Between the Testaments
From the close of the Old Testament to the opening events of the New Testament, over 400 years elapsed. These years are sometimes called “the silent years” because God did not send any prophets to his people.
Although some of the Jews had returned from exile during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, most settled in the land of their captivity and were eventually scattered throughout the ancient world. This scattering of the Jews is called the Diaspora. Since these Jews did not have access to the temple, they worshipped and learned in smaller meeting houses called synagogues. Scribes interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures and rabbis passed on their interpretations verbally.
Two major religious parties formed during this time: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees tried to require all Jews to obey the extremely strict verbal traditions taught by the rabbis. The Sadducees only held to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), and rejected any teachings that they did not think were not taught in those books (e.g. the resurrection of the dead).
The First Four Books of the New Testament
The New Testament opens with four “Gospels”—records of the “good news” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each author includes details that advance the purpose of his Gospel. Matthew, for example, emphasizes that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews while Mark pictures Jesus as a suffering servant. Together, the four Gospels harmonize beautifully and provide corroborating testimony about Jesus.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are similar in content, while John offers a significant amount of supplementary material and is more theological in nature. Over the next two weeks, you will read John’s Gospel as well as excerpts from the Synoptic Gospels that help to provide a more complete picture of the chronology of Jesus’ life. John states the purpose of his book in John 20:31: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
DAY 1: John 1:1-18; Luke 1:26-2:52
Although John does not record details about Jesus’ birth, the introduction to his Gospel (1:1-18) speaks of Jesus as the God and Creator who has always existed, and came to live among us. Luke’s highly detailed Gospel includes the beloved “Christmas Story.”
Key Concept — The Word: John opens his Gospel with a prologue about a person called “the Word.” In the Old Testament, we learn that the whole world was created by God’s spoken word (Gen. 1; Ps. 33:6). God’s word is personified as going forth to accomplish a mission (Isa. 55:11), saving and healing his people (Psalm 107:19-20), and bringing the light of life (Psalm 56). God’s word is the way he makes himself known (revelation) and interacts with the world (creating, saving, healing). John makes similar statements about “the Word” in chapter 1: “All things were made through him” (v.3); “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v.4). Those who receive this Word are born again and become children of God (v.12-13). In verses 14-18, John makes it unmistakably clear that the Word is Jesus: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God—God in human form, revealed to save his people.
DAY 2: Matthew 3:13-4:11; John 1:19-3:36
Matthew’s Gospel records that before Jesus started his earthly ministry (at about 30 years of age), he was baptized by John the Baptist and subjected to a period of intense temptation from the devil. John’s Gospel picks up with the testimony of John the Baptist, who served as the forerunner to Jesus; that is, he announced the coming of Jesus, calling people to repent and prepare their hearts. John identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).
Jesus begins calling men to follow him as disciples, then demonstrates his power and authority by performing his first miracle at Cana and cleansing the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In chapter 3, a Jewish ruler named Nicodemus is curious about Jesus and questions him under the cover of night; Jesus explains to him the way of salvation and speaks the famous words recorded in John 3:16. Chapter 3 closes with John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus, that he is “above all” (3:31).
Key Concept — Born Again: In John 3:3-8, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born again to enter heaven. When someone truly humbles himself and believes on Jesus for salvation, the Spirit of God imparts eternal life to him or her. Man’s real need is for this inward, spiritual transformation, which is also referred to as the “regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The one who is born again is “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17); though he was once “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), he is now “alive unto God” (Romans 6:11) and “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 3:1). The spiritual life that the Holy Spirit imparts to a believer is just as real as the physical life that proceeds from a mother’s womb.
DAY 3: John 4-5, Matthew 5
In John 4-5, Jesus witnesses to the people of Samaria, who were hated by the Jews. Many Samaritans believe and recognize that “this One is indeed the Savior of the world” (4:42). When Jesus heals a paralytic on the Sabbath, the Jews persecute him—the first of many such encounters. Jesus explains that both he and his Father (God) have been working since the creation (i.e. sustaining the universe), and John 5:17-30 makes clear that Jesus is equal with God in nature, power, and authority. This echoes John 1:1, where we learn that Jesus is both with God (i.e. the Father) and yet truly God (i.e. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity). In John 5:31-46, Jesus teaches that John the Baptist, his own works, the Father who sent him, and the Scriptures all bear witness to the truth about who he is.
Matthew 5 is the first chapter in what is frequently called “The Sermon on the Mount” (ch. 5-7) which records Jesus’ most well-known teachings. Verses 2-12 are called the “Beatitudes” or “blessings,” and teach the path to spiritual blessedness (well-being and happiness). For example, Jesus teaches that those who are “poor in spirit”—recognize they are spiritually bankrupt and in need of God’s grace—are blessed because they will receive the kingdom of heaven. Jesus goes on to explain and apply the Old Testament law; in contrast to the faulty interpretations of the Jewish rabbis, Jesus gets to the heart of God’s commandments, pointing people to the need for internal transformation rather than mere outward conformity.
DAY 4: Matthew 6-7, 13
In Matthew 6-7, Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 13 records several of Jesus’ most popular parables (stories that illustrate spiritual truths by using analogies). There are nearly forty parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.
DAY 5: John 6-8
After Jesus performs several miracles, he teaches that he is the bread of life—the only source of spiritual life. At this time, many of Jesus’ disciples forsake him, but Peter declares “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69).
Jesus faces opposition while at a Jewish feast in Jerusalem, where he is a highly controversial figure among the Jews. When Jesus asserts his authority, the Jews accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed; Jesus rebukes them for their hypocrisy. The religious leaders begin plotting to arrest and kill Jesus. Jesus teaches that he is the light of the world, but that his people will “lift up the Son of Man” (i.e. on the cross) before realizing the truth about who he is. When Jesus states that “before Abraham was born, I am,” claiming to be the God of the Old Testament, the Jews try to stone him.
When exercises require a written response, either (1) record your answers in a journal or (2) email your answers to a pastor or class leader who can give you feedback.
- What questions do you have about this week’s reading?
- According to Matthew 1:21, why did the angel instruct Mary to name her child “Jesus”? What prophecy did the birth of Jesus fulfill (v.22-23)?
- In light of Luke 1:31-33, how does Jesus fulfill God’s covenant promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16?
- How is the Trinity present at the birth of Jesus in Luke 1:35 and at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17?
- In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was tempted by the devil. According to Hebrews 4:15, why was it important for Jesus to be tempted?
- John 3:16 promises eternal life to those who believe. What does John 3:36 say about those who do not believe and therefore disobey the Son?
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses several life issues. Carefully study one of the following topics that has the most direct effect on your life and write a paragraph about Jesus’ teaching: anger (5:21-22); restitutions (5:23-26); lust (5:27-30); retaliation (5:38-42); loving one’s enemies (5:43-48).
- According to Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23), what are three reasons that God’s word does not bear fruit in some people? What must happen for someone to bear fruit (v.23)?
- In light of Exodus 3:13-14, what claim does Jesus make in John 8:58? Since the Gospels are a reliable account of Jesus’ life and teachings, this claim makes it impossible to accept Jesus as simply a good moral teacher. “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable” (John Duncan). In other words, someone who makes the claims that Jesus made must be either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. We must all decide what we believe about Jesus.