Podcast: The Scoundrels of Scripture (Nancy Guthrie)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Good News for Sinners

In this episode, Nancy Guthrie, author of Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus, discusses some of the less well-loved characters of Scripture like tax collectors, scribes, Pharisees, and even Judas Iscariot, Jesus's betrayer. She also highlights what we can learn from Jesus's scandalous family tree, and why it's good news for sinners like us.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview

Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus

Nancy Guthrie

Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus tells the story of 10 people who are integral to the story of Jesus, putting the characters in context of the whole Bible and delving into what they reveal about Christ.

The Importance of Knowing Scripture’s Scoundrels

01:15

Matt Tully
We all know the Bible is one big story—it stretches back thousands of years to the very beginning of history. Because it's a story, it has all of these lively characters in it that we're all so familiar with. I think we spend a lot of time focusing on the heroes of the story—people who trusted God and saved the day and God used them in big ways. But Scripture also has a lot of scoundrels. And so my first question is, why is it important for us to know the stories of the scoundrels and not just the heroes?

Nancy Guthrie
I think all of the people that we are introduced to, especially in the story of Jesus, it's important that we look at them because it's like we can see something more clearly about Jesus because of their interaction with him. Maybe they have a misunderstanding about him that we realize, Oh! I have that misunderstanding too. We can learn how to respond to him based on how people choose to respond to him, or to not respond to him. So a lot of these characters introduce us to an aspect of who Jesus is, what he's accomplished, and why he is necessary, why he is sufficient, why he is essential. And so I think that they just help us to see him from another integral angle.

Matt Tully
It seems then to really emphasize that we're sinners—

Nancy Guthrie
We are? Oh maybe you are.

Matt Tully
—like there's we see ourselves in those characters. Yes.

Nancy Guthrie
That was just you. No, maybe I am too.

People in Jesus’s Genealogy

03:14

Matt Tully
So you mentioned they help us understand Jesus and I think one of the main examples of that is looking at Jesus's family tree. We look in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in particular and we see this genealogy. Who are some of the interesting people in that list?

Nancy Guthrie
The whole genealogy is fascinating. It begins that Jesus is the son of Abraham, the son of David—in many ways the genealogy is shaped around that. So we could look at that and we could think about them as being, as you mentioned, great heroes of faith and certainly they are; but everyone in that list we can also think of terrible things they did. Think about Abraham lying about Sarah so that she gets taken into the Pharaoh's harem. Or think about David taking Bathsheba sexually by force and then having her husband murdered. In between there you'd see Judah—I mean, whoa—he does some things we don't even want to talk about out loud. So there's something there about just seeing those kind of characters, but there's something else that Matthew does in his genealogy is that he throws a few women in there, which wouldn't have been typical for a Jewish genealogy. If you look at the women he chooses to include it, they're not the women you would necessarily expect. If you're thinking, Okay, what women Is he going to put in there? Well, wouldn't he put Sarah, who's married to Abram? Or Rachel, who's married to Jacob—those kinds of things. And those are not the women who are there. I notice a couple of things about the women who are there. First of all, almost all of them are Gentiles. That's interesting. He's choosing women who are Gentiles—it seems to me that Matthew was wanting to show right off that the gospel is not just for Jews and not just for Jewish people.

Matt Tully
It's like that that was hinted at earlier.

Nancy Guthrie
All along—he's always been bringing in people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. It really gets going once you get in Acts; those floodgates open in terms of inviting people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. But it's not absolutely new because as you look at these women in the Old Testament who are included, they're all Gentiles. But then something else stands out about them: all of these women have a hint of sexual scandal. The first woman mentioned is Tamar and she's the woman who, because Judah will not give her another of his sons to marry her after the one she's married to—or the two she was married to die—she dresses as a prostitute and Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. So there's sexual scandal by her father in law. Then you've got Rahab, who runs a brothel in Jericho. But when the Israelite spies, you could call them, or the advance team for Israel comes in she's like, I've heard of your God. And I want him. So she takes hold of faith and not only did she get into the family, she is evidently the mother of Boaz. And then we know Boaz is the father of Obed, and Obed is the father of Jesse, and Jesse is the father of David. I mean so here's this woman who's run this brothel, but then she gets in on that family line. So when I say you've got Tamar, you've got Rahab, you've got Ruth. Ruth is that one who is married to Boaz and what is her history? Well she comes from the Moabite people.

Matt Tully
She's not even an Israelite.

Nancy Guthrie
Not an Israelite. And if you trace her family back, then who are the Moabites? That's the family group—the nation—founded by Lot's incestuous relationship with his two daughters. So you've got sexual scandal after sexual scandal, and then you get to Mary. And even though she has never slept with a man, she's pregnant.

Matt Tully
What's behind all that?

Nancy Guthrie
I think Matthew's doing many things there, as I mentioned, showing how Gentiles have always been included in the people of God. I don't know if this was the intention, but I sure think it has an effect and it just shows that to be a member of Jesus's family is not about perfect or even good behavior. But there is another way that people come into the family of Jesus, and it's by taking hold of him by faith. This is how we get into the family of Jesus: that we take hold of him by faith. And it's really good news for people who might think, You know, I've sinned too much or too badly. I've done something that should bar me from being related savingly to Jesus Christ. And if you just look at his family you see this is the family that God actually chose for his Son to be born into, which is fascinating.

Matt Tully
It's not just that their stories are in the Bible and that they are maybe praised for their faith. God—the triune God—chose to have the Son born as a human as part of that same family.

Nancy Guthrie
Into a messy, sinful family. And this says to you and me that Jesus welcomes flagrant but forgiven sinners. We're the kind of people he wants to be related to forever. I mean that's a good word of grace for people like you and me.

What We Can Learn from Stories of the Righteous and Unrighteous

09:25

Matt Tully
Following up on that, what word of encouragement, or what word of an exhortation, would you offer to the person, man or woman, who does come to the Bible and often their perception of it is, I can't match up to these people in here. This book is a book about these righteous people who did good things for God. And then they look around at other Christians around them, maybe Christians who are recognized widely as doing great things for God, being great men and women of God, and they just feel like, I can't do that. I can't be that.

Nancy Guthrie
Well, here's good news: we see in the Gospels that you're just the kind of person Jesus came for. As he says, I didn't come for the righteous. I didn't come for people who have it altogether. I came for those who are sick. I didn't come for those who have everything figured out. I came to seek after the lost. Two times in the book of Luke he makes very clear purpose statements for why he came and one of them comes in the midst of the story of Zacchaeus. So here's this guy, he is a crook. He is not just a tax collector, he is a chief tax collector.

Matt Tully
What does that mean?

Nancy Guthrie
That would have meant that he bought his way into being able to collect taxes for Rome, which was a terribly corrupt system. So "tax collector" is not the IRS. "Tax Collector" means "scoundrel," it means "crook" because not only is he a sell out to Rome, which would have lost him family and friends—

Matt Tully
Because he would have been Jewish.

Nancy Guthrie
—this was a Jewish person who sold out to Rome and was taking advantage of his friends and neighbors because he not only collected what he had to pass along to Rome, he was free to add whatever he wanted on top. He had that kind of power to be able to demand whatever was wanted. That's why he was so hated in the community is that he took plenty more than he deserved because he had the freedom to do so. But where and why is he in the Gospels? So he's there in the city of Jericho, Jesus is working his way from Galilee down to Jerusalem where he is going—he knows what's going to happen, he's he stated it clearly—he's going to be arrested and tried and put to death. So he's on his way, goes to Jericho, but all the people of the town are going out to see him because they've heard about all these miracles and they're headed out to the road he's going to pass by and they're probably wondering, Is he going to do one of those miracles that he's done? And so they're all out there and interestingly, here is Zacchaeus and he's interested too. And I have to wonder, why is he interested? And it made me think, Okay, there are other tax collectors in the story of the Gospels. There's one at the very beginning named Levi—Matthew—and what do we read about him? That he's sitting there collecting taxes, Jesus comes along and says, Follow me.* And it says, "He immediately left everything and followed him." So I wonder, did Zacchaeus hear about Matthew? Does Zacchaeus wonder what is so compelling to this man that this person—whom Zacchaeus probably knew—would just leave everything and follow him? I want to see that guy!

Matt Tully
It's not like either of them was living an impoverished fisherman's life. They probably had it pretty good.

Nancy Guthrie
Exactly. So why does he give up all of that? What is it about this Jesus? And then I also wonder if Zacchaeus had heard about the stories that Jesus told. Usually tax collectors were the butt of most jokes—they're always the bad guy. But then he hears about this Jesus and when he tells stories, the Pharisees are the bad people in the story and the tax collector is the good guy in the story. What story am I talking about? Remember how Jesus tells a story about the Pharisee who comes to the temple and he says, Oh! I'm so glad I'm not like that guy. But then the tax collector comes and he beats his breast and he says, I'm totally unworthy! But yet, he asks for forgiveness. So the way Jesus tells stories is that the Pharisee is made to look like he has no place with God, and yet the tax collector finds a place in the heart of God through his recognition of his own sin. And similarly, did Zacchaeus hear about how Jesus was called a "friend of sinners and tax collectors," that he liked to actually have dinner with tax collectors? So I mean all those things make me think, No wonder he wants to go out to see Jesus. So maybe he heads out there and his perception about what is happening is that he is seeking to see and know who Jesus is; but that's just his perception because actually, Jesus is the one seeking that day. He walks through Jericho and everyone who is in his line of sight along the road might be capturing his attention, except that Jesus is seeking someone who's lost. And so his attention is drawn to that man in the tree and he calls out to him, Zacchaeus! Come down because I'm going to your house today! And it's such an interesting picture of here is this rich, powerful man, but it's kind of childlike that he climbs a tree. And then Jesus says, I'm going to your house, and he hurries down. I mean I can just picture him scurrying down this tree and running to get everything ready in his house. We don't have a record really of what Jesus said to him in that interaction, except we have this record of this announcement Jesus makes. He says, Salvation has come to this house today. And then we have the record of what Zacchaeus intends to do as a result of being sought out by Jesus. And he is going to look over the log books and figure out, Okay, who are all the people that I charged more than I should have? And I'm not just going to return to them what I overcharged them, I'm going to give them four times that amount. This is why it's beautiful to look at some of these people because we look at them and we see Jesus seeks out not the beautiful people, not the people with the good behavior, but he seeks out people who are just absolutely lost and don't know where their life is headed.

Pharisees and Scribes

16:27

Matt Tully
What was the deal with the Pharisees and the scribes? I think except for Nicodemus, they really are generally portrayed as the bad guys of the Gospels. Everyone else gets mercy from Jesus and Jesus defends them at times; but not the Pharisees and the scribes. What was their beef with Jesus and his message?

Nancy Guthrie
You and I look at them and we do see them as evil because we know where the story is headed. We know that they're going to set themselves against Jesus and that they're going to have their way so that he is crucified. And we also see them through Jesus's eyes when he reveals their incredible hypocrisy. But that's not how the people of their day saw them. For the people of the day, the Pharisees were heroes to them. The Pharisees had actually shown great courage during what's called the Maccabean Revolt—that 400 year period between the end of the prophets prophesying and when we pick up the Gospels. The Jewish people had gone through incredible suffering and oppression during that time. The Pharisees, or those who becomes the Pharisees, these are people who actually stood up and said, No. You can't take away our distinctiveness as Jewish people even though you are ruling over us. They stood up and some of them died. So in the time of Jesus, Pharisees were honored. They were seen as the people who maintained who we are as Jews in spite of whatever rule it was of the day—and at that point now it's Roman rule—and we're gonna be who we are and we're going to keep this law. But what they did was they took the law as it had been given to Moses—little things that applied to particular people—and made them apply to everyone. So a law about a person washing—think about the laws back Exodus and Leviticus about how priests needed to wash before they enter the Holy of Holies. And so what do they do? They say everybody's got to have these massive washing cleansing rituals. Or they take something about fasting at particular times in the Jewish calendar year and they say, Okay, now everyone's got to fast twice a week. So they take these things and make them far more intense, far more burdensome. Or even think about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given to God's people as a gift, as a way to demonstrate that they trusted that God would take care of them by not working that day of the week. It was given to him as a gift to focus, to look back at creation, and to look back at the redemption of God's people from Egypt. Even more, to look forward at the new creation to come. It's meant to be a gift. It's for them. And what do the Pharisees do? They take it and they make all these burdensome laws: You can't pick a grain of wheat. You can't do this and you can't do that. And it just becomes a burden on people instead of a gift.

Jesus and the Sabbath

19:43

Matt Tully
It seems like the Sabbath issue often comes up in the Gospels. Jesus is often doing things related to the Sabbath that they don't like. Why do you think that is such a prominent attention point?

Nancy Guthrie
Because they've taken it and they've loaded all this stuff on it. So it's not that Jesus throws off the Sabbath in terms of what God has said and what came down on the mountain with Moses. What Jesus is rejecting is all of these things that the Pharisees have added to it and the whole way they have reshaped it to be a burden to people. Jesus just says, This is not what it was meant to be. And what they also are totally missing, Jesus makes clear when he says, I am actually the Lord of the Sabbath. He's the one who's going to bring his people into true Sabbath rest. And he's going to do that through the cross, experiencing the greatest restlessness, the greatest alienation from God, so that, joined to him, he can lead us into this rest and into this new relationship with God in this new creation. So the conflict is constantly over the Sabbath between Jesus and the Pharisees because they've taken this thing that he's the Lord of and they have made it something it was never meant to be.

Matt Tully
You mentioned how Jesus to them said, I'm the lord of the Sabbath. And I've often been struck by how it seems like at certain points in the Gospels the Pharisees are actually ahead of the curve, even ahead of the disciples sometimes, in terms of recognizing the significance of some of Jesus's claims, recognizing that Jesus is claiming—

Nancy Guthrie
That's why they're so offended because they hear him clearly right.

Matt Tully
—sometimes it seems like more than anyone else they get that Jesus is making some pretty shocking claims about himself.

Nancy Guthrie
Making claims to deity, making claims to be the fulfillment of Daniel's son of man. All of those kinds of things.

Judas

22:06

Matt Tully
Exactly. It's fascinating. So we would be remiss if we didn't talk about maybe the biggest scoundrel in Scripture, and that would be Judas, the person who betrayed Jesus. What do you think we can learn from him and his example?

Nancy Guthrie
You look at Judas and I just think to myself, How can someone spend three years that close to Jesus and yet his heart be as cold as Judas's was towards Jesus? You kind of wonder that, don't you? But then we find out, he's been pilfering from the bag. And so all the way along we're seeing something about the heart of Judas there: he's been seeking to use this closeness to Jesus as a way to enrich himself financially. All the way along he's been stealing and he hasn't come clean about it. There's something about ongoing unconfessed sin that makes our hearts really hard, that builds up a way of resistance to the person and the message of Jesus. I tend to think that's part of what happened here with Judas.

Matt Tully
So it wasn't like he set out to betray Jesus from the very beginning?

Nancy Guthrie
I don't think so. I think like all of the disciples, they just thought, Okay, he's a king and he's going to have a kingdom! Just think about at the very end when James and John and Peter are fighting about who's going to be the right hand guy when he comes into his kingdom. So they're all thinking they've got something to gain from being a part of Jesus's kingdom. I think it's near the end when Jesus is getting close to going to Jerusalem and he's being pretty clear and honest. He has not sold this discipleship thing with him falsely because he's like, Anybody who wants to follow after me, they have to pick up their own cross. He's clear and he's said numerous times, especially right as they're entering into Jerusalem, Here's what's gonna happen: we're going to Jerusalem and I am going to be crucified. I'm going to be put to death and on the third day I'm going to be raised. But he's really clear that he's headed to Jerusalem. We read in Luke 9, "He set his face toward Jerusalem." Jesus has been really clear, I'm going to Jerusalem to die. I think maybe at some point Judas begins to listen. He's like, You know what? If he's going to be put to death, this is not going to end up like I was hoping it would. This is not going to be putting a bunch more in my pockets. And so maybe I've given three years to this guy and I'm gonna get nothing out of it.

Matt Tully
Maybe worse than nothing. I'm going to get killed along with this guy.

Nancy Guthrie
Exactly. So he begins to think to himself, Okay. How can I turn this around and get something out of it? I know. I've got this inside knowledge of the schedule and the workings and the patterns of Jesus. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, they want to put him to death, so how can I get at least something out of this? Okay, I'm going to go to them and I'm going to say—and here's the words he used—How much will you give me if I betray Jesus's schedule to you and set up a way for you to be able to arrest him at a time in which the people who believe in him and follow him won't be able to be a problem? And so he makes this deal.

Matt Tully
Like the crowds of people who had surrounded him?

Nancy Guthrie
The crowds of people. Because Judas knows that evidently Jesus has often withdrawn to this Mount of Olives at night to pray with his disciples. This is evidently not the first time this happens and so he tells them, Okay, here's where you can go and you can arrest him at night and be able to take him without a riot happening. And so maybe we're not completely surprised, even though he's been with him for three years. For three years he's been counting on this leading to lining his pockets—he's already been lining his pockets—and then he discovers, Okay, I believe just what Jesus says, that he's going to die and that the religious leaders are going to put him to death. So here's a way I can enrich myself even through that. I'll show them how they can do that. But then, of course, once he does it—I don't know what point it is—he realizes here's this one who's done nothing for him except be kind to him and give him the blessings of being close to him and he begins to regret it.

Matt Tully
I've often wondered about that. It's almost like, what did he think was going to happen when he betrayed Jesus?

Nancy Guthrie
There's a difference between thinking you know what's going to happen and seeing it with your own eyes. And when he sees Jesus cruelly spit upon, abused, hung on a cross, it must become very real to him. Now what's really sad is he goes back, he throws the money at the feet of who? At the feet of the chief priests. The chief priests were the ones you went to to find forgiveness. They were supposed to be mediators of mercy. But he goes back, he throws the money down, he wants forgiveness for his part in the shedding of innocent blood. Well, these chief priests, their hands are covered in blood. They have no ability to mediate mercy to him and no interest in it.

Matt Tully
And yet, they still reject the money saying it's blood money.

Nancy Guthrie
Which is just a joke. These guys have always been about keeping the law and they have completely forgotten the law. When it comes to bearing false witness, they've been recruiting false witnesses against Jesus—conveniently ignored the law there, but then here, Oh yeah, we can't have that because that's blood money. It's such hypocrisy.

Caiaphas

29:09

Matt Tully
So Caiaphas says, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:49-50). And then John adds, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52).

Nancy Guthrie
So here's Caiaphas just trying to keep the peace and he thinks if there is a big hubbub among the Jewish people and it's religiously oriented, we're going to lose the temple, our jobs are going to be threatened as the people who have kind of bought our way into supervising the Jewish people through the priesthood. And so he's saying you know we don't want any of that to happen. You know we don't want to lose the temple and our way of life. So it's going to be better for one man to die. In other words, this Jesus who's causing problems, who's causing a rift—some people are following him, some people are not—it's going to be better for him to die than for us to lose our whole way of life and for the Romans to come in and have to squash some kind of big riot and for the nation to perish the way he says. But what John points out is that he's saying something he doesn't even realize he's saying. It's really the heart of the gospel when he says, It's going to be better for one man to die rather than for the nation to perish. In other words, it's the beauty of substitution. Jesus is going to die. And he's going to die so that all who put their faith and hope in him—John puts it—"will not perish" (John 3:16). And so Caiaphas is a fascinating figure because if he's the high priest, he's the one person in the nation who should be seeing that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If he is the high priest, his main job as the high priest is to mediate the mercy of God to God's people; but he's forgotten that. He has forsaken that and instead of doing that, he is out to kill the one who is the great mediator, the one who is the Great high priest. He's blind to seeing who Jesus is and he's blinded by his own ambition. And he can't see it and so he puts Jesus to death. He doesn't even realize that actually his position is going to be eradicated just a few years later when the temple is destroyed.

Matt Tully
He can't stop that from happening.

Nancy Guthrie
He can't stop that. He should have seen Jesus and said, Oh, you are the great high priest. You are the one who the role that I am taking has always meant to become obsolete once the day the great high priest comes. He should have seen that. But he didn't.

Insight into Jesus

32:40

Matt Tully
What a great example. Just circling back to what you said at the very beginning that there is a scoundrel—a true scoundrel in the truest sense of the word—who nevertheless, through his own words, testifies to something about Jesus—really testifies to the heart of the gospel, as you said, in a very profound way.

Nancy Guthrie
Absolutely.

Matt Tully
It strikes me that the more time we spend studying them and thinking about them and seeing what the Bible says about them, the more we see that there is so much to learn.

Nancy Guthrie
Isn't that the beautiful thing about the Bible? It's a never-ending well of insight into Jesus that then the more we know him—the more we see him through even these various characters—the more it generates love for him. And that's what we want. We want to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the Bible itself helps us to do that.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.