My twelve favourite Bible characters
If I were to enquire as to your twelve favourite Bible characters by virtue of their legacy of notably blessing you personally, what would your answer be?
I would be surprised if your answer is the same as mine and would not be surprised if none on your list appear on mine. I suspect a major reason for this is none of our journeys, temperaments, interests, outlooks, axioms, etc., are the same, often far from it, yet these are the very factors that influence our choices. As far as my choices go, which I am about to identify, and give reasons why they are my choices, three are widely recognised as prophets, although in one case it was not his main job; and the rest have, as I have argued before, acted prophetically. None were perfect and some had a notably darker side.
While there are many other worthy characters that deserve to be included, these are the ones I would cite as being my twelve favourite Bible characters if one were to press me. I have deliberately excluded Jesus of Nazareth from my list because He is more than human, but if He were to be included, since He is my Lord and Saviour, He would be so far at the top of the list. I should add, how ever we look at it, we are spoiled for choice. If I think about it, there are many more “favourite Bible characters”, starting with most of the prophets. One more thought is, as fascinating all these characters were and as praiseworthy were their different qualities, even more significant is the way God dealt with and used ordinary people, and if we are willing, He can do so with us too.
This guy was an outsider. He was kicked out of his family home (his mother was a prostitute) and he was rejected by his community. If anyone had a reason for having a chip on his shoulder, it was him. While on the outside, he attracted around him a band of dodgy characters who, from what we can figure out, operated as a bunch of mercenaries. Yet this was just what was needed as Israel fell yet again under the cosh by enemies in their midst, frustrated they could do little to protect themselves, and as often happens in times of crisis they look to any who can help. They then called on a bemused Jephthah to help free them from their oppressors. He did so successfully by the power of the Holy Spirit (i.e. God used him) and was appointed their leader. His weak theology, coupled with doing the wrong thing, is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his daughter because of a foolish vow he had made to God, and afterward playing a key part in a short, bloody civil war, even though arguably he was on the right side. While his credentials for favourite may be questionable, Jephthah shows us how God can use willing outsiders, who are flawed, for His glory.
As we have already reflected, the book of Job begs the question, although not answered to our entire satisfaction, that has been asked from time immemorial: why do the innocent and righteous suffer? It is likely set in the time of the Patriarchs and Job’s story is recounted in cultures other than that of Israel. In a nutshell, Job was a man who had everything, was materially well off, well respected and life as far as he was concerned was going well. Moreover, he honoured God, and importantly God recognised him as righteous. Unbeknown to Job, there was a confab going on in heaven involving God and Satan. Satan told God that Job only honoured Him because God had blessed Job. As if to test this proposition, God allowed Satan to take everything away from Job that he had, except his life and, when he did, Job still worshipped God. We then trawl though many chapters of dialogue between Job and his three comforters, plus toward the end with a young fellow, Elihu, who wanted to chip in with his own two penneth. In short, Job’s friends suggested Job was not quite as good as he was made out to be and this was the reason why he suffered; and, as for Job, he tried hard to figure out, not entirely successfully, “why me?” In the end, God intervenes, but without entirely answering Job’s concerns, while telling him that he did not know what he was talking about and as God He could do whatever He wanted. He restored to Job all what he had lost, and did so with interest. Faced as we are with perplexing conundrums, including the unfairness of life and a God who does not intervene in the way we would want, it is well to reflect on Job’s patience and his trust in God while undergoing suffering.
Abraham is a fascinating character, starting with him being the founding father of the Jewish race who, whether modern humanity recognise it or not, still have a central part to play in the unravelling of God’s great purposes. Just as amazing was how God plucked Abraham out of what might be seen as obscurity, telling him to leave his country, family, and father’s home for a land God will show him. Abraham literally stepped into the unknown, because of his faith in God’s promise. Abraham did what he was told and never stopped trusting God would do what He said, including Abraham being the father of a great nation special to God. While there were signs of his faith floundering, because the promise was delayed, including him not possessing any of the Promised Land other than a plot for a family tomb, and a long delay to the arrival of his son and heir, Isaac, he continued to honour God and God blessed him. One example of Abraham’s faith was his willingness to sacrifice his own son because that was what God had instructed him to do. A further example concerned his interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah which God said he would destroy, but was prepared not to do so if according to Abraham’s request enough righteous people were found. God refers centuries later to Abraham, his friend; what better accolade?
The first thing I notice about Jacob was how unlikeable he was. Comparing Jacob with his older brother, by a minute, Esau, we see Jacob as sneaky and a mummy’s boy and Esau as not sneaky and more a man’s man. Yet God, who always knows what is best, chose Jacob to take and pass down the all-important birthright. Two key events stood out in Jacob’s life: the first was at Bethel when he dreamed a dream of angels ascending and descending stairs between earth and heaven, when God promised His protection and reaffirmed the promise He gave to his grandfather Abraham; the second was at Peniel, twenty years later, having acquired two wives, several children and lots of animals. He had been outconned and chastened by his dealings with Uncle Laban and was not looking forward to again facing the brother he wronged, Esau, who he had cheated and may still be carrying a grudge, as he returned home. It was at Peniel Jacob had his all-night wrestling match with the Angel, who he would not let go until the Lord (represented by the Angel) had blessed him, which blessing he received along with a limp he carried for the rest of his life. Peniel was where Jacob experienced true brokenness. While after flaws in character could still be seen, there was wisdom, peace and evidence of God’s blessing. If God can do that with Jacob the Supplanter, He can do that with you and me. God’s dealings with Jacob of humbling, breaking before using him sets an example for us to follow.
Elijah pops up out of nowhere and without any ado predicts a drought that will only end when he says so. Such audacity raised the anger of wicked king Ahab and even more wicked queen Jezebel and Elijah goes into hiding until such time God instructs him to confront the king. Israel was then widely practising Baal worship, encouraged by Ahab, and Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest to reveal who was the true God. YHWH God won by sending fire from heaven to consume the animal sacrifice and onlookers were awestruck and killed the priests of Baal. This angered Jezebel who vowed to kill Elijah and Elijah fled for his life and in a fit of depression. Three things at least warm me to Elijah. Firstly, he said it as it was without mincing his words or trying to please others, out of obedience to God. Secondly, it was clear from the various descriptions he was a rough and ready sort and did anything but live it up in comfort. Thirdly, he was human, for he might have stood his ground given what happened on Mount Carmel but instead he ran scared and his depression was such he wanted just to roll over and die. But God in His grace uses flawed instruments like Elijah and there was work God still had for him before being whisked away in a chariot of fire. It included anointing two kings and his successor, Elisha, who he mentored. One remarkable story was exposing Ahab who, along with Jezebel, had been complicit in the murder of a righteous man, Naboth. The wonder of the Elijah narrative is as much to do with how God can use willing vessels. Before moving on to our next character, it is good to reflect there is a NT Elijah in the form of John Baptist, who lived rough, told people straight what God thought of them, who also had his moments of doubt.
The Bible is full of people who had small walk-on roles, never to be heard of again – and if one does not know one’s Bible, may not even be recognised – and yet played significant, even heroic roles. We first come across Obadiah (not to be confused with the minor prophet) as one who was in charge of the palace of King Ahab. Obadiah feared the Lord and was very devout, yet this did not stop him doing his job doing the bidding of his wicked master. No doubt he did perform his job admirably, and it was while about the king’s business that he bumped into the prophet Elijah. During the period while Elijah had been away, wicked Queen Jezebel was busily rounding up the true prophets of the Lord and killing them, while Obadiah was doing his best to secretly protect them by hiding them in caves and ensuring their temporal needs were being met. Understandably, Obadiah was fearful meeting the great man, as colluding with the king’s enemy might well cost him his life. But he did what Elijah asked and set up a meeting between Ahab and Elijah, and we hear no more about him after that. Obadiah was one of those people I admire that just got on with life, made the best out of what was thrown at him, using the unique opportunity afforded him by doing something amazingly significant by hiding the prophets, being clearly the right person to do this important job, and thus he honoured God.
Jeremiah will forever be known as the doom and gloom prophet, and for good reason. He started young and was not too confident, but God called him, said He would tell him what to say and that he needed to toughen up. He had to do some daft things from a human perspective. He did so at God’s bequest and suffered terribly at the hands of them he managed to upset, all because he spoke God’s truth and did so with pinpoint accuracy. While he was a contemporary of good King Josiah, the four southern kingdom kings that followed, prior to Judah being taken into exile, were bad, and so were the people. God had had enough; they had reached the point of no return despite many warnings and they were ripe for judgment. The people somehow expected that everything would turn out alright, a message that most of the other prophets proclaimed and which was one the people wanted to hear. But Jeremiah stuck to his guns, despite knowing that doing so would harm him. His message was Judah had reached the point of no return and God’s judgment was they would go into Babylonian exile for 70 years and the best they could do is accept the inevitable and make peace, which also made Jeremiah seem like a traitor. Notwithstanding, he spoke words of comfort too – judgment would be followed by mercy, and ruin by revival. If there is an example that I would want to follow, it is that of Jeremiah who spoke needed truth to power and did what God required of him. It also serves as an example that it is never too young to start being used by God. Today, his message strangely resonates in the light of events we see unravelling around us.
If you want a best example of a goody two-shoes character in the Bible, then Daniel is your man. We first find out about him when as a teenager he was taken into exile, right at the beginning and, seventy years later, at the end of the exile, he was still around. For that entire period, he was faithful to God, obeying the Law down to a tee, even when it meant being thrown into the lion’s den. But he also won favour with three pagan kings by the way he conducted himself, impressed by his wisdom and ability as a civil servant, as well as how spot-on were his dreams and visions; although he also attracted enemies who were jealous of him. Some of Daniel’s prophecies are still to be fulfilled and still are remarkably significant. Given the accuracy of his prophecies that took place down to the fine detail, we can ponder those words with confident expectancy. He lived a disciplined life, exemplified by his prayer life and eating habits. He loved God and His people; the fervour and passion in his prayers were amazing. The old Sunday School chorus, “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone! dare to have a purpose firm! dare to make it known”, pretty much summarises what Daniel was about and throws down the gauntlet: whether young or old, we too can dare to be a Daniel, who stayed the course. What is there not to like?
Stephen will forever be known as the first Christian martyr. He died not long after the Church began on the Day of Pentecost, following Jesus’ death and resurrection. He first comes to our attention when it became clear in those early days that the practical needs of the Church, specifically in taking care of the poor, including widows, needed to be attended to by persons other than the Apostles, to ensure their needs were properly met. Therefore, they appointed seven deacons, one of which was Stephen. We are told Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and brimmed with God’s grace and energy. Besides no doubt effectively carrying out this important practical job, Stephen was keen to win people to Christ and was diligent in doing so, and to such an extent that detractors could not refute his arguments. This upset some of the Jewish religious folk, who felt threatened by the new sect. They had him before the High Council on a trumped-up charge. Whence Stephen gave an amazing defence of the Christian faith, but it only went to anger his accusers. In the end, Stephen was stoned to death, and died ever gracious and forgiving his killers. While, many reading this will not have to face what Stephen faced, we live in a day when Christians are being persecuted in many countries throughout the world, because of their Christian faith. Should that time ever come to us, we can take inspiration from Stephen, a faithful follower of Jesus, even until death.
Barnabas will be remembered as one who looked out for others, especially those needing support and encouragement, whom the Apostles looked to, to sort out tricky situations like how to respond when Gentiles were becoming Christians. He was the man who mentored Paul after his Damascus Road experience, when other believers would not touch him with a barge pole, and who would later accompany Paul on his missionary journeys, willing to play second fiddle until they parted company on a matter of principle. He is depicted as a good man, full of the Holy Spirit, and an encourager. My own background tends to put Paul on such a pedestal that to criticize him might be considered sacrilegious, and yet Barnabas stood up to him when he considered Paul to be in the wrong. Barnabas represents an example of how Christian discipleship should be carried out. We first learn of him as one who was dedicated to the cause when he sold land so the proceeds could be used for gospel ministry. We later see him encourage new believers who had nothing worldly wise to repay him and then stick his neck out to support the one forever known as the great apostle, Paul. Given it is an obvious need today, what stands out for me, was how he went out of his way and at personal cost, to encourage others, especially in the ways of God.
Ruth was an amazing woman. Before I found my own “Ruth”, she would have been the sort of girl I would have liked to marry, and her husband (Boaz) the sort of man I wanted to be. If it were not for the fact Ruth married two (not at the same time) Israelites who were to be important links in the Messianic line, and whose story is told in the Bible, we would never have known about her. She was a Moabitess and, generally in the Bible, anything to do with Moab was seen negatively. She is introduced as one of the daughters-in-law to Naomi, who, while living in Moab, her husband and two sons died. She decided to return home and told her two daughters-in-law to remain where they were. But Ruth insisted she return with her, despite bleak prospects. Her “Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my God; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God – not even death itself is going to come between us” speech is beautiful. In one of those remarkable “God instances” that the Bible is good at recounting, she met Boaz, an honourable, righteous man, who happened to be Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. They fall in love, marry and have a son who happened to be in direct line to Jesus. Ruth’s virtue was there for all to see, and it was at a premium, given the story took place in the time of the Judges. Just as Boaz showed the sort of character men should emulate, Ruth did much the same for women.
The jury has been out for two thousand years as to what sort of woman Mary Magdalene was. While it is often thought she was an immoral woman and a prostitute, maybe the same person who anointed Jesus with precious ointment and washed His feet with her hair, we cannot be sure. What we do know is that Jesus cast from her seven demons, suggesting up to then she was a troubled woman with perhaps a dark past. She became one of his followers, along with other women who took care of some of the practical needs of Jesus’ disciples. She features particularly at the end as she witnesses first hand Jesus dying on the cross. Then, on that third day, she is first to arrive at the tomb to anoint the body, and to her surprise and great joy she discovered that Jesus is alive. Her Jesus encounter was thrilling: “She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Sir, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.” Jesus said, “Mary.” Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!” She was first to witness His resurrection (and this was a woman!) It was she who told Jesus’ disciples of this wonderful news. Mary was a faithful follower of Jesus with a caring, serving heart who, despite whatever her earlier life had been, Jesus was pleased to reveal Himself to before anyone else.