The Bible consists of two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament consists of (39) books documenting the accounts of biblical history from the creation of the world in Genesis to the writings and prophecies of the prophet Malachi. There is a gap of 4oo years until the time of the New Testament books which begin with the events concerning the life and teachings of Jesus. The books of the New Testament testify to the good news of salvation through Christ and His teachings.
The focus of my ministry are those persons that desire to learn but are not a member of a church or do not know anyone that can teach and guide them. I am currently guiding a new student as she is reading through the New Testament (N.T.). Her many questions regarding the verses and books of the N.T. has resulted in sessions where I have sat with her and explained fundamental concepts concerning the literature that she is reading. These sessions are the inspiration for this article which contains much of the material covered in the sessions. I realize that there are many others out there in a similar situation that could also benefit from these notes. Here for you, are these notes to help guide you as you read through the word of God as it is written in the N.T.
Characteristics of the Bible
- Scripture is divided into different types of literature: Law, History/Narrative, Poetry, Prophecy, Wisdom, and Epistles/Letters.
- The New Testament books include: (5) books of history, (21) epistles or letters, and one book of prophecy which is Revelation.
- The history books of the N.T. include the four gospels and the book of Acts.
- Of the (21) epistles: (13) were written by the Apostle Paul, (2) were written by the Apostle Peter, (3) were written by the Apostle John, and (2) were written by the brothers of Jesus; Jude and James.
- The book of Hebrews is an Epistle whose author is unknown. Possibilities include Paul, or one of his companions; either Barnabas or Luke.
- Revelation is the only book of prophecy in the N.T. and its focus is the end-times written in apocalyptic language, which uses symbolic visions and forms.
The New Testament consists of 27 books. They begin with the four Gospels; which are the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and it ends with the book of Revelation. The Old Testament is composed of (39) books, beginning with Genesis and ending with the book of the prophet Malachi. There is a 400-year gap between the last book of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament. The New Testament begins with the work and ministry of Jesus Christ which is told in a historical/biographical detail in the four gospels. They are four separate accounts of the life and teachings of Christ as told by his Apostles and other eye-witnesses.
Why Four Gospels?- The authors of the Gospels intended to show that Jesus was the Messiah prophesized in the Old Testament, and that He was God Himself who had taken the form of man in order to bring salvation to all of mankind. Each of the writers presented a unique perspective of Christ for the purposes of their individual audience. Their books were not written to be complete autobiographies but to be living witnesses to the life, ministry, and work of Jesus testifying to His claim to be the Messiah, and the Son of God.
The Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew, who was the tax collector called by Jesus to follow Him. Matthew wrote his Gospel to Jewish Christians where he presents Jesus as the King of Israel and the Jewish Messiah in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
John Mark, the disciple of Paul and later Peter, is the author of the Gospel of Mark. He served as a scribe to Peter during his last days and Mark writes his Gospel from the perspective of Peter. His Gospel was written to Roman Christians where his image of Jesus is that of the suffering servant of God.
The Gospel of Luke was written by the traveling companion of the Apostle Paul. Luke, who was not Jewish but a Gentile convert, was a highly educated physician. He is also the author of the Book of Acts. The books of Luke and Acts are seen as volumes 1 and 2 of Luke’s writings. His Gospel is written from the view of Paul and of several eye-witnesses accounts. Luke’s identity of Jesus is that of the Son of Man, stressing His humanity. He writes to a Greek Gentile audience to show that Jesus is the Savior for all of mankind.
The Apostle John is the author of his Gospel where he presents his own unique account of Christ. His Gospel is written for all people to show Jesus as the Son of God, who is God Himself. John emphasizes the deity of Christ to his readers as shown in his opening statement where he refers to Him as the Word, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1). It is statements like this that makes John’s Gospel the most theological. John ends His Gospel with a reminder to his readers that the works and miracles of Jesus were so numerous that the world could not contain all the books written about them.
As you read through the gospels you will come across the important teachings of Jesus and His use of parables. An understanding of parables is essential to understand the teachings of Jesus, since the parables make up (35) percent of His sayings. He was a master at using parables as a teaching tool. The parables are not just simple stories; they are masterful works of art and weapons of spiritual warfare. The reason that Jesus taught in parables is because they are captivating and one of the most effective methods of communicating. They are stories which convey deep truths in simple terms. Jesus used parables based on the common experiences of His audience so that they could grasp the essence of the teaching. A prime example of this teaching is the parable of The Sower in Matt. 13:1-9, and the explanation of the parable in Matt. 13:18-23. Here you can read the parable followed by the explanation given by Jesus. As you read the parables in the gospels, you will find yourself entertained by the story and also educated on some aspect of biblical truth.
After the death of Christ, the early church began its growth and development. Jesus as the founder and leader was now gone and the leadership was now resting on His apostles, who He had personally taught. The apostles were the authority figures in the new church and their teachings, which were first-hand accounts of Jesus’ teachings, were the basis of the New Testament. These written teachings were sent to the churches throughout the region and passed around to other churches because of their authoritative content. These letters, also called epistles would become a large part of the New Testament.
One of the best definitions for epistle that I have come across is that of scholar and theologian Louis Berkhof. Here is his definition:
Epistles– the letters which the apostles, under the promptings of inspiration, wrote to churches and individuals, and which are included in the Canon of the New Testament Scriptures. Although they were primarily designed for rebuke, instruction, guidance, and encouragement of those to whom they were addressed, they yet are adapted to all churches and Christians through all time. They are especially rich in the statement of doctrine and the outline of duty.Berkhof, L. (1915). New Testament Introduction
The primary purpose of the epistles is to pass on the teachings that the apostles received from Jesus and to make sure that these truths were passed on to the members of the early church and to all future generations, as Peter explains in 2Pet. 1:12-15. These letters have been officially recognized by the Church as authoritative and divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit for the Church to obey and to teach. The epistles have a dominant role in the New Testament, as (21) of the (27) books are epistles, so much of what you will be reading will be epistles. They are rich in teachings on church operations, Christian conduct, and doctrine or theology. The epistles of Paul are especially focused on doctrine and the teachings of the faith such as; salvation, justification, sanctification, and faith. The authors of the epistles took the teachings that they were given by Jesus and presented them with further explanation and direction. The teachings of Jesus were preserved in written form and gathered together in these authoritative texts for the education of the Church.
Here is a partial list of the epistles and their teachings.
- Romans-This letter explains the plan of salvation for the Gentiles and Jews.
- 1 Corinthians-The Corinthian church was plagued by problems in the conduct between its members. Paul corrects them in their understanding of what it is to live a godly life.
- 2 Corinthians-Paul writes this letter to correct false teaching.
- Galatians-A teaching on how Christianity is the outgrowth of Judaism.
- Philippians-This letter guides Christians in dealing with overwhelming circumstances.
- 1 Thessalonians-Paul encourages young Christians to live Godly lives. He gives instruction on the 2nd coming of Christ.
- 1 Timothy-Paul instructs a young minister in church organization and operation.
- James-A practical guide for living the Christian life.
- 1 John-John explains the forgiveness of Christ and how that affects the way we view ourselves and others.
- 2 John-Christians are encouraged to love one another and beware of false teachers.
As you read through the New Testament, remember that the Bible is a complete unit which includes both the Old and New Testaments. Many of the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament. Also, the New Testament can be fully understood in light of the writings of the Old Testament. The authors of the New Testament and Jesus often quoted the Old Testament. The New Testament is not a stand-alone text and is not to be viewed as a completely separate revelation. The New Testament is the continuation and completion of the Old Testament. Read it in that context so that you understand it in the sense that it was written. Consider also that the New Testament was written in the 1st Century for the people of that century. The background of the people, their customs, and the location must be considered when reading the text. Scripture was primarily written to the people and events of those times, but with many truths that also universally apply to all people of all times.
These notes are primarily intended for the person who does not have much experience in reading scripture and may be new to biblical material. It is intended for those who are engaging in Bible reading and not Bible study. The difference being that Bible reading is a general reading of the Bible for a casual understanding; while Bible study is a specific reading of the Bible for a deeper understanding of its content. Bible study requires additional aids such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, systematic theology texts, and a knowledgeable teacher or mentor. The Bible was written so that the average person can read and understand it at a primary level. Read and enjoy it. However, understand that it is God’s word revealed to man and it must be viewed in the highest regard. It is above and beyond any other written text. May God bless your reading of His word!