New Testament: Overview

How can we know that the New Testament is divinely inspired? Can we prove that the New Testament books were faithfully preserved through the ages?

The accuracy of the books that constitute the Holy Bible has been constantly challenged. This overview will focus on the New Testament books, showing that they are genuine and authoritative. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the books that constitute the present-day New Testament were inspired by God and have been divinely preserved over the centuries.

Evidence from the Old and New Testaments

There is evidence in the Old Testament that points to the formation of the New Testament. Notice a few significant examples.

At the time of Moses, God said He would raise up another Prophet like Moses “and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). The apostle Peter recognized that this passage in Deuteronomy was referring to Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19-24), who would make sure the spiritual truths and knowledge was preserved for future generations.

The prophet Isaiah was inspired to refer to the time when the law would be exalted (“magnified,” King James Version), when the law’s true spiritual significance would be revealed: “He will exalt the law and make it honorable” (Isaiah 42:21).

God intended that new revelations and clarifications would be added to the Old Testament. How was this accomplished? Notice Matthew 5:17 as an example. Jesus Christ said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” “Fulfill” is from the Greek word pleroo, which can mean to “make full, to fill to the full” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 236). Christ came to complete the revelation of God.

This is clear from Christ’s teachings outlined in the rest of Matthew 5. More than once He stated, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …” (verses 21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Christ was magnifying or giving the full spiritual sense of the law (in contrast to rabbinical interpretations), just as the prophet Isaiah said He would.

His disciples obeyed Jesus’ instruction to teach future disciples “to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) by recording His teachings in the books that became the New Testament.

The New Testament books were to be added to the Old Testament books in order to complete the revelation of God.

The disciples’ authority confirmed

Notice Isaiah 8:13-17 and, in particular, verse 16: “Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” Jesus Christ did not personally write the New Testament. Instead, He inspired its writing through the disciples He called and trained. For evidence that these scriptures were speaking of the New Testament times, see 1 Peter 2:3-8. Peter quotes directly from Isaiah chapter 8 and applies his statements to Christ.

Peter also equated the apostle Paul’s writings with “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). And Paul knew that he was writing under divine inspiration. He wrote: “The things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). He stated further in 1 Thessalonians 2:13: “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (emphasis added throughout).

Christ told His disciples that through the power of the Holy Spirit they would come to know and understand all truth. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, [which] the Father will send in My name, [it] will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).

This promise was also repeated in John 16:13. Notice the emphasis on “all truth.” Christ revealed all truth to His disciples because He wanted these truths to be passed on to all God would call through the ages. This required that the truths be recorded.

For instance, Peter understood that he and the other apostles were given special insight into the Scriptures. After stating his credentials in 2 Peter 1:16-18 as one of the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration of Christ, he wrote: “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star [Christ] rises in your hearts” (verse 19).

Peter confirms that they received the sure word under the inspiration of God, and what they wrote was inspired.

Christ used Paul as an instrument to record many of the messages and truths He wanted preserved. In Ephesians 3:3-5 Paul wrote: “By revelation He [Christ] made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.”

This is a fulfilment of the promise Christ made that His followers would come to understand all truth. Paul was instrumental in writing 14 books of the New Testament under the inspiration and guidance of God’s Spirit. See also Colossians 1:25-27 for further proof.

Remarkably, we see the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament coming true through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the writings of His disciples who would walk in His steps and faithfully record what He divinely revealed to them.

Jesus claimed that His words would stand the test of time and numerous attempts to destroy them. In Mark 13:31 He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”

Christ has been faithful to His word.

The New Testament canon

The English word canon means “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition). When we read of the canonical writings, we are referring to those books that have divine authority and comprise the Holy Bible.

The New Testament is made up of 27 books written by different authors. These books were not written all at once but possibly over a period of 50 years, extending into the second half of the first century.

As Christianity spread, various ideas and schools of thought appeared, not all of which were faithful to the truth. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, in his book The Story of the Christian Church, explained: “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (1970, p. 33).

Because of this, there was debate over a few of the books that comprise the New Testament canon. Still, the books we now have were accepted by almost all churches by the middle of the third century, likely reflecting a much earlier authoritative grouping.

Certain of the men now known as early church fathers disputed some of the books, in particular Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. But the present canon was accepted by the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 and 419 under the authority of Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed (see F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 1988, p. 230).

In A.D. 367 Athanasius published a list of the 27 books we presently have and stated, “These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them.” Origen also listed the same 27 books (Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p. 139).

We believe the authoritative canon was revealed far earlier, during the time of the apostles themselves. For example, as we mentioned, Peter recognized Paul’s writing as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16). Paul also referred to a statement from the Gospels as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18 quoting from Luke 10:7). These show that the New Testament canon was already being established at that time.

The apostle John, writing near the end of the first century, marked the end of the last book of the Bible with a warning not to add to or take away from the words of the book (Revelation 22:18-19). With the book of Revelation, the New Testament canon was complete.

Signs of completeness

The number seven is often used in the Bible to show completeness. Using the ancient arrangement of books described in our article on the Old Testament, there are 49 (7 times 7) books in the Bible (22 in the Old and 27 in the New).

The Bible itself can be divided into seven parts:

  1. Law.
  2. Prophets.
  3. Writings.
  4. Gospels.
  5. Acts.
  6. Epistles.
  7. Revelation.

The order of the books of the New Testament

1. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are placed first, as they contain the most basic of all of Christ’s teachings.

2. Acts gives the history of the Church from Christ’s ascension to around A.D. 62. It may be divided into two parts, one describing the ministry of Peter and the other narrating the life of the apostle Paul from his conversion to his imprisonment in Rome.

3. The Pauline Epistles (letters) can be divided into three sections:

            a. The first nine letters written by the apostle Paul to seven churches: Romans, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians. These epistles cover general information concerning Church matters and how members should conduct themselves in and out the Church. Major doctrines are explained, and proper Christian conduct is encouraged.

For example, Romans teaches in a progressive, step-by-step manner. It is an introductory book to the teachings on doctrines. Hebrews 6:1-3 shows the basic doctrines, and Romans covers them in the same order:

            b. The personal letters to Church leaders—1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The first three of these are often called the Pastoral Epistles.

            c. Hebrews is a general letter. Though it does not identify its author, some early traditions and internal evidence point to Paul as the author.

4. The seven General Epistles.

The General Epistles are not written for one congregation in the same way that most of Paul’s epistles are.

James writes about the first principles of Christian living. He emphasizes the importance of relationships and how to get along with each other.

Peter gives a little deeper insight, especially about heretics who were beginning to negatively influence the Church.

John speaks about obedience to God and keeping of God’s Commandments. He also combats heresies that had further developed by the end of the first century.

Jude is the strongest against the heretics.

The writers follow the attributes mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:13:

            a. James speaks of faith.

            b. Peter speaks of hope.

            c. John speaks of love.

5. Revelation is the last book of the entire Bible, and it shows prophetic events that will occur before Jesus Christ’s return, as well as during and beyond the millennial reign of Christ.

The Scriptures a gift from God to give hope

As a loving Father, God has preserved His Word, including the New Testament, for our benefit. He wants the very best for us as we grow in godly character now so we can ultimately inherit eternal life in His wonderful Kingdom.

In Romans 15:4 Paul wrote, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” It is up to each of us to reach out for that hope of eternal life that God has revealed in His Word.

For more on how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches read the articles in the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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