America’s favorite inspirational novelist and #1 New York Times bestselling author offers a richly told tale about six of Jesus’ closest friends and companions, bringing biblical truths to life in this captivating continuation of her Life-Changing Bible Story series.
In our everyday lives, friends are the people whom we spend the most time with, go through struggles with at times, and who know us best. Each of Jesus’ friends—Peter, John, Matthew, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus—traveled with Jesus and were part of His daily ministry, and each has a compelling story to tell. There were some who would question or doubt Him...and one would even betray Him. Kingsbury brings these fascinating personalities to life in ways that will not only help bring you closer to the truths found in Scripture, but also to Christ.
By combining valuable, instructive Bible story with compelling, insightful character sketches of Jesus’ companions, Kingsbury provides you with a deeper understanding of the scriptural teachings featuring these fascinating people. Emotionally powerful, thought-provoking, and soulful, The Friends of Jesus will help you to appreciate the Bible and understand how it applies to your relationships with the most important people in your life.
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Karen Kingsbury, #1 New York Times bestselling novelist, is America’s favorite inspirational storyteller, with more than twenty-five million copies of her award-winning books in print. Her last dozen titles have topped bestseller lists and many of her novels are under development with Hallmark Films and as major motion pictures. Her Baxter Family books are being developed into a TV series slated for major network viewing sometime in the next year. Karen is also an adjunct professor of writing at Liberty University. In 2001 she and her husband, Don, adopted three boys from Haiti, doubling their family in a matter of months. Today the couple has joined the ranks of empty nesters, living in Tennessee near five of their adult children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Friends of Jesus
If only he could get away from the smell. The putrid, oppressive, nauseating smell. Simon sat on the edge of a craggy rock and looked out over the leper colony. How in the world had he wound up here? Banished from society, ostracized even by the people he loved? Dead to the world?
Couldn’t You send a breeze, God? So the smell wouldn’t suffocate me? He lifted his face and tried to peer through the menacing clouds. Are You up there? Do You see me?
Never mind. Simon closed his eyes. The other lepers kept to themselves. Here in the colony, everyone suffered in his own way. Missing family, aching for companionship. Too broken to notice the lepers on either side of him. And so Simon was alone. He who had been one of the most well-known men in Jerusalem had no one to love, no one to talk to, no one to care. His family had deserted him. He had no friends.
No one cared about Simon now. Not one.
Agony swept over him and he studied his hands. His fingers had turned to nubs—not that he could feel them. Leprosy took away the sense of pain everywhere but where it mattered most—in his heart. The pain of loneliness and desperation was more unbearable every day.
His eyes moved up his arms. Every inch of his body was open wounds or tumors. His feet no longer worked properly and his breathing was difficult. He prayed death wouldn’t be far off. He must look like a monster, unrecognizable by human standards. He gritted his teeth. It’s more than I can take, Lord. Why have You done this to me?
He opened his mouth to breathe. Sometimes if he drew air through his open lips he could avoid the stink—for a little while anyway. It was the one part of leprosy no one had told him about. The way his melting flesh would smell.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, an approaching storm almost upon them. Simon uttered a sad sigh. No, that was wrong. The storm had been crashing in on him since the day he first noticed the sores. He hadn’t escaped the storm for a single minute. Simon hardly feared the lightning about to break through the sky overhead. If God wanted to strike him dead here on this rock, so be it. Anything to end his misery.
Then, like he’d done every hour of every day since he’d been sent away, he allowed himself to go back in time, back to life the way it had been. Back when he was healthy and took the hours for granted. When he was surrounded by his wife, Anna, and their two young daughters. He closed his eyes and he could hear their voices, their laughter. The girls were eleven and twelve, adept at cooking and sewing and on the brink of becoming women. Back then they loved Simon more than life.
The ache in his heart was more crippling than his decaying flesh.
Anna hadn’t wanted to leave. The girls wept and begged their mother for another option, a way for the family to stay together. But the disease wouldn’t allow it. When Simon was escorted to the leper colony, his family—like families of other lepers—grieved his loss as if he had died.
He was dead to them, and they were encouraged to move on. Find a new life without him.
Simon wondered how they were doing now. Had they indeed moved on? Would Anna forget about him in time? He could see their faces again, feel his wife in his arms once more. Anna, I still love you. I always will. Tell the girls I miss them.
Simon still had no idea how he could’ve contracted leprosy. In his past life, no one had lived a better life than he had. He was a Pharisee, after all. The most important of the Jewish religious leaders. One of those entrusted with passing the law on to the next generation. And of course, a Pharisee could not teach the law unless he kept a strict adherence to it himself.
Simon had done everything right. He washed himself before every meal, sometimes more often. He kept the Sabbath holy, he fasted frequently, and he wore the best garments and tassels. He did everything in his power to uphold the law and he constantly pointed out those that failed to do so.
He could remember a time when three men were carrying spoons weighing more than a fig—a violation of the law. Simon had ordered them to leave the spoons on the side of the road. Another time he had publicly reprimanded a woman for working to find food for her children on the Sabbath. Any other day, but not the Sabbath.
Simon mulled over his behavior. Yes, he had been perfect. Quite. In all his days as a Pharisee he never ate with tax collectors or sinners. In fact, Simon wanted nothing more than to live a life that pleased God. The very word Pharisee had its root in purity, right?
And yet, one morning a year ago everything had changed. He would never forget those days. He could feel the solid comfortable ground of home beneath his feet, smell the bread cooking in the next room, hear the voices of Anna and the girls. And he could feel a slight burning on his arm. Just the slightest painful burning. Like something was biting or pinching him. Or like an ember from the fire had landed on him and taken root.
He could remember the sense of alarm as he looked at the underneath area of his forearm and first saw the open wound. Small and round, red and hot to the touch. And then a second spot—up near his elbow, larger than the first.
Not for a moment did he think he had leprosy. Something must have bitten him during the night—a spider or a rare insect, maybe. Or perhaps he’d lingered too close to the fire and now he had the burn marks to prove it. Either way he wore his heavier cloak that day, the one with the tassels and longer arms that hung partway down his hand. He was a Pharisee. He couldn’t have people wondering what was on his skin.
Especially since an outbreak of leprosy had recently hit Jerusalem.
Simon knew the signs, of course. He and his peers were part of the leadership team that cast lepers out of the Temple, out of the city. They were judge and jury, and for that reason Simon—more than other citizens—knew the symptoms. He knew exactly what to look for.
Of course he couldn’t have leprosy.
But just in case, Simon prayed. God, whatever this is, take it away. Leprosy is for the unclean, so I know I don’t have that terrible disease. But whatever this is, please, take it away. He said the prayer a few times that day, fully expecting that in the morning his arm would be well. Instead, three more sores had appeared near the existing ones. Open sores, oozing from the center. Not only that, but there were spots on his other arm. And two on his leg. All of them burned. Like someone was pressing the blade of a knife to his skin and scraping. Scraping and burrowing and ripping at him all day long.
Simon doubled his prayers, pleading with God to remove the spots. He didn’t have leprosy. But still, if anyone saw the sores they might be confused and he could easily be mistaken for a leper. Which was impossible, because lepers were outcasts, people who had sinned against God and now were getting their just punishment. He was not such a sinner, and he was not a leper. Those thoughts had comforted Simon through the hours back then.
Early on he kept his distance from Anna. He went to bed after her and started his day earlier. He couldn’t bear having her see the sores and wonder what was wrong. But over the next days and weeks Simon’s skin condition grew worse. There were more spots, and then a white dusting that appeared over all his body. And finally one morning Simon woke to find his beard turning white.
The white that was a telltale sign of leprosy.
“Simon?” Anna had found him near their bed, examining his arms and legs. “What’s happened to you?”
“It’s nothing.” He grabbed his cloak and threw it over himself. “Burns, maybe. Bites. We need to sweep for spiders.”
“But your beard . . .” She took a step closer. “Simon, it’s white as snow. Overnight. It looks like . . .” Her eyes were wide, her breathing faster than before. She had never looked more terrified.
“Anna . . . it’s not like it looks.” He reached for her, but maybe without thinking she took a step back.
His own wife. As if the very sight of him repulsed her.
Simon wanted to hide himself behind a wall or order Anna from the room. He wanted the nightmare to end so he could wake up whole and well with Anna at his side and all of life perfectly planned and ahead of them.
But he could do none of that.
Simon slept on the floor that night, and after that there had been no way to hide the symptoms. The next day he had to report to duty in the Temple courts. As he walked through the groups of religious leaders he felt their stares, heard their whispered concern. Pharisees didn’t get leprosy, unless . . .
Simon had almost been able to read their minds, the things they must’ve been thinking. What had Simon done? Why had he gone from being a perfectly upstanding Pharisee to this . . . this infected human being? Simon did his best to ignore the way they drew back from him. He walked straight to the rulers of the Temple.
“Can we talk?” He motioned to a back room. “Somewhere private. Please.”
Jairus and the other rulers, the leaders of the Temple, seemed taken aback. They were Simon’s closest friends, but now they looked him up and down and slowly they stepped back, keeping their distance. Clearly they noticed the sores on Simon’s face, the white in his beard. With great hesitation they led Simon to a private place near the back of the Temple.
When they were alone, Jairus crossed his arms. “Simon. You are sick.”
“Yes.” Simon bowed slightly. “It’s . . . an infection. Something must have bitten me or . . .” He hesitated. What could he tell them? He knew the symptoms as well as they did. But even so he had never believed it could be leprosy. Not for him. “I’m sorry. Maybe a batch of weeds in the field has caused irritation. Or perhaps I stood too close to the fire. It could be that I—”
“Simon.” Jairus held up his hand. “Remove your cloak.”
Simon had feared they would say this. His beard gave it away. Until his beard turned white, he had been able to hide the patches of wounds cropping up on his arms and legs. But now . . .
He had shuddered at the thought of doing what Jairus asked. But he had no choice. Slowly, Simon removed his cloak, undressing himself to his undercloak. As he did, the leaders stepped back. One of them made an audible gasp. “Simon . . . you have leprosy.”
“No!” Simon shook his head. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve . . . I’ve kept all the commands of the laws.” A desperate groan came from deep inside him. “I am a Pharisee. I could not possibly be unclean!”
And so the leaders of the Temple had quickly conferred. They agreed they’d never before seen a religious leader with leprosy. “Perhaps you are dealing with an allergy.” One of the leaders nodded. “We would like to think so, anyway.”
Jairus and the others came up with a plan, something they often did for members of the Temple who were brought to them with symptoms of leprosy. They sent Simon home for two weeks. “Your family should stay with relatives. You must be alone, and do not leave your house for any reason.” One of the leaders seemed more compassionate. “Surely your wounds will heal in that time. Your family can join you again and you can return to your duties at the Temple.”
Simon made arrangements for his wife and girls to stay with her brother a half-day’s walk away. Anna had talked to him from a distance before she left. “You will heal, Simon. I will pray to God. It’ll be okay.” She looked scared and heartbroken. As if she didn’t for a moment believe her own words.
The girls had cried, wanting to go to him and hug him. But Anna held them back. “Later, girls. After your father is well.”
And with that, they were gone.
Simon had known with everything in him that two weeks was all he needed. His skin would heal and the horrific, impossible thought of leprosy would disappear with the wounds.
He was convinced. But he was wrong.
* * *
The storm moved closer, dark, menacing clouds headed Simon’s way. He breathed through his mouth, sick to his stomach from his stench. The memory of those early days when everything went bad played in his mind every day. Sometimes every hour. Ahead a little ways, lightning split the sky and hit the ground. Simon didn’t move. If the lightning didn’t kill him, at least the storm would bring relief, fresh air to soothe his lungs from breathing only the putrid smell of his rotting flesh.
He closed his eyes and let the past come over him again.
Those two weeks had been the most frightening in all his life. Every day he prayed and every morning he woke expecting to be healed. But the sores didn’t go away. They grew larger and deeper. More of them appeared every sunrise. One week into his time of quarantine, Simon climbed out of bed, took two steps, and fell, sprawled across the dirt floor. He couldn’t feel his feet, and as he looked down he saw the sickening reality. His toes were turning white. They were dying, right before his eyes.
Which could only mean one thing.
In the days that followed he prayed constantly. Every hour. What had he done wrong? Why would God inflict him with something so horrific? He repented for things he couldn’t remember doing and begged God to forgive him for thoughts he didn’t know he had considered. Surely he must’ve disobeyed or disappointed God. Whatever he’d done, he was sorry. He would repent the rest of his life if God would only heal him.
But every day his condition grew worse.
His sores itched and burned. He could no longer feel his fingers and toes. And something else. Tumors had started appearing on his arms and legs and even on his face and torso. Lumps the size of large olives pressed up against his broken, oozing skin. The tumors made his whole body throb. As if even his bones were decaying.
Simon noticed something else that week. His bed had begun to stink. Each morning it was covered with sections of his white, shedding skin. The floor of the house bore telltale signs of the same. He was becoming a leper, a monster. An outcast. And there was nothing he could do about it. No way to stop the destruction.
After his two weeks alone, the morning came to report to the leaders of the Temple. Simon had never felt more desperate. He woke early and dropped to his painful knees. Everything hurt—his joints and limbs and every inch of his skin.
“Lord, I am here! Have You abandoned me?” His prayer echoed through his empty house. “I have kept Your law, I have followed Your ways. Why have You not healed me?”
And then—for the first time since he started praying about his condition, he felt the gentlest whisper. A whisper that surrounded him.
My son, this has been done to show My glory to the people of Jerusalem.
Simon could remember feeling breathless. Was that really God speaking to him? God was at the center of the law, the reason Simon lived a perfect life as a Pharisee. But God speaking to him? In the quiet of his room? He had never experienced such a thing. He hunkered down against his bed, small in the presence of the voice of God.
What had the voice said? God was doing this to show His glory? How could that be? No one in the vicinity of Jerusalem kept the law the way Simon did. Others could try, but Simon had been perfect. He prided himself on the fac...
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