Today we continue with trying to familiarize ourselves with the Bible. The end goal is to encourage frequent, if not daily use of the Scriptures. Today, our focus is going to be the Scriptures written after the birth of Jesus – the New Testament.
There is a phenomenal consistency in the central message of the Bible. In the Old Testament, we begin by reading how the world and humanity came to be. We read how God carved out a peculiar people – the Nation of Israel – and it was through this Nation that God promised to bring the Savior of all humanity. In the Old Testament, we see a steady movement from World, to Nation and finally to the specific prophecies that point us to the coming Messiah – Jesus Christ.
The New Testament also focuses on Christ, but for a slightly different purpose. We are told that in Christ, God has won forgiveness and salvation for the entire world. And so in the New Testament we have this movement that focuses on what God accomplished on the Cross, and then how that was taken to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.
In both the Old and New Testaments, the focus, the central message is Jesus Christ. There was one old boy in history who said that there is a Bible within the Bible and that the inner Bible is Christ. In fact, the way that he explained it was by saying that the Bible is the cradle for Christ. That old boy was Martin Luther. When we look through the lens of Christ, we have a better chance of understanding the Bible.
The original autographs – that is the original texts of the books of the Bible – are not available. The extant manuscripts (the ones available to us today) are copies of the originals. Most of these are written in Greek even though there are scholars who believe that the originals were written in Aramaic.
In saying that the New Testament has a central theme – that is to say that it speaks about Christ and his saving work for the entire world – we can look to one verse to serve as a summary of the entire New Testament.
“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” John 20:31 (KJV)
Ok, with that brief introduction I’d like to invite you to open up your Bibles once again to the index page. We are going to take a quick run through the books of the New Testament to learn about the different classes of writings and their central focus.
The first four books of the New Testament [Matthew, Mark, Luke and John] are the Gospels. These paint a portrait of Jesus with slightly different focuses. For example, the Gospel of Matthew was written primarily to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. That’s why Matthew spends so much time looking at the genealogies – to show how Jesus was born from the promised lineage. Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophets and repeats the phrase, “And so it was fulfilled…” or something similar frequently.
The Gospel of Mark was written to people who were persecuted. Most scholars believe that this Gospel was written to Gentile Christians in Rome who were undergoing intense persecution. He speaks of the power of Christ to deliver from suffering and persecution because his readers were under persecution. And so, because the audience was Gentile, Mark takes the time to explain Jewish terms and customs. The Gospel was also written in no-nonsense language to a people who needed a quick, succinct, get to the point type of message. Some call this the Gospel according to Peter because it is believed Mark was writing for Peter.
The next book is the Gospel of Luke. A very educated and prepared man wrote it – a physician – Dr. Luke. This is a Gospel whose picture of Christ would appeal to all people, but whose eye for detail is absolutely incredible. If we just look at the first few verses of the second chapter of Luke, we can get a sense for Dr. Luke’s incredible capacity to communicate great detail in very succinct language:
And in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, everyone unto his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, unto Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. (Luke 2, first 5 verses paraphrased)
Wow! Did you get the level of detail in that passage? He tells whom was emperor of Rome and governor of Syria – tying the time to a very specific point in time. He spoke of Joseph’s heritage – a very important detail. He spoke of geography describing the uphill climb from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the territories and boundaries that had to be crossed. He spoke of the personal situation of Mary – ready to deliver her baby – great with child. Very few writers could do this so beautifully. But Dr. Luke, under God’s inspiration, did!
These three Gospels are called “Synoptic Gospels” because they present a sort of eyewitness account to the life of Jesus. They “see together” the events in the life of Christ. The fourth Gospel – the Gospel of John – is quite different. It was written to convince the reader of Jesus’ identity as fully man and fully God. This Gospel gives us an “other-worldly” perspective that describes Jesus – the eternal, pre-existent Logos – the Word – becoming human. The first verse in the book sets the tone: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…
There is one history book in the Bible – and that is the Book of Acts. Dr. Luke also wrote this book and so it is a very careful documentation of the first three or so decades of the Christian Church. In the Old Testament we have the testimony of God the Father’s work. In the Gospels we see the work of God the Son. In the Book of Acts, we see God the Holy Spirit at work launching the Church and fueling a powerful Christian movement. The early chapters follow the life of Peter. Most the chapters from about chapter nine onward follow the missionary journeys of Paul. A key verse is in the book of Acts.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8 (KJV)
Paul wrote about half of the books in the New Testament – thirteen of them. These are the Pauline Epistles – or letters. [Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon] Paul generally writes the epistles to either a group of believers in a particular locale, such as Romans or the Corinthian letters. Or, Paul directs his letters to individuals – such as his young son in the faith Timothy. Paul in very real and practical ways applies the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and his teachings to his audience.
One of the more lovely epistles in the New Testament is Hebrews. It was initially classed as a Pauline Epistle, but today, there is serious doubt about Pauline authorship for a number of reasons. This letter has a theme that unifies it from beginning to end: “The supremacy of Christ.” The writer explains how Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish sacrificial system. He writes about Christ being superior to the angels. He writes about Jesus’ ministry and priesthood being superior to the Aaronic priesthood, calling Jesus the great High Priest who established a new covenant.
Lets focus next on the General Epistles. [James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude] These letters are referred to as general letters. Generally these are not directed to a localized group of believers nor to a particular individual. One interesting fact: As the New Testament canon was being assembled, a number of the letters were often disputed. These were called the “antilegomena” or, “the books spoken against.” Most of the General Epistles and even the deuterocanonical works are in this category. More about that later.
Finally, the New Testament has one book of prophecy, Revelation. This book is of a special genre of literature referred to as “apocalyptic”. It is highly symbolic and was written to encourage the believers during a time when those who resisted the emperor worship of Rome were being persecuted. John, the author, tells them to resist and hang on because in the end, Christians will triumph.
Finally, I’d like to share some preliminary thoughts to you about the formation of the Canon. The whole collection of books in the Bible is referred to as the Canon. The word Canon means “a rule or measuring rod”. We could think of it as a standard used to measure. The gathering of the books of Scripture is referred to as the Canon. Books that are so categorized are called “canonical”. This term is applied to them because the books measured up to a certain “rule” or “standard”. Each was deemed to have the “rule of faith” that is, that which is able to guide people to saving faith in Christ.
There were a number of Church councils or gatherings of the Church that determined which books should be canonical. The last of these was the Council of Carthage in 397 AD where the final shape of the New Testament Canon was established. These Councils established the general criteria that a book had to meet in order for it to be classed as canonical. These criteria included:
- The book had to be in full harmony with the teachings of Christ and his Apostles.
- Christ was at the center of the book.
- The book had to be approved by the early Church.
- The book had to be from the Apostolic period and/or be of Apostolic origin.
The deuterocanonical books is a term to denote those books and passages of the Christian Old Testament, as defined in 1546 by the Council of Trent, that were not found in the Hebrew Bible, and so was not canonized yet still remain in some Bibles.
One final thought regarding Scripture. The New Testament is a very unique collection of books that tells us much about the life of early believers and of the early Church. But we need to know that the Bible is not a record of man’s search for God… Rather, The Bible is a record of how God is attempting to reach man with the saving message of his love and forgiveness!
Dear friends, we are blessed to be living at a time when God’s revelation to us has taken final shape and come to us as the Holy Bible. I hope and pray that these lessons will help us to overcome our hesitancy to engage the Bible.
Let us pray.
Father, bless us as we learn more and more about your Word. Help us to overcome any hesitancy or fear to engage the Bible. Give us understanding through your Spirit that we may be strengthened in Christ. In His name.