The New Testament is not something a bunch of guys in robes and sandals sat around and made up. It was not a new religion made up by a very charismatic guy 2,000 years ago. It is a collection of eye-witness accounts, records of how the early church grew and spread through the Eastern Mediterranean region, letters to churches, pastors, and believers, and prophecy about the fulfillment of all things through Jesus.
I want to give you a 30,000ft perspective of the whole New Testament; how it’s organized, the purpose of the different authors and sections, how it connects to the Old Testament, and why it is still relevant for today.
One Book With Many Parts
In case you missed our Old Testament overview, here is a quick review of The Bible. The Bible is a library of 66 volumes written by over 40 people in three languages on three continents over thousands of years. It can be proven to also be one book with One author and one story. I want to help you find your place in God’s story.
Time-wise, the Old Testament spans about 3,600 years of time, while the New Testament spans only 100. This difference alone tends to explain why people see God as one way in the Old Testament and another in the New Testament. He’s often seen as a God of wrath in the Old Testament and a God of love in the New Testament. That’s only because you have thousands of years and generation after generation repeating the cycle of people loving God, rejecting God, God then dealing with their sin, the people repent, then repeat. There is actually a whole lot of loving God in the Old Testament!
The Old Testament wouldn’t make sense without the New Testament, and the New Testament wouldn’t make sense without the Old Testament. Anyone who says that the Old Testament isn’t relevant to Christians today is trying to make the Bible into something that it isn’t for whatever reason that is to their advantage.
Here is how the New Testament is put together and how it integrates with the Old Testament.
The first chunk of the New Testament is made up of what are called The Gospels. There is a further organization within The Gospels.
- Synoptic Gospels
The reason for this organization is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow a very similar format. They are a synopsis of the events of Jesus ministry in that they cover most of the same teachings and events.
John is kind of its own thing. There is an organization to it, it’s just different than the others.
Matthew was written by the tax collector who became one of Jesus’ main 12 disciples. As a government official, it is very likely that Matthew was trained in shorthand. It is therefore likely that the long blocks of Jesus teaching recorded in his gospel were recorded verbatim. If you take out the long blocks of teaching, Matthew is the shortest of the gospels.
Mark was not one of Jesus’ 12 disciples but still may have been an eyewitness to many of the events recorded. That surprises some people. It surprised me. I thought all the gospels were written by some of Jesus’ disciples. Only Matthew and John are in fact. Mark is mentioned in Acts and in one of Paul’s letters. It is thought that Mark is actually Peter’s account that, for whatever reason, was recorded by Mark.
Luke was also not one of Jesus’ disciples, nor was he an eyewitness to any of the events. He was, however, a doctor. This means that he was well educated. His gospel is unique in that it explicitly states,
“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” Luke 1:1-4
Anyone who claims that none of the New Testament writers was trying to record history clearly hasn’t read the opening verses to Luke. That’s exactly what Luke was trying to do and time and again, the accuracy of his historical references proves to be correct.
Whereas the first three gospels look at everything from a more street-level view, John takes a more mystical, higher-level approach. This is evident from the first chapter. It’s written specifically so that the reader would become a believer. It’s not more spiritual than the other gospels, but it seems to be written to people who think spiritually. It’s as though his focus is more on who Jesus is than what Jesus did, yet who He is is evidenced in what He did.
Summary of the Gospels
- Audience is primarily Jewish
- Emphasis on Jesus as Jewish Messiah
- Icon would be a Lion, (of the tribe of Judah)
- Audience is primarily Jewish
- Emphasis on Jesus as a Servant
- Icon would be an Ox (a beast of burden)
- Audience is primarily Gentile, unfamiliar with the Jewish scriptures and practices
- Emphasis on Jesus as the Son of Man
- Icon would be a Man (accessible, relatable)
- Audience has no primary target
- Emphasis on Jesus as Son of God
- Icon would be an Eagle (in the heavens, transcendent)
Why the icons? This is one of the Old Testament connections. The emphasis of the gospels, how they emphasize different elements of who Jesus is, how they, in a sense, surround Jesus, is paralleled in two Old Testament passages.
The short version goes like this. This chapter describes how all of the tribes were to be organize and camp around The Tabernacle while spending time in the wilderness.
- The tribe of Levi was in the center with The Tabernacle.
- The rest of the tribes were organized into four groups of three, one on each side.
- Each tribe had an icon, an emblem. A crude term would be a mascot.
- In each group, there was a lead tribe over the other two. This means that there was one main icon/emblem on each side of The Tabernacle.
- It so happens that the lead icon for each of these four tribes was a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle.
Here we have a vision of the inside of God’s throne room in heaven, at least in terms we humans can understand.
- At the center was God’s throne.
- On four sides around the throne were four angels. These angels were different than most described in scripture. For one thing, each one had four faces.
- Have you guessed it? The four faces were; lion, ox, man, eagle.
The Tabernacle served as God’s throne on earth, surrounded by the four faces.
In Ezekiel, we see the origin of this picture after the fact.
In the gospels, buried under the surface, we have the same picture.
This is one of the things I love about the Bible! This kind of next-level interconnectedness. This supreme creativity of God to layer these things in here.
History – Acts
After the gospels, you have what would be considered the only book that is dedicated to recording a more general sequence of events. All of the New Testament is historical in that all happened. But from a book-organizational perspective, Acts is primarily focused on history.
Is it any surprise then that the author of Acts is Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke? In fact, Acts could be called 2 Luke. Luke opens Acts by connecting it to the “former account.” In one sense these two books go together. In fact, some have speculated that they were commissioned as Paul’s trial documents for his appearance before Caesar.
Acts opens with Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples and His ascension into Heaven. This is followed by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a large number of Jesus’ followers who, in fact, followed Jesus’ instructions to wait for this to happen. The result was the goodness of God being declared to tens of thousands of Jews from all over the Eastern Mediterranean who were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. This then provided an opportunity for Peter to talk about Jesus, and 3,000 people were saved. These people then went back to their hometowns, sharing Jesus, planting the seeds for the first churches.
The first half of Acts mostly focuses on Peter, his personal development as a follower of Jesus full of the Spirit, as a leader of the church, and being used to open the door of the gospel to the gentiles.
The second half of Acts shifts its focus to Saul, a persecutor of Christians, a first-rate Pharisee, who Jesus personally appears to and calls him to be one of His apostles. Saul’s name is eventually changed to Paul, and he becomes the main church planter and missionary in modern day Turkey and Greece.
Acts ends with Paul on his way to Rome to appear before Caesar. There is really no finality to it which is kind of cool. It implies that the work that the Holy Spirit began in Acts continues to this day.
Sharing The Gospel From The Old Testament
There is something very interesting that happens in Acts that is easy to miss, but it is essential to seeing a part of how and why the Old Testament is relevant today. I’m going to cheat a little and include something from the end of Luke here because it happens between the Resurrection and the Ascension, which is the time-frame when Acts opens.
In three recorded occasions, the gospel of Jesus is preached to people using the Old Testament. One of those instances is by Jesus Himself.
- Luke 24:13-34. The key verse is 27. “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] expounded to them all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
- Acts 7, the whole chapters. A guy named Stephen is called before the governing Jewish authorities on the charge of blasphemy, a capital crime. Beginning with Abraham, going even farther back than Jesus, Stephen lays out a pattern of God’s messenger to His people coming once, being rejected, then coming again and being accepted. He points out that they just rejected their Messiah.
- Acts 8:26-40. A guy named Phillip is directed by the Holy Spirit to go to a particular road where he then encountered an official from Ethiopia who had been in Jerusalem recently. The official is reading from Isaiah 53 which is a famous Messianic passage. The official asks Phillip to explain the passage and Phillip tells him that Jesus is the one the passage is talking about.
The Old Testament is essential to understanding the New Testament and communicating the gospel.The Old Testament is essential to understanding the New Testament and communicating the gospel. Click To Tweet
The word “epistle” basically means a letter, something that is sent. It’s related to the word “apostle” meaning someone who is sent. These letters are organized into sections.
- Church Epistles, Romans through 2 Thessalonians
- Pastoral Epistles, 1 Timothy through Philemon
- General Epistles, Hebrews through Jude
Let’s go through some of these letters and hit some highlights.
Romans – Romans is amazing. Not that the other letters aren’t. But Romans covers all of the bases of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
- The effects of sin on the individual, the effects of sin on the community and the world.
- What sin is and how God loves us anyway.
- How God planned to save us all along.
- What baptism is and means.
- Why we seem to still struggle with sin even after we are saved.
- How we are not condemned even though we still struggle with sin.
- God’s purpose and plan for his people Israel (He’s not done with them yet.)
- The how the gifts of the gifts of the Spirit are supposed to function in the church as if it were a body.
- How to grow beyond cultural customs that really have no power over believers.
1 Corinthians – Think of ancient Corinth as Las Vegas or Amsterdam. Now think of all of the baggage that would exist when trying to plant a grow a church. That’s what this letter is about.
- Ways to tell genuine followers of Jesus from those who are not.
- How to deal with fellow believers who sin in the church as opposed to non-believers who sin outside the church.
- Just about any kind of gender identity scenario you can think of.
- Healthy and unhealthy marriages.
- Proper and improper uses of the gifts of the Spirit, and how to truest expression of the power of the Spirit is God’s love channeled through us to others.
- The reality of the resurrection of Jesus, which was called into questions. If that didn’t happen we are all doomed.
Galatians mostly deals with legalism in the church. The idea that in order to have God’s favor you have to follow certain rules. This is the opposite of grace.
Philippians whose main theme is joy and written to a church experience heavy stuff.
1 & 2 Thessalonians are also amazing. Paul spent about three weeks there. Just three weeks and he covered doctrine that many churches never touch.
1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are written to young pastors. These guys were pastoring house churches and overseeing groups of house churches. They needed encouragement, guidance, and confidence.
Hebrews while not to one church or one area was primarily aimed at Jewish Christians who were having a hard time letting go of trusting in rituals and priests for their salvation. The author, who is unknown, has a deep knowledge of the sacrificial system and Jewish customs. He points out how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of that and how faith is put in Him. The Jews still went to the temple and still made the sacrifices, but some couldn’t separate putting their faith in those things and in Jesus. For any Christian today who is unfamiliar with the system God Himself set up to deal with sin, study Hebrews.
1 John was written to people who already believe in Jesus but whose understanding was being challenged by people from inside and without the church. Specifically, a group called the Gnostics. John deals with the reality of sin and how Jesus took care of it. It deals with identifying true and false spirits, true and false believers, what God’s love looks like and what His people look like who live it out.
Jude is also a creature unto itself. Packed with truth in one chapter, but also many potential rabbit trails.
Prophecy – Revelation
In the same way that the Old Testament ends with the writings of the prophets, so also does the New Testament. Except that there is just one book; Revelation. Note that there is no “s” at the end. It’s taken from the Greek word Apocalypse which simply means “unveiling.” It’s the unveiling, the revealing of Jesus given to John the Apostle who wrote the Gospel of John and the epistles of John.
Why Is It So Hard To Understand?
One of the main reasons that the book of Revelation is so intimidating, so scary, so weird, is because most of the imagery used to communicate future events comes from the Old Testament. If one does not have a grasp of the Old Testament and the symbols used in it, one will not understand Revelation. It’s like trying to read German when you only know English. Some things may be recognizable, but the rest won’t make any sense.
As I’ve said in other instances, to be a Christian is to be a student of ancient history. All of this stuff was written to real people in a real time with a real culture and history of their own. You have to learn about that in order to properly observe patterns and principles to be applied to our lives today. Revelation is no different.
Chapters 2 and 3 consists of seven letters dictated by Jesus to John, addressed to seven different churches. They are kind of like report cards. They mention what is good, what is bad, and how to fix the bad. There are so many layers to these letters that it would be impossible to address them here. There is much to be learned from them.
Past or Future?
One of the big fights we Christians have amongst ourselves is whether or not the events recorded in Revelation chapter 6 and after have already happened in the past, either literally or figuratively, or whether they are yet future, either literally or figuratively. My view is they it is yet future. I’ve read and heard the arguments, and understanding them as future makes the most sense from a historical perspective as well as a Biblical perspective.
The Book of Conclusions
The New Testament wraps everything up. Every system that was set up to serve a purpose has its purpose fulfilled. Every prophecy made about the world and it’s Messiah is fulfilled.
The actions of our sins are forgiven. They aren’t just covered they are washed away. Our sin nature is transformed as we die and are born again with a new Spirit; the Holy Spirit. Jesus gives us His own nature. We are new creations. Jesus lives in us. We are complete.
Sacrifice and Salvation
All of the sacrifices instituted in the Old Testament pointed ahead to what Jesus would do. He was and is the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. He saves us from ourselves and the eternal consequences of our choices and actions. We didn’t earn it, He gave it. We didn’t buy it, He bought us.He saves us from ourselves and the eternal consequences of our choices and actions. We didn’t earn it, He gave it. We didn’t buy it, He bought us. Click To Tweet
This is what the New Testament shows us.
Have you read the entire New Testament?
- If you read one chapter a day you will get through it in less than a year.
- Parts can be difficult if not overwhelming. Don’t read for 100% comprehension. Read for exposure. For comprehension, you need to study.
What is something you have a difficult time with, or perhaps understand the least, in the New Testament?
- On paper, try to define exactly what it is in as simple of terms as possible what exactly you have a difficult time with, or don’t understand about it.
- If you can reduce it down to a word, use a website like blueletterbible.org to search all of the places where that word occurs in the Bible. What new insights does this give you, if any?
- Find someone you can trust and ask them to help you understand it better or connect you with some resources. I’d be happy to help. Click over to the Contact page and drop me a line.
What is your favorite person, passage, or principle from the Old Testament? Find a way to share it with someone today.