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The New Testament




The Epistle to the Galatians is one of Paul's most important works. If, as is likely, it was written before Romans, it's the oldest surviving statement of his distinctive theological position. You'll be struck by its highly personal, emotional tone.

The date of the writing of Galatians is debated among scholars. Some put it in the late 40s of the first century, others in the late 50s. Many scholars, though, think it was written in the early or mid-50s. The Galatians were a Celtic people who lived in north-central Asia Minor. Paul is clearly writing to a group of Christians of predominantly Gentile origin.

Besides providing an important discussion of the relation of Christians to the Jewish law, similar to but shorter than in Romans, Galatians includes a valuable account of Paul's early career and his relationship with the church in Jerusalem. It's both earlier and more firsthand than the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles, from which it differs in tone and in some details.


Paul writes because teachers have appeared who "would pervert the gospel of Christ" (1:7), and who are evidently gaining influence among the Galatians. He says if anyone, even himself, even an angel from heaven, should preach a different gospel from the one the Galatians have already received, "let him be accursed" (1:8).


Opponents of Paul in Galatia have evidently been denying his credentials as an apostle, and appealing instead to the authority of the church in Jerusalem. Paul insists that the gospel he preached to the Galatians was received "by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:12). He tells how once he persecuted Christians, and practiced Judaism zealously. He says when he was converted to Christianity he "conferred not with flesh and blood" (1:16), but went to Arabia (presumably for a period of prayer and meditation), then returned to Damascus. After three years he visited Jerusalem, where he stayed with Peter for fifteen days and also met James, the brother of Jesus, before returning to Syria and Cilicia (the area of Tarsus, Paul's hometown, and of Antioch, apparently his chief base of operations). This trip to Jerusalem seems to be the one spoken of in Acts 9:26-30, although that account gives the impression that it took place immediately after Paul's conversion, rather than three years later. Paul says that, after fourteen years (from his conversion?), he returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus, and told "them which were of reputation" (2:2) what he was preaching to the Gentiles. The leaders of the Jerusalem church- James, Cephas (Peter), and John- endorsed his mission to the Gentiles, conceding that Titus, "being a Greek" (2:3), wouldn't have to be circumcised. This appears to be a reference to the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-29), which took place about A.D. 49 or 50. However, Paul doesn't mention the modified food rules that, according to Acts, were adopted at that meeting.

Paul then tells of a visit of Peter to Antioch, Peter ate with the Gentiles there (contrary to Jewish law), until "certain came from James" (2:12). Then he withdrew. This prompted Paul to say to Peter, in public, "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles,... why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (2:14). In other words, before the arrival of representatives of James, who seems to have led the party maintaining the practice of the Jewish law, Peter didn't himself follow the law, but after their arrival he acted as if both Jewish and Gentile Christians should follow it.

NOTE: On other occasions, Paul said Christians, though they were free from the obligation to obey food rules, might refrain from exercising that freedom to avoid scandalizing other Christians who did believe in such rules (Romans 14:14-21; 1 Corinthians 8:4-13). However, he condemns the attempt to impose the Jewish law on Gentiles.

If the incident at Antioch took place after the Council of Jerusalem, the council evidently didn't produce as much harmony as the author of Luke-Acts suggests.


Paul teaches that "a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (2:16), and he goes so far as to say that "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain" (2:21). He recalls "Abraham [who] believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (3:6). God's promise to Abraham, he says, couldn't be annulled by the giving of the law 430 years later. The law, given by angels, was only in force until the coming of Jesus, the descendant of Abraham to whom God made the promise. Paul says, "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (3:24), and it is no longer needed now that faith is here. Under this new dispensation, "There is neither Jew nor Greek,... bond nor free,... male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28), fellow heirs with him to the promise made to Abraham.

As at Romans 8:15, Paul notes that (like Jesus) Christians call God "Abba, Father" (4:6) showing they are no longer servants, but sons. He's distressed because some Galatians "observe days, and months, and times, and years" (4:10)- apparently they "desire again to be in bondage" (4:9); they "desire to be under the law" (4:21). He gives an allegorical interpretation of the story of Abraham's sons Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 16, 17, 21). Ishmael's mother was Hagar, a slave, while Isaac's mother was Abraham's wife Sarah. Paul says Hagar stands for "Jerusalem which now is" (4:25), the covenant of bondage (the law), while Sarah stands for "Jerusalem which is above" (4:26), the promise of freedom (the Christian dispensation).


Paul strongly condemns the circumcision of Gentile Christians: "if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (5:2). This seems a very harsh statement- of course Paul himself was circumcised- but he explains that "in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth... nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love" (5:6). He's not really teaching that circumcision is wrong in itself, but rather that its adoption by Gentiles, in the belief that it's useful for their salvation as Christians, contradicts the gospel.

As at Romans 13:9, Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus that "all the law is fulfilled in one word... Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (5:14). He warns against various vices, such as adultery, witchcraft, murder, and drunkenness.

CONCLUSION (6:11-18)

Paul accuses his opponents of pride. As for himself, he says "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (6:14). For Christ is above such questions as circumcision or uncircumcision.

[The New Testament Contents]



Ephesians is the first of the so-called Captivity Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), traditionally believed written by Paul while imprisoned at Rome in the early 60s. Most scholars today, however, doubt this Epistle is an authentic letter of Paul to the Ephesians. First, the letter is very impersonal; we'd expect a very different tone in a letter sent by Paul to Ephesus, where he'd lived a long time. Moreover, the words translated "at Ephesus" (1:1) are missing in many good ancient manuscripts. In addition, the style and ideas of Ephesians differ from those in undoubted works of Paul such as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. On the other hand, the author of Ephesians certainly made use of Colossians. There are still scholars who think that Ephesians is a late work of Paul, written from Rome in the early 60s, perhaps with the extensive collaboration of one of his associates. More scholars today, however, believe Ephesians was written by a later imitator of Paul, perhaps in the 80s.


The letter begins with a prayer praising God, who "hath chosen us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (1:4), and a prayer that the readers may obtain the wisdom to understand the power of God who made Christ the head of the church "which is his body" (1:23). The author says, "we all... were by nature the children of wrath" (2:3) before becoming Christians, but are now saved by God's grace through faith- not works. He reminds Gentile Christians they were formerly "strangers from the covenants of promise" (2:12) God made in ancient times with Israel, but through the death of Jesus both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians have been unified into one "household of God" (2:19).

Although there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (4:5-6), different Christians have been given different gifts. There are apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. All ought to work harmoniously together to build up and perfect the church.

The author warns against lying, anger, stealing, fornication, foolish talk, and drunkenness, calling on his readers to "walk as children of light" (5:8). He then discusses social relations. He advises wives to "submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord" (5:22) and husbands to "love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church" (5:25). He asks children to "obey your parents in the Lord" (6:1) and fathers to "provoke not your children to wrath" (6:4). He says servants (slaves) should "be obedient to... your masters... as unto Christ" (6:5) and masters should "do the same things unto them" (6:9)! He seems to be trying to reconcile the institutions of his society- which were based on the subordination of persons to one another- with the idea of Christian love. This is no easy task.

The Epistle concludes with an extended metaphor about the Christian's combat "against the rulers of the darkness of this world" (6:12)- demonic powers. Truth, faith, and salvation are spoken of as if they were pieces of military equipment: "the whole armor of God" (6:13).

[The New Testament Contents]



The Epistle to the Philippians is accepted by most scholars as authentic work of Paul, but many think it consists of parts of more than one original letter. Although it's not easy to sort out this material, one plausible suggestion is as follows:

  1. 4:10-20 is from a letter in which Paul thanks the Philippians for sending him a gift carried to him by a certain Epaphroditus.
  2. 1:1-3:1, 4:4-7, and perhaps 4:21-23 are a letter sent back with Epaphroditus, whose return to Philippi had been delayed by illness.
  3. 3:2-4:3 and 4:8-9 are from a later letter, written at a time when opponents of Paul's teaching are trying to influence the church at Philippi.

Paul refers in Philippians to his imprisonment (1:7, 12-17). It used to be generally thought that the letter was written when he was being held in custody in Rome in the early 60s. Quite a few scholars now believe, however, that it (or at least the first two letters of which they think it consists) was written from Ephesus in the mid-50s.


Philippians is addressed from Paul and Timothy to the church at Philippi in northern Greece, which they had founded (Acts 16:11-40). Paul speaks of being in prison. He seems to be in danger of death but he says "to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (1:21). He thinks it's better to die and be with Christ, but he also feels he should stay alive to continue his work.

Paul urges his readers to maintain harmony, mutual love, and humility. He cites the example of the humility of Jesus. In a passage that may be quoted or adapted from an early Christian hymn, he says Jesus, "being in the form of God,... took upon him the form of a servant,... he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death.... Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,... that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,... and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (2:6-11).

The Greek word kenosis (meaning emptying out) is usually applied to this theological idea of Jesus' humbling himself. Although Paul doesn't explain exactly what he means by "being in the form of God," he seems to be saying that Jesus existed in an exalted state before his birth. This anticipates the view of Jesus presented in John 1. On the other hand, the idea that "God... hath highly exalted him" expresses the early Christian belief that Jesus' lordship is a consequence of his resurrection.

Paul attacks teachers who require all Christians to observe the Jewish law, saying "we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit" (3:3). This recalls the idea, already expressed in the Old Testament, that the circumcision most needed is circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6). He urges his readers to "Rejoice in the Lord always" (4:4), and thanks them for a gift (presumably of money) they've sent him.

[The New Testament Contents]



Colossians is traditionally thought to have been written by Paul to the church at Colossae in Asia Minor when he was imprisoned at Rome in the early 60s. Some scholars still hold this view, but others think the Epistle was written by a follower of Paul rather than by Paul himself. Timothy, who's mentioned in the Epistle as coauthor with Paul (1:1), has been suggested as a possible author. It has also been argued that Colossians represents a letter originally written by Paul or one of his close associates, but later revised and expanded by someone else. Some of those who think the Epistle wasn't written by Paul nevertheless assign it to a date as early as the 60s. Others think it was written later in the first century.


The letter begins with thanksgiving to God, "who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son" (1:13). Notice the emphasis on the idea that the Kingdom is not a hope for the future, but a condition in which Christians already live. The author then speaks of Jesus, "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature... all things were created by him, and for him... and he is the head of the body, the church" (1: 14-16, 18). A great deal of doctrine is concentrated into these few verses: the redemption, a view of Christ that appears to differ little in content from John 1:1-3, and the Pauline concept of the church as a body (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:13) of which Christ is here spoken of as the head.

The author warns against teachers who impose regulations about food and drink; special observances of holy days, new moons, and sabbaths; and the worship of angels (2:16, 18). The food rules and the special days look like elements of Jewish practices, while the veneration of angelic powers (perhaps the powers thought to govern the planets) was probably of Gentile origin. The author insists that Christians are no longer "subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not...)" (2:20-21). Christ is superior to whatever angelic "principalities, or powers" (1:16) may exist, and is to be honored rather than they.

In terms similar to those in Ephesians 4-6, the author outlines the behavior he expects of Christians: the avoidance of various sins; the maintenance of the mutual obligations of wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters; and continuance in prayer. This passage is shorter and simpler than the corresponding passage in Ephesians, suggesting the author of Ephesians amplified what he found here.

The Epistle concludes with various personal remarks. The author is sending Onesimus to the Colossians and he has with him Mark, Luke, and others who send greetings to the Colossians.

NOTE: Onesimus is the runaway slave whom Paul speaks of converting and sending back to his master in the Epistle to Philemon. Paul, however, calls Onesimus his son at Philemon 10, while the author of Colossians calls him a beloved brother (4:9).

[The New Testament Contents]



Both Epistles are addressed by Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy to the Christian community they founded at Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), now in northern Greece. The Epistles' major purpose is to teach about the end of the world.

Paul probably wrote 1 Thessalonians when he was at Corinth (Acts 18:1) about A.D. 51. It's generally considered the first of the Epistles of Paul to have been written, the oldest book of the New Testament, and the first surviving Christian document. 2 Thessalonians closely resembles 1 Thessalonians in ideas and terminology. Some scholars think the second Epistle was written a few months after the first. Many modern scholars, however, think 2 Thessalonians was written late in the first century by an imitator of Paul.


Paul commends the Christians of Thessalonica for their faith, recalling "how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1:9). The reference to the worship of idols shows he's writing to a predominantly Gentile community. The controversy over whether Christianity was to be a religion only for Jews deeply divided the early church and preoccupied Paul throughout his career. Paul seems to allude to this controversy when he speaks of Jews "forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved" (2:16).

Paul gives some advice about personal conduct, urging his readers to "abstain from fornication" (4:3), "love one another" (4:9), and "work with your own hands" (4:11). Apparently there were some at Thessalonica who thought becoming Christian meant no longer working for a living.

The chief teaching of this Epistle, however, deals with Paul's eschatology, his beliefs about the end of the world. Christians at Thessalonica were evidently concerned about the fate of those who died before the Parousia, or Second Coming of Jesus. Paul tells them not to worry: "if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him" (4:14). Paul says the Lord will descend from heaven, the dead will rise, and the living "shall be caught up together with them... to meet the Lord in the air" (4:17), but the time when this will take place is unknown.


This letter is written for people who have been disturbed by preachers, perhaps even by false letters purporting to be from Paul (2:2), claiming the end of the world is close at hand. The Parousia will not occur in the very near future, the author says, and before then will be "a falling away" of many Christians and the "man of sin... the son of perdition" (2:3) will appear.

The Epistle predicts this rather mysterious figure "opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God" (2:4). He resembles the antichrist of 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3 and 2 John 7. If his appearance signals the last days, the fact that he has not yet appeared shows the last days have not yet come.

The other major issue raised in 2 Thessalonians is the need to work for a living. The author says there are disorderly people who refuse to work. Perhaps they think there's no longer any reason to go about the usual business of life because the end of the world is so close. The author lays down the rule "that if any would not work, neither should he eat" (3:10).

[The New Testament Contents]



Because of their concern for the life and organization of Christian congregations, these letters are known as the Pastoral Epistles (the Latin pastor means shepherd). They are traditionally attributed to Paul. If in fact he wrote them it would have been toward the end of his life, in the 60s, but many scholars think they were written by someone else, early in the second century. They purport to be addressed to two of Paul's coworkers, and they share some themes with the Epistles generally recognized as written by Paul.


The Epistle warns against erroneous teachings, which appear to include studying "fables and endless genealogies" (1:4), "forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats" (4:3). The exact character of the group condemned isn't made clear. When the author speaks of "science falsely so called" (6:20), the Greek word translated "science" in the King James version is gnosis- conceivably an allusion to early Gnosticism. The reference to rules about food suggests Jewish influence, while the reference to the prohibition of marriage illustrates the extreme austerity and self-denial taught by some groups of early Christians.

On the theological side, the most important positive teaching of this Epistle is the statement that "God our Saviour... will have all men to be saved" (2:3-4).

The main concern of the Epistle, however, is with church order. The qualities of a good bishop are listed. He should be "blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity" (3:2-4). The qualities of a good deacon are listed in similar terms.

1 Timothy distinguishes between two kinds of Christian ministers. The bishop (Greek episcopos, meaning overseer) is more important than the deacon (Greek diaconos, meaning servant). The origin of deacons, described in Acts 6:1-6, indicates they were chiefly concerned with the charitable side of the church's work.

A good deal is said about the conduct of women. In general, they are urged to wear "modest apparel" (2:9) and to "learn in silence with all subjection" (2:11) during worship services. Widows seem to have formed a special group within the Christian congregation when 1 Timothy was written. The author distinguishes those who "are widows indeed" (5:3)- those who have no relatives to care for them. Such women are to be supported by the church. But nobody is to be enrolled among these official widows unless she's at least sixty years old, and enrollment carries with it the obligation to pray "night and day" (5:5) and never to remarry.


This Epistle also warns against some group of Christians who occupy themselves with "foolish and unlearned questions" (2:23). Specifically, two men called Hymeneus and Philetus are criticized for "saying that the resurrection is past already" (2:17-18; Hymeneus is also mentioned at 1 Timothy 1:20). Presumably their teaching reflects an extreme form of what is known as realized eschatology- the belief that, for Christians, the end of the world has already come.

Whether Paul wrote 2 Timothy or not, many readers have been moved by the passage depicting the great apostle, on the eve of his death, saying "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith," and anticipating the "crown of righteousness" (4:7-8) he trusts God will soon give him.


This short letter repeats the condemnation of "foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law" (3:9) in terms similar to those in the other Pastoral Epistles. Titus is represented as presiding over a church on the island of Crete. An unflattering picture of the Cretan character is presented: "One of themselves... said, The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies [lazy gluttons]" (1:12). The quotation is thought to come from the sixth century B.C. Cretan poet Epimenides of Knossos. The passage, incidentally, has intrigued students of logic for centuries, because, if a Cretan says that Cretans are always liars..., can he be telling the truth?

Titus is instructed to "ordain elders in every city" (1:5). The qualifications of these elders are similar to those of bishops and deacons in 1 Timothy.

This Epistle teaches the Pauline doctrine that "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he [God] saved us, by the washing of regeneration [baptism], and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (3:5-6). Nevertheless, it adds "that they which have believed in God" should "be careful to maintain good works" (3:8).

[The New Testament Contents]



The Epistle to Philemon is generally accepted as an authentic work of Paul. Although Timothy is mentioned as coauthor (1), the letter has a very personal tone. It was written from prison either during an imprisonment in Ephesus in the mid-50s or during the imprisonment in Rome at the beginning of the 60s. It's addressed to Philemon, a Christian whom Paul converted (19), who apparently lived at Colossae in Asia Minor, and to the congregation that met in Philemon's house.


In prison, Paul has met the runaway slave Onesimus and converted him to Christianity. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, his legal owner, strongly urging that Onesimus be received with kindness. Paul doesn't attack the institution of slavery, but he certainly breaks with its spirit when he asks that Onesimus be received as "a brother beloved" (16). Perhaps he's hinting (13, 14) he'd like to have Onesimus freed and sent back to him as a coworker. Onesimus is also mentioned at Colossians 4:9. If Colossians was written by Paul, it may have been sent at the same time as Philemon.

[The New Testament Contents]



The Epistle to the Hebrews has no salutation, and it sounds more like a sermon than a letter. It has traditionally been grouped with the Epistles of Paul, but it differs from them in its style and in some of its ideas. Even in ancient times there was much speculation about the authorship of Hebrews. Several scholars have suggested it may have been written by Apollos, who is described as "an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures" (Acts 18:24). Whoever the author, it contains perhaps the best literary Greek in the New Testament. Some scholars think the Epistle was written late in the first century, perhaps in the 80s, but others prefer a date in the 60s because it doesn't mention the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70. The theme of Hebrews is that Jesus has fulfilled God's plan perfectly by his sacrificial death and that, as eternal high priest, he leads his followers to salvation.

The author interprets the Old Testament allegorically, or typologically. What does that mean? A poet may use the word for one thing to represent a different thing. Such metaphor or symbolism is a valuable literary device, but it creates no real relationship between the two things. Users of typology believe God can use one real thing (a type) to prefigure another (an antitype), thus establishing a real relationship between the two. Study of the type can help us to understand the antitype. Specifically, the author of Hebrews believes the Old Testament foreshadowed the New- the events of ancient Jewish history and the ceremonies of the ancient Jewish religion were types of Christian realities.


The author begins by contrasting the earlier messages of the prophets with the revelation now delivered by God through His Son, "whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds" (1:2). This very exalted view of the person of Jesus resembles that of John 1:1-3, 10 and Colossians 1:15-16. The author then declares the Son also superior to the angels, God's "ministering spirits" (1:14). Early Christians believed the Jewish law was given through angels (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19).


The author warns against unbelief (3:12), asserting that "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and... were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,... if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance" (6:4, 6).

In support of this call for perseverance, the author contrasts the salvation provided in Jesus with the religion of the Old Testament. The author considers the Old Testament to be part of God's plan, but he says the Jewish law was "a shadow of good things to come" (10:1), not God's final revelation to the human race. Jesus, "the mediator of a better covenant" (8:6), is described as "a great high priest" (4:14), superior to the priests of the Old Testament religion. Jesus' priesthood is foreshadowed by Melchizedek's (5:6, 10; 6:20-7:21).

Melchizedek, King of Salem (probably Jerusalem), is a mysterious figure who appears in Genesis 14:18-20. His name is striking, for Melchizedek is interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) as king of righteousness, and Salem as peace. King and priest, Melchizedek blessed Abraham and accepted tithes from him. Because Genesis says nothing of Melchizedek's ancestors or his death, he has been taken as a symbol of timelessness. Already in the Old Testament there seems to be a suggestion that he represents an everlasting royal priesthood, different from the Aaronic priesthood of the Temple. Thus the Israelite king is told, "Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 110:4). In the thought of the author of Hebrews, Melchizedek's priesthood is a type of the eternal and royal priesthood of the Christ.

The author also contrasts the physical sanctuary of the Old Testament religion with the spiritual sanctuary of Christianity, saying "Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (9:24). By the same token, the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to the animal sacrifices of Old Testament worship, being "neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood" (9:12). Moreover, the animal sacrifices had to be offered again and again, but Jesus "offered one sacrifice for sins for ever" (10:12).

CONCLUSION (11:1-13:25)

The author again emphasizes the value of faith, holding up as examples the faith of many Old Testament figures, including Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them" (11:13), and yet God has "provided some better thing for us" (11:40). He urges patience in tribulations; offers advice about practical matters such as marriage, charity, and hospitality to strangers; and concludes with a prayer that God will make the readers of the Epistle perfect "through the blood of the everlasting covenant" (13:20).

[The New Testament Contents]



This Epistle is addressed by "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (1:1). Some scholars identify the author with James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem, who was put to death in A.D. 62. Others think this Epistle was written toward the end of the first century. "The twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" would normally mean Jews living outside Palestine, but here it seems to refer to the Jewish Christians, living in an alien society, waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus (5:7). Some scholars have suggested this Epistle is a Christian adaptation of an earlier Jewish work. It's probably best thought of as a Christian rethinking of the Jewish wisdom tradition of moral instruction (found in the Old Testament books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach).


The author of James develops several important moral themes. He calls for patience in time of temptation. He urges his readers to pray with single-minded faith. He especially recommends prayer as a remedy for sickness and sin (5:14-16). He warns strongly against uncontrolled speech. In phrases reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus reported in the Gospel of Luke, the writer emphasizes God's special love for the poor (1:9; 2:5) and denounces the wickedness of the rich (2:6-7; 5:1-6). The author of James is, in fact, the only New Testament writer who denounces wealth as vigorously as Jesus reportedly did. The writer declares that wealth is acquired by fraud and violence, and spent on wanton pleasure. Finally, he insists on the Christian's duty to take action to relieve the sufferings of the poor.

The question of practical Christian action, of works, is the most controversial theme in this Epistle. The author is concerned that the saving power of faith not be misunderstood. He distinguishes between two kinds of faith. One of these is merely the acceptance of certain doctrines as true: "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (2:19). The other is a faith that expresses itself in actions, especially in caring for the poor and miserable. The first faith which merely believes that certain things are so, but doesn't impel the believer to follow through with good works, he calls "dead" (2:26). This leads him to the position "that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (2:24).

Do you think the teaching of this Epistle about the relationship between faith and works contradicts the teaching of Paul "that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28; see also Galatians 2:16)?

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German Protestant reformer, disapproved of this Epistle's teaching on justification by works. Although he acknowledged that James was valuable and contained many excellent passages, Luther said it was "an epistle full of straw" compared with other books of the New Testament because of its emphasis on works. On the other hand, Luther agreed with the author of James that real faith means more than the intellectual acceptance of particular doctrines.

Some readers, seeking to resolve the tension between James and Paul, have argued that the works Paul disparages are works done with the idea that people can save themselves by fulfilling God's commands. Despite the importance he assigns to good works, James doesn't say his readers should trust in their own good works to earn salvation.

[The New Testament Contents]



The opening of 1 Peter says it's a letter from the apostle Peter to the Christians of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1:1)- various parts of Asia Minor. Scholars disagree, however, about its authorship. Many think Peter, who was reportedly "unlearned and ignorant" (Acts 4:13), couldn't have produced such a well-written Greek Epistle. Others think Peter is the author, but that Silvanus (mentioned in 5:12) helped put Peter's message into finished form. The fact that the author of 1 Peter speaks for "The church that is at Babylon" (5:13) is consistent with Peter's authorship, for here (as in Revelation 17 and 18) Babylon is a symbolic name for Rome. Those who think Peter wrote the Epistle naturally place it before the apostle's death in A.D. 64 or 65. Others tend to assign the writing to the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.


The author has an exalted idea of the spiritual dignity of Christians. He calls them a "chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people" (2:9; peculiar here means special, not strange). He says they've been "born again... by the word of God" (1:23). Christians are "redeemed... with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1:18-19). He describes the death of Jesus (2:21-24) in terms which echo the "suffering servant" material of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:4-11).

The author's main purpose, though, seems to be to advise Christians on personal conduct. The author urges submission to the government: to "the king" (2:13), that is, the Roman emperor, and to his officials. Such submission "is the will of God" (2:15; compare Romans 13:1-7). To slaves he says "Servants, be subject to your masters" (2:18; compare Ephesians 6:5-7). He urges wives to "be in subjection" to their husbands (3:1; compare Colossians 3:18). Husbands are to live "giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life" (3:7). The elders, the leaders of the Christian community, should "Feed the flock of God... not by constraint... not for filthy lucre... neither as being lords" (5:2-3). Younger Christians should submit to the elders. Above all, the Christian community should be "all of one mind" (3:8) and to "love one another" (1:22).

The author of 1 Peter clearly has no interest in trying to reform society. Instead, he counsels detachment from secular concerns. Moreover, he's writing at a time when persecution of Christians, "the fiery trial" (4:12), is a present reality or at least an impending danger. The author is anxious that Christians give the government no pretext- except their religion- for punishing them.

Two passages in this Epistle have given rise to much discussion. One says that Jesus, after his death, "went and preached unto the spirits in prison" (3:19). The other speaks of "the gospel" being "preached also to them that are dead" (4:6). These passages have often been thought to refer to Jesus' descent into hell between his death and resurrection. A belief emerged in the early church that at that time Jesus freed the holy persons of the Old Testament from hell. (In its fully developed form, this idea appears in the Divine Comedy [Inferno, Canto IV] of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri [1265-1321].) Many recent students of 1 Peter interpret the passages differently. They think 3:19 refers to the spirits spoken of in Genesis 6:2, 4, and 4:6 refers to Christians who have died.

[The New Testament Contents]



This Epistle states that it is written by the apostle Simon Peter (1:1). The author says (1:16-18) he was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), which was witnessed only by Peter, James, and John. Nevertheless, almost all scholars think 2 Peter is a pseudonymous work, written in the first half of the second century. It is usually considered the last book of the New Testament to have been written. The author uses the Epistle of Jude as a source. He is also apparently familiar with 1 Peter (3:1) and with the Epistles of Paul.


The author warns against "false teachers" (2:1). He says "they allure through the lusts of the flesh" (2:18). This seems to refer to some dissident Christian sect that combined loose living with what the author regarded as false doctrine.

The author writes at a time when many are wondering why the Second Coming is delayed. He declares, "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise... but is long-suffering" (3:9)- that is, God is giving people extra time to repent. But, says the author, as the world was once (in the days of Noah) destroyed by water, so it will be destroyed again by fire (3:6, 7, 10, 12).

[The New Testament Contents]

1, 2, AND 3 JOHN


Like the Gospel of John, these letters are traditionally ascribed to John, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. The letters are related in ideas and language to the Gospel of John. Some scholars think they were written by the author of the Gospel, others by a different author or by two or three different authors. Probably the letters were written later than the Gospel of John, at the end of the first century or early in the second. 1 John lacks the salutation and conclusion expected in a letter. In 2 and 3 John we find these conventional parts. They are both written by "the elder," 2 John to an "elect lady and her children" (1), and 3 John to a certain Gaius.


The Epistle opens with the statement that the writer proclaims "the Word of life," "which was from the beginning" and which he has "seen and heard" (1:1, 3). This strongly recalls the prologue to the Gospel of John. The Epistle is written at a time of intense controversy: "it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists" (2:18). Who are these antichrists? Some people had evidently left the community for which the Epistle was written (2:19). Very likely they were trying to draw others after them. The author warns against "them that seduce you" (2:26) and against "false prophets" (4:1).

Antichrist is mentioned in the New Testament only at 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3 and 2 John 7. The word seems to mean an adversary of Christianity who leads Christians astray. It's clear from 2:18 that the author expects his readers to have heard of antichrist, and to regard his coming as a sign of the last time. Elsewhere in the New Testament different language is used to express a similar idea: the "man of sin" (2 Thessalonians 2:3), the "beast" (Revelation 13:1, 11), and perhaps the "abomination of desolation" (Mark 13:14; Matthew 24:15). Not Satan, but rather a substitute for or caricature of the Christ, the antichrist seems particularly related to the "false Christs and false prophets" (Mark 13:22) against whom Jesus warned.

Probably the most important controversial point raised in the Epistle concerns the coming of the Christ in the flesh: "Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come" (4:2-3). The emphasis on Jesus coming in the flesh recalls John 1:14. It suggests that the opponents against whom the author is writing are Christians who denied the real, bodily humanity of Jesus.

The author seems to be writing against opponents who also claim to be morally perfect: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves" (1:8). On the other hand, he says, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin" (3:9). Does this strike you as a contradiction? Perhaps the problem is resolved by the author's distinction between "a sin unto death" and "a sin not unto death" (5:16-17)- although he doesn't explain the difference between these two sins. He's quite clear, though, about the obligation of Christians to obey God's commandment, "And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another" (3:23). Notice the similarity to John 13:34.

What 1 John says about love is probably the most memorable part of the Epistle. The author declares that "God is love" (4:8, 16). Does that strike you as a daring idea? It's not the same as saying "Love is God." 1 John assumes a personal God, but a personal God whose whole being is love. The author condemns those who say they love God, but hate their brothers (4:20-21). Doubtless this is partly directed against those who had separated themselves from the community, but it goes much further. The author argues, in terms reminiscent of the Epistle of James, for the importance of helping the poor: "whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him [the intestines were seen as the organ of the feelings], how dwelleth the love of God in him?" (3:17).

There's a textual problem at 1 John 5:7-8. The text of the King James Version reads: "there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth], the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." The words enclosed in brackets aren't part of the original text of 1 John. Known to scholars as the Johannine Comma, the passage originated in Latin manuscripts in Spain or North Africa, perhaps in the fourth century. The passage doesn't appear in any Greek manuscript from before 1400. It's likely that a marginal note about the Trinity, prompted by the statement that "three agree in one," slipped into the text in the course of time.


This Epistle deals with the same controversy that prompted 1 John. The author says, "many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (7). He calls on "the elect lady and her children" (1) (evidently some now unidentifiable Christian community) not to receive anyone who doesn't hold this "doctrine of Christ" into their house (9-10).


This Epistle has virtually no doctrinal content. It recommends giving hospitality to traveling Christians. Since these travelers "for his name's sake... went forth" (7), they are presumably missionaries.

[The New Testament Contents]



This short letter says it is written by "Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James" (1). This Jude appears to be a brother of James, Jesus' brother (traditionally, the author of the Epistle of James), and has therefore been identified with Jesus' brother Judas (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). He has also been identified with "Judas the brother of James" (Luke 6:16), one of the twelve apostles. However, many scholars think the letter was written at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. In any case, Jude was written before 2 Peter, which uses it as a source.


There is a warning against people "turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness" (4), who "walk after their own ungodly lusts" (18). The author is attacking more than just sins of the flesh, though. His reference to those "who separate themselves" (19) shows that some split within the Christian community is at issue. Several early Christian sects engaged in licentious behavior, but there's no way to identify the specific group denounced here.

The Epistle cites several Old Testament examples of divine retribution. Peculiar features are the references to the Assumption of Moses (9) and to 1 Enoch (14-15), two Jewish works that didn't become part of the Old Testament Canon.


THE BOOKS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (Galatians - 2 Corinthians)

ECC [The New Testament Contents] []

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