Introducing the New Testament (or: How I wish CFM began)

“We are Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses” by Brenda K. Robinson.

Strangely, this year’s Come Follow Me materials lack a general introduction to the New Testament. It’s useful at the outset of a year of study to take a mile-high view. So here’s a hypothetical lesson outline.

1. The New Testament = Covenant

Define “testament.” On a basic level, the word suggests testimony, or witness of something. But the Greek word behind “testament” is diatheke, meaning a contract or covenant.

READ: Jeremiah 31.31–33 (NRSV)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

DISCUSS: What does it mean to have a law written on the heart? To be God’s people? Highlight the specter of anti-Semitism, observing that God always wanted the law written on hearts, etc.

READ: Matthew 26.26–28 (NRSV)

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

DISCUSS: What is the new covenant? Who is the new covenant? Note how the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament, is not simply a renewal of covenants, but a witness of and to Christ—it is our testifying and witnessing. (“[They] witness unto thee, Oh God, the Eternal Father…”)

2. The New Testament = Book

FAST FACTS: 27 separate books. Language is koine Greek, common vernacular of the period. Writings date from 50 CE (Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians) and about 130 CE (Jude and 2 Peter).

Divisible into 4 parts:

  1. The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Records witnessing to Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection.
  2. The Book of Acts. An account of the ministry of apostles after the resurrection. Said to be authored by Luke, focusing on Peter’s work among the Jews and Paul’s work among the Gentiles. Covering 30 to 60 CE.
  3. The epistles (letters). Written by Paul, people claiming to be Paul, and other apostles and leaders. Purpose: to instruct, correct, edify, organize Christians. 21 in all.
  4. Revelation, or the Apocalyse of John. Paints a cosmic struggle between good and evil, anti-Ronman, depicts end of era/world.

DISCUSS: Notice the book covers the beginnings of Christianity, the early spread of Christianity, the beliefs, practices, and ethics of Christianity and the culmination of Christianity.

3. The Cloud of Witnesses (Hebrews 12.1–2)

The books of the New Testament were written for different reasons, by different people, at different times. They do not always harmonize. Discuss testimony/perspective/authorship, the “cloud of witnesses.” (Clouds bring rain. Clouds protect from sun. Clouds obscure vision as well.)

READ/DISCUSS: Luke 1.1–4 (NRSV)

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus [Godlover], so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

READ/DISCUSS: John 20.30–31 (NRSV)

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

DISCUSS: Different writers emphasized different aspects of Jesus’s nature, ministry, work, gospel. What drawbacks and benefits are there for having multiple distinct voices like this? What do we think about the fact that testimonies of Christ in this most important scripture are somewhat diverse in approach, content, perspective? What does it suggest about our church today?

MY TAKEAWAYS: First, that God values and welcomes diverse perspectives. That no single witness is sufficient. And second, that we should prepare to be surprised by scripture.

4. John and Jesus Outline Jesus’s Mission

DESCRIBE: There’s a strange man out in the wilderness. He’s dressed in old rags. He’s eating insects. He’s calling for repentance. He’s putting people in the water and pulling them out again and telling them they’re reborn like new babies. And he’s foretelling the appearance of the expected Messiah. What he says surprises the people.

READ: Luke 3.3–8 (NRSV)

[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

DESCRIBE: There’s a local boy, now a man, returned home from his wanderings in the countryside with a group of questionable associates. There have been rumors of him working miracles and performing healings. But he seems wise and faithful enough, so the people of Nazareth allow him to perform the scripture reading in the synagogue. What he says surprises the people.

READ: Luke 4.17b–22 (NRSV)

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

EXPLAIN: Both John and Jesus cite Isaiah. The listeners are initially impressed, but when Jesus gets more specific about the poor, blind, and captives he mentions non-Israel outsiders like Naaman the Syrian, etc. the congregation is enraged. They want to throw him over a cliff. (A summary of vv. 25–29.) Jesus proclaims his priority for the marginalized, poor, outsiders at the outset of his public ministry to much opposition. (Resist anti-Semitic readings by observing that Jesus was not innovating here; he was drawing on Israel’s own scripture in ways that particular people, especially the comfortable and powerful, resisted.)

ASK: How might this impact how we read the rest of the gospels?

SUM: John the Baptist warned the people that God could raise up Abraham’s seed from stone; that the gospel of salvation would be open to all. He’s resisting the narrative of exclusivist covenant path blessedness with a gospel of repentance open to all.

Jesus suggests the same; that the outcasts could find blessings where some of the covenant people might miss them. As members of the church who have made covenants with God, what surprises us about these sections?

Comments

  1. Note: When I teach in Sunday school I usually have a class member read from the KJV, and then in certain instances I supplement the reading with the NRSV or another translation. This helps class members to hear the scriptures in a fresh way, to notice possible points that stand out differently, or to otherwise make a passage more clear. I’ve found this to be an effective way of using additional translations without ruffling feathers. In four different wards over the past decade or so class members have overwhelmingly enjoyed additional translation excerpts in my lessons, and are enriched buy them.

  2. Melanie Smith says:

    I just listened to Rob Bell’s podcast “the Robcast” with Alexander Shaia. I was wishing I were still gospel doctrine teacher and that I could introduce the NT—or at least the four “gospels”—with material from this podcast. Shaia argues that there is only one Gospel with four parts that answer four questions and describe the four-fold pattern of evolving consciousness—akin to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It was thought provoking and transformative.

    Blair, I think you should interview Shaia for your Fireside podcast! Reach out to him on http://Quadratos.com . Thanks for your post. I too wish CFM began with a more expansive intro to all “standard works”—but especially the NT!!

    Blessings,

    Melanie Smith Idaho Falls, ID

    Sent from my iPad

  3. Melanie Smith: which episode of “The Robcast”?

  4. “cloud of witnesses”

    Carrying your analogy one step further, clouds reduce the harshness of light’s bright contrasts and shadows and makes scene more even and easier to discern.

    Kinda like how in direct sunlight you’ll put your hand above your eyes to “cloud ” them to see more clearly.

  5. Great post! This would make for rich class discussion and more meaningful understanding of scripture. I’m going to use it for my family’s scripture study. Please keep writing posts like this.

  6. Great post! This would make for a great class discussion and more meaningful understanding. I’m going to use this for my family’s scripture study. Please keep writing posts like this.

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