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On this episode of The Disciple-Making Parent, we engage in a compelling conversation with Dan Darling about his book, “The Characters of Easter”. We explore the surprising insights into the lives of Peter, John, Judas, Pilate, and other figures from the Easter story.

We discuss how these real people with complex emotions and decisions bring depth to the biblical narrative. We also touch on the challenges and rewards of parenting, and how the sacrifices made by the parents of James and John provide a powerful example for modern families.

Join us as we reflect on the transformative power of Easter and its characters, and the lessons we can learn from them today.

Resources From This Podcast

The Characters of Easter, by Daniel Darling
Land Center for Cultural Engagement
The Original Jesus, by Daniel Darling
The Dignity Revolution, by Daniel Darling
The Characters of Christmas, by Daniel Darling
The Characters of Creation, by Daniel Darling
A Way with Words, by Daniel Darling

Topics Covered In This Week’s Podcast

02:44 Why focus on characters?
05:56 How the Darling family celebrates Easter
09:34 Dan’s favorite character in the Easter story
12:19 John
18:25 Judas
23:42 Pilate
28:10 The women at the tomb

Episode Transcript

 I’m Chap Bettis and you’re listening to The Disciple-Making Parent, where we seek to equip parents and churches to pass the gospel to their children. Does the miracle of Easter sometimes feel flat? Do you have a hard time identifying with the drama that surrounds the story? If you do, then stay tuned.

Hi, my name is Chap Bettis and I’m the author of The Disciple-Making Parent, and in today’s podcast, we talk with Dan Darling about his book, The Characters of Easter.  In our time together, we’ll get some surprising insights into Peter, John, Judas, Pilate, and the women as well. As he says, it’s easy to see the people of the scriptures without the depth that they really had. These are real people with hopes and decisions to make.

Well, Dan is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement and the assistant professor of faith and culture at Texas Baptist College.  Prior to his leadership of the Land Center, he has served as senior vice president for communication with the National Religious Broadcasters, and he also served as the vice president of communication at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s a best-selling author of The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, and The Characters of Creation, and also A Way with Words. He’s a columnist for World Opinions, you may have seen his columns there, and he’s a regular contributor to USA Today.  He is married to Angela and they have four children and live in Fort Worth, Texas.

But before we start, though, I want to let you know that I send out a family discipleship email every Saturday during the school year. Are you on that list? It’s my way of helping parents, grandparents, and pastors equip the next generation. And I’m regularly amazed at how many of my podcast listeners don’t know about the Friday or Saturday email. And I promise not to spam you. So once a week, I give you some help to pass the gospel to your children or grandchildren. So head on over to our website, that’s thedisciplemakingparent.com, and sign up today for the weekly newsletter.  But for now, let’s think about the characters of Easter.

Well, it’s a joy to have Dan Darling on the Disciple-Making Parent podcast. Thanks for being on the show.

Dan Darling: Well, I’m delighted to be on here with you, and I love being a part of this great ministry.

Chap: Well, full disclosure, Dan is also on the board of The Disciple-Making Parent and he has become a good friend. So this is a joy to talk with him and record this. We’re going to be talking about his book, The Characters of Easter. So here we are in the Easter season. You in Texas are in a shirt, but for me not to have a sweater on or a heavy jacket on here in New England is a joy. So I’m delighted that it seems like spring has finally broken through.

So before we talk about The Characters of Easter, I want to just talk about the fact that you’ve written several books where you’re highlighting characters, say The Characters of Christmas, which has done quite well, The Characters of Creation, and now also Easter. Why did you start focusing on characters?

Dan: You know, I’ve always loved character profiles. I’ve always loved stories. My favorite thing to read are biographies. When I was a kid, well, actually in college, I listened to Chuck Swindoll preaching on the radio. And, you know, Swindoll would do these like great character profiles, David and Abraham, and I just felt that at the time in my life, it had a lot of impact and I’ve always been intrigued by that.

And I do think there’s a way in which sometimes when we’re reading our Bibles, we can kind of flatten the people in the Bible as if they’re just sort of avatars or they’re just sort of one-dimensional instead of thinking, Okay, these are actually really real people who were cast by God, in the case of this book, in the story of Easter. These are ordinary people and their place in time who were cast by God in the greatest story ever told. And what must have been like for them to go through this and to think through their lens, and through their stories point to Jesus. What do they teach us about, about Easter, about Jesus?

Chap: Yeah. I appreciate that. I think in some of our tribes, the people we run around with, I think we miss some of those character studies that were so helpful, I think, when we were growing up, and I think rightly handled the Word. And just even thinking about 1 Corinthians 10:11 which says, “These things happened to them as an example, and they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Jesus brought numerous Old Testament characters into his teaching time. So I appreciate that.

Well, you’re still raising your kids.  How do you see families celebrating Easter? We could talk a little bit about what we did, but what do you guys do, and how do you think families can use it for good?

Dan: I think every year’s a little different, and Easter is a little bit different than Christmas. And then Christmas you’re sort of thinking about it for six weeks or two months, right? And you’re in that season. But Easter particularly, unless you’re in a more of a high church, you’re not thinking about it the whole season. Although I think evangelical Christians are starting to do that more, to celebrate the Lenten season a little bit more than we did when I when I grew up. But I do think the sort of march toward Easter is a really good thing. I mean, in our family, we try to have an Easter devotional where we read a little bit every day about the cross, the resurrection, what’s leading up to that from the gospels. I think that’s really good to get our hearts ready for Good Friday and Easter.

When our kids were little, we did the resurrection eggs where each day you open up something. And that was really meaningful. Our kids loved that. They really enjoyed that. And then on Easter, we do the typical Easter thing. And I’ve never been someone who’s like, You have to pick! You shouldn’t do the Easter bunny because it’s not the real story of Easter. We’ve always celebrated Christ’s death and resurrection really strongly in our house, and we also do the fun stuff too. And I actually think the fun Easter eggs and Easter egg hunts and all that stuff can be an outgrowth of the celebration of the resurrection, right? All the pastels, all the colors, it’s a sign of spring. It’s a sign that something new is coming, that in Christ’s resurrection there’s something new.  He’s making all things new. So I think those things can go together if you do it well.

And it’s important as you teach so well to reinforce these themes with our children, to let them know that this resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus, is the linchpin of our whole faith. This is why we actually believe this. I want our kids to think. Yes, you grew up in the church. Yes, you understand, but we actually believe this is true and we center our whole lives around it.

Chap: That’s great. I was smiling when you mentioned the resurrection eggs because we did the same thing when our kids were little. Whoever invented those must’ve made a fortune. It was great for little kids. We did the same thing. We had fun. And it was the one time where- we had four elders- we would get our families together. For different reasons we just said, This is our family. This is our time as elders. And the kids had a great time.

And then as you were talking, I was thinking, yes, as they got older, I really emphasized the apologetic of the resurrection. That this is the reason for our faith. We are people of faith, but not just crazy faith. It’s faith in good evidence, and the resurrection is the linchpin of that. And that was part of my own testimony in college, just realizing how important that is. And now we try and use it. It’s the one time a year when often there are college students around, they haven’t gone home. And so we’ll try and use that that way as well.

Well, let’s get into your book, The Characters of Easter: The Villains, Heroes, Cowards, and Crooks Who Witnessed History’s Biggest Miracle. I love that subtitle. Who was your favorite character and why?

Dan: I mean, it’s a little hard to pick. It’s like picking one of your favorite children. But I think I’m partial a little bit to Peter. The longest chapter in the book is about Peter. The gospels just give so much of his story and life. From the very beginning of Jesus calling him, and Jesus calling him patiently, it was over. . . It wasn’t like one time that he was called into ministry and to follow Jesus. It was a series of calls. There’s the scene on the beach, and they couldn’t catch any fish and Jesus comes and says, “Cast your net on the other side” and there are all these fish. And Peter can’t believe it. He’s falling down in worship.

But before that, there’s a lot of little things. He and his brother Andrew were disciples of John and then they went and saw Jesus. And his brother, Andrew, coming to him and basically saying, Hey, we found him.  I just think of that scene like, Hey, the one we’ve been waiting for, we found him! This Jesus is the one. And just through Peter’s life. He was the most expressive. He’s the one who says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” He’s the one who was willing to get out of the boat and walk on the water. He loved Jesus. I think his story is one of going from self-sufficiency into the power of the Spirit because he’s telling Jesus, All these other clowns, they’re going to leave, they’re going to abandon you.  I’m never going to leave you, man. Ride or die, I’m with you. And Jesus is like, You really don’t realize that you’re not as strong as you think you are. And he brings a sword out in the garden. Then he fails Jesus at that big moment.

But then at the end, you see Jesus come back to him and say, I still want you to follow me. He does that same miracle, repeats that as if to say that that same call is for you.

Chap: Amen.

Dan: And then he says, Can you feed my sheep? And then you see him preaching this powerful sermon at Pentecost, and you see him going to jail for preaching. All this courage that came from the Holy Spirit, not his own strength. So I just love this story. I think we see a lot of ourselves in Peter, the kind of stumbling, one step forward, two steps backward kind of way that we sometimes grow in Christ. I think Peter is a great example for us of that.

Chap: That’s great.  Well, talk about his sidekick, John, who you say transformed from the son of thunder, suggesting anger and quick temper. And now he ends up writing about love and emphasizing love.

Dan: It’s so funny because we think of Peter as the impulsive one. And in many ways he could be, but it was actually James and John who were- I mean, Jesus gave these two brothers the nickname sons of thunder, and it wasn’t a term of endearment. The one thing I want to say about all of these disciples is, even when we see their foibles and their faux pas and their mistakes, let’s remember they left everything. They left a sure career. They left stability to follow Jesus into the unknown for three years. And I think we’ve failed to see that they were giving up a lot. And here are these young men who had a really good fishing business with their father, they’re in Caesarea, in that port city. They weren’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor. They were eking out a good living, and they leave it all for Jesus.

What I find remarkable too is their father is mentioned, and their mother.  Their father and mother blessed them going to follow Jesus, which is an underrated aspect of their lives. Zebedee could have easily held them back and said, How could you do this to us? You’re going to devastate our family business. In those days, having the blessing of your father was a big deal. And it seems like not only do the parents bless it, they actually went along with them as if to say, God has taken them to this place and I as a parent want to bless that and go with that and not be an obstacle to that.

And I know as a parent of four teenagers- one’s in college- that speaks to me of, Okay, I want to help my child do what God wants them to do and not get in the way of it and hold them back. And that’s a hard thing to do. But James and John started out as these very precocious young men, and they’re very aggressive. When there were people over here doing something that they didn’t sanction, James and John are like, Hey, can you call down some fire on them? They believe Jesus. They’re thinking, Okay, Elijah called down fire. We’re with the son of God. Can he kind of do some of that fire stuff to get rid of these people? And he’s like, No, we’re not doing that.

Or another time there was ministry happening that wasn’t part of what they’re doing, but it was good ministry. And they wanted to stop that, and Jesus stopped them from that. So they were very aggressive, very protective. They were jostling for who’d be first in the kingdom, to the point where they sent their mother. They sent their mother! I think that’s one of the funniest things. Hey Mom, Jesus really likes you. Can you kind of put in a good word so it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from us? And she did it! And what I find fascinating is that they’re thinking, This is going to be an earthly kingdom. We got in early, we’re going to be Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or whatever, we’re going to be right here.  And Jesus’ response was, You don’t really know what you’re signing up for, because to be first in the kingdom it is to be a servant.  We want to be in your right hand or your left hand.

What’s interesting is at the upper room, John is at Jesus right hand, right? But it’s in a position of service. And Jesus is telling them, This is a different kind of kingdom. I’m going to go and die and offer myself on the cross. And you will have this place. But what that means is service and sacrifice. It’s a different kind of leadership. And of course we see John be the kind of elder statesman in the New Testament. He’s writing about love. He’s writing in 1 John about “love one another.” He calls himself “the one whom Jesus loved.” And I think he says that in John about himself because that’s how he felt. That’s how Jesus made him feel, that Jesus loved him that much. And so you see the transformation in his life to go from someone who was angry and impulsive to someone who was patient and full of love, and became obviously a pillar of the early church.

Chap: Yeah, as you’re talking, there’s the reference by the early church father where John was supposedly brought into church and he would just say, “Little children, let us love one another. Love one another.” And as he got very old, that was all he would say. So I identify what you’re talking about, with parents having to let their kids go, like Zebedee did. Which is risky and probably at somewhat of a personal cost.

So you’re not there yet, but I am. When you’ve got 20-something and 30-something kids, what’s it going to mean for my kids to follow the Lord? And they may not be around me. So to be positive on that. And I’ve heard stories of Christian grandparents opposing missionary service because they’re going to lose their grandkids. So that’s great.

Dan: It’s an underrated part of that James and John story. We also forget that these disciples were young. Peter, James, John, Matthew. They were young. They were probably early twenties, and to give up everything to follow Jesus. . . I think sometimes when we look at Bible characters with our 2,000 years of insight and church history, we’re very hard on them when we preach. And I think we should treat them like we’d want to be treated and try to step into their shoes and think about what that was like for them.

Chap: Yeah, that’s good. That’s good.  Well, let’s maybe turn the corner a little bit. How should we think about Judas?

Dan: Yeah, Judas is a hard one. It’s hard even to reconcile now. I mean, I think if you look through church history, Christians have always wrestled with how could this happen? Here’s Judas, he too left everything and followed Jesus for three years.  Of all the people. . . Jesus had the crowds.  Then he had people who were his disciples, hundreds of people, perhaps.  Then he had the 12 who were all in.  Then he had three and then had one. But the 12 were all in.

Judas was all in. So much so that they trusted him to be the treasurer.  You’ve run organizations and you’ve been in church life. The person you trusted to be the treasurer is somebody you really have to know you can trust, and they felt they could trust Judas. The thing that is really hard for us to wrap our minds around is, before Judas was a betrayer he was a gospel preacher, right? Jesus sent them out two by two to share the good news of Jesus coming to the house of Israel.  There probably will be people in heaven who heard the message from Judas, who believed in Jesus.  And it’s hard to wrap our minds around it, Chap. How could someone be used by God like that and then betray him? And it’s really a mystery.

I think a couple things to think about him is that he wanted a Jesus. The real Jesus was not the Jesus he wanted him to be. I think he thought he was getting on board early in this revolutionary era.  If you look at the disciples, there’s a spectrum of what Jewish people wanted. They all despised Rome. There were some who were more accommodationists, some were more insurrectionist types. None of those were disciples, but Judas was more like, Hey, we’ve got to overthrow this. We’ve got to. So I think that he thought this was his chance.  You start to see him turn, right? Jesus is doing all the wrong things. If you want to build an earthly kingdom, if you want to overthrow Rome. He’s deliberately provoking Rome. He’s going into the place of danger. Judas was really turned off when Jesus allowing this woman to lavish perfume on him and prepare him for his burial, if you will. He just sees it as a huge waste. We could have taken that. We could raise money. We need this to build this thing.

Jesus is making all the wrong decisions. Jesus keeps talking about dying.  Keeps talking about cross. If you’re reading the Gospels, the disciples did not like that. They’re like, What are you talking about, being arrested and dying? We’re building something here. So I think there was a turn there where he said, I’m cashing out of this. And it’s a real sad story, Chap, because I think of Judas and Peter. Judas’ life didn’t have to end that way.  Even after he betrayed Jesus, Judas could have found grace in the one he betrayed. Peter did. Peter denied Jesus, not as bad as Judas, but denied Jesus, but he found grace in Jesus. But Judas turned away.

And I do want to say: All of us in a sense are Judas, that we betrayed Jesus in some way, but we can turn to him, turn to the one we betrayed and find salvation and grace. That’s the message of Easter. The message of Good Friday and the resurrection is that we can take that to the cross. He has taken the punishment for our betrayals and offers us new life. It doesn’t have to end like it ended for Judas.  That’s the gospel message, really.

Chap: That’s great. That’s great.  You know, as you were talking, I was thinking there are several different lessons for us. To remain faithful, just moment by moment, even when Jesus takes our life in a direction we didn’t expect. We all have hopes and dreams, and then when he takes it in a different direction. But there’s also the aspect that I hadn’t thought of that you brought out, which is, we have leaders who we see God using, and perhaps they’re used by God in our life. And then, for whatever reason, turn their back on the Lord. And often we’re devastated and it can shake our faith.  And yet the 11 disciples still followed Jesus. They didn’t turn back because of Judas. But you’re right. He was used of God. I’m sure he cast out demons. He’s preaching the gospel. He’s making the sacrifices. He’s sleeping under the stars with them. That’s a great point

Well, what about a couple more here? Let’s talk about Pilate. Before we turned the tape on, you said you really enjoyed writing about Pilate, thinking about Pilate. What was so interesting about him to you?

Dan: Yeah, I think the Pilate story is so fascinating because here you have two people whose paths cross who could not be more different.  Pilate has worked his way up into Roman power, and is placed in this sort of backwater city, a region by the Roman government. And if he can keep control of this, he can rise up. He’s a pragmatic person in every way, doesn’t really have any core values, you know? He says, “What is truth?” And then you have Jesus, who is this itinerant rabbi with no place to lay his head.  He’s the son of two Jewish peasants. He’s rejected by his own people.

And if you just think of that scene where here’s Pilate and here’s Jesus, here’s this trial, and Pilate’s trying to just avoid this. He’s saying, Okay, let’s just send him to Herod. Now Herod’s like, No, I don’t want to, send him back. His wife has a dream and says, I don’t know what just happened, but don’t do anything with this guy. He doesn’t want to prosecute Jesus, but the crowds are pressing him. He can’t let the crowds get out of control because they’ve already gotten out of control. And if that happens again, Rome’s going to punish him, probably remove him from power.

So he pulls Jesus back into his chambers. I love this scene. And he’s basically saying, Hey, can you help me out here, Jesus? Throw me a bone. He’s trying to tell Jesus, Look, I’m on your side. I want to help you. Help me help you, basically. Right? And Jesus has this famous answer where he says, You actually think you hold the power. But I actually held the power over you. And it’s such an interesting dynamic. Pilate thinks Jesus is on trial, but actually Pilate is on trial before Jesus. Pilate’s on trial before the son of God. Jesus in this moment is trying to reach Pilate first. God sends that dream to his wife and Jesus is having this interaction with Pilate. Pilot himself is on trial. And that’s really what happens today when people question the claims of Christianity or they question Jesus. They think they’re putting Jesus on trial, but it’s really the opposite. All of us are on trial before Jesus. And like Pilate, everybody who ever lives has to face the question of Jesus. What are you going to do with Jesus? You can’t dismiss him. You can’t wash your hands of him, really. You can reject him or you can accept him as Savior and Lord. And you see Pilate put above Jesus’ cross, “King of the Jews.”

I don’t know what happened to Pilate later. In my sanctified imagination, I want to think that maybe he really thought through this and fought, he became a Christian was an elder at the Jerusalem Baptist Church there or something.

Chap: I think that’s wishful thinking.

Dan: Yeah, probably. You’ve got to think, what’s going through his mind and heart, and how did he get in this moment in his mind? This is an ordinary thing. I’ve got to deal with this matter. Whatever. Let’s just get through it. But all of history has led to this one moment in this one confrontation.

It also tells us a little bit about how we think about power.  Sometimes we think people in positions of power, whether they’re celebrities or government officials, that they’re always going to have this power. They’re the ones we should fear. They’re the ones that we should be scared of.  And really in this situation, it’s Jesus. Jesus has the power. And Pilate is really powerless. I think that should teach us something about, people like Pilate will come and go, despots and dictators will rise and fall, but the kingdom of God is forever. And the real power is in the one who was beaten up and had a bloody robe and really had no agency, but yet had the power of God.

Chap: That’s great.  Well, let’s finish on a positive note. There’s a lot more we can cover, but just for the sake of time, let’s talk about the women and the significance of them being the first to find the empty tomb there.

Dan: Yeah. I think it’s really remarkable. And I have a whole chapter on the women there, and there’s a few things that are really interesting. The women stayed with Jesus. The men, the disciples left, fled. And you and I would have fled too, because they’re thinking If they got him, they’re coming after us next. John was there with Mary, of course, at the foot of the cross, and Peter stuck around pretty long before the whole denial thing, but most people left. But the women were there. Mary, his mother- imagine being his mother and seeing your son tortured like that. As a mother, how to go through that? She’s there. And then you have Mary Magdalene, you have several other women.

First of all, for women to be that close to Jesus and to be disciples was a big deal. It was a counter-cultural thing for women to follow a rabbi like that. It was just very counter-cultural. So already he elevated women in his day. But for women to be the first witnesses- they’re the first to see the empty tomb. They were the first evangelists. They’re the first ones to tell the world that Jesus had risen from the grave. N. T. Wright and others who’ve done a lot of work on the resurrection have talked about how this is actually a proof for the resurrection story, because women’s testimony was not admissible in court. It was not seen as being very credible. Women did have a lot of agency. So, for the Christian movement to put forward their testimony as legitimate said something, that we actually think this is true. They wouldn’t have put that forward otherwise.

But I think it’s a remarkable testimony about Christianity, that Christianity elevates women. We don’t see it that way sometimes, or our critics don’t see it that way. But they’re the first to see Jesus there, they’re the first to tell the disciples, they’re the first to tell the world.  Women are really the first evangelists, and I think that’s really, really powerful.

Chap: Yeah, that’s great. I remember when it hit me, just this idea that they are witnesses. I grew up in the church and the idea of witnessing is sharing your faith, and we’re told in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses,” but I don’t think it ever struck me that God in a sense is establishing in the court of the world that an historical event happened. And how do we know historical events happened? Scientific things are repeatable, but historical events are not. And the way we know something happened in history is we have witnesses. And so here we are with women who were some of the first eyewitnesses to the great miracle of the resurrection. That’s great.

Dan: Absolutely. And the fact that every time Easter rolls around. . .  This is the real linchpin of the Christian faith. As Paul says in first Corinthians 15, “Without the resurrection, we are of all men most miserable.” Why are we going through these religious exercises? Yeah, they have some benefit, but if Christ is not risen, we have no hope. But if he is, it really changes everything.

And I was reminded of that in this last year. I lost my mom. She passed away. And you’ve suffered loss in your life. And these are the moments where you realize, Do I actually believe  that Christ rose again and that those who are in him will also rise again at the end of the age? He’ll remake us body and soul. Do I really believe this? And yes, we do! And this is why I think Easter is so important. It’s so great and we should not let it get stale or routine, but we should both lament on Good Friday and rejoice on Easter. And really, in our families, we should make it a priority.

Chap: Man, I appreciate that. And I think the book, The Characters of Easter, is a good way to keep it fresh. I can see reading one chapter as part of devotions just making it come alive. As you said, it’s easy for is to read the characters in the Bible as very flat. And I think your book does a good job.

I so appreciate your ministry there at the Land Center, and your teaching for Southwestern Theological Seminary’s undergrad as well. So that’s great, and I appreciate your ministries. You represent Christ through your columns as well.

Dan: Thank you. I appreciate that.