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The Divisions of History in the Old and New Testament Compared
By Ron Crisp, 2013


      Not only all religions but seemingly all men have their ordo salutis. What sets the Christian gospel apart is its dependence on a historia salutis. Thus for obvious reasons the Bible contains a good deal of history.

      The following study was written as a Sunday School lesson for adult class teachers who were leading their class through the book of Acts. In the lesson the author compares the layout of the Old and New Testaments. He suggests that the book of Acts is to the New Testament what Joshua through Esther are to the Old.

      This insight strikes the author as significant, and to his knowledge, original. He certainly would not claim that the idea is new, but it was not found in the books he used, and by original he means he arrived at it independent of other authors.

      Having said these things I enter the lesson into the arena of ideas for others to evaluate. Input will be appreciated.

The Place of The Acts of the Apostles in the Scheme of Scripture

      The Bible is a marvel! Composed of sixty-six books written in three languages by many authors and in a variety of literary styles, it is like no other book. The various books were produced over a period of fifteen hundred years, reflecting the individuality and culture of their human authors.

      However, the real wonder is the unity of the Scripture. By the miracle of divine inspiration, the Bible, in all its diversity, is yet one book with one Author (2 Timothy 3:16) and one theme (John 5:39). The theme of the Bible is salvation through Jesus Christ. Like the tributaries of a great river, each book of the Bible forms part of the whole.

      Grasping the unity of God's Word, we understand that no book of Scripture can be interpreted apart from its place in the larger scheme. Would any wise physician study a human organ apart from its function in the body as a whole? No, and the same applies to our study of Scripture. Thus we begin our study of The Acts of the Apostles by considering the context of Scripture as a whole.

I. The Bible contains two major divisions:

      A. The Old Testament, the first 39 books.
      B. The New Testament, the remaining 27 books.

II. Each Testament centers around a divine covenant:

      A. The Old Testament gives a history of the period leading up to the Old Covenant as well as the ratification and nature of that Covenant (Exodus 19:1- 31:18). This covenant was made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Into it was incorporated the moral law (Exodus 20:1-26) as well as a system of ceremonial law. Furthermore, God gave Israel a civil law, which applied the moral law to their civic responsibilities. This covenant was preparatory in nature and was intended to be superseded (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

      By means of the Old Covenant law, Israel remained distinct from the other nations of the earth. A record of our Savior's lineage was maintained. The prophecies of His coming were given. Concepts relating to the gospel were formed and illustrated by the ceremonial law. The gospel we now preach is preached in a language created under the Old Covenant. For example, we speak of Christ as the Lamb of God, the great High Priest and our Redeemer. Such terms are expressly Old Testament in their origin.

      B. Likewise, the New Testament gives a history leading up to the introduction of the New Covenant. Here we read of God's will in the nature of Christian service under the New Covenant. We read of the problems experienced in the transition from Old to New Covenant. The New Covenant is a better and a final one (Hebrews 8:1-13). This is the Covenant under which believers live today.

III. Connected with each covenant was a great prophet through whom God spoke and who mediated the covenant.

      A. In the Old Testament, the prophet was Moses.

      B. In the New Testament, the Prophet is our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:17; Deuteronomy 34:10; 18:15-19; Hebrews 8:6).

IV. Each Testament begins with a section that records the historical context, life, work and teaching of the great prophet of that covenant.

      A. In the Old Testament, this section is the Pentateuch, or the first five books, sometimes called the Law of Moses (Luke 24:44-45).

      B. In the New Testament, this section is the four Gospels, the first four books.

V. These historical sections are foundational to the rest of the Testament in which they are found.

      A. The Old Testament prophets either expounded Moses or called the nation back to the law given by Moses. Even their threats were based on that law (James 5:17; Deuteronomy 11:16).

      B. Likewise, the New Testament apostles either expounded the teaching of Christ (John 14:26; 16:13-14; Hebrews 2:3-4) or called God's people back to His teaching and example (Philippians 2:5-11). Christ, not the apostles, was the channel of God's final revelation (Heb. 1:1-2; John 1:1). The apostles were the witnesses, historians, expositors and evangelists of Christ.

VI. Under both covenants, stood a house of God built by the prophet of that covenant.

      A. Moses built the tabernacle according to the pattern shown to him on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:40). When the wilderness wanderings were over, and Israel was settled in the promised land, the tabernacle was replaced by the temple (later destroyed and rebuilt). The symbolic significance of the tabernacle and the temple was the same.

      B. Jesus Christ built the church, which is now the house of God (Matthew 16:18; I Timothy 3:15). Christ and the apostles made up the first church, which later became the church at Jerusalem.

VII. In both Testaments, the historical foundational section is followed by a history of the people of God and the house of God pertaining to that covenant.

      A. In the Old Testament, this section covers Joshua through Esther.

      B. In the New Testament, this section is The Acts of the Apostles.

      In both Testaments, this history is augmented with details given in the books that follow, namely the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament epistles.

VIII. In both Testaments, the historical section concerns the only period of time during which God gave prophetic revelation.

      A. The Old Testament history ceased with the period of the post-exilic prophets, the last of which was Malachi.

      B. In the New Testament, Luke's post-ascension history is called The Acts of the Apostles. Those who speak of Acts as the first chapter of a yet unfinished history, or refer to modern movements such as "Acts 29 Ministries", greatly err. Luke was not simply giving inspirational details from the early days of Christianity. Rather, Acts is a carefully-constructed theological and historical record of Christ's apostles. The title of the book reveals its foundational nature (see Eph. 2:20). The common penchant to cleverly rename the book underlines the failure of many to grasp the nature of the book as foundational. In Acts we find direct revelation given in the first century; but today we have a complete Bible. Today we have no direct revelation, but rather we have the illumination of the Holy Spirit to that which has been revealed.

IX. In both Testaments, these historical sections serve similar purposes.

      A. These historical books record the fulfilling of the prophecies given by the great prophets of the respective covenants. For example, in Acts we see the fulfillment of Christ's promises concerning the following:
      1. The baptism with the Spirit.
      2. The success of the New Testament Church in its commission.
      3. The removal of the kingdom from Israel.
      4. The bringing in of Christ's other sheep.
      5. The greater works of the apostles.
      6. The promise of preservation.
      7. The inspiration and foundational witness of the apostles.
      Other items could be added to this list, but this suffices to make the point.

      B. The historical sections provide a background and context for the prophetic books of the Old Testament and the apostolic epistles of the New Testament. What would the epistles mean to us apart from The Acts of the Apostles?

      C. The historical sections provide an example of how the people of God should serve under each covenant. Apostolic example is of great importance in our interpretation of Christ's commands. We should, however, take great care in distinguishing that which belongs to the "history of salvation" and that which belongs to the "order of salvation".1 For example, Baptists see Pentecost as a part of the "history of salvation", but our Pentecostal neighbors see it as a part of the "order of salvation."

      D. The historical sections provide examples of and warnings against the danger of apostasy.

      E. In the book of Acts, we have a record of how God's people transitioned from the Old to the New Covenant (or at times failed to do so).


1 The "history of salvation" concerns the whole work of God in securing man's redemption. Historical events like the calling of Abraham, the cross of Christ, His resurrection and the day of Pentecost belong to this "history of salvation". On the other hand, the "order of salvation" is the work of God in applying redemption to individual hearts, which is a work that continues in every generation.


[Ron Crisp is the retired pastor of First Baptist Church, Independence, Kentucky.]
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