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Chapter 7 (Part 2)
Bright sunlight and blue skies surrounded the four men as they trekked up into the hills of Asia Minor. The road from Smyrna into the rustic hinterland to the southeast wound over and around a series of rises, growing ever more rugged. Behind them, the glittering expanse of the Aegean Sea stretched out to the horizon, where galleys and sailing-ships cut through the azure plain with gentle ease. But before them was a lonely and desolate landscape, lined with ancient footpaths that cut their way across the undulating hills of the Ionian highlands.
This part of the interior was rocky and sparsely settled, with just a village here and there, strung out amidst the valleys. But those villages were precisely the reason for their trek. Many apostles and evangelists had already preached the Gospel in the great cities of the alluvial plains to the north and in the rich farmlands of the river valleys, but only a few had yet ventured into the most isolated hamlets.
The further inland they went, the more they had the sense of entering another world. These villages were peopled by the ancestral inhabitants of the land—before the Greeks, Persians, and Romans had come, perhaps even before the old Lydians. But most of the inhabitants spoke a little Greek and were conversant in Lydian, so evangelists like Polycarp (who spoke both languages well) had been able to make missionary journeys into this ancient land, still so untouched by the imperial world beyond. John, too, had made this journey before, and it was to one of the churches he had planted that they were now going.
“Polycarp, if I had had you along the first time I did this, it would have made things a good deal easier,” John laughed. “I could speak enough Greek to get by, but of course in this rather ridiculous accent, which made it hard for them to understand me. And some of them didn’t know a whole lot of Greek anyway! But a smile and a patient heart goes a long way in moments like that… The good Spirit of God made himself understood in time.”
Elder Justus looked at John with a wry grin. “They’re very fond of you up here, from what I hear. Didn’t they have a nickname for you?”
John chuckled and nodded his head. “More of a mispronunciation than a nickname. They were trying to say the word for a church elder—presbyteros, you know—and really, if Greek isn’t your language, that’s a hard word to say. I still find a lot of these Greek words hard to say! Anyway, they couldn’t say ‘Presbyteros Yohanan’—Elder John, you know—so they did the best they could, and it came out as ‘Prester John.’ I rather liked it.”
“Prester John,” Lucius repeated with a smile. “It has a nice ring to it.”
“Doesn’t it?” said John. “I’m looking forward to being called that again.”
They kept walking along, hour after hour. Lucius felt his legs grow ever more weary, to the point where they ached up and down their entire length. Polycarp was doing alright with his lanky stride, but Elder Justus was clearly feeling the strain of their exertions. John, however, seemed to have an indefatigable drive about him. His old, sinewy legs just kept turning, pushing his wizened frame up one mountain slope after another.
“Stop, stop!” Justus cried out at last, heaving himself onto the ground. “I can’t go much farther today.”
“Oh, we’re almost at the first village!” John protested.
Justus gave a chuckle of despair. “How do you do it, old friend? How do you keep going like this? Most men die at half your age!”
“Haven’t you heard?” Polycarp answered with a wink. “Prester John will never die.”
John threw back his head and laughed. “I’ve heard that rumor! I don’t think it’s true, though.”
“But didn’t the Lord say something to you…?” asked Justus.
“Well, yes, I suppose he did. Said it to Cephas, actually—that’s ‘Peter’ to you Greeks—after he rose from the dead. We were walking along the shore, Peter and Iesous up ahead of me, and they were talking about how Peter had denied Iesous, and Iesous was affirming Peter’s love for him and instructing him to care for his flock. Iesous even prophesied to Peter about the manner of his death—and oh, what a death my friend suffered in Rome! Loyal and courageous to the end! He didn’t deny Iesous that time, did he? Ha! What a good man. Oh, I miss him….
“Anyway, back to their conversation on the shore—I heard Peter say, ‘Lord, what about him?’ And they both looked back at me. Now, Peter and I had always been good friends, but I think he wanted to know which one of us was more important to Iesous, and maybe whether I too might undergo a martyr’s death. And you know what Iesous said? He told Peter to stop worrying about whether other people were more favored than him. That’s good advice for all of us, isn’t it? He said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.’
“Now, because Iesous said it that way, some people have thought that he was prophesying that I wouldn’t die until he returned. But I don’t think so, no. You had to know the way our Lord talked—he had this clever way of speaking, of using words to cut to the real truth of the issue, but you had to pay close attention, or else you would miss it. And there, well, he wasn’t talking about my longevity. No, he was talking about Peter’s heart. About envy, distraction, and the importance of looking to one’s own walk with God. So, all that to say: I don’t think I’m going to live forever—not in this present body, anyway.”
Polycarp and Justus were both smiling. There was something about this frail old man, possessed of limitless energy and good cheer, that seemed to evoke joy in everyone he touched.
“I may not believe it till I see it,” said Justus. “You’ve been quite near death a few times, and yet you seem to come out safe every time.”
“Yes, well,” John shrugged, “I suppose that’s true. Boiled in oil!—I really thought that would be the end of me. But the Lord delivered me from that, yes. Ha! You should have seen the soldier’s faces! They couldn’t even come within three paces of the cauldron—that’s how hot it was!—but there I was in the middle of it, praising the Lord and singing, and having one of the most refreshing baths I think I’ve ever had! But no, I don’t expect deliverances like that every time. The Lord had more work for me to do back then—books to write, churches to visit, young leaders of the church to mentor—but soon enough my time will come. Ah! I can’t wait! I can’t wait to see my Lord Yeshua again!”
John’s eyes became bright with tears, and he shook his head with a wistful smile.
“Well!” he continued after a moment, clapping his hands. “You’ve all had a good rest while you listened to me prattle on! What do you say? Shall we keep going? The first village is just over that hill, I think.”
“What, that one way over there?” Justus squinted into the distance. “I don’t think we’ll make it today.”
“Nonsense!” said John, slapping him on the back. “We’re ministers of the Kingdom of God! What are mountains to us?”
Polycarp smiled. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news!”
“Yes!” John exclaimed. “Straight from the holy texts! A good word, Polycarp—you’ll be a great teacher of the Scriptures for your people one day. Now come on, Elder Justus, let’s move those ‘beautiful feet’!”
With another smile and a long groan, Justus pulled himself back up, and together the four men began plodding toward the eastern horizon.