How do we understand the narrative, the real-life story of God in the New Testament? How should we view the story which reached its ultimate climax in Jesus of Nazareth and which then flows out, in the power of the Spirit, to transform the world with his love and justice? How do we let the poetry of the early Christians, whether it’s the short and dense poems we find in Paul or the complex imagery of the book of Revelation, transform our imaginations so we can start to think in new ways about God and the world, about the powers that still threaten darkness and death, and about our role in implementing the victory of Jesus? How do we make the New Testament matter? How do we study the New Testament for all its worth?
The answer is that we must learn to study the New Testament with a view to making it matter in our lives, our churches, and our communities. Jesus insisted that we should love God with our minds, as well as our hearts, our souls, and our strength. Devotion matters, but it needs direction; energy matters, but it needs information. That’s why, in the early church, one of the most important tasks was teaching. Indeed, the Christian church has led the way for two thousand years in making education in general, and biblical education in particular, available to all people. A good many of the early Christians were functionally illiterate, and part of the glory of the gospel then and now is that it was and is for everyone. There shouldn’t be an elite who ‘get it’ while everybody else is simply going along with the flow. So Jesus’ first followers taught people to read so that they could work out and live out the Jesus-story for themselves. That’s why the New Testament was and is for everyone.
By contrast with most of the ancient world, early Christianity was very much a bookish culture. We sometimes think of the Christian movement as basically a ‘religion’; but a first-century observer, blundering in on a meeting of Christians, initially would almost certainly have seen them as belonging to some kind of educational institution, a type of school. This is the more remarkable in that education in that world was mostly reserved for the rich, for the elite.
This bookish culture, by the way, is why Christianity was a translating faith from the beginning. The movement went out very early on from circles where Aramaic was the main language into the larger Greek-speaking world. From there, it quickly moved north-west into Latin-speaking areas, and south and east into regions where Coptic or Ethiopic were dominant.
But, behind and beyond all that, the reason there’s a New Testament at all is because of Jesus himself. Jesus never wrote anything, so far as we know. But what he did and said, and particularly his claim to be launching God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, and his vocation to die a horrible death to defeat the powers of darkness and bring God’s new creation into being with his resurrection – all this meant what it meant within its original setting. And that setting was the ancient story of Israel, and the ongoing hopes and longings of the Jews of Jesus’ day for God’s coming kingdom that would bring that ancient story to its long-awaited conclusion. But, from quite early in the movement, most of Jesus’ followers were not from that Jewish world. They needed to be told not only that ‘Jesus died for your sins’, but also that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and that the meaning of his death was the messianic meaning, to be found in the long story of Israel’s scriptures: in other words, as Paul puts it, summarizing the very early ‘gospel’, that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. And to explain what that meant, and how it worked out in practice, four people took it prayerfully upon themselves to tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to bring out its different aspects. Several others, and one person in particular namely Paul, wrote letters to churches which discussed particular issues that needed to be addressed. And one man, out of persecution and prayer and a mind and heart soaked with the scriptures, was granted a breathtaking vision of heaven and earth coming together and Jesus at the middle of it all. Welcome to the New Testament.
So, from very early on, the followers of Jesus discovered that when they read these books they were drawn into a life of worship, learning, and prayer. The books are self-involving: like plays and poems they say, ‘This is what’s going on, these are the many dimensions that are drawn together; now come up on stage, learn your lines, and join in.’ And the first thing to join in with is worship, the worship rooted in the worship of ancient Israel, not least the Psalms, but now reworked around Jesus and re-energized by his spirit. We can see this going on from many angles, such as when Paul is framing one of his most difficult and painful discussions (Romans 9—11) like a psalm, with lament at the start, praise at the end, and intercession in the middle. There are in the New Testament specific elements of worship. But what really counts is the whole thing: the whole story of the gospels and Acts, the letters as wholes, the book of Revelation as a whole. This is God’s story, and we ought to praise him for it and in it; to praise him by reading it, individually and together; to praise him by allowing it to shape our minds and hearts. The whole New Testament invites its readers to praise the God of creation and covenant for renewing the covenant and restoring creation through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s rightful lord.
As we do this, a strange thing happens. Paul says in Colossians 3.10 that the gospel of Jesus will renew us in knowledge according to the creator’s image. When we worship the true God with that worship shaped by the story of Jesus seen as the fulfilment of Israel’s scriptures, we find that we are being made into image-bearers, called to reflect God’s love and purposes into the world. The first letter of Peter speaks of us being rescued from sin and death so that we can become ‘a royal priesthood’ (2.9), an ancient biblical way of summarizing the whole human vocation. We are to reflect the praises of creation back to the creator in worship; that’s the ‘priestly’ bit. We are thereby becoming polished mirrors, set at an angle so as to reflect the powerful and healing love of the creator back into the world. That’s the ‘royal’ bit.
The New Testament, in other words, isn’t there to tell us simply ‘how to get to heaven.’ Indeed, to the surprise of many people, that isn’t what it’s saying at all. That’s why some theories about the New Testament and its authority don’t work as well as they should. If you try to read it as a ‘how-to’ book, which sadly is how some people approach it, you may end up frustrated, thinking it would be better if the Spirit had given us something more like a car manual or a railway timetable. No: the New Testament is designed to draw us into the story of God’s plan to rescue the world from chaos and idolatry and to launch his new transformative creation. This rescue have happened in Jesus; now, by the Spirit, they are to be put into operation through people who are shaped by the biblical vision itself. The first Christians found themselves being formed into a community of generous love, bringing healing and hope to the poor and the sick, confronting the bullying powers of the world with a new way of being human.
How do we study the New Testament for all its worth? By getting to know the world of the first Christians, and the urgent things that Paul and the others wrote to them, their fears and their faith, their ministry and their message. By doing so, we find ourselves being simultaneously challenged and our faith built up. We find ourselves called to face suffering and challenges as they did themselves. Above all, we find ourselves called to shine like lights in the world of our own day.
Excerpted from The New Testament in its World By N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird Zondervan, November 2019. Used with permission.