefully as the bull’s life blood drained out from the slit that he had cut across its throat. Blood drained onto the floor trickling down to the pit leaving a long red stain over a series of older ones, attesting to the ritual’s long history.
     The colorful ceremonial beads, ribbons and garlands that had decorated the bull’s horns and hoofs were dismantled and shredded under the pressing weight of the animal’s struggle against the tugging ropes.  The robed man obviously did not represent the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one God that Paul always spoke of with a definite sense of awe and reverence. I leaned forward to ask Priscilla about this. She explained that the robed man was a priest dedicated to Poseidon the pagan god of the sea and to the boy-god Palaimon to whom he was in the process of offering another sacrifice on behalf of the Isthmian games.
The men dragged the lifeless, heavy bull past the priest to the edge of the pit where its own weight pulled it down into the waiting flames. How strange the scene as the ropes whipped about as though dancing like wild serpents over the open pit when released by the exhausted men. The pit room filled with smoke, saturated with the pungent odor of burning hide, meat and melting fat. The priest, in his heavy, thick ceremonial robes, sweated profusely, stepped back from the pit and without as much as a glance, skillfully slid his ceremonial knife back into its sheath. The ceremony had come to an end. All that remained were dancing flames that had consumed the bull, the ropes, and the devotions of the worshippers.  
The athletes of the Isthmian games then completed their oath to Poseidon by which they swore willingness to comply with the rules of the games and not attempt to win the Isthmian Crown by cheating. The athletes were reminded of the implications of what they had done and were fully assured that the god Palaimon would punish those who falsely swore an oath in his crypt.
In a final step the priest gestured to some men near a passageway. A moment later several men carried a life-sized  wooden statue of Palaimon to the priest and set it down. He invoked the blessings of Palaimon upon the athletes, their trainers, and the ranking officials connected with the games.
The games would commence in the morning. The athletes had come to run and win the wreath as a crown of glory. To win the prized wreath meant everything to them, the ultimate prize, and the chief reward for which they would push their bodies beyond all limits to possess.
To stand before the arena crowds as the games umpire placed the crowning wreath upon one’s head was to taste greatness; to share a moment of vicarious glory with Olympus, the abode of the greater Grecian gods.
The winning athletes would, like those of the other Panhellenic games, receive prizes of varying degrees of money and prominence from the cities they represented.  However, none of these rewards in essence, were esteemed more highly than being crowned with the wreath of the Isthmian games.  The ceremonial pit room slowly emptied out.  Priscilla wondered out loud at her surprise that Paul had remained quiet. Unexpectedly to her and me, Paul heard her comment and stepped next to us.
“Priscilla,” he said, “We do not choose when or where to fight the fight. It is for the Holy Spirit to instruct the place and the time. We can see that those who will oppose us have weak deities as they cannot move themselves but must be carried about by men.” He turned to me and placed his hand on my shoulder adding, “Heed the wisdom of the Spirit young man, and it will serve you well.
“This is a strange place…frightening,” I said.
“Greater is he who resides in us than he who is in the world,” Paul added with determined conviction. “Let us depart.”
Together, we made our way back out to the courtyard.  For each of us, it was in many ways most fitting to be in Corinth during the games.  Like the athletes, we had also come on an ultimate quest. We were also, in Paul’s view, present at the games to run a race and to win a crown, a spiritual crown to place on others; one that unlike the Isthmian wreath, made of pine and wild cherry celery, would never perish.
We made our way by the stadium’s stepped embankments through crowds of visitors who hypnotically watched the athletes on the practice field area in their final preparations for the games. The athletes were oblivious to the crowd, deeply focused on practice runs on the racecourse. Over and over, they would practice their take-off technique; muscles tensed, feet in position, eyes fixed on the rope stretched tautly in front of them anticipating the start.  
The start held a key moment for the runners. A good start could win a race. They focused their attention on that moment when the rope would be jerked away, immediately signaling their tensed muscles to catapult them out of the start position and onto the course. They crouched in start formation, waiting. The only sound came from their controlled breathing.  Suddenly, the trainer sharply snapped the rope.
The athletes exploded off the start mark only to stop a few yards out and walk back to the start line to practice it again. As they walked, I noticed one of the trainers go alongside a runner and appeared to be offering some corrective instruction.
Just beyond the runners I could see several pairs of men sparring. Their fists wrapped with leather straps as they jabbed at one another. I walked closer.  Occasionally the trainer stepped between the boxing partners to assure no injuries were sustained during the practice session. The trainer reminded them how an injury before the games would result in disqualification from the actual competition.
As I watched, the similarity between the athletic life and the spiritual life became more apparent, just as Paul had taught. The athletes were well prepared for this Grecian competition. Paul helped us to understand the importance of it all as we too had to be prepared for competition—a competition that would go far beyond the visible games in the stadium. Paul cautioned us that it would affect the winning of souls against the opposing forces of darkness that had disguised themselves as various Grecian deities.
Judging by Paul’s intensity which had increased over the last 24 hours, I could see this greater competition, set in an arena of cosmic proportion. As we made our way up out of the stadium, we again walked past the row of statues dedicated to past victorious athletes. Timothy noticed an unusually shaped enclosure to the far right.
Upon closer investigation the enclosure revealed an altar on which sacrifices were made to the Cyclops, those one-eyed monsters who were said to have been the builders of mighty citadels throughout Greece.   Farther along we passed through an open market area congested with people and statuary representing heroes and of course Caesar. There were merchants selling all manner of religious gift, idols, souvenirs, foods, and wares of all kinds. Crowds moved about in a frenzy of activity.  As we continued back through the colonnade, we could see the main entry gate where people entering the grounds were dipping their hands in a marble basin for what appeared to be cleansing.
Just beyond the main entry gates to the inner hall of worship stood a tall and ornate archway. A large and imposing statue of Caesar peered down over it.  First Paul, then the rest of us peered inside for a moment and made our way into the hall. A series of wall mounted torches illuminated colossal statues of deities on both sides casting long flickering shadows across the hall. Moving through the entry hall, a statue of the god Poseidon loomed over us, holding his trident in a foreboding stance. At his side, the goddess Amphitrite, joint ruler of the sea. They stood on a tremendous base of marble with carved reliefs across the front, depicting the twin sons of Tyndarus, Castor and Pollux.
Erastus told us they were considered to be saviors from the terrors of the sea. The statues peered down as though evaluating us. Paul observed that the forces of dark deities were well entrenched. All the more reason for us to be here and offer the power of the Gospel. I observed Paul greatly distressed at seeing all the altars and idols to which people were in bondage. Having completed our investigation, Paul led us off the grounds walking toward the north where the Geranion mountains descend toward the sea. I felt a sudden longing to run to the sea and breathe fresh air into my lungs to clear myself of the past hours of mustiness, darkness, strangeness and deities I knew not.
Back at our camp Paul reminded us that the athletes had prepared sharpened bodies and minds to win at the games tomorrow, yet their souls were in danger of losing the race of life. In the morning the games would commence, and so would we. Paul then had us sit in the field and shared an event with us. He told of Peter and John having healed aa lame man in Jesus’ name and then preached the gospel to the people who had gathered at Solomon’s Porch.  Paul went on,
“Hearing of this healing, the captain of the Jewish temple brought with him guards and arrested  Peter and John and held them overnight, but many of those people who saw the healing and heard the word they preached were saved, some five thousand. In the morning the high priest, Caiaphas and other rulers questioned them as to what name or power had they used to heal. Peter, to his own peril chided them with the truth of Christ. The authorities spoke in private confirming that a notable miracle had been done. They firmly commanded Peter and John never to speak in Jesus’ name ever again. Peter spoke up to inform the group that they could not hold back on telling the truths of the Gospel, regardless of the laws of men.
“The authorities sternly threatened them further and released them. They left and went to report to their companions what the chief priests and elders had told them. So, they decided to go back and continue preaching the Gospel that more would be saved. Then they prayed to God.” Paul waved his hands, “now listen to what they prayed for, they did not pray for God for protection, but rather, they asked God for more boldness to carry out the work, and that my friends, is what we shall do now.”  
Paul then prayed over us, laying hands on us that the Holy Spirit would embolden us to preach the word to the people and the athletes. As we all went into our tents, I knew somehow that of all of us, Paul would be the one who remained awake this night before, in anticipation and in prayer. Tomorrow would be the time and the place to fight the good fight.
The next day we broke into three smaller groups. I followed Paul and Timothy. How amazing to see Paul engaging people in conversation including several athletes. He made effective comparisons between the spiritual and athletics which they understood, First, he would listen intensely then asked pointed questions about why they believed what they professed about worshiping multiple deities. Once engaged he would speak with logic and a powerful rationality of the one God that which was simply unassailable. Underlying this was Paul’s deep compassion for those who were deceived by idols made with men’s hands. I vividly recall one of the athletic trainers respond to Paul saying,
“Explain more of this Jesus you proclaim. You are saying many amazing things to us.”
They may have been skeptical of his teaching, but they were totally taken in by the sincerity of his concern for them. I asked Paul about this as we walked the grounds later and he said, “You must always esteem others higher than yourself. It is vital that you remember each person carries in him, some manner of our great God’s image and likeness and we are to aid them to return to that understanding, and in so doing bring them to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is our battlefield.”
Observing Timothy, I could see how he had been groomed by Paul as he functioned in much the same way with people. I observed and absorbed all of it like a sponge. Over the three days at the athletic games a good number of Jews and Greeks and others believed in the work that Jesus had accomplished. Especially with the Jews, Paul could make his case by showing that the promises of the Torah had been fulfilled by Jesus. With the Jews he desperately wanted them to celebrate the fulfillment of the Torah and engage Jesus’ fulfilling the ancient promises.
He held an uncanny command of the Torah and cited many passages on the spot. The result was that several small, but enthusiastic communities formed, and Pricilla and Aquila remained in Corinth to help support and train these groups as house churches.
After the mission to the games, which stunned me for its success, Paul remained at my brother’s house another day where he provided more training and teaching on how the writings of the Torah had been fulfilled by Jesus. The man did not need to refer to the scrolls; the verses and principles were imbedded in his very being.
On the morning of his departure, we all prayed.  Paul hugged each of us. When he came to me, his embrace was strong, and he patted my back. He carried such an aura of power, one could feel tangibly. I finally understood the source of that power. It was nothing like the Roman legions and its military power. Their power as Roman Soldiers resided in their swords and battlements, but when the weapons were taken away, they were mere men.  For Paul, power came from a spiritual energy of the sword of the Word of God; invincible, unstoppable, penetrating.
To my sorrow I did not see Paul again. He did continue his missionary journeys preaching the Gospel. His efforts were so powerful that we received word from Thessalonica that Paul and Jason and Silas were marched by the Jewish leaders to the city officials who pronounced against them saying, “These men are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, named Jesus. These men who have upset the world have come here also.”
Of course, this news caused us grave concern for their wellbeing, and also sparked new zeal in us to do what must be done to preach the truth of God’s relentless love. The words of Stephanus  rang in my ears the rest of my life. “You see…the Gospel preached without compromise or fear had upset the world of Thessalonica. The door had opened for the greater world to be upset and turn to Christ.”
I did have occasion to be in Corinth two years later on my own missionary journey. I stayed in the house of Potiosis, where Paul had sent a letter to his house church. Potiosis gave me the honor to read the letter.
I opened the scroll and read aloud. I saw the clear comparisons that Paul made, using analogies to win the wreath, gaining the imperishable prize, and strong metaphors of running races, boxing, and athletics. The games made a lasting impression on him. And he had made a lasting impression on me. I knew the Gospel  would make an impression across the world because Jesus is alive. As I read the letter to the group, my heart beamed in gratefulness  that I’d had the opportunity of walking with the great Apostle Paul on that night before.

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