Following the Old Testament (OT) in our Bibles is the New Testament (NT). This article describes its contents and purpose.
Compared to the sprawling work of the OT, the NT is quite compact. It tells the story of Jesus, relates 30 years of early church events, and contains teaching. The time period for writing these 27 books was very short—about 50 years.
It was written by leaders in the early church. It is written entirely in Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire in that time. The books either name their author or have a solid tradition relating to who wrote it (with the exception of Hebrews). The center of the message of all its books is the person of Jesus Christ.
The word “gospel” means “good news.” Mark begins his writing with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 ESV). The gospel is the message of who Jesus is and that what he does that matters to humanity. The names of the books are those who are thought to have written them.
The first three gospels are called “Synoptic Gospels” by scholars. “Synoptic” is a Greek word for “same eye” and describes how similar the three books are in their content and structure. Even with the vast similarities, there are different pictures of Jesus that help us get a fuller picture.
- Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus and continues through His final instructions after the Resurrection. It is considered to have the most Jewish background of all the gospels.
- Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism at the start of his ministry and ends at the discovery of the empty tomb. It is the shortest gospel. Tradition says that Peter was Mark’s key source of information.
- Luke tells the story from Jesus’ birth through His Ascension. Luke was a travelling companion of the apostle Paul and is thought to have spent time in Judea and Galilee doing research.
- John is a very different gospel than the other three. It narrates many fewer events of Jesus’ life but gives those events fuller treatment and goes into theological reflection. Tradition says that it was written late in John’s life, toward the end of the first century A.D.
- Acts tells the story of the beginnings of the church after Jesus left the earth. The first twelve chapters focus on the growth of the church in the area of Israel and the following sixteen chapters show the expansion of the church through the travels of the apostle Paul. It was written by the gospel writer Luke.
D. Paul’s Letters (also called Epistles)
Most of the Old Testament was composed in the land of Israel and used by those living in that land. By contrast, Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and there was no real center of the church. Besides travel to some of these places, church leaders wrote letters to churches and individuals to correct doctrine and practice, and to encourage believers in the face of persecution. The apostle Paul wrote 13 letters that have been preserved. They are named for the churches or individuals to whom they were written. There is a short summary of the letters, but often many different subjects are addressed in each.
- Romans contains a highly developed understanding of Jesus and his work of salvation.
- 1 Corinthians addresses many problems at the church of Corinth.
- 2 Corinthians is a follow-up letter dealing with a variety of subjects about which those in Corinth asked him.
- Galatians is a clear rebuke of those who insisted that one had to follow Jewish ways to be Christian.
- Ephesians addresses a variety of topics.
- Philippians also deals with several topics.
- Colossians shows how Jesus is central to our understanding of God.
- 1 Thessalonians teaches about the Second Coming of Christ.
- 2 Thessalonians is more teaching about the Second Coming.
- 1 Timothy was written to a fellow-leader in the church. He encourages Timothy and gives instructions about church operations.
- 2 Timothy was written so that Timothy would use Paul’s sufferings as inspiration.
- Titus covers similar topics of church life as 1 Timothy.
- Philemon is written to a Christian who owned a runaway slave with whom Paul had come into contact.
E. Other Letters (or Epistles)
With the exception of Hebrews (which is anonymous, but was thought at one time to have been written by Paul), these letters are named for their author.
- Hebrews describes the link between the Old Testament and the revelation of God through Jesus.
- James was an apostle in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and also the half-brother of Jesus. He wrote about proper Christian living.
- 1 Peter was written by the apostle Peter. He encouraged believers who were facing persecution.
- 2 Peter warned Christians about false teachers inside the church.
- 1 John was written by the same apostle who wrote the Gospel of John. He spoke of the need for love and overcoming sin.
- 2 John warns against false teachers.
- 3 John is an encouragement to faithfulness.
- Jude contains a warning to right living in the last days.
- Revelation was written by the apostle John. It is similar in style to the latter half of Daniel and is categorized as apocalyptic literature (Revelation is sometimes called the Apocalypse, which is the Greek word for “revelation”). It was written to persecuted Christians and describes how God would still emerge victorious over evil.
Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.