Week Four: How do we know which books should be in the New Testament?

Last week we talked about the books of the Old Testament and how they came to be collected in our modern Bibles. Now let’s take a look at the New Testament.

You probably know that the New Testament—which begins with the story of Jesus and ends with a prophetic message—is composed of four “gospels,” a book about what the disciples did right after Jesus returned to heaven, several letters to brand-new churches, and John’s “revelation” or “vision” of the last days. So who decided which books belonged in the New Testament?

Let’s back up a moment. You may remember that Jesus had twelve disciples. Judas committed suicide, but was replaced by Matthias, another eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. After Christ’s resurrection, the disciples were called “apostles” and the apostles were given a special ability to remember everything they had seen. (Paul, also called Saul, was also an apostle, for he saw Jesus at the time of his conversion.)

Jesus had promised and predicted this responsibility. “But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26). Not only would the Spirit remind the disciples of what they had seen, He would teach them new truths and guide them into great understanding. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me” (John 16:13-14).

The apostles, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote most of the books of the New Testament. That’s why we know we can trust the books of the New Testament as if God had written them with his own fingertip.

There are some books, however, who were written by other people—namely, Mark, Luke, Acts, and Jude. Mark was a young Jewish man who followed Christ, while Luke (who wrote Luke and Acts) was a Greek physician who also followed Christ. Jude was James’s brother. In these cases, members of the early church had to read these writings with an open heart and mind to see if anything in them contradicted what they knew to be true about the gospel of Christ. We also know that Paul, Mark, Jude, Luke, and James knew each other. If Luke had been writing something that was not true, Paul or one of the other apostles would have raised a ruckus.

Last week we learned that the Jewish rabbis believed that the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring prophets around the time the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. We learned that they believed that God was not inspiring writings during the time in which the Apocrypha was written.

But then Jesus came . . . the Son of God who was the fulfillment of so many prophecies. Jesus told his disciples, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’ You are witnesses of all these things’” (Luke 24:44-48).

The author of Hebrews says it this way: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).

Jesus sent out his apostles to teach the world and to write the books that would teach generations to come. His Spirit guided those authors so they wrote the words of God for you and me to read. God gave special supernatural powers to the apostles, and they gave them to a few others who followed Jesus. These “powers” were like the supernatural signs demonstrated by many of the Old Testaments prophets. These signs and wonders proved that these people were really speaking for God.

All of the apostles had died by the end of the first century, but we still have their writings. Through the ages, Christians have preserved and protected their books, and we consider them the “New Testament,” or the second half of our Bible.

Many people have found old manuscripts and claimed that they, too, belong in the Bible, but these were not written by apostle and were not validated by the early church. They were also not validated by wonders from God. Furthermore, read what God told John to write at the end of his lifetime—and John was the last living apostle: “And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: if anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book. And if anyone removes any of the words from this book of prophecy, God will remove that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19).

Just as Genesis is the first book in the Bible, for it tells of creation, Revelation is the last book, for it tells of God’s re-creation of heaven and earth. We are right to assume that God meant that we are not to add anything to the entire Bible, for He has given it to us as a complete work. It contains all the information we need to understand that God is our creator, that He loves us, and that He wants to forgive us and free us from sin. The Bible tells us of our past, our present, and our future—whether we decide to accept God’s gift or reject it.

Memory verse: “Your eternal word, O Lord, stands firm in heaven. Your faithfulness extends to every generation, as enduring as the earth you created” (Psalm 119:89).

Discussion questions:

1. Many of the books of the New Testament are letters written by the apostles (Peter, Paul, John) to churches they had founded or were helping to support. The new Christians had many questions about how to live this new Christian life. In 2 Corinthians 12:12, Paul wrote the Christians at Corinth: “When I was with you, I certainly gave you proof that I am an apostle. For I patiently did many signs and wonders and miracles among you.” What sort of signs and miracles did these apostles do? How did this help “prove” that God had empowered them?

2. An ancient writing called the Didache was once found at a library.[1] Some scholars wondered if it should have been included among the books of the New Testament. Let’s say you are a Christian archeologist, so you begin to read the manuscript–and let’s say you can read Greek. As you read, you see that the author stipulates the following things:

· Christians must let their money sweat in their hands until they know where their financial gifts are going

· Food offered to idols is forbidden

· Baptism must be done in running water

· Christians must fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, but never on Mondays

· Christmas must pray the Lord’s prayer three times a day

· Missionaries are forbidden from remaining in a city more than two days.

After reading the manuscript, would you think this letter should be part of the Bible? Why or why not?

3. If you saw a preacher on television heal a sick man, would you assume that his writing should be part of the New Testament? Why or why not?

4. Jesus told the disciples the Holy Spirit would help them understand the Bible, but we’re not apostles. So how are we supposed to understand such an old book?

We’ll talk more about it next week.

[1] Wayne Grudem, p. 67.


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