The Last Discipleby Hank Hanegraaff, Sigmund Brouwer
First-century Rome is a perilous city as Nero stalks the political circles and huddled groups of believers. To be safe, Christians must remain invisible.
Gallus Sergius Vitas is the only man within Nero's trusted circle willing to do what it takes to keep the empire together. He struggles to lessen Nero's monstrosities against the people of Rome-especially… See more details below
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First-century Rome is a perilous city as Nero stalks the political circles and huddled groups of believers. To be safe, Christians must remain invisible.
Gallus Sergius Vitas is the only man within Nero's trusted circle willing to do what it takes to keep the empire together. He struggles to lessen Nero's monstrosities against the people of Rome-especially the Christians. But as three Greek letters are scrawled as graffiti throughout the city, Nero's anger grows.
As the early church begins to experience the turbulence Christ prophesied as the beginning of the last days, an enemy seeks to find John's letter, Revelation, and destroy it. Meanwhile the early Christians must decipher it and cling to the hope it provides as they face the greatest of all persecutions.
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The Last Disciple
By Hank Hanegraaf Sigmund Brouwer
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Hank Hanegraaf and Sigmund Brouwer
All right reserved.
10 MONTHS AFTER THE BEGINNING OF THE TRIBULATION
Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle ... And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear ... After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard ... After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast-terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left.
In the royal gardens beneath a full moon, Vitas pursued the man he had once vowed to serve with loyalty or death. His emperor.
It was a night unnaturally still and hot, heavy with the unseen menace of a building storm, with the moon above Rome and the seven hills that guarded the city, a moon that bounced mercury light off the placid lake of the royal gardens into thinly spaced trees along its shore.
Nero was a fifty paces ahead of Vitas, lurching beneath an elaborate costume that impeded his progress. The costume had been pieced together from animals imported to the arenas to kill convicted criminals. Head to foot, Nero was draped in a leopard's skin. Two pairs of eagles wings were sewn onto the back of the costume. A lion's head from a massive male had been attached to the top, and Nero's head fit completely inside the skull, allowing him to see through the empty sockets. His arms and legs were covered by the skin from a bear's legs, which had also been sewn to the leopard skin that covered the bulk of Nero's body. In the quiet of the night, the bear claws rattled with each step of Nero's steps.
Another man walked beside Nero. Helius. Nero's secretary and confidante. Helius-along with a man named Tigellinus-had been a companion since Nero was a teenage emperor, when the three of them roamed the streets of Rome at night to bully and rob strangers as if they were common thugs.
Helius carried a dull iron chain in his right hand, and it dragged along the ground, rattling in odd unison with the bear claws of Nero's costume.
Because of the noise and their apparent focus on their destination, Vitas was not worried that his emperor would notice his pursuit. He was far more worried about Nero's intentions. There had been times when Nero dressed in wolf skins and attacked slaves chained to stakes, but that had been part of very public celebrations.
This was too different. Too eerie. Vitas needed to know why.
Vitas was the single man in Nero's inner circle that the Senate trusted. There were times that Vitas felt he was a thin string holding Senate and emperor from snapping apart, and if that happened, war between both sides would be disastrous for the empire. If Vitas lost his awareness of Nero's actions, he would lose the Senate trust that gave him such value to both sides. The string would snap.
Ahead of Vitas, the roar of a real lion thundered from the inside of a gardener's hut, roiling through the heat and stillness back towards the Nero's palace.
Vitas wondered if the echoes of the roar clawed into the dreams and nightmares of the slaves in their various quarters. If those who woke to the roar pretended sleep, or silently held their children and whispered prayers to their gods.
The slaves knew there was danger in the roar. But, like Vitas, it wasn't the lion they feared.
Helius had been instructed by Nero to make no noise when they reached the hut. Just outside the closed door, Helius nodded when Nero stopped and pointed at the chain that Helius carried.
Helius was a man of arrogance and certainty except in the presence of Nero; he hated himself for fumbling with the chain as he tentatively attached it to a collar around the neck of the animal costume. Bowed meekly when Nero slapped him once across the face for his clumsiness.
Nero pointed at the door of the hut.
Helius opened it, and by the chain, led Nero inside.
Two men and two women-were shackled to the stone of an interior wall, each sagging against the irons, each stripped to sackcloth rags.
They faced three cages. One held the lion. Another held a bear. And the third a leopard.
Helius stepped inside, leading the disguised Nero by the chain.
Helius jammed the torch into an iron band bolted to the wall for that purpose. He tied one end of the chain that held the beast to a bar of the lion cage.
Helius turned to the first man.
They were the same height, but obviously different ages. The first captive was nearing sixty; Helius in his twenties. Daylight would have shown the smooth and almost bronzed skin of Helius' features. His hair was luxuriously curly, his eyes a strange yellow, giving him a feral look that was rumored to hold great attraction for Nero. Helius wore a toga, and his fingers and wrists and neck were layered with jewelry of gold and rubies. There was something cat-like about his examination of the man captive in front of him.
Helius had a knife hidden in his toga. With deliberate slowness, he pulled it up and placed the edge of it against the man's face with sinister gentleness.
"The emperor wishes for you to bow down and worship the beast," Helius said. His fumbling fear was gone in service of Nero; temporary as it might be, with Nero in the costume, Helius was now the one in control.
"No," the man said quietly.
Helius moved to the woman beside the man. He drew the knife downward from her ear to her chin. A narrow line of blood followed the path of the knife and streamed onto her neck.
"Leave the woman alone," the first captive said. "Turn your attention to me." The captive's hair matched his beard-greasy with days of unwashed sweat in captivity, gray hair far outnumbering the remainder of black. His torso and arms were corded with muscle, suggesting a long life of physical labor.
"Then worship the beast," Helius answered.
"Cannot?" Helius asked softly, waving the knife in front of the woman. "Or will not?"
"I will not betray my Master."
"Nor will I," said the woman. "I am not afraid."
"Listen to me you Jews," Helius said. "If you bow to the beast and worship him as divine, I have been given authority to spare you this."
With his knife, Helius cut a piece of the rags that covered the first captive. He turned to the woman and used the piece of cloth to wipe blood from her face.
Helius tossed the bloody rag into the lion's cage, and it savaged the cloth, pinning it with its mighty front paws and tearing at it with its teeth. Beside it in its cage, the bear roared its fury, and the agitated leopard paced back and forth.
Helius ignored the cages, letting his eyes caress the face of each captive, searching for fear. Because Helius knew fear so intimately in himself, he was an expert at finding it in others.
Helius smiled his hungry smile.
"Let me repeat. Nero wishes for you to worship the beast. Will you accept it as god? Or shall I let the beast loose to destroy you?"
The first man remained silent. Helius had expected the resistance. But it did not matter. Either way, Nero would be satisfied by a personal triumph over these Christians. They would worship him, hidden as he was beneath the costume of the beast, or he would take satisfaction in killing them as the beast. This symbolic victory would assure him that he truly was in control, that the widespread resistance to him from the Christians of Rome was meaningless.
Helius turned to the others, asking one by one if they were willing to bow down and worship the beast. None answered.
"Let me kill them!" The beast that was Nero spoke in a guttural, strangulated voice. "Let me tear their livers from their living bodies! Let me -"
"Silence!" Helius barked at the beast. These had been Nero's instructions. Play the role of the master of the beast, so that none of the captives would guess Nero himself was hidden beneath its costume.
To the captives, Helius said. "Look at the beast closely. Do you not see it is a bear. A lion. A leopard with wings? Does it mean anything to you?"
The beast began hissing again, a frenzy that ended only when Helius grabbed the torch and waved the fire beneath its head. As if it truly were beast, not man. Nero, the amateur actor, was widely known for playing his roles seriously.
After Helius calmed the beast, he spoke to the captives. Anger tinged his words. "I understand far more about you Jews than you realize. I know of your prophet named Daniel. Hundreds of years ago, he foretold that Rome would be the fourth beast, greater than the kingdoms of Babylon and Persia and Greece. And here is your fourth beast, ready to destroy you."
"Death cannot destroy us," the first captive said. "Through my Lord and Master, it is a fate that we can greet with peace. If you would believe in His love and-"
Helius slashed with his knife at that third captive, a slash of rage. This had not been part of Nero's instructions, but Helius was at heart at coward and could not resist the power he'd been given for this role. The blade flashed across the man's right bicep, instantly cutting through to muscle. Blood dripped down the man's elbow and onto the dirt floor.
"You refuse to worship the beast?" Helius jeered. "Then tonight, he will be the beast to destroy you! And in the next years, he will continue destroy all the followers until the very last disciple is wiped from this earth. The name of Christos will be forgotten, but Nero will be revered forever!"
Helius spun, taking hold of the chain that held the upright beast to the lion's cage.
"Ravage these men and women and destroy them," he spoke to the beast. "Leave their remains for the bear and the leopard and the lion!"
The beast howled.
"Yes," Helius told the beast. "Tonight you will sleep in peace knowing the power of the fourth beast is greater than the power of their God. You will triumph!"
Helius was forced to yell above the roars of the animals and the high-pitched screaming of Nero, dressed in the fur of a leopard sewn to a lion's head and the claws of a bear.
Then Helius froze as a lone man walked into the hut.
Gallus Sergius Vitas.
Vitas had heard enough from outside to decide to stop it. And how he would do so.
He'd made his decision to enter the hut based on well known story about Nero. During those years, when as a teenaged emperor, Nero dressed himself as a slave and had roamed the streets at night to loot shops and terrorize strangers, he and his friends, including Helius and Tigellinus, had attacked rich senator and his wife. The senator was unaware the Nero was among the hoodlums and fought well, landing several punches directly in Nero's face. Nero and his friends fled.
While Nero had recognized the man as a senator, he made no plans to take action against him, realizing the senator had been perfectly justified in protecting himself from a mere slave. Unfortunately, when someone told the senator whose eyes he had blacked, he sent Nero a letter of abject apology. Because Nero could no longer pretend he'd been an anonymous slave, and it was now publically known the senator had committed a treasonous act against the emperor, that senator was forced to open his veins in a suicide that prevented the trial and conviction that would have ruined his family.
Yes. Nero was first and foremost, an actor. Vitas counted on that.
Without hesitation, Vitas marched forward and yanked the chain from Helius.
"If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture," Vitas said, "he will have you destroyed!"
For Vitas, it was an all or nothing bluff, pretending he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.
Vitas shoved Helius hard toward the doorway of the small hut.
"Outside!" Vitas commanded. "Now!"
Without hesitation, Vitas wrapped one end of the chain around the bar of the lion cage, treating the man in the beast costume as lower than a slave.
"Don't move," he jerked the chain that held the beast. "I'll be back to deal with you."
Vitas forced himself to pretend outrage. But this was the moment. If Nero decided he would no longer play the role, Vitas was dead.
The beast snarled at him, a weird echo from inside the lion's skull. But the beast did nothing else. Vitas knew he was safe. Temporarily.
Vitas spun on his heels and marched outside to Helius.
"You feed his delusions," Vitas said to Helius.
The two of them stood outside the hut, in the shadows of an olive tree.
Helius shrugged, a smirk clear on his face in the moonlight.
Vitas had learned in battle in Brittania how to detach himself from the emotions of the moment. Yet it took immense willpower to restrain himself from withdrawing his short sword from his toga and charging at Helius. But it would not serve the empire for Helius to die, for Nero clung to the man with a neediness that barely kept Nero stable.
"Of course I feed his delusions." Helius continued smirking, unaware of how closely the ghost of his own murder had passed by. "That is the whole point. His power. And how I survive."
"How does this serve Nero?" Vitas demanded, pointing at the hut behind them.
Vitas was not particularly large, but tall and carried himself the way a man with solid compact muscles does. He was also cloaked with his family's well-documented patrician background of generations of Roman purity, cloaked by the stories, almost legendary, about his bravery in battles against the Iceni in Brittania. In daylight, his flat, almost black eyes made his thoughts unreadable to his opponents, and without a smile, his face was implacable, like unweathered stone. Here, his face hidden in the shadow cast by the moonlight, he was that much more intimidating. Much as Nero needed Helius, Nero revered Vitas. Only Vitas could speak to Helius in this way and not fear later punishment in the stealthy form of poison or an assassin.
"His nightmares," Helius said, finally sensing the deadly anger simmering beneath the calm of Vitas. "Nero wants to be rid of them."
"By this travesty of justice?"
Helius shrugged. "No worse than anything else Nero has desired in recent years."
Vitas could not argue that. "He is Caesar, the representative of our great empire. To protect the empire, the dignity of his position must be protected."
"Protect the empire?" Helius sneered.
Excerpted from The Last Disciple by Hank Hanegraaf Sigmund Brouwer Copyright © 2004 by Hank Hanegraaf and Sigmund Brouwer . Excerpted by permission.
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