THE NEW TESTAMENT AS A WHOLE
We are to study the books of the New Testament. It is the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is well, at the very beginning, to know what that phrase, the "New Testament," means. The words are taken from the institution of the Supper. It is there that we first find them. Our old version reads: " This is my blood of the New Testament, which was shed for many for the remission of sins." If you look into the Revised Version, you will see that the translation is changed; and now we have: "This is my blood of the new covenant, which was shed for many for the remission of sins." The word "testament " means "covenant." It often is so translated; and we now have to study together the New Covenant between God and sinful man.
Of course this suggests at once the relation between the new covenant and the old covenant. A covenant is an agreement, an agreement between God and man. Provisionally there was an agreement that men should be saved if they could only present to God perfect works of obedience. This was a trial or test; intended to show the real condition of man. God never expected any human being under the old covenant to present such works of perfect obedience; he only intended to demonstrate the fact that human nature was helpless, and that it could not be saved in this way. Therefore, for many, many generations there was going on a process of testing, with a view to showing that man could never save himself.
The Scriptures of the old covenant represent that history of probation; and we see how, in many ways, it constituted a preparation for the only covenant between God and man, by which we can hope for salvation: namely, the covenant of grace, the covenant of mercy in Jesus Christ, through whom we are saved, not by works of righteousness, but by simple faith. In this covenant of grace salvation is not by character, but by the blood of Jesus.
This long preparation, under the old covenant, was conducted by the law; there were ordinances of God; the God of gods uttered his commands. But there was also prophecy, in which was set forth the coming of a Deliverer, through whom men were to be saved. Men even then were not saved by their works, but they were saved by faith in God, so far as he was revealed to them—practically in the same way in which we are saved by believing in God and his method of salvation—although they did not know it was a salvation through Jesus Christ.
Under the old covenant there were also judgments. You know in how many ways those were experienced: Through the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; by the destruction of Achan and his family; and then, finally, by the exiling of the chosen people from their native land and the scattering of them among the heathen. That intimates to us one way in which God made this preparatory work lead to Christ.
The Jews, on account of their sins, were scattered abroad; and wherever they went they erected synagogues and places of worship; and these were afterward centers for the preaching of the gospel. The Jews learned the Greek language, which was the language of the world; just as the French language, not many years ago, was the diplomatic language of Europe. They came under the influence of the Roman law. Alexander had unified the Greek East. Caesar had unified the Latin West, and had brought the world under one government; so that converts from among the Jews were now able to publish the new doctrine of Christ. All roads led to Rome, the capital; and there was peace prevailing throughout the world. The Jews had developed a spirit of proselytism, which was laid hold of by Christians, so that, when the Jews became Christians, they began to proselytize just as they had proselytized when they were Jews. All these things were preparations for the coming of Christ, preparations for the new covenant. When the fulness of time had come, Jesus himself appeared. There had been four hundred years of silence in which God had not spoken. But now once more the voice of inspiration began to be heard; and the messenger of the new covenant, Jesus Christ, appeared: he who seals the true covenant between God and man, he who reconciles God to man and man to God.
The Jews sacrificed the Son of God, the only true propitiation for the sins of man, the only real reparation for the evil-doing of mankind; not only a propitiation, but an atonement, an embodied union between God and man. In Jesus Christ we have humanity and Deity united: in fact, the beginning of the Church is Christ himself. Humanity is united to God in him, and we become united to God only as we become one with Christ. We are sons of God only as we are partakers in the sacrifice of Jesus. In Christ the covenant was ratified, the real covenant between God and man; the covenant which declared and established absolute unity between Deity and the sinful world. This was the final covenant, of which all prior covenants were symbols and preparations.
Have you ever noticed that, in the Old Testament, everything points forward? There are no indications of completeness anywhere. On the other hand, the indications are that the system was not a complete one, that it looked for something to come, to add perfection to it; but, in the New Testament, on the other hand, you find the most strenuous prohibitions against the adding or taking away of a single jot or tittle from this revelation. The New Testament is the final revelation. It is the true covenant, the covenant for which all the Old Testament prepared the way, the complete and perfect union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ.
You know how the word "deed" has come to be applied to a document. That word deed meant originally an act, and a deed of property is the act of giving; but the act of giving is not a document. The deed is really made before the document is signed, and the document only expresses the act and puts it in form.
Just so, what we call the New Testament or the New Covenant is simply the outward formal record of a deed, a covenant, between God and man, which was instituted before a single word was put in writing. We look, therefore, upon this New Testament as the title-deed to our inheritance. Here we have a precious document, in which is embodied a covenant between God and man, in which is inscribed and set forth an assurance to us of an eternal inheritance. "Search the Scriptures, therefore, for in them ye have eternal life." What an argument it is for the study of the New Testament, that we should search these titledeeds, to see how much God has given to us in Jesus Christ, his Son! The New Testament is the record of the new covenant, the agreement, the reconciliation between God and man, the union of Deity with humanity.
But we mistake greatly if we suppose that this book, at the beginning, was complete; that, at the time of the first apostles, it was ready-made. The second thing that I wish to bring to your attention to-day, after this first thought that we have here the new covenant embodied, put into form, is that this New Testament was a collection of many books; that, at the first, it was not one complete thing. The word itself is very significant, the word "Bible." The word bible was originally plural—the singular biblion, the plural was biblia. The word biblia was originally used of this production which we now call the Old Testament and the New Testament. In other words, the thought of the plurality of the production was the prominent thought; and' it was only afterward, as I shall show you, that that plural word came to be a singular word, came to be " The Bible," came to be biblion, a singular noun, whereas at first it was biblia. The transition from the plural to the singular is very significant of the change in the estimation which Christian people put upon what we now call the books of the New Testament. We have here a divine unity; but it is to the thought of it as a collection that I want, at this time, to call your attention.
The apostles and apostolic men felt, at first, that they were only required to communicate orally the substance of the teachings of Christ. I suppose that for twenty whole years after the Saviour's death there was not in existence a single one of these books which we call the New Testament. All the preaching of the time was oral; but it is very evident that, after one and another of the early witnesses began to die, and Christians realized that merely oral production is in danger of becoming corrupt, they began to think of the necessity of putting into permanent form this gospel of which they had been testifying. The result was that one after another of these New Testament books came into existence. The order in which the books occur in our present New Testament was not the order in which they were written. The truth is that not one of the Gospels was written until most of the Epistles had come into being. The Epistles to the Thessalonians were probably the first written, and then other Epistles followed. The majority of the Epistles were in existence before any of the Gospels were written; but it was the exigencies of the times that determined what the apostles should write. There were errors springing up, there were particular errors of unbelief and there were particular forms of wrong conduct to which Christians were exposed; and therefore it was, that the apostles wrote simple letters to the churches, warning them of these errors and instructing them on these points of which they were ignorant. So, little by little, there grew up a doctrine, a written teaching.
These letters were first written to separate churches, and the difficulties of transmission were many. There was no such thing as a printing-press. All these books had to be transcribed in manuscript, and that was a long, tedious matter. The letter that was written to one church had to be transcribed, and then communicated to another; there were no mails in those days, and no such thing as the penny post. There were also difficulties in the transmission of the doctrine, owing to persecution. There was nothing like the settled government that we have to-day. The result is that some of these books took a long time to get into circulation.
The Epistles of Peter, written, I suppose, in Babylon —far away at the East—written in a time of persecution, and perhaps hid away on account of persecution, did not come into general circulation until the middle of the fourth century. This is an isolated and very rare instance. In almost all other cases the books of the New Testament got into general circulation before the year 170, and perhaps even before the middle of the second century.
There are two catalogues of the New Testament books, both dating from about the year 170, which materially supplement each other, and together give us all of the New Testament except Second Peter and the First and Second Epistles of John—as we might say, insignificant parts of the New Testament. It is only in the year 363, at the Council of Laodicea, that you have all of the books of the New Testament embraced in a catalogue, and not all of the New Testament even then, for the Apocalypse was not among them. It was only in the year 397, at the Third Council of Carthage, that a list of the New Testament books was put together which embraced exactly those books which we now have in our New Testament; so, you see, that it was three hundred years after the death of the last apostle, John, before our present New Testament was actually constructed as we have it to-day. It took three hundred years, in other words, to make this collection.
It is very important, for a good many reasons, that we should recognize the fact of this gradual growth. There was divine providence in it, as we shall see. It was not left wholly to the ingenuity and skill of man, though men did exercise their ingenuity and skill in deciding as to the claims of the several books that came to their notice.
The early Church has sometimes been represented as credulously accepting whatever came to it with pretense of apostolic origin. How far from true this is we can see by remembering Paul's injunction to the Thessalonians, to use caution in putting their faith in communications professing to come from him. Melito, bishop of Sardis, made a journey into Palestine for the express purpose of ascertaining the grounds upon which the books of the Old Testament were received; and as a result of his investigation he excluded the Apocrypha.
Tertullian tells us of the deposition from office of a presbyter in Asia Minor for the crime of forging a letter, which purported to be a letter of the apostle Paul; so you will see that there was skill used in the selection of the right writings, and that we have, in the books which now bear the name of the New Testament, the result of careful scrutiny and criticism on the part of the best Christian people. In fact, I think you will have brought before your mind the great work which was performed by Christian people in that early century, in that they rejected a great deal more than they received. The whole of the Apocryphal literature —as great in bulk as the New Testament—was set aside as unworthy of a place in the sacred canon. The true word of God is manifest from this fact, that all the books of the New Testament, as we have them now, sound one peculiar note. There is a peculiar air about them; they have characteristics which are totally foreign to this Apocryphal literature of which I have spoken. There was an inner Christian sense, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that led to the rejection of the evil, and brought into the New Testament only that which was of divine origin.
So I pass to that which is the third thought of my remarks this morning, that, although this is a collection of books and originally was entitled "The Books of the New Covenant," it came, at the last, before the fourth century was concluded, to be "The Book." There came to be recognized in it an organic unity. In other words, the biblia became the biblion. "The Books" became "The Book of God." "The Books of the New Covenant" became the New Testament.
How remarkable this is I think you will see when you remember that the apostles never gathered together (as some have supposed) and held a consultation as to what they would write, one of them declaring that he would write this portion, and another that he would write that. There never was any consultation or calculation at all in regard to it; and the New Testament sprang up almost as a matter of accident, looking at it from a human point of view.
The apostles were widely separated: some in Rome, some in Babylon, some in Galilee, and some in Africa; and yet each one wrote with a condensation, a simplicity, a sublimity, and a spirituality that belong to no other writings of man. The condensation of the apostolic writing is something wonderful. Students of literature know how easy it is to fall into a florid, diffuse style, and how exceedingly hard it is to write in a condensed way. so that every single sentence shall be a nugget of gold. Look into the books of the heathen, and you find there a single grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff. The distinction of the New Testament is that it is all wheat, there is not one single grain of chaff. It is all good, and it is all divine.
This condensation, as a mere literary effect, is utterly inexplicable, unless you take into consideration the guidance of God. The absence of all self-assertion, the absence of all self-consciousness, is something wonderful, but also the sublimity of it all. There are more sublime writings in this New Testament than there are, I think, in all literature besides, unless you except the Old Testament Scriptures. Things that are unseen and eternal, instead of things that are seen, occupy the thought and glorify the style.
Though the New Testament is a collection by eight or nine different writers, you have a unity of subject, spirit, and aim that is absolutely inexplicable unless you suppose it to be the book of God; unless you believe that these writers were spiritually directed in what they wrote; so that their writings, taken altogether, form a complete and organic whole. They builded better than they knew. I do not suppose that one of these writers, not even Paul himself, had any idea that his Epistles were going to be read and quoted as they have been read and quoted this morning. I do not imagine that Paul had any idea that his writings were to have texts taken from them, and that they would be the foundation of sermons in every country on earth. No one of the New Testament writers had any idea that he was writing part of a collection. It makes no difference whether he did or did not. God knew; God had a plan and purpose in it; and each workman had to lay his stone, each had to build up his part of the structure. While there was growth, while there was a gradual collection, the New Testament, at last, became one organic whole, through the power of the Holy Spirit, which worked in and through these writings anH their writers.
I do not mean to say that there are no imperfections in this book; but I also do not mean to say that there is falsity or error here. It is divine communication, »put in human forms and molds. There is some bad grammar now and then in the Apocalypse; there are some rhetorical infelicities that could not stand the test; but there is nothing inconsistent with truth, though the writing is full of the idiosyncrasies of the writer. The books of the New Testament are all the more adapted to reach our hearts, they are all the more adapted to the common uses of life, just because they come from living hearts and minds which have been touched by the Holy Ghost. So the word of God is the Word made flesh, just as Christ is the Word made flesh in another way. This makes the New Testament a finality. It is a complete thing. It is never to be superseded, for example, by Mohammedanism, by Swedenborgianism, or by Mormonism, each of which comes to us with a new revelation, purporting to be from God, but which discloses its own falsity by violating the fundamental principle that nothing is to be added to this New Testament, because it is an organic whole, a complete revelation.
There is just one thought further, and that is this: Every organic whole is articulate, and is to be looked upon in that aspect, as well as in the aspect of its organic wholeness. This human body of ours is an organ, but there are articulate parts. There is the circulatory system, and there is the respiratory system; we have our different limbs for various offices; and there is the brain and the heart. While these are all parts of one whole, yet the fact that there is an organic whole does not prevent the existence of separate members, with separate offices. The New Testament is peculiarly articulate. I might say that it has its articulate parts, and no two of those members have precisely the same office. There are three great divisions in the New Testament; and if I impress nothing else upon your minds to-day, I should like to impress upon you the fact that there is a threefold division in the New Testament, which we cannot safely discard.
In the first place, there is history; in the second place, doctrine; and in the third place, prophecy. Where do we have the history? Why, we see at once that we have the history, as a basis of all, in the life of Christ and the apostles. In other words, the Gospels and the Acts give us the basis of the whole, the foundation of the structure. Then what comes next? Why, there comes doctrine. Where have we that doctrine? We have it in a long series of Epistles. I believe there are twenty-one of them in all—Epistles in which the spiritual meaning of Christ's life is given us; and these doctrinal teachings of the apostles contain for us something remarkable in this, that they almost, without exception, explain the germinal sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. In other words, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they expound the meaning of what Jesus Christ himself communicated. But we are not left the doctrinal teachings simply; we have also, as it were, the gates of heaven opened and a view of the future bestowed upon us. History, Doctrine, Prophecy. Jesus Christ in the flesh on the earth, teaching in the Gospels; then, Jesus Christ in his church teaching through the Epistles; and, finally, Jesus Christ in heaven, the future glory and reward of the righteous. These are the three parts of the New Testament.
The New Testament is not only an organic whole, but it is an articulate whole. It has its separate members as well as its organic unity. This great structure has its foundation in the Gospels and in the Acts; its superstructure in the doctrinal teaching of the Epistles; and its crowning dome, from which it looks up to heaven and out to the great hereafter, in the prophecies of the Apocalypse.
You notice there is some similarity between the New and the Old Testament. The Old Testament began with history; then gave material for teaching and for worship in the Psalms and the Proverbs; and finally concluded with prophecy. So the New Testament gives history first, then doctrine, and finally prophecy.
I trust we have now a glimpse of the organism of the New Testament. The historical portion is an organism of itself, the treatment of which I must leave for another time. The doctrinal portion of the New Testament has its organic relations also, and so it is with the Apocalypse. I give you to-day only the three great divisions, the main divisions of the New Testament: History, Doctrine, and Prophecy.
Even with these few words that I have been able to speak to you this morning, contrast this organic whole of the New Testament with what you find in the Mohammedan Koran. What is the Koran? The Koran is a shapeless mass of accidental accretions, to which no human being can find beginning, middle, or end. It stamps itself at the very beginning, and to the very end it proves itself, as being purely the work of man. The New Testament, on the other hand, in contrast with heathen writings, gives us a complete whole, as beautiful a structure, taken altogether, as the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens, or the Saint Peter's at Rome; and all this has grown up, not by the wisdom of man, but by the wisdom and the power of God. Here you have a progressive revelation, gradually advancing with the development of Christ's doctrine, until at last the whole structure is complete, and we have " all things that pertain to life and godliness."
Not only is this true of the New Testament, but it is true also of the relation of the New to the Old. The Bible begins with the words, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth "; and it ends with the words, " Even so come, Lord Jesus." The very beginning and the very end. And this magnificent revelation is a great bridge spanning the interval between. How wonderfully the Bible ends! How wonderful the New Testament is, in giving us first the basis of historical fact, before any inferences are to be drawn, before any doctrines are to be taught, before any application, before any prophecies. You have the solid basis of historical fact in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You see how important it is, then, that we should begin with understanding something of the life of Christ, because that life of Christ is the substance of the Gospels. Without understanding it, we cannot understand the gospel itself; and, therefore, next Sunday, if Providence permits, I will treat in a general way of the life of Christ, and try to give you some general views of that life, the relation of its separate years to each other, and then the relation of that life of Christ to the Gospels of which we talk.