Do you explore individual passages of Scripture but neglect to examine where they fit in to the whole of the Bible? Do you find a verse to be inspiring and easy to grasp, but its sweeping context difficult, requiring persistence in studying the full tapestry of Scripture?
Bible Gateway interviewed Gary M. Burge (@garyburge1), author of The New Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic (IVP Academic, 2019).
How does this book help a person better understand the New Testament?
Gary M. Burge: The average reader tends to look closely at individual passages of the New Testament and rarely has the opportunity to see “the whole.” What would it look like if we stood apart from the entire New Testament and asked ourselves:
- What are the main themes here?
- What are the essential ideas which the scriptures want us to take away?
This view “from 30,000 feet” is the aim of this book. Christians will be amazed to learn what ideas are important and which ones are peripheral.
Each of us tend to be selective in our reading or we read our preferences into the New Testament. Instead, this short book works the other way around: I’ve distilled the big ideas in the entire story and once anyone knows those big ideas, the bits and pieces will suddenly make sense.
Describe your decision-making process for selecting the sentences.
Gary M. Burge: I’ve taught the theology of the New Testament for many years. And I’ve written my share of books on it as well. So after all of this exposure to the New Testament, it was actually a lot of fun to sit back and reflect: If I had to choose the seven most important themes in the entire New Testament—if I had to sum it up in just seven ideas—what would they be? I found that when I made that list and checked it with major academic summaries of New Testament theology, the similarities were surprising.
I’m describing the major concepts of the Scriptures as outlined not just by myself, but as seen by many scholars in this field. This is reassuring because it means that these basic concepts are not eccentric or peculiar. These are the leading ideas of the faith as handed to us down through the centuries.
The Seven Sentences
- You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Matthew 16:16
- The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. Mark 1:15
- The Son of Man must…be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Luke 9:22
- By grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works. Ephesians 2:8-9
- You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. 1 Peter 2:9
- If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. Romans 8:9
- I saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” Revelation 21:1
How can people best understand what the “kingdom of God” means?
Gary M. Burge: The kingdom of God is the organizing center of Jesus’ entire ministry. He refers to it more frequently than any single theme ten-fold. We often think that love or sacrifice or salvation might be at the center but they are not. They’re important, but they’re not central.
The kingdom of God (sometimes called the kingdom of heaven) is God’s gracious order that Jesus has inaugurated in the world. It’s that reality that orbits around God’s own presence that is celebrated in fullness in heaven, but can be experienced powerfully (though partially) in this world.
It’s the realm of Jesus’ lordship that believers join when they’re baptized and which they celebrate above all other realms in this world. It’s other-worldly and yet planted fully here. Foreign and yet familiar.
It’s the beach-head where God is asserting his desire to reclaim his creation and bring it back to what it was meant to be. And because it lays claim to this world, rival kingdoms within this world will sense this divine invasion and push back. Therefore, the kingdom of God ushers in a joyous new order of things, but also brings conflict, because the order of this world is in opposition to it.
What do you mean that the “idea of grace has become trite”?
Gary M. Burge: One of the key ideas in the New Testament is the fundamental character of God as shown to us in Jesus. God is gracious and kind and sympathetic with our condition. However, we’ve overused the idea of “grace” so many times that we no longer feel its significance.
The ancient world did not assume that God was gracious. Many lived in fear of gods who had to be placated. But embedded in the Hebrew Bible is an enormous idea: that God cares profoundly for his entire creation and that his first reflex is love and forgiveness despite our sinfulness.
In the modern world we’ve heard about the generosity of God so many times we’re no longer stunned by it. It’s like a person who lives in Middle Eastern deserts: they do not take for granted the precious value of water. Yet when they move to Michigan where water is plentiful, they stop thinking about it.
How is the (New Testament) church a continuation of the (Old Testament) tribe of Abraham?
Gary M. Burge: The New Testament does not imagine itself as starting a new religion. The entire cast of major characters from Jesus to Paul are Jews whose lives were shaped fully by the Hebrew Bible. When we forget this, we can barely understand any chapter of the New Testament.
But the New Testament community made a startling claim. That a new era in the history of God’s people had begun—the messiah had arrived—and from this point forward everything would be different. Faith in Jesus-the-Messiah would now become the marker of membership in this new era and its first adherents would be Jews who saw that the very faith that had been seen in Abraham was now brought into reality in Jesus (Romans 4). This means that ethnicity was not the signal of “tribal membership” but rather faith would be—and this is why this new community would embrace not only Jews but gentiles as well. Gentiles could be called “sons and daughters of Abraham” only because their attachment to the kingdom of Jesus had new criteria.
The redemptive work of God begun in Abraham was local and tribal but now the redemptive work of God would be global and universal. What God had shown to Abraham (how faith, grace and righteousness were joined) now was at work in Jesus in new exciting ways. This is why the New Testament again and again employs the names for God’s people in the Old Testament and applies them to the church.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Gary M. Burge: My hope in this project is that the body of Christ (the church) would be strengthened and encouraged because we’ll know our Scriptures much more thoroughly. We’ll become creative thinkers who have a well-informed understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.
Ample evidence tells us that knowledge of the Scriptures is slipping away. Which means we need to use every effort to correct this unfortunate course. The New Testament in Seven Sentences is like an overview of the mountains before you set out on your trek. You’ll have a better idea where you’re going and you won’t get lost. But when we stand before the forest, sometimes it just seems overwhelming. The same is true when we read the Bible. The “Seven Sentences” series helps us navigate wisely and come away with all the right timeless ideas.
Bio: Gary M. Burge (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament and dean of the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary. He previously taught for 25 years at Wheaton College and is the author and co-author of many books such as The New Testament in Seven Sentences, New Testament in Antiquity, Jesus and the Land, and A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion.
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