As its name implies, Genesis is about beginnings. Genesis tells us that God created everything that exists. It shows that God is both the Creator and the Ruler of all creation. But it also tells of humanity's tragic fall into sin and death, and of God's unfolding plan of redemption through his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Genesis includes some of the most memorable stories in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve (chs. 1–4), continuing through Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ending with the life of Joseph (chs. 37–50), who died before 1600 b.c. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have recognized Moses as the author, writing after the Exodus from Egypt, commonly dated around 1440 b.c. though many prefer a date around 1260 b.c.
Exodus tells of God fulfilling his promise to Abraham by multiplying Abraham's descendants into a great nation, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, leading them to the Promised Land, and then binding them to himself with a covenant at Mount Sinai. Moses, under the direct command of God and as leader of Israel, received the Ten Commandments from God, along with other laws governing Israel's life and worship. He also led the nation in the building of the tabernacle, a place where God's presence dwelled among his people and where they made sacrifices for sin. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing sometime after the Exodus from Egypt.
Leviticus begins with the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. The glory of the Lord had just filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38) and God now tells Moses to instruct the Levitical priests and the people of Israel concerning sacrifices, worship, the priesthood, ceremonial cleanness, the Day of Atonement, feasts and holy days, and the Year of Jubilee. The central message is that God is holy and he requires his people to be holy. The book also shows that God graciously provides atonement for sin through the shedding of blood. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing sometime after the giving of the Law.
The English title “Numbers” comes from the two censuses that are central features of this book. However the Hebrew title, “In the Wilderness,” is more descriptive of the book. Numbers tells how God's people traveled from Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. But when they refused to take possession of the Land, God made them wander in the wilderness for nearly forty years. Throughout the book, God is seen as a holy God who cannot ignore rebellion or unbelief, but also as the one who faithfully keeps his covenant and patiently provides for the needs of his people. Numbers ends with a new generation preparing for the conquest of Canaan. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing during the final year of his life.
Deuteronomy, which means “second law,” is a retelling by Moses of the teachings and events of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It includes an extended review of the Ten Commandments (4:44–5:33) and Moses' farewell address to a new generation of Israelites as they stand ready to take possession of the Promised Land. Moses reminds them of God's faithfulness and love, but also of God's wrath on the previous generation of Israelites because of their rebellion. Repeatedly he charges Israel to keep the Law. Deuteronomy is a solemn call to love and obey the one true God. There are blessings for faithfulness and curses for unfaithfulness. The book closes with the selection of Joshua as Israel's new leader and the death of Moses.
The five books of Moses anticipated the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham regarding the Promised Land. Now (either about 1400 or 1220 b.c.), through a string of military victories under Joshua, Israel conquered the land and divided it among the twelve tribes. In these battles it became evident that God fights for his people when they are “strong and courageous” (1:6, 7, 9, 18; 10:25) and put their full trust in him. At the close of the book, Joshua charged the people to remain faithful to God and to obey his commands, and the people agreed to do so. “As for me and my house,” said Joshua, “we will serve the Lord” (24:15). Although anonymous, the book appears to contain eyewitness testimony, some of which may have been written by Joshua himself.
Judges is named after an interesting collection of individuals who led Israel after Joshua's death until the rise of the monarchy under Samuel (up to about 1050 b.c.). In this time of national decline, despite their promise to keep the covenant (Josh. 24:16-18) the people turned from the Lord and began to worship other gods. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). A pattern repeats throughout the book: 1) the people abandoned the Lord; 2) God punished them by raising up a foreign power to oppress them; 3) the people cried out to God for deliverance; and 4) God raised up a deliverer, or judge, for them. The author of the book is unknown, although some Jewish tradition ascribes it to Samuel.
The book of Ruth tells of a young Moabite widow who, out of love for her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, abandoned her own culture, declaring, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). Though she was destitute and needing to rely on the kindness of others, Ruth's disposition and character captured the attention of Boaz, a close relative of her deceased husband. Boaz fulfilled the role of kinsman-redeemer and took Ruth as his wife. Ruth serves as a wonderful example of God's providential care of his people, and of his willingness to accept Gentiles who seek him. Ruth was an ancestor of Christ. The author is unknown, but the genealogy at the end suggests that it was written during or after the time of David.
First Samuel records the establishment of Israel's monarchy, about 1050 b.c. Samuel led Israel for many years in the combined roles of prophet, priest, and judge. After the people demanded a king like those of the other nations (ch. 8), God directed Samuel to anoint Saul as Israel's first king. When Saul turned from God, David was anointed by Samuel to succeed him. After David killed the giant Goliath, he was brought to Saul's court, eventually becoming the leader of Saul's armies. Saul's subsequent violent jealousy forced David to flee. The book closes with Saul's death in battle, and looks forward to David's reign. First Samuel's author is unknown, but Samuel himself may have written portions of the book (see 1 Chron. 29:29).
Second Samuel recounts David's reign as king of Israel (about 1010–970 b.c.). As promised to Abraham, during David's reign Israel's borders were extended roughly from Egypt to the Euphrates. While David had many successes, after his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah (ch. 11) both his kingdom and his own family fell into chaos. His son Absalom led a bloody rebellion against him. Nevertheless David, author of many of the Psalms, was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22), a model of deep, heartfelt prayer and repentance. The Davidic Covenant of chapter 7 establishes the eternal rule of David's line, with its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ. The author of 2 Samuel is unknown.
First Kings begins with the death of King David (about 970 b.c.) and the reign of his son, Solomon, who “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (10:23). Solomon's unfaithfulness later in life set the stage for general apostasy among the people. The harsh policies of his son Rehoboam led to the revolt of the northern tribes and the division of Israel. The northern tribes would subsequently be called Israel, while the southern tribes would be called Judah. First Kings describes the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and shows the importance of proper worship. God's faithfulness to his people is shown as he sent prophets, most notably Elijah, to warn them not to serve other gods. The author of 1 Kings is unknown.
Second Kings continues the saga of disobedience begun in 1 Kings, opening about 850 b.c. with the conclusion of Elijah's prophetic ministry in Israel and the beginning of the work of his successor, Elisha. Israel spiraled downward in faithlessness, ultimately being defeated and dispersed by the Assyrians in 722. Judah, the southern kingdom, had several kings who trusted God and attempted reforms. But after many years of God's warnings through Isaiah and other prophets, Judah's sins were punished by Babylonian conquest starting in 605 and ultimately in the fall of Jerusalem in 586. The people were exiled to Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 29:10). God remained faithful to his covenant despite his people's faithlessness. The author of 2 Kings is unknown.
First and Second Chronicles, originally one book, was written sometime after Judah began to return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c. (1 Chron. 9:1-2; 2 Chron. 36:23). It focuses primarily on the history of Judah, the southern kingdom of divided Israel. First Chronicles begins with several genealogies, with special emphasis on David and Solomon. The “chronicler” moves next to the history of the kingdom under David, stressing David's deep interest in worship and his detailed plans for the construction of the temple—which would be built by his son Solomon. First Chronicles was probably written to reassure the returned exiles of God's faithfulness toward his people. Its author is unknown, although many have thought that Ezra was the principal writer.
Second Chronicles, which extends 1 Chronicles' history of Judah, was written sometime after the people began to return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c. (36:23). The “chronicler,” perhaps trying to encourage the returned exiles, recalls the greatness of Solomon's reign. Most of the book, however, focuses on Judah's fall into sin which had led to the exile. Judah had several godly kings, especially Hezekiah and Josiah, but it still declined into sin. Still, God remained faithful to his covenant people, and as the book closes it jumps ahead several years, recording the decree of Cyrus that allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their Promised Land. The author is unknown, although many have thought that Ezra was the principal writer.
The book of Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends. As prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 44:28), the Persian King Cyrus had sent exiles led by Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem in 538 b.c. (Persia had defeated Babylon in 539.) Despite opposition from the non-Jewish inhabitants of Judea, and after encouragement by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the temple was rebuilt (515). Then in 458, Ezra led the second of three waves of returning exiles. By the time Ezra arrived, the people had again fallen into sin. Ezra preached God's word and the people repented (10:9-17). Ezra succeeded because God's hand was upon him (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). This book, perhaps written by Ezra, shows God's power in covenant faithfulness, moving even pagan kings to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
In 445 b.c. the Persian King Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah, an Israelite who was a trusted official, to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. With Nehemiah went the third wave of returning Jewish exiles. There was intense opposition from the other peoples in the land and disunity within Jerusalem. Despite this opposition, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls. He overcame these threats by taking wise defensive measures, by personal example, and by his obvious courage. Nehemiah did what God had put into his heart (2:12; 7:5) and found that the joy of the Lord was his strength (8:10). When the people began once again to fall into sin, Nehemiah had Ezra read to them from the Law. Nehemiah served twice as governor. The author is unknown, although parts come from Nehemiah's own writings.
The book of Esther never mentions God's name, yet God clearly orchestrated all of its events. Esther, a Jew living among the exiles in Persia, became queen of the empire in about 480 b.c. Haman, a Persian official, sought to eradicate the Jewish minority, but God had prepared Esther “for such a time as this” (4:14) to save his covenant people. The book was written some decades later to document the origins of the Jewish observance of Purim, which celebrates Israel's survival and God's faithfulness. The author is unknown, but some believe it could have been Esther's cousin Mordecai, who is a key person in the book. Throughout the book we see God's sovereign hand preserving his people, showing that everything is under his control.
Considered both a theological and a literary masterpiece, the book of Job is an honest portrayal of God allowing a good man to suffer. The test of Job's faith, allowed by God in response to a challenge from Satan, revealed God's loving sovereignty and the supremacy of divine wisdom over human wisdom (personified by Job's friends). Believing that God is good despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, Job rested in faith alone. In the depths of agony he could still proclaim, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (19:25). In the end God silenced all discussion with the truth that he alone is wise (chs. 38–41). Yet he vindicated Job's trust in him (ch. 42), proving that genuine faith cannot be destroyed. The unknown author was probably an Israelite writing sometime between 1500 and 500 b.c.
The book of Psalms is filled with the songs and prayers offered to God by the nation of Israel. Their expressions of praise, faith, sorrow, and frustration cover the range of human emotions. Some of the Psalms dwell on the treasure of wisdom and God's Word. Others reveal the troubled heart of a mourner. Still others explode with praise to God and invite others to join in song. This diversity is unified by one element: they are centered upon the one and only living God. This Creator God is King of all the earth and a refuge to all who trust in him. Many of the Psalms are attributed to King David. The writing and collection of the Psalms into their present form spans the fifteenth to the third centuries b.c.
Practical wisdom for living is the central concern of the book of Proverbs. We are told that the beginning and essence of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (1:7; 9:10). Proverbs often contrasts the benefits of seeking wisdom and the pitfalls of living a fool's life. While the wicked stumble in “deep darkness” (4:19), “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (v. 18). Proverbs is a collection of Israelite wisdom literature, including an introductory section (chs. 1–9) that gives readers a framework for understanding the rest of the book. The book includes the work of various authors, but much of it is attributed to King Solomon. It dates from between the tenth and sixth centuries b.c.
Ecclesiastes contains reflections of an old man, the “Preacher,” as he considered the question of meaning in life. He looked back and saw the futility (“vanity”) of chasing after even the good things this life can offer, including wisdom, work, pleasure, and wealth. Even if such things are satisfying for a time, death is certain to end this satisfaction. In fact, God's judgment on Adam for his sin (Gen. 3:17-19) echoes throughout the book (especially 12:7). Yet the person who lives in the fear of the Lord can enjoy God's good gifts. Young people, especially, should remember their Creator while they still have their whole lives before them (12:1). Traditionally interpreters of Ecclesiastes have identified the “Preacher,” who is also called “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1), as Solomon (tenth century b.c.).
According to the most common interpretation, the Song of Solomon is a collection of love poems between a man and a woman, celebrating the sexual relationship God intended for marriage. God established marriage, including the physical union of a husband and wife (Gen. 2:18-25), and Israelite wisdom literature treasures this aspect of marriage as the appropriate expression of human sexuality (Prov. 5:15-20). The Song of Solomon has also been understood as an illustration of the mutual love of Christ and his church. It is possible that Solomon (tenth century b.c.) is the author (1:1). However, this verse could mean that the Song was dedicated to Solomon or was written about him, and therefore many scholars regard the book as anonymous.
Isaiah lived during the decline of Israel in the shadow of Assyria. He spoke the word of God to a people who were “deaf and blind” (see 6:10), who refused to listen to his warnings of looming disaster. He warned that the sin of the people of Judah would bring God's judgment, yet he also declared that God is sovereign and would use Cyrus the Persian to return them from exile. The book speaks of a “servant,” a “man of sorrows,” who would be “wounded for our transgressions,” accomplishing God's purposes of salvation (52:13–53:12). The final chapters give a beautiful description of a new creation in which God will rule as King, judging the wicked and establishing eternal peace. Isaiah prophesied about 740–700 b.c. (possibly till the 680s).
Jeremiah, often called the “weeping prophet” because of his sorrow over the persistent message of God's judgment, prophesied to the nation of Judah from the reign of King Josiah in 627 b.c. until sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586. He dictated his prophecies to a scribe named Baruch (36:4, 32). Jeremiah's task as a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God. However, throughout the book we also see God's concern for repentance and righteousness in individuals as well as nations. This dual focus is seen in God's instructions to Jeremiah: he was “to pluck up and to break down” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). Jeremiah sees a future day when God will write his law on human hearts, and “they shall all know me,” and “I will remember their sin no more” (31:33-34).
The book of Lamentations is made up of five poems, each an expression of grief over the fall of Jerusalem. Like a eulogy at a funeral, these laments are intended to mourn a loss—in this case, the loss of a nation. The latter half of chapter 3 implies that the purpose behind the book's graphic depictions of sorrow and suffering was to produce hope in the God whose compassion is “new every morning” (v. 23) and whose faithfulness is great even to a people who have been condemned for their own unfaithfulness. The author, while not identified in the book itself, may have been the prophet Jeremiah, who was said to have “uttered a lament for Josiah” (2 Chron. 35:25). Lamentations was probably written shortly after Jerusalem's fall in 586 b.c.
Ezekiel, a prophet and priest, was exiled to Babylon in 597 b.c. His ministry extended over at least twenty-three years. The book opens with his first dramatic vision of the “likeness” of the Lord himself. Ezekiel was keenly aware of God's presence and power in human affairs. He addressed both the exiles and the people left in Judah with messages of warning and judgment, predicting the fall of Jerusalem. After Jerusalem's fall (in 586), Ezekiel prophesied hope and reassurance for the people of Judah, who had then lost the focus of God's covenant, the temple in Jerusalem. His vision of the valley of dry bones (ch. 37) is a classic picture of God's ability to renew his people.
Exiled to Babylon in 605 b.c., Daniel was one of several young men chosen to serve in Nebuchadnezzar's court. When Persia conquered Babylon in 539, Daniel was again given a position of power. He remained faithful to God in both of these hostile environments. From the interpretation of dreams, to the familiar stories of the fiery furnace, the lions' den, and the handwriting on the wall, to the prophetic visions, the recurrent theme is God's sovereignty over human affairs. In the historical sections (chs. 1–6) God supernaturally rescued Daniel and his friends. The rest of the book consists of visions of future judgment and deliverance by the Messiah. Some of Daniel's prophetic themes are echoed in the New Testament, especially in Revelation.
Hosea has been called the “death-bed prophet of Israel” because he was the last to prophesy before the northern kingdom fell to Assyria (about 722 b.c.). His ministry followed a golden age in the northern kingdom, with a peace and prosperity not seen since the days of Solomon. Unfortunately, with this prosperity came moral decay, and Israel forsook God to worship idols. So God instructed Hosea to marry a “wife of whoredom” (1:2), whose unfaithfulness to her husband would serve as an example of Israel's unfaithfulness to God. Hosea then explained God's complaint against Israel and warned of the punishment that would come unless the people returned to the Lord and remained faithful to him. The book shows the depth of God's love for his people, a love that tolerates no rivals.
Little is known about the prophet Joel, although his concern for Judah and Jerusalem suggests that he ministered in Judah. Joel told of a locust plague that had struck Israel and which, he said, foreshadowed the “day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord was a time greatly anticipated by the Israelites because they believed that God would then judge the nations and restore Israel to her former glory. Yet, said Joel, God would punish not only the nations but unfaithful Israel as well. Joel urged everyone to repent, and told of a day when God would “pour out [his] Spirit on all flesh” (2:28). That day arrived on the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:17). While the date of the book is uncertain (ninth to sixth century b.c.), its message is valid for all time.
Amos, possibly the first of the writing prophets, was a shepherd and farmer called to prophesy during the reigns of Uzziah (792–740 b.c.) in the southern kingdom and Jeroboam II (793–753) in the north. During this time both kingdoms enjoyed political stability, which in turn brought prosperity. It was also a time of idolatry, extravagance, and corruption. The rich and powerful were oppressing the poor. Amos denounced the people of Israel for their apostasy and social injustice and warned them that disaster would fall upon them for breaking the covenant. He urged them to leave the hypocrisy of their “solemn assemblies” (5:21) and instead to “let justice roll down like waters” (v. 24). Nevertheless, said Amos, God would remember his covenant with Israel and would restore a faithful remnant.
Obadiah wrote this shortest book of the Old Testament probably soon after the armies of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (586 b.c.). During this conquest, the people of Edom helped capture fleeing Israelites and turn them over to the Babylonians. They even took up residence in some Judean villages. This angered the Lord, for the Edomites, as descendants of Esau, were related to the Israelites (Gen. 25:21-26, 30) and therefore should have helped them. Obadiah prophesied that Edom would be repaid for mistreating God's people. Obadiah also asserted that God is sovereign over the nations and that the house of Jacob would be restored because of God's covenant love for his people.
Because it tells of a fish swallowing a man, many have dismissed the book of Jonah as fiction. But 2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah as living during the time of Jeroboam II (about 793–753 b.c.), and Jesus referred to Jonah as a historical person (Matt. 12:39-41). Unlike other prophetic books, Jonah focuses on the prophet himself rather than on his message. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh he rebelled, was swallowed by a fish, repented, and fulfilled his mission after all. When Nineveh repented, the reason for Jonah's rebellion became clear: he had feared that God would forgive the Ninevites; and when God did forgive them, Jonah resented it (4:1-3). The book lists no author, but only Jonah himself could have known all the facts it records.
Micah prophesied in Judah during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (about 750–700 b.c.), at about the same time as Isaiah. It was a time of prosperity, and Micah denounced the wealthy, who were oppressing the poor, and warned of impending judgment. The northern kingdom actually fell during Micah's ministry, in 722, and Judah almost fell in 701 (2 Kings 18–20). The book contains three sections, which alternate between words of warning and messages of hope. Micah told of a day when there would be peace among all nations, who would then be able to “beat their swords into plowshares” (4:3), and of a royal deliverer who would save God's people from all her enemies. This deliverer would be born in Bethlehem (5:2).
When Jonah preached repentance on the streets of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the people responded and were spared. A century later, sometime between 663 and 612 b.c., Nahum preached in a time when Nineveh would not repent. Nineveh, which had destroyed Israel's northern kingdom in 722, itself fell to Babylon in 612—just a few years after Nahum's warning. The Assyrians were notorious for the brutality of their treatment of other nations. Nahum declared, however, that God is sovereign: he punishes whom he will, and they are powerless to stop him. Much of Nahum's prophecy was directed to the people of Judah, who could rejoice at the good news (1:15) of Nineveh's impending fall.
Habakkuk was probably written about 640–615 b.c., just before the fall of Assyria and the rise of Babylon (Chaldea). God used Assyria to punish Israel (722); now he would use Babylon to punish Assyria and Judah. This prophecy would be fulfilled several decades after Habakkuk, in 586. The “theme question” of Habakkuk is, how can God use a wicked nation such as Babylon for his divine purpose? God judges all nations, said Habakkuk, and even Babylon would eventually be judged (Babylon fell to Persia in 539). Though God's ways are sometimes mysterious, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4) while awaiting salvation. These words are quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38).
Zephaniah prophesied during the reforms of King Josiah (640–609 b.c.), who brought spiritual revival to Judah after the long and disastrous reign of Manasseh. Zephaniah pronounced God's judgment on corruption and wickedness but also his plan to restore Judah. He spoke of the coming “day of the Lord,” when sin would be punished, justice would prevail, and a “remnant” of the faithful would be saved. The term “day of the Lord” occurs throughout the Bible referring both to impending historical judgments from God and to his final judgment at the end of time. Though Zephaniah does not give details about this day, he speaks of its fearsome consequences (1:18) and calls people to seek the Lord (2:3).
When the first wave of Jewish exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 b.c., they began to rebuild the temple but soon gave up. Inspired by the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah, they finally completed the task in 516. Haggai rebuked the people for living in “paneled houses” while the house of God remained in ruins (1:4). He warned that, despite their best efforts, their wealth would never suffice, because the Lord was not pleased with their neglect of his temple (see Lev. 26:2-20). He called them to repent and renew their covenant with the God of their fathers. He assured them that God would achieve his purposes for his people and for all other nations. The rebuilding of the temple symbolized God's restored presence among his people.
As Haggai encouraged the returned Jewish exiles to rebuild the temple, Zechariah encouraged them to repent and renew their covenant with God. Such spiritual renewal would be necessary for the people to be ready to worship God once the temple was rebuilt (about 516 b.c.). He accused them of doing the very things their ancestors had done before the exile. He was concerned about social justice for widows, orphans, and foreigners. But as the people endured opposition from the non-Jewish inhabitants of Judea, Zechariah reassured them of God's abiding comfort and care. God would continue his covenant with Israel. Messianic hope was rekindled during Zechariah's ministry, and the book ends with the promise that the Lord would establish his rule over all the earth (14:9).
Although the urging of Haggai and Zechariah had brought the completion of the temple (516 b.c.), this had not produced the messianic age many expected. The warm response to Zechariah's call to repentance had grown cold, because God apparently had not restored the covenant blessings. Malachi, writing a short time later, called the people to repentance with respect to: the priesthood, which had become corrupt; worship, which had become routine; divorce, which was widespread; social justice, which was being ignored; and tithing, which was neglected. “Will man rob God?” the Lord asked through Malachi (3:8), and he promised to “open the windows of heaven” (v. 10) for those who pay their full tithe. Malachi predicted the coming of both John the Baptist and Jesus, referring to each as a “messenger” of God (3:1).
The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as Israel's Messiah. The account alternates between Jesus' activities of healing and casting out demons, and major blocks of his teaching, including the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5–7), the Parables of the Kingdom (ch. 13), and the Olivet Discourse (chs. 24–25). The Sermon on the Mount includes the Beatitudes (5:3-12) and the Lord's Prayer (6:5-15). The book closes with the Great Commission (28:18-20). A recurring theme is the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, culminating in his pronouncement of “seven woes” upon them (ch. 23). As do all four Gospel accounts, Matthew focuses on Christ's three-year ministry and his death and resurrection. Matthew probably wrote his Gospel in the 50s or 60s a.d.
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus announced the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, and died as a ransom for sinners. In addition to Jesus, Mark features three main groups of people: the disciples, the crowds, and the religious leaders, none of whom understood Jesus. When the time came for Jesus to go to the cross, the religious leaders arrested him, the disciples abandoned him, and the crowds jeered him. Only when he died alone on the cross did a Roman centurion recognize that he was the Son of God. Though the book is anonymous, tradition identifies John Mark (Acts 12:12) as the author. He may have based his Gospel on Peter's preaching, writing sometime in the 50s or 60s a.d.
The Gospel of Luke is in the form of a letter to a man named Theophilus. Luke wrote after having carefully investigated all the facts about Christ (1:1-4). Luke documents Christ's life from before his birth through his ministry, death, and resurrection. Jesus carried out his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit, announcing the good news of salvation. He showed numerous times his compassion for the poor and the outcast. He fulfilled prophecy and carried out his purpose: to seek and save the lost. Luke gives the fullest account of Christ's birth, and only Luke records the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Luke, a physician and a colleague of Paul, probably wrote this account in the early 60s a.d. He also wrote Acts.
The Gospel of John was written to persuade people to believe in Jesus (20:30-31). The opening verses declare that Jesus is God, stressing his unique relationship with God the Father. The book focuses on seven of Jesus' signs (miracles), to show his divinity. Jesus called people to believe in him, promising eternal life. He proved he could give life by raising Lazarus (ch. 11) and by his own death and resurrection. John features Christ's seven “I am” statements, his encounters with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, his Upper Room teachings and washing of the disciples' feet (chs. 13–16), and his high priestly prayer (ch. 17). It includes the most well-known summary of the gospel (3:16). The author was probably the apostle John, writing about a.d. 85.
Acts picks up where Luke's Gospel leaves off, recording the early progress of the gospel as Jesus' disciples took it from Jerusalem throughout Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the Mediterranean world. The story begins with Christ's ascension and the events of Pentecost. As Gentiles begin responding to the gospel, the focus shifts to Paul and his missionary journeys. Acts forms a bridge between the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, showing how the apostles carried on Christ's work and providing a historical background for Romans through Revelation. The Acts of the Apostles is the second of two New Testament books written by Luke. Like his Gospel, Acts was a letter to Luke's friend Theophilus, written sometime in a.d. 62–64.
Romans is the longest and most systematically reasoned of Paul's letters. Paul announces its theme in 1:16-17: the gospel is God's power for salvation, because it shows us that the righteousness of God is through faith for all who believe. Paul explains the need for justification through faith because of sin (1:16–4:25). He then spells out the results of justification by faith in terms of both present experience and future hope (5:1–8:39). In the next three chapters, he expresses his sorrow that many of his fellow Israelites have not embraced the gospel, and he wrestles with the theological implications of this (chs. 9–11). He concludes by describing how the gospel should affect one's everyday life (chs. 12–16). Paul wrote his letter to Rome in about a.d. 57.
The city of Corinth was at the heart of an important trade route in the ancient world. Like many cities that thrive on trade, Corinth had a reputation for sexual immorality, religious diversity, and corruption. The church that Paul planted there (Acts 18) floundered under all of these influences and began to divide over various issues. First Corinthians addresses many practical questions dividing the church—questions concerning such things as spiritual gifts, marriage, food offered to idols, and the resurrection. Paul urged the Corinthians to be unified and to give themselves fully to “the work of the Lord” (15:58). Chapter 13 includes a well-known passage on the nature and importance of love. Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians from Ephesus about a.d. 55.
Paul's second letter to the Corinthians discusses some of the things previously addressed but also deals with new issues. While 1 Corinthians called for believers to be unified with each other, in this letter Paul urges the church to be unified with him in his ministry. Paul's opponents were undermining his work, claiming that his suffering (11:24-29) proved he was not a true apostle. Paul responds that his suffering highlights his dependence on Christ, as it points to Christ's strength rather than his own. Second Corinthians includes stirring perspectives on gospel ministry (chs. 2–5), encouragements to holy living (chs. 6–7), and instructions about giving (chs. 8–9). Paul wrote this letter from Macedonia a year after writing 1 Corinthians, about a.d. 56.
Paul's letter to the Galatians was addressed to a group of churches in Galatia, a region of present-day Turkey. Paul had preached the gospel in these churches. He wrote to counter those who taught that Christians must be circumcised in order to be accepted by God. Paul began with a defense of his apostolic authority (chs. 1–2), then made it clear that all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, enjoy complete salvation in Christ (chs. 3–4). In chapters 5–6 Paul showed how the gospel of grace leads to true freedom and godly living. Perhaps the central message of Galatians is “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). Paul wrote this letter sometime between a.d. 48 and 55.
The apostle Paul wrote Ephesians to the churches around Ephesus (Acts 19) to display the scope of God's eternal plan for all humanity—for Jews and Gentiles alike. This is the mystery of God, hidden for ages but now made known in Jesus Christ. The first three chapters focus on what Christians should believe, unfolding the glorious riches of God's grace in Christ. Dead sinners are made alive and gain eternal salvation “by grace... through faith” (2:8). The last three chapters explain the implications of God's grace for the church, for individuals, and for families. This second section comes to a climax with a command to stand with the armor of God against the devil. Paul wrote this letter while in prison, probably in Rome about a.d. 60.
Philippians overflows with joy and thanksgiving. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi to thank them for a gift. He reported the joyful news that Epaphroditus, who had brought their gift to Paul, had recovered from his illness and was returning to Philippi. Paul said that he had learned the secret of being content in any situation, and he told them about his situation in prison. He expressed joy that more people were hearing about Christ even if some were proclaiming the gospel with bad motives. Wanting the Christians in Philippi to be unified, he challenged them to be servants just as Jesus was when he “made himself nothing” and became a man rather than clinging to the rights of his divine nature (2:1-11). Paul wrote this letter while in prison, probably in Rome about a.d. 60.
Paul wrote to the church in Colossae to fortify it against false teachers who might try to impose strict rules about eating and drinking and religious festivals. Paul shows the superiority of Christ over all human philosophies and traditions. He writes of Christ's deity (“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” [1:15]) and of the reconciliation he accomplished with his blood. He explains that the right way of living in this world is to focus on heavenly rather than earthly things. God's chosen people must leave their sinful lives behind and live in a godly way, looking to Christ as the head of the church (1:18). Paul wrote while in prison, probably about the same time as he wrote to the Ephesians.
Paul wrote this letter to encourage new believers in their faith, to give them assurance about the eternal state of believers who had died, to remind them of “the coming of the Lord” (4:15), and to exhort them to godly living. He urged them to be at peace, and to “give thanks in all circumstances” (5:18). Thessalonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) was the capital of Roman Macedonia. It was on important trade routes. Paul, twice identified as the author (1:1; 2:18), visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey but was forced to flee because of Jewish opposition. He sent Timothy to work with the largely Gentile church there, and Timothy brought him good news of their faith (3:6). This is one of Paul's first letters, probably written in a.d. 51.
This letter from the apostle Paul was probably written shortly after his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. He had been boasting of them to other churches, telling of their faith and their love for each other in the face of persecution. Paul reminded them that God will repay their persecutors. He also addressed two recurring problems in this church. First, as seen in 1 Thessalonians, they were concerned that the Lord had already returned. Paul urged them not to become “shaken in mind or alarmed,” fearing that “the day of the Lord” (2:2) had already come. Second, he admonished them not to be idle, commanding them that, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10).
First Timothy is one of three pastoral letters (including 2 Timothy and Titus) that the aging apostle Paul sent to those who would continue his work. Timothy was, in every way, Paul's spiritual son. Young but gifted, Timothy had been assigned to lead the church at Ephesus—a church needing order in worship as well as doctrinal correction, plagued as it was by false teachers. Paul's letter, likely written about a.d. 62–66, counseled the young man on matters of church leadership—from proper worship, to qualifications for overseers (elders) and deacons, to advice on confronting false teaching and how to treat various individuals within a congregation. Paul charged Timothy to live a life beyond reproach, giving believers a standard to emulate.
Paul wrote this letter as he awaited execution. Despite all that Paul was facing—death, the end of his ministry, abandonment by most of his friends for fear of persecution—he faithfully directed his spiritual son Timothy to the hope that is in Christ. As he exhorted Timothy to boldness, endurance, and faithfulness in the face of false teaching, Paul showed his customary concern for sound doctrine. Scripture, said Paul, is “breathed out by God” and is sufficient in all things pertaining to the faith and practice of Christians (3:16-17). Older believers, therefore, should be eager to pass on their knowledge of Scripture to those who are younger in the faith (2:2). Paul probably wrote from Rome, a.d. 67 or 68.
This pastoral letter from Paul to Titus was intended to offer encouragement and wisdom as Titus endured ongoing opposition from the ungodly and from legalists within his congregations. Paul instructed Titus to complete his assigned job of establishing overseers (elders) for the churches under his care. He described what sort of people these leaders should be, and how all believers should live in relation to each other as well as in their interactions with nonbelievers. Proper Christian behavior is based on the fact that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,” and therefore those who believe in Christ are to “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” as they await his return (2:11-13). Paul probably wrote this letter in the 60s a.d.
Philemon is about reconciliation and relationships between Christians. Onesimus (which means “useful”) was a slave of a believer named Philemon in Colossae. Apparently Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and fled. At some time while Paul was under arrest, Onesimus met him and became a Christian. Paul apparently wrote this letter at the same time as Colossians and gave it to Onesimus to carry back to Philemon (see Col. 4:9). Paul appealed to Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, but as a brother in the Lord rather than a slave. In Paul's estimation, Onesimus was far more “useful” (v. 11) now that he was a Christian. Paul even promised to pay whatever debt Onesimus might owe Philemon.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage Christians in a time of trial. It does so by focusing on the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. While God spoke in the past “many times and in many ways,” he has now spoken to us “by his Son,” Jesus Christ, who is the “exact imprint” of God's nature and who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:1-3). Jesus accomplished complete salvation for all who trust in him (1:1–10:18). We dare not “neglect such a great salvation” (2:3; 5:12–6:20; 10:19-39). Rather, in our faith and in our everyday living, we should imitate the example of Christ and of those on the honor roll of faith (chs. 11–13). This letter, whose author is unknown, was probably written between a.d. 60 and 70.
Sometimes called “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” the book of James practically and faithfully reminds Christians how to live. From perseverance to true faith to controlling one's tongue, submitting to God's will, and having patience, this book aids readers in living authentically and wisely for Christ. Many have claimed that James and the apostle Paul differed on the question of faith versus works, but in reality the spiritual fruit that James talks about simply demonstrates the true faith of which Paul wrote. Their writings are complementary rather than contradictory. Possibly one of the earliest of the New Testament writings (a.d. 40–50), the book is believed to have been written by Jesus' brother James (Gal. 1:19).
The readers of the apostle Peter's letter were confused and discouraged by the persecution they were encountering because of their faith. Peter exhorted them to stand strong, repeatedly reminding them of Christ's example, the riches of their inheritance in him, and the hope of his returning again to take them to heaven. Peter explained how Christians should respond when they suffer because of their beliefs. Called the “apostle of hope,” Peter's primary message is to trust the Lord, live obediently no matter what your circumstances, and keep your hope fixed on God's ultimate promise of deliverance. Suffering is to be expected, but it is temporary and yields great blessings for those who remain steadfast. Peter probably wrote this letter in the mid-60s a.d.
In this second letter, Peter describes (ch. 2) some twisted versions of Christian truth being taught. Recalling his experience of Christ's glory at the transfiguration (1:17-18), Peter explains the “more sure” truth of the gospel as an antidote to heresy. The gospel is like “a lamp shining in a dark place” (1:19). In chapter 3 Peter focuses on those who scoff at the idea of Christ's triumphant return and the final judgment. Just as God once destroyed the world with water, he will one day bring his fire to it. In light of this, we should live in “holiness and godliness” as we await his return and the salvation he has promised to all believers. Peter probably wrote this letter about a.d. 67–68, shortly before his death.
This apostolic letter speaks authoritatively about the truth of the incarnation—a message his doubting readers needed after hearing false teachers deny the full divinity and humanity of Christ. It reaffirms the core of Christianity, saying that either we exhibit the sound doctrine, obedience, and love that characterize all Christians, or else we are not true Christians. When all the basics of faith are in operation, we not only know joy but can live a holy life and be assured of salvation (3:19, 24)—even though we are still far from perfect (1:9). This assurance comes especially as we find ourselves learning to “love one another” as brothers and sisters in Christ (4:7-8). This general letter to congregations across Asia Minor (now Turkey) was probably written by the apostle John in the late first century a.d.
Second John warns against the same false teaching mentioned in 1 John. This letter, however, was addressed to “the elect lady and her children” (perhaps a local congregation), and focused on Christian hospitality. False teachers were using the kindness of Christians to gain influence within John's congregations. John's letter spoke of this danger and warned against opening one's home to these destroyers of the faith. While the basic themes of 1 John—holding fast to truth, love, and obedience—are evident, there is the additional focus on what Christian hospitality is all about. Only when you find agreement on sound doctrine will you find meaningful fellowship. The letter was probably written by the apostle John in the late first century a.d.
Third John supplements statements on Christian hospitality in 2 John. It applauds a Christian named Gaius for living out the teachings of the apostles—he had welcomed traveling Christian missionaries into his home—while condemning Diotrephes, a selfish church leader who not only refused to help these itinerant, godly teachers but also had slandered and opposed those who disagreed with him. This book demonstrates that pride can divide Christians if they are not living by God's Word. To avoid the dual dangers of false teaching and division within the church, believers should practice the dual virtues of love and discernment. The letter was probably written by the apostle John in the late first century a.d.
The letter of Jude warns against those who, having gained admission to the church, were perverting the grace of God, denying “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4). Jude used Old Testament examples to warn of these “blemishes” on the church. He wrote multiple denunciations of these ungodly people who “defile the flesh” and “reject authority” (v. 8). He urged Christians to continue in godliness and love toward such people, in some cases reasoning with them, in other cases “snatching them out of the fire” (v. 23). Jude closes with one of the most beautiful doxologies in all of Scripture (vv. 24-25). Jude was the brother of James (probably “James the Lord's brother,” Gal. 1:19). He likely wrote sometime between a.d. 65 and 80.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) was probably written by the apostle John while in exile on the island of Patmos, off the coast of present-day Turkey. It was addressed to seven actual churches. Revelation begins with letters from Christ himself to these churches, letters that include commendation, criticism, and comfort. Then comes a long series of visions of judgment on the wicked, all in highly symbolic language. The church is depicted under great distress, but is assured of the final triumph of Jesus as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16), bringing to an end the rebellion of humanity and ushering in “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1), where God himself will reign forever and ever (11:15). Revelation was probably written a.d. 95–96.