When I picked up Dan Darling’s book, The Characters of Easter, I expected a mere recounting of the various villains, heroes, cowards, and crooks that surrounded Jesus during the week leading up to the crucifixion. We read routinely about these characters in the Gospel accounts every year around Easter, but as Darling wants readers to experience through the book, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ “has never been more relevant than it is this ‘plague year’” (10). Why? Because Jesus has put Death to death through his death and resurrection.
Darling’s book seeks to peek into the lives of the young and unlikely disciples, corrupt rulers, brave women, and criminals who witnessed firsthand the events of the cosmic drama unfolding in front of them. By looking at the setting in which Jesus lived and died, Darling reminds us of God’s great love displayed in his long and certain plan of salvation and rescue.
Looking at Jesus through another’s eyes
Peter, John, Judas, Barabbas, Pilate, Thomas; The Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees; the women at the tomb, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and the Roman Executioners all have a chapter devoted to them. Darling wants the reader to put themselves in the sandals of each one of these characters or groups of characters to look afresh at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and see our lives in theirs. How? By looking at each character, Darling stresses how they all had to encounter Jesus and how each of their responses can teach us something about following him. Each one had to decide how they would respond to the mercy and grace of Jesus toward them.
Peter, though he denied Christ and stumbled in his faithfulness in his worst moments, was received by Christ and sent on mission for him. Peter shows that when burdened by our own sin, we should look to Christ who bore that sin on the cross and rose again to give us new life. John, a scornful “son of Thunder” toward those he opposed, was eventually called the “disciple of love.” Maybe we need our heart so transformed by the love of Christ that we bear a new description. Thomas, who doubted but was zealous at times for Christ, should move those who struggle with doubt to look again at Jesus’ nail-scarred hands and proclaim, “My Lord and my God.”
The women who witnessed the resurrection not only witnessed the horror and agony of the crucifixion but were the first witnesses of the beauty and glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Like those women, we can experience the joy of the resurrection, knowing that reconciliation with God is now accomplished, and God is making all things new. And like these women, Christians are called to go tell the world about this wonderful news.
Darling points out how even the negative examples from Judas and Pilate and the Roman executioners can be beneficial for people to contemplate. Judas knew the language of the faith and had been close to Jesus, but became disillusioned because Jesus would not conform to Judas’ plans for him. Darling reminds the reader, “We are all like Judas in that we have also betrayed Jesus, time and time again. We’ve sold him for lesser idols. But we don’t have to suffer Judas’s fate. If we confess our sins, He’s faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9)” (82).
Pilate shows that truth is available in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who keeps pursuing those who try to avoid him. Joseph and Nicodemus, those covert disciples, display there is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. One who encounters Jesus and wants to follow him is called to risk it all and proclaim allegiance to him as the risen King. Barabbas gloriously illustrates that Jesus dies in the place of guilty sinners, though Jesus was without sin. He is our substitute, the Lamb who was slain.
Darling’s book compacts the density of the last week of Jesus’ days before and after his resurrection into a short, powerful book. The book is devotional in nature, ending each chapter with study questions and suggestions for songs and hymns to accompany reflection on the chapter. Both pastor-theologians and lay church members alike will be edified by dwelling on what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection means for them personally and also for the entire cosmos.
Jesus inaugurated a victorious kingdom that will never end and will consummate that kingdom one day. Though we do not live in the first century, Darling pushes the reader to ask what he or she will do with the King of this kingdom. The gospel drips from the pages. Darling reminds us that King Jesus will graciously receive all those who come to him in repentance and faith. This is the most important reality to ponder this Easter, and Darling’s book helps us do that.