In ancient times, before the birth of Jesus Christ, God selected a family out of which to build a nation. This people, known as the nation of Israel, was given the law of God and was to serve as a model for other nations. They failed in this task when they succumbed to their corrupted human nature. Their kingdom was conquered and their people scattered. Only a small remnant of the original people were able to return. Earlier in this Bible “Cliff Notes” series, we covered this basic history of the people of God in the Old Testament (OT), as well as the time between Testaments. Now, let’s look at the turning point of world history—the birth of Jesus Christ and the founding of His Church—as it is recorded in the books of the New Testament (NT).
As we have seen with the rest of the Bible, the NT books are not typically arranged in chronological order. They are sorted into three main categories: the Gospels, the letters (epistles), and the apocalyptic book of Revelation. The authors of the books of the NT were Jesus' disciples and apostles, and they wrote in Greek between the 40s and mid-90s A.D. Several books in the NT, including three of the Gospels about Jesus Christ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written sometime in the middle of the first century—30-40 years after the death of Jesus Christ in A.D. 31. That is a comparatively short time when we consider that Alexander the Great did not have a biography written about his life until more than 400 years after his death (Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 41)!
The first section of the NT comprises the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospels are accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ on earth. They take place in Judea while it was part of the Roman Empire. It's important to remember the Gospels were not written like biographies we might write today. The stories might be arranged out of order and by topic. The main focus was to teach about the major events and teachings of Jesus Christ. So when reading the gospels, remember that if Mark's account places an event sooner or later in a text than Luke's account, it’s not that the writers disagreed on the account. They just arranged the significant events in Jesus’ life differently (ESV Study Bible, “Reading the Gospels and Acts,” page 1,811).
Jesus Christ—the Son of God—was born out of the tribe of Judah, just as the OT books had prophesied. As a young child, Jesus actively participated in the synagogues and understood more about the Scriptures than the wisest teachers of his day. At the age of 30 He began His ministry, and He selected 12 men to be his disciples (Luke 6:12-16). His ministry lasted three years before He was killed, and the gospels record His teaching. His primary message was the pronouncement of the coming Kingdom of God to earth (Mark 1:14-15) and the redemption of mankind from its sinful nature (John 3:16). Jesus validated His claim of being the Son of God through the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies, divine miracles and ultimately through His sacrificial death and resurrection (for more information, read our study aid Jesus Christ: The Real Story).
Jesus corrected many of the religious leaders in Judea (the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and others) who had distorted the way of life that God had instructed the Israelite people of God to live in the OT (1 Corinthians 10:4). These leaders and teachers added numerous regulations to God’s laws, which distorted the true intent (spirit) of the law, and created impossible standards to live by. Their regulations and traditions were an attempt to keep people from sinning against God outwardly, yet turned the leaders and their followers into hypocrites inwardly (Matthew 23:1-39). So as Jesus led His ministry on the earth, He taught His followers the true intent, application and purpose of God’s law (Matthew 5:17-20).
Not included in the gospels is the book of Acts—which is not a letter but a historical account of the time immediately after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was written by Luke, who also wrote his namesake Gospel account. It is a continuation of Jesus’ story after His death, beginning with His interactions with His followers right before ascending into heaven after His miraculous resurrection. It then records the founding of the Church of God and the story of how the apostles spread the gospel to the nations around them through preaching, miracles and the power of the Holy Spirit. They publicly proclaimed Jesus Christ’ fulfillment of prophecies about Him in the OT, as well as the salvation that was now being offered to all of mankind. So not only was Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection a turning point for the Israelite people, but also a new beginning for the rest of mankind. The book of Acts provides context for the next section of the NT, the letters or epistles.
The Epistles (or letters)
The second section of NT—the Epistles—makes up the largest portion of the NT, comprising 21 of its 27 books. Epistle means letter, and each book was a personal letter from the author to a person or congregation of the early Church. These books were written between A.D. 30 and 93, primarily by the apostles (Paul, Peter, John, James and others). They are addressed to the followers, ministers and congregations of the newly established Church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2). They included messages about the gospel, as well as insight for understanding the OT teachings in light of Jesus' ministry on earth. They also addressed specific situations that the churches were facing, including false teachings and immoral behavior among believers. And they include salutations to many sincere believers alive at the time.
The majority of the letters to the Church of God were written by the apostle Paul. Some of Paul's letters were written while he was in prison for preaching about Jesus Christ, and are fittingly known as the Prison Epistles. They include the books of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon. Paul's imprisonment at different times is mentioned in the book of Acts. Others of his letters are referred to as the Pastoral Epistles, which were letters he wrote to two ministers who served God’s Church, Timothy and Titus. The book of Hebrews is also considered by many to have been written by Paul, but his authorship is debated among scholarly circles.
The book of Revelation
The last section of the New Testament is referred to as the book of Revelation. It is classified as apocalyptic literature because it describes a vision of the spiritual realities at play in world history and in coming events. The book is a dramatic vision given by Jesus Christ to the apostle John in the 90s A.D. It begins with messages from Jesus to seven congregations of the Church of God that existed at that time. It then describes John's vision of Christ's return to earth to establish the Kingdom of God (Revelation 1:7; Revelation 7:9-10; Revelation 11:15). It speaks of a time in the future when Jesus Himself will reign on earth with His resurrected saints (Revelation 20:4-6). After a thousand years, there is to be another resurrection of all people who have ever lived (Revelation 20:5). Everyone will be given an opportunity to know and believe in Jesus Christ. And after the judgment before God's Great White Throne, God the Father will restore all of heaven and earth and will dwell with mankind for all eternity (Revelation 21:3-5). It’s a sobering yet captivating book that gives hope for humanity by explaining how God will set things right on this earth and how all people will be God’s people (to dig deeper in the book of Revelation, read The Book of Revelation Unveiled).
The Bible is not only a miraculous account of God’s intervention in human history, but it is a singularly life-giving work inspired by God. Its pages are meant to be explored. I hope this series has provided you with a tool to begin searching for the treasures that are found in the Word of God.
- "ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version." Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print.
- Strobel, Lee. "The Case for Christ." N.p: Zondervan Pub. House, 1998. Print.