How Many New Testament Books and What Do They Teach?
How many New Testament books are there? There are 27 books of the New Testament arranged into five categories: Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, general letters, and Revelation. In this article, John Whittaker, creator of the Listener’s Commentary on the New Testament, shares the numbers and summarizes the books of the New Testament.
There are 27 books of the New Testament arranged into five categories: Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, general letters, and Revelation. There are 4 Gospels, 1 book of Acts, 9 letters of Paul to churches, 4 letters of Paul to individuals, 8 general letters, and 1 book of Revelation.
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus. The word gospel means “good news,” because the gospel is news about Jesus—that God has exalted him as both King and Savior and is restoring all things through him.
There are four Gospels in the New Testament. The first three are very similar (that’s why they are sometimes called “synoptic” gospels; synoptic means to see the same).
Matthew writes the story of Jesus for a Jewish audience, showing how Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament story, bringing all the Jewish hopes and longings to fulfillment. That’s why Matthew includes so many Old Testament passages that Jesus fulfills. Matthew also presents Jesus as teacher and includes five large blocks of Jesus’ teaching because Jesus is the one whose teaching comes with authority and ought to shape our life.
“Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament story.”
Mark writes his Gospel for the Romans and early church tradition says that it is the memoirs of the apostle Peter. Mark emphasizes what Jesus did rather than what he said, and the focus of Mark’s Gospel is on showing Jesus as “the son of God” (1:1-8:30) who gives his life for others (8:31-16:8). As disciples, we are called to walk the way of the cross too (Mark 8:34ff).
Luke traveled with the apostle Paul and writes to tell the news about Jesus to the Gentiles (non-Jews). His unique focus is on how the good news about Jesus brings salvation to all people, including the lowly and marginalized. This is why Luke alone includes well-known stories such as the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.
The last Gospel is John. Like Matthew, John was one of the 12 apostles and an eyewitness to the events he records. John’s goal is to show us that Jesus is the giver of real, true life (John 20:30-31), so you’ll find references to life throughout the book. The first half of the book is arranged around seven “signs,” miracles that point to who Jesus is. The second half all leads up to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the 8th sign and beginning of the new creation.
Acts is Luke’s volume 2 and records the first 30 years of church history, showing how the church began in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost 7 weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection and then spread throughout the Roman Empire. The book largely follows the geographical breakdown in Acts 1:8: Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The first half (chapters 1-12) focuses on Peter and Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The second half (chapters 13-28) focuses on Paul and the ends of the earth.
After Acts you’ll find letters written to churches or individuals by apostles or early church leaders. The letters are arranged by size—biggest to smallest—and in three groups: letters of Paul to churches, letters of Paul to individuals, and general letters.
Paul’s Letters to Churches
Romans addresses several house churches in Rome around AD 58. Paul explains the gospel in detail to unify the church around the salvation found in Christ. Romans contains tons of rich theology about sin, salvation, and new life, but the main idea is that God’s righteousness (i.e., his saving justice) is found in Christ alone not in the OT Law or anywhere else!
1 Corinthians was written to the church in Corinth around AD 55. In chapters 1-6, Paul deals with problems in the church: disunity, immorality, and lawsuits. In chapters 7-16, Paul answers questions the church asked in a letter they sent him, regarding marriage, meat offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection.
2 Corinthians was written to Corinth about 6-8 months after 1 Corinthians. It is the most autobiographical letter Paul wrote. Paul commends them for their repentance toward him and defends the “weak” nature of his ministry. One of the great themes is that the gospel turns everything upside down, so the way up is down and power is perfected in weakness.
“The way up is down and power is perfected in weakness.”
Galatians was written to a group of churches in Galatia, a region in modern-day Turkey. Paul insists that no one has to become a Jew or keep the Old Testament Law to be saved and part of God’s people. Salvation is found in Christ and you join Christ by faith and follow him by the Spirit.
Ephesians is written to Ephesus, and probably the churches in the nearby cities, around AD 61 while Paul was under arrest in Rome. Ephesians has two parts. Chapters 1-3 paint a glorious picture of all the blessings found in Christ and what it means to be the people of God. Chapters 4-6 calls us to live according to who we are in Christ.
Philippians was written to Philippi around AD 62. Paul is under arrest in Rome. He had spent a lot of time in Philippi and now they sent him money to help care for him while under arrest. Paul writes to say thank you and to help them live from a gospel-centered perspective—to live for what’s best for the gospel!
“Live from a gospel-centered perspective–to live for what’s best for the gospel!”
Colossians was written to Colossae around AD 61 most likely along with Ephesians. Paul is under arrest in Rome. The Colossians have fallen victim to some false teaching that appears to blend Jewish ideas with Jesus. Paul calls them to set their hope completely on Jesus because he’s the very fulness of God and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in him.
1-2 Thessalonians are written to the church in Thessalonica around AD 51 (perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters). They were written very close together after Paul had been forced out of town shortly after starting the church there. He grounds them in some basic Christian teaching about sexual holiness, work ethic, not taking advantage of people’s generosity, and the second coming.
Paul’s Letters to Individuals
1 Timothy is written to Timothy, Paul’s long-time coworker in ministry probably around AD 64. Paul likely was released from the confinement described at the end of Acts and resumed his ministry. Paul offers Timothy guidance for leading the church in Ephesus, including instruction on elders in 1 Timothy 3.
2 Timothy is also to Timothy, now toward the end of Paul’s life in AD 66-67. Paul is back in prison and the outlook is bleak. Paul again offers Timothy guidance in ministry, this time focused on Timothy himself. Timothy needs pay attention to his life and teaching, to be steadfast, to cultivate good character, and to prepare others for ministry.
“Be steadfast, cultivate good character, and prepare others for ministry.”
Titus (written about AD 66) was another coworker with Paul in ministry. He’s working with the churches on the island of Crete. It’s a difficult environment and the churches aren’t well established. Paul offers him guidance for establishing elders and teaching the church how to pursue godliness together.
Philemon (written around AD 61 along with Ephesians and Colossians) was a wealthy Christian landowner in Colossae. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away and found Paul in Rome. Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus, who believed and became a Christian. Though risky because of the laws of the day, the right thing for Onesimus to do was return to Philemon. Paul writes this letter to intercede on Onesimus’ behalf, even suggesting that it would be good if Philemon would send Onesimus back to serve Paul.
Hebrews. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but it is written to a group of Jewish Christians, probably in Israel (though some think in Italy) around AD 66/67. This letter can be challenging to understand because of all the references to Jewish rituals. But that’s the heart of the issue. The recipients are considering returning to temple worship and rituals, and Hebrews asserts that Jesus is the culmination of that whole system. He brought it to its endpoint and to go back is to abandon Jesus!
James is written by James the brother of Jesus to Jewish Christians scattered abroad, probably in the cities of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. James focuses on living the Christian life—dealing with trials and temptations, listening to God’s word, avoiding favoritism and prejudice, etc. He aims to help us become mature in Christ.
1 Peter is from Peter to Christians living in the northern parts of modern-day Turkey probably around AD 65. The Christians are experiencing various amounts of hostility and social pressure because of their faith in Jesus. Peter instructs them how to handle these difficulties and to be known for their good way of life.
“The Christians are experiencing various amounts of hostility and social pressure because of their faith in Jesus.”
2 Peter is from Peter again, likely to the same group as his first letter since he says it was his second letter to them (3:1). Peter encourages them to continue to grow in Christian character and be faithful to Jesus while looking forward to the new heavens and new earth, even in the face of false teachers who twist the truth of Christ.
1-3 John are from John to Christians living in Ephesus, probably around AD 85-90. 1 John addresses a false teaching confronting the church that claimed God would never become flesh because flesh is bad. John seeks to establish the truth about Jesus, encourage the Christians to love each other, and to assure them that if they have Christ they have eternal life. 2-3 John are very short letters addressing specific people and issues that John was familiar with.
Jude, the brother of Jesus, wrote to expose false teaching and to encourage Christians to contend for the faith.
Revelation is a letter written by the apostle John to the 7 churches of Asia (modern day Turkey). It’s also an “apocalypse” or what’s called apocalyptic literature, which was a well-known kind of writing among the Jews of that day. It uses lots of symbols and images to communicate the message that God’s people are battered by violent persecution and cultural seduction, all orchestrated by the archenemy of God, Satan himself. It reassures us that God and Jesus are on the throne and they will reward those who overcome.
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.