Beginners Guide to New Testament Bible Characters

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Bible Characters

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5 April 2021
By Phil O'D

This is a quick guide to probably ten of the most talked about people in the New Testament. Sometimes when you start at church the preacher may mention a person in passing and if you don’t know the context then it’s hard to follow. Here is a little something to catch you up. Most of these are based on the four Gospel books - the written accounts of the life of Jesus in the Bible. These books are named after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Contents

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Jesus

Well you can’t really have a chat about the top people in the New Testament without talking about who it is all about. While this part could be an eternity of writing, I will just overview the basics of what is covered in the Gospels.

The Gospel of John begins with the description: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This is the starting description of Jesus: He is God and is with God and always has been.

In verse 14 it says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us”. This means that God became human. Why? Well that is the story of redemption; humankind falling away from God and Jesus coming to make a way for us to be brought back in by Him.

So Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph (more about them later), and ended up being raised in Nazareth. In Luke 3:23, it says that Jesus began his ministry at about the age of thirty.

He starts it all off with His baptism by John the Baptist and laid the groundwork that we all should follow His example and be baptised if we wish to follow Him. Baptism is the laying down of the old life and accepting and stepping into the new.

Jesus called twelve close disciples and also had a larger group of around seventy (or seventy-two) at times. He taught them much and commissioned them to go out and be emissaries in His name.

During the three years of His ministry, He taught publicly and did many miracles.

At the time of Passover, three years after He started His ministry, Jesus knew that His time had come and that one of His twelve, Judas, was going to betray Him. This Passover feast is often called the Last Supper. This is where Jesus teaches about Communion.

After the supper, Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans for a reward of 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was taken before the temple priests and condemned for claiming to be the King of the Jews. He was then taken before the Roman King Herod (not the Ceasar) and condemned to death by crucifixion (the common form of execution at the time). While dying on the cross, He redeemed a thief on the cross next to Him.

Three days later, three women followers come to visit His tomb to anoint His body. He wasn't there but an angel met them and told them that Jesus had conquered death and was alive. Jesus met with one of them, Mary Magdalene, in the garden soon after.

Jesus went on to meet with the disciples and others over the next forty days. He gave them the Great Commission: Go into all the world and make disciples. He then ascended to heaven.

That is a really quick overview, so I recommend that you read the four Gospel accounts to get the full story.

Jesus returns in person in the last book of the bible, Revelation, where He shares with John how all things are going to come to an end: His second coming, Earth being made new, and our reuniting with God again forever.

A statue of Mary, Jesus' mother

Mary & Joseph

Mary and Joseph are the earthly parents of Jesus, as you probably know from Christmas stories.

Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. An angel came to Mary and told her that she was favoured by God and would conceive a baby, despite not having been with a man. This baby would grow to be the Messiah. The Holy Spirit miraculously filled her and she became pregnant. The angel later visited Joseph to explain what had happened and they married.

Caesar called a census and everyone had to go to their hometown. A very pregnant Mary and Joseph went to the town of Bethlehem and due to the amount of people going to their hometowns, the only room for them was with the animals. Jesus was born and laid in a manger.

We don’t know how long they were there, but later they were visited by Magi (wise men) from the East looking for the King who had been born. King Herod (different Herod than at Jesus’ death. Herod was a family name) heard that a King was born and ordered every boy under three to be killed. An angel alerted Joseph and they fled to Egypt. The angel told them when Herod had died and they could return to Nazareth.

The next mention of them is when Jesus was twelve and they went to Jerusalem for a feast. On the way home they realised that Jesus was not with them. After three days, they found Him in the Temple. And this is the last mention of Joseph in the bible. It is assumed that he died sometime before Jesus began his ministry as Mary is mentioned a lot but Joseph is not.

Mary continues to be around and is mentioned at the crucifixion and after Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter

Probably the most well known of the disciples, Peter began the story as a fisherman with his brother, Andrew. Jesus uses Peter’s boat to preach to the crowd. After a miracle, He called Peter, his brother and two other fishermen brothers, James and John, to follow Him as His disciples.

Peter was one of the closest people to Jesus during the three years of His earthly mission. Jesus had around seventy followers, of whom twelve were disciples, and of that twelve there seem to be three close ones: James, John and Peter.

Peter is often seen as being bold but then also making decisions that he later regretted during these years. He asked to step out and walk on water but then panicked and began to sink. He struck out with a sword at someone coming to take Jesus away, but then Jesus healed the man. He said he would never betray Jesus, but as Jesus predicted, he denied Jesus three times in one night.

Despite these shortcomings, Jesus saw the gold in him. Peter was the one who would lead the believers and the disciples forward after Jesus ascended to Heaven.

At Pentecost, it was Peter who preached to the crowd and led the people to salvation. It was also Peter who took the faith to the Gentile (non-Jews) for the first time and made faith accessible to them.

Peter continued to spread the word throughout the world. Christ foretold that he would die a martyr’s death, and tradition holds that he was condemned to death by Emperor Nero and crucified.

Saul/Paul

Saul started off as a man devoted to being holy and continued to be that through his conversion in grace. He begins his story hating followers of Jesus to the point of persecuting them. However, on his way to the city of Damascus one day, he and his crew were struck down by a bright light. Jesus spoke to Saul and told him to stop persecuting Him. Saul was struck blind and was led to Damascus where a follower of Christ healed and converted him.

Saul changed his name to Paul and became arguably the biggest missionary ever.

Paul traveled through Asia Minor, Greece, and eventually through to Rome. He underwent massive persecution, beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks and snakebites - but through it all he stayed faithful and changed the world around him, fulfilling the Great Commission.

Paul wrote most of the books of the New Testament. These books are actually letters he wrote to people or churches, giving them guidance on how to live Christian lives.

In the book of Acts, we are told about how Paul was imprisoned and appealed to Caesar, as he was a Roman citizen and had rights that were not being upheld. (Citizenship meant they were a class above everyone else and should not have been imprisoned/treated as he was without a trial). Paul’s appeal, it is assumed, was mainly so that he could present Christ to the Emperor and others on the way to Rome. Through doing this, Paul brought the gospel to many on his journey.

In Rome, he remained on house arrest and many of the Epistles (letters to churches and people) were written from there.

It is believed that Paul was also executed by Nero. Because he was a citizen he would not have been crucified but was allowed a swift death, probably beheading.

Matthew

The first book of the New Testament was written by a man called Matthew. He was a tax collector, which meant he worked for the Romans and thus, his fellow Jews would not have liked him. We find many cases of tax collectors throughout the Gospels and the descriptions show how much they were despised.

Well, Jesus came and called him to be one of the twelve disciples. This just goes to show that He truly came to save the lost.

Matthew's Gospel is very Jewish-focused in its delivery. It starts with genealogies and continues in a very Jewish structure. This gives a good balance when read alongside the other Gospels.

Mark

Mark is believed to be John Mark, who is often mentioned by Paul as having accompanied him on many of his travels. It is also believed that it is this Mark who Peter refers to in 1 Peter 5:13 as, “my son, Mark”. While he was not Peter’s actual son, this shows how close their relationship was.

Mark wrote the second Gospel in the New Testament. It is believed by some he wrote it based on Peter’s experience with Jesus, as it features a lot of stories that have Peter present. It is one of the shorter Gospels and is focused towards Gentiles (non-Jews).

Later in life it is believed that Mark founded a church in Alexandria and stayed there until his death.

Luke

Luke was a doctor and a historian. He was asked to make a detailed account of Jesus' life and ministry (the book of Luke) and the beginning of the early church (the book of Acts) by a man named Theophilus.

While Luke was not around Jesus when He was on earth, Luke interviewed and talked with many people who were. He even travelled with Paul a lot and Paul referred to him as his “blessed physician”.

We are not sure who Theophilus was, but it is assumed that he was a wealthy Roman citizen in an area where people had heard of Jesus but had not been taught exactly who Jesus was and how the church came to be.

Luke was with Paul in his last days in Rome, and then continued to spread the gospel in other areas after that.

John

John, as mentioned earlier, was a fisherman whom Jesus called along with Peter. John was also one of the three closest to Jesus and described as “the disciple Jesus loved” (John 13:23).

John and his brother James are referred to as the “Sons of Thunder”. It is uncertain whether this was to do with their father or, as is more commonly accepted, to do with their personalities: They were turned away from a village where they tried to preach the Gospel, and they asked Jesus if they should call down fire from Heaven upon it.

It is interesting to note that their mother also travelled with the group at times.

John was at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Before His death, Jesus entrusted Mary into John’s care.

John did much in the early church, and at some point later was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. It was here on this island that Jesus showed John a revelation of future events. These writings became the book of Revelation.

John is believed to be the only disciple to not have been martyred.

A man sitting in a pew at church

Timothy

Timothy is the subject of the books of 1 &2 Timothy. He is a young church leader and a disciple of Paul. His father was not a believer but his mother and grandmother were.

Paul encourages him to not look down on himself or let others do so because he is young but to set the example of what it looks like to be one of the faithful.

Throughout Acts, we see that Timothy also accompanied Paul on many of his trips preaching the gospel. Paul mentioned him often in other epistles. He was left to govern and lead the church at Ephesus for a time. Paul also asked for him to visit when he was imprisoned.

Timothy was imprisoned at least once, as his release is mentioned in the book of Hebrews.

According to tradition it is believed he died in Lystra around the age of 80. He was preaching the gospel to followers of Diana, when he was seized and beaten to death.

Thomas

Thomas was one of the twelve disciples. We do not know how he was called as a disciple or what he did. His name means twin, and he was potentially Judas Thomas.

Thomas is probably best known as “doubting Thomas”. This name came about after Jesus’ resurrection. Several people, including Mary Magdalene and some of the disciples, had seen Jesus in person but Thomas had not yet. He said that he would not believe unless he could touch the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet (the ones created by crucifixion). Then Jesus appeared in the room and allowed Thomas to touch him, and he believed. Jesus said, “You believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen but believe.”

Thomas continued to preach the gospel and it is believed that he took the gospel all the way to India where he was martyred.

Related reading: Beginners Guide to Old Testament Bible Characters

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