Overview: New Testament


The New Testament If you open up a Bible to its table of contents, you will see it is made up of two large collections: the Old and New Testaments. The word “testament” refers to a covenant partnership, which is what both of these collections are all about. They tell one epic and complicated story of God’s covenant partnership with Israel and all humanity. The Old Testament is called “TaNaK” in Jewish tradition. It is a unified scroll collection of 39 Israelite texts that were over a thousand years in the making. In contrast, the 27 books of the New Testament all came into existence within 30 to 40 years of each other. They were all written by first-generation followers of Jesus. From an early period Christian communities began collecting these texts and reading them alongside the Old Testament as one unified story that leads to Jesus. The New Testament begins with four narrative books that together are called “the Gospel”. They tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection as an announcement of good news. They are followed by a fifth narrative work called “Acts of the Apostles”. Here, the risen Jesus commissions the apostles, a word that means “the sent ones”. They are appointed as Jesus’ representatives to spread the good news about him throughout the ancient world. After Acts comes a collection of letters from the apostles. These were written to provide teaching and guidance for local communities of Jesus’ followers called “churches”. There are 13 letters connected to the Apostle Paul. They are not arranged in the order of when they were written. But, rather, from the longest to the shortest. Then there is a letter to the Hebrews written by a close but unnamed associate of the apostles. After this are the letters of James, Jude, Peter and John. Two were brothers of Jesus and two were among his first followers. The last New Testament book is the Revelation, a letter to seven churches that reveals a prophetic word of challenging comfort to all of Jesus’ followers. So those are the books of the New Testament, but what are they about? And, how do they connect with the Old Testament to make up one unified story? Think of it this way: The Bible is one long epic narrative with multiple movements or acts. The Old Testament recounts the first series of acts that give you everything you need to make sense of the story to follow. The core themes and the plot conflict are arranged in design patterns. Then, in the New Testament, these are all picked up and carried forward to the story’s culmination in Jesus. Let me show you what I mean. The first act is about God and all of humanity. God provides a sweet garden temple for humans who are made to be God’s partners in ruling the world. But the humans are foolish. They give in to a dark temptation and rebel against God’s wisdom. So they are exiled into a wilderness where they start killing each other. They build cities that spread their selfishness and oppression, leading up to the big, bad city of Babylon. But, God loves the world and its foolish humans. So, he sets in motion a rescue plan by promising the arrival of a new human who will destroy the evil that has lured us into self-destruction. The next act of the biblical story is about God and Israel. It develops the themes and patterns of the first act. God calls a new humanity out of Babylon into a sweet garden land: Abraham, Sarah and his descendants, the Israelites. God promises that through them divine blessing will be restored to all of the nations. Surely, these are the new humans that we are waiting for. But the Israelites repeat humanity’s rebellion against God, building their own violent cities that lead to self-destruction and another exile in Babylon. But God sustains his promise that the new human will come from Abraham’s lineage. It will be a priest king who will now have to rescue both Israel and humanity from Babylon to restore God’s blessing to the world. Now, notice how these two acts are designed according to the same pattern. The second act is a longer and more violent version of the first. Together, they explore the tragic human condition. But they also highlight God’s promise which is developed more in the next act: the Old Testament prophets and poets. The prophets accused Israel and all nations of their evil. They announce that one day God himself would arrive to bring the day of the Lord and deliver his world from Babylon. He would do it through a promised royal priest who is going to suffer like a slave and die for the sins of Israel and all humanity. But, then he will be exalted as king over the nations. He will call others to leave Babylon and join the new covenant people who will partner with God to rule over a New Jerusalem. That is, over a new creation. So, the Old Testament concludes by anticipating a new act in the story. When you turn to the New Testament, it is the same story now being carried forward in Jesus. Let’s see how. The four Gospel accounts introduce Jesus of Nazareth both as the promised son of Abraham who will restore God’s blessing to the nations and also as that new human who will defeat evil and restore humanity to partnership with God. So, Jesus is portrayed as a human, and more! He went about announcing the arrival of God’s promised kingdom. He spoke and acted as if he was Israel’s divine king. But instead of calling himself “King”, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man”. That is, the human one who would act like a servant. The Gospels are making the claim that in Jesus, Israel’s God has become the faithful Israelite and the true human that we are all made to be, but have failed to be. Jesus’ mission was to confront that dark evil that lurks underneath humanity’s evil, luring us into selfishness, violence and death. But, how do you defeat that kind of evil? The surprising answer in the Gospels is that Jesus overcame our evil by allowing it to kill him, on his paradoxical throne, the cross, where Jesus died for humanity’s evil and sin. And, it is where he lived out what he taught: that non-violence, forgiveness and self-giving love are the most powerful things in the universe. Because God’s love for his world is stronger than evil or death, Jesus was raised to new life as the prototype of a new humanity. This brings us to the story of Acts Through the Spirit, God empowers Jesus’ followers to spread the life and love of Jesus out into the world as they invite people to leave their old humanity and join Jesus’ multi-ethnic family: the new humanity. This is where the letters from the apostles fit into the story. Here, the apostles address early Christian communities. They show how the good news about the risen King Jesus change history and should reshape every part of our lives. They also explained the good news by constantly appealing to stories from the Old Testament and the stories of Jesus, showing us how to see our own life stories as part of the epic biblical story. So all humanity is trapped in a Babylonian exile, but Jesus came to create a new home. We are all living in different kinds of Egyptian slavery to selfishness and sin. But Jesus died as the Passover lamb to liberate us into the promised land. Our old humanity is bound for the dust of death, but Jesus’ resurrection opened up a new future for a new humanity. We live here in the current evil age but through Jesus and the Spirit a new creation has burst open here and now. This leads us to the book of Revelation where the whole biblical story comes together in powerful symbolism and imagery. Jesus is portrayed as a slaughtered bloody lamb who is exalted as the divine king of the world. He is leading his people out of slavery and exile in Babylon. As they resist Babylon’s influence, they may have to suffer alongside their slain leader. But when you follow the Risen King, not even death can prevent the dawn of the New Creation which is here depicted as a New Jerusalem garden temple, the true home of humanity after its long exile. So, on the Bible’s last page, heaven and earth are reunited. The new humans take up their appointed tasks from the Bible’s first page: to rule the world together in the love and power of God. The New Testament is a remarkable collection of documents. They represent the testimony of the apostles that points us to the Risen Jesus himself. Through God’s Spirit, these human words have been speaking a divine word of hope from the first century to the 21st. Each book shows how God, through Jesus and the Spirit, is leading our world to its ultimate goal in a renewed creation So, the story’s end is really the beginning of a new story that is yet to be told. That is what the New Testament is all about.

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