Ask God to continue giving you clarity and understanding about how the story of the Bible began. Ask Him to teach you something new today.
Last Things First – Part Two
Luke and so many others felt compelled to document the events that happened in the first century surrounding the city of Jerusalem because something extraordinary happened and it had to be preserved.
The apostle Peter dictated his account—a short document called the Gospel of Mark—to a young Greek named John Mark who also traveled with Paul and was Luke’s friend. Luke said that several people sat down to document Jesus’s life, and Matthew was one of them. But before it was called the Gospel of Matthew, it was simply a document addressing first-century Jews to say, “Trust me… Jesus fulfilled so many of those [Old Testament] prophesies. Believe that he is who he claimed to be.”
The church fathers in the second century, those who came after the disciples in the late first century, indicated that the original version of Matthew was probably written in Hebrew to the Jews, and then it was translated into Greek—the version we have today. And why would a Hebrew document be translated into Greek? Because Greek was the Eastern Empire language, and this was not merely a message for the Jews and the people in that region. This was a message for the whole world.
We also have a document called the Gospel of John. John, an eyewitness, had no idea if his document would survive a day, a week, a month, much less 2,000 years, and that it would be compiled several hundred years later with other ancient sacred documents. He was simply documenting, at an old age, his experiences with Jesus so we would believe that he is the Son of God. If John’s account is the only document you ever read, this is all you will ever need. It’s enough for you to have confidence that God has done something in the world on our behalf.
At the end of the first century, there were thousands of Christians. Eventually, thousands of copies of these documents, meticulously copied and compiled, were being distributed telling about Jesus’s life and works. Some people had one, two, or even three Gospels, and some had only part of one and part of another. Can you imagine how valuable these documents would be to you if you were a first-century follower of Jesus? From the very beginning, these four documents—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were considered valuable, reliable, sacred, and, eventually, inspired.
Now, Christianity was a problem to the Roman Empire, not because they cared about who you worshipped, but because Christians refused to pay homage to Caesar and didn’t worship the Roman gods. This resulted in the worst state-sponsored Christian persecution until that time, and all Christian literature was to be turned in and burned. That is why hundreds of Christians risked and lost their lives protecting fragments of the Gospels and the letters of Paul and Peter.
The reason those valuable manuscripts survived the third and early fourth century is because of early Christians’ confidence that they told the truth about something that had happened on earth in the first century when God showed up in the person of Jesus Christ. They died rather than give up the sacred documents. Even during that persecution, Christianity continued to spread. By the year 324, Constantine the Great canceled those edicts, returned the property to the church, and allowed Christians to worship freely—and Christianity became the Roman Empire’s preferred religion. Then, for the first time, Christian scholars were able to compile this extraordinary collection of ancient texts, what we would call the New Testament, setting the stage to assemble the very first Bible.
As you think about these Jesus followers who risked and gave their lives to protect the manuscripts that would eventually become part of the Bible, what do you believe would motivate these actions? What does this tell you about the early church and the Bible?