“In handling the subject of ministry in the New Testament it is essential to remember the order in which the books of the New Testament were written. If we assume, as the order in which the books of the New Testament are now presented would lead us to assume, that the Gospels were written first, and then Acts, and then the letters of Paul, beginning with Romans and ending with the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy to Titus and the Letter to Philemon, we shall never be able to understand the development of the institutions and the thought of the early church” – Richard Hanson, 20th century patristic scholar
Scholars agree that one of the reasons why we miss so much of the realities of the New Testament is because it is not presented and read in the right way. Now someone will wonder where I’m coming from and why I say this, but I speak from personal experience that changing my attitude towards the New Testament has changed my attitude towards Christ, his Church and Christianity in general. I’ll like to share some of these insights with us, the majority of which come from “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church” and “Pagan Christianity” both by Frank Viola. He has managed to put the highly academic and cryptic research of bible scholars and historians on the New Testament into books that are easily accessible to mere Christian mortals like us who want to know more. Also, some additional insight was gleaned from “The Chronological Bible” published by Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Order of the New Testament Books
As the quote above from Richard Hanson states, most Christians do not know that the NT books are not arranged in their chronological order, i.e. according to the date and time in which they were written. We assume the Gospels were written first, followed by the letters of Paul in the order of Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians and so on, followed by Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelations. But alas, how mistaken we are. The New Testament, especially Paul’s epistles, were arranged in the order of length, with the book of Romans being the longest. This was most likely due to the fact that at the time the Bible was being put together, it wasn’t possible to know when exactly the letters were written. So they followed the precedent used in Greco-Roman literature – they ordered it according to length.
Though there are few variations which scholars do not fully agree on, the following is the most likely order of the Pauline Epistles.
Galatians → 1 Thessalonians → 2 Thessalonians → 1 Corinthians → 2 Corinthians → Romans → Colossians → Philemon → Ephesians → Philippians → 1 Timothy → Titus → 2 Timothy
Does that rock your world yet? Well, in addition, although the events of the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke & John) happened before all the Epistles, most of them were written during the apostles’ lifetime, or after their death.
The NT is Mostly A Book of Letters, Not a Rule Book
There is a certain attitude with which we come to the Bible, an attitude which has been the cause of so much strife and confusion in the Christian landscape. We come with assumption that the Bible is made up of piece of statements, each without a relation with the other. Therefore we can easily just pick up a verse and craft a whole theory from it. This is what is called proof texting, and the harm that it has caused (and is still causing) to the body of Christ is unimaginable. This is with total disregard for the chronology, audience, context and culture of these times & people.
The New Testament has arguably suffered even more of such harm than any other part of the Bible. It is important that we begin to look at the letters that Paul wrote as letters to either churches or individuals. Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians were all written to churches. Therefore, it is important to read them not as a letter to an individual, but a letter to a group of people i.e. a local body of Christ gathered together. The practice in those days was that a letter from an apostle was read to the whole gathering, or passed on from house church to house church within the city, since it wasn’t easy to make copies of letters as we do today with scanners and photocopy machines. In hindsight then, it makes you think again about applying something like 2 Cor 5:21 to ourselves as individuals, when in fact Paul was referring to the body of Christ gathered in Corinth.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him WE might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Christ is our head, and we who gather together at one place are the manifestation of him to the world i.e. we are his body. Therefore it is not logical for I alone to be the righteousness of God. We, his body, are God’s righteousness, because we together depict Christ. See what I mean?
Another example which has been mistranslated at least in the NIV is 2 Cor 3:18. Look out for the word “face” instead of “faces” in the NIV.
“But we all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18, KJV or NKJV).
We as a people are beholding Christ with one face, not individual faces. The transformation from glory to glory is not only happening to us as individual, but happening to us as a community of people. This is the kind of transformation which Paul talked about in Ro 12 i.e. “Do not conform to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. This is the only way in which a body of Christians can be united in mind, because they together are beholding Christ as with one face.
God has destined before the foundation of the earth that his manifold wisdom be displayed not through us as individuals, but through his church, as contained in Eph 3:10. This therefore is the background with which Paul wrote his letters to the churches – that he may mold their individual minds into one mind that is focused on Christ – that they may focus on the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ and nothing else.
Begin to challenge yourself in your reading of the NT, especially the epistles to the churches, by reminding yourself of the fact that they were written to a body, not to individuals. It might help you not making the mistake of claiming promises meant for the body of Christ for yourself.
Secondly, when we write letters, we do so as a result of some previous interaction with the audience or by some happenings that we might have gotten wind of (or to pass on some information we have). And certainly Paul was no exception. All the letters addressed to churches were written as a result of a report about the church in question or some action of theirs. Paul had heard from several sources the conditions existing in the Corinthian church, and so wrote 1 & 2 Corinthians. Note that because of delivery difficulties, most often the letters were delivered by members of these churches when they came to visit Paul. Phoebe was the bearer of the letter to the Romans, and I’ll assume that she came with a report on how things were going in the Roman church. So was Epaphras (or Ephaphroditus) to the Colossian church. Therefore, it is important for us to strive to understand what the problem was (or what the whole intent of the letter was) when Paul was writing his letters, who were the recipients and what was the social, cultural and economic background of these people. In addition, it is imperative to find out if possible how long ago (or if ever) that Paul had been with them. Because Paul always left the churches he founded on their own, and only provided guidance as and when it was requested or when he had something important to teach them.
Try to Ignore Chapter and Verse Divisions when Reading the Epistles
One vital reform that is needed in our reading of the epistles, is to read them as letters, not as books with chapters and verses. A friend of mine told me that they don’t enjoy reading the Epistles because there seem not to be any story to them, unlike the Gospels. That’s because they were reading it as it is presented in most bibles today, not in the original form of it i.e. as a letter written to a church. But think about it. If you were writing a letter to people you knew personally and had spent months (if not years) with, would you divide it into chapters and verses? If not, what makes us think that Paul, Peter, John etc wrote letters in this form? The next logical question then is where did these come from, wreaking so much havoc on our appreciation of the Epistles?
Well, according to scholars, a certain Prof Stephen Langton of the University of Paris added chapters to all the books of the Bible in 1227. Then in 1551, a certain Robert Stepahanus, while riding on a horseback from Paris to Lyons, numbered the sentences in all the books of the New Testament. I still wonder what the criteria was for splitting the books into verses.
By doing so, these letters lost their nature as a letter which should be read fluidly with one chain of thought, and became textbooks, totally divided and easy to unhook from each other to make some vested point. In recent times I came across a very classical case of how chapters and verses have served to hide the intent of the writer in their letter. If the book of 1 Corinthians were to be read as one complete letter, then where we call chapter 12 today would have fused into chapter 13 perfectly (Ch 13 is the famous chapter about love. Yet Paul meant to say that the abundance of spiritual gifts could not exceed the necessity of displaying Christ’s love). Imagine the following without chapters & verses:
“Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 12:30 to 13:2).
Having talked about tongues, healing and other spiritual gifts, he goes on to show them a better way, i.e. that having the tongues of men and angels is no substitute for showing love. Even the v 2 of Ch 13 makes it clear he was talking about spiritual gifts (“If I have the gift of prophecy…”). And that is why he extolled all the attributes of love, to show that it was more important than the abundance of “Holy Spiritism”. Without the chapter and verse divisions, its so easy to see what he meant, but unfortunately we don’t tend to come at the NT with this attitude. I still make this mistake a lot, and I’m only asking the grace of God to help me catch the spirit in which these letters were written.
Try To Get the Bigger Picture
Because of our proof texting attitude, we miss the bigger picture of the letters of the NT, and only read the NT with a comb to pick out the parts that suit our ears. Let me give you an example.
John the apostle had written a letter to one of the churches in Asia, most likely introducing some people who had a message of some sorts for the church. Unfortunately, a certain Diotrephes, who must have been an elder in the church, vested in himself the power to decide who to receive and whom not to receive. He even went to the extent of excommunicating other members of the church who tried to show hospitality to these brethren sent by John the apostle. And therefore John wrote to a member of the church this time (called Gaius, who may have also been an elder), encouraging him to be faithful and drawing his attention to what Diotrephes had done and warning them not to follow in his footsteps. This is the import of the book of 3 John. It is one of the greatest indictments of our dictatorial clergy institution, but unfortunately I’ve hardly ever heard it referred to. However, the only part of interest to most Christians is v 2, of which there is a now famous Ghanaian gospel song.
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John v 2).
You see what I mean by “get the bigger picture”? This letter was not written to wish blessings on Gaius, but rather to focus attention on something that was going wrong then (and is still going wrong with us today). Instead of focusing on the import of the letter, we focus on the greeting and assume the rest did not exist.
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn 5:39-40).
These are the words of Christ himself, and they are so apt to today’s situation. To truly appreciate the Bible, and especially the NT, we must come to it with the attitude that what the Old Testament sought to do, the New Testament has fulfilled in the form of Christ. The OT was about Christ, but the Pharisees and scribes read it, quoted it, twisted it and did everything else in between, but did not recognize him whom the Scriptures talked about when he was right there with them. And in a lot of ways we are not very different from the Pharisees. There are two things I’ve noticed about our preaching today.
One is that much of it is centered on the Old Testament. Ask yourself the proportion of preaching today which is from the New Testament (especially anywhere beyond the Gospels?). And yet, we say we are people of a new covenant. How then do we understand the liberation that Christ has brought us, if we are not interested in finding out how those who first received him lived out that freedom?
Secondly, even when preaching or reading the Old Testament, we must be focusing on how the Scripture turns our focus on Christ, and on his fulfillment of these OT Scripture. We must observe that the early Christians did not have the benefit of a New Testament, simply because it wasn’t yet written (or was in the process of being written). As a result, they only saw Christ through the Old Testament, and focused on how Christ is the fulfillment of the OT. Look at what Peter said in Acts 2, and you’ll see that he was only referencing the OT. Gal 3:24 tells us that the OT was a schoolmaster, holding us in check until the real fulfillment came. Therefore, we must always read it with the eye to see Christ in it. Wonder how? Let me give you a classic example.
The OT talks about a priesthood conceived of members of the tribe of Levi only. It’s high priest was appointed from descendants of the family of Aaron. Heb 7 & 8 does a treatise of this priesthood, showing us that Christ is now our high priest, even of the order of Melchizedek, and that we the church have become the priesthood of God, a la 1 Pe 2:9. As Heb 7:11-12 points out to us:
“If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come – one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” (Heb 7:11-12)
Here we notice then that the principle of a priesthood is a God established principle, however, it’s form has changed from the OT form to a better and more accessible form in the NT. Gone are the days when a certain tribe of people alone could be a part of it. Now, we are all called into that priesthood, and we must all be encouraged and allowed to exhibit that priesthood in the temple of God. The mention of “the temple of God” leads us to another OT comparison, but I think those familiar with my writings and more importantly the reality of Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 3:16 and 6:18 will spare me if I don’t go into those details.
Rediscovering the NT will help you to live a Christian life filled with purpose (not your own but God’s purpose), free from religious rules, laws and superstition, to be ready to suffer for the sake of those of who you walk the walk of Christ with, to see clearly what your place is in the body of Christ and to take an active part in building that body up and encouraging and challenging others to do so – knowing that your reward in the Christ’s kingdom is intricately tied to our participation in building it up. It will teach you to see that it’s about a people that God holds so special in his heart, who are his family, his bride and his temple amongst other amazing things.
I wish you’ll be able to fall in love with the NT again, and discover nothing else but Christ in them. Maybe then you’ll agree with Paul when he “resolved to know nothing else … except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2).