If you’re new to Christianity, you may notice the Bible is full of a lot of different kinds of books and that the Christian religion has some really unique and sometimes confusing terms. In this episode, we talk through different sections of the Bible and how it’s organized, including the Law (or Torah), the Gospels, the Prophets, and the New Testament letters. We discuss what is different about each of these and why is the Bible full of such diverse literary expressions. We also dissect some of the unique Christian terms and discover both their value and hindrances. By addressing these questions, both new and established Christians can help unravel some of the obstacles to effectively reading the Bible and engaging with their faith.


The Gospels

Mark: You know, one of the things I notice when I’m talking with you guys or anybody who’s really deeply steeped in Christianity–I’ve been a Christian for nine years, I’m still kind of a baby Christian–but a lot of times I hear terms and I think, “I have no idea what that is”. It used to actually make me feel bad, I felt like I was out of the loop. Now I realize I’ve been a Christian for nine years, I feel pretty good about my walk with the Lord. He’s definitely saved me. I didn’t lose my salvation because I don’t know all of these terms, but I think some of them are important terms. I think it’d be good for people to understand what some of these terms are that describe how the Bible is broken up and what different sections of the Bible are about.

Tim: Well, we could start with the term “Gospels.” That one’s questioned, does everybody know what that is? Why don’t you start with that, Joey? I don’t know why they call them the Gospels. 

Joey: Well, yeah, I think the idea is, historically, and the Bible uses this term, the Gospel as the good news. I think we’ve co-opted that in Christianity as an institution to sort of say, “The good news is you don’t have to go to hell when you die.” But I think that the term comes from the idea that Jesus the Messiah is coming. The good news here is that there is now a revelation of how to live your best life, of how to live life to the fullest. And so the gospels are the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which are the books that include the life of Jesus. I think it’s important that the Gospel properly understood isn’t just the life of Jesus, it’s the entire narrative of God in this world. But that’s what has been historically used as a reference point to the culmination of the story of God, the life of Jesus in each of these four books. And it is talking about things that are confusing. If you read in the order of your Bible, Matthew is the story of Jesus and then you move on to Mark and it’s also the story of Jesus, so it scoots back and starts from the beginning. Luke does the same thing and John does the same thing. The reality there is that each of those four stories is telling the story of Jesus through a particular lens. So Matthew is telling it largely to a Jewish audience, talking about emphasizing how Jesus is the Messiah.

T: Son of David, the king. 

J: The king, yeah. The book of Mark is actually the first of those books, we think.

T: That was written.

J: Yeah, that was written. So it’s the shortest and it’s the most concise and that’s what it’s trying to focus on. 

T: It was probably the Gospel of Peter, the apostle Peter, written by Mark who was the scribe. So what you’re getting there is through the lens of Jesus’s most preeminent of the twelve stooges. Because one of the things that is so amazing about the Gospels is they’re written by the disciples and they come off as absolute stooges.

M: Yeah.

T: Completely clueless, they never knew what was going on. That kind of goes back to your “just try” advice. Because these are the pillars of the faith, the best that there ever was, and they basically never got anything right. It is unbelievable humility that they were willing to tell the story that way. Now, they’re telling it after they did figure it out, right? But they told it pretty well, bare-knuckled, they were pretty clueless all the way through it.

M: So I think that’s really important if you’re a new Christian and you hear the word Gospels and you’re like, “I don’t even know what that is.” That’s going to happen a lot. It’s fine. It’s not stunting your spiritual growth. You’re not going to have problems reading the Bible. You’re not a bad Christian because you don’t understand these things, and if you really want to, you can go look them up. That’s fine. The Bible Says is a great resource and a lot of other places. But you don’t have to, and you certainly shouldn’t feel bad when you don’t understand these terms. So what are some other ways the Bible’s divided?

Epistles/Old & New Testament

T: Well, there are the Epistles. So there’s New Testament and Old Testament.

M: Right. 

T: The Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. That’s the Bible Jesus had. And that is the Bible that the New Testament Church had. They didn’t have the New Testament.

M: And that’s an incredible thing that I think most people miss, right? So Jesus has a Bible and the Bible is the Old Testament. So, a lot of Christians I know have never read the Old Testament.

T: That’s Jesus’s Bible. 

M: Right, pretty incredible. So his family Bible is the Old Testament. 

T: That’s right.

M: And a lot of people just ignore that. So it shows it’s important for us to know because that’s what Jesus had.

T: The New Testament is mostly a commentary on the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul was the only credentialed of the Apostles, all the other guys were blue-collar workers and government bureaucrats and things. He was a PhD in Theology and when he writes his books, there is scripture in all of them. Because he grew up with this, that was what they learned in school, the scripture. So, every book is full of scripture from the Old Testament, because the New Testament, Jesus, and the good news is that God, this person came to redeem humanity from the fall and restore us to the place we’re supposed to be. That’s the good news. That’s the euangelion, which translates to Gospel, and I think would be better translated “good news.” Because that is really great news, right? The world’s broken but through this person, it can be fixed again.

M: Okay you mentioned Epistles, so what are they?

T: Yeah, so, you’ve got Old Testament, New Testament. And in the New Testament, you have the Gospels, which is Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, that’s the story of Jesus through different lenses. And then you’ve got Acts, which is the birth of the new church and the birth of a gentile church. So you had one church with two cultures. They did not have a cultural unity, but they had body unity because the Jews kept being Jews and the Gentiles were asked to stop doing the practices of the Gentiles that were idolatrous and immoral.

M: Can you step back and define Gentile? 

Defining Gentile vs. Jew

T: A Gentile is anybody that is not a Jew. And a Jew is somebody that was circumcised into the family of Abraham. Now, circumcision has become a common practice, but in that day, if you were circumcised, you were Jewish. And if you were not circumcised, you were a Gentile.

M: So you had Jews and Gentiles, both believers that Jesus was a Messiah.

T: Both believers and they fellowshipped together, but the Jews kept doing the Jewish practice, and the Gentiles were specifically freed from it. Which I think is the main reason Luke wrote Acts, because he was a companion with Paul, he was like a coworker with Paul and Paul was being attacked by a segment of Jews that wanted to have Jewish control over the Gentiles and make them all convert. And that was a big fight. Most of the New Testament Epistles are letters–Epistle means letter–by Paul or Peter or James, expressing some encouragement or teaching, or in Paul’s case, defense of an attack that has come against him and his authority.

M: So I just learned something. Epistles mean letter. So it shows you could be a complete fool and still be a Christian. It’s okay!

To Categorize, Not to Memorize

J: Well, and I think that’s an important thing. In most of these categories, it’s not that important. They are ways that we’ve categorized them to help differentiate between different styles. And so if you read Epistles or letters and you understand like, “Okay, this is Paul, an apostle or Peter, an apostle, writing to a specific church at Corinth or at Ephesus or in Rome or whatever,” it helps give you a little bit of a context of why this book is written how it was written. But it’s not that vital for you to know. What is helpful in the New Testament is that it is at least chronological in a way, like it is the Gospels and then the Acts and then after that, the Epistles. 

M: And so I think this is important too. In any community, we develop a language which is a shorthand. It makes it easier to communicate, so if you know what the Gospels are and somebody mentions Gospels, in your mind, immediately you go to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, so now there’s a shorthand. Somebody didn’t have to say “What I’m talking about are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” And so over time, as you’re a member of a community, you pick up the language, but it’s not necessary to have that language to join.

J: Well, the way I think about it is any community that you’re a part of has inside jokes, different types of languages. And so if you go to college or something and you join some upperclassmen who are friends, it might take you a minute to learn some of their lingo, some of the ways they refer to different types of things, and so give yourself permission to take the time that you need for that to develop

T: Every sport is that way, RBI, ERA, they have different things like that.

M: Okay, so we’ve got Old Testament, New Testament, Epistles, Gospels…

T: And there’s the main divisions in the Old Testament. You have the Law, so that’s referred to actually a lot in the New Testament, the Law and the Prophets. So Jesus says that “The whole sum of the Law and Prophets is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” So, He uses that division. So that was actually already in place when Jesus came.

The Law/Pentateuch

M: So when they say the Law, what are they referring to?

T: The Law is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and those are the books of Moses.

M: It’s five books, Torah.

T: Pentateuch. So Torah, some people say the Torah is those five books, some people say it’s the whole thing. I think maybe the Samaritans would say that the Torah is just the first five books. I might have that wrong. So even I would say I’m not sure exactly what that term means.

M: Pentateuch. What does that mean?

T: Pentateuch. The first five books. Because “penta” means five.

M: So sometimes you hear these big words and you have no idea. It’s okay if you have no idea, but here we get a definition.


T: Yeah, and basically, the Law, Genesis starts with the Creation, and then the Fall and the destruction of the world, because it is filled with violence, a reset, and then this one family. And most of the rest of the Old Testament is about this one family that grows into a nation, the family of Abraham. And God’s relationship with Abraham, who is the example of faith. One of the great things about Abraham, that should encourage everybody, is he was promised, “If you’ll leave your home and your family, I’ll give you this amazing blessing.” Now, we know from Acts 7 that Abraham believed while he was in err. So he had already believed, but again, God said, “If you will walk by faith and leave your home and your family, I’ll give you this amazing blessing.” He left his home, but he didn’t leave his family. So he got halfway there and got stuck because his dad wanted to stay, and then his dad died. And God says, “If you’ll leave your home and your family” like 14 years later, “then I’ll bless you.” So this time he leaves his home again, and most of his family, but he took Lot with him. And only when he finally gets into the land and he says, “Which place do you want?” And Lot picks Sodom and Gomorrah…

M: Then he left. 

T: Then God says, “Okay, it’s yours now.” Like, whatever it is, 20 years later, you finally did what I asked you to. Well, that’s pretty patient to “the man of faith.” The man of faith took 20 years to finally get around to obeying. That should give us a lot of comfort that the man of faith took 20 years to get there.

J: Yeah.


M: So what other terms are there that new Christians are going to hear that might be confusing?

T: Well, prophets. 

J: Yeah, so you have the Law and then you talk about when Jesus references the Law and the prophets a lot. Most of the books in the Old Testament are prophets. So you ask him, why is it called the Law? I think a lot of the reason is that in those first five books, you get the ten commandments. God is basically outlining for His people what righteous living looks like. So Jesus will come and say, “I’ve not come to abolish the Law, I’ve come to fulfill it.” So one of the things that you learned in these five books is that this is a lot, I don’t know how I can keep up with all this, I can’t do this on my own. And then the good news then becomes that Jesus comes and says, “This isn’t all on you, I’m making a way for this.” And so the prophets are foretelling that reality, that if you continue living in unrighteousness, there’s going to be destruction, but there’s one coming who’s going to help. So the prophets are giving this reality check to the people of God along the way.

M: So the traditional definition of a prophet is somebody who predicts the future?

T: No, that’s just part of it. 

M: So, somebody who’s not a Christian who’s coming to faith is going to say “Oh, prophet! You go to the prophet and he’ll tell you what’s going to happen.” 

T: Yeah. The prophet does do that, but prophet just means speaking the truth. And what the prophets typically are doing is telling people, “Here’s what you need to be doing that’s right and what you’re doing now is wrong. And here’s the consequences that are going to be from your choices.” Now, here’s where the foretelling comes in. So the foretelling is that you choose and then there are the consequences. The Bible is full of that. And then it says, When you choose bad, which is what you’re going to do, here’s what’s gonna take place. And here’s how God’s gonna restore you and redeem you, which ultimately comes through Christ.” But the reason it’s called the Law is that Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy actually are the Biblical constitution like you’re a constitutional lawyer. And so all of our law, we’ve got all these laws, but they all roll up under the Constitution. Well, Deuteronomy is like the second giving of the law, “duo” or “two.”

M: So now, New Testament.

Consequences and the Law

T: No, no, no, no. Deuteronomy is Old Testament. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, that’s the fifth of the five books. Duo means two. So it’s the second giving, because it’s to the second generation out of Egypt. The first generation rejected it, they all died, and now you give it to the second generation coming out of Egypt. And it’s very clearly articulated as a treaty between God and the people, Exodus is that way and Leviticus is that way. Deuteronomy is really stylistically spelled out that way, so it’s easier to see, but Exodus and Leviticus are the same way. “I’m the king. You’re the people.” There’s an offer, “Do you want to follow my way? If you do, I’ll bless you, and if you don’t, I’ll curse you.” So there are consequences to your decisions. The choosing of them as the people was because he loved them, that’s unconditionally given. “You’re my people, you’ll always be my people, nothing you can do will stop that,” which has a corollary in the New Testament. You have enough faith to believe, you’re accepted. There’s no condition. But now that you’re in my family, I’m giving you the choice and I’m going to make it real clear–this is the blessing and this is the curse. And it’s a treaty, and the treaty is clear consequences for choices, just like any treaty. If you do this, this happens. If you do that, that happens. That’s why that’s called law. And the prophets are mostly coming in and saying, “You’re breaking the law. Remember, the provision for breaking the law says this. If you don’t turn, that’s what’s gonna happen.” 

M: So they’re predicting the future, but it’s just because the consequences have already been laid out.

T: Mostly.

Wisdom Literature

M: Are there any other terms that new Christians are going to encounter that might be difficult for them? 

J: Well, you might hear the term “wisdom literature,” which includes Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, those four books. 

T: Job, sometimes. 

J: Definitely, Job. Those books don’t necessarily fall in line with the historical narrative. In some ways they do, but they’re mostly not. This is a huge thing for me, the Bible doesn’t talk in terms of like, “This is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do,” as often as it talks about, “This is wisdom and this is foolishness.” 

M: Right. 

T: This has great consequences and this has bad consequences, another way to say that same thing.

J: Exactly. So those wisdom literature  books really lay that foundation of like, “This is what living in a wise reality looks like, and this is what living in a foolish reality looks like.” And so you get Proverbs where they give these little snippets of like, “This is what a wise man does, but this is what a fool does.” And you get the book of Job, which doesn’t make any sense to us, but the invitation at the end is to trust in God, which is what wisdom is all about, So you get that. And then Psalms is a lot of worship and acknowledging the reality and the wisdom of worshipping God and coming to him and letting him, as you said in our last session, wash over you and be the thing that sings the song of your heart.

T: They all kind of say the same thing, just given in different forms. You have a story, a history. Like 1 Corinthians 10 says these things were written down for you as an example, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. So, someone else’s mistakes you can learn from. And that’s Genesis and Judges, the period of self-governance and in the period of the kings, and then the exile and return. All of that history is there to show you cause and effect. And then you have the Law. The Law is set out to tell you the cause and effect. So here’s the cause and effect in law, here it is in history. Then you have it in philosophy, here’s a philosophical perspective on the consequences of what works and what doesn’t work. Then you have it in music and songs and Psalms and poetry, here’s what works and here’s what doesn’t work. So it’s like, “how many different ways?”

M: How do you learn? 

T: We’re going to give it to you every way, and it’s kind of the same thing. If you make good choices, you get good consequences. If you make bad ones, you have bad consequences. Both are within the context that, if you’re in the Old Testament, God chose Israel because they loved them, so acceptance was unconditional. And in the New Testament, enough faith that you say “Man, I don’t want to die,” you’re accepted unconditionally, irrespective of anything you do. So, God’s love and acceptance are given, but they’re given so that we have, in the New Testament era, the supernatural power to choose well. And the question is, “Will we use it or not?” To whom great power is given, there is great responsibility! We all have superhero powers like Spiderman. The question is, will we use it for good or evil? That’s the whole point of the New Testament.

Don’t Be Discouraged by Terminology

J: To end this at a fun one, which you probably already have heard of, but in case you haven’t, and I’m sure some of the listeners haven’t. One of the things I grew up in the church hearing is about a major prophet versus a minor prophet. I’ve heard that and for me, I thought like, “Wow, I really should spend some time in the major prophets because they’re major so it must be important.” The only reason those distinctions are there is because of the length of the book. So, major prophets are the longer ones, and minor prophets are the smaller ones.

M: I didn’t know that. I would have said the same thing, “Well, those are the important ones because they’re major.” 

J: Well, it highlights what you said before, don’t get tripped up on this, it’s not as important as it might sound. It’s just ways that help categorize.

M: So just read it and enjoy it. And don’t worry about everything.

T: Read it and enjoy it but I think for me, it’s helpful to know those things because of the different ways God has expressed Himself. And I think I memorized the books of the Bible at one point in time using a song. Right? (singing) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua Judges, Ruth…I still sing it in my head when I’m trying to figure it out.

M: I think that’s a great wrap-up, because I think the key is to get into it, read it, enjoy it, savor it, and over time, you’ll crave the tools to get a deeper understanding. Then the tools are there and over time you’ll start to absorb the terminology because you’re around other Christians, going to church, using the Bible Says. That stuff comes in over time, don’t expect to know it all at once.

T: Yeah, when you start doing carpentry work with tools, you just need to saw and a hammer, and over time you get more sophisticated tools as you have the need.

M: Makes sense.

Not Just Knowing, but Using the Tools

T: But that’s not holiness. And knowing the terminology, that is not getting you where God wants you to go, which is what the biblical term holy is. It’s not some, you know, your feet come off the ground sort of a thing. So getting where God wants you to go is not acquiring terminology and Christianese and learning buzzwords and stuff, it’s living the life. And so if you use the tools to build good things, build a life that’s worthwhile, the tools are useful. You can use a hammer to go whack somebody on the head with it, so the tools are not necessarily used properly.

M: Yeah, I remember at one point I told you that I felt weird because I didn’t know all this stuff, and you said, “Don’t be overly impressed with people with Bible knowledge, you don’t get brownie points for knowing more of the Bible. That’s not what it’s about.”

The Pharisees

T: The main point is the Bible flowing out of you, the word flowing out. That’s what the emphasis is, that’s the Biblical emphasis. Jesus was pretty patient with everybody, except the Pharisees, who were the really educated guys, because they were teaching the right thing, he said, “your teaching is really good,” which means they knew the right thing to do, but “you’re leading people the wrong way with your example.”

M: They were hypocrites. 

T: Well, that was a Greek word that meant actor. So, he pasted a Greek word on them. This is what we call in politics “branding,” or negative branding. He gave them a negative brand forever. They were the local heroes of the regular people, they were the fighters and the defenders of the faith, that’s how they were looked at. You’ll see that in the Gospels, the books that talk about Jesus. You’ll see that in there, that the disciples would say, “Did you know that you’re making the Pharisees mad?” Jesus is like, “Yeah!” And they’re upset by that, they don’t understand because he’s given them this brand–hypocrite. They’re actors, they’re pretending to be something that’s different from who they are. So we slap you down because you’re not doing the right thing.

True Faith vs. Knowledge

J: Yeah, understanding these categories and some of the lingo can, for many people, become a cover for actual holy living. So if I can tell you the difference between a major and minor prophet, what does that tell you about my faith? Pretty much nothing.

M: Right.

J: And so the key is that these can be helpful to inform your faith life, but they can’t become a replacement for it.

M: Joey, I would say that’s really important for a new Christian. Because as a new Christian, I think I certainly had a natural tendency when somebody could spit out verses, and the major and minor prophets and Epistles and all, I would think, “Man, that person is a serious Christian.” And what you’re saying is that’s not necessarily true. They might be, they might be living a good Christian life.

T: They might. If you have somebody that loves their neighbors as themselves, versus someone who doesn’t know everything there is about the Bible, which one is the better Christian? 

M: Loves their neighbor. 

T: Yeah, so it’s doing what you know that’s way more important than the knowing. But given that the Bible is there, so that you can have the most robust life possible, why wouldn’t you want to know and understand?

M: Knowing still, in other words, that it’s worth pursuing the knowledge. It’s worth pursuing, but not in and of itself, only so that you can act in a proper way.

T: Yes, because it informs the best choices you can make for the best benefit that you have. That’s what God wants for us, the maximum benefit. But it’s up to us to choose it. Now, He chooses us into his family when we believe, so that’s His choice, because of what Jesus did, so that’s done. Now the question is, what are we gonna do with that gift? And He leaves that up to us, just like we as parents don’t make our choices for our kids. We know they’re not gonna grow up and learn unless they learn to make their own choices. We put boundaries on them, God puts boundaries on us. As a matter of fact, one of the main verses about the Bible that’s sobering is, “If you insist on doing things that are counterproductive, God will eventually let you have it, and that is called the wrath of God.”

M: Yeah.