Note for blog: This is something I wrote up for some friends who were interested in what is in the Bible. Just my own take on it.
The Bible text is available for free in many versions (i.e. different translations from the original Hebrew and Greek writings) at BibleGateway.com . Many people find the New International Version to be the most helpful.
What Is in the Bible? By Scott Buchanan
The Big Picture
The Bible is long, and was written by many authors over the course of about a thousand years. It can be confusing if you just open it at random, but it does make sense if you know what the different sections are about.
The core message of the Bible is that we humans have a deep problem, but God has provided a solution. Here is the problem: even though God is wise and good and knows what is best for us, we do not respect and follow Him as we should. It is not just a matter of doing a few bad things here and there. No, our whole approach to life is to set ourselves up as little “gods”, doing what we want to do and then thinking up reasons to justify ourselves.
This makes us unfit for close, trusting friendship with God. Because God is perfect and holy, our selfishness and pride form a genuine barrier between us and Him. But God loves us so much that He did something surprising and costly to make a way for us to come back to Him.
God’s solution was to enter the human race in the form of a man named Jesus. He lived in this world and experienced the same joys and sorrows and sufferings that we all go through. Jesus demonstrated what God is really like and showed how humans should live. Furthermore, he took upon himself the consequences of our sin through his death on the cross.
If we feel the stirring of a desire for God, He will meet us more than half-way. If we honor Him enough to….
- Acknowledge that we fall far short of God’s perfect will for us
- Acknowledge that we need the help He offers us through Jesus Christ
- Commit to obey Him the best we can
….then God will graciously apply Jesus’s righteousness to us. This gives us a fresh start with God, so we can experience Him on a daily basis as our heavenly Father. He will guide us each day if we will listen to what He speaks through the Bible and in our hearts.
This message of salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection is presented clearly and explicitly in the New Testament, which is the last quarter of the Bible. Therefore, we will start here with describing the New Testament, even though it is towards the end of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the message of salvation is also present, but it is typically hidden, like buried treasure waiting to be discovered.
The Bible is organized into 66 books. The New Testament has 27 books total, in the following groupings:
- Historical Books—The four “gospels” which each tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), plus the book of Acts.
- Letters by Paul–Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
- Letters by other disciples of Jesus–Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation
Historical Books of the New Testament
- Matthew— There are a lot of similar sections among the first three Gospels, but they have slightly different emphases. Matthew highlights Jesus as the Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
- Mark—Shortest Gospel, focusing more on the events of Jesus’s ministry.
- Luke–Presents Jesus as the Son of Man who came to seek and save the lost.
- John—Highlights Jesus’ divinity and his close connection to God the Father. The verse that most sums up the message of the whole Bible is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
- Acts–Historical account of the beginning of the Christian church: Jesus’s last message to his disciples, the Holy Spirit coming to fill believers with joy and power (Acts 2), early preaching by Peter, and the travels of Paul in his missionary journeys. Is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, by the same author.
Letters by Paul – – Written by Paul to groups of Christians in particular cities (Rome, Corinth, etc.), or to some of his associates (e.g. Timothy, Titus). These letters by Paul and by other disciples typically combine teachings about God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with advice on healthy behaviors among friends, family, and on the job.
- Romans–A systematic explanation of how people fall short of God’s standards and how we can identify with Jesus’s death and resurrection; we then participate in his righteousness and power and eternal life.
- 1 Corinthians—Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth of how he had first shared the gospel with them. This letter deals with quarreling and immorality, marriage, the operation of the supernatural power (“gifts”) of the Holy Spirit, and how we will eventually be resurrected from the dead.
- 2 Corinthians–Paul’s describes the joy he has in following Christ, even though he goes through some very tough times.
- Galatians—Paul teaches that the good news of Jesus is different from just following rules. God gives us the Holy Spirit to live in us and make us more like Himself.
- Ephesians—Believers are secure and connected with Christ. How to deal with spiritual struggles.
- Philippians–Paul speaks of his imprisonment and his love for the Philippians. If they focus on positive rather than negative things, they can experience inner peace.
- Colossians—Through Jesus Christ God created the world, and through Jesus Christ God is bringing the world back to Him.
- 1 Thessalonians–Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians. Teachings on purity and on the return of Christ.
- 2 Thessalonians—More teachings on Christ’s Second Coming. Paul urges them to be responsible, not lazy.
- 1 Timothy—Letter to a young associate. Instructions on leadership in the church proper leadership and dealings with false teachers.
- 2 Timothy–A letter of encouragement to Timothy to be strong. God has given us the Bible (“Scriptures”) to tell us what we need to know about Him.
- Titus–Paul left Titus in Crete to care for the churches there. How leaders in the church should live.
- Philemon–a letter to the owner of a runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus.
- Hebrews—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the hopes and promises of the Old Testament; the old system of laws and animal sacrifices was just a “shadow” of the real thing. He did what he did because he so wanted us to be able to experience his love: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2). We are his “joy”.
- James–A practical exhortation of believers to live a life which shows they are really following Jesus. Treat poor people with the same respect you give rich people.
- 1 Peter–Peter wrote this letter to encourage Christians who are going through hard times. As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory.
- 2 Peter–Deals with the person on an inward level, warnings against false teachers, and mentions the Day of the Lord.
- 1 John–John describes true fellowship of the believers with other believers and with God. God as light and love. Encourages a holy Christian walk before the Lord. Much mention of Christian love.
- 2 John–Praise for walking in Christ and a reminder to walk in God’s love.
- 3 John—Letter to a man named Gaius, thanking him for his kindness to God’s people.
- Jude–Exposing false teachers and uses Old Testament allusions to demonstrate the judgment upon them. Contends for the faith.
- Revelation–A highly symbolic vision of the future rebellion, judgment, and fulfillment of all things. It is not always clear what the symbols stand for, but this is plain: No matter how dark things may seem now, in the end God wins. He will judge evil and reward His people. It concludes with a big, never-ending party.
OLD TESTAMENT: The Law, Historical Books, Wisdom/Poetry, and the Prophets
“The Law” – – First Five Books
Genesis – – Creation and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)
The creation story (Gen. 1-3) gives essentials that humans need to know about God and nature and humans, such as:
God is all-powerful, the physical world was created by Him, He has good, fruitful purposes for humans and wants them to have a trusting relationship with Him. However, humans tend to reject God and his wisdom and go their own way and get messed up; so God has a long-term plan to bring humans back to Himself. This plan was ultimately for God to come to earth in the form of a man, but this plan is only hinted at in Genesis. For instance, in Gen. 3:15 God promises that someday a man born of woman would crush the head of the serpent (representing Satan), even though the snake would wound his heel. This was fulfilled when Jesus, who was born of a woman, triumphed over Satan by coming to earth and letting himself get nailed to a cross with spikes through his wrists and his heels.
This creation story was given in a symbolic form which ancient people with their primitive views of science could relate to, like Jesus would later tell stories (parables) which were not literally, physically true but which illustrated deep spiritual truths. Therefore, it does not matter whether God created humans from dust in an instant, or whether He used evolution over millions of years to transform the elements of the earth into our human bodies.
Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the beginnings of nation of Israel. God calls Abraham (around 1700 B.C) out of paganism to follow the one true God. God has Abraham leave the land he grew up in (Mesopotamia, in what is now called Iraq) and migrate to the land of Israel. God makes promises to Abraham which foreshadow what He would do through Jesus many years later. Abraham has a son Isaac, who has a son Jacob. Jacob is renamed “Israel”, and his 12 sons founded the 12 tribes of Israel (e.g. Judah, Benjamin, Levi, etc.). One of Jacob’s youngest sons, Joseph, is hated by his older brothers and is sold as a slave, taken to Egypt, and eventually becomes an advisor to the Pharaoh. Later, because of a famine, Jacob’s whole family migrates to Egypt after being reconciled with Joseph.
Exodus – – After several hundred years, the people of Israel in Egypt have become numerous, and the Egyptians enslave them. After drama (threats, plagues, military pursuit, miraculous parting of the Sea), Israelites leave Egypt (the “Exodus”) and head for their old homeland. God gives Moses certain laws for the people to follow, including the Ten Commandments. The Exodus occurred around 1300-1400 B.C.
A foreshadowing of Christ shedding his blood to save us is depicted in the blood of the Passover lamb protecting Israelite households, and in animal sacrifices to (symbolically) atone for sins of people. Atonement means to do something obtain forgiveness from someone you have offended.
Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – – The Israelites disobey God, and so wander around in the desert for forty years, until the generation of adults who had grown up in Egyptian slavery were replaced by a new generation. More laws are given, to specify a detailed way of life. Some of these laws were ritualistic (like animal sacrifices and details of worship and periodic feasts), and other laws specified how people were supposed to treat each other (basically be honest and merciful). The totality of these regulations is called “The Law of Moses” or simply “The Law”. The most key rules were the Ten Commandments, which are listed in Exodus 20:3-17. The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are also sometimes referred to as “The Law”. A brief summary of the Moses/Exodus/Law story is given in a speech by Stephen in Acts 7:2-47.
Historical Books of the Old Testament
Joshua, Judges, Ruth
1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
These books describe the history of the people of Israel from the time of entry into the land of Israel (displacing the Canaanites) around 1300-1400 B.C., through the time of the Judges (e.g. stories of Gideon and of Sampson), the rise of kings (Saul, David, and Solomon, around 1000 B.C.), and many more kings around 1000-600 B.C. As a boy, David killed the giant Goliath. Later David became king and wrote many of the Psalms. His son Solomon was famous for his wisdom. He built the Temple for God in Jerusalem, and may have written much of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
The tribes of Israel separated into the northern kingdom (called “Israel”), and a southern kingdom (“Judah”) about 900 B.C. Assyria eventually conquered Israel, and took most of the Israelite people away, never to return. The people in part of what used to be Israel were later called “Samaritans”. The Babylonians later conquered Judah, marching the people away as captives to Babylon around 600 B.C. However, many of the people of Judah were able to return and to rebuild Jerusalem starting about 500 B.C. (see Ezra and Nehemiah) after the Persians defeated the Babylonians.
Job – – Deals with the mystery of suffering. Horrible things happen to Job, and he struggles to understand why. He never gets an explicit explanation for his calamities, but at the end he has an encounter with God which brings personal resolution.
Psalms – – Raw, realistic emotional and spiritual outpourings to God, in poetic form. Expresses the full range of human experience, from abandonment and despair to ecstasy and vindication. Bill Johnson wrote, “If I am troubled by something, I go to the Psalms. Every emotion is well represented in that book. And I read until I find my voice in a psalm. Once I hear my heart’s cry, I know I have found the place for me to stop and feed.”
Some psalms (e.g. Ps. 16, 22, 110) foreshadow the Messiah who would be mocked and have his hands and feet pierced, but who would be raised from the dead and exalted.
Proverbs – – Many wise, useful sayings. Try opening up to this book and putting your finger down at random on a couple of verses and see how they relate to your experience.
Ecclesiastes – – Philosophical observations on life.
Song of Solomon – – A love song between a king and his beloved. May also symbolize aspects of the love between God and his people.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
God speaks directly to and through the prophets. Much of what they write gives God’s perspective on events that are happening at their time. For instance, some of the prophets warn about the upcoming Babylonian captivity and then how to behave after it happens. They call leaders to live justly and righteously, not cheating poor and vulnerable people. God wants heartfelt devotion, not shallow ritual.
The prophets also foretell some events in the more distant future, including Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the final end of the world. For instance, the whole 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a detailed description of how a righteous Servant of God would be pierced and put to death to bear the sins of the people. Jesus was, of course, wounded and pierced for our sins. Here are just a few verses, but you should read the whole chapter:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
These are twelve shorter books of prophets which end the Old Testament. As with the major prophets, they contain calls to justice, warnings of God’s judgements, and promises of redemption. These mainly speak to events of the prophet’s own day, but there are also promises of a future Messiah who will provide a more final answer to the problems of mankind (see e.g. Micah 5:2, Zech. 9:9-10). Jesus fulfilled these predictions.
Concluding thoughts on how to read the Bible: The text above gives some conceptual and historical context for the various books of the Bible. All that is important if you are using a passage as a basis for making a significant decision in your life, or for sorting out your doctrinal views. However, people often find that God also speaks to them spontaneously through reading some verse, independently of what that passage may have meant to its ancient readers. While I respect rigorous scholarship, I also recommend keeping a child-like expectation of a fresh encounter with God whenever you open up His word.
“Read until it speaks to you”
Acknowledgment: Some of this material was taken or modified from:
“New Testament Books”, by Matt Slick https://carm.org/new-testament-books