Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

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Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)

 

 

 

 

 

Falling in Love With The New Testament

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.

Be Christocentric

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.

Conclusion

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).