Thanks to a few years of Bible studies, I could easily tell you that the “plot” of the Bible is the fulfillment of the covenant between God and his people. Now I can tell you that the New Testament has its own “subplot,” so to speak.
A few summers ago, I made the trek from central Austin out to Emmaus Catholic Parish every week to participate in a Great Adventure Bible Timeline study. It permanently changed the way I see the Bible—for the better. Finally, I understood why the prophets kept talking about Israel and Judah as if they were separate places (they were.) Finally, I understood why, exactly, the story of Hanukkah is in Catholic Bibles (and I wonder why it’s not in Protestant ones). Finally, I understood why the books of the Bible are in that order!
But if you’d asked me what the story of the New Testament was, I would have only described it as one giant story of the fulfillment of the covenant. Thanks to John Bergsma’s amazing new book, New Testament Basics for Catholics, I have a much clearer picture. The New Testament is the story of the coming of the kingdom: in the person of Jesus Christ, in the Church on Earth, and in the heavenly Jerusalem.
I highly recommend reading Bergsma’s first book, Bible Basics for Catholics, especially if you’ve always struggled to figure out what use Christians really have for the Old Testament, or if you can’t quite manage a small-group Bible study. It’s like a self-study course of salvation history, and you will be amazed at how much you’ll learn. I already had a good grasp of covenant theology when I read it, and I learned plenty. If you only read one book about the Bible, read that one. (I reviewed it earlier this year.)
Once you know “the story,” you’re ready to dive into “the rest of the story.” Jesus’ coming was foretold, and then it happened, and then he left with a promise to return. But what was all that other stuff going on besides the dying and rising part? Was all the teaching, preaching, and healing random? Was everyone just wandering around aimlessly after the Ascension? How did the Church survive the early years, persistent and strong until the present day? What exactly are we waiting for in the end end? The New Testament answers all these questions, and Bergsma uses his delightful sense of humor and down-to-Earth teaching style to guide us through it.
The book begins with a long section on the Gospel of Matthew. I started reading the e-book and didn’t realize how far behind I was getting when I took my time going through Matthew! Matthew wrote mostly to Jewish Christians, so he connects the story of Jesus very closely to the Old Testament covenants. In the later books of the Old Testament, countless prophets speak to the people and promise that the kingdom of God is coming. Matthew’s Gospel proves in various ways that, when Jesus enters the scene, the kingdom of God has arrived. The famous Sermon on the Mount lays out the foundational rules for the kingdom, and the apostles are Jesus’ royal officers who learn that real leadership takes the shape of service.
After giving us the details of kingdom theology in Matthew, Bergsma gives a much faster overview of the Gospel of Luke. The chapter on Luke, like the Gospel of Luke itself, focuses on Jesus’ ascent as the new David, the new king of Israel. He is the one who draws the Gentiles into the grace once reserved only for the Jews. The Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s clear in Acts that the kingdom grows and goes through growing pains as the apostles carry out their role as royal stewards. Paul’s letters, particularly the longest one (to the Romans), show the day-to-day details of life in the kingdom of God on Earth. Finally, the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation skip over most of the familiar details to focus on the sacramental significance of Jesus’ kingdom and the ideal vision of the kingdom fulfilled at the end of time. It’s a whirlwind journey, and I loved every minute.
Aside from doing a peer-led study on the Gospel of Luke in college, I had never spent much time in the New Testament. I’ve heard that reading Mark in one sitting (because it’s the shortest Gospel) is a great way to dive into Bible study, but I’ve never actually done that. Following along with the readings at Mass makes it seem like Jesus takes a month to give one sermon. By selecting key authors from the New Testament and focusing on the guiding principle of the kingdom, Bergsma makes it all much more manageable. Digging deep into Matthew, highlighting the differences in Luke, and connecting the sacraments mostly to John shows the value of having and reading several versions of the Gospel. They all tell the same basic story, but their variations reveal an importance beyond the simple message of salvation.
I love Bergsma’s writing style, although I will admit to missing the stick figures from Bible Basics. There are adorable figures in this volume, but they are not as critical to the story as I’d hoped they would be. Mark’s Gospel was not featured here. What would his stick figure look like?
If you’re looking for a gift for the Bible lover in your life (or the wannabe Bible lover in your heart), consider New Testament Basics for Catholics. You will develop a greater understanding of the kingdom of heaven on Earth and its final fulfillment in heaven.
Advent Challenge: Read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting. Instead of aiming for reflection, try to get a basic overview and a sense of the timeline and pacing.
I received a free copy of New Testament Basics for Catholics from Ave Maria Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!