Is there a theological reason for the order of the books in the New Testament canon?
Matthew, which begins with a genealogy of Jesus, is a suitable beginning, and the Revelation is the obvious end. Within that, the books seem to fall into a fivefold pattern: The Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the General Epistles, and the Revelation.
However, Acts, like the Gospels, is a book of history, and the Revelation arguably consists of eight epistles, seven to the pastors of the Asian Churches, and a seven sealed scroll against Jerusalem. As with the major prophets, this arrangement moves from Jerusalem to the nations and back to Jerusalem, a “there and back again.”1See Peter Leithart, Jew Gentile Jew. But is there any perceivable logic in the ordering of the Gospels or the Epistles as individual books? Perhaps the Covenant-literary lens of the Bible Matrix has the answer.
The Messiah fulfils Old Testament prophecy
Christ on a mission, focussing on holy week
The son of Mary seeks to save the lost
The heavenly man, the human Tabernacle, confronting the Pharisees
The commissioned apostles take the Gospel throughout the oikoumene
The order of the five historical books fits the fivefold Covenant pattern, with the three synoptic Gospels as the “forming” or earthly or Adamic beginning, and the Gospel of John and Acts as the “filling” or bridal end of the process. All the Gospels lead to the crucifixion, which means that this construct is also an architectural foundation, the four bloodied horns of the Bronze Altar (representing the Land of Israel), and the Holy Fire which then falls to consume the blameless sacrifices. Acts corresponds to the feast of Booths, and to the Shekinah which filled the Tabernacle. This fivefold construct is thus a microcosm of the entire New Testament, which ends not with Pentecost but holocaust, the destruction by fire of the Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Gentile armies.
Salvation / Jew and Gentile
Factions in the Church
Paul’s Gospel authority
Paul’s authority / Refuting Judaizers
The believer’s position in Christ / spiritual warfare
The five epistles in the second cycle have a focus on the authority delegated to the saints, contrasting the Hierarchy of man (self-exaltation) with the rule of the humble. Thus, the underlying theme here is Priesthood. Romans is the Creation step of this cycle, but rather than beginning with a Jewish genealogy, it employs Genesis motifs to explain the corruption of the nations, and then Israel. Paul proceeds to give us a manifesto of the Church, building a case for the removal of the old division of the Circumcision established in Abraham. 1 Corinthians is the Division book of the Division cycle. Galatians, like John in the first cycle, curses the Circumcision, condemning the Judaizers for their false Gospel in a Gentile church.
Paul’s imprisonment / witness and love for brethren
The preeminence of Jesus
Purity and Christ’s return
The imminent day of the Lord
Requirement for elders
In the Ethics cycle, Kingdom is the underlying theme, with an eye on the end of the cause of the suffering of the saints, Herodian worship. The major themes seem to follow the process of the Torah, with the imprisonment of Joseph, the authority of Moses, the priesthood of believers, judgment upon the Jews, and Paul’s “Succession” arrangements for the bishop of Crete, a Gentile “island of the sea.”
Proper leadership as God’s man
Encouragement in ministry
Forgiveness of a slave/thief
High Priesthood / curses and blessings
Holy Christian life
Prophecy now comes to the fore, as the authority to bless and to curse. The first two books continue the theme of Titus, a blessing upon a “son” in the Gospel for a ministry of mediation. They also begin the shift from the Gentiles back to the Jews, with Timothy being the Greek son of a Jewish mother. The Ethics book here is an exhortation to bless rather than curse, and Oath/Sanctions corresponds to the prohibitions against theft and legal cursing in the Ten Words.2See God-in-a-Box. Hebrews exhorts Jewish Christians to be faithful to their New Covenant “oath,” the name of Jesus, that they might escape the Covenant Sanctions coming upon apostate Judaism. Finally, James writes to Jewish Christians across the empire, a brilliant combination of the tribes of Israel with the theme of all nations at Succession. So the progression begins with a single young man (as Adam), through a household of faith (Abraham), and the Levitical priesthood (Moses) to the twelve tribes across the empire (David).
Words of hope in suffering
Warnings against false teachers/end of the circumcision
A new commandment
Praise for walking in Christ
Thanks and rebukes
Curses on the Judaizers as false prophets
Jerusalem cut off and the inheritance and enthronement of the saints
Just as 1 Timothy continued where Titus left off, 1 Peter begins where James left off, addressing the Jewish Christians as “exiles” across the empire.3The Gospels are linked in the same way, which is evidence for Matthew being the first Gospel. See Fruit of Lips. Peter’s final words include a greeting from “she who is at Babylon,” the church at Jerusalem, corresponding to the final book in this cycle, which condemns Jerusalem as Egypt and Sodom, but mostly as the third (and thus Prophetic) Babylon. Similarly, portions of 2 Peter are quoted in Jude. At the center, we have John’s three epistles possibly recapitulating the Triune Office. Where the previous two cycles might seem a little arbitrary in places, the architecture of this one is very clear.
Now, these cycles are not your garden variety chiasms. The symmetry is there, but it is also a progression, a process. Each cycle has head and a body, a beginning and an end, a Garden and a City, a symmetry that takes you somewhere, usually into the next cycle. So the correspondence between the first and last book, or second and second last book in each cycle will be like that between the Temple veil being torn (Division) and the entire Temple and city being destroyed (Conquest). They begin with the authority of God and end with that authority in the hand of a qualified man (as Succession).
Now, because the structure is 2 layered (cycles within a cycle) each book has two coordinates:
- X: where each book appears within its cycle, and;
- Y: the cycle in which the book appears.
So, because Philemon is book 3 (X) in cycle 4 (Y), its subject matter relates Ethics with Sanctions. But this factor has a surprising benefit in that it allows us to arrange all the books by their X coordinate into a new cycle. What I mean by this is that taking, say, the second book out of each creates its own cycle.
Thus, all the Hierarchy/Division books (X=2) form a process of Hierarchy:
2 Peter – End of the circumcision (X2:Y5)
All the Sanctions/Conquest books reveal the process of cutting off Jerusalem:
Jude – Judiazers cut off (X4:Y5)
All the Succession/Glorification books speak of the saints’ rest and rule:
Revelation – Inheritance of the saints (X5:Y5) (Succession – Representation)
If you look carefully, you can see the Triune office, Priest / King / Prophet, as the central 3 lines in each of these “retuned” cycles.
See also DNA of the Old Testament.
Thanks to Chris Wooldridge for starting this one off.
If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.
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