SCRIPTURE – John 20:30-31 – Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
3 – What’s in the New Testament?
Sept. 20, 2015
As we continue our sermon series on the Bible this week, we turn our attention from the Old Testament, or First Testament, to the writings that are primary for Christians. We said last week that the principal purpose of the Bible is to tell a story, the love story between a compassionate, creative God and God’s stubborn, stiff-necked people – that’s you and me. We talked about how God created them and loved them, but we didn’t love God back. Then God gave them a set of laws for how they were to live in order to be God’s people, and we disobeyed. Then God sent prophets to them, to tell them what they were doing wrong and how they needed to change their ways. We didn’t listen. So finally God said, “There’s got to be a better way.”
The New Testament tells the story of that better way. God decides to stop sending other people to do God’s work and instead comes to us personally in the form of Jesus Christ. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus and the aftermath of his life, death, and resurrection. It also gives us some prime examples of how the first Christians struggled to know what it meant to have faith and how they were to live it out. And you thought that was unique to us! Christians have been disagreeing about things for millennia! For us it’s gay marriage, for them it was eating meat sacrificed to idols. The topics change, but the question is the same: How do we live out our faith in the world around us?
Implied in this question is the fact that context plays a crucial role in how we live out our faith, and in how we understand the Bible. If you buy the claim that the Bible is divinely inspired and humanly written, then you have to take into consideration the context in which something was written, because that can be a key that unlocks a deeper understanding of a passage. We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we look at questions about the truth and authority of the Bible, but as we make our way into the New Testament we need to keep context on our radar screen.
The first four books are a great example of why this is important. One of the knocks against the authenticity of the Bible is that there are four different accounts of Jesus’ life, and none of them quite match with the others. A remember seeing a cartoon where Jesus was speaking to a crowd and says, “Now pay attention, I don’t want four different version of this going around.” The gospels tell the same stories in much different ways, they have events happening in a different order, and some tell stories that others leave out completely. If there’s no consistency or agreement, how can this story be true?
I enjoyed watching the Republican debates the other night, although by about the eighth hour I was pretty tired. Let’s say I asked four of you to write a summary of what happened during the debates. One person is writing for a group of women; one person is writing for a group of ISIS militants; one person is writing for a group of 3rd graders; and one person is writing for Donald Trump’s mom. Even though everyone is writing about the same event, do you think the accounts might be a little different? Do you think the writers might choose to focus on some statements and leave out others, or focus on some characters and minimize others?
That’s what’s going on with the first four books of the Bible. The gospels – the word “gospel” means “good news” – were all written by different authors to different audiences with different purposes in mind. That’s why the official title is “The Gospel According to…” It’s the writer’s version of the story. Mark was thought to have been written first, probably 30-40 years after Jesus was resurrected. Why not sooner? Why didn’t someone say, “Hey, I should write this down, it might make a bestselling book someday?” Remember, back then literacy was a luxury. Most stories were passed down by word of mouth. It wasn’t until Christianity started to gain some traction that Mark decided some sort of recorded story was needed. Mark was not an original disciple but was a student of the disciple Peter, so Mark took notes from Peter’s stories of Jesus and wrote his gospel. In Mark’s version, Jesus is a man of action who is known for his miracles – there are 19 of them in Mark’s 16 chapters – and who spends half of the gospel focusing on his coming death.
About 10-20 years later, Matthew and Luke come along and decide to write their version of Jesus’ story, each for very different reasons. Matthew was one of the disciples, a tax collector that Jesus called to follow him. Matthew is writing to a thoroughly Jewish audience, so his goal is to show his readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior that is promised by the Old Testament prophets. There are 68 references to passages from the Old Testament in Matthew’s 28 chapters. In fact, 11 different times in Matthew he writes, “this occurred in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” The Messiah was believed to the person God was going to send to save the Jews from the persecution of their enemies. Because the Jews were under the thumb of the Roman empire during Matthew’s writing, Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of that prophecy.
In contrast to Mark’s action hero, in Matthew Jesus is primarily a teacher (the Jewish word “rabbi” means teacher). In Matthew we get the Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. We also see Matthew doing something also found in Luke. Both authors take stories that Mark wrote an embellish them, changing the details to fit their purposes. For example, in Mark’s version, there are two verses telling about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness after his baptism. In Matthew, that story takes 18 verses, and includes four First Testament references. Matthew’s audience influenced the version of the story he wrote.
Luke’s audience was much different than Matthew’s. He wasn’t writing to Jews; his audience was primarily Gentiles. Luke also wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, so he got his information second-hand, reportedly interviewing Jesus’ mother and other people who knew him. Luke’s goal was to show readers that Jesus came for everyone. In Matthew’s gospel, there’s a genealogy of Jesus that goes back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, to prove Jesus’ Jewishness. Luke also has a genealogy, but it goes all the way back to Adam, the father of everybody. In Luke, Jesus reaches out to lepers, foreigners, women, the poor. Luke is saying to his Gentile audience, “Jesus is your Lord, not Caesar.”
The first three gospels share so much in common that they are called the synoptic gospels, meaning they offer a similar summary of Jesus’ life. And then there’s John. Written as much as 20 years later than Matthew and Luke, John has a completely different audience and purpose, so about 90% of what he writes is unique to his gospel. He was writing to a fledging church that was beginning to question if Jesus was really divine or not. As those believers were being persecuted for their faith, they were doubting Jesus was the son of God and were thinking maybe he was just a really good rabbi or persuasive prophet. So John opens his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and includes stories about people who first doubted, like Doubting Thomas, but then believed.
We move from the gospels to the only history book in the New Testament, the book of Acts. The book of Acts was also written by Luke; in fact, they were meant to be a two-volume set. If someone wants to start reading the Bible for the first time, I always recommend reading Luke and Acts first. Luke tells the story of Jesus’s time with us, and Acts tells the story of what happened next, as the good news of Jesus began to spread. Within Acts is the story of Saul, a zealous Jew who persecuted Christians until he himself was converted to belief in Jesus. He changed his name to Paul and become the greatest evangelist and missionary that ever lived.
Almost everything else in the New Testament is a letter that was written during the time period chronicled in Acts. Most of them are letters from Paul to churches. Paul would visit a town on his journey, say, Corinth, and while there he would start a church. He’d spend a year or so getting it off the ground, then he’d move onto another city, like Ephesus, to do the same thing. While in Ephesus, he’d get a letter from the church in Corinth asking for clarification about something or needing help settling a dispute. So he’d write a letter back to them clarifying or explaining or reprimanding. Those letters were preserved and passed down and voila! You have letters to the Corinthians, to the Ephesians, to the churches in Rome and Galatia, etc.
Paul also wrote letters to individuals, which is how we get 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Timothy and Titus were disciples of Paul who were leading their own churches, so Paul gives them some words of wisdom and encouragement. Philemon was a slave-owner whose slave, Onisemus, had escaped and ran to Paul for help. Because Onisemus was Christian, Paul wrote to encourage Philemon to free him as a Christian brother.
The last few letters are named for their authors: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude. Each were writing to communities of faith about specific issues, usually how to deal with false teachers and people who were persecuting them. There’s also a letter to the Hebrews. The author is unknown, but the message is clear: Jesus is the great High Priest of God, imagery that Hebrew people could relate to.
Well, that’s it! That’s all the books in the New Testament. I don’t think I left anything out…wait! What? There’s still a book left? I hoped you wouldn’t remember. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, is Spirit-induced vision written by John, the same guy who wrote the Bible and the three letters. It’s a bizarre, sometimes disturbing, often unintelligible story about cosmic warfare and the end of times. One scholar wrote that it “participates in the exaggerated and violent rhetoric of ancient apocalyptic thought.” Translation? It’s really weird. A lot of people will tell you they know exactly what the dense symbolism means, but I’m not one of them. It most likely points to events that already took place during the time of the Roman Empire, but if you believe that, then it takes all the fun out of using Revelation to predict the future and figure out who’s going to Hell and stuff like that.
Next week we’re going to talk about how we got the Bible, which is a wonderful tale of lying and deception and bloodshed, a perfect bedtime story for the kiddos. But before we end our tour, I want to point this out. One thing I do like about Revelation is how it brings the Bible to a close. The Bible ends with these glorious words: “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” Remember those stiff-necked people I talked about? That’s you and me. And yet, here at the very end, we’re told that the grace of Christ is with all the saints. That’s also you and me. The Bible’s last word is one I will offer here as a way of blessing our time studying the Bible together as we prepare to move into deeper waters together. That word is “Amen.”