Have you ever wondered how the books of the New Testament were arranged—and how you can learn to find them faster?
The Old Testament has 39 books and encompasses approximately 75% of the Bible. The New Testament is much shorter—just 27 books making up about 25% of the Bible’s contents. However, just because it is shorter, that doesn’t mean some of the books are hard to find—books like Philemon, Titus, and Jude can be more difficult to locate.
Never fear, I want to explain how the New Testament is laid out and how understanding its layout can help you find passages faster.
First of all, it’s not in chronological order—even though the first book of the New Testament starts with the birth and genealogy of Jesus. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is arranged by kind.
When the books of the New Testament were written, they were circulated among the early churches as separate documents—because they were written as separate documents. The Bible as a whole and the New Testament specifically didn’t float slowly to earth in one bound volume from Heaven.
The documents of the New Testament were written by men under the inspiration of God for specific purposes. Knowing this fact will help you understand how the New Testament is arranged.
The first four books of the New Testament are the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four books chronicle the life of Jesus from four different angles.
Early Church History
The next book—yes, book (just one)—is Acts. It stands by itself as the history of the early church. The other twenty-two books can be lumped together under one classification . . .
Letters (or if you like the church-y word, epistles, which literally means “letter”). It’s not very helpful to learning how to navigate the New Testament if I just say the last twenty-two books are letters, so let’s break this broad category into smaller groups.
The biggest division you can make is between the letters Paul wrote versus the letters he didn’t write. Now if we take Paul’s letters, we can divide them into two groups:
#1 – letters written to churches (they’re the ones that have city names and end in “-ans”) and
#2 – letters written to specific people (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).
These two groups, oddly enough, are arranged in order of length—longest to shortest. Remember, like the chapter and verses numbers, the arrangement of the books of the Bible are not inspired by God—it’s just the way we printed them as we put all the documents together in one volume. That’s why Galatians is before Ephesians even though Ephesians is 192 Greek words longer.
Now, looking at the letters not written by Paul, we have Hebrews (the longest), then James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; Jude; and Revelation.
These are often referred to as the “general Letters” because they were not written to a specific church (like Romans was written to the church in Rome) nor to a specific person (like Titus was written to one of Paul’s proteges named Titus).
These letters were written to the community of Jesus followers as a whole—that’s why most of them (with the exception of Hebrews and Revelation) carry the author’s name as their title and not the recipient’s name. You might be wondering, “So John wrote the Gospel According to John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation—why are they not all together?” Good question.
The Gospel According to John is put with the Gospels because it’s a Gospel—that one is a no-brainer. The real question is why Jude comes in and breaks up 1, 2, and 3 John from Revelation. This is more a flow thing with the New Testament. If you put Revelation after 1, 2, and 3 John, you would hear the incredible reality of the end of history and the glorious eternity we will have with Christ—then you’d pop back to Jude. It would be weird to end like that—so Revelation is put at the end to wrap up the Bible nicely.
So the library of books that is the New Testament is ordered like this: Gospels, Acts, Letters.
So how does this help you find them faster? When you open your Bible to find a book of the New Testament, open to the last 80% or so. If you’re in the letters and you need a Gospel or Acts, go to the left. If you open to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and you need Acts or a letter, look to the right. If you’re in the letters, and you need one that sounds like a city name and end in “-ans”, they are first.
With the exception of Hebrews and Revelation, all the books that have names as titles are in the back half and are much shorter.
Just like anything, the more time you spend in the New Testament, the faster you can navigate it—and, there’s no shame in using the Table of Contents. It’s there for a reason!
Before we go, a word about Lifeword. This amazing organization has been spreading the Good News of Jesus since 1965. Lifeword’s most recent project is building the Lifeword Cloud, enabling the more than five decades of gospel programming to be accessed through the Internet. The ultimate goal is that 200 world languages would be represented on the Lifeword Cloud and that speakers of those languages would hear the greatest story ever told in their heart language. So what are you waiting for, go and check them out at Lifeword.org.