In 1986, after thirteen years of a teaching, preaching, administrating, and church-planting ministry in Korea, our family of four prepared to return to the United States. We knew our work in Korea was completed. Many of our former students had become pastors. When they came to say good-bye, many told us things like, “We learned a lot from you in the classroom and from your sermons, but we learned more by watching your family in your home.” From that observation my wife, Char, and I learned that our actions at home speak more loudly than our public words.
I tell that story whenever I teach at Leadership Empowerment Conferences because I want my listeners to live family lives that validate, illustrate, and support the sermons they preach. I teach that family life is not an interruption to our public ministry; rather, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the credibility of our message.
So it is with the Bible’s characters. The writers of the Bible speak to us with their words and the Bible’s characters speak to us with their lives. Some of their messages are so powerful, their actions need only a few observations to bring to light the spiritual inspiration and brilliant insight the human writers and the divine Writer intended.
What can we learn today from Noah’s life? How could Esther’s wise dealings with her husband help us to be more influential and effective for God? What traps would we avoid if we examined Balaam’s behavior? Why might Paul’s strong recommendation of Phoebe reverse much of what the Christian Church has believed for centuries about women ministers? Times, cultures, traditions, and societal values may change from century to century, but human nature does not change. Bible characters can teach us biblical character.
According to Romans 15:4, we are to learn life lessons from the Old Testament. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”
First Corinthians 10:11–12 says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
Following those principles, we can learn lessons from the narratives and characters in both Testaments. Their stories still speak to us today.
Many more Bible characters could have been added to this book. Here are three criteria I used for selecting the ones to include.
First, I tried to choose stories that contained valuable lessons for Christians who want to increase their influence. In my travels in Europe, Africa, Asia, South Pacific, and North America, I have met many intelligent, dedicated, sincere, zealous, and teachable brothers and sisters. It is my hope that the ideas in this book can help them, and others like them, become even more effective, successful, influential, and fruitful in the work God gives them.
Second, I wanted to deal with a broad range of subjects. I feel an obligation to avoid a rehash of themes already addressed in other books and instead point out new applications drawn from familiar stories.
Third, I looked for the human interest factor. Good lessons should be couched in literature written as interestingly as possible. Even though I don’t expect you to read these chapters just for entertainment, I do harbor the hope that they will be interesting.
I used a few of Joel Rosenberg’s ideas in the chapter on Ezekiel, and Joel David Hamilton’s in the chapter about Phoebe. With those two exceptions, these lessons are my own observations made from years of studying the Bible. In 1963, when I was nineteen, I began to read the Bible through a couple of times each year. After about seven years, I cut back to reading it through just once each year, a habit I have maintained ever since.
After all these readings I have come to feel like I know the Bible characters. I have a sense for what they thought, why they acted the way they did, what they did right and wrong. In teaching and preaching, and now in this book, I have used their lives to teach people how to live biblical and principled lives.
Here I present to you twenty-five acquaintances of mine as I have come to know them. I have chosen to present them in the order in which they appear in the Scriptures. This does not in any way indicate the importance of any one character over another; each reader will find some chapters more applicable than others. There is something here for everyone.
We tend to become like persons we highly regard. Our behavior, vocabulary, and even facial expressions give testimony to this phenomenon. Whom do you admire? With whom do you like to converse? Which of the personalities in the Bible do you esteem? Whose story do you most enjoy reading? Your selection of whom to respect and whose company you keep reveals your personal character. Can you see ways in which you are becoming like them?
I hope that as you read this book and spend time with these people from the Bible, your character will more closely reflect the best of theirs. You are already making choices about who you will become. When you choose those people with whom you spend time, or about whom you read, you choose your character.
Noah’s life has poignant messages for Christians today. For example, did you realize that when God contends with us, He is complimenting us? And did you know that God protects us from bigger punishments and more severe judgments by giving us smaller, merciful judgments? Did you know that Noah was one of the most thick-skinned persons in the Bible?
This story introduces us to some important concepts that help us understand how God works and why He does what He does. They enable us to appreciate His motives and goals, and the limitations He places on Himself in pursuit of His eternal plan and purpose. Because Christians are God’s representatives on earth, it is to our advantage to understand these lessons. The story of Noah also provides a foundation for principles we will learn from the other twenty-four characters presented in this book.
Two major players dominate this story: God and Noah. We will learn important lessons from each of them by looking at the way they relate to each other.
God Reacts to What People Do
God does not perform His works arbitrarily or unilaterally. He watches what people do and acts accordingly. He sent a flood in Noah’s time because people were sinning grievously. He acted in a way that was appropriate in view of what people were doing. He still does that today.
Of course God loves everyone. Nevertheless, when people acknowledge, love, and worship Him, they please Him more. Consequently, they receive more of His favor. When people sin against Him, He is merciful to judge them so that the human race learns there is a moral authority in the universe.
When we observe what God is doing and feel like questioning Him, we learn something if we stop and look at what mankind is doing that may have precipitated God’s reaction.
In the case of the flood, it is easy to see that God was responding to man’s condition. “When human beings began to increase in number on the earth, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with human beings forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years’” (Genesis 6:1–3 emphasis mine). God did what He did when humankind did what humankind did.
This principle is explained further in the following verses:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5–7, emphasis mine)
God’s treatment of us is contingent upon our attitude and behavior toward Him. He watches us and responds accordingly. “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5–6). If we do not like the treatment God is giving us, perhaps we need to examine our attitude toward Him to discover why He is treating us the way He is.
The judgment of the flood was God’s appropriate response to the behavior of the human race.
People are responsible for their actions. The curses and blessings in the Bible are contingent on our behavior.
God’s responses are more dependable and predictable than ours. Man is capricious; God is principled. The best use of the human power of choice is to pursue God. When we do that, He responds in ways we like.
Why Does God Contend with Humankind?
“Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with human beings forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years’” (Genesis 6:3).
Three alternatives in dealing with mankind were before God. 1) He could ignore the progress of increasing sin and eventually destroy everyone or let them destroy themselves. 2) He could violate the free will with which He created mankind and force them to repent and become godly. 3) He could contend with them. Let’s examine these alternatives.
1. He could ignore the progress of increasing sin and eventually destroy everyone or let them destroy themselves. God acts in ways consistent with His love and is, therefore, merciful. He loves the human race He created. Because of His love for us, and His lofty desire for our development into the something good He knows we can become, He elected not to abandon the race, but to lead us toward righteousness.
2. He could violate the free will with which He created mankind and force them to repent and become godly. The reason God created mankind with a free will was so He could enjoy fellowship, love, and worship from thinking creatures who, as a result of their own volition, fellowshipped, loved, and worshipped Him. To override the free choices of the human race would have aborted God’s plan for intentional and willing fellowship. God did not abandon His hope. Illustrating His commitment to the free choice principle, He not only created mankind with volition but also created an environment in which humankind’s power of choice could be exercised.
This left God with the third alternative:
3. He could contend with them. With this option, God could still reach out in wisdom and love in an attempt to win the hearts of people and yet give them a choice. So He sent His Spirit to contend with man. He continues to operate this way. In much the same manner as in Noah’s day, so even now the Holy Spirit is holding back evil. The Scripture says, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way” (2 Thessalonians 2:7).
God’s children can cooperate with God and prove more useful to Him when we understand that He is not willing to either abandon the people He loves nor violate their freedom of choice. This is why we must reason with, cajole, coax, urge, and lovingly attempt to persuade people to receive Christ. In this way we follow God’s example, neither abandoning nor using force.
Furthermore, we have a deadline. The day will come when God’s Spirit will no longer contend with the human race. But until He stops we too should continue. We must be urgent but loving, giving others good reasons to turn to God.
Judgment Is an Act of Love and Mercy
God is powerful, loving, and perfectly wise. Everything He does is consistent with these qualities. Whatever powerful action He takes emanates from His love and perfect wisdom.
How can we find the most useful interpretation of this principle in the story of the flood?
The flood displays God’s amazing control and power over natural phenomena. Waters from multiple sources, wonderfully timed, converged on the surface of the earth just when the ark was complete. This illustrates God’s power to initiate the plan He conceived in wisdom and love. His impeccable wisdom, operating in conjunction with His love, led Him to the best and most loving of plans.
Without the flood millions more souls would have been born into a corrupted and ruined race. The flood was wisely designed and powerfully implemented in order to avoid the necessity of punishing and condemning many more people to suffering forever in a godless eternity. For that reason, the judgment of the flood is a flawless display of His love toward the human race. One could shudder to think what evils might have reigned and what wretched existences might have occurred had the pre-Noah race continued. The flood was an act of mercy. It would have been unloving for God to have allowed the human race to continue as it was.
God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Yet because of His perfect holiness, He must punish sin. A distorted view of God’s character leads some to imagine that He is vindictive. But God’s judgments are not mere punishments. They are merciful warnings, corrections, and lessons from which we are expected to learn. He corrects once to avoid the necessity of punishing forever.
What lesson can we learn from God’s gracious correction? Understanding mercy and judgment enables us to correctly help the people around us grow and become more responsible. In the long run, correction, appropriately administered, and discipline, given in love, are much more caring, merciful, and effective than permissiveness and leniency.
Noah Had Thick Skin
The Bible does not state that the unrighteous people of Noah’s time ridiculed or mocked him. However, we can assume that people did so. History, psychology, and morality teach us that unrighteous people mock righteous people. They ridicule anyone who attempts to warn them of their error and unrighteousness. This is true even when the warnings are motivated by love and concern and based on a correct evaluation of their wickedness.
Noah was a righteous man in an ungodly world. Noah’s generation was so corrupt God determined to destroy the entire human race. In the midst of this moral darkness, Noah’s life was radiant with righteousness.
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. (Genesis 6:8–12)
Because of evil and violence, God divinely revealed to Noah that a great flood would destroy mankind from the face of the earth. God furthermore gave Noah an unusual and humanly impossible responsibility: to build a huge boat, forty-five feet (13.716 meters) high, 450 feet (137.16 meters) long, and 75 feet (22.86 meters) wide, capable of saving his own family and representatives of the animal kingdom.
So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.” (Genesis 6:13–17)
This task, conducted in an atmosphere of unrighteousness and ridicule, required faith, physical labor, and tremendous persistence. Surrounded by curious, godless, and unbelieving neighbors, Noah endured the mocking, suffered as the laughingstock of his day, and year after year patiently continued to build his boat. The consistence of his faith, his dogged obedience, and his steadfast belief in his impossible task demand our respect and appreciation. Noah did not yield to peer pressure. His example challenges us to more staunchly pursue our assigned tasks.
We need Noah’s thick skin. We too labor year after year. The wicked seem to escape punishment, and the righteous suffer. We would do well to remember faithful Noah. He eventually received his reward. So will we if we persist in the face of pressures.
Believe the Unbelievable
From a scientific standpoint, the universal flood is perhaps the most difficult story in the Bible to accept as true, second only to the creation of the universe. The unlikelihood of the events in this story requires the reader to believe what is impossible or consider the tale as only an allegory.
The lessons to be learned from Noah’s experiences are not mere symbols. Noah’s story is history, and history is God’s allegory, written for our instruction. Just as individuals can learn from their own personal experiences, so humanity can learn from our collective experience.
If we toss the story of Noah out as fiction, parable, or myth, we must toss out other portions of Scripture, because this story is referred to by many other Bible writers. Toss out Noah and the flood, and you might just as well toss out the whole Bible. Belief in a universal flood is therefore also a test of the credibility of the rest of Scripture.
In Ezekiel’s writings, for example, Noah is placed along with Daniel and Job as an illustration of a righteous person who could only save himself.
Even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it [a country], they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord. . . . As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, even if Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they could save neither son nor daughter. They would save only themselves by their righteousness. (Ezekiel 14:14, 20)
The story of a universal flood has been ridiculed by many liberal theologians, unbelievers, and atheists. Yet both Jesus and Peter referred to Noah. Jesus said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37). Peter warned the people of his day as Noah had warned his neighbors of coming judgment: “if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others. . . . By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed” (2 Peter 2:5; 3:6). Peter also referred to “those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20).
If the story of Noah were fiction, Jesus and Peter would have been wrong to refer to it as fact.
Even the Chinese language reflects the reality of a worldwide flood. The Chinese character for ship is made up of three parts: eight, people, and boat. Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives would make eight people in a boat.
Years ago I read of a mountain hiker who found a large wooden structure in the icy mountains of Ararat. I certainly do not base my belief in Noah’s story on secular speculation. But what if God, for the benefit of a future skeptical generation, is saving evidence of the truth of the Bible by preserving Noah’s ark in the mountains of Turkey?
Grace Is Also Found in the Old Testament.
“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). This short sentence introduces the reader to the wonderful concept of God’s grace.
Some preachers and Bible scholars contrast God’s grace in the New Testament with His rigid requirements in the Old. But the Bible contains many references to God’s firm justice in the New Testament as well as numerous illustrations of His compassion, loving kindness, and mercy in the Old. Furthermore, the book of Hebrews states that God is unchanging and has fixed purposes. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath” (Hebrews 6:17). God is firm and merciful. Both aspects are a part of who He is.
Today we often hear an emphasis on the grace of God. We are indeed blessed to live in New Testament times. But some have an inaccurate concept of God as weak, unconditionally forgiving, always merciful and compassionate, and never judging. That image is inconsistent with who God is. Such teaching leads to what some call “cheap grace.” Cheap grace stems from an inappropriate emphasis on forgiveness with no appreciation for justice and righteousness. Satan wants to lull us into unjustified ease and rest, sung to sleep by the lullabies of God’s graciousness.
God gave people in Old Testament times the law, but His grace is also shown repeatedly. How many times did David say, “His love endures forever”? If He had judged harshly no one would have had a chance of ever pleasing God. Noah found grace in God’s eyes, and as a result he and his family were saved. That grace extends to us today. You are I are given the same opportunity Noah had. We can obey God, live righteously, and enjoy abundant life. The alternative is to ignore God and eventually suffer serious consequences. God needs Christians today who appreciateand value grace.
Noah Had Faith
Did Noah know about the law of buoyancy, by which the air within the shell of the ark would displace enough water to make the ark weigh less than the water it displaced so it could float? Could he have known that principle would apply even with the ark’s heavy beams, animals, and food supplies? How much understanding did he have that the ark would be safe when the rains came? Surely obeying God required Noah to exercise blind faith. “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith” (Hebrews 11:7).
By his faith—clinging to and trusting in God’s word to him—Noah became an heir to the righteousness of (right standing with) God. In doing so, he condemned his world. He showed it was possible to believe and obey, thereby removing any excuse from others in his generation.
Noah’s kind of faith was later demonstrated by Abraham. By it they both became perfect in God’s sight. We can too. We are saved the same way Noah and Abraham were, by faith expressed and proven in obedience, in works. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22). “And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him” (Genesis 7:5).
God needs men and women today who will complete their hard tasks as Noah did in his day.