The Relevance of the New Testament Today

The Bible is the best selling and most influential book in human history. No matter how many times you read it, you will never stop noticing and learning new things. There will always be more to discover.

Last week each book in the Old Testament was listed, along with one important question that each book answers. This is a similar list for the books of the New Testament.

Matthew: Who is Jesus, from a Jewish perspective?
Mark: What did Jesus do while He was here?
Luke: What do the eye witnesses tell us about Jesus?
John: Is Jesus God?
Acts: What is the church and how did it start?
Romans: What is the gospel?
1 & 2 Corinthians: How should Christians behave themselves when together and in daily life?
Galatians: Does salvation depend on following the Law of Moses?
Ephesians: What is the spiritual significance of Christ’s church?
Philippians: How can we have joy in the midst of troubles?
Colossians: How should we walk in Christ?
1 & 2 Thessalonians: What encouraging words would God give to His church?
1 & 2 Timothy: What is an evangelist, and what do they do?
Titus: What advice does a young preacher need?
Philemon: How does God feel about slavery?
Hebrews:  Should we give up on Christ if He does not seem to be coming through for us?
James: How can we live wisely?
1 & 2 Peter: How should Christians conduct themselves when persecuted?
1, 2 & 3 John: Can we know we are God’s children, and if so, how?
Jude: What does God have to say about false teachers?
Revelation: What do we know about heaven, hell, and how the story of humanity ends?

How Quickly We Forget

The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books together are often referred to as “the books of the Law,” “the Law of Moses,” “the Pentateuch,” or “the Torah.” Together, they lay out God’s laws for the people of Israel to carefully follow as they enter the promised land of Canaan.

Immediately following Deuteronomy is the book of Joshua. It records the efforts of Joshua to bring the people into the promised land, to divide it among the tribes of Israel, and to encourage them to be strong and courageous as they take what God has given to them.

Joshua must have been a remarkable man. He is one of the very few great leaders in the Bible for whom no serious or tragic personal mistakes are recorded. He seems to have exhibited tremendous faith throughout his days, and scripture even informs us that the people of Israel remained faithful to the LORD all the days of Joshua, and even for all of the days of the elders who had known Joshua.

But once Joshua and the other elders were gone, all of that changed.

After the book of Joshua is the book of Judges, and to put it bluntly, Judges paints a picture of an Israel that is seriously messed up. There are many examples in Judges of how rapidly and how seriously Israel fell away from God. Consider one of them, found in Joshua 17. A man has stolen his mother’s silver, and when he confesses to the theft, she celebrates by using some the silver to make idols. But what is especially disturbing, is that apparently she thought this would please the LORD!

“He then returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, ‘I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the LORD for my son to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore, I will return them to you.’ So when he returned the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to the silversmith who made them into a graven image and a molten image, and they were in the house of Micah. And the man Micah had a shrine and he made an ephod and household idols and consecrated one of his sons, that he might become his priest.” (Joshua 17:3-5)

But the story gets worse… Micah, in whose house are these graven images that were “dedicated to the LORD,” meets a Levite who agrees to become his personal priest.

“So Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in the house of Micah. Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite as priest.’” (Judges 17:12-13)

How could Micah possibly think that the LORD would bless him for having household idols and a personal priest for those idols in his home? How could a Levite, who ought to have known the law, not realized that this was a breach of the second of the ten commandments, among other things?

As the story continues in chapter 18, six hundred men from Dan steal the household gods and the priest for their own. “The sons of Dan set up for themselves the graven image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up for themselves Micah’s graven image which he had made, all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh.” (Judges 18:30-31)

The Israelites so quickly turned aside to foreign God’s after entering Canaan. But what may be worse, is that they seemed to think that the LORD would be fine with this. If only they had been careful to familiarize themselves with God’s word, who knows how much better and easier life might have been for them? Let us take this as a warning. We must be careful to constantly familiarize ourselves with the teachings of scripture, lest we quickly fall away and suffer the consequences.

Do Not Read Your Apathy into the Text

When famous authors give public readings of their own work, they often draw quite a crowd, because people are interested in hearing a book or a poem read the way that it was intended by the original author.

Do you ever wish that we could experience a public reading of scripture by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, or Peter? Or better yet, by Jesus Himself? What if Jesus came to our congregation and delivered His Sermon on the Mount for us in person?

I wonder if we sometimes fail to understand the true power of a text not by reading into it an incorrect meaning, but an incorrect tone; specifically, an apathetic or overly academic tone. We know we must be on guard against “twisting” or “distorting” the scriptures to convey an idea that they do not intend, as Peter warns in the third chapter of his first letter. But is it also possible to do injustice to a passage not by twisting it into a false doctrine, but simply by dictating a true doctrine in an empty and lifeless way?

We do not know exactly what Jesus sounded like when He preached about repentance and the Kingdom that was at hand. And we do not know exactly how Peter or Paul might have delivered a sermon or publicly read one of their letters. But we do have a few clues in scripture.

Jesus taught with authority, unlike the scribes: “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).”

Peter encourages speakers to convey authority in their own speech also, because they are declaring the very words of God: “Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God. (1 Peter 4:11).”

The early Christians prayed that they would be able to speak the word with confidence and boldness: “‘And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence’… And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:21-23).”

Paul described his own preaching style as one of fear and trembling: “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).”

Have you ever heard a preacher who spoke with great authority, not because of his own wisdom but because of the power of the word of God? Have you heard preaching filled with great confidence and even boldness? How about with fear, or literally with trembling? We are certainly blessed when we can hear preaching from men whose great faith fills their preaching with these qualities.

Such were the men who wrote scripture, and most of all the great man Jesus Christ of whom they wrote.

May we remember when we read scripture that it contains not only truth, but also power, and may we not only avoid reading false doctrines into the text, but also a false apathy, laziness, or boredom that is not original to the text.

Choosing a Bible to Pick up and Read

A friend of mine recently got a new Bible. But unlike most printings of God’s word, this Bible does not have any chapter or verse markings whatsoever. It has no footnotes, no cross-references, no headings, and nothing in the margins, and the text is arranged in one column that takes up the entire page. It is also printed in four volumes, each one about the size and thickness of a typical library book.

Picking up a Bible like that might seem pretty strange, until we stop and consider that the chapters, verses, headings, and other study and reference tools in our modern Bibles were indeed put there by man centuries or even millennia after the original works were complete.

As I flipped through one of the volumes of this Bible, I was struck by the way this arrangement of the text altered my perception of it. No longer did the Bible feel like an academic reference book to be squinted at, or digested in little doses. It felt like a powerful story to be read, perhaps even for hours at a time.

There is no doubt that the way any text is arranged, including the Biblical text, can affect the way we respond to it.

Translations are another factor in our experience of God’s word.

One translation might make it a priority to translate the same Greek word into the same English word as consistently as possible, and that might help us to recognize patterns and recurring themes in the text more easily, but in the process it will sacrifice some ability to account for the effect of the context of a word on its meaning.

Another translation might make literalness a top priority, allowing us to focus on the specific role of each word in a sentence, and the specific definition of each word as it relates to the overlying message. Of course, this approach may yield a text that is more difficult to read and comprehend quickly.

Another translation might seek to draw out the ideas in a text using more contemporary styles and expressions in order to make the text easier for our modern minds to understand quickly, but it may give up some of the specificity present in the original language.

Translations lie all across this entire spectrum, from works so literal they are barely readable, to works so liberal in translation technique that they would be more aptly referred to as a paraphrase or a commentary than a legitimate translation.

So how do we decide which text to open?

Here are some tips on selecting a Bible text to read from:

  • Do not choose just one text to use exclusively. We have access to so many different translations and arrangements. Why settle for just one approach when you can consult many?
  • Use a Bible that corresponds to your intended purpose.
    • If you are engaged in a topical study that requires you to jump around frequently and look up various references from commentaries, using a Bible without verse markings could be a nightmare.   On the other hand, if you just want to dive into the narrative without any distractions, the plain uninterrupted text could be perfect.
    • If you are concerned with what the specific grammar in a particular passage can teach us, be sure to use a “word for word” translation.  On the other hand, if you want to listen more passively for the ideas and the flow of a particular work, and idea-for-idea translation or even a paraphrase may be more appropriate.
  • Read the introduction written by the translators. You may have to read between the lines a bit, but this will tell you which principles were most important to the translators for this particular project.
  • Try something new! Getting a new Bible or looking at a translation you do not spend much time in can give you a fresh perspective and a renewed interest. You may notice something that you missed before.