When you get serious about God, you have many questions.
It is time to begin your own research, and put away
"hear say" information. You realize you want to learn all you can
about God. In the Western World, Judeo-Christian traditions prevail. All
information on these religious traditions comes from the Bible. It is our
"holy book," our accepted depository of God information.
A good way to start is to try to erase all the "hear say" information you have accumulated and make a fresh start. If you are in the Christian tradition, you start with the New Testament. Bible means books and comes from the Greek word biblica. It contains the primary recorded religious history of both Christians and Jews.
It covers the period from creation (Adam) through Jesus' last disciple (John) who died at the end of the first century A. D. Its two part division is for two epochs of human history. The first epoch is called the Old or B. C., the time before Jesus' birth. The New is from Jesus' birth forward and is designated A. D., or anno domini. Testament simply means testimony about, or witness to those two epochs of religious history.
For Jews and Judaism, only the Old Testament is considered sacred. - most especially the record from Abraham (c.1800 BC) through Malachi (c.460 BC). Judaism is rooted in the first five Old Testament books. Those are known as The Law (Torah), or the books of Moses. The Old Testament divides into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Old Testament records a closed religious era of how God once worked exclusively with tribal Jews through their monarchy and Temple. It is the history of Judaism and the genealogy of Christianity.
The Jews' religious system, known as Judaism, had a double ending. It ended spiritually at Jesus' death and resurrection. It then ended temporally when the Roman Empire's army, under their general Titus sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple (70 AD). Because of Jesus, Temple worship was no longer necessary. Because of Titus, it was no longer possible. This completed Jesus' prediction of the end of Israel and was affecting God's curse on Israel, Deuteronomy 28:15 -68, and especially verse 63 that removes the Jews from the land.
After Jesus and Titus, with Temple worship eliminated, the only remaining path to God was through Jesus and his teachings - the Gospel, the Good News, "The Way." Because of Jesusí primacy, for Christians the place to start Bible study is with the New Testament.
All Christian denominations claim they are based on the Scripture, but all differ. One wonders why. If all start at the same place, why does each come up with different answers? It may be because few read the Bible the way God transmitted it.
Most religious people believe the Bible is the "inspired word of God." If we seriously believe God is the author of the Bible, we should be more careful about handling and reading it. Assuming God wrote the Bible, its order is his plan. We should read it in the order we find in it. That is, the New Testament starts at Matthew 1:1 and ends with the final verse at Revelation 22:21.
As we read any book, we read it as the author intended. We start at the beginning and, sooner or later, we finish by reading the last sentence. How strange it is that most people read secular books as written but skip around when reading the Bible! If we read the New Testament in its preserved order, we receive our spiritual education as God programmed it for us. It is just as if we attend God's seminary.
First, in it, God gives us four different collections of Jesus' words, works, and way. If we read all four - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - we know what God wants us to know about Jesus. If we understand what Jesus actually said, we can stay clear of any peculiar "hear say" ideas that conflict with Jesus' beliefs.
After the first four books about Jesus, Acts tells us the words, works, and ways of the early Christian fellowships, known as the "church," the ekklesia, the fellowship groups of all those different believers who lived in different places.
Paul's letters follow Acts. Paul was Christianity's first trained commentator. Paul was supernaturally called by Jesus, had trained under a great rabbi in the Temple, was "blameless under the Law/Torah, a Jew's Jew, and a Pharisee's Pharisee." That is, Paul had the training and credentials to be the leading theologian of that time.
Jesus had picked the best. Paul's thought and writings freed Christianity from Judaism's traditions for all time. Paul's letters give us practical understandings of Jesus' ministry and mission. Paul clearly explains Jesus' words as being the way to salvation, replacing the old system of winning God's favor by a series of required religious works - liturgies, rituals and "good acts."
Then comes Hebrews to explain the "inexplicable" exchange of the first (Old) Covenant to the Jews to the second (New) Covenant. Jesus' New Covenant offers every person citizenship into the "Kingdom of Heaven," God's new Holy Nation. That citizenship is available to all humans regardless of intelligence, literacy, age, gender, race or national affiliation. The author of Hebrews is unknown, but the ideas in it follow Paul's beliefs.
After Paul come the thoughts and comments (letters) from more of Jesus' Apostles. First Peter and First John are especially important.
The final book of the New Testament is Revelation. Controversy has always swirled around it. That is because its style and theology differs from the twenty-six other New Testament Books. There has been much dispute on who is its writer who had this revelation on the island of Patmos. It is difficult for many to believe that a man who simply describes himself as, "I, John," is John the Apostle. He does not give the credentials John the Apostle gave about himself in the Gospel of John (John 19:26). In the fourth Gospel, John the Apostle always identified himself as a close associate of Jesus. Yet when John of Patmos "sees" Jesus, it so frightens him that he falls in a dead faint (1:17). Would John the Apostle be afraid of Jesus? Would you be afraid to see Jesus?
It is also noted that John was the Apostle who stressed the importance of love, a lesson he learned directly from Jesus (John 12:34, 35).
(Revelation stresses doctrinal purity and parts of it [Revelation 2: 20-29] are more closely kin to Islam's Koran than to Jesus' words of love.)
What Jesus really called us to do is to (agape) love God with all our being and to love one another as he loved us. He promised the Holy Spirit could and would make this possible for sinful humans by "writing the law on our hearts and minds." (Hebrews 8:8-12)
John of Patmos changes the great gift of God's free grace back to the Old Testament idea of "works." This is only one of several ways Revelation contradicts Jesus as reported by John the Apostle (Gospel of John). Because the Book of Revelation is so filled with controversial ideas, and does nothing to tell us how to follow Jesus, most Christians ignore it. It can be ignored without damaging a seekers spiritual understanding. Revelation's mysteries are best left for explanation in our next life.
These problems caused some eastern churches to reject Revelation as belonging in the New Testament canon during the first four hundred years of Christianity.
It is sure, however, that no two people ever come to the same conclusions about what the Book of Revelation means!
Those many different opinions lead to much debate, argument, and division within Christianity. Most Christians think there is more than enough to learn in the first twenty-six books without being diverted into debates about Revelation.
While some Christians center their attention on Revelation, and magnify its importance, most avoid the conflict and study the thoughts of Jesus in the four Gospels and Paul's major letters.
The fact remains, all people since Jesus live/lived in the New Covenant era. The Old Covenant has vanished (Hebrews 8, esp. verse 13). Jesus made God easily available. God is freely open to all people who want to be in his presence. This is the GOOD NEWS we call the GOSPEL
THE NEW TESTAMENT IS THE DOCUMENT THAT EXPLAINS GOD AND HIS WILL FOR ALL MANKIND
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