Who arranged the books of our New Testament? Why do the Gospels come first? Why is Acts separated from Luke? Why does Paul come before the General Epistles? Were they placed arbitrarily, or is there a reason? David Nienhuis, professor of NT studies at Seattle Pacific University, believes there is a reason and knowing it can help believers read the NT in a way that will form their own faith.
Niehuis doesn’t try to peer behind the text at the historical, socio-cultural, archaeological, or political contexts, etc., etc. He looks at the text. Why have we received this text? No matter when you were born or where you are living, we all have the same text. What do we do with it? Commentaries, dictionaries, and books are vital. But none of them replace the text. Each chapter explains a bit on why the NT book was placed where it was. Then Nienhuis gives us what that book teaches us about (1) God’s work in Christ Jesus and (2) the spiritual formation of Christian disciples. The chapters end with discussion questions.
Matthew tells us how to live as disciples, called to be lights of the world (Matt 5) by the light of the world (John 8). We are to live righteously, which means following Christ, obeying his instructions, and showing mercy. We know and understand the Christ whom we follow. Yet when we get to Mark, things get confusing. Jesus is much more mysterious. The disciples not only don’t understand him, but a few times Jesus rebukes them for their hard hearts. Mark emphasizes the cost of discipleship. We can know the God who is with us, but we cannot fully comprehend him. He is above and beyond us. Yet even in our trials he makes himself known to us in ways we don’t expect.
Following after Mark, Luke tells you how the hard-hearted reader can know and follow Christ. Christ will send his Holy Spirit to dwell with believers. Luke moves out and shows how the gospel is for all people from all over the social order. John’s Gospel shows us “what happens when people encounter Jesus” (70). He “presents an OT that prefigures Jesus” (76). The reader is meant to start with Jesus in the NT and to see him in the purpose of the OT.
The Gospels have anticipated the book of Acts. How would Jesus’ disciples be the light of the world and form the church? When would Jesus send “another Advocate,” and what would happen when he arrived? God will come in the person of the Holy Spirit to enable believers to walk in God’s ways. John shows us Peter’s repentance, and Acts shows us his prime position as the apostles’ mouthpiece at Pentecost. Those who believed in Jesus name became children of God (John 1:12) and would do greater works than Jesus (14:12-13). In Acts, we see these “greater works” as the disciples are constantly in fellowship with one another, praying, and evangelizing, along with occasionally performing miracles. They proclaim that salvation comes through Christ’s name alone (Acts 3:16).
Luke’s Gospel focuses on getting to Jerusalem, while Acts is concerned with getting through it and moving away from it (Acts 1:8). Luke presents Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, sent by God, who suffered, died, and rose again so that all who call on his name will be saved (94). Paul came to realize that the only way to be in a right covenant relationship with God was through the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. In the midst of human unfaithfulness, God showed himself to be faithful (123). He would keep the promise he made to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham and his S/seed (Gen 12:1-3). As it was with Israel, so it is now “in Christ”: we obey God as a way of expressing our relationship with him. We “image” him rightly when we keep his instructions.
Hebrews serves as a bridge between Paul’s letters and the Catholic epistles. Those under the new covenant still receive the old covenant as Scripture, and it can be read in light of the new. Unfortunately, Nienhuis doesn’t spend much time here. He treats Hebrews as a sort of appendix to Paul’s letters and says it segues into the Catholic Epistles (CE).
The CE were written by eyewitnesses of Jesus: James, Peter, John, and Jude, with the two brothers (James and Jude) framing this set of seven. James, a Jewish Christian, writes to other Jewish Christians. Nienhuis notes, “Gentile Christians who seek to remain faithful to Jesus must avoid drawing sharp distinctions between Christian and Jewish identity” (139). Though James only explicitly mentions Jesus twice (1:1; 2:1), his letter resonates with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Each letter focuses upon how authentic Christians should live. Receiving “the word of truth” brings about a new birth (Jas 1:18; cf. 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 1 Jn 2:29), “born all over again into an entirely different family” (144).
Revelation is the capstone of both the New Testament and the Bible. Though all written by John, his Gospel, his letters, and Revelation have all been separated because they each have their own canonical function, just as we saw with Luke-Acts. Revelation is a very confusing book, but we “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” whether we understand him or not (Rev 14:4). Revelation reminds us of the OT prophets and their wild imagery. We must remember the prophecy had more to do with “forth-telling” (speaking for God) than it did “foretelling” (predicting the future). It was written to seven churches in a particular time in history, but meant for all believers to read. The point of the book is that our Lord and God is the only one worthy to receive worship, but our world is filled with usurpers who want to take his place. We see God’s victory in the victorious Lamb, Jesus Christ, “whose sacrificial death unveils the means by which disciples might conquer the powers that strive to keep them from fulfilling their role as priests in God’s service” (160).
The Spoiled Milks
I found Nienhuis’ book very helpful. He keenly makes connections between the NT books and helpfully notes why they are (or may have been) placed where we have them now. His explanation of the longer ending of Mark was odd, though because it is “canonical,” I guess it is understandable. He provides a table showing how pretty much each element of Mark 16:9-20 is found in other parts of the Gospels and Acts, making it a “canonical ending” (48) that reminds us there are “other voices to hear” in the other Gospels.
Nienhuis also sees a perfect structure in the NT. Paul write to seven churches and three individuals (7 + 3 = 10). The Catholic Epistles (CE) are seven letters to churches. Revelation includes seven letters to seven churches. There are twenty-seven NT books, twenty-one of which are letters (three sets of seven). What about the Gospels? He says, “On top of all that, the number seven is the product of four plus three, as if to suggest that the God who is one in three has inspired the fourfold Gospel to produce all these perfect apostolic sevens” (12). I say all that to make this one point: what about Hebrews and Acts? In the quote above, the “fourfold Gospel” produced the “perfect apostolic sevens.” It also produced Acts, but he doesn’t mention that here.
For Nienhuis, the NT has twenty-one letters (13 from Paul + 7 CE + Revelation = 21), but for that to work, Hebrews has to be an appendix, which just doesn’t work. It’s Pauline enough to be Pauline, but it doesn’t state it was written by Paul. So, then, it’s not Pauline. But neither does is fit into the brotherly frame of seven CE letters, so it can’t be a CE. Then, where does Hebrews go? This numerical point is a small point in an otherwise terrific book. However, it looks like he’s fudging the numbers to get something cool than truly working with what’s there. Twenty-one NT letters plus four Gospels makes only twenty-five letters. But maybe I’m missing something in his argument. That’s always possible.
I highly recommend this book. This was an excellent read all the way through the NT. Nienhuis doesn’t use scholarly jargon and helpfully shows the pathways from book to book. Though this is not a NT introduction, it could be a primer to thicker NT introductions. This would be a great book for the layperson, for a Bible study, or for a high school or even Bible college class.
- Author: David Nienhuis
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Baker Academic (January 2, 2018)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.