Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: New Testament

Some Guidelines for Reading New Testament Narrative

Everyone loves a good story, right? And they’re always easy to understand, too… right? Or maybe not so much.

When we move into New Testament Narrative as a genre (basically consisting of the Gospels and Acts) we move into some of the most familiar and most beloved portions of Scripture.

But we must not mistake ‘familiar’ and ‘beloved’ with ‘rightly understood.’

The Gospels & Acts

New Testament Narrative may best be described as ‘Theological History’ or perhaps ‘Historical Theology.’ The term Gospel simply refers to the proclamation of good news and was typically associated with things like military conquest or the birth of a son.

While each Gospel-writer has his own purpose for writing, and therefore his own themes, we need to be familiar with big themes of the Gospels & Acts (kingdom, authority, end of the age, revelation of God, etc.). In particular, we want to see how each is deliberately trying to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of all humanity’s needs and all the OT’s expectations.

Forms of Writing in the Gospels

Parables: A parable is a short narrative that demands a response from the hearer. They are sheep-discerners (Mark 4.10-12). Some hints for parables:

  • Watch for contextual indicators which teach why parables are told (Lk 18.1; Lk 15.1-3; Lk 10.26-29)
  • Look for a single major point (with perhaps some secondary points), rather than allegorizing or universalizing
  • In some sense, these are proverbs in narrative form, contrasting how different people live before God (wise & foolish builders, pharisees/Levites & Samaritans, rich man & Lazarus, Pharisee & tax collector).
  • Parables are supposed to make you pensive; don’t press on too quickly

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The Epistles of Paul in Chronological Order

When I was planning my reading list for the summer I decided that I wanted to focus my Bible-reading-energy on the epistles of Paul for a couple months. I had the thought that it would be fun to read through his epistles chronologically to see how his thoughts and themes and concerns develop over time in different contexts.

So I did a little work to compile a timeline of the apostle Paul’s writings (see below). Since I had done the work anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to share it here.

Book Date Authored
1 Thessalonians 50-51
2 Thessalonians 50-51
Galatians 55
1 Corinthians 55
2 Corinthians 56
Romans 57
Philemon 61-62
Colossians 61-62
Ephesians 61-62
Philippians 62
1 Timothy 63-64
Titus 63-64
2 Timothy 65

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Newsflash: The New Testament is Shorter

Call me Captain Obvious if you like, but the New Testament is shorter than the Old Testament. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that in some sense the length of the two covenant documents speaks to the relationship between the covenants themselves and what is required of the people who are part of those covenants.

Simply asking the question, ‘Why is the New Testament shorter?’ helps us to see the nature of the covenants in contrast. For example, here are at least two parts of the answer that I would give you to that question:

1. There are no genealogies in the New Testament

One of the things that makes the Old Testament longer is the accumulation of stories of family lines. So, for example, the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is vital because it records God’s preservation of the line of Judah. The Old Testament is filled with both genealogies and narratives that preserve bloodlines.

The New Testament, on the other hand, has no genealogies (except for that of Jesus, which is the climax of the Old Testament). There are no stories of fathers and children, no stories of family lines being preserved.

This makes the New Testament shorter. It also illustrates one of the fundamental differences between the covenants. The older covenant was passed on from generation to generation through bloodlines and families (Gen 15.3-5), while the newer is passed on through gospel proclamation and faith (2 Tim 2.2). Therefore, the New Testament simply has the book of Acts which records how the gospel was proclaimed and believed. That’s all there is for narrative. There is no ongoing record of families which must be saved because God’s people will now be made up of ‘all nations’ as they become disciplines… adopted children.

2. There is no case law in the New Testament

A second reason why the Old Testament is longer is because Moses and many prophets after him are forced to belabour the teaching of the Law in any and every imaginable context (and even some rather unimaginable ones!). Every time I read through the Old Testament I’m amazed at some of the case law and think to myself, ‘Really? Someone did that? And they needed to set a precedent law against it?’

In the New Testament, however, there is a distinct lack of laws (note: I didn’t say distinct lack of Law). You would think that as the New Covenant was being received and applied across cultural boundaries and geographical regions and religious backgrounds there would be a lot more Acts 15-type-moments. But in reality, there aren’t, simply because the New Covenant isn’t about setting case law. That’s not the nature of this covenant.

For example, when the Corinthians ask Paul about whether or not they are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he does not deliver case law that is binding on all Christians. Rather, he holds up the ideal of freedom and then allows it to be swallowed up by the law of love so that individual Christians simply cannot answer the ethical question without coming face to face with the question, ‘What is love and am I willing to be governed by it?’ (see 1 Corinthians 8-10). He does the same thing again when it comes to the exercise of spiritual gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12-14). Love is the law that governs all of Christian behaviour in the New Testament (John 13.34-35).

And so it is written…

When you’ve only got one law that trumps in any and every situation, and you don’t have to record genealogies and family histories spanning thousands of years, you can write a much shorter covenant document. Which is precisely what we have.

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