A Beginner's Guide: What are all these different parts of the Bible?
Perhaps it goes without saying that the organization of the Bible is not like that of a novel or a biography, which reads continuously from beginning to end. The Bible is a collection of books, by different authors, but all inspired by God; and really, it's TWO collections of these books. Now there certainly is a cohesive story which winds all through the books, but it's helpful to understand some things about the various parts of the Bible.
Let's first look at the two main collections, commonly referred to as the Old Testament and the New Testament. It will help you to open your Bible to the first few pages, where you should find a table of contents.
The books of the Old Testament were all written long before the birth of Christ (this fact is accepted even by scholarly unbelievers). These books tell the story of Creation, the flood, the division of languages, and then they focus on God's formation of the nation of Israel (over a period reaching from about 2000 BC until 1400 BC), and His relationship with the Israelites from that period down to about 400 BC. The books themselves were written by various men of Israelite descent, inspired by God, across the 11 centuries between 1500 BC and 400 BC.
These books point forward to the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ. To be more specific, the first book, Genesis, opens with the problem that all men have, as seen in the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden: God has blessed us, but we respond with rejection and sin. From that beginning, God began to reveal that He would send someone to them to solve this problem, this conflict between man and God. The Old Testament is full of foreshadowings and indications of the Christ to come.
The books of the New Testament were all written in the few decades following the life of Christ, roughly from AD 40 to AD 100. This, obviously, is a much shorter time period than that during which the Old Testament books were written. They were written by contemporaries of Jesus, many of whom saw him and knew him personally.
As we turn our attention to the divisions within the individual books, they are divided in a way that is similar to how we divide many ancient works. We divide them into numbered sections: chapters and verses. The first book of the New Testament for example, Matthew, is divided into 28 chapters, and each of these chapters is divided into verses. The first chapter has 25 verses, while chapter 28 has 20 verses. These chapter and verse divisions were established by uninspired men hundreds of years after the completion of the books of the Bible, but are helpful so that we can refer to a specific passage. If I want someone to read the portion of the Bible where Jesus says,
“Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven,”
I can refer him to the book of Matthew, chapter 7, verse 21. In common shorter form, we refer to Matthew 7:21.
There are a few books of the Bible that are not divided into chapters, because they are so brief as to need only verse divisions (Philemon, Second John, Third John, and Jude).
Then the book that happens to be the longest is also not divided into chapters: the book of Psalms. A psalm is a poem or song, and the book of Psalms contains 150 of them. Just as we would not take a modern book of poems or songs and refer to a particular song as chapter 7 for example, we don't refer to the Psalms as chapters. Instead, we refer to the seventh Psalm, or Psalm 7.
Description of the New Testament Books
The first four books of the New Testament are records of the birth of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, the conflict between Him and the unbelieving Jews, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. These accounts were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and we call them the gospels (gospel means “good news”).
Luke addressed his gospel to someone named Theophilus, and it was only the first half of what he wrote for Theophilus. The second half of what Luke wrote is the book of Acts (or in long form, “The Acts of the Apostles”). Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament, and tells the story of the beginning of the church shortly after the resurrection of Christ, and the work of some of the early Christians, especially focusing on the apostle Paul and his teaching travels through the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
The rest of the New Testament is composed of letters that early Christians wrote to one another, as they were inspired to do so by the Holy Spirit, revealing more of the Lord's will to the early church and to us. Jesus had told the disciples the night before His crucifixion, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative . . . He shall take of mine, and disclose it to you” (John 16:12-14). These letters contain the the rest of the message of Christ for all those who would follow Him. Many of these letters were written by the apostle Paul; others were written by James, Peter, John, and Jude.
Some of these letters are written to whole churches, or even to Christians in a broad region, and some of them are written to specific individuals, like Timothy or Philemon. But they are all written for our learning.
The last book in the New Testament is a letter from John to seven specific churches in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey). It is the book of Revelation, and it is a book of great symbolism, meant to carry a concealed message to those churches enduring persecution. The very end of the letter turns to the events at the end of time when God will pronounce His final judgment on all men. And that final fact is the reason we need to know our God.