I continue to believe that understanding the shape of the story of Scripture is a key part of biblical literacy. Knowing how it fits with the wider story of the Bible and interacts with it affects the way we read every single passage.
I have previous offered some resources for gaining an overview, and also given a two-minute summary of the whole Bible. Here I offer an introduction to the story of the NT which I wrote a couple of years ago for IVP; I will give the detailed summary in subsequent posts. A version of it can also be found in the Grove booklet What’s the Bible All About?
The New Testament is the story of the coming of the promised kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Expressing it in this way highlights some important aspects of what the New Testament is and what it does:
- It is primarily a story. The largest parts of it, consisting of the teaching and life of Jesus, are told as stories, and even the sections thought of as the most ‘doctrinal’, the letters, find their place in the story of the missionary expansion of the church and the issues that this raises.
- It is about the fulfilment of promise. The early pages of the gospels are full of a sense of expectation, and at numerous points there is a sense of hope fulfilled, disappointed or understood in a new way. This finds no better expression that in John the Baptist’s question (through his disciples) to Jesus: ‘Are you the one who was to come?’ (Matt 11.3).
- It is about the kingdom of God. The expectation found in the New Testament concerns the coming of the just and perfect rule of God as he is recognised as king by his people and, as a result, in the wider world. But this kingdom does not come in the abstract; it breaks into a world full of competing kingdoms and would-be rulers, both political and personal, and inevitably comes into conflict with all of them in different ways.
- It is about the person of Jesus. As would have been typical for a rabbi in his day, Jesus gathers around him a group of followers to be with him and learn from him. However, it is striking that, time and again, it is not so much how people respond to his teaching that matters to Jesus, but how people respond to him. Even in the later parts of the New Testament, the theme of response to the person of Jesus is paramount. In the Book of Revelation, the challenge for the Christians of first century Asia Minor is to be faithful witnesses just as Jesus was a faithful witness—the first call is to be with him and to be like him.
- It is about the work of Jesus. Although response is invited throughout the New Testament to the person of Jesus, this appeal is made on the basis of what he has done. Thus Paul could be misunderstood as teaching about the two gods ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’, the word in Greek for resurrection (Acts 17.18). Paul always wanted to point to what Jesus could mean to people because of what Jesus had done for them.
- It is about the particular and the cosmic. The story of what God has done in Jesus to bring about the promised kingdom finds all its details rooted in a particular time and place. And yet the events that happened then and there are always spilling over into the here and now—indeed, into every here and every now that there has been, since the New Testament claims that these events and this person have cosmic significance. ‘This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2.36).
The gap between the Old Testament and the New is sometimes called the ‘silent years’—but they were far from inactive. Expectation of God’s intervention in the history of his people focused around a number of issues, more or less important to different groups. God’s people would have the land of Israel restored to them, free from oppressive rulers. The temple would be restored, and pure worship, free from the compromise or corruption, would be re-established. There would be a renewal of covenant relationship with God, and this would be marked by the presence of God with his people through the end-times gift of the Spirit of God. As a result, the law would be kept, and the people would have no king over them but God. These diverse ideas, all rooted in Old Testament promise, were held together in the idea of ‘this age’ in which God’s face is hidden and his people suffer oppression, and the ‘age to come’, brought about by God’s anointed one (‘messiah’ in Hebrew), in which God’s presence is clear and his people liberated.