A very brief overview of the Bible
The Bible consists of sixty-six books that were written over a 1,600-year period. These books – Genesis to Revelation - speak of man’s beginnings, God’s gracious dealings with man, and the final culmination of all things through the return of Jesus Christ. God’s word gives us a blueprint to live by and answers such questions as, “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?”
Genesis (the first book of the Bible) tells us that God created a world of order and not disorder. We are amazingly and wonderfully made, and did not come about by accident.
Genesis and beginnings
“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:16-17
If you place a magnet under a piece of paper and then place iron fillings on the paper, the filings move and form a pattern. In this we see, in a simple way, the visible (iron filings) clothing the invisible (the draw of the magnet).
All around us are things that speak of the effect of mind upon matter; of the physical in a sense ‘clothing’ the thoughts of a designer. For example, no one would say that their mobile phone came about by accident and not design. Now think about the human embryo.
The human fertilized egg is far more complex than a mobile phone, yet there are those who want to persuade us that it came about by accident. Nothing could be further from the truth. You and I are amazing and did not arrive here by accident. We read about this in Genesis - the book of beginnings.
All the laws of the universe were thought of in the mind of God before time. He then spoke these thoughts into existence and the world in which we live was created. Man was placed in this world to look after it and benefit from a loving relationship with God. In providing a framework of thinking for humankind and a rule to adhere to, we see that we were not created by a programmed robot, or a plant that had to grow towards the light, come what may. We were created to know love, and to be able to love. For this to happen, there needs to be freedom to make choices.
In order to have love you need freedom of choice, yet in this there can be a risk: we can make wrong choices. We can choose what to do or not do (for example we can choose not to eat), yet we cannot always choose the consequences (we will be hungry).
Genesis tells us that humankind made the wrong choice in choosing to doubt God and go his own way, and in doing so transgressed God’s law. When we transgress laws that are put in place to support and help us, we do not so much break the law as ‘break’ ourselves. After all, if you jumped off the B.T. tower in London, you would not break the law of gravity – but you would certainly kill yourself. In transgressing God’s law, man came under the penalty of death.
Most of us think of death as that time when our bodily functions fail and our spirit departs; yet death is more than this. Death is not primarily the end of biological existence: it is separation from God. Through sin (a missing of God’s high mark, and rebellion towards Him), we now live in a world of disorder, and clearly reveal our failings, even to the most casual observer. For example, we have more power at our disposal than at any other time in history, yet still allow many to starve to death, and use power to promote self, rather than lift up others.
The book of Genesis (book of beginnings) tells us that although God is the most wronged person in the Universe, He is the one who reaches out to man so that we may come home to Him - our heavenly Father. This is seen very clearly at the beginning of Genesis in which God approaches Adam and Eve and later two fallen men, Cain and Abel, approach God - one with the work of his own hands and the other with what only God could provide – a life. In all of this we see that God is the one who engages with fallen people and is also both the giver and the receiver. Think of it like this.
Imagine that you owed a lot of money to the bank and had no way of being able to pay it off. Apart from that, you could never get to see the bank manager who lived on the top floor of a well-guarded office block.
One day there is a knock on your door and on opening it you were surprised to see your bank manager. He gave you a large wad of £50 notes and said, “Bring this to me tomorrow, and pay off your debt.”
Throughout the Old Testament we read of sacrifices made to God, which brought about temporary remission for wrongdoing. Ultimately they pointed to God’s greatest provision: Jesus Christ, who came to make our sin His personal responsibility. Now that’s amazing love.
God’s laws are for our benefit
The first five books of the Bible are known as the Pentateuch and were written by Moses. He wrote them under God’s guidance and instruction, and in following God’s instructions, a certain amount of freedom came to humankind. Following God’s law does not earn us freedom but enables us to begin to benefit from what has already been provided. Think of it like this, if someone invited you for a meal, your response to the invitation does not earn you the meal, but it enables you to benefit from what has already been provided.
In every society, you find people who think that they never need to listen to others. This wanting to do everything by ourselves is a trait of fallen people that is seen throughout the Bible. On one occasion things got so bad that God brought judgment and rid the Earth of rebellious humankind, whilst saving Noah, his family, and many animals in an Ark that he had shown Noah how to build.
In flooding the Earth we see that God will bring judgment, yet in saving Noah and his family we see that God is very willing to help any who turn to Him.
The story of this flood may well have travelled across the world with the different people groups that were dispersed from Babel.
At Babel we find that humankind was already reinterpreting God’s commands to suit his own means and build a name for self. Therefore it should hardly come as a surprise that, as we read records of the flood, we find variations of the story. But what was the Tower of Babel, and what was it all about?
The Tower of Babel and scattered people
Babel was what archeologists now call a Ziggurat, and all across the world we find remains of such Ziggurats. A Ziggurat was shaped like a mountain with stairways leading to different levels and often had a temple at the top. But why build ‘mountains’?
Many mountains were venerated in the Ancient Near East, with people believing that mountains were a meeting place of the gods, and a source of fertility. But how did this thinking arise?
Eden (where humankind first lived) was in a mountainous region in Mesopotamia at the headwaters of the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon and Gihon. Since humans had originally been with God in a high place, when they moved out over the flat plains they built artificial mountains and wrongly assumed that a god, or gods would meet them at the top. Many ancient cultures believed that they could walk into a temple at the top of a Ziggurat, and in doing so walk into heaven. But how is it that Ziggurats were built across the world from South America to China?
God looked at what people were doing at Babel and scattered them all over the world, confusing them by giving them different languages. There was no point in having everyone walk up the wrong ‘garden path’ so to speak, and there was purpose in this scattering as shall be seen. Morphologists (those who study language and its formation) confirm that language suddenly appeared on the scene as very complex, and a lot more intricate than what we have today. This scattering also explains why we have Ziggurats appearing across the world, as many, now separated into different people groups, continued with their erroneous beliefs.
The Old Testament reveals that those who did not accept God’s revelation quickly became polytheistic - believing in many ‘gods’. Anything that was bigger than people were soon deified and worshipped. In this, humankind often ‘developed’ strange and peculiar systems about different gods, and in serving these gods sought to control what would happen in life. It was a case of “the more I do for the gods, and the more I keep on their right side, the more they will do for me”. In both the Bible and ancient history we see what sometimes led to human sacrifice (e.g. Aztec and Canaanite civilizations), and the preying upon the weak and other groups that wandered into your territory. Whilst some people groups displayed a moral code of sorts, there were none like Israel when she served the Lord God, because God had clearly instructed His people to look after the alien and poor, the widow and the orphan in their midst. Israel was to always be aware of the grace that she had received, and that it was a grace that was to be shared with others. This does not mean that Israel did not have to come against her enemies on occasion, as the history of the Old Testament reveals. Yet on all the occasions where Israel succeeded, it was obvious that their success was down to God and not their own abilities. But why did God work with Israel in the first place?
Israel a light to the nations
The nation of Israel came about through God working with a man called Abraham and his descendants who were called to be a light to all the other nations. The following illustration may help to see why this was done.
If three mechanics came to look at your car and gave you three different diagnosis concerning what was wrong, there would be a problem. In order to find out which one could really do the job, you would need to look at their previous work, reputation and fruit of their labour.
This simple illustration reveals one reason why God worked with Israel. It was not that Israel was any better than anyone else, or that God was showing favouritism. What He was effectively saying to the world was: “in working with one group of people who listen to me, I will reveal to you that it is not by human might or power that you find life in all its fullness, but in me.” However we also need to remember that reaching out to Israel in this way was not to the exclusion of everyone else, as the mention of people such as Hagar, Melchizedek, Rahab, Naaman, the city of Nineveh, and Babylon clearly reveals.
All good things come from God
The Old Testament shows us how Israel became a wise and powerful nation when she genuinely served the Lord. As has already been mentioned, Israel was commanded to look after the alien and the poor, the widow and the orphan – to give out to those who could give nothing in return. Israel was also told to take one day in every seven, not to do good works for God, but to sit down and remember that all the good things they had received came from their heavenly Father.
An imperfect being can never pay the perfect price for his wrongdoing, and Israel needed to remember that blessing was received and not achieved. All blessing came from God’s goodness, and this is why Christianity is more about what God has done than anything else, because in Jesus we see God stooping low to reach humankind.
Despite great blessing from God, the Old Testament reveals that Israel still rebelled and often went her own way. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that we read of Israel being taken into captivity on more than one occasion. In allowing this, God was chastising His people and allowing them to experience the true fruit of their actions. However He always brought them back to Himself and throughout their history spoke to them through prophets, priests and kings, some of whom spoke of a forthcoming Messiah. No one in Israel was perfect and the sacrificial system only provided temporary remission of sin. What was needed was someone who perfectly fulfilled the Law and was willing to stand in our place.
In the four gospels found at the beginning of the New Testament, we read about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see the pre-existent Son of God coming in flesh and blood. In His birth, life, death and resurrection we see what God is really like: perfectly holy and perfectly loving.
In His teaching, Jesus clearly revealed the grace and mercy of God, as well as revealing that God had no time for the religious leaders of the day who laid heavy burdens upon the lives of the people. These heavy burdens came about, in part, because Israel was now under the domination of the Roman Empire. They now thought that they had to work hard at pleasing God in order to get out from under Rome. Yet their idea of works put them against God. They were ignoring revelation and saying, “This is what God wants.”
God had promised that He would send His Son for all people, but Israel reinterpreted the prophecies about the Messiah to mean that He would come and destroy those who oppressed them and would set them free – but only them! Such is fallen human nature.
God did not send His Son for a select few, but so that everyone could take up the offer of salvation. That offer is open to each one of us and does not come through a priest or religious leader or particular church denomination. It is the direct offer to each of us from our heavenly Father.
God did not have to send His Son into this world because there was something He needed from us to make Him look bigger and better; neither did Jesus have to come. Jesus came because although God is the most powerful being, He is also the most compassionate. Power and gentleness are not usually found together – but in Jesus they meet and are expressed in a life that continuously reached out to all people regardless of religion, race or background. Jesus rose from the dead and offers life to all who repent of their wrong doing – which is sin against God - and trust in Him.
Most of us can think of someone we do not really want to associate with and see a great distance between this person and ourselves. The distance between God and us is far greater and God is the Holy One with standards that are much higher than anything else in the world, and one day He will judge sin wherever it is found. Yet still He comes to offer us reconciliation – to offer us life. All across the world people are turning to Jesus. They are not forced into it, born into it, and nor do they earn forgiveness. The only way to receive forgiveness is as a gift.
The rest of the New Testament up to the final letter: Revelation
The rest of the New Testament, after the gospels, speaks about how the early church was shaped by the work of the Holy Spirit who comes to live with all who trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
The church is not a building but a group of people who have accepted Christ. They are ordinary people from all walks of life and make mistakes at times. Yet all those who make up church, under the headship of Christ, seek to live as God intends them to, under the guidance of His Spirit who leads us through the written word – the Bible. So why aren’t Christians perfect?
A Christian is someone who has been accepted as perfect in position, because Jesus stands in his or her place. Because of Jesus, they are pronounced right with God. The power of old thinking has been broken and they are restored to fellowship with God. Yet they still need to get rid of the rubbish of old ways and learn to appropriate all that is now theirs in Christ. Perhaps the following illustration may help at this point.
If you were given a brand new laptop for Christmas, that laptop would be yours straight away. However in order to benefit from the laptop you would need to open it up and learn how to use it. As you learn how to use it, you would be able to benefit from what was already there and already yours.
Many hurting and struggling people come to Christ, as do those who have found great success, but not the peace or security they thought it would bring. In coming to Christ, they come home to their heavenly Father. Their lives are now about appropriating what is already theirs by virtue of Christ. As believers learn to trust and obey God, they grow in their relationship with God and begin to benefit from all that has already been provided for them.
The many letters in the New Testament show believers in Christ how to live by the Holy Spirit. Along with the teaching of the Old Testament, believers learn how to deal with old patterns of thinking and see life from God’s perspective, as it really is.
Dealing with problems is only part of the picture because God also leads believers in Christ into a deeper connection with Him, helping them to become all that we were meant to be. God knows what everyone would have been like had they not been hurt and damaged by their own wrong thinking and the wrong thinking of others. He knows how to restore us. He knows how to set us free from the past.
The last book of the Bible is called Revelation (meaning the unveiling) and speaks about the return of Christ to Earth. This time He will not come as a servant but as a king to call all the living and the dead to account. If we know Him, we will live with Him. If we have refused to accept what He has done then we live by our own choices, eternally separated from God in punishment. There is no need for this to happen. God has done everything we need in order to know forgiveness and find real life. He reaches down to the very door of our lives with the offer of life. The choice is ours.
"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.”
An overview of the Old Testament
Part 1 Beginnings: Genesis 1:1-11:26
The first part of Genesis tells the story of the beginning of everything. Of God's perfect world and humankind’s place in it. It tells the story of humankind’s failure meeting God's grace and activity. God speaks of His covenant (a legally binding agreement between two parties). Despite humankind’s colossal failure God protects Noah and his family.
Part 2 The patriarchal period, Genesis 11-50
The story of the patriarchs (meaning fathers, founders or rulers) tells the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God appeared to a man called Abram and told him that he would found a nation that would belong to God. God promises to work through them and give them a land of their own. Abram changed his name to Abraham which means Father of many, the small tribe of Israel is founded.
Abraham’s great grandson Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers to Egypt. Joseph was blessed and upheld by God throughout difficulty and was granted a prestigious job in Pharaoh’s court, organising grain in preparation for a famine that God had warned him about. Joseph saved his brothers and his father by bringing them to Egypt to benefit from the position that God had given him.
The small tribe of Israelites grew in Egypt into a mighty nation with 12 distinct branches. Their growth caused them to be seen as a problem for the Egyptians and the nation was put into slavery and abused. God used Moses to call Israel out of Egypt. Exodus tells the story of a Heavenly Father reaching out to his people and rescuing them from difficulty. Israel moved into the wilderness, awaiting a time when they could enter into the land promised to Abraham. God gave Moses the Law - the way in which the Israelites may enter a productive relationship with Him.
Leviticus tells us in more detail about the law. Of course no one is perfect and Leviticus details what atonement is - a covering. Atonement is the process of being covered and protected from the effects of sin; this is done in Leviticus by a series of sacrifice practices.
This book is partly a narrative of Israel in the wilderness and partly a census of the people of Israel, hence the name of the book. The wilderness became known as a place of hearing; Israel had to rely fully on God at this time and God sustained them throughout the trials and difficulties of nomadic living. The book ends with Moses passing on leadership to Joshua as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy means 'second law'. Moses restates the law and gives a recap to Israel about their wanderings in the desert and what they have heard from God. Again it contains a mixture of narrative and law, emphasising the importance of obedience. The message is that obedience doesn't earn anything but rather reveals what is already present. If you open your curtains you do not earn sunlight.
The story of Joshua begins with the Israelites entering the land and dramatically conquering Jericho with God's provision. God had been waiting for the sin of the inhabitants of the land to be at its worse for Joshua to come in. This teaches us of both God’s hatred of sin and also his faithfulness to His people.
Having moved into the land and established themselves, Israel begin to trust in their own strength rather than God’s. A key phrase used in the book is that ‘everybody did what was right in his own eyes’. This attitude defeats the point of the Law being given. Nevertheless, throughout the book of Judges, God uses 14 individual ‘Judges’ to rule and deliver Israel from various local enemies. The book shows us the proneness of the human heart to wander away from God. The amazing thing is that God pursues and restores His backslidden people.
This amazing little book shows the power of pure love to overcome all difficulties. It tells the story of a Moabite woman called Ruth - a stranger to Israel who marries into an Israelite family in Moab. Tragedy strikes and all the male members of the family pass away, leaving Ruth and Naomi her mother in law destitute. The pair returned to Israel to the small town of Bethlehem. There they encounter the kindness of Boaz who takes them in and provides for the pair. Boaz goes one step further and ‘redeems’ her. The inheritance practices of the day state that a marriage is required to restore her lost inheritance. The book of Ruth, it turns out, is in part a love story. This book shows God calling someone outside of Israel and points ahead to a time when a redeemer will restore our lost inheritance and bring us into his promise. Ruth found rest and provision through redemption and a union with Boaz her Kinsman–redeemer. Jesus is our Kinsman-redeemer.
The Israelites cry out for a human king to lead them. Samuel is a prophet who was tasked with finding God’s anointed king. He warned the people that a king would rule over them, sometimes unjustly. Samuel found Saul, a handsome strong leader who seemed to be the perfect candidate for king. Indeed, God used Saul to protect Israelite militarily from its enemies, establishing Saul as king but Saul used God as a means to power and did not trust him when he was hard-pressed. Saul gradually slid further and further from God. Samuel told Saul that he would find someone ‘after God’s heart’ to lead the people. Samuel found David who was the complete opposite of Saul, the youngest of seven brothers, and a simple shepherd boy.
God used David mightily against Goliath and Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. Saul, angry and jealous, began to hunt for David in order to kill him. David spent much of the book on the run from Saul. The book ends with Saul’s army having been destroyed by the Philistines, with King Saul dying on the battlefield. The book shows powerfully how we can be dependent on God and not our own strength. God will uphold those that love Him.
Amazingly, 2 Samuel starts with David learning of Saul’s death and weeping and mourning for the dead king that had been trying to kill him. It tells the story of David’s rise to kingship whilst Saul’s relatives continued trying to have David killed. David took the small walled city of Jebus and established the capital of Jerusalem. The rule of David is seen as a golden age. David made some bad mistakes but never stopped relying on God in his leadership.
1 Kings tells the story of David’s son, Solomon, who built God’s temple in Jerusalem. Solomon was a wise and powerful king, however this book details the establishment and decline of the kingdom. Men failed to reach the human standard, let alone God’s. After Solomon, it all went downhill for the nation of Israel. Solomon worked the people hard, building extensively. When he died, his son Rehoboam promised to work them even harder. This created a split, with the tribe of Judah retaining King Rehoboam and the rest of Israel. Hence two divided kingdoms continue.
2 Kings contains the history of the divided kingdoms right up until their destruction and the exile - a period of circa 300 years. The first half of the book is taken up with the account of Elijah’s ministry of 66 years. The second half deals with events leading to the fall of Samaria, captivity of the Northern kingdom of Israel and finally the fall of Jerusalem and captivity of Judah. Israel had 19 kings, not one being good, whilst Judah had 19 kings and one Queen – eight of whom were good. The book shows that God’s people again turned their back on God with only some exceptions; the consequence is that they are divided, destroyed and deported into exile. And yet God is faithful…
1 & 2 CHRONICLES
Samuel and Kings have told the story of the political Israel, what happened and to whom. Chronicles retells the story but with God as the central figure, concentrating on why many of these things occurred.
At this point, the Old Testament changes from the overarching narrative of a nation to the stories of individual people who lived throughout the narratives we have covered so far.
In Job, we see a man whom God allowed to be directly attacked by Satan. He is an example of faithfulness as he loses everything important to him yet remains faithful to God. Its purpose is to illustrate powerfully God’s sovereignty and faithfulness during a time of great suffering.
Psalms has numerous authors but the most prolific is King David. It is essentially a book of poems and hymns, detailing the ups and downs of a life spent trusting God.
Proverbs is written as a book of simple, easy to remember truisms. Thought to be written in part by Solomon, it provides useful wisdom as well as things that are generally true.
The interesting and confusing book of Ecclesiastes is a predominately negative book in that it is an account of Solomon looking back on his mistakes. These mistakes are given to us from the philosophical mind of the person who did them. He put his immediate world and influence first, chasing success, pleasure and learning as the most important things in life and ultimately finding them to be empty and worthless.
SONGS OF SOLOMON
Another book written by Solomon. It details the relationship between a bride and groom as they fall in love and yearn for one another. The book upholds the sanctity of marriage, poetically demonstrating the power of relationships. Love involves our entire humanity spirituality, emotionality and physicality; this is an image for our relationship with God whilst saying something profound about marriage.
Joel is a prophet that lived when Israel was divided. He was a prophet to the southern kingdom with a message of either repentance or to prepare for the coming judgment. Joel describes the locust that inflicts severe damage to everything in their path, and warns that it is only the beginning of what is to come. Despite Israel continually turning their back on God throughout this period, He would send many prophets to warn His people of what was coming, of which Joel was just one.
Jonah was a Galilean who lived during the reign of the bad kings. He was sent as a warning to the far off Assyrian capital of Nineveh, warning them of destruction unless they repented. Nineveh heeded the warning, repented and was saved from destruction. This angered Jonah who felt that Nineveh deserved God’s wrath. The book ends with Jonah livid that God did not do what he wanted. This book shows us an example of how powerful repentance can be, as well as how dangerous having a high and mighty attitude is.
Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament and tells a different story. Throughout the Bible so far, one of Israel’s neighbours was the nation of Edom. Edom was Israel’s rival and were descendants of the same group of patriarchs as Israel. Obadiah was a prophet that announced judgement on the Edomites as they continued to attack Israel.
Amos was an ordinary working man, a herdsman and ‘dresser’ of sycamore trees. Though native to Judah, he prophesied in and against Israel (Northern Kingdom). The Northern Kingdom was usually seen as being further from God than the southern as idolatry was rife. As Joel was sent by God to plead and warn the Southern Kingdom, so was Amos in the north.
The book of Hosea shows how willing God is to restore the backslider. A powerful message amongst the history of a rebellious Israel. Hosea was a contemporary with Amos. Hosea laboured in Samaria before retiring to Judah. His life and marriage was used as an example. His wife was promiscuous and potentially a prostitute, using Hosea’s money to seek other lovers. Seemingly, she became ensnared by one of these lovers and Hosea goes and pays to free her, his own wife. Hosea writes about his hurt and anger at how his wife had acted whilst all the while still going to rescue her from slavery and bring her home. This serves as an example of how God wants to restore us, no matter what.
Micah was prophesying immediately before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, detailing what was about to happen unless people return to God. It shows how much God hates injustice and how much God delights in pardoning.
Politically perhaps the most important prophet of the time, Isaiah was a man of royal blood, his father, Amoz, being a younger son of Joash, King of Judah. He prophesied close to the royal family for 60 years. He saw the destruction of Jerusalem halted by the repentance of King Hezekiah and God’s intervention. Amazingly, many of Isaiah’s prophesies were not about this immediate time period but were centred on a much larger salvation than just saving a mere city. He spoke of a Messiah who would come and bring life through his death.
A native of Galilee and contemporary of Isaiah. He returned to Nineveh around 130 years after Jonah and a second time warned them that they would be destroyed unless they again repented. 50 years later Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was indeed wiped off the map.
This prophet taught during a time after the fall of the Northern Kingdom but immediately before the fall of the Southern. An emphasis on repentance and the eminent destruction. However there is also an emphasis that although destruction was coming, God had not abandoned them and they would be restored.
Another prophet with the all too familiar message of imminent destruction unless there is repentance. Habakkuk in part reads like an interview with God, with Habakkuk asking God difficult questions.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet and, much like Isaiah, he warns of the destruction whilst looking forward to a coming king who would bring a new covenant that would be impossible to break.
This is the second book written by Jeremiah. The book of Lamentations is book of sorrowful songs or poems. It is written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jeremiah and many other prophets predicted this destruction (as did others), watched it take place, and now in this book he is sadly reflecting on it. Its purpose was to express despair and teach God’s people that disobedience to the Lord results in immense suffering and distress. Jeremiah pours out his emotions in compassion and empathy for God’s nation as he watches them inhabit a foreign land.
A young captive carried to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Palestine. He probably belonged to a family of high rank. His whole life was spent in Babylon (69 years). Despite losing all semblance of normality, Daniel clung to God. The book shows how powerfully God can work with a person, even amidst his enemies and as part of a nation undergoing punishment. God sees and knows all things; He reaches out in amazing ways.
He was a priest belonging to the aristocracy of Jerusalem. At the age of 25 he was taken captive to Babylon (He was a contemporary of Jeremiah and Daniel). Ezekiel lived in his own house in Babylon (8:1) and was married. He essentially was used to offer the last chance at repentance for the Southern Kingdom before the exile.
Haggai was a prophet after the exile. Israel was allowed to return to the land and Haggai was called by God to encourage the people to finish the construction of the temple in Jerusalem. The construction had ceased because of opposition and because both the neighbouring countries and the Jews were frightened. God was comforting his people as they recovered their identity.
Similar in purpose to Haggai. Zechariah was probably born in Babylon. He was a priest as well as a prophet and the book spans from before, during and after the rebuilding of the temple.
By birth, Ezra was a priest, yet was unable to exercise his priestly duty due to captivity in Babylon. He documented the return from exile. He gave himself to the study of the word of God and realised that his people did not really know the Law or the commandments. God was returning the people to His covenant.
Again Nehemiah was probably born in exile and became a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes. Although comfortably stationed in Shushan, his heart was in the ruined city of his fathers. He had done well for himself in Babylon but nevertheless returned to Jerusalem and immediately refortified the city, restoring the people's confidence.
The book of Esther tells a specific story of a woman living during the exile. The reason Israel was allowed to return was because Babylon was usurped by the growing Persian kingdom. The powerful Persian King Xerxes takes Esther as his bride, unaware that she was Jewish. Some political enemies of the Jewish people began plans to make the king eradicate the Jewish nation. Esther stepped in against the powerful king and exposed the plotting of his advisers. The brave actions of this one woman saved the nation of Israel. The book shows God’s power in the smallest of people and their actions.
Malachi was written after the exile period and it looks forward to the future that the nation has, so long as they uphold God and keep his commands. Malachi is the last book of the OT and ends with the prophecy. “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming." The OT testament ends waiting for Jesus to come.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The earliest and simplest Gospel, thought to have been written around AD65. Mark shows us the humanity of Christ.
Written circa AD 80 and 90. Matthew writes from the Jewish perspective. Jesus is the Messiah, and Matthew is conscious of the unbreakable link between the old and the new, hence he traces the genealogy of Christ back to Abraham.
Written between A.D. 80 and 90 by the only Gentile writer in the N.T. Luke was called by God to show Jesus in his all-embracing love – hence he traced the genealogy back to Adam. He sees Jesus in terms of the whole world.
Acts was also written by Luke. Without Acts, we would have very little knowledge of the history of the early church. Luke does not give us a consecutive history so much as open a series of ‘windows’ through which we catch a glimpse of how the early church spread under the guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit.
John wrote around A.D. 100. By this time Christianity had spread well beyond Judaism and was encountering (and dealing with) false teaching etc. John starts his gospel by pointing out that Jesus is the Word. The Greek for ‘Word’ is ‘Logos’ and Logos has two meanings, which no single English word can express. Logos means ‘word’ and Logos means ‘mind’. A word is an expression of a thought and so in Jesus, we see the mind of God. Look at Jesus and how he reached out to people and cared for them. This is the mind of God revealed. Now that’s good news.
Not written to a specific church but to congregations in the area of Galatia. Paul is under attack from those who think you must be a Jew before being a Christian and follow set laws once you’ve become a Christian to get right with God! Paul effectively says “No-way; you cannot earn any favour with God by your own good works – Jesus Christ has done it all, and the Holy Spirit is with you because of Jesus Christ.” There is no such thing as a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. You are precious to Him. Legalism does not get you anywhere.
1 AND 2 THESSALONIANS
Paul was in Thessalonica for about 3 weeks before having to be smuggled out. However people had come to Christ and the Spirit’s work continued after Paul had gone. Through Jesus, people had come home to their heavenly Father. However, at that time they wondered when Jesus was going to come back and so some were doing nothing and becoming a little lazy. Paul deals with the issues.
1 AND 2 CORINTHIANS
Paul paints it as it is! The church at Corinth was in a real mess – but note his opening comment. The church still belonged to God. It was just that people had to spend a little time working things out – partly because of the difficult lifestyles they would have had in a place known for it’s ‘anything goes’ attitude. Paul comes against favouritism and those who just carry on with the old life. When God breaks in there is a real Spirit-empowered difference, and no excuse for not seeking to change.
Paul wrote this long letter circa AD57 whilst he was in Corinth. He begins by showing the universal failure of man on his own – but goes on to speak of a right relationship with God and that all is of grace. Grace means unmerited favour. It was a word, for example, that spoke of the act of giving a gold coin to soldiers when a new Emperor came to the throne. The soldiers did not earn it – it was purely a gift to receive. Jesus is a gift to receive. If you think you can earn salvation, then sorry, you haven’t met the right Jesus.
Ephesus was a strong occult centre with temples that had been around for upwards of 400 years. The main pagan worship system was centred around Diana/Artemis, and was a female-dominated cult. However the occultism at Ephesus was no match for God. Paul points out that it was always God’s plan to reach out to people and that people did not come to another power in the market place, but to the one true God, the power behind the Universe who seeks to be like a Father to those who are lost. The Ephesians did not need sophisticated strategies to deal with the evil around them; they needed to know God, hence the particular way Paul prays for them.
Paul wrote this letter around AD62 when he was under house arrest/prison, in Rome. Heresy was threatening the church and people were beginning to think that all physical things were evil and spiritual things good. The particular belief of the day saw Jesus as the production of a spiritual God who could not touch the physical world. Paul points out who Jesus is and what He came to do. Jesus comes into the mess of our lives and makes it His personal business so that we can be free in Him. Now that’s real love. In Jesus, the fullness of the deity resides in bodily form (Col 2:9).
Paul wrote (Circa AD 62) to his friend Philemon from prison. Philemon’s runaway slave had been saved and was now returning.
Another letter from prison circa AD 62. Paul’s answer to all difficulty and hardship is that in all things we should seek to be like Christ. In Jesus we see what we were created to be like (he’s the real blue-print) whilst also seeing the depth of fellowship we can have with our heavenly Father. Jesus - our heavenly King - exchanged riches for rags and made our sin His personal business so that we could exchange our rags for His riches and know the power of His Spirit in our lives.
1 AND 2 TIMOTHY, TITUS
These letters contain a lot of instruction about the church. The message can be summarised in the words of 1 Tim 3:15 – how to behave in the household of God.
No one is sure who wrote this letter – although it was obviously under the inspiration of God for our benefit. The main point of this letter is to show how Jesus is greater than all previous institutions etc and is therefore the fulfiller of all things. Some of the things in the O.T. – like the priesthood – are a shadow. A shadow points to that which makes the shadow. Everything points to Jesus. So I suppose you could say that He takes the black and white of the world and turns it into colour! There is much more to life than meets the eye.
A very practical letter challenging those who said that they were saved but did not have much in the way of a changed life. This sort of faith without works is dead. It’s not that works save you, but they do show if a person has changed or is just going through the motions of being a Christian but has never really met Jesus. The church can be full of such people!
1 AND 2 PETER
1 Peter stresses Christian responsibility to God and Jesus: You received new life so get on and work with it. As stated earlier, if you get a laptop for Christmas it is yours but you still have to learn how to use it. Engage your minds with the ways of God – that is what they were made for.
2 Peter is both a reminder and warning to watch out for false teachers – these sort of people were dealing with myths and were giving different meanings to Scripture in order to suit themselves. It can all sound a bit confusing at times – but think of it like this: the more pieces of a jig-saw you put down, the more likely you are to see the full picture.
He encouraged people to keep themselves in the love of God, which is so unique that you have to keep looking at it! He sought to challenge those who do their own thing or have gone off the rails a little.
1,2 and 3 JOHN
It has been said that a suitable title for these letters (they’re small so we could call them postcards) would be, “The Tests of Life”. John reminds the people he writes to that Jesus really did come, and encourages them to walk in the light. God is love and the way He demonstrated this great love for us was by sending Jesus – who willingly came – to die in our place.
This book contains a lot of imagery and to understand this we need to look to the Old Testament and see how it is used. Why use imagery though? Well, think of it this way: If you had to explain to a man hidden away in Africa how fast a car could go when he’d never seen a car, you’d have a problem wouldn’t you? What you’d have to do is to use something he could identify with. So you could say “A car is as fast as a Cheetah”. Get the point?
John wrote the book of Revelation whilst exiled on the island of Patmos. Christians were going through a tough time and some were being, or were soon to be, forced to choose between Caesar and Christ. John reveals how God is in control of all history and will bring things to the end he desires.
An atheist historian called Edward Gibbons wrote a famous series of books called “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”. In them he grudgingly admits that the only thing left standing when the Empire fell was the most persecuted people of all – the Christians! Life may not always be easy – but I’d rather go through it with Jesus than on my own. Christ is building His church – and you are a part of that. Always see yourself as God sees you. You are a Christian, accepted through the work of another – Jesus, His Son – and empowered by the work of another – the Holy Spirit. You are a son or daughter of the living God. He knows every hair on your head. He knows all the things that affect you, bother you, and may have stained or damaged your mind over the years – and He knows how to deal with everything so that you can really know what life is all about.
Produced by Doddinghurst Road Community Church
By Jem Trehern & Peter Graham.