|Topical Bible Study||July 1953|
Know Your Bible—Part VII
The New Testament—Its First Four Books
THE new testament part of the Bible is similar to the Old in that it is made up of historical, prophetic, doctrinal, and devotional truths. But in the New Testament the proportions of these important elements of Truth are somewhat different. There is less that is historical and prophetic, and more that is doctrinal and devotional.
A considerable portion of the historical records which appear in the New Testament call attention to the fulfillment of certain important prophecies of the Old Testament. This is particularly true of the first four books, known as the four “Gospels,” and respectively written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These ‘Gospels’ record the life and teachings of Jesus, and by comparing them with the prophecies of the Old Testament confirm the fact that he came to earth in fulfillment of the promises of God—that he was indeed the foretold Messiah whom the Creator had sent to redeem and bless the world.
In the great theme of redemption and restoration which is presented throughout the entire Bible, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are fundamentally important events, and in God’s providence the vital truths pertaining thereto have been set forth in no uncertain terms by those godly men who wrote the four Gospels.
To some extent these four accounts of the life of Jesus are repetitious, but there is much that is different in each of them, and this is particularly true with respect to the manner in which each writer deals with the subject matter in hand. Matthew presents Jesus as the foretold King, whom God had promised would come through the line of David—the One who would be “born King of the Jews.”—Matt. 2:2
When we think of a king there is associated in our minds the idea of a kingdom, and in Matthew’s record of Jesus’ life we find him quoting much that Jesus said pertaining to the kingdom of promise. The Prophet Isaiah, in foretelling the birth of Jesus, and the great objective of his birth, wrote that “of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.” (Isa. 9:7) Matthew emphasizes that Jesus was the promised King in this kingdom, or ‘government,’ and that through him all the reassuring promises of God were to be fulfilled.
Many of the parables of Jesus are introduced by the expression, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto.’ But to understand these parables it is essential to realize that many of them are illustrative, not of the glory and power of the kingdom, but of its slow stages of development; and some of them, in fact, of satanic efforts to counterfeit the real kingdom, these fraudulent and unholy efforts also being given the name kingdom.
The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham. The second chapter relates the appearance of the “wise men,” and how Herod used them in an attempted attack on the life of the newborn king. In relating this episode, Matthew calls attention to the manner in which it fulfilled one of the Old Testament prophecies. See Matthew 2:17,18; Jeremiah 31:15,16.
Matthew records some of the experiences and teachings of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, and informs us that Jesus went to this servant of God to be immersed. It was following his baptism that Jesus was tempted by the great adversary from three different standpoints. One of these was in an offer of an easy and quick way to become king of earth. Satan said to him, “All these things [the kingdoms of this world] will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:8,9) Jesus refused. He knew that he was to become king of earth, but he wanted it to be in God’s due time and way.
Beginning with the fifth chapter, Matthew records Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount, in the beginning of which he sets forth what are commonly known as the Beatitudes, or ‘blessings.’ These, from their various standpoints, call attention to the essential qualifications of those whom God can use to be “the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14) The record of the sermon on the mount continues nearly to the close of the seventh chapter, where Jesus is quoted as saying:
“Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”—vss. 24-27
Beginning with chapter eight and through many of the remaining chapters of the book, Matthew records daily experiences in the life of Jesus—the miracles which he performed, the parables which he related to illustrate one or another of his kingdom teachings, his enlightening discussions with his disciples, and his verbal encounters with his enemies, the scribes and Pharisees.
Five days before his crucifixion Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass and his disciples and friends acclaimed him as King. But the religious rulers of Israel refused to recognize him as such. Instead, they plotted his death and succeeded in bringing about his crucifixion. Matthew records these developments in simple, yet dramatic style.
During these last days of his earthly life, and in the shadow of the cross, Jesus gave utterance to the most outstanding prophecy to be found anywhere in the Bible. Matthew records it in chapters twenty-four and twenty-five. It was given in response to questions asked him by his disciples pertaining to the time of his return and the end of the age (mistranslated “world” in the King James Version).—Matt. 24:3
In this prophecy many of the outstanding developments of our times are accurately foretold. He speaks of a time of “tribulation” so great that unless brought to an end by Divine intervention, it would result in “no flesh” being saved. (vss. 21-22) Today men fear that nuclear bombs might yet destroy the entire human race.
The last three chapters record some of the incidents which occurred at the Last Supper, Jesus’ Gethsemane experience, his trial, Peter’s denial, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Jesus voluntarily gave himself up to his enemies to be killed. He did this because he knew that it was his Heavenly Father’s will that he die as the Redeemer of the world from sin and death.
But Jesus, by the power of God, was raised from the dead, and in the closing words of his narrative Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, after his resurrection, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” (Matt. 28:18) It is this power which will yet be manifested in the blessing of all the families of the earth, as promised by God through the mouth of all his holy prophets.
The Book of Mark
THE Book of Mark, or, as its heading appears in the Bible, “The Gospel According to St. Mark,” is also a record of the life, work, and teachings of Jesus. Like Matthew, Mark also presents Jesus as the One who had come to fulfill the Messianic promises of the Old Testament. In the second verse of the opening chapter Mark writes, “As it is written in the prophets,” and he quotes Old Testament prophecies which foretold the coming and ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, and shows how these prophecies were fulfilled by the ministry of John.—Mal. 3:1; Isa. 40:3
The plan of God for human salvation from sin and death calls for miracle-working power, and emphasizes the fact that man cannot extricate himself from the result of his sin. Mark’s record of the life of Jesus calls special attention to the fact that Jesus, in his ministry, did utilize Divine power, that the things he did on behalf of the people were beyond human ability to accomplish.
It is against this background that Mark records the warning Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees who claimed that he was using the power of Satan to perform the miracles which so greatly benefited the people. In this warning, Jesus indicated that the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees was a sin against the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit (many times mistranslated ‘Ghost’ in the New Testament) is the holy power of God, and this power was unmistakably manifested in the miracles which Jesus performed. The scribes and Pharisees were acquainted with the Old Testament prophecies and with the manner in which God worked through his special servants. Therefore, there was no legitimate reason why they should misconstrue the evidence of Jesus’ messiahship which was so clearly demonstrated by the miraculous works associated with his ministry. To charge that he utilized the power of Satan made them all the more reprehensible, hence the suggestion by Jesus that they were committing a sin against the Holy Spirit which could not be forgiven.—Mark 3:22-30
Many of the miracles performed by Jesus were illustrative of the manner in which Divine power will be used throughout the thousand years of his reign to heal the sick and to raise the dead. One of the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to the blessings of Christ’s kingdom likens the kingdom to a “mountain,” and the promise is that in this ‘mountain’ the Lord will make unto all people a “feast of fat things.”—Isa. 25:6-8
The ‘feast of fat things’ will include many wonderful blessings for which the world has longed, being climaxed by the destruction of death and the wiping away of tears from off all faces. It will indeed be a wonderful ‘feast,’ and it might well have been this viewpoint of kingdom blessings which Jesus illustrated by the miracle in which he fed the entire multitude, although having only a few loaves and fishes to start with. Jesus performed two such miracles, and Mark records both of them. See Mark 6:35-46; 8:1-9
John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, when announcing him said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:1,2) Jesus is the great king in this kingdom, and in order to demonstrate his Divine appointment to this high position he not only preached the Gospel of the kingdom, but gave illustrations of the manner in which his kingdom would bless the people when, in God’s due time, it would be established in power and in great glory.
As the record of his life shows, Jesus also taught that some time would elapse before these kingdom blessings would reach the people on a worldwide scale as the prophecies had foretold. During this waiting period, a further work of preparation for the kingdom was to be accomplished. This was to involve the calling out from the world a company of people who would demonstrate their worthiness to reign with him in his kingdom by their willingness to follow in his footsteps, laying down their lives sacrificially with him.—Ps. 50:5; II Tim. 2:11,12
It was this phase of the Divine plan which Jesus taught when he said to the young rich man, “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” (Mark 10:21) Wholeheartedness on the part of those who take up their cross to follow Jesus was illustrated by his reference to the widow who gave all that she had, even though her all was but ‘two mites.’ Mark records this lesson, which we quote:
“Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”—Mark 12:41-44
In the closing chapters of the book, Mark records the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, even as Matthew does. Jesus’ ministry was performed in the Spirit, and by the authority, of his Heavenly Father. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He set forth the Divine principles of righteousness as a guide to holy living. He engendered in the hearts of his faithful disciples the hope of reigning with him in his kingdom, inviting them to prove their worthiness by first suffering and dying with him.
Then Jesus surrendered to his enemies and they put him to death. He died to take the sinner’s place in death, and thus prepare the way for the future restoration of the dead to life. That this will be quite within the capability of Divine power was demonstrated by the fact that Jesus Christ himself was raised from the dead. The record of this mighty miracle, as recorded not only by Mark, but also by Matthew, Luke, and John, serves as a fitting climax to the Master’s ministry of miracles, and serves as the final demonstration that he was indeed the Messiah of promise.
THE word gospel means ‘good tidings,’ so the word is very appropriate as a description of Luke’s record of the birth and ministry of Jesus. In the second chapter, he records the angelic message to the shepherds, when one of them announced the birth of Jesus, saying, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”—Luke 2:10
While all four of the Gospel writers are harmonious in their accounts of the essential facts concerning Jesus’ life and ministry, in the providence of the Lord each one sets forth certain points omitted by the other. Thus, by having all four of these records, we are furnished with all the needed information concerning the ‘greatest life ever lived.’
The ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, is shown by Mark’s Gospel to be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, but Mark tells us nothing concerning the circumstances leading up to the birth of John the Baptist. This information is furnished by Luke. See Luke 1:5-80
It is in Luke’s record that we are given the account of Jesus’ birth, and the circumstances which led up to this humble entrance of the King of Glory into this world of sin. (ch. 2:1-14) These accounts are not unrelated incidents in the life of the greatest personality the world has ever known. However interesting and thrilling they are, the important thing to keep in mind is to realize that these stories are all related to the one great theme of the entire Bible, which is the redemption and restoration of a lost race.
As we learned in our brief examination of the Book of Genesis, after relating the story of the creation of man and his fall into sin and death, we are given the promise concerning a “seed” that would bring deliverance. In Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 it is identified as the ‘seed’ of Abraham, and in reality Jesus was that promised seed. In relating the birth of Jesus, Luke assures us of a forward step in the great plan of God to bring deliverance to the race, a deliverance from sin and death. This indeed was the core of the angel’s message of ‘good tidings’—a Savior had been born, one who would save the people from their sins.—Luke 2:10
As we looked briefly through the books of the Old Testament we discovered many promises concerning the coming Messiah and Deliverer. It was foretold that he would be born in Bethlehem, that he would be the King of kings, and the Prince of Peace. The opening books of the New Testament point out the beginning of the fulfillment of these wonderful promises, and we begin to see their reality.
Luke, however, records a lesson given by Jesus which was calculated to teach that although he was the promised Messiah (Christ in the New Testament), they were not to expect his kingdom to be established immediately. First there was to be an age of sacrifice and suffering on the part of his followers. This is recorded in chapter nine, verses eighteen through twenty-four. Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah of promise, and we read that then Jesus “straitly charged them, and commanded them to tell no man that thing.” He explained that “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.”
Then Jesus told his disciples that if they desired to be his disciples it would be necessary for them to follow him into death, to “take up” their “cross daily.” He added, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” (vss. 23,24) This means that during the present age the only way to have life through Jesus is the way of joint-sacrifice with him.
Jesus taught, not only that he would suffer and die, but that all his true followers during the present Gospel Age would likewise be persecuted and have their names cast out as evil. But it will not always be thus with those who serve the Lord, for the Prophet Isaiah foretold a time when the Lord would take away the “rebuke” of his people from off “all the earth.”—Isa. 25:8
Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross is familiar to many. It is Luke who records this promise, and the circumstances leading up to it. However, a misunderstanding of the plan of God led the translators to place the punctuation improperly, so that a wrong thought is conveyed.
There was an inscription at the head of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, which read, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (Luke 23:38) The thief was dying, and he grasped at this slim straw of hope that if Jesus were actually a king there might be something he could do for him.
Jesus answered, “Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Notice that we have placed the comma after the word ‘today’ rather than before it. This is in keeping with the fact that Jesus did not at once go to paradise, but was during parts of three days in the grave.
Foreknowing this, Jesus in his great faith was able to say, “Today,” even this day, “I say unto thee, shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
This was fully in harmony with the thief’s request to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom, for it will be that kingdom which will restore paradise conditions worldwide. The thief will be there because he will be awakened from the sleep of death, and he will be given an opportunity to enjoy the blessings of that kingdom.
AS WE have seen, none of the Gospel records of Jesus’ life contain all the details of what he said and did. John’s is the least complete of them all. Nearly two-thirds of the whole book is concerned with the last six months of Jesus’ life, and one-third is the Master’s last week on earth.
In all four Gospels Jesus is referred to as the King of promise, the Son of Man, and also the Son of God. John, however, emphasizes a little more than do the other writers the fact that Jesus was the Son of God. He begins his account on this theme, informing us that Jesus, known as the “Word” (John 1:1)—Logos in the Greek language—was the “only begotten of the Father.”—vs. 14
A faulty translation of the Greek text in this opening chapter of John’s Gospel misleads the reader into the belief that the ‘Word’ which was “made flesh” was the Almighty God himself, rather than the Son of God. But this is not what John taught. According to the Greek text, what he really wrote was that the Logos was “a” god, that he was associated with “the” God in the original work of creation, and that now he had been “made flesh.” (John 1:1,2, Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott, Interlinear) This makes the account harmonious with the remainder of the Bible, which shows the clear distinction between the Heavenly Father and his beloved Son.
It is in John 3:16 that we read those well-known words, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In this, and in other wonderful ways, John identifies Jesus as the one who had come to fulfill the great purpose of God to restore the human race to life through the work of a Redeemer and Savior.
It is John who relates the well-known conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (the ruler in Israel who went to the Master by night). (ch. 3:1-13) Jesus explained to Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of God he would need to be “born again.” Nicodemus could not understand this, so Jesus explained that he did not refer to a second physical birth, but to being born on a higher, spiritual plane.
Jesus illustrated the powers possessed by those who are ‘born again’ by indicating that they are invisible to human eyes, that they can come and go as the wind. He experienced Spirit birth himself when he was raised from the dead, and all four of the Gospels reveal that he was then able to go and come as the wind, for while he remained with his disciples forty days, they saw him only on a few brief occasions.
It is John who records that marvelous miracle, the awakening of Lazarus from the sleep of death. (ch. 11:1-46) Lazarus, it will be recalled, was the brother of Martha and Mary, and Jesus loved the entire family. But when Lazarus became ill the Master did not go to him at once. Instead, he allowed him to die, explaining that it was for “the glory of God.” This became apparent when Lazarus was restored to life.
Jesus referred to Lazarus as being “asleep.” This is in keeping with the general teachings of the Bible on the subject of death. The Lord considers the dead as merely sleeping because provision has been made through the redemptive work of Christ to restore them to life. They are not dead forever. Martha understood this, and said to Jesus concerning her brother, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”—vs. 24
The ‘last day’ referred to by Martha is the final age in the Divine plan of redemption and restoration. It will be during that day that “all that are in the graves” will hear the voice of the Son of Man and shall come forth. (John 5:28,29) The King James Version says that those who have done evil shall come forth to the resurrection of “damnation.” This is an erroneous translation. The Revised Standard Version gives us the proper thought by using the word “judgment.” The last day is to be a trial, or judgment period.
John’s Gospel is the only one which contains so many of the wonderful lessons Jesus imparted to his disciples in the ‘upper room’ the night before he was crucified. This is recorded beginning with chapter thirteen and running through chapter seventeen, the latter containing a wonderful prayer with which he closed the service. These are among the most beautiful chapters in the entire Bible, and the sayings of Jesus found therein have comforted thousands throughout the age.
Chapters eighteen through to the end of the book record the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as some of his final instructions to his disciples. Jesus’ discussion with Peter is particularly touching, and also revealing. Peter was commissioned to feed the Lord’s “sheep” and “lambs,” indicating that there was a work of preparation to be done ere the kingdom of Christ would be established for the blessing of all the families of the earth.—John 21:15-17Go to Part VIII