|Needed: A New Approach to the
Have you ever read your Bible without understanding what you were reading? Have you ever read any of Paul’s letters and wondered, What did he mean when he penned this verse? Whom was this letter written to specifically? What were the people like to whom he wrote? Where was Paul when he wrote, and what was he feeling? What events prompted Paul to write this letter in the first place?
Have you ever read through the Book of Acts and thought to yourself, When exactly did these events take place? And at what point in this riveting epic did Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude pen their letters? How do all of the Books in the NT fit together? What special historical events were occurring during the first century, and what influence did they have on the early church?
What is needed, then, is a chronological-sociological-historical synopsis of the entire NT. A panoramic view of the first-century church in its chronological and socio-historical setting. The value of having such a view is priceless.
First, understanding the story of the NT church will give you a whole new understanding of each NT letter—an understanding that is rich, accurate, and exciting. You will be ushered into the living, breathing atmosphere of the first century. You will taste what went on in the writers’ hearts when they penned their letters. The circumstances they addressed will be made plain. The people to whom they wrote will come to life.
Understanding the story will cause us to no longer see the Epistles as sterile, complicated reads. Instead, it will turn them into living, breathing voices that are part of a living, breathing story. The result? You will grasp the NT like never before! NT scholar F.F. Bruce once made the statement that reading the letters of Paul is like hearing one side of a telephone conversation. We need to reconstruct “the other side.”
Second, understanding the story will help you see “the big picture” that undergirds the events that followed the birth of the church and its subsequent growth. This “big picture” has at its center an unbroken pattern of God’s working. And this pattern reflects God’s ultimate goal—which is to have a community on this earth that expresses His nature in a visible way. This theme of a God-ordained community constitutes a unifying thread that runs throughout the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore, understanding "the story" will not only help you to better understand your NT, it will also give you a fresh look at God’s eternal purpose…that which is closest to His heart.
Third, understanding the story of the NT church will supply you with the proper historical context which will enable you to accurately apply Scripture to your own life. Christians routinely take verses out of context and misapply them to their daily living. Seeing the Scripture in its proper historical context will safeguard you from making this all-too common mistake.
Fourth, understanding the story will forever deliver you from the “cut-and-paste” approach to Bible study that dominates evangelical thinking today. What is the “cut-and-paste” approach to Bible study? It is the common practice of coming to the NT with scissors and glue, clipping and then pasting disjointed sentences (verses) together from Books that were written decades apart.
This “cut-and-paste” approach has spawned all sorts of spiritual hazards. One of them being the popular practice of lashing verses together to build floatable doctrines. Another is that of “proof-texting” to win theological arguments. (A vast majority of Western Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random and de-contexualized verse ends all discussion on virtually all subjects.)
The Medievals called this “cut-and-paste” method “a string-of-pearls.” You take one text, find some remote metaphorical connection with another text, and voilá, an ironclad doctrine is born! But this is a pathetic approach to understanding the Bible. While it is great for reading one’s own biases into the text, it is horrible for understanding the intent of the biblical authors.
It has been rightly said that a person can prove anything by taking Bible verses out of context. Let me demonstrate how one can “biblically” prove that it is God’s will for believers to commit suicide. All you have to do is lift two verses out of their historical setting and paste them together:
“And he [Judas]…went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). “Then said Jesus…‘Go, and do thou likewise’ ” (Luke 10:37b).
While this is an outrageous example of the “cut-and-paste” approach, it makes a profound point. Without understanding the historical context of the NT, Christians have managed to build doctrines and invent practices that have fragmented the Body of Christ into thousands of denominations. Understanding the sequence of each NT Book and the socio-historical setting that undergirds them is one remedy for this problem.
I have stated four reasons why rediscovering the NT story is a worthwhile endeavor. But there is one more reason. There is a very good chance that it will revolutionize your Christian life and your relationship with your Lord.
The Books that make up our NT are grossly out of sequence. When the NT canon was compiled during the second century, Paul’s epistles were arranged according to their length rather than according to their dates. Chapter divisions were added in the year 1227 and verse divisions were inserted in 1551. See my book, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 11 for a detailed account of how this happened and its effects.
This article has been excerpted from Frank Viola's unique handbook to the New Testament. This handbook puts the New Testament in chronological order and gives the historical and sociological background to every New Testament epistle, thus creating one seamless story that opens up your New Testament. The handbook is called The Untold Story of the New Testament Church. It can be ordered at: www.ptmin.org/untold.htm