New Testament Background
By Don Ruhl
The New Testament was written during the last half of the first century. Yet, it seems that there was much discussion before the twenty-seven Books of our current New Testament were accepted. The first four centuries show a time of universal acceptance of what Books belonged in the New Testament.
“Canon” means rod, bar, or rule. What was the canon for Books to be accepted as the New Testament?
- It had to be of apostolic origin or from those associated with them.
- It had to be accepted by the church in general.
- It had to have been read publicly.
- It had to harmonize with other accepted Books.
It is important to understand that the canon of Scripture was not formed, but the church recognized what already existed, what the church already knew was Scripture.
The Original State of Scripture
From the beginning, someone read Scripture in the church assembly. Since the printing press had not been invented yet, the listeners had to remember what they heard read. Therefore, the church would read Scripture publicly every time they met.
If you purchase a Greek New Testament today, it will have spaces between the words, punctuation, upper and lower cases letters and so on, as we do in English.
However, for the first couple of centuries, the scribes did not write it that way. There were no spaces between words, sentences, and sometimes paragraphs. Punctuation did not exist. They wrote in all capital letters, which would present challenges for translating and later generations.
For example, in all of our English versions, except the New World Translation of the “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Luke 23.43 reads like this, “And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23.43). Now read as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” translate it, “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.’”
Can you tell a difference in the punctuation? They place a comma after “today,” whereas all standard translations put it before. Why difference does that make? In the first case, Jesus told the thief that on that day they would both be in paradise, meaning, they continued to exist out of the body.
In the latter case, Jesus merely told the thief that Jesus was making His statement on that day. The “Jehovah’s Witnesses” do not believe we continue to live after the death of our bodies. This is one of the things they have done to get around the truth and support their false doctrine.
What Is a Gospel?
We call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the Gospels. What do we mean when we call them “Gospels”? We mean that they are a unique literary form that show the ministry of Jesus. The Gospels are not biographies. They are not accounts or stories of reporters. They describe the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. They are sacred history that interpret the life of Jesus.
The Gospels Symbolically
Revelation 4 shows the four living creatures as a lion, a calf or ox, a man, and an eagle. Many scholars believe these represent the four Gospels. Isaiah 6 shows how the ministry of Isaiah began. He saw and heard things that made the poor man tremble in soul and body. He saw the Lord, but I want you to see who else he saw and heard and what they did, or do, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa 6.1–4).
Here the seraphim have one job: Proclaim the holiness of God and announce that His glory fills the earth. They are next to the Lord. They told Isaiah whom he saw, and by extension, who we are reading about. There is another time when the seraphim show and announce the Lord.
The seraphim show up again in Ezekiel’s vision. They are not called seraphim here, but from a third passage I will show you in a few moments, we know that the seraphim of Isaiah 6 are the four living creatures.
- There are four in Ezekiel and four in the Book of Revelation.
- The ones in Revelation do what the ones in Isaiah do.
- The ones in Ezekiel are the same as the ones in Revelation.
- The ones in Ezekiel do what the ones do in Isaiah and Revelation.
- And the ones in Isaiah and Revelation do what the ones in Ezekiel do.
And what the four living creatures/seraphim do, they do in detailed ways in four Books of the Bible, because they are those four Books. Those four Books have the highest and mightiest job ever. What do the seraphim or living creatures do in the Book of Ezekiel? “Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings…As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle…And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking” (Eze 1.4–6, 10, 26–28).
The whole chapter shows the work of the four living creatures, who carry the Lord Himself throughout the earth. Revelation 4 shows the endless nature of their work, “Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev 4.6–8).
Their work is eternal. They proclaim the Lord on earth (Ezekiel), and in heaven (Isaiah and Revelation).
Moreover, John 12 shows that the One whom Isaiah saw was Jesus. The work of the living creatures is to announce things about Jesus Christ. How do we know about Jesus Christ? The lion, the calf, the man, and the eagle tell us. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do precisely what the living creatures do. The four living creatures represent the Gospel accounts.