The sun began to slip below the far horizon, it’s many-hued rays fanned out across the darkening sky. Turning and gazing back from the high, wind-swept, rocky promontory where they paused momentarily, the six dust-covered, weary travelers could see myriads of scattered spots of refracted sunlight sparkling like liquid diamonds on the waves of the Great Sea to the west. They must hurry to reach this day’s destination before there was no longer enough light for them to find their way along the path they trudged.
They were weary—oh, so weary!—and hot and hungry, but in the fast-waning daylight they could still make out the walls of the village ahead toward which they traveled. They knew their full journey would take another two days, but they had made it to the village of Lydda on this first day of their journey afoot. They felt an urgency to reach the great city of Jerusalem, their final destination, well ahead of swelling crowds of Jewish pilgrims from throughout the known world of the Roman Empire who would soon be gathering in the Jewish holy city for the annual Passover Festival.
As they anticipated, the watchman on the village wall challenged them as they approached the base of the wall and the lighted, single night-gate leading into the city—closed only a few moments before their arrival as full darkness neared. There was only enough daylight remaining for the watchman atop the wall to satisfy himself about their identity and shout down instructions for the gatekeeper to open the gate. Otherwise, they would have had to sleep outside the village walls, unprotected during the night. Since Lydda sat on the main route from the seaport of Joppa (where they had landed yesterday) to their final destination, the travelers hoped that one of the village’s inns might still have room for them this night.
The little band of travelers carried hidden among their belongings a very important scroll they knew would be confiscated or stolen if discovered. They tried to act as normal as possible so as not to arouse suspicion among the villagers and other travelers milling around in the marketplace just inside the night-gate. They deliberately dressed and traveled as typical Jewish pilgrims enroute to Jerusalem, not as the wealthy family they actually were.
After the village gate closed behind them, in the light of flickering torches lining the marketplace square the innkeepers crowded around them seeking their business, but the wary travelers also knew among the noisy crowd were likely to be robbers and pickpockets eyeing them for anything of value they might steal, especially something as valuable as their lengthy manuscript written on the finest tanned leather scroll.
Such manuscripts were worth much gold, no matter in what language they were written. So great was humankind’s thirst for knowledge, even the world’s greatest library at Alexandria in Egypt would purchase stolen manuscripts, never asking how they were acquired, paying top prices. This particular manuscript had been written in Aramaic, the everyday language used by the almost six million Jews scattered throughout the empire. Later, the scroll would be translated and written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
The leader of the small band of travelers was Matthew. Accompanying him were his wife, Mary, their son Nathan, and Nathan’s wife, Elizabeth. The two young men completing the group were Nathan’s and Elizabeth’s sons, Simeon and Zaccheus. Matthew’s grandsons were strapping young men, both in their twenties, acting not only as servants and companions for the older four, but also as bodyguards.
Matthew had lived almost seventy years, Mary only a few years less. All six were followers of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew had been one of the original twelve followers of Jesus, having served as a highly paid tax collector for the Romans until one day thirty-five years earlier Jesus had appeared in the doorway of Matthew’s busy tax office in Capernaum, Galilee, and summoned Matthew, exclaiming, “Follow me!” Without any hesitation, Matthew arose and followed the controversial young man heralded by some as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Oh, the amazing things Matthew had witnessed and heard for three years following that day when he left everything to follow Jesus of Nazareth!
As the six travelers settled in for the night in the inn for which they had haggled a suitable price, Matthew was so excited he could not go to sleep immediately even though he was weary with a deep, numbing weariness. He knew he needed the sleep; his old body ached in places it had not ached for years. The six had spread out their sleeping pallets on the dirt floor near a corner of the main room of the inn—Matthew and Mary nearest the walls, Nathan and Elizabeth in front of them, and Simeon and Zaccheus on the outside of the group for protection in case some of the other sleepers in the room attempted to rob or harm them during the night.
Secured to his left wrist by a braided leather strap, Matthew hugged to his breast the sealed cylindrical leather case containing his rolled-up manuscript. He tried every mental technique he had learned over the years to fall asleep, but sleep would not come. His mind kept going over and over the things he had written in the manuscript. At the moment, however, he flushed with embarrassment when he vividly remembered how easily he and ten other young men had fallen asleep that night in a garden so many years ago—just after
Jesus had asked them to stay awake while he prayed. And tonight he couldn’t fall asleep no matter how hard he tried. In the darkened room, he smiled at the irony of it.
Ten days earlier far to the north, Matthew and his family left their seaport home, Antioch of Syria by boat, having secured the services of a local fisherman to sail them to the Judean port of Joppa, from where they had disembarked and walked to Lydda to stay this night. In Antioch, Matthew had finally finished the manuscript he had been preparing for so many years to write, reviewing it innumerable times to ensure his facts were accurate. He had interviewed so many people he lost count of them; they were a kaleidoscope of faces whirling around in his mind as he attempted to sleep. And he searched deep into his own memory to ensure he had not confused any facts or flow of events he wrote about in his manuscript. If called upon, he could have recited his manuscript from memory.
Matthew was gladdened that during the sea voyage from Antioch to Joppa he and his family had ample opportunity to tell the fishermen and his family about Jesus. The small crew readily believed the story related to them, even asking to be baptized as followers of Jesus. They immediately renounced their family idols and fishing gods, throwing them all overboard during the voyage. Matthew knew of a small group of believers meeting in a home in the section of Antioch where the fisher family lived. Matthew encouraged them to seek out those believers as soon as they returned home, telling them Matthew had sent them. Before they stepped off the boat at Joppa, Matthew and his family prayed with the new believers, commending them to God’s grace.
As he tossed and turned on the hard sleeping pallet at the inn in Lydda, Matthew recalled with deep joy and wonder a far longer journey he had undertaken almost thirty years ago to far-off Britannia in order to interview Mary, the mother of Jesus. Very shortly after the risen Jesus had returned to his Father in the heavenlies, Mary’s uncle Joseph of Arimathea (having been divinely warned in a dream about the first great wave of persecution soon to come upon the followers of Jesus) had secreted her out of Judea, sailing westward across the Great Sea, north on foot across Gaul, and then across the north channel to Britannia.
Joseph had vast holdings, lands, and tin mines in those distant isles and there Mary had lived out her years in peace and quiet, free from the persecution sweeping the rest of the empire. What a joy it had been for Matthew to interview her and hear about her son from Mary’s own lips. She understood matters about Jesus from a mother’s perspective—matters no other person could understand. Matthew had almost an entire scroll of notes from that interview.
Not very many days after he began to follow Jesus of Nazareth, an angel appeared to Matthew in a dream (Oh, how vividly he remembered that dream while laying on his pallet in Lydda trying to fall asleep!). Even though that dream had occurred years ago, it was still as clear as if he were viewing it for the first time. In the dream, the angel called his name and told him that one day Matthew was to write a full biography of Jesus, the Messiah. At the time, Matthew questioned God’s wisdom in choosing a former tax collector to be the biographer, but trusted the Spirit of God to help him write it when the time came. Matthew possessed the ability of nearly total recall, an ability that served him well both as a tax collector, and, more recently, as he wrote Jesus’ biography.
Two years ago Matthew had another dream in which the same angel instructed him it was finally time to write the biography. In his cluttered study of their spacious villa overlooking the seaport of Antioch of Syria, Matthew had spent many rich, full days writing and rewriting his drafts, recalling with wonder and awe all that had occurred in his life since leaving his tax office to follow Jesus long ago.
To write his final manuscript, he called up wonderful memories and referred to copious notes he had recorded and kept through the years. It was many years since the young Messiah had died and been raised to new life by the power of God. “How could so many years pass so quickly,” questioned Matthew as he lay on his pallet struggling to sleep.
Fortunately, many other dispersed followers of Jesus had also settled in Antioch by that time, so Matthew was able to interview many of those still alive who had witnessed Jesus’ deeds and had heard his teachings in person. Some of them had even been among the hundreds of persons who had seen Jesus after God raised him from the dead. A few people he interviewed had been raised from the dead at the same time Jesus burst forth from his tomb! Having been a tax collector, Matthew knew the necessity of paying meticulous attention to detail as he wrote his manuscript. With divine prescience he foresaw how closely his manuscript would be scrutinized, analyzed, and questioned in years to come.
Matthew possessed a copy of a biography of Jesus, John Mark had written only a year or so earlier. John Mark’s biography was shorter than Mattthew’s, but it helped Matthew to be able to compare his notes with Mark’s biography. Doctor Luke, Paul’s traveling companion, had also written a biography of Jesus about five years earlier, but so far it had been circulated only among the churches in the region of Galatia far to the north, and Matthew had not yet seen a copy of Luke’s writings.
Matthew had also heard that John had very recently completed writing an amazing revelation he was given by the risen, glorified Jesus, but he had not yet seen that manuscript either. He understood the revelation Jesus gave to John was written specifically to bring hope and comfort to the many followers of Jesus who were being persecuted and martyred in the most recent wave of persecutions decreed by the Emperor Nero.
Matthew and John both understood it would not be long before great tribulation (greater than ever before experienced) would come upon Jews and followers of Jesus. Both men sensed an urgency to complete their manuscripts and have copies circulated throughout the empire. Both knew the last days foretold by the ancient Jewish prophets and by Jesus himself were already crashing in upon the Jewish world and the end of all things Jewish was at hand. They knew they were living in the beginning of the cataclysmic time of the end foreseen by the ancient prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel and others.
Both John and Matthew believed that Jesus would return soon from the heavenlies in clouds of glory and judgment just as he told them on numerous occasions. They had a divine premonition the Jewish world and culture as they knew them would soon cease to be. They were saddened that thousands of years of Jewish history and culture were hastening to an end, but also gladdened that a new world was soon to be ushered in at the return of Jesus.
They didn’t understand all that had been divinely revealed to them, but they sensed an urgent need to place their manuscripts in the hands of as many Jews and followers of Jesus as possible as the days of great tribulation and persecution were beginning to be unleashed upon them throughout the empire. In fact, Matthew had heard from many of Jesus’ followers fleeing to Antioch that John’s manuscript contained numerous proclamations by Jesus that his return was even nearer than most of his followers anticipated—that his return on clouds of judgment would shortly take place, that it was at hand, that the hour of his return was coming quickly, that Jesus was knocking at the very door opening to the ends of the ages.
Their sense of imminency seemed to agree fully with what God’s Spirit had caused Matthew to remember and write in various places throughout his manuscript about Jesus’ soon return and establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. It was urgent that his manuscript be copied and distributed to both Jews and followers of Jesus throughout the known world.
Matthew felt a compelling priority to place his manuscript into the hands of the elders of the church in Jerusalem, “the mother church,” before all Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem fled the city. He wanted those elders to bless the distribution of its copies before they were carried throughout the empire. Jerusalem had the finest copyists and scribes available in the empire except for those in Rome, and numerous copies—exceedingly accurate—could be produced in a few weeks. He was scheduled to meet with the Jerusalem elders in four days.
Matthew knew the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem had been divinely warned to flee Jerusalem and Judea before the wrath to come; a few had already begun to leave, with their numbers increasing each day. He had recalled in a recent dream one occasion when the young Messiah said not one stone of the great Temple of King Herod would remain intact. He knew Jerusalem would soon be destroyed and become utterly desolate. That great city of ancient kings, of historical lore, and of The Great King of kings would soon face unimaginable tribulation, slaughter, starvation, and horror!
He wanted his biography of Jesus to be read in public for the first time near where many of the events therein had begun—not in far-off Antioch, but in Jerusalem and Judea. Thus, he had convinced his family to make the long trip with him to Jerusalem. They knew full well the dangers they faced, but believed God would protect them until they handed over the manuscript to the Jerusalem elders.
As Matthew began writing his manuscript two years ago, he still wondered why God wanted him to write it, since the biographies of John Mark and Doctor Luke were already being circulated among many of the congregations of Jesus. In a dream, God informed him he wanted Matthew to write his manuscript specifically for Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus.
By having Matthew write his biography, God wanted to ensure that the Jews and Jewish followers of Jesus dispersed and scattered throughout the empire had a clear understanding of the life and works of Jesus and how he had first come to the Jews to usher in the Kingdom of God among them.
Matthew then understood that the manuscripts of John Mark and Luke were written largely for non-Jews who were beginning to follow Jesus in ever increasing numbers. “How gracious of God to include both Jews and non-Jews—all humanity—in his all-encompassing, all-inclusive plan of redemption,” mused Matthew just before the early morning hours when he finally fell asleep on the floor of the inn in Lydda.
Early the next morning after breaking their fast with some dates, olives, and bread, the little band of travelers filled their drinking skins with new wine and set out once again toward Jerusalem, their final destination. Matthew wanted to have plenty of time to meet with the elders of the church in Jerusalem before great crowds of Jews began to arrive for the annual Passover Festival.
They planned to stay that night in the village of Emmaus with some of Jesus’ followers and then continue on the next day to Bethany to stay with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, all three even older than Matthew, but still strong in spirit. It was well-known among followers of Jesus throughout the empire that the three believed they would live to see Jesus return in power and glory.
To this very day, Lazarus boldly told anyone who would listen how Jesus had brought him back to life after he had died so many years ago. The brother and his two sisters had escaped much persecution through the years because the local Roman and Jewish authorities held lingering fears that by some feat of magic Lazarus (or his sisters) might come back to life again if they tried to kill any of the three of them.
There had even been a joke circulating for years claiming Lazarus had once told local authorities: “Kill me and I’ll be alive again in three days just as Jesus was—and I’ll be very angry with you for killing me!” Whether or not Lazarus actually said that was questionable, but recalling Lazarus’ dry sense of humor, Matthew could easily believe Lazarus had said it.
The next day passed without incident as the family left Emmaus and undertook the final leg of their long trek toward Jerusalem. The believers in Emmaus had asked Matthew to teach them for a brief time the evening before. Among the fifty or so believers meeting in a crowded home in Emmaus that evening were about a dozen new believers preparing for their baptism. Matthew taught about John the Baptizer and told the full story of how Jesus had sought out John to baptize him.
When the six travelers finally arrived the next day in Bethany, a suburb of the holy city of Jerusalem and home to Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, they were greeted with much joy. Jerusalem and its suburbs were already beginning to fill with Jewish pilgrims from throughout the known world, an assemblage that would swell to well over a million visitors by the beginning of the Passover Festival in a week. Matthew and his family were grateful to be lodged in the cool, quiet suburban home of Lazarus and his sisters.
The evening following their afternoon arrival in Bethany, as night shadows began to appear throughout the village, people began arriving at the home of Lazarus one, two or three at a time—but never more—for fear of the Roman and Jewish authorities. It was forbidden for followers of Jesus to gather in the name of the one they claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Many of Jesus’ followers in Bethany and Jerusalem had already been arrested. Some had been killed because they would not renounce their allegiance to Jesus.
Roman and Jewish soldiers regularly patrolled the streets, but some of them were followers of Jesus, too, and had arranged their tours of duty so they could protect the home of Lazarus where Jesus’ followers gathered that night. The soldiers knew the risks they were taking, but had sworn allegiance to a power higher than Rome or the Jewish religion.
Some seventy-five people finally gathered secretly in the spacious home of Lazarus that evening. They were hushed and guarded, whispering greetings to one another, praying for one another, and catching up on recent news. The few oil lamps lighting the room were specially trimmed not to give much light; the windows were covered with black cloths. They had heard by word-of-mouth that one of the original twelve followers of Jesus had arrived in Bethany that afternoon and were excited to find out what he might share with them that night. They knew that three of the original followers of Jesus had already been killed for their faith, some in far-off, unknown lands. Some of the others had already died of old age, awaiting their resurrection at the imminent return of Jesus. How blessed they felt to have one of the remaining original twelve among them.
Little did they know the wondrous words they were about to hear read to them by Matthew! After some brief greetings, a few instructions by some of the elders, sharing of bread and wine, prayer, and the singing of psalms, Lazarus began to introduce his guests to the little house-church congregation. All eyes were on Matthew as Lazarus waited to introduce him last.
During the other introductions, Matthew sat quietly clutching the leather manuscript case to his chest, tears of joy streaming unashamedly and unchecked down his browned, wrinkled cheeks. What joy to serve his Lord in the way in which he would be privileged to do in just a few moments. He knew all too well this could well be his last public opportunity to be a witness for his Lord, but he believed the words he had written in his manuscript would be read forever, long after his old body and bones had turned to dust.
Finally, after Lazarus’ lengthy introduction, Matthew stood up, broke the seal on the leather case, and tenderly extracted the lengthy scroll—as if he were handling a newborn baby.
He slowly unrolled the first portion of the scroll.
Taking a deep breath he began to read in the dim light of the smoky, flickering oil lamps. At first his voice broke, then wavered, but carried loud and clear throughout the crowded room: “These are the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a direct descendant of King David and of Abraham, the Father of our race: . . . “
The End . . . of the Beginning!
[NOTE: I encourage you to read the actual words of Matthew’s “Hidden Scroll,” entitled “The Gospel of Matthew,” the first book of the New Testament in the Bible.]
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Revised and updated December 2020