Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Orderly Meditation: A (Very Late) Follow-Up

Quite some time ago, I wrote a post on the subject of the order of the books of the New Testament, which, as most of our readers are probably aware, is anything but chronological. I noted that I had decided to start reading the NT in the order it was written (as far as we are able to determine) on my next daily pass through the Bible “just to see how it goes”.

Time flies, and more than five years have passed since I wrote those words. I am just starting my eighth straight trip through the NT in chronological order, which seems as good a time as any to report on the experience.

I’m going to give it a big thumbs-up.

For the record, here’s the order in which I have been reading:

1st Thessalonians
2nd Thessalonians
1st Corinthians
2nd Corinthians
1st Timothy
1st John
2nd John
3rd John
1st Peter
2nd Timothy
2nd Peter


One advantage to reading chronologically is that we get a much more definite sense of which subjects the Holy Spirit determined needed to be addressed most urgently in the young and growing church of the first century. Each letter in the New Testament was written in the first instance to address local situations and the needs of a specific group of Christians, but always with the intention that the letters be circulated. What needed addressing in one local gathering would surely eventually be relevant to the needs of other gatherings of believers. So then, individually each letter addresses particular issues, but collectively they supply a body of teaching for coming generations, and the priorities of the apostles are evident in the order in which matters are addressed. The earlier a letter was written, the more widely it would circulate with each passing year, and the more widespread and pervasive its teaching would become. That doesn’t make the later letters less important, just less urgent.

So what is in those early letters? Well, Galatians stresses the importance of justification by faith alone, and not by works of the law. That this was an urgent matter indeed is revealed in the letter itself, as well as in Acts 15. Legalism posed an existential threat to the gospel (“If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you”). Paul fired that one off, to the best of our knowledge, just before the mid-point of the century. Shortly after came 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, which are largely concerned with holy living in view of the return of the Lord. Then come 1st and 2nd Corinthians, which address practical questions of Christian living and church order. And Romans? Paul writes, as one commentator has put it, of righteousness needed, provided, vindicated and practiced; things heavily doctrinal but fundamental to our understanding of salvation.

All these subjects were of crucial importance to the growing church of the first century.


In one of those earliest letters, Paul wrote these words: “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The word “perfect” may be translated “complete”. When Paul said that prophecy would pass away and tongues would cease, I believe he meant in fairly short order. Once the New Testament was completed and the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire post-AD70, there remained no need for either sign gifts or direct revelation. God had said what he wanted to say, and no more need be said.

Accordingly, we notice in the later books that sense of completeness. In what is probably the third-last book of the NT to be written, Peter would tell us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” How would that be realized? “Through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” When Peter wrote, all but a tiny percentage of that “knowledge” was already out there in the churches in the form of letters, history and gospels. Only Jude and Revelation remained to be written. Jude, when he writes, is saying much the same thing when he refers to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”, past tense. It had been, first verbally, then in writing. Also in this third-last book of the NT, Peter puts his stamp of approval on the writings of the apostle Paul, referring to them as “scripture”. He could do this, once again, because all Paul’s letters were out there in the churches circulating, and his readers were familiar with them.

Also among the last books written, John’s gospel is the final word about the life of Christ, and what a word it is! A Bible without John’s gospel would be hugely impoverished. Moreover, his epistles and the book of Revelation present the first century church fully developed and experiencing many of the difficulties about which the apostle Paul earlier warned.

Looking at these final books of the New Testament, it is not a stretch for us to think that the “complete thing” had now arrived.

Reading in Order

It’s hard to overvalue the beneficial effect of repeatedly reading the books of the New Testament in the order they were written. I feel like I have a much better grasp of the content of NT teaching than I did before I started reading chronologically. I appreciate more and more that the New Testament is an integrated whole, designed to convey to the churches the substance of apostolic and prophetic teaching which they would have received verbally from those who planted them, and which would otherwise have been lost to us.

I have often heard Bible teachers stress the importance of trying to understand the word of God as its first hearers would have understood it. I can’t think of a better way to do this than to get into their sandals, so to speak, and read what the Holy Spirit had to say to them in the order he actually said it.

I will probably never go back to reading the books of the NT in the order they appear in the standard Bible. There seems to be no added value in that.

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