Lesson 5: Context and Overview of the New Testament

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“Lesson 5: Context and Overview of the New Testament,” New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual (2016)

“Lesson 5,” New Testament Seminary Teacher Manual

Lesson 5

Context and Overview of the New Testament


In this lesson, students will learn about the historical and cultural context of the New Testament, including factors that contributed to many Jews rejecting Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. Students will also learn about the structure of the New Testament.

Suggestions for Teaching

The context of the New Testament

I See the Son of Man Standing on the Right Hand of God
I See the Son of Man Standing on the Right Hand of God

Display a portion of the picture Stephen Sees Jesus on the Right Hand of God (Gospel Art Book [2009], no. 63; see also by using paper or another material to cover everything in the picture except Stephen (the man in the blue cap).

Invite students to describe what is happening in the picture. Ask them why they think the man is on the ground and stretching forth his hand. After students respond, reveal the rest of the picture.

  • How does seeing the full picture help you understand what is happening?

Invite students to read the chapter heading for Acts 7 to understand that this picture shows Stephen, a disciple of Jesus Christ, being stoned to death and seeing Jesus standing on the right hand of God.

  • How can we liken uncovering this picture to understanding the scriptures?

Explain that this activity illustrates the importance of understanding the context of the scriptures. The word context refers to the circumstances that surround or give background to a scriptural passage, event, or story. Point out that as students become familiar with the historical and cultural context of the New Testament, they can better understand and apply its teachings.

Jewish religious leaders during the Savior’s ministry

Invite a student to read 2 Nephi 10:3–5 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for words or phrases the prophet Jacob used to describe the spiritual condition among some of the Jews during the Savior’s ministry.

  • What words or phrases did Jacob use to describe the spiritual condition among some of the Jews? (Explain that the word priestcrafts in verse 5 refers to preaching that seeks “gain and praise of the world” rather than the welfare of God’s people [2 Nephi 26:29]. Those who were guilty of priestcrafts were primarily wicked religious leaders among the Jews who were leading people astray.)

Invite a student to read Matthew 23:16, 24 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for how the Savior described these Jewish religious leaders during His ministry.

  • How did the Savior describe these Jewish religious leaders?

  • What did the Savior teach about these leaders by calling them “blind guides”?

Additions to the law of Moses and other false philosophies

To help students understand further how religious leaders led people astray, draw a circle on the board and write Law of Moses in its center. Draw another circle around the first circle and label it Oral Law.

Explain that in the absence of prophets, Jewish teachers and leaders added their own rules and interpretations to the law. Known variously as the oral law, oral tradition, or the traditions of the elders, these added rules and interpretations were intended to prevent violation of God’s law. To demonstrate one of these rules, invite two students to come to the front of the class. Give them each a rope with a knot in it. Ask one student to untie the knot using only one hand, and ask the other student to untie the knot using both hands. After they attempt this, invite them to return to their seats.

Explain that according to the oral law, it was forbidden to untie a knot with both hands on the Sabbath. Doing so was considered work and thus a violation of the Sabbath day. However, untying a knot with only one hand was permitted.

  • What could be the danger of adding man-made rules to God’s commandments?

Ask a student to read aloud the following statement concerning certain Jewish religious leaders by Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

McConkie, Bruce R.

“They took the plain and simple things of pure religion and added to them a host of their own interpretations; they embellished them with added rites and performances; and they took a happy, joyous way of worship and turned it into a restrictive, curtailing, depressive system of rituals and performances. The living spirit of the Lord’s law became in their hands the dead letter of Jewish ritualism” (The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols. [1979–81], 1:238).

  • According to Elder McConkie, what had the Jewish religious leaders done to God’s law with their added interpretations?

Point out that the Jews in Jesus’s day were in a state of apostasy. Although the authority and ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood continued among them, many of the Jews had fallen away from the true practice of their religion as revealed by God to Moses (see D&C 84:25–28). The tradition of the elders had gained priority over pure religion and the written word of God.

Invite a student to read Matthew 12:14 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what the Pharisees desired to do to Jesus because He disregarded their authority and some of their oral traditions.

  • What did these religious leaders conspire to do to Jesus?

Explain that in addition to apostate Jewish traditions, other false philosophies influenced people’s rejection of Jesus Christ after His Resurrection. For example, the spread of Greek culture led many people to reject the reality of a physical resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:12). Thus, as the Apostles testified of the resurrected Savior after His Crucifixion, many rejected their testimonies.

Foreign rule and the expectation of a Messiah to deliver Israel

Write the following words on the board: Babylon, Persia, Macedonia (Greece), and Rome.

  • Regarding the Jews, what did these ancient empires have in common? (They had conquered and ruled over the Jews.)

Divide students into groups and provide the following handout to each group:

Except for one period of independence, by New Testament times the Jews had lived as a conquered people for over 500 years. A revolt led by the Maccabees, a family of Jewish patriots, led to independence about 160 years before Christ’s birth. However, by the time of Christ’s birth, Rome had conquered Israel. King Herod (also known as Herod the Great), who had married into the Maccabee family, was appointed by Rome to rule over Israel. The Jews resented Roman rule and eagerly looked forward to a promised Messiah who they believed would deliver them from the Romans. Because many Jews expected a Messiah who would deliver them from foreign rule, they rejected Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Ask students to read the handout and discuss the following questions as a group (you may want to copy these questions on the board):

  • What did many Jews expect from the coming Messiah?

  • Why do you think this false expectation led many Jews to reject Jesus as the Messiah?

Explain that while some Jews rejected Christ, others who were humble and spiritually sensitive recognized Him as the Messiah and Savior.

Invite several students to take turns reading aloud from Luke 2:25–33. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what a righteous man named Simeon did and said when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple as an infant.

  • According to verses 30–32, why was Jesus sent to earth? (Students may use different words but should identify the following truth: Jesus Christ was sent to bring salvation to all people.)

  • What did Jesus Christ do to allow all people to be saved?

Display the picture of Stephen that was shown at the beginning of the lesson. Encourage students to remember the cultural and historical context you have discussed as they study the New Testament. As they do, they will better understand the teachings of the Savior and His Apostles. (For additional information about the historical and cultural context of the New Testament, see “The Intertestamental Period” and “The New Testament Setting” in the New Testament Student Manual ([Church Educational System manual, 2014], 1–3). This material includes brief explanations of groups such as the Samaritans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, and scribes).

A brief preview of the New Testament

Pool of Bethesda

Tell students that you will show them a picture for 10 seconds and will then invite them to write a detailed description of what they saw. Show students Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda (Gospel Art Book, no. 42; see also After 10 seconds, put the picture away and invite students to write their descriptions. After sufficient time, ask a few students to read their descriptions to the class.

  • Although you all saw the same picture, why did your descriptions differ?

  • Why is it helpful to have more than one witness of an event?

Write the names of the writers of the four Gospels on the board: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Explain that each of these disciples of Jesus Christ recorded events and teachings from the Savior’s life. Their records are called the Gospels. The word gospel means “good news.” Point out that the Joseph Smith Translation changes the title of each Gospel to testimony, as in “The Testimony of St. Matthew.”

  • Why is it helpful to have more than one gospel or testimony of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ?

Explain that although the four Gospels vary in some details and perspective, they all recount the events of the Savior’s life and earthly ministry among the Jews. All four Gospels testify that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world (see Bible Dictionary, “Gospels”).

You might want to provide students with copies of the abbreviated version of the chart “The Mortal Life of Jesus Christ at a Glance” at the end of this lesson. The full version of this chart is in the appendix of this manual. Invite students to use the chart to identify a few major events in the Savior’s mortal ministry.

  • According to the chart, how long was the Savior’s mortal ministry?

  • Where was the Savior during most of His ministry?

Invite students to use this chart to better understand the context of the four Gospels as they study the New Testament.

Ask students to open to the table of contents of the Bible. Explain that while the Gospels give an account of the Savior’s ministry, the books from Acts through Revelation record the ministry of Christ’s ancient Apostles after His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. These Apostles traveled throughout the land of Israel and the Roman Empire preaching the gospel and establishing branches of the Church. By studying these Apostles’ acts and writings, we can strengthen our faith in the Savior and learn how to receive the blessings of His Atonement. We can also see how closely The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints parallels the ancient church of Jesus Christ.

Consider testifying of truths you have discovered from studying the New Testament. Invite students to look for truths that will bless them as they study the New Testament this year.

Commentary and Background Information

The period between the Old and New Testaments

For additional information about the historical and cultural setting of the New Testament, see S. Kent Brown and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Lost 500 Years: From Malachi to John the Baptist,” Ensign, Dec. 2014, 56–60; Robert L. Millet, “Looking beyond the Mark: Why Many Did Not Accept the Messiah,” Ensign, July 1987, 60–64; and Richard D. Draper, “The Reality of the Resurrection,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 32–40.

The four Gospels

Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained how the Gospels were written for different audiences but served the same purpose of teaching about the divinity of Jesus Christ:

“It is true that the four New Testament gospels do present different aspects of our Lord’s personality and teachings. It appears that Matthew was directing his gospel to the Jews. He presents Christ as the promised Messiah and Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism. Mark apparently wrote with the aim of appealing to the Roman or Gentile mind. Luke’s gospel presents the Master to the Greeks, to those of culture and refinement. And the gospel of John is the account for the saints; it is pre-eminently the gospel for the Church, for those who understand the scriptures and their symbolisms and who are concerned with spiritual and eternal things. Obviously such varying approaches have the great advantage of presenting the truths of salvation to people of different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. But the simple fact is that all of the gospel authors wrote by inspiration, and all had the same purposes: 1. To testify of the divine Sonship of our Lord; and 2. To teach the truths of the plan of salvation” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 336).

The books of Acts through Revelation

The book of Acts records some of the major missionary activities of the Apostles. The books from Romans to Jude are epistles, or letters, written by Paul and other Church leaders to instruct and edify the Saints. The Pauline epistles are arranged “by length, in descending order from the longest (Romans) to the shortest (Philemon). This is the case except with the epistle to the Hebrews, which was placed last because some have questioned whether or not it was written by Paul” (Bible Dictionary, “Pauline Epistles”). The epistles of James through Jude are referred to as the General Epistles “because they are not directed to any one person or specific branch of the Church” (Bible Dictionary, “General Epistles”). The book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, contains John the Beloved’s specific counsel to seven branches of the Church in Asia as well as a revelation to John consisting basically of the history of the world, especially the last days.

What are the four Gospels?

The four Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament. Written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they contain four testimonies of Jesus’s mortal life and the events pertaining to His ministry. In many ways, the book of 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon is similar to the Gospels and is sometimes referred to as “the Fifth Gospel.”

“The books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek. The Greek word for gospel means ‘good news.’ The good news is that Jesus Christ has made an atonement that will redeem all mankind from death and reward each individual according to his [or her] works” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Gospels,”

Where can I find a harmony of the accounts in the four Gospels?

A harmony of the four gospel accounts, with a table comparing the teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and latter-day revelation, can be found in the Bible appendix.

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