Key people


John the Baptist

There's no getting around it—John the Baptist was unique. He wore odd clothes and ate strange food and preached an unusual message to the Judeans who went out to the waste-lands to see him.

But John did not aim at uniqueness for its own sake. Instead, he aimed at obedience. He knew he had a specific role to play in the world—announcing the coming of the Savior—and he put all his energies into this task. Luke tells us that John was in the wilderness when God's word of direction carne to him. John was ready and waiting. The angel who had announced John's birth to Zechariah had made it clear that this child was to be a Nazirite—one set apart for God's service. John remained faithful to that calling.

This wild-looking man had no power or position in the Jewish political system, but he spoke with almost irresistible authority. People were moved by his words because he spoke the truth, challenging them to turn from their sins and baptizing them as a symbol of their repentance. They responded by the hundreds. But even as people crowded to him, he pointed beyond himself, never forgetting that his main role was to announce the coming of the Savior.

The words of truth that moved many to repentance goaded others to resistance and resentment. John even challenged Herod to admit his sin. Herodias, the woman Herod had married illegally, decided to get rid of this wilderness preacher. Although she was able to have him killed, she was not able to stop his message. The one John had announced was already on the move. John had accomplished his mission.

God has given each of us a purpose for living, and we can trust him to guide us. John did not have the complete Bible as we know it today, but he focused his life on the truth he knew from the available Old Testament Scriptures. Likewise, we can discover in God's Word the truths he wants us to know. And as these truths work in us, others will be drawn to him. God can use you in a way he can use no one else. Let him know your willingness to follow him today.

Strengths and accomplishments

    • The God-appointed messenger to announce the arrival of Jesús

    • A preacher whose theme was repentance

    • A fearless confronter

    • Known for his remarkable lifestyle

    • Uncompromising

Lessons from his life

    • God does not guarantee an easy or safe life to those who serve him

    • Doing what God desires is the greatest possible life investment

    • Standing for the truth is more important than life itself

Vital statistics

    • Where: Judea

    • Occupation: Prophet

    • Relatives: Father: Zechariah. Mother: Elizabeth. Distant relative: Jesus.

    • Contemporaries: Herod, Herodias

Key verse

    • "I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is!" (Matthew 11:11).

John's story is told in all four Gospels. His coming was predicted in lsaiah 40:3 and Malachi 4:5; and he is mentioned in Acts 1:5, 22: 10:37; 11:16: 13:24, 25; 18:25; 19:3, 4.


God specializes in finding and changing people we consider out of reach. It took a while for Nicodemus to come out of the dark, but God was patient with this "undercover" believer.

Afraid of being discovered, Nicodemus made an appointment to see Jesus at night. Daylight conversations between Pharisees and Jesus tended to be antagonistic, but Nicodemus really wanted to learn. He probably got a lot more than he expected—a challenge to a new life! We know very little about Nicodemus, but we know that he left that evening's encounter a changed man. He carne away with a whole new understanding of both God and himself.

Nicodemus next appears as part of the Jewish high council (7:50). As the group discussed ways to eliminate Jesus, Nicodemus raised the question of justice. Although his objection was overruled, he had spoken up. He had begun to change.

Our last picture of Nicodemus shows him joining Joseph of Arimathea in asking for Jesus' body in order to provide for its burial (19:39). Realizing what he was risking, Nicodemus was making a bold move. He was continuing to grow.

God looks for steady growth, not instant perfection. How well does your present level of spiritual growth match up with how long you have known Jesus?

Strengths and accomplishments

    • One of the few religious leaders who believed in Jesús

    • A member of the powerful Jewish high council

    • A Pharisee who was attracted by Jesus' character and miracles

    • Joined with Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesús

Weakness and mistake

    • Limited by his fear of being publicly exposed as Jesus' follower

Lessons from his life

    • Unless we are born again, we can never be part of the Kingdom of God

    • God is able to change those we might consider unreachable

    • God is patient, but persistent

    • If we are available, God can use us

Vital statistics

    • Where: Jerusalem

    • Occupation: Religious leader

    • Contemporaries: Jesus, Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea

Key verse

    • "'What do you mean?' exclaimed Nicodemus. 'How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again?'" (John 3:4).

Nicodemus's story is told in John 3:1-21; 7:50-52; and 19:39-40.


The details surrounding death may vary, but the reality is universal. Scenes like Lazarus's funeral in Bethany are repeated many times around the world each day. A grieving family gathers at a graveside. Friends agonize over what to say. Their helpless silence, downcast eyes, and shuffling feet provide more distraction than comfort. When death is unexpected, the whys hang in the air like choking smog.

Drawn by grief and duty, people came from Jerusalem and the surrounding area to pay their last respects to a citizen of Bethany. Jesus' friend Lazarus was dead. His brief sickness proved stronger than any available medicine. Jesus had been sent for, but had failed to arrive in time. Death didn't wait. Following the wisdom of hot countries, the body was soon wrapped and buried. Four days later, Jesus arrived.

Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha reacted in shock. Grief-stricken, they struggled to understand why Jesus had delayed in coming. We have no idea how Lazarus reacted to his own death. In fact, we don't have a record of a single word he said. We do know that he listened to Jesus. Even when the curtain of death was between them, Lazarus responded to Jesus' voice. He came hobbling out of his cave-tomb, still wrapped in the grave clothes. Jesus raised him from the dead!

When all is said and done, only what God accomplished through us will really matter. We will take little credit. Jesus worked in and around Lazarus just as he does with us. We have Christ's invitation to participate in his work, but we must not forget that he will do much more than we will know. Meanwhile, we delight in what Christ does with the little we have to offer him.

Lazarus's resurrection poses an important question: When you die, do you fully expect that your next conscious experience will be hearing the voice of Jesus call you by name?

Strengths and accomplishments

    • Regularly hosted Jesus in his home

    • Raised from the dead by Jesus after four days in the grave

Lessons from his life

    • Once we have given God ownership of our lives, we can't predict what he will do with them

    • Jesus' circle of relationships went beyond the 12 disciples

    • Jesus declared that the events surrounding Lazarus's sickness and death would glorify God

Vital statistics

    • Where: Bethany

    • Relatives: Sisters: Mary and Martha

Key verse

    • "But when Jesus heard about it he said, 'Lazarus's sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this— (John 11:4).

Lazarus's role as an "active spectator" is recorded in John 11:1-12:11.


Caiaphas was the leader of the religious group called the Sadducees. Educated and wealthy they were politically influential in the nation. As the elite group, they were on fairly good terms with Rome. They hated Jesus because he endangered their secure lifestyles and taught a message they could not accept. A kingdom in which leaders served had no appeal to them.

Caiaphas's usual policy was to remove any threats to his power by whatever means necessary. For Caiaphas, whether Jesus should die was not in question; the only poínt to be settled was when his death should take place. Not only did Jesus have to be captured and tried: the Jewish high council also needed Roman approval before they could carry out the death sentence. Caiaphas's plans were unexpectedly helped by Judas's offer to betray Christ.

Caiaphas did not realize that his schemes were actually part of a wonderful plan God was carrying out. Caiaphas's willingness to sacrifice another man to preserve his own security was decidedly selfish. By contrast, Jesus' willingness to die for us was a clear example of loving self-sacrifice. Caiaphas thought he had won the battle as Jesus hung on the cross, but he did not count on the Resurrection!

Caiaphas's mind was closed. He couldn't accept the Resurrection even when the evidence was overwhelming, and he attempted to silence those whose lives had been forever changed by the risen Christ (Matthew 28:12, 13). Caiaphas represents those people who will not believe because they think it will cost them too much to accept Jesus as Lord. They choose the fleeting power, prestige, and pleasures of this life instead of the eternal life God offers those who receive his Son. What is your choice?

Strength and accomplishment

    • High priest for 18 years

Weaknesses and mistakes

    • One of the most directly responsible persons for Jesus' death

    • Used his office as a means to power and personal security

    • Planned Jesus' capture, carried out his illegal trial, pressured Pilate to approve the Crucifixion, attempted to prevent the Resurrection, and later tried to cover up the fact of the Resurrection

    • Kept up religious appearances while compromising with Rome

    • Involved in the later persecution of Christians

Lessons from his life

    • God uses even the twisted motives and actions of his enemies to bring about his will

    • When we cover selfish motives with spiritual objectives and words. God still sees our intentions

Vital statistics

    • Where: Jerusalem

    • Occupation: High priest

    • Relative: Father-in-law: Annas

    • Contemporaries: Jesus, Pilate, Herod Antipas

Key verses

    • "Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, 'You don't know what you're talking about! You don't realize that it's better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed'" (John 11:49-50).

Caiaphas is mentioned in Matthew 26:57; Luke 3:2; John 11; 18; and in Acts 4:6.


Being loved is the most powerful motivation in the world! Our ability to lave is often shaped by our experience of love. We usually love others as we have been loved.

Some of the greatest statements about God's loving nature were written by a man who experienced God's love in a unique way. John, Jesus' disciple, expressed his relationship to the Son of God by calling himself "the disciple Jesus loved" (John 21:20). Although Jesus' love is clearly communicated in all the Gospels, in John's Gospel it is a central theme. Because his own experience of Jesus' love was so strong and personal, John was sensitive to those words and actions of Jesus that illustrated how the one who is love loved others.

Jesus knew John fully and loved him fully. He gave John and his brother James the nick-name "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3:17), perhaps from an occasion when the brothers asked Jesus for permission to "call down fire from heaven" on a village that had refused to welcome Jesus and the disciples (Luke 9:54). in John's Gospel and letters, we see the great God of love, while the thunder of God's justice bursts from the pages of Revelation.

Jesus confronts each of us as he confronted John. We cannot know the depth of Jesus' love unless we are willing to face the fact that he knows us completely. Otherwise we are fooled into believing he must love the people we pretend to be, not the sinners we actually are. John and all the disciples convince us that God is able and willing to accept us as we are. Being aware of God's love is a great motivator for change. His love is not given in exchange for our efforts; his love frees us to really live. Have you accepted that love?

Strengths and accomplishments

    • One of John the Baptist's disciples before following Jesús

    • One of the 12 disciples and, with Peter and James, one of the inner three that were closest to Jesús

    • Wrote five New Testament books: the Gospel of John; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Revelation

Weaknesses and mistakes

    • Along with James, shared a tendency to outbursts of selfishness and anger

    • Asked for a special position in Jesus' Kingdom

Lessons from his life

    • Those who realize how much they are loved are able to love much

    • When God changes a life, he does not take away personality characteristics, but puts them to effective use in his service

Vital statistics

    • Occupations: Fisherman, disciple

    • Relatives: Father: Zebedee. Mother: Salome. Brother: James.

    • Contemporaries: Jesus, Pilate, Herod

Key verses

    • "Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining" (1 John 2:7-8).

John's story is told throughout the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation.

Mary Magdalene

The absence of women among the 12 disciples has bothered a few people. But it is clear that there were many women among Jesus' followers. It is also clear that Jesus did not treat women as others in his culture did; he treated them with dignity, as people with worth.

Mary of Magdala was an early follower of Jesus who certainly deserves to be called a disciple. An energetic, impulsive, caring woman, she not only traveled with Jesus, but also contributed to the needs of the group. She was present at the Crucifixion and was on her way to anoint Jesus' body on Sunday morning when she discovered the empty tomb. Mary was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection.

Mary Magdalene is a heartwarming example of thankful living. Her life was miraculously freed by Jesus when he drove seven demons out of her. In every glimpse we have of her, she was acting out her appreciation for the freedom Christ had given her. That freedom allowed her to stand under Christ's cross when all the disciples except John were hiding in fear. After Jesus' death, she intended to give his body every respect. Like the rest of Jesus' followers, she never expected his bodily resurrection—but she was overjoyed to discover it.

Mary's faith was not complicated, but it was direct and genuine. She was more eager to believe and obey than to understand everything. Jesus honored her childlike faith by appearing to her first and by entrusting her with the first message of his resurrection.

Strengths and accomplishments

    • Contributed to the needs of Jesus and his disciples

    • One of the few faithful followers present at Jesus' death on the cross

    • First to see the risen Christ

Weakness and mistake

    • Jesus had to drive seven demons out of her

Lessons from her life

    • Those who are obedient grow in understanding

    • Women are vital to Jesus' ministry

    • Jesus relates to women as he created them—as equal reflectors of God's image

Vital statistics

    • Where: Magdala, Jerusalem

    • Occupation: We are not told, but she seems to have been wealthy

    • Contemporaries: Jesus, the 12 disciples, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus' mother Mary

Key verse

    • "After Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning, the first person who saw him was Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom he had cast out seven demons" (Mark 16:9).

Mary Magdalene's story is told in Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; and John 19-20. She is also mentioned in Luke 8:2.


Thomas, so often remembered as "Doubting Thomas," deserves to be respected for his faith. He was a doubter, but his doubts had a purpose—he wanted to know the truth. Thomas did not idolize his doubts: he gladly believed when given reasons to do so. He expressed his doubts fully and had them answered completely. Doubting was only his way of responding, not his way of life.

Although our glimpses of Thomas are brief, his character comes through with consistency. He struggled to be faithful to what he knew, despite what he felt. At one point, when it was plain to everyone that Jesus' life was in danger, only Thomas put into words what most were feeling, ''Let's go, too—and die with Jesus" (John 11:16). He didn't hesitate to follow Jesus.

We don't know why Thomas was absent the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection, but he was reluctant to believe their witness to Christ's resurrection. Not even 10 friends could change his mind!

We can doubt without having to live a doubting way of life. Doubt encourages rethinking. lts purpose is more to sharpen the mind than to change it. Doubt can be used to pose the question, get an answer. and push for a decision. But doubt was never meant to be a permanent condition. Doubt is one foot lifted, poised to step forward or backward. There is no motion until the foot comes down.

When you experience doubt, take encouragement from Thomas. He didn't stay in his doubt but allowed Jesus to bring him to belief. Take encouragement also from the fact that countless other followers of Christ have struggled with doubts. The answers God gave them may help you. too. Don't settle into doubts, but move on from them to decision and belief. Find another believer with whom you can share your doubts. Silent doubts rarely find answers.

Strengths and accomplishments

    • One of Jesus' 12 disciples

    • Intense both in doubt and belief

    • A loyal and honest man

Weaknesses and mistakes

    • Along with the others. abandoned Jesus at his arrest

    • Refused to believe the others' claims to have seen Christ and demanded proof

    • Struggled with a pessimistic outlook

Lessons from his life

    • Jesus does not reject doubts that are honest and directed toward belief

    • Better to doubt out Ioud than to disbelieve in silence

Vital statistics

Where: Galilee, Judea, Samaria

Occupation: Disciple of Jesus

Contemporaries: Jesus, other disciples. Herod, Pilate

Key verses

    • "Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!' 'My Lord and my God!' Thomas exclaimed" (John 20:27-28).

Thomas's story is told in the Gospels. He is also mentioned in Acts 1:13.