This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
1 John 1:5
Sophia let the beautiful words of Onesimus’s prayer lap gently against her mind. He really was a wonderful, kind-hearted soul, and his understanding of the gospel surprised her more every day.
“And now we humbly petition you, our Holy Father, that you strengthen our faith and prosper our path, as we unite with your apostle, the beloved John, in furthering your work and blessing your children. Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, by the name of your Only Begotten, even Jesus the Christ, Amen.”
“Amen.” The word passed her lips as barely a whisper, wrapped in reverence, as she raised her head and beheld the tears filling the corners of his eyes. Her own eyes were moist as well. “Thank you, Onesimus. I felt that. And I know the Lord did, too.”
He regarded her with slightly drawn eyebrows. He never wanted to take credit for the good he did, but she had been trying to persuade him to accept a compliment, graciously.
“Thank you, Sophia. I have learned much since Brother Paul guided me toward the light. I still have a very long way to go, though.”
Good enough. She smiled. “Ha. Not as long as I have. I think I’m finally starting to realize how little I know. My parents have warned me many times about becoming proud and thereby losing the Spirit.”
Onesimus gave a contemplative nod. “I have seen it in others, quite often. I remember what happened to Demas. So strong in the faith. And then his head swelled, his motives shifted, and he fell. He even tried to discredit Paul!” He shook his head sadly. Sophia recalled what she had heard about that story from her adopted aunt Esther in Trento. She had a hard time wrapping her mind around it, even now. How could someone so good change so horribly?
She had no more time to contemplate that, as one of the sailors shouted, “Smoke! I see smoke in the direction of Ephesus!”
Sophia stood up from her stool on the deck of the ship and squinted in the direction the man pointed. They were still several miles from the city, which was their destination, but there was indeed smoke, and a great deal of it. She looked to Onesimus with a confused frown.
He shook his head and shrugged. “Perhaps a warehouse caught fire, and it spread. Rome has no enemies that would dare attack her here, or that even could.”
She nodded. That made sense. But her unease grew instead of abating. Something wasn’t right. Or maybe she was still anxious about being away from her family for the first time, especially her mother Chanah. She shouldn’t be too worried. Unexpected things happened all the time. And none of it was unexpected to the Lord.
“Um … would you mind asking the captain what he thinks?” she asked, feeling like she was ten years old instead of twenty-two.
“Of course not,” he replied, giving her an encouraging smile as he turned to walk aft. She went the opposite direction, eyes focused on the growing black smudges on the horizon. It seemed like the entire city was on fire, and Ephesus was no minor town. When she reached the bow, a sailor took position there, too, calling out what he could see. She remembered someone saying he had the best eyes among the crew, that he could see like an osprey.
“No heavy flames near the water!” he shouted. She supposed that meant they wouldn’t encounter burning ships. “Moderate wind driving the smoke southeast!” Well, anyone could see that. “Not much coming from the center of the city!” That was good. She had experienced the Great Fire in Rome. Other places had seen such conflagrations, too. Fire was greedy, merciless, and incredibly fast.
Onesimus arrived, bending down to speak into her ear. “The captain isn’t concerned. He thinks they’ve had a warehouse fire, and he says the officials in Ephesus are well prepared for such things. They will have it under control shortly.”
“But what about …” She frowned as she turned toward him. “Oh, never mind. Thank you, Onesimus. I guess we’ll find out shortly.”
He straightened, placing his hands behind his back as he stared toward the thriving metropolis, home to many members of the Lord’s Church. That included her adopted brother Elhanan and his family, along with Timothy, one of the Seventy. Elhanan was still bishop there, as far as she knew. The orphan boy who had become such an incredible man.
She purposely lost herself in remembrances of her family—in Jerusalem, on Melita, and then in Rome, such a fascinating place. They had traveled a lot, too. She had been to Ephesus before, and Antioch, and Trento in the far north of Italy, even all the way to Armenia, where Mary Magdalene still lived. She had seen Pella, where a large body of saints now resided, those who had heeded the chief apostle Philip’s warnings to flee Jerusalem, which was subsequently decimated. Those thoughts rang a somber requiem. Close to a million Jews dead. Judea was no more. Many Romans had already started calling it Palestina. But though she was Jewish by blood, the Jews were not ‘her people.’ The Christians were. She was the Lord’s, which was why she had agreed to Philip’s request that she join the apostle John for a time in his ministry.
“The captain was partially right,” said Onesimus, and she started, realizing she had been daydreaming … on her feet! She brought the oncoming coastal city back into focus. They were much closer now than she expected. How long had her mind been wandering?
“What do you mean?” she asked as she tried to make out what was happening.
He raised a finger and pointed. “There are indeed some warehouses that have taken flame, but see, there … and there.” His finger moved, her eyes following. “Some fires are scorching the center of the city, and there’s even a pair on the hills. They cannot be naturally connected.”
“Okay, so … what do you think is happening?”
His hand dropped, and she watched him ponder that question for several moments. A few muffled shouts began to reach them over the water, sounding like more than just people trying to put out the fires, though she wasn’t quite sure how.
Onesimus angled his eyebrows in deep concentration, then finally said, “I believe it is a slave revolt. Not a major one, but not minor, either.”
A slave revolt? She’d heard about those before, but had never witnessed one. The slaves in Rome, of which there were a great many, were generally well cared for, and penalties for misbehavior, once proven, were harsh.
“Does Ephesus have a lot of slaves?” She could sometimes tell if someone was a slave, but not always. She didn’t remember noticing much in that regard when she had visited Ephesus with her family five years earlier.
He nodded, wearing a sad frown. “Yes, it does, unfortunately. Most, I believe, come from Parthian lands, and some from northern Africa as well.”
“Where did you come from?” The question had popped out of her mouth before she could take the time to assess its propriety.
“Sarmatia, north of the Black Sea. Roman raiders took my parents, me, and my siblings, along with most others from our small village. We were sold for a fair sum to our first buyers, and were grateful to still be together. Several years later, though, we were separated and sold again. One of my brothers died in a freak accident trying to escape. My parents were taken to Spain, I think. My other siblings ended up in various places I cannot now remember.”
“And you were sent to … Colossae?”
He nodded. “Yes. I had a good … master”—she could tell he didn’t like saying that word, at least in that context—“and I have been far more fortunate than most, especially since we found the gospel.”
“Yes. I miss him. I hope he is well.” He turned his head in what Sophia guessed was the general direction of Carthago Nova, in Spain, where Paul now mostly resided. He didn’t travel nearly as much as he used to.
“He’s with his family again. I know how happy he is about that.”
That brought a smile to the former slave’s face. “Yes. And what is more, they are his eternally.”
Her mouth spit out the next indelicate question. “You’ve never married, have you?”
He shook his head. “No, and I will not, unless the Lord directly commands it. I am too late in my years now, and I have other things to do. Don’t worry, though. In the next life, opportunity will come. Brother Paul reassured me of that.” He added an incongruous wink.
She had heard that said before, and not just by some of the priests and teachers. Her parents had explained it, as had at least one of the apostles. It often made her wonder if her calling was not to marry in this life, but to follow a different path. That option seemed both sad and exciting at the same time, and she couldn’t quite square it.
She posed her third daring query. “What will you say to Philemon and Apphia when you see them there?”
His gaze became distant. “I don’t know yet. I must learn not to have any anger in my heart. We are commanded to forgive. They treated me well, and they did eventually free me. I also have many fond memories of them and their family, and they died firm in the faith of Christ. As true martyrs.”
Sophia’s own eyes had unfocused a bit. “We have far too many martyrs.”
“Do we?” The question jolted her back to full awareness, and she peered up at him.
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “This life is just a step, and a test, leading to what really matters. If we seek God, in truth, nothing can keep us from eternal glory with him. It doesn’t matter the form our death takes, only how we live while he grants that we remain here, in his wisdom. And who is to say what effect those martyrs will have on others, not just now, but many years—even centuries—from now?”
Sophia pondered that concept in awe. “That is profound, Onesimus. I’m glad you are with me on this journey.”
“It is my honor,” he replied. “Philip stands close to God, and the Spirit confirmed to me that I should accompany you. This will be a marvelous adventure, even if we die.” He settled his eyes on her and gave a small smile, accompanied by another wink. Until today, she had never seen him wink.
The docks weren’t as bad as Sophia had feared. A pair of warehouses, two streets apart, still burned, but it appeared the flames were under control as water brigades doused them. Plumes of smoke rose in several other directions, though the picture they painted didn’t seem as dire up close as from afar. Onesimus had insisted on helping unload the ship. Why, she had no idea, and she didn’t ask. Instead, she wandered down their pier toward the dock, shouldering her personal bag. They would rent a mule, or procure a small cart, for the rest of their things. They hadn’t brought much, despite Onesimus’s occasional comment that they could have traveled lighter.
She found the captain speaking with one of the dockmasters, who had a perturbed look on his face. The fires would make things more difficult, and she knew the captain hadn’t planned on spending any time in Ephesus. He had relayed his intention to pick up a few goods before continuing on. Hopefully, they weren’t contained in either of the two burning warehouses.
“Excuse me, Captain?” He jumped as if stung by a bee, then beamed as he recognized her.
“Yes, Mistress Sophia?”
“I wanted to thank you again for the pleasant journey. You and your crew were wonderful.”
He clearly hadn’t expected that, so he fumbled for a response.
“Well, it was a pleasure having you and Master Onesimus,” he said with a bow. “I enjoyed our conversations, and I look forward to seeing this majestic temple you described when I next dock at Ostia.”
She wrinkled her lips. “I wish my parents still lived there, but they are in Verona now. They would have taken good care of you, but I can send a letter ahead to Rome. You will be welcomed.”
He bowed again, and she noted a puzzled look on the dockmaster’s face. She almost giggled, but reminded herself that she was a grown woman now, and grown women didn’t giggle. Well, not much, anyway.
“That is gracious of you,” said the captain. “You are a remarkable young woman, and your parents must be very proud. Chanah and …?”
“Ah, yes, Barabbas. My apologies. I told you I had heard that name before meeting you, though without many details. What a fascinating story.”
She smiled wistfully. Her father didn’t like talking about his past, especially the time before he married her mother, but she had wheedled a great many details out of him over the years. It was indeed a remarkable story, and another testament to the saving power of the Christ.
“Yes, but everyone’s story is fascinating, and can become even more so with God’s help. Remember, if you ever make it to Carthago Nova, seek out Paul and Miriam. They are well known there.”
The captain chuckled. “I will, I will, but you’ve already given me such a long list of people to meet and places to visit that I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see them all—and I’m a ship’s captain!” He laughed louder, slapping the dockmaster on the back. The fellow laughed along, but still looked perplexed.
Just then frantic shouts reached them, along with clashes, including metallic clangs. The captain and the dockmaster whipped their heads around as Sophia’s eyes tracked the sound. Two piers down, several dockworkers were under attack by men with clubs and knives who seemed to be trying to access another vessel. At least a dozen men started sprinting toward the pier on which she stood, screaming a rage-filled challenge. The captain turned toward his ship, his bellowing voice booming like a wakening volcano.
“All hands, to arms!”
He put an arm around Sophia and hustled her back up the pier, the dockmaster having run toward the shore, shouting for the harbor guards, which would include Roman soldiers. Most of those, she imagined, were already busy fighting the fires.
Onesimus was the first to pass them, along with two of the sailors. He had obtained a spear from the ship’s armory, and the two sailors carried long poles with sharp hooks at the end. In moments, Sophia was aboard the ship, and half a dozen more sailors had joined Onesimus as he directed them in setting up a defense halfway down the pier. He also sent a pair back to the ship, warning them some of the attackers might try to swim to it.
The wave of aggressors paused momentarily, wary of the bristling wall they faced, but then one of them roared, and they rushed forward. Even from a distance, Sophia could discern the desperation and rage in their eyes. She watched helplessly, concern for Onesimus spiking. Not only did she not want him hurt physically, she knew he would never want to kill another human being, especially a slave, and by the men’s shouts, his assessment of a slave rebellion was confirmed.
Instead of stabbing with his spear, which would be deadly effective against men with short knives and clubs, he focused on batting their blows aside, stepping forward to push them back when he had opportunity. He was a strong man, and fit, despite his claims of getting old, and while the sailors didn’t follow his non-lethal lead, they seemed to be energized by his courage. The battle was brief, with five of the attackers falling before the rest fled, searching for an easier target. They wouldn’t find one, as several harbor guards and Roman soldiers rushed toward the scene, issuing blood-curdling warnings. The men finally halted, looked around frantically for a few moments, then dropped their weapons and let their shoulders slump, heads bowing in submission.
Sophia’s heart quailed at their plight. Some of them, especially those found to be instigators, would be executed. Most of the rest would find themselves doing much harder labor, perhaps in a different place, and separated from friends and family. She was still crying as Onesimus strode up the gangway, carrying his spear limply in one hand. He found her along the port side and gently set the spear on the deck.
“I am sorry,” he said. “Perhaps I should have convinced the captain to wait before bringing the ship into port.”
She blinked at him in confused anguish. “No, this is not your fault. And thank you for protecting me—protecting us. You are a brave man.” She desperately wanted to hug him, like she would her father, but she maintained her composure, turning to stare toward the docks, where multiple groups of men had been subdued and were having their hands tied behind their backs as they knelt on the ground. Occasionally, a soldier or guard would cuff one of them hard on the side of the head with an open hand or the flat of a sword, and each time Sophia flinched. The captain had returned to the docks, promising to get more information. She spotted him hollering for the dockmaster.
“This fell far short of what Spartacus achieved.”
Sophia sniffled as she turned her gaze to Onesimus. “They all died.”
“Not all of them. And they opened many eyes. From that time, many slaveholders began treating their slaves better. I am grateful for that. I owe Spartacus and his men a great debt.”
“But slavery is wrong, no matter how well you treat slaves. Every person should be free to choose where to live, where to work, who to marry, how to worship. Spartacus didn’t end slavery, and after the last battle—at Senerchia, I believe—the Romans crucified six thousand of the survivors, lining the road from Rome to Capua. It was evil and barbaric.”
Onesimus nodded, his face hardening. “You know your history. I doubt slavery will ever be completely eradicated. It has existed since almost the time of our first parents, in all areas of the world. Men are so easily deceived by the Evil One to persecute and enslave each other. Some even claim placing certain people in servitude is a mercy!”
“It may appear so on the surface sometimes,” Sophia mused solemnly, “but it is never the right answer … to anything.”
“Indeed. Our Lord weeps for those so abused. But he comforts them as well, and he urges them to do good in their circumstances. I can personally witness to that. I don’t know when it is right to rebel, but he knows. Perhaps he inspired Spartacus and the others who helped lead that revolt. They didn’t know their Savior in this life, probably. Spartacus himself was Thracian. But they all came from the same God, the same place where he dwells. They all shared the same eternal, familial link.”
The commotion from the docks had subsided considerably, though angry outbursts from the guards and soldiers still pierced the air at intervals. She placed a hand on his shoulder, knowing that was considered forward but intending only to convey her friendship and respect. “Yes. And you rebelled, too. You left Philemon and Apphia to find Paul and labor with him in his ministry.”
He nodded, then took a deep breath, letting it out with a long sigh. “I did. I still believe I was right to do so, but Paul felt concerned about the consequences—for me, not him—of breaking Roman law. He knew how much my former masters valued me as well. He urged me to return, and whether he was right or wrong, I feel justified in trusting him. His heart is pure—the purest of any man I have ever met.”
Sophia had no immediate response to that. Some people thought the apostles were perfect, but she knew that wasn’t the case. They struggled with difficult decisions, and the Lord made them work hard to discover his will. She didn’t always understand why, but she knew He was perfect. He didn’t make mistakes, and his plans always unfolded in such amazing and beautiful ways—ways that aimed not at worldly success, but toward an eternal abundance.
She removed her hand from his arm. “Well, thank you again, Brother Onesimus, faithful of the Lord. It becomes clearer to me every day why we are traveling together to find the apostle John. Let us not keep him waiting.”