October 11, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BIBLE 101: NEW TESTAMENT
The fifth in a series of six.
I thought we’d start today with a brief comment on the language of the Bible. When the Bible was first written, not a word of it was written in English. There was no English language until long after the Bible was complete. The first English translation was the Tyndale Bible in 1525. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and in Greek. The Old Testament in Hebrew; the New Testament in Greek.
Here is my Hebrew Bible. It has all the books of our Old Testament, but the order is different. And in Hebrew, the front of the book is the back of the book. You read right to left. Here is what a page looks like: (See featured image #1)
And here is my Greek New Testament. It is smaller. Remember, the Old Testament is about three times longer than the New Testament. A page in Greek looks like this: (See featured image #2)
Last week we talked about the Bible Jesus used. Based on this little lesson on original languages, you would conclude that the Bible Jesus used was in Hebrew. But it probably wasn’t. Because there was a massive project that was completed about 100 years before Jesus was born that translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This is the translation we’re pretty sure Jesus used. It is called “The Septuagint,” and that’s the biggest word I will use today. I promise.
Let’s review from last week. The two testaments, old and new, are two covenants. So what is a covenant? A covenant is an agreement between two parties. We have seen that the Old Testament is a covenant between God and a single nation, the nation Israel. Today we are going to see that the New Testament is a covenant that goes way beyond any single nation. God’s new covenant is a covenant with the whole world.
So today’s scripture begins, “For God so loved the world . . .” Not just a certain group of people. Not just the Jews. The covenant has now greatly expanded.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).
The word world is found four times in these two verses. I found it interesting that the word translated “world” is a Greek word you will recognize. Cosmos. “Cosmos” in Greek sometimes means “world,” as the translators have decided it does here. But of course “cosmos” can also mean many worlds. As in the hymn, “when I consider all the worlds thy hands have made.” The cosmos is the universe. It’s a wild thought, but I don’t think it’s really that far-fetched, that God’s love extends to every world, every star, every galaxy. Even E.T. and others like him is not beyond the infinite love of God.
So the new covenant of the New Testament is huge, but it starts small. It starts with a baby. Every year we celebrate the birth of that baby, “the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
He was expected. Faithful Jews knew their Bible. They knew God’s promise of a Messiah. But it had been a long wait. There’s about 400 year gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament. During that time the Jews were oppressed first by the Greeks and then by the Romans. Surely God would send a military Messiah so they could defeat their enemies. But they missed the prophecies of a very different kind of a Messiah, a “suffering servant.” It was after Jesus had died and rose again, that they looked again and saw what they hadn’t seen before.
Jesus is not only in the New Testament. Jesus is all through the Old Testament.
Nobody bothered to write a life of Jesus for a while. The early Christians didn’t care so much about his life and teachings. But they were blown away by his resurrection. That was when they knew he was the Son of God.
But as those who knew Jesus were getting old, getting their memories down in writing became important. And so the four Gospels were written.
Why four? Why not just pool their memories and come up with one authorized biography? That would have made sense, but as it turns out, four different perspectives gives us us a richer, fuller picture than we would have had with one. God knows best.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are different from each other. And Matthew, Mark, and Luke, taken together, are different from John. To oversimplify, which I am free to do since this is Bible 101 not 401, Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe a human Jesus, with hints at his divinity. They answer the what, when, and how questions of his life. What Jesus did, most of all, was proclaim the Kingdom of God.
God is ruler. We have rebelled against his rule. We need to repent of our sin and start living God’s way, not our own way. Kingdom people love God and love neighbor. This is Jesus’ summary Jesus of the Old Testament Law. Kingdom people care about the poor and the oppressed. Kingdom people work for what it says in the Lord’s Prayer – “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Then we come to John. The Kingdom of God is mentioned twice in John. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is mentioned 82 times. John describes a divine Jesus, with hints at his humanity. Who he is and why he came are John’s main concerns. The emphasis is the new life that is ours in Jesus. Eternal life – which is a whole new quality of living, both before and after death. “Whosoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life.”
John wrote four books in the New Testament, the Gospel of John and the three letters of John. The only other Gospel writer who wrote more than one book is Luke, who wrote Luke and Acts of the Apostles.
Acts is the New Testament’s history book. It begins with Jesus ascending into heaven, leaving his disciples wondering what they are supposed to do now. They don’t have to wait long to find out.
On Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, these disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were now fearless. God had equipped them to the lead the Church that was born on that day.
The Church grew rapidly. But it wasn’t long before they faced something that threatened to ruin everything. It had to do with what we talked about earlier. Is God’s covenant just with the Jews – as it was before, as it was in the Old Testament – or is there now a new covenant that is for everyone? It was a heated argument. There were some strong feelings. It looked like the Church might split in two over this. But the Holy Spirit again was at work, helping them put aside their differences and agree that Jesus came for everyone, not just for the Jews.
There was an unlikely champion for this. His name was Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle. Paul was a fanatical Jew. He did not like Christians one bit. They were a dangerous cult as far as he was concerned. He was determined to do all in his power to destroy this new Church. Then he was converted. And was he ever converted! He became a follower of Jesus and the Holy Spirit got a hold of him too! It became crystal clear to him that God’s old covenant with the Jews had now become a new covenant with the whole world. He not only believed this. He devoted the rest of his life to making it happen. He took the Good News of Jesus “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
They didn’t know how big the world was back then. This was pretty much the extent of the world they knew. (Map of land around Mediterranean Sea is pointed to.) But Paul traveled it all.
At the beginning of Acts, Jesus has something to say to his disciples before he ascends into heaven.
You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and the end of the earth (1:8).
Paul did that. (Show on map outward movement, beginning with Jerusalem.)
Paul traveled by land and by sea. Four long journeys. For perspective, it is 1,500 miles from Jerusalem to Rome. So if Rome is Nampa, Idaho, Jerusalem is Dallas, Texas. It’s estimated that Paul traveled some 10,000 miles bringing the Gospel “to the end of the earth.” He planted churches, but he would never stay long in any one place. He was always on the road because there were more churches to plant.
We read about Paul in Acts. But we know a lot more about Paul than what we read in Acts because he wrote letters to his churches. These letters are a big part of the New Testament. 21 of the 27 books are letters. These letters are in three categories: 1) letters Paul wrote to churches, 2) letters Paul wrote to individuals, and 3) letters written by people other than Paul.
Paul wrote to nine letters to seven churches. The Corinthians and the Thessalonians got two letters. The five others are Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi. Here is where they are on the map.
Paul wrote four letters to three individuals. He wrote to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Timothy got two.
The eight letters written by others are Hebrews, James, First and Second Peter, and First, Second, and Third John. Remember John is the one who also wrote the Gospel of John.
Some of us clergy colleagues have an inside joke about First, Second, and Third John. When I came to this church ten years ago, John Mars had been at Meridian United Methodist for three years, and John Grimsted had been at Eagle United Methodist for 17 years. So they are First John and Second John, and I am known affectionately as Third John.
Those who wrote these letters did not know that what they were writing would one day become part of the Bible. They were just writing letters. These 21 letters were saved and passed around and came to be regarded as more than just human letters. It makes you wonder how many letters Paul and the others wrote that were lost. But remember, the Holy Spirit is at work all through the New Testament and I suspect the Holy Spirit had something to do with the right letters being saved.
The last book of the New Testament is Revelation. The author is John, but by the style of writing we know this is a different John. This is a different book. This is the one New Testament book that reads more like an Old Testament book. Some think that Revelation was written specifically for our day. The events it describes are the very events we are seeing happen or we will soon see happen in today’s world. Others think that Revelation is best understood in the context of the events that were happening back when it was being written.
It describes a great and terrible battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Good wins. God wins. The overarching message of this book is hope.
In the first three chapters, before the book starts getting weird, we have seven letters to seven churches. These are real churches located in modern day Turkey. Here they are on our map. These are churches that are getting soft. They are giving in to the false values of the Roman Empire instead of standing firm and refusing to compromise. The message to these seven churches is really the message of the whole book. Those who persevere in hardship, who do not give up, who do not lose hope are those who will be rewarded in the end.
One detail fascinates me. The book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, ends in a garden paradise. So where does the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, begin? In a garden paradise. The Garden of Eden.
Thirty-nine books (hold up Hebrew Old Testament) and twenty-seven books (hold up Greek New Testament). This book (Old Testament) anticipates Jesus and this book (New Testament) tells his story. Together we have the Bible. So how much of it did Jesus actually write? None of it.
Which tells us something important. Jesus is not one among many who shares the credit for writing parts of the Bible. Jesus is one of a kind. Jesus is unique. When it was time for God’s new covenant with the whole world, God didn’t just send a book. God sent a person. God sent Jesus. Unlike anyone else who has ever lived. Fully human, fully divine. He lived, he died, he arose again, and he lives with us today.
The book is important. No book is more important. But it’s a book. We don’t worship a book. We worship the man whose story is told in this book. We worship Jesus.
Next week we all graduate from Bible 101. The final sermon in the series is meant to be a fun one. I’m calling it, “Betcha Didn’t Know.” We’re going to be looking at some strange and unusual facts about the Bible.
Thank you God for making sure we know what we need to know to live this life you have given us, and to live it well. We have a Bible. Your written word. To teach us. To correct us. To show us your way of love. It’s all there. Thank you. But God, the best part of the Bible is Jesus. And thank you that he is not just a good man who lived long ago. We not only read about him and learn; we accept him as Lord and we live. May we live this day and eternally, in Jesus. Amen.