Jesus’ Life and Ministry
The New Testament and Its World
The world into which Jesus Christ came had been shaped by three important influences: the power of the Romans, the culture of the Greeks, and the religion of the Jews. In this lesson, you will see how God used each of these to do the groundbreaking work for the time when His Son would begin His earthly ministry. As Galatians 4:4 says, God sent His Son to us “when the time had fully come.”
Through human writers, God formed it and made it into harmonious unity. Its 27 books include several different kinds of writing. They were written at various times and under varying circumstances. Some were written to deal with certain problems; others were written to tell about specific events. But in all of them there is one important message: God has made a new agreement or testament with humanity through Jesus Christ.
The World of the New Testament
Several different forces had a part in shaping the world of the New Testament. For instance, though the Romans ruled Palestine when the New Testament was written, the language of the New Testament itself was Greek. Jesus, whose story is told in the New Testament, was a Jew, the Messiah whose coming the Old Testament Scriptures foretold. Furthermore, in the pages of the New Testament are people who followed many kinds of pagan religions and mystery cults. What were the forces that shaped the New Testament world?
According to Luke 2:1, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Caesar was the title given to the Roman emperors. In some places in the New Testament, the Roman emperor is also referred to as “king” (1 Peter 2:17 for example). At the time the New Testament was written, the Roman Empire extended from the western end of the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River in the near East. All of this great territory was under the rule of the emperor. The Romans divided their empire into provinces—areas with military bases. Several of these provinces are mentioned by name in the New Testament, such as Macedonia, Achaia, Syria, Asia, Galatia, and Pamphylia.
Roman power and political strength brought about political unity, militarily controlled peace, and freedom of trade and travel. The various nations that Rome conquered were brought under one rule. The Roman peace was enforced, and wars between these nations ceased. Roman citizens were given special protection. They could go anywhere in the empire without fear of being wrongly arrested or harmed. The apostle Paul, for example, who was greatly used by God in spreading the message of Christ to new areas, depended at times on the special protection he enjoyed as a Roman citizen (see Acts 16:38, 22:29).
The Romans excelled in building good roads and strong bridges. These roads were kept free of robbers. The roads connected the capital city of Rome to every part of the empire; it was said that “all roads lead to Rome.” The seas were cleared of pirates. As never before, there was safety, freedom, and ease of travel and communication.
Though the Romans were the political rulers of the world, Greek language and thought dominated its culture. One language and one world! Such was the motto and ambition of Alexander the Great. When he made his conquests, he took steps to unify all the nations under his control. The Greek language was taught everywhere in his empire. Greek culture was introduced as the pattern for thought and life, and it made a deep impact on the people of the New Testament world. (Greek culture is also called Hellenistic culture. This term comes from the word Hellas, the original name for the land of Greece. People who were Greek in culture were called Hellenists, though they may not have been Greek by birth.)
While Alexander’s political empire was short-lived, its cultural impact was great and long-lasting. For many centuries the whole Mediterranean world had the marks of Hellenistic influence. Greek customs and manners were widespread. Many cities copied the Greek style of architecture. The Greek spirit of inquiry into questions about the origin and meaning of the universe, God and humanity, and right and wrong were also adopted by the nations that were influenced by Greek culture. Greek became the language of the rulers and the common tongue of the slaves. Letters, poetry, and business communications were all written in Greek. In the New Testament, the term Greek was used to refer not only to the people of Greece but also to people who spoke Greek and were of other non-Jewish nations. Greek was used everywhere.
When the Romans came to power, they found in the Greek language an ideal way to communicate with their captured territories. Young Romans were sent to be educated in Greek universities such as those in Athens, Rhodes, and Tarsus. Eventually, Greek was widely spoken in Rome itself.
The Greek language was indeed a matchless vehicle for expressing the Christian message. Because the language was so widely used, the apostles could preach in Greek without needing to use interpreters. The widespread use of the language also explains why all of the New Testament books, written mostly by Jews, were first written in Greek. When Christ came with God’s message for the whole world, there was a world-wide language in which it could be communicated.
We have learned how God used Roman power and Greek culture to prepare the world to hear the message of Christ. God also used the Jewish people and religion for this same purpose. He revealed himself to the Jews and gave them prophecies about the Messiah who would come. These revelations and prophecies were written down and gathered together in the Old Testament. Old Testament teachings spread into many parts of the world as a result of the developments in Jewish life and religion that occurred during the exile and the intertestamental period. You will study these developments in the next section.
Three main developments took place in Judaism during the exile and the intertestamental years. These were the rise of the synagogue form of worship, the conversion of many non-Jews to Judaism, and the translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek.
1. The Synagogue.
When the Jews went into exile, they took with them the Old Testament Scriptures. These writings formed the basis for their religious practice. During captivity, they could not worship in the temple or offer animal sacrifices. However, their worship of the one true God continued.
They gathered in groups called synagogues to discuss and be instructed in the Scriptures. Ten or more male members could form a synagogue, and there could be more than one synagogue in a city. Synagogue worship included readings from the Law and the Prophets. The prophets had written about the coming of a Messiah who could deliver God’s people. As the Jews studied these writings, they began to look for this One who would rescue them from captivity.
2. The conversion of non-Jews to Judaism.
During their years of exile in Babylon, the Jews were used by God to make Him known to the Babylonians. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament, for example, records how king Nebuchadnezzar witnessed the power of God in Daniel and his three friends, Jewish youths whom he had captured and brought to Babylon. He was forced to admit that the God of Daniel was “the God of gods and the Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). The Jews were given freedom to worship and teach about their God. Though a group of them did return to Jerusalem when they were allowed to, many remained in Babylon and later settled in other places throughout the empire. With them, they carried their beliefs about God and the promise of a coming deliverer. No wonder we read in Matthew 2:1–2 that the Wise Men, led by the star, came from the east to Jerusalem seeking to worship the newborn King of the Jews!
The Jews who did not remain in Babylon or return to Palestine found their way to places such as Egypt, Greece, Macedonia, Rome, and the major cities of Asia Minor. (This scattering of the Jews is referred to as the diaspora or dispersion, as you learned in the course introduction.) Eventually, there were settlements of Jews in every nation in the entire area. In fact there were more Jews living outside Palestine than in it.
As a result of the dispersion, the teachings about the one true God and the coming Messiah became widely known. A considerable number of non-Jews in Palestine and elsewhere joined themselves to the Jewish religion, recognizing its superiority to pagan beliefs. These people were called proselytes and God-fearers. Proselytes submitted to all the requirements of the Law, including circumcision. They were treated as full members of the Jewish community. God-fearers, in contrast, accepted the Jewish teachings but did not take on themselves an obligation to fulfill the Law. They did not have full membership.
3. The Septuagint.
Wherever the Jews went, they took their Scriptures and taught them in the synagogues they formed. During this intertestamental time, the Old Testament Scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation was produced in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. It was called the Septuagint, a word meaning “seventy” because, according to tradition, the work of translation was done by seventy-two scholars. This translation helped spread the Old Testament teachings throughout the Greek-speaking world before the birth of Christ. It was used by the Jews, their converts, the writers of the New Testament, and the first preachers of the gospel.
New Testament Judaism
We have learned how the intertestamental developments in Judaism prepared the world for the preaching of the gospel. Now let us consider some specific aspects of the Jewish religion itself as it existed in New Testament times. These are referred to often in the New Testament.
The groups. There were two main parties or factions within Judaism: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the true Israel. The name Pharisee means “separated.” They followed strictly the written Law and the traditions of the elders, and they accepted the prophetic writings. In following the Law, they were assisted by the scribes, who interpreted it and helped them apply it to the changing conditions of everyday life. They believed in the existence of angels and spirits and in the resurrection of the dead. They practiced ritual prayer and fasting and gave tithes of their possessions. They would not work nor allow anyone else to work on the Sabbath. The people, over whom they had considerable influence, respected them as holy men. Zealous for Judaism, they won many non-Jews to their beliefs. Before his conversion to Christ, Paul the apostle was a Pharisee. Both the scribes and the Pharisees were active in the synagogues.
The Sadducees accepted only the Law as authoritative. They rejected the traditions of the elders and did not believe in angels, spirits, or the resurrection of the dead. They were more open to Hellenistic influences and were interested in the priesthood, the temple, and political power. Almost all of them were priests.
Though the Romans were able administrators, many Jews in Palestine greatly resented their rule. They hated paying taxes to the Roman government. Yet Roman rule was a fact of life. As a result, there was a constant undercurrent of Jewish rebellion and unrest. As these political tensions increased, many Jewish leaders gave more and more of their attention to dealing with them.
The ruling council. Under overall Roman rule, however, the Jews were given a degree of authority to govern themselves in political and religious matters. This authority rested in a council of seventy members called the Sanhedrin. The high priest was the head of this council, and the members were drawn mostly from the priesthood and the wealthy families. The Sanhedrin included a few Pharisees, who were popular with the people, but the Sadducees were the dominant group.
There was a magnificent temple in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ ministry. It was called “Herod’s temple” after Herod the Great, the ruler who built it. Both Solomon’s temple and the “second temple” had once stood on the place where it was erected. Solomon’s temple, though, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The “second temple” was the one rebuilt by the exiles who returned to Jerusalem before the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. This was the temple desecrated by Antiochus IV and then cleansed by Judas Maccabeas, as you will remember from the course introduction. Later, it apparently suffered destruction and was rebuilt by Herod around 20 BC.
Herod’s temple was similar to the previous ones. It had several gates, an inner wall beyond which non-Jews could not go, and a heavy veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The ceremonies of the temple were carried out by a company of priests headed by a high priest. Each year every male Israelite had to pay a temple tax (an amount equal to two days’ wages) for the building’s upkeep and the priests’ salaries.
The feasts. Though the Jews of the diaspora were widely scattered, they still considered Jerusalem to be their capital. Each year thousands of them, including many proselytes and God-fearers, went there as pilgrims to attend the great religious festivals. There they joined the Jews who lived in Palestine to celebrate the feasts that marked important events in their history. Two of the seven feasts held each year were particularly important in New Testament times. These were the Passover and Pentecost.
The Passover was the most important feast. It marked the anniversary of the deliverance of the Jews from the Egyptians and their beginnings as an independent nation. Exodus 11–12 tells how God brought about a final plague (punishment) upon the Egyptians so they would allow the Israelites to leave Egypt and go to the land God had promised to them. By following the instructions God gave them, the Israelites were spared from the plague in which all the firstborn sons and animals of the Egyptians were killed in one night.
The Israelites were commanded to observe the Passover Feast each year “as a lasting ordinance” for them and their descendants (Exodus 12:24). All Jewish males living in or near Jerusalem were required to attend the Passover Feast unless they were physically unable to do so. Many Jews of the diaspora, as well as proselytes and God-fearers, also came to Jerusalem for the event. The women also participated. Jerusalem teemed with the huge crowd that gathered for the celebration.
Pentecost was also an important festival in New Testament times. During the intertestamental period, this feast came to be celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Law to Moses (Exodus 19). In the Jewish community, the Law and its observance were a powerful, unifying force. The Jews considered the Law to be God’s greatest gift to them (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119). The festival was named Pentecost, a word meaning “50 days,” because it was held 50 days after the Passover.
God had revealed himself to the Jewish people. As a result of the diaspora, many non-Jews had been converted to Judaism and Judaism was widespread. However, it appears that by New Testament times, Judaism was becoming dominated by an increasingly narrow, racial spirit. For evidence of this, one has only to search the New Testament and observe the attitudes shown by the Jewish leaders described there. It seems that their own politics and affairs had begun to absorb most of their attention.
While the Jews were occupied with their concerns, other religions also claimed the people’s allegiance. Many people followed religions from the east, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Others became involved in the Greek mystery religions, which emphasized the ideas of resurrection and purification. Still others followed cults dedicated to deities and spirits associated with certain places and occupations. There was also the Roman state religion, in which statues of Roman emperors were worshipped as symbols of Roman power.
These factors show that there was a general interest in religion and a search for meaningful answers. People began to wonder if perhaps there was only one universal god. Many wanted to find cleansing from guilt, and there was a great desire to know what happened to people after death. The philosophies of the time had not provided acceptable answers, and people were unsatisfied with the conclusions reached by reason. Many lived lives of hopelessness, spiritual emptiness, corruption, and immorality. What a time for Jesus Christ to come—who would illuminate people’s darkened hearts and minds with the full radiance of God’s glory!
The Books Of The New Testament
We have become acquainted with the world of the New Testament—its religions, culture, and politics. Now let us turn our attention to the New Testament itself, the account of the great miracle of God becoming man to bring humanity back to God. It is the New Testament, for it announces the new agreement God made with humanity through Christ. While the Old Testament revealed God’s righteousness through the Law, the New revealed it through the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. We will examine the kinds of content, the authors, and the chronology of the 27 books that make up the New Testament.
The Content of the Books
There are four basic kinds of content in the New Testament: historical, doctrinal, personal, and prophetic. Each of these has certain features. In regard to content, the New Testament books are classified according to the main kind each contains. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, has some prophetic sections. However, most of its content is historical, so it is included among the historical writings.
The Historical Books
The historical books include the four accounts of the life of Christ (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the account of the beginning of the church (Acts). They are called historical books because their primary purpose is to record events and give facts. They include the names of many people and places. Often, they report words that were said on certain occasions. Many times, they give detailed descriptions of the circumstances and the results of specific actions.
In general, historical writings give information that answers questions such as What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who did it? What was said? What was the result? But the New Testament historical books give much more than the answers to such questions. The Son of God himself is revealed to us through the record of the things He said and did.
The Doctrinal Books
Most of the doctrinal books were letters written to certain groups of believers. They often dealt with specific problems that some of these groups were having as they tried to follow the Christian way of life. In writing to these believers, the authors of these books explained great truths about Jesus Christ and His work for them that they needed to understand. The authors also described the relationship believers have with Christ and how they should live as a result of it. The powerful messages God inspired them to write were not only for those first believers, but for “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
The doctrinal books include the following: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, and 1 John.
The Personal Books
In addition to the doctrinal and historical books, there are others that could be described as personal. These books were letters written to individual believers rather than groups. They are the Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and 2 and 3 John. Since they were written to leaders in the church, however, they became important to the whole Christian community. They contain guidelines for choosing church leaders, instructions for the management of church matters, personal advice for those to whom they were written, and other requests and comments.
The Prophetic Book
In general, the prophetic books of the Bible are those in which God has spoken concerning both present and future events. Thus, prophetic writings have two main purposes: 1) to give people a message about their present situation and how they should respond to it, and 2) to reveal future events and God’s plan for the world. Though almost all the books of the New Testament contain some prophecy, the book of Revelation is given completely to it.
Revelation had a message for the seven churches of Asia to whom it was written. It also describes the final destiny of the people of God, Satan and his followers, and the heavens and the earth. It shows that Christ, the Lamb who was slain, is completely victorious. It is an example of a special kind of prophetic writing, called apocalyptic. This means that its message reveals truth by using symbols and vivid word pictures. For example, the seven churches of Asia are pictured as lampstands (1:12, 20), and Satan is pictured as a dragon (12:7– 9).
Authors of the Books
The New Testament books were written by eight (or possibly nine) men: Matthew, Peter, John, Mark, Jude, James, Luke, Paul, and the writer to the Hebrews (some Bible scholars believe that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews). Of these men, all were Jews except Luke. Matthew, Peter, and John were members of Jesus’ original group of twelve disciples. Mark, Jude, and James had associated with the disciples and were part of the Early Church. Luke and Paul knew those who had witnessed Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
Chronology of the Books
In the New Testament, the books are grouped according to their content. That is, the historical books are first, the doctrinal and personal books next, and the prophetic book last. However, we will not study the books in this order but in their chronological sequence. This means that we will study them according to the specific years of history with which they deal. This procedure will help us gain knowledge of the events that happened in their historical setting.
The New Testament and Its World
The historical events mentioned in the writings of the New Testament took place within a span of approximately 100 years, from 6 BC to AD 95. This span of time can be divided into three periods: 1) the life and ministry of Jesus, 2) the beginning and growth of the church, and 3) the continued growth and persecution of the church.