Getting to Know the Major Characters of the New Testament: Part 1 (Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist)
By Christopher Reese
The Bible is composed of 66 separate books that tell one overarching story and this story is The True Story of the World. This Story explains why the world exists, the reason you and I are here, and how it will all end. Thus, it’s the most important Story of all and one we should seek to read, study, and understand. It’s within this Story that we also find our own stories. One way to become more familiar with this Story is to get to know its main characters.
Earlier in this series, we explored 11 major figures of the Old Testament and considered lessons we could learn from their lives. We now move to the New Testament to get to know 7 of its main characters, beginning with Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist.
It’s appropriate that we begin with Jesus since he’s the main character of the Bible; the hero of the Story who saves humanity. As we saw in our survey of Adam and Eve, because of their fall into sin they were separated from God and died spiritually. Consequently, so did all of their descendants (Romans 5:12).
Rather than allow humankind to face the fatal consequences of their actions, God initiated a rescue plan: he would take the punishment for sin upon himself by becoming a man—Jesus Christ—and pay the penalty. Because God is absolutely just, he could not allow evil to go unpunished (Romans 1:18). By becoming human to act as our representative, he made a way to both save humanity and defeat Satan, who had instigated Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3:15).
Although we won’t go into much detail about this now, in order to understand who Jesus is, we must first take a step back and understand that the Bible teaches that God is one, unified in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; known together as the Trinity. We don’t encounter anything like the Trinity in our experience of the world, so we can’t fully understand it.
Of these three divine persons, it was the Son who became a man and was born into the world as Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 and 14).
So, God the Son became a human being while remaining divine and was born in Bethlehem in Israel around 4 BC and given the name Jesus, which in Hebrew means The LORD is salvation. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) tell the story of Jesus’s life, focusing mainly on his public ministry, which lasted about three years. The word Gospel comes from a Greek word meaning good news.
Broadly speaking, Jesus accomplished two main objectives during his earthly ministry. First, he taught us who God is and how God wants us to live our lives. Second, he came to take the sins of the world upon himself so that human beings could once again have a relationship with God.
Regarding the first part of his mission, Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” (both phrases refer to the same thing). These teachings communicated what life should be like under God’s reign. One of the key passages where Jesus expounds on these principles is his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29). In these three chapters, Jesus unfolds what life looks like when we love God with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus stresses living a life characterized by love, truth-telling, generosity, prayer, and dependence on God for all of our needs.
In addition to teaching, Jesus also came to take upon himself the death penalty each of us faced due to our sin and rebellion against God (Romans 6:23). Jesus told his disciples, “Even the Son of Man [referring to himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Perhaps no passage of Scripture is better known than John 3:16, which explains the motive and purpose of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Thankfully, the story did not end with Jesus’s death. Jesus rose from the grave after three days, demonstrating his victory over death and Satan (Revelation 1:18; Hebrews 2:14-15). Now, as a result, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Having removed the barrier of sin that separated humans from God, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20).
Jesus also taught that after his death and resurrection he would return at an undisclosed time in the future (Matthew 24:42-44). When he returns, he’ll be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:7), determine the eternal destinies of all people (Romans 2:16), and will openly reign over all creation “for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
Believers today are disciples of Jesus. We follow him and seek to be more like him in our thoughts, words, and actions. He calls us to give him first place in our lives (Matthew 6:33). We’re also members of his body, which is the universal church made up of all believers in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). He’s promised to be with us always, “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
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Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Besides Jesus, perhaps no other figure from the New Testament is better known than Mary, since much of her story is told in traditional Christmas songs and represented in nativity scenes. Luke records Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, which probably means, based on the customs of the time, she was a young teenager (Luke 1:26-27).
During her engagement, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and . . . his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:30-33).
The angel also revealed that Mary’s conception would be miraculous, brought about by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). An engagement in this culture was considered as binding as a marriage, and Mary knew that becoming pregnant out of wedlock would be considered adultery. But her response to Gabriel reveals the depth of her faith, even at her young age, “‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’” (Luke 1:38).
After the events of Jesus’s birth, the narrative shifts to Jesus and his disciples, and not much more is said about Mary. She was with Jesus as he hung on the cross (John 19:25-27), and may have remembered the prophecy that was given to her when Jesus was a baby, that “a sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35). Following Jesus’s resurrection, Mary was with his disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14), and this is the last time she is mentioned.
Mary’s life illustrates how God uses ordinary, everyday people to accomplish his will and often does extraordinary things through them. Mary’s willingness to follow God and accept his plan, despite foreseeable difficulties, is an example every believer should emulate.
John the Baptist
Like Jesus, John the Baptist’s birth was foretold by the angel Gabriel. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were faithful followers of God, but were old and had never been able to have children. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and announced that Elizabeth would have a son, and also shared some details about John’s destiny: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17).
Gabriel’s words echoed an Old Testament prophecy that John would fulfill, found especially in Malachi 4:5-6. Like the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, John would call the nation of Israel to repentance and to a renewed commitment to God, preparing the way for Jesus, the promised Messiah. John even resembled Elijah by the way he dressed—his “clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.” And he ate “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4), indicating that he lived an austere lifestyle and off the land.
John did indeed prepare the way for Jesus, calling the people of Israel to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). He also clearly identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Jesus praised John highly, declaring that “among those born of women there is no one greater than John,” because John had prepared the way for the Son of God to do his work on earth. However, Jesus immediately followed that statement with the surprising proclamation, “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). As the NIV Application Commentary observes,
Jesus’ remark in verse 28 is one of the greatest affirmations of the believer’s status in Scripture. To belong to the kingdom is a great privilege. John is the bridge between the [Old and New Testament] eras, but those who follow where the Baptist points come into a closer, more intimate relationship to God that transcends even the best the old age offered. That is how great Jesus’ work is in this new era.
Because of all that Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, we can have a more intimate relationship with God than was available to anyone in the Old Testament. We’ve been brought into God’s own family so that God is now our Father (Romans 8:15) and his Holy Spirit dwells within us (John 14:16-17).[Sign up to get the Know the Bible free email lesson series from Bible Gateway]
Next in this series:
Getting to Know the Major Characters of the New Testament: Part 2 (Peter, Stephen, Paul, John)
Also see these articles in this series:
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the Old Testament: Part 1 (Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph)
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the Old Testament: Part 2 (Moses, Joshua, David)
- Getting to Know the Major Characters of the Old Testament: Part 3 (Solomon, Daniel, Ezra)
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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