As we continue our sermon series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible today, we make the shift from the Old Testament, what our Jewish brothers and sisters refer to as the Hebrew Bible, to the New Testament. In order to get an initial gage of relative size, take your Bibles and wrap your fingers around the Old Testament. Now you can get an idea that about 3/4 of the Bible is not the New Testament. [For this purpose, we are not looking at the Apocrypha.] Recall that for early Christians the Bible WAS the Old Testament, for those who saw the story of Jesus within the pages of those sacred texts.
When we look at a breakdown and comparison of the Old Testament and the New Testament, we can see some structural similarities. The five books of Moses, the Torah, compare with the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When we look at the historical books from Joshua to II Kings, we can compare these to the book of Acts in the New Testament. When we consider the writings of the Old Testament, in the New Testament we find a group of letters from the Apostles. And finally when we consider the prophetic writings of the Old Testament we can compare these to the book of Revelation. Like those prophetic warnings given to God’s people, the book of Revelation “…challenges the early Christians to remain faithful to God, warns of impending judgment, and offers hope for those who endure to the end” (Hamilton, p. 66.)
When we take a look at the four gospels, we find a central theme of the story of Jesus Christ, “… who was sent from God to ‘seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10’)” (Hamilton pg. 67.) For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the emphasis is on the Kingdom of God. The overarching message is that God is the rightful ruler of everything. Since the time of Adam and Eve, humankind has been living in rebellion bringing suffering and pain to the earth. Jesus invites his hearers to repent, turn around, and live against the norm to express a life of love and service to God. Jesus not only tells his followers to live counter-culturally, he lives this out by “…unleashing the power against the forces o darkness, the liberating power of the kingdom for the oppressed, and the healing power of the gospel for the sick” (Hamilton pg. 68.)
When we become true followers of Jesus Christ, our entire existence is changed because of that choice. We are led to a life of love – love for God, and love for our neighbor. The gospel of John is a bit different in that the emphasis is less on the kingdom of God and more on the life Jesus gives us. Ultimately the same message is evident – a life of love for God and neighbor. Jesus’ death and resurrection “…demonstrates God’s victory and triumph over sin, evil, hopelessness, despair, and ultimately death” (Hamilton, pg. 69.) While the gospels each tell the story of Jesus in a different manner, the message of hope is clear for us as Christ’s followers.
After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles have another life-changing experience we now celebrate as Pentecost. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they took the church and the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. A zealous Pharisee named Paul initially tried to squelch this Christian movement, only to become a convert as well and ultimately taking the gospel message all across the Roman Empire. This is the story of the Acts of the Apostles – the book of Acts.
Paul established churches wherever he went, placing leaders in charge and moving on to the next stop. When these leaders had questions, Paul and others would send letters to address those questions. The letters make up a good portion of the New Testament. Flip back in your Bibles to the book of Romans. The letters are organized by size. First are Paul’s letters to specific churches – from Romans to II Thessalonians. Next come his letters to individuals beginning with I Timothy and ending with Philemon. The last 8 letters from Hebrews to Jude appear after Paul’s letters noting the importance given to Paul’s letters.
Finally the New Testament ends with the book of Revelation written 30 years after the deaths of Peter and Paul. It holds messages to seven churches that were experiencing various levels of compromise as opposed to remaining true followers of Jesus Christ. The ultimate message of this book is that the Kingdom of God will overcome the Roman Empire and any other earthly empires to follow. “Those who persevere and remain steadfast in serving Christ regardless of the cost will be accepted into paradise. The paradise that was lost by Adam and Eve in Genesis is restored by Christ in Revelation” (Hamilton, pg. 70.)
In looking at the New Testament as a whole, 21 of the 27 books are actually letters. It is also interesting to note the timeline of when these books and letters were most likely written. The entire Old Testament was written over thousands of years, yet the New Testament documents were written in about fifty years total. Refer back to your timeline. Paul’s letters were written between 50-65 AD, while the gospel of Mark, considered to be the first gospel written, was most likely written around 65-70 AD. Matthew and Luke were probably written between 70-80 AD while the gospel of John appears to have been written around 80-90 AD. The book of Revelation is typically dated around 95 AD.
If we consider that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred in 29 AD with his ascension not long after, we can date Paul’s conversion to around 33 AD. Sometime around 44-48 AD, Paul felt called to take the gospel message to the non-Jewish world. He became a great evangelist, entering a town and preaching first to Jews in the synagogue, then to the Gentiles. As many became believers, he established churches in each town and then would travel to the next location to repeat the process. You can imagine that these churches would quickly have questions or concerns and would write to Paul for advice. Paul’s letters are in response to these calls for help.
We need to keep this in mind. Considering the differences between these churches, even if faced with the same concern Paul might not necessarily give the same advice. For example, when my sister and I were teens, we had very different views on what was important. I remember one night I was getting ready to go with my Dad to a church Bible study. My sister was painting a star on her face to attend a KISS concert. Even if we were facing the same dilemma, I’m fairly sure my parents would not dole out the same advice to both of us. [$$]
We also need to consider the context in which Paul was writing these letters. There are distinct passages in these letters that are clearly out-of-sync with twenty-first century believers. For example Paul’s instructions concerning slavery and the place and role of women in the church and family must be carefully weighed and interpreted. An important question to ask when reading these letters: “How does that message speak to my life or our community today?” (Hamilton, pg. 77.) If you get the chance this week, I challenge each of us to read the book of Galatians and compare it to the book of I Thessalonians. Both were letters written or dictated by Paul, yet his tone in particularly is completely different.
Since our scripture lesson for today is from the gospel of John, I wanted to turn to this one for a moment. The first three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are known as synoptic gospels because they are so similar. There are passages that appear identical in more than one gospel. For the most part, the actual events and sayings of Jesus are the same. While there are differences between them there is enough similarity to call them synoptic. However, when you look at the gospel of John, there is a completely different tone. The gospel of John seems more focused on presenting a more ‘spiritual gospel.’ It is the last gospel written, some time around 90 AD, and it is thought to be the reflection of John after a lifelong journey of faith. There are stories included in the gospel of John that do not appear in any of the other gospels, such as the story of the Samaritan woman that was read for us today. The synoptic gospels emphasize the need for hearers to become a part of the kingdom of God, while the gospel of John focuses on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The synoptics emphasize Jesus’ humanity with hints of divinity, while John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity with hints of humanity (Hamilton pg. 106.) The stories included in John’s gospel appear to be a supplement to the synoptics in order to greater clarify our need to be in relationship with Jesus Christ.
As we close today, I wanted to touch on the process of which books and letters made it into the New Testament. Similar to the wrestling concerning the Old Testament, this was not a clean and easy process. By the end of the second century, the gospels eventually became known as most authoritative, therefore similar to the Torah were least disputed as needing to be included in the canon. Paul’s letters were held in high esteem as well and were quoted often within churches. 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation were next on the list as quoted with some regularity, followed by Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. There is no mention of 2 Peter. Eventually the book of Acts was considered for its relationship to the gospel of Luke. The first to note the 27 books of the New Testament as we see them today was Athanasius in 367. “Thirty years later, a full 367 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and 330 years after the deaths of Peter and Paul, the final form of the New Testament was fixed” (Hamiton, pg. 120.) As with the Old Testament, the books of the New Testament are the product of human authors, inspired by God, writing to meet the needs of the church at that time.
Next week we will consider the Nature of Scripture: Is the Bible inspired? Is the Bible the word of God? How does God speak through the Bible? Is the Bible ever wrong? I encourage each of us to continue to dig deeper into scripture, listening for God to speak to us through God’s word. Amen.