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Table of Contents
1 In the Fullness of Time
2 Obscure Beginnings
3 Ministry in Obscurity
4 Proclaiming the Kingdom
5 A Spiritual Kingdom
6 Ministry in the Face of Opposition
7 The Final Week
8 50 Days
9 Witnesses in Jerusalem
10 Witnesses in Judea and Samaria
11 Prelude to Expansion
12 Targeting the Gentiles
13 What to Do With the Gentiles?
14 On to Europe
15 Strengthening the Churches
16 Put on Ice
17 Faithful to the End
18 Future History
Appendix – Why Revelation?
About the Author
List of Illustrations
The Babylonian and Egyptian Empires
The Persian Empire
Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires
The Roman Empire
Daniel’s 70 Weeks
Paul’s Early Ministry
Paul’s 2nd Missionary Journey
Paul’s 3rd Missionary Journey
Paul’s Journey to Rome
Further Apostolic Labors
In the Fullness of Time
Introduction: Why do a survey of New Testament history?
One of the best things a congregation can do to promote spiritual growth is emphasize expository speaking and teaching – going verse by verse through some book of the Bible. This is appropriate for, as Paul writes, the Scriptures can make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). In the same passage Paul goes on to say, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV) So, it is essential that we spend time studying, assimilating and applying the Scriptures to our lives.
Having said that, it is possible to concentrate so much on the detail that we miss the big picture. To put it another way, we cannot really understand the detail unless we first have an understanding of the context and framework of what we’re looking at. How does a particular incident, how does a particular book or letter fit into God’s over-all plan? These studies provide a look at the broad picture. I intend them to provide you with the background and context to help you understand how the New Testament fits together.
I. The Focus Is Christ
Part of the ‘big picture’ is understanding what the point of the Bible is. We have a natural tendency to be selfish. Unfortunately, this tendency comes to the fore even when we study the Bible. It’s very tempting to concentrate on God’s promises to us. We ask ourselves the question – and it is a very legitimate question – “How does this benefit me?” It’s true that we need to know how Scripture affects us. We need the hope that meditating on God’s promises gives us. But, even while thinking about our relationship to God and how Scripture applies to us, it is possible to miss the point. We will never arrive at a proper understanding of Scripture and what God is doing in history until we realize that the focus of the entire Bible is Jesus Christ. It is not about us, per se. It is not really even about our relationship with God, per se. This was the fundamental mistake which the Jews of Jesus’ day made in regard to the Scriptures: They missed what they are all about. Jesus said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40 NIV)
How, then, should we approach the Bible? Since the focus of all Scripture is Christ, we must study the Bible with the same focus or we will never arrive at a proper understanding of it. God’s purpose is to make us like Christ. For example, Paul defines spiritual maturity as “…attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 NIV)
It is not God’s purpose to make us happy, but to make us like Jesus. It is not His purpose to make us better people, but to make us like Jesus. Happiness and a better character are not end results to be desired in themselves. They are byproducts of something far more important and fundamental, that is, becoming like Christ. Our focus should not be on the things promised so much as on becoming Christlike which makes obtaining the promises possible. When trying to apply Scripture we should not ask how we will benefit so much as how applying it can make us more like Jesus.
II. Setting The Stage
The New Testament didn’t appear out of a vacuum. Over a period of thousands of years, God very carefully set the stage for the coming of Christ and the spreading of the Gospel message.
The first glimpse of God’s plan of redemption came right after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. God promised that someday an offspring of the woman would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15).
After Adam and Eve sinned, mankind became more and more corrupt until God had to destroy the entire world in a flood except for Noah and his family. Noah’s ark is a powerful picture of the salvation which God was going to offer the world through Jesus Christ.
After the flood, mankind spread over all the earth and divided into peoples and tribes. Out of all of them God picked one man through whom to start to reveal His will. From Abraham’s descendants, God picked one son. From that son’s descendants God picked another son through whom He built a nation, set apart in order to fulfill the divine plan.
Tangent: Why did God pick the Jewish people through whom to fulfill salvation history? We don’t know. Scripture does not tell us all the reasons. However, the Jewish people have one virtue that sets them apart from all other peoples and may be why God chose them. This is speculation, but it seems that the Jewish people were the only ones who preserved God’s word. Think about it. Only eight people survived the flood. They all knew what had happened. They all knew what God said to Noah. They all knew the promises. Yet only one branch of the family chose to preserve the record. Only one branch of the family preserved a knowledge of God. All the rest turned away from God into idolatry and garbled the history of what happened. Though the Jewish people had plenty of problems themselves; though they were often unfaithful, they still preserved the Word. I think it was for this reason that God chose them as the people through whom to bring the Savior into the world.
Throughout the Old Testament period, God continued the winnow-ing process. Out of the nation, He selected one tribe. Out of the tribe, He picked one family and one lineage until last of all, His choice fell on one, probably teen-aged, girl in Nazareth in Galilee.
In addition to winnowing out the lineage, and eventually the person through whom the Savior would be brought into the world, there were some other really important things which God did during the Old Testament period.
1) God taught mankind some key spiritual concepts and ideas and developed the vocabulary necessary to express them. It’s very difficult to communicate with someone unless you speak the same language. It’s very difficult to lead someone to new truth unless that truth is an extension or expression of concepts already understood. It’s this way in any area of human experience. For example, it’s impossible to learn to read unless you first learn the alphabet and the sounds letters make. In the same way, each area of life and each skill has it’s own vocabulary.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. In order to be reconciled to God or even understand the divine plan, mankind needed to learn some key concepts and vocabulary. Through the centuries, God patiently taught about such things as sin, holiness, sacrifice, covenant, mercy, justice, propitiation, mediation and justification. This was one of the functions of the Mosaic Law. For example, Paul writes, “…I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”” (Romans 7:7 NIV)
2) Mankind learned that it needed a Savior. One of the constants in human nature is the notion that we can save ourselves. We think that we can be good enough. We can earn our way into God’s good graces. Through God’s dealings with the Israelites, it became abundantly clear that nobody is capable of living up to His standards of perfection. No one was able to keep God’s Law. Rules and regulations cannot save. Salvation and reconciliation with God must be based on a different principle.
3) God prepared the world to receive the Savior. Sending the Savior into the world was not a random event. God waited until conditions were right. He was working through history to shape the world so that the Gospel message could spread rapidly to many different peoples in a short amount of time. Paul writes, “…when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” (Galatians 4:3-5 NIV)
III. 400 Years Of Silence?
Let’s explore this last point a little more. The constant message of the Old Testament was that a Savior is coming. Prophet after prophet directed people’s attention to the promise that one day God would redeem His people. The big question was, when? Peter writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Peter 1:10-11 NIV)
The last prophet to write was Malachi. He closed his book with a prophecy that the day of the Lord was coming (Malachi 4:5).
When we look back in time, we tend to telescope history. When we read the pages of the Old Testament, it’s easy to think of the events happening right after each other without realizing the long stretches of time that come between them. There must have been many times when it seemed that God was not working and that He was never going to fulfill the promise of sending a Savior. This was the situation after Malachi wrote. God spoke to Malachi and, then, fell silent. There were no more prophecies for 400 years.
But was God really silent? No! For those who were listening and watching, God’s work was plain to see. God had revealed a precise road-map and timetable of events through the prophet Daniel, leading up to the coming of the Savior. Let’s take a brief look at it.
[Graphic: The Babylonian and Egyptian Empires]
Because of unfaithfulness, God sent the nation of Israel into exile to Babylon. While at Babylon, Daniel saw a series of visions of what was going to happen in world history. From the world’s perspective it looked like the Babylonian Empire was impregnable. But Daniel saw that it would shortly be overturned by another.
The Persians swallowed up the Babylonian Empire. It was during this period that, in fulfillment of prophecy, the Persians allowed a faithful remnant to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
[Graphic: The Persian Empire]
The Persian Empire fell, in turn, to Alexander the Great. In thirteen short years he conquered all the territory up to the borders of India. Then, as foreseen by Daniel, he suddenly died at the height of his power.
[Graphic: Alexander’s Empire]
It is significant that Alexander honored the Jews. Josephus writes that when Alexander marched toward Jerusalem, the High Priest came out to greet him as a fulfillment of prophecy. Alexander was so impressed that he granted the Jews freedom to practice their customs and worship (Antiquities, Book XI, Chapter VIII, 4-5).
[Graphic: Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires]
Alexander’s generals broke up his empire into competing sections. From the standpoint of salvation history, the two most important kingdoms to emerge from the breakup were headed by Seleucus and Ptolemy. These two kingdoms struggled for control of Palestine. At first, the Ptolemies gained control. Under their rule the Jewish people enjoyed relative peace and prosperity.
[Graphic: The Roman Empire]
In 198 BC, however, the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemies and occupied Palestine. One of their rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes declared himself divine and tried to impose Greek culture on the Jews. He tried to destroy the Jewish religion and desecrated God’s Temple in Jerusalem by offering pigs and other unclean animals on the altar.
In 166 BC the Jews revolted and after defeating the Syrians in battle after battle, were able to win their independence. Ironically, the Jewish leaders fell to squabbling among themselves. Finally, in 63 BC the Romans intervened. Pompey captured Jerusalem and Jewish rule came to an end. For about the next 100 years, the Romans ruled Palestine through proxy kings. Herod the Great, who was the ruler at the time of Christ’s birth, was one of these.
For those who were familiar with the prophecies, it must have been reassuring to see them fulfilled one after another and realize that the time for the coming of the Savior was drawing close. However, Daniel not only saw the succession of world empires, God also gave him a time-table. In Daniel chapter 9, verses 25 through 27 there is a precise indication of when Christ would come. For those who understood the prophecy of the 70 weeks, it must have been exciting to realize that the time had come.
IV. World Conditions
What sort of world was it into which the Savior was born?
1) Because of their exile to Babylon and subsequent events, there were communities of Jewish people scattered through-out the known world. Their presence prepared the way for the Gospel message by bringing people into contact with key concepts and ideas from the Old Testament.
2) Alexander had a deliberate policy of spreading Greek culture. One of the significant results of this is that Greek became the universal language of trade and commerce. This common language greatly helped the spread of the Gospel.
[Graphic: Daniel’s 70 Weeks]
3) The Ptolemies placed a high value on learning. The library at Alexandria was the finest in the world and a center of genuine scholarship. One of the most important events in relation to salvation history was the translation, sponsored by the library, of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek in the 3rd century BC. This translation (called the Septuagint) played a crucial role in the spread of the Gospel. Synagogues throughout the Mediterranean region used it. Gentiles who could not read or understand Hebrew now had access to God’s word. Just as important, the translation had an effect on the Greek language. The meanings or connotations of many Greek words changed as a result of using them to express Hebrew ideas. In this way Greek speaking people learned new spiritual concepts.
4) The Romans invested a great deal of time and treasure on infrastructure. They are famous for the roads they built – some of which are still in use. Travel became easier than at any previous time in history. This greatly aided the spread of the Gospel.
5) The Roman period was a time of relative stability. Though there was a great deal of turmoil on the borders, there was relative calm within the empire. Political stability and consistent application of laws throughout the empire aided the preaching of the Gospel. For example, more than once, Paul was able to use his status as a Roman citizen to advantage.
6) It was a time when people were heavily influenced by superstitions. The use of spells and incantations was widespread. Magic was big business. For example, see the account in Acts 19:18-19 about burning expensive scrolls used in sorcery. Belief in demonic activity was universal. People believed that sickness and all sorts of calamities were caused by demons. Even highly educated and accomplished people like the Roman general Germanicus were so fearful of the occult powers that they actually willed themselves to death when they thought they had been placed under a curse.
7) It was a time of moral degeneracy. Temple prostitution, both male and female, was universal and accepted. The pleasure gardens of Antioch were world-famous. The promiscuity of the Greek and Roman upper classes is legendary. Plays put on in the theater were lewd and explicit.
8) It was a time of breakdown in the family. Divorce and remarriage was rampant. Incest was common.
9) Little value was placed on human life. Untold thousands died in gladiatorial contests and other blood-sports in the arena. If a newborn didn’t meet a father’s approval, it would be thrown out along the road to die. Abortion was common.
10) Slavery was widespread. Up to one third of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves.
It’s interesting to compare our time with those at the birth of Christ. There are a number of similarities.
1) Christian ideas and thought have had a major influence all over the world. Many times people do not even realize that a particular idea or principle is from the Bible, yet it has changed their behavior or belief structure.
2) English has become the universal language of business, commerce and diplomacy. This makes cross-cultural evange-lism easier than ever before.
3) Translations of the Scriptures are available in almost every major language.
4) Travel is easier than at any time in history. Air travel has brought most places on the globe only a few hours or days away. Even more importantly, communication is far easier and more universal than ever. The Internet has created new forms of communication and new opportunities.
5) Though our world is torn by strife and conflict, it has been relatively stable ever since World War II. Within broad limits, Americans can travel virtually anywhere they want and enjoy the protection of international law. When they do get into trouble, American embassies around the world can usually help resolve the problem.
6) Belief in magic, the reading of horoscopes, consulting psychics, etc. are all on the rise.
7) Moral degeneracy is on the rise. Promiscuity is rampant. Pornography, x-rated movies and lewd theater shows are everywhere. Homosexuality and prostitution are accepted as normal behaviors.
8) It seems like stable families are the exception. Divorce and remarriage are common. Sexual abuse of children by parents and siblings is everywhere.
9) Little value is placed on human life. Abortion is common-place. Society regards it as a right. People commit murders over trivial things. Violent movies and TV shows are the rule rather than the exception. Blood sports are popular. Shoot-em-up computer games are best-sellers.
10) Slavery is on the rise – particularly in the sex trade.
VI. A Series Of Visions
A series of visions to various people heralded the coming of the Savior.
1) To Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20). An angel foretold the birth of John the baptist, who was to be the forerunner of the Christ.
2) To Mary (Luke 1:26-38).
3) To Joseph (Matthew 1:18-21).
4) To the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15).
5) To Simeon (Luke 2:25-32).
6) To the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).
VII. Are You Watching?
1) Are we ready for a divine encounter?
What impresses me about all these people is that they were open to hearing God’s message even while they were going about the ordinary activities of life. Yes, Zechariah happened to be in the Temple when his encounter occurred. But even he was going about his normal duties and activities. Are we ready for a divine encounter as we go about the tasks of daily living?
What impresses me even more about these people is that they were willing and ready to act on the vision they received. For some of them, it meant accepting considerable risk and inconvenience. Yet all of them obeyed. Zechariah may have been skeptical at first, but when he was convinced that what he experienced was genuine, he accepted it and acted on it. How willing are we to act on the truth we are given? Are we willing to put ourselves at risk to obey the message?
2) Are we looking for the coming of the King?
Just as God gave the Jewish people the promise that a Savior would come one day, He’s given us the promise that one day the Savior is coming back. Are we looking for His return? No, we haven’t been given a time-table like the one found in Daniel. In fact, Jesus said that nobody knows when the return will be. But would we be surprised if Jesus should come one of these days? Are we eagerly anticipating His return? Are we looking for the fulfillment of the prophecies of the things which must happen before the return?