How to Read the New Testament

Before we dive into the order you should read the New Testament and how to read the different types of literature, let’s look at a little NT background first:

The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The New Testament was written by a number of authors between the time of Jesus’ death and around 100 AD. That said, the New Testament canon (the books that make up the NT) wasn’t decided upon until around 393 AD during the Council of Carthage.

The New Testament (like the Old) is made up of a variety of types of literature. The first five books – the Gospels and Acts – are narratives. They tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. The next 21 books are all letters. And the final book – Revelation – is a recounting of a vision. Many refer to Revelation as “apocalyptic literature,” which was fairly popular in first century Judaism.

What Order Should I Read the New Testament?

Many people wonder, “What order should I read the Bible in?” In my opinion, this question is most relevant when you’re thinking of reading through the entire Bible. If you just want to read the New Testament, your best bet is to probably just read straight through.

The New Testament of the Bible is already put together (for the most part) in chronological order. It starts with the life of Jesus, recounts the acts of the early church, covers teachings to the early church, and ends with prophecy regarding the end times and the fall of Rome.

But if you’re looking for the best place to start reading the New Testament as a new Bible reader, we’d recommend reading Mark or John first, then moving onto Acts and Romans.

Note: Acts is a must-read for anyone involved in church leadership, church planting, or even lay people invested in their local church. And I don’t just mean reading it once. Revisit it regularly and let their heart, their practices, and their rhythms sink into you.

Reading the Gospels of the New Testament

Here are some of the biggest issues and things to work through when reading the Gospels:

  • We have four Gospels – each with similarities and differences
  • The historical context of His life and teachings
  • Jesus’ parables and how to interpret them

For starters, Jesus didn’t write any of the Gospels. We have four of them (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and are all written by either first person account or by someone two or three degrees away from Jesus’ life and ministry.

This can make reading them a bit tricky, but here are some helpful tips:

Read by “Pericope”

A pericope is an individual story or saying of Jesus. So for example, the story of the good Samaritan, the sermon on the mount, and the parable of the sower are all pericopes. In other books of the Bible, it might make sense to read by “movements,” chapters, or paragraphs – but when it comes to the Gospel, we should try to structure our reading around pericopes.

When trying to determine how much of the book of Mark to read in a sitting, check out the headings in your Bible and aim to read 1-3 pericopes. While reading them, ask yourself:

  • What does this teach me about Jesus?
  • What does this teach me about myself?
  • What does this have to do with the Biblical story as a whole? Are there any big picture themes He touches on or Old Testament passages He references?
  • What does this tell me about the overarching themes within this Gospel?
  • How do the other Gospels cover this story? What might that tell me about Jesus’ ministry?

Remember Jesus’ Historical Context in the New Testament

If we’re going to understand the life and ministry of Jesus, we have to understand the context of first-century Judaism (at least a little). Here are a few people, themes, and practices to dig into in order to better understand the Gospels:

  • The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes
  • Roman rule in the first century
  • Judaism in the first century
  • Social norms in Jewish culture

Read Each New Testament Gospel as a Whole

There’s a lot of benefit to comparing and contrasting the Gospels. And I’d recommend it. But I’d also recommend working to get a sense of each Gospel’s primary aim and what makes it unique in and of itself. Remember, each writer selected the stories they would recount and made decisions about how they would be ordered. This doesn’t take anything away from the Bible’s reliability, it just means some emphasized some things over others.

It’s unlikely any of them are in chronological order, and there’s a lot of information left out by some and covered by others.

This was intentional. They Gospels weren’t necessarily meant to be unbiased biographies of Jesus. Each writer had a bit of a Holy Spirit inspired agenda.

For example, a major theme in Luke’s Gospel is God’s heart for the lowly and marginalized. We see it woven from start to finish. John focused heavily on abundant, eternal life in Jesus. Both are themes true to Jesus’ ministry. It doesn’t mean either are wrong or that one put unnecessary emphasis on any one aspect of Jesus.

Pay Attention to the Parables

The parables are unique storytelling devices Jesus used regularly. Original hearers usually would have been stunned by many of these stories, left with jaws hanging to the floor. Unfortunately today, so much of the original context has to be read back into the story, that they’re less shocking to us.

That said, it’s important to understand the nature of the parables and how to read them. Here are some tips:

  • Note the points of reference. Who or what is Jesus talking about? Who is He talking to? Where is He talking to them? What has He just done prior to this?
  • Note the “twist.” In most of Jesus’ stories there’s a kind of surprising twist. Often the twist is meant to humble the audience.

For example, in the story of the Good Samaritan, He’s talking to Pharisees. He begins to talk about a man who was robbed. A priest walks by and does nothing. A Pharisee would probably think, “Yeah! Priests are all talk!” Jesus then says that a Pharisee walks by, to which they might think, “Yeah! I’m sure the Pharisee will clean things up!” But no. It turns out a random Samaritan whom most of the audience despises is the one who loves his neighbor.

The main idea is that it doesn’t matter who you are or who the subject is, we’re called to love all as ourselves. If we didn’t understand who Jesus was speaking to or what the audience thought of Samaritans, we might miss the big picture and the weight of the teaching.

Keep the Climax in Mind

We know that the story of Jesus comes to a climax at the trial, death, and crucifixion of Jesus. As He’s carrying His Cross, we’re glued to the pages. all throughout the New Testament we should keep His death and resurrection in mind. It’s at the heart of our faith, and of this book.

Reading the Epistles of the New Testament

The Epistles appear some of the most straightforward literature of the New Testament (they’re just letters), but they can actually be the most divisive in interpretation and application. Let’s look at a few tips for reading the letters of the New Testament faithfully:

Keep the Scenario in Mind

Almost all of the New Testament letters are written to address specific concerns and situations. For instance, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to primarily address divisions in the church. He wrote Colossians to address false teachings. 1 Peter was written to exiled Christians facing great persecution. In some cases, these letters are intended simply to encourage and exhort, but there’s often a reason.

We need to be aware of the context in order to best understand the letter. Not sure? Consult a study Bible, watch the Bible Project video on the book, or simply Google it and try to find a reputable source.

Knowing the background and motivation for the writing can help us better discern its wisdom and application.

Find the Underlying Principle

The New Testament letters were written to specific people at a specific time within a specific culture. is vital to reading the New Testament letters well. Each letter was written to a specific people at a specific moment in time. This means that not everything in these letters will apply directly to us today.

So when we read something that seems out-of-whack or a reference we’re not familiar with, we need to work to uncover the underlying principle.

Let’s look at Colossians 2 for example. Paul tells the Colossians not to worry about people telling them they need to go through physical circumcision. He tells them salvation is a spiritual circumcision.

Well, no one is knocking on your door telling you to get circumcised, right? So how do we apply this?

The underlying principle is that our salvation is by faith alone, granted by the grace of God and the work of Christ. We don’t need to do anything physically to attain it OR to grow in it. Further, our external circumstances don’t define us. Where we came from, who our parents are, whether or not we grew up Jewish or Christian or anything else… We are defined by Christ in us.

Without seeking out the principle, we’re likely to miss the point or skip the paragraph because we don’t think it applies to us.

Look for Other References

There are a number of commands or instructions given in New Testament epistles that seem pretty bizarre. What do we do with these? The first thing to do is look for other references to the command – if there are any. In some cases, there will be enough evidence to suggest we should take the command as is. In other cases, we may find that there’s more to the story!

For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul writes that women should remain silent in the churches. Without doing any further research, that sounds pretty straightforward, right?

But in the previous chapter, Paul tells women that when they prophecy or pray in church, they should leave their head coverings on. So if they are prophesying and praying, perhaps Paul doesn’t mean that they literally can’t speak. Within the context of the passage, he more than likely means they shouldn’t be divisive and disruptive when it comes to interpreting prophecy in church gatherings.

Reading Revelation & Apocalyptic Literature

Reading Revelation is tricky, and I won’t pretend I have it figured out. I don’t even think some of our brightest Bible scholars would be pumped about being asked to write on it. There’s a lot of debate about how to approach the book and how it’s meant to be read. Kind of like wisdom literature in the Bible, not all of it is black and white.

Here are three very important tips before we look at the different approaches:

  1. Read it in literary context. I can’t stress this enough. Revelation is dream literature, or apocalyptic literature. It’s full of allusion, illustration, and metaphor. Keep that in mind, and read the book as a whole.
  2. Read it in community. We need each other’s wisdom and perspective as we approach such a difficult-to-understand book.
  3. Grab a commentary. I mentioned that very few would admit they have this book “figured out.” But a good commentary will help you to understand how different passages are viewed by different people and why.

Okay, here are 5 ways people tend to read Revelation, taken directly from The Bible Project guys:

  1. The Predictive Futurist: This view sees the text as a code that represents future events. The original meaning wasn’t fully understood by its original audience and will only be revealed when the events happen.
  2. The Pretorist: This view sees the text as a code, but the events represented by the code already happened in the 1st century.
  3. Poetic or Theopoetic: This view sees the text as poetic language used to express ultimate truths about God, evil, and history.
  4. Theopolitical: This view sees the text as a form of political protest and dissent against the Roman empire that emerged out of a time of persecution in the 1st century. In this view, an emphasis is placed on the Kingdom of God as the antithesis to the kingdoms of this world.
  5. Pastoral/Prophetic: This view sees the text as anchored in the past but meant to speak to every generation of readers. The imagery is seen as a challenge and comfort by showing us a heavenly perspective on the events of our world throughout time.

All five have merit. And perhaps the truth lies in a combination of a few of these views.

Whichever lens you choose to view Revelation through, your biggest takeaways should be the glory of God, the seriousness of sin, the victory of the Lamb, and the beauty of the coming Kingdom.

Read the New Testament Faithfully

I hope these tips for reading the New Testament are an encouragement to you. At the end of the day, approach the Bible in humility, in community, with the help of the Spirit, and with the occasional help of a commentary – and you’ll read it well.

If you’re a preacher struggling to preach on any New Testament books, check out our list of the best books on preaching. And if you’re looking for a great book to give a non-Christian outside of the New Testament, check out our list.

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