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New Testament | Themes

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A disciple is a student who follows the teachings of a leader. The canonical gospels call Jesus's followers disciples because they are consistently learning information about the kingdom of heaven and moral teachings about how to be in a right relationship with God and with one another in community. The other New Testament books expand the idea of discipleship beyond the original followers who knew the historical Jesus to the wider community, all those in the present and future who would believe Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God.

Christ or Messiah and Messianic Expectation

The Christ or Messiah is a biblical title for someone who is anointed by God to fill an important role among God's people; the term messiah means "anointed one." The English word "Christ" is derived from the Greek word Christos, which is a translation of the Hebrew word messiah. The term first appears in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the kings of the people of Israel, who are anointed with oil by God's prophets when they are appointed to rule (see, for example, the anointing of David in 1 Samuel 16). Because God made a covenant with the royal line of David that one of his descendants would reign over Israel forever (2 Samuel 7), the figure of the anointed one or messiah came to be associated with this kingly family line.

When the Davidic kingship eventually ended and other empires and peoples (Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans) ruled over the Jews, they nevertheless continued to hold to messianic expectation, the belief that God would send a messiah to liberate God's people from their imperial rulers and to once again lead them as an independent priestly nation. Prophetic and apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew Bible look forward to the arrival of this messiah and to his future reign (for example, Daniel 7).

Jesus and his earliest followers are living and working in the context of Jewish messianic expectation. When Jesus's followers came to believe he was the Messiah, the Christ, and started proclaiming this identity to others, they were making a shocking and radical claim. How could they call this man the Messiah when he seems to challenge Jewish law (Mark 7), and when he does not rule but is instead executed as a criminal?

Yet early Christ-believers insisted on Jesus's status as God's anointed one who had come to establish a new kingdom of God on earth. Their reimagining of what it meant to be the Messiah included some surprising elements: undergoing suffering on behalf of God's people (they found biblical support for this idea in the prophetic book of Isaiah in chapters 52–53) and even dying. The Pauline Letters in particular outline connections between teachings in the Hebrew Bible about God's promises to God's people and Jesus's death and resurrection.

Discipleship

A disciple is a student who follows the teachings of a leader. The canonical gospels call Jesus's followers disciples because they are consistently learning information about the kingdom of heaven and moral teachings about how to be in a right relationship with God and with one another in community. The other New Testament books expand the idea of discipleship beyond the original followers who knew the historical Jesus to the wider community, all those in the present and future who would believe Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God.

Discipleship is usually discussed as a state of being that requires a certain disposition and particular actions. All those who believe Jesus is the Christ or Messiah are charged to spread that "good news" to others. This is especially true in a passage from Matthew 28 called the Great Commission. In a farewell speech to his followers, the risen Jesus tells them, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).

According to the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament letters, disciples should also follow some basic ethical guidelines, including communal responsibility.

Several Pauline letters outline lists of positive qualities to cultivate and negative qualities to avoid. For example, in the letter to the Galatians Paul advises against things such as "licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife" (Galatians 5:19–20) and recommends "kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22–23).

According to the gospels, discipleship is no easy task. Jesus predicts many times that those who follow him will suffer in the same way he suffers. He specifically warns that his followers will be persecuted, beaten, kicked out of synagogue communities, and put on trial, though he promises that if they remain steadfast through all of these difficulties they will be saved (Mark 13:9–13). The book of Revelation expands on this idea of Christian disciples facing persecution that will require them to endure.

Parousia: The Second Coming

Parousia is a Greek term that means "arrival" and is applied specifically to the second coming of the resurrected Jesus, when he will return from heaven to judge human beings at the end of time. The New Testament writers have a variety of ideas about when the parousia will take place and what it means for those who believe Jesus is the Christ or Messiah (anointed one).

In the gospels, Jesus talks about the return of the Son of Man (for example, Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21), who will bring an end to a period of suffering and persecution, reward the just, and punish the wicked. The timing is uncertain, but Jesus warns his disciples to be alert, because it could happen at any time.

The Pauline letters also reflect an expectation that the parousia will happen soon. Paul advises his audience not to change their way of life because Christ will be returning imminently. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul even has to answer questions from Christ-believers who are surprised some members of their community have died before Jesus's return.

The Acts of the Apostles, the Deutero-Paulines (or Disputed Paulines), and the Catholic Letters are written later and show how Christ-believers have grappled with the delay of the parousia. All of these texts describe communities with more elaborate hierarchies and formal leadership positions.

For example, the author of 1 Timothy lays out qualities that are important for certain community leaders called bishops and deacons. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the position of deacon originated. The Christ-believers, most scholars agree, only began to appoint titled leaders and build institutional structures when it became clear that the first generation of apostles were starting to pass away and Jesus had not yet returned. The growing numbers of Christ-believers also made it necessary to put more organized hierarchies in place.

The book of Revelation looks ahead to the eschaton (the end of time) and describes the parousia as a critical element of that period. The Second Coming will be one of the key events, along with the destruction of the current world, the final judgment, and God's creation of a new, heavenly Jerusalem.

Salvation

The concept of salvation in the New Testament can refer to being saved from earthly difficulties and disease or the more complex notion of salvation from sin and eternal punishment. Most of the books in the New Testament use both senses of salvation and portray Jesus as the most important agent of a salvation who comes from God.

In the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus and his followers save people from disease and demonic possession through healings and exorcisms. Salvation from sin is initially reserved for Jesus, who forgives even people whom Jewish people consider unclean or impure, such as the woman who was caught in adultery and was about to be stoned to death (John 8).

However, in Matthew 16, Jesus gives Peter the power to forgive sins on earth. Both trusting Jesus and living ethically are important ways to be saved from the final judgment. In Matthew 25, Jesus teaches that all who serve their neighbors are, by extension, serving Jesus and will avoid punishment in the afterlife. The apostles and Paul spread the message of Jesus's power to save in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Pauline Letters also present complex ideas about salvation. Paul repeatedly insists that Jesus's death was a sacrifice on behalf of all human beings and that Jesus took on the suffering of others, dying in their place. Christ-believers can share in Jesus's death and resurrection by being baptized, but the most important path to salvation is through faith or trust in Jesus.

The Pauline Letters and the Catholic Letters expand on the everyday effects and implications of salvation in the present world; almost all the letters in the New Testament offer practical advice for Christ-believers who need to live in community. Revelation illustrates that in order to achieve salvation and avoid final judgment, a person's faith must be firm.

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