by Ed Gallagher
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”Luke 2:10
Most students are familiar with the basic storyline of the New Testament, but they might not know how the various New Testament books fit into that storyline. This lesson will aim, therefore, at surveying how each book fits into the storyline.
What is your favorite book in the New Testament? Which book gives you the most trouble for understanding? (Of course, there are no wrong answers here. The point of this exercise is just to get the students thinking and talking about the New Testament.)
Compared to the Old Testament, how long did it take to write the New Testament? The Old Testament was composed over a period of about 1000 years, whereas the New Testament was composed over a 50-year period, from about AD 50 (Paul’s earliest letters) to about AD 100 (some of the writings of John date this late, at least, according to tradition).
How are the books of the New Testament arranged? There are the four Gospels narrating the story of Jesus, followed by the story of the early church as told in Acts. Then there are the letters, first the thirteen letters of Paul, followed by eight letters written by other authors. Finally, Revelation points readers toward a glorious future.
Why is it appropriate for the letters to come after Acts? The letters were in most cases written sometime during the history that Acts narrates. However, strangely, Acts never mentions these letters, whether from Paul or from Peter, John, James, or Jude. The only letter mentioned in Acts is the one resulting from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (see vv. 23–29).
The time period covered by the New Testament begins around 400 years after the writing of the last book of the Old Testament (Malachi). We know something about this “inter-testamental” period because Jews did write books at the time. The books of the Maccabees narrate part of the history, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were written during this time.
The New Testament period begins with an announcement by a desert-dwelling preacher named John that God’s people ought to repent to prepare for the appearing of God’s kingdom, as narrated in all four Gospels. Two of the Gospels (Matthew & Luke) contain background information, explaining the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. One of the Gospels (John) provides a different sort of background, explaining that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God who has always existed.
What are the highlights of the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels? His death and resurrection are most important, but also his teachings and miracles, all of which pointed to the coming of God’s kingdom. This whole story is called “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; etc.) or “the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14) or “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). This word, “gospel,” is repeated throughout the New Testament as a description of the message about Jesus. The noun “gospel” appears 76x in the New Testament, and the verb “preach the gospel” 54x.
In the Acts of the Apostles, which apostles receive the most attention? In the first 12 chapters, Peter and John are the main characters (esp. Peter), and then Paul becomes the focus from ch. 13 onward. This transition is related to Luke’s aim of exhibiting the spread of the Christian faith throughout the world, starting from the small beginnings in Jerusalem (where Peter and John were prominent leaders) and continuing with the conversion of masses of gentiles throughout the Roman empire, through the ministry of Paul.
How are the New Testament letters arranged? Paul comes first, probably because we have more of his letters than letters from anyone else. Paul’s letters are arranged according to three principles: (1) the letters to churches precede the letters to individuals; (2) the letters within these groupings (churches first, individuals second) are arranged longest to shortest; and (3) multiple letters to the same addressee (Corinthians, Thessalonians, Timothy) are grouped together irrespective of length. After Paul’s letters, the letters written by other authors are arranged according to the same general principles as for Paul’s letters.
Paul’s letters were written mostly during the two decades from about 45–65 AD. Much of this time period is narrated in the book of Acts, even though Acts never mentions Paul’s letters. However, by carefully coordinating the information in Acts and the clues in the letters, we can usually fit each of the letters somewhere within the narrative of Acts.
What are the major themes of Paul’s letters?
- The free gift of salvation through Christ (Rom 3:21–25; Eph 2:8–9).
- Present suffering but future glory (2 Cor 4:16–18).
- The Pastoral Epistles (Timothy and Titus) talk a lot about how the church should function in practical terms, like how to appoint elders and deacons.
- But most of what Paul emphasizes, in every letter, is that Christians ought to be nice to one another (Gal 6:1–5; Rom 12; 1 Cor 13; Phil 2:14–16; etc.).
The other New Testament letters are often called General Epistles because they have a general audience, not written to a particular church or individual. For instance, James is addressed to “the twelve tribes that are dispersed abroad” (1:1), a general description for Christians, apparently. Similarly, 1 Peter is addressed “to those who reside as aliens…” (1:1), and Jude is written “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (v. 1). On the other hand, 2 John does seem to be addressed either to a particular person or church (“the chosen lady,” v. 1), and 3 John is written to a certain Gaius (v. 1).
What is the Book of Revelation about? It encourages Christians who are enduring persecution to remain faithful, even in the face of death (2:10!). Death means victory. Each of the letters to the seven churches (chs. 2–3) concludes with a blessing on those who overcome.
The New Testament is a collection of early Christian writings, reflecting on the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and encouraging communities throughout the Roman world to enact the principles he taught. We who want to restore New Testament Christianity need to live and breathe the teachings of our Lord and his apostles.
Additional Questions for Discussion
According to 1 Corinthians 15:1–5, what is the gospel?
According to the first gospel sermon, what are the essential elements of the story of Jesus that Peter tells his audience (Acts 2:22–36)?
When Zechariah prophesies after the birth of his son John, what does he say is the significance of his son? (Luke 1:67–79)