The gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus. “Gospel” means “good news” because the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection, opens the way back to God and the promise of eternal life.
Matthew – is written from a Jewish perspective, and so begins with a lengthy description of Jesus’ ancestry, stressing that Jesus is the Messiah (the rescuer who had been promised). It includes the teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount in considerable detail.
Mark – is the action gospel. In fact reading it straight through can leave you almost breathless! There is no mention of Jesus’ birth, and the crucifixion and resurrection narrative are very brief. The book presents a punchy account of Jesus’ teachings and healings, encouraging the reader to discover the true identity of Jesus (ie. God himself).
Luke – is written with attention to historical detail, with the intention that readers should be able to check the facts. It has full accounts of the Christmas and Easter narratives. It contains many instances of individual encounters with Jesus, and gives special prominence to women (very unusual for its time!). Notable themes are prayer and the Holy Spirit.
John – is a bit different, as it concentrates on the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It ties in the birth of Jesus with creation, the crucifixion with the glory of God, and the resurrection (including that of Lazarus) with new life. It emphasises that Jesus is both human and divine, and contains many of the “I am…” sayings.
Acts – is Luke’s account, part II. It’s an adventure account of the spread of the Christian faith by the disciples. It starts with them frightened and hiding, but after the coming of the Holy Spirit their lives are transformed, and they travel around the known world. Peter spreads the faith among the Jewish world, while Paul, after a dramatic conversion, goes to the gentile (non-Jewish) world.
The epistles – are letters, mostly by Paul, to new churches, with greetings and messages. Often they were written in response to particular problems faced in those churches. Most warn against false teaching, and many of them give encouragement to Christians facing persecution for their faith.
Romans (the church in Rome ) – is a full statement of belief, and of what salvation means.
1 and 2 Corinthians (the church in Corinth, ) – warns against false teaching, spiritual pride and disorder in church life. The lack of love in the church prompted the great poem “love is patient and kind…” (1 Corinthians chapter 13).
Galatians (the church in , ) – emphasises that people are put right through faith in God alone, and not by religious practice. Faith leads to love, which in turn leads to Christian conduct: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control (chapter 5, vv 22-23).
Ephesians (the church in Ephesus, ) – deals with how God’s love and forgiveness sets us free and unites us. There is also advice for family life, and a picture taken from the armour of a Roman soldier of how to stand firm in the Christian faith.
Philippians (the church in Philippi, , the first church on European soil) – is written from prison, but expresses great confidence and faith. Paul is thankful for the church, but also warns against spiritual pride, calling on them to have “the attitude of Jesus” (chapter 2 vv. 5 ff.)
Colossians (the church at Colossae, ) – warns against teaching in the church that salvation required obeying religious commands as well as faith in Jesus. A strong theme is the “new life” in Christ.
1 and 2 Thessalonians (the church in Thessalonika, ) – encourages its readers to be ready for the return of Christ.
1 and 2 Timothy – gives advice for church life and the duty of church leaders to set an example, and stresses the importance of endurance.
Titus (a church worker in Crete ) – is given advice on the character of Christian leaders and on Christian behaviour.
Philemon (a Christian in Colossae ) – is asked to take back his runaway slave Onesimus.
Hebrews (a group of Jewish Christians; letter from an unknown writer) – stresses how Jesus is the true revelation of God, and the fulfilment of Old Testament hopes.
James (a letter from James) – is addressed to everyone and gives practical advice, notably on faith and actions, and the dangers of the tongue (chapter 3).
1 and 2 Peter (letters from Peter to Christians in various parts of ) – encourage readers in the face of persecution for their faith. The letters speak of Jesus’ second coming, and the need to be ready for it, whenever it may come.
1, 2 and 3 John (letters from John) – write against the teaching that Jesus Christ was not a real human being, and state that all who love God and claim to be children of God must also love each other.
Jude (a letter from Jude) – encourages Christians to keep true to their faith.
Revelation (written by John) – has a series of pictures of events leading up to the end of the world. It has some difficult language and images to follow, including a description of the final defeat of evil by God. It finishes with a beautiful picture of heaven, “the new Jerusalem”, “God’s home [where] there will be no more death, nor more grief or crying or pain”.