Chapter 7 --- No Traditional Reading Order of the New Testament
Start With Paul And Then You Can See How Matthew and John Are So Different
The Dilemma Posed By The NT Joinder Of Paul
While it may not be apparent when you first pick up the New Testament of any priority to address Paul’s authority, I suggest it is of first importance. The New Testament as assembled in 350 A.D. became a book not just about Jesus. You are probably attracted already to learn about Jesus, and thus you are thinking to examine the New Testament to find out more about Jesus.
However, as currently bound together since 350 AD, it is just as much about Paul. His letters take up a significant portion of the New Testament. You probably did not decide to open up the New Testament because of some attraction to Paul per se. Yet, if you do not ask the question up front of what is Paul’s authority, you may inadvertently just assume it is valid. Then because of the love and affection Jesus will engender in you, you might just assume, as so many before you, that this level of emphasis on Paul is justified.
Yet, the first question to ask about the Bible is: are all its parts of equal validity?
Hence, while you may think the place to start reading in the New Testament is with Jesus, you have to first decide what importance belongs to Paul. You will find later that Jesus says He, Jesus, is the “sole teacher,” and the apostles specifically were not to call themselves teachers.
Yet, looking at the New Testament, we see an implicit effort to make Paul some-one of equal authority to Jesus to teach in the New Testament.
This emphasis on Paul first began in the 300s when the Roman state had to muster every tool to stop the rest on the Sabbath. It had moved it to Sunday--the day to honor the pagan god "Sol Invictus." Constantine was a big believer in Sol Invictus (the god of the Sun), and he did everything to gain Christians' trust to move the day of rest to Sun-Day-the day to worship Sol-Invictus. (For more background, see our article on "Sabbath.")
Hence, you need to clarify whether Jesus would ever have agreed it was proper to include Paul in the New Testament which Jesus inaugurated. You need to determine up front whether it is justified to give Paul the authority which his prominence in the bound New Testament would suggest. Otherwise, we end up uncritically accepting Paul by default, and, as is so typical, allowing Paul’s doctrines, which are so attractive, to end up marginalizing the very different doctrines from Jesus.
A Suggested Sequence
How can we tell whether Paul is an authority on par with the Jesus speaking to us in the writings of the Apostles Matthew and John? What is the best way to compare Paul to Jesus in the apostolic gospels?
I suggest you do not read Matthew and John (and the other gospels) first and then Paul second. When you read Paul second, we get the misimpression that Paul is clarifying, simplifying or even correcting the gospels. People end up teaching Paul had a gospel of grace which supersedes the apostolic gospels which were based upon the Law. Many people believe that there are two legitimate gospels in the New Testament— one of faith (offered by Paul) and one of works and repentance offered by Jesus, but superseded by Paul’s message of grace.
To get a correct perspective on the message of Jesus in relation to Paul, I suggest you first read Paul’s letters (45-58 A.D.) Also first read Acts. While doing so, simply summarize Paul’s view on salvation and the Law. In particular, look at Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 4:3-5 on the issue of whether works and repentance play any role in salvation.
While reading Paul and Acts first, keep a careful eye out for any mention by anyone other than Paul who would say or agree Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ. (You will not find any such mention.)1 Then keep a footnote on this. Please then pay attention to whether Jesus warned you about self-serving statements (to the Ephesians) that someone claimed to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and that Jesus condemned this self-professed apostle. (See Rev. 2:2.) Ponder whom Jesus was referring to. Then pay attention to the importance that in Acts chapter one the twelfth apostle to replace Judas is Matthias, not Paul.
The reason for caution is we need to know by the end of reading the New Testament as currently framed/bound whether to give Paul the same level of authority we give the words of Jesus as recorded by Apostles Matthew and John in their gospels.
Then read the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John (in that sequence, which was their original sequence).2 Follow this up by reading Luke and Mark, an assistant to Paul. While doing so, summarize the gospels’ doctrine on salvation, the Law, and the identity and the number of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.
FOOTNOTES 1 and 2
1.The word apostolos in Greek means messenger. Paul was a messenger from the Church of Antioch in Acts 14:4. It never says he was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The three vision accounts— Acts 9, 22 and 24— have Jesus only saying Paul would be a martus, i.e., a witness.
2. Most Christians are unaware that Revelation came before the Gospel of John. Yet, it is obvious because Revelation has John on the Island of Patmos where he was prisoner. It was after his release and then living in Ephesus that he wrote the Gospel of John.
The Benefit of This Sequence
Reading in this sequence has several important impacts. First, by initially reading Paul’s letters and seeing there is no quote in them of Jesus from the Gospels except from the Lord’s Supper,3 one can see a stark difference in the apostolic writings of Matthew and John as well as the Revelation of Jesus Christ from the words of Paul.
Hans van Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (J. A. Baker, trans.) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972) at 109 explains: “The most striking feature is that the words of the Lord, which must have been collected and handed on in the primitive community and elsewhere from the earliest days, played no, or at least no vital, part in Paul’s basic instruction of his churches.”
First, the book of Revelation most strikingly shows that if one really had an appearance of Jesus in which Jesus meant to impart a message to a true Apostle (i.e., messenger), then the Apostle would be quoting Jesus extensively. In Revelation, John does so in the first three and last three chapters of Revelation. You would not expect no quotes of Jesus at all from the Gospels, as is found in Paul’s writings, with the sole exception of a snippet from the liturgy of communion.
Furthermore, by reading Paul first and paying attention to Paul’s view of the Law, you unlock Paul’s attitude to Jesus’s twelve apostles. Specifically, Paul’s views on the Law’s abrogation for the Jew (Rom.7:2) and Gentile (Gal. 4) was clearly developed by someone who was expressly proud not to have learned anything about Jesus from the twelve apostles (Gal.2:7, “they imparted nothing to me”). This explains why none of Jesus’ sayings appear in Paul’s writings.
When we read next Matthew, we find Paul’s doctrines on the Law’s abrogation directly contradict the most clear teachings from Jesus. See Matthew 5:17-19.4
Matthew 5:17-19 ASV is Jesus talking:
(17) “Think not that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.
(18) For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the Law, till all things be accomplished. (19) Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
But when you read in a different sequence, you don’t see this, do you? Instead, when you read in reverse order, you think Paul is correcting Matthew or superseding Jesus’ points. When we read Paul first, and let Matthew correct Paul’s omissions, you can see the starkness of the difference. Paul went ahead and proudly ignored whatever was being taught by the true apostles of Jesus. (Gal. 2:7.) If you only had Paul, you would have had virtually no knowledge of anything Jesus ever taught or said. To fill in the gap of what Paul was so proud not to have learned from the twelve (Gal. 2:7), the Gospels of Matthew and John provide a starkly different focus on Jesus’ messages.
Likewise, Paul’s view that one is saved / justified by faith without repentance / works (Eph. 2:8-9; Romans 4:3-5) directly clashes with Jesus’ view that only the one who repents goes home “justified” (Luke 18:14) and that every tree without “good fruit” goes into the “fire.” (Matt. 7:19.) Paul’s doctrine on faith-alone clashes also with Jesus’ lesson that unfruitful servants end up outside in darkness suffering weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 25:14-30.) This clash is exposed again in the very next passage. It teaches that servants without charity are sent to “eternal punishment,” while those who give charity receive “eternal life.” (Matt. 25:30-46.)
Paul simply did not know what Jesus truly taught and was, in fact, proud that he did not want to know what the twelve had to say about Jesus’ teachings! (Gal. 2:7.)
However, the only way to see this is to read Paul first. Otherwise, you simply do not see the dramatic contrast between someone who does not know Jesus very well or at all (i.e., Paul) and a true apostle of Jesus, i.e., Matthew and John.
What Explains This Stark Contrast
The reason for the omission of any truth about Jesus in Paul’s writings is obvious. Paul declares superiority to the twelve apostles’ gospel, saying the twelve “imparted nothing to me.” (Gal. 2:7.) Instead, Paul claims to be able to rely upon ongoing revelations from Jesus as his sole authority although Paul only quotes one-- in 2 Cor. 12:7 where Paul's Jesus refuses to release Paul from torment by an Angel of Satan. (Most Paul-adherents say there must be some mistake how that sounds and is inauthentic.)
However, the twelve, in particular Matthew, reveal that the supposed Jesus of Paul’s ongoing revelations was not relaying lessons consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Paul may have met Jesus one-time in an appearance outside a Damascus, but the lessons that Paul was teaching could not conceivably be from the same Jesus whom we encounter from Matthew.
Other subtle points are evident in Matthew when you read Paul first and Matthew second.
Matthew’s Exposure of The Problem of Paul As A Pharisee
When Paul is writing, he knows nothing of Matthew’s Gospel. Paul shows no knowledge of Jesus’ sayings. A modern Christian scholar, Hans van Campenhausen, agrees on this deficiency in Paul’s writings.
Hans van Campenhausen inThe Formation of the Christian Bible (J. A. Baker, trans.) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972) at 109 explains:
“The most striking feature is that the words of the Lord, which must have been collected and handed on in the primitive community and elsewhere from the earliest days, played no, or at least no vital, part in Paul’s basic instruction of his churches.”
This is no doubt because, to repeat, Paul was proud that the twelve “imparted nothing to me” (Gal. 2:7).
As a result, Paul is going to be out-flanked by Matthew’s account of what Jesus really taught about the Pharisees. Thus, Paul in ignorance of Jesus’ lessons will boast that he was once a Pharisee. Paul clearly thought the Pharisees were totally obedient to the Law, and this was Paul’s own self-perception of his time as a Pharisee. He wrote of it: “As touching the Law, [I was] a Pharisee...as touching the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” (Philippians 3:5-6.)
However, in Matthew, Jesus explains why the Pharisees are His greatest enemies: they are lawless teachers, teaching the less weighty command of the Law of tithing, while ignoring the weightier commands of the Law based on justice, mercy and faith. (Matt. 23:23.) They teach oral law which makes “of none effect” the written Law. (Matt. 15:6.)
Thus, while Paul claims to have seen the light about the error of the Pharisees, Paul misperceives their error in an exactly opposite sense of what Jesus said. Paul thought during his time as a Pharisee he was truly successful at being 100% obedient to the Law. To repeat, Paul said: “As touching the Law, [I was] a Pharisee...as touching the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” (Philippians 3:5-6.)
But Jesus says the Pharisees were smug and wrong in believing they were blameless under the Law. Jesus said they erred because they taught a shallow version of God’s Law. (Matt. 23:23, the Pharisees taught the “less weightier matters of the Law, like tithing, but left undone the weightier matters of the Law, such as Justice, Mercy and Faith.”) Likewise, Jesus said the Pharisees erred by teaching an oral law that replaced and made of “none effect” the written Law given Moses. (Matt. 15:6.)
Hence, all Paul’s assumptions proved he erred in his perception about the manner in which the Pharisees were wrong. Paul thought when he was a Pharisee that he was righteous and following the Law 100%. But Matthew in his account of Jesus’ life tells us that Jesus says Paul’s self-perception was wrong all along. The Pharisees were not following the Law except the principles of lesser importance such as tithing.
This is key because Paul then thought the cure for Pharisaical error was the exact opposite of what Jesus taught was the cure. Paul said Jesus’ death on the cross nailed the Law to that tree and we are now free from having to obey the Law anymore. We now could live “in grace.” See chapter five of my book Jesus’ Words Only (2007), available free online at this link.
But Jesus said instead that we must have a “righteousness that exceeds” the shallow righteousness of the “Pharisees.” (Matt. 5:20.) And in the preceding verse Jesus said this meant the one who teaches you to obey the Law given Moses is the “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven, but the one who teaches the opposite will be called by those in the kingdom of God the “least." (Matt. 5:19.) Paul clearly teaches the Law of Moses was a shadow, and is now abrogated. Paul fits the prophecy of the "least" that Jesus identifies.
Incidentally, Paul's name is a transliterated form of the name Paulus which is a shortened form of the name Pauxilus, and means "Least." (See our article "Did Jesus Prophesy of Paul the Least?") The NT reader must therefore consider whether Jesus made a dead-on prophecy about Paul.
(My studies suggest the Law for Gentiles is predominantly the Ten Commandments and the commands on foreigners in Leviticus, so it is a rather short list. However, it is not an empty list as Paul claims. See my article "The Law Applicable Today")
Hence, Paul, by still suffering a smug belief in the blamelessness of the Pharisees heads into a 180 degree opposite direction away from Jesus. Paul thinks their error was following the Law so rigidly when Jesus said their error was following the Law too loosely. Paul is so far away from Jesus’ point that Paul actually claims that anyone trying to be right with God by obeying God’s Law is “severed” from Christ. (Gal. 5:4.)
The contrast is so obvious that it is ludicrous to miss it. As long as Paul is put in sequence ahead of Matthew, one can see the gap in Paul’s knowledge, caused by his deliberate avoidance of hearing what true apostles like Matthew and John had to say were doctrines of Jesus Christ.
Why Are Paul’s Writings in the New Testament?
Jesus gave his Apostle Matthew a lesson which told Matthew clearly to leave Paul’s followers alone. Jesus said, in effect, do not try to remove them from among the church. Matthew gives us this lesson from Jesus in the account of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. (Matt. 13:24-43.) Jesus says the tares represent the seed sewn by Jesus’ enemy. The wheat are from the good seed. Jesus’ lesson is do not try to tear the tares away for fear you might harm some wheat.
Thus, the purpose of Matthew is to be as delicate as possible, rather than to hit the Paulinists over the head. (If you too agree with my analysis, then if you follow Jesus, please be as kind and understanding of Paulinists as possible consistent with truth. For you might cause harm to true believers in the process of trying to rout out false teachers.)
Yet, that being said, when you put Paul’s writings first and read them in that order ahead of Matthew, one more amazing truth is revealed.
Paul’s writings reveal Jesus’ greatest prophecy of the “ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15). Jesus’ words were meant to refer to the Benjamite “ravening wolf” prophecy of Genesis 49— the prophecy about one who opposes the Shiloh Messiah in the same passage.
Jesus’ Ravening Wolf Prophecy
The New Testament is actually God’s telling the story of the triumph of the Prince of Peace called Shiloh (a word-derived from salem, meaning peace) who in the “latter days” will appear from the tribe of Judah. He will suffer to have his garments splattered with the “blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:10-12). In that same “latter days” time period, there is a challenger. He is from the tribe of Benjamine. A Benjamite. He is described as a Benjamite “ravening wolf” who is prophesied in the nearby verse of Genesis 49:27. He too will come in the “latter days” period. This verse says a Benjamite will then appear who is a “ravening wolf” and he kills in the morning but in the evening he will “divide the spoils.” Id.
Jesus likewise says a false prophet is to come and known by the same name --- a "ravening wolf in sheep's clothing" -- meaning you will think he is a Christian, when indeed he is NOT. Jesus said: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)
How did Paul fit Genesis 49:27 and Matt. 7:15?
Just as Gen. 49:27 speaks of the Benjamite Ravening Wolf, Paul was a murderer of Christians at the beginning (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1), and in the end claimed the right to the spoils -- that the twelve allowed him sole authority over the Gentiles of the church. (Gal. 2:9.)
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” (Gal. 2:9, KJV.)
Paul was dividing the spoils whom previously he was killing in precise fulfillment of Gen. 49:27.
(Paul’s assertion of this Partition Treaty, as scholars name it, is factually implausible to have been consensual by the Jerusalem church. However, it proves Paul made the attempt to divide the church in two.)
Hence, Jesus’ most important prophecy of the New Testament aside from His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem's Temple was Jesus’ prediction that false prophets would follow Him who would be a “ravening wolf” but not truly belong to Jesus’ flock. (Matt. 7:15 “a ravening wolf” in “sheep’s clothing.”)
The only other references to that term “ravening wolf” in the entire Bible is in the Benjamite ravening wolf prophecy of Genesis 49:27 and Ezekiel 22:26-30.
In that Ezekiel passage, Ezekiel prophesies of the time of the “ravening wolves” (22:27, “wolves ravening the prey”). This will be the time when the leaders will have “done violence to my Law,” and will discard the distinction between the “holy and the common,” and “clean from the unclean” and hide their “eyes from my sabbaths.” (Ezek. 22:26.)
Do you know what Benjamite ever was involved in murder of God’s people at first, later claimed to be a Christian (a sheep), then broke off God’s people from obeying God’s Law, including Sabbath, and the “divided” the church in two — along Gentile-Jewish lines which he then exploited?
My dear friends, the answer is completely transparent even if you know only a little bit of the NT. This prophecy and its revelation then becomes the main sub-theme of the NT but only once you read Paul first and then the words of Jesus second. Then this fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, proving Him to be God’s Word and Son in every way, is indubitable. It is staring at us in the face— it is that obvious. Yet, only when you put the books in such a sequence can you truly see it.
How Does The Reading Sequence Help Prove the Benjamite Wolf Prophecy?
Eschewing reading / listening to the twelve (Gal. 2:7), Paul is ignorant of Jesus’ prophecy of the “ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing.” (Matt. 7:15.) Thus, Paul has no idea how he will convict himself of that appellation by admitting he is of the tribe of Benjamin. He states this twice. (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5.)
Then Paul, despite claiming he was appointed an apostle, will admit of having failed to take part in any apostolic mission for over 14 years!
Take a moment to objectively consider a few facts from Paul’s writings and Luke’s account in the Book of Acts which demonstrate this embarrassing fact.
Paul converts a couple years after Jesus’ Ascension to heaven. So that’s about 34 A.D. Paul goes to Tarsus and Arabia for 14 years in a period no one knows what Paul was doing or writing. Gal. 1:8-21; Gal. 2:1-2. Thus, Paul’s first notable appearance in Christian circles is about 49 A.D. which is noted in Acts 15. As one scholar puts it:
His first years as a Christian, spent in Arabia are a mystery. Three years after his call, Paul went to Jerusalem to visit; he saw Peter and James. Later (after fourteen years), he returned to Jerusalem for a meeting often referred to as the ‘Jerusalem Conference’ [recorded in Acts 15]..... (Watson E. Mills, Acts and Pauline Writings (Mercer University Press, 1987) at lvii.)
Paul is adamant that the encounter with Peter and James in that 3d year after his conversion was brief, and gave him nothing. Then after the Jerusalem Conference is finished (i.e., 14 or 17 years after Paul finding Christ), Paul writes that he learned nothing of Jesus directly from the apostles up to that time even though Jesus appointed them during His earthly ministry. (Gal. 2:7.) Paul rather claims to have learned of Jesus’ true gospel by a direct revelation from an appearance of Jesus in a bright light who was the risen Jesus. (Gal. 2:7.) This is why Paul emphasizes nothing from the twelve was accepted by him which could detract from that pure revelation. Paul insists that the apostles “imparted nothing to me....” Id.
What does this imply about Paul’s 14 mystery years? Paul couldn’t be preaching Christ! Paul did not know a word which Jesus taught, and Paul was proud about it! This is what forced Paul to claim 14 years later that a blinding-light version of Jesus was the direct source of Paul’s doctrine for that entire time. Otherwise, Paul was doing absolutely nothing for 14 years for the cause of Christ after supposedly meeting Him in an appearance within a bright light. Now Paul wanted credibility 14 years after the appearance of the true Jesus allegedly took place. Up to that time, by Paul’s own admission, Paul had deliberately neglected learning anything from the twelve.
Which proves that if Paul were called by Jesus as an apostle, he had not been true to the call for fourteen years! Why did Paul do nothing? Because Paul, in fact, was never called to be an apostle of the true Jesus Christ. This is demonstrated by Luke. After Paul’s writings, Paul’s friend Luke— to Paul’s great embarrassment— gives three times Paul’s varying accounts of the appearance of a light who says "I am Jesus"— in Acts 9, 22, and 26. Yet, in none of these accounts does blinding-light Jesus (or the person Paul thought was Jesus) says He is calling Paul to be an apostolos (Greek for "a messenger"). Rather, this Jesus of Paul's account says he is calling Paul to be a martus (Greek for "a witness"). A big difference!
Thus, when Revelation comes later— from Apostle John and prior to John’s Gospel— it is significant that Jesus in Revelation 2:2 compliments the Ephesians for finding the one who “said” to them he was an apostle was, in fact, a “liar.” Paul wrote the Ephesians that he was an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 1:1.) It is in the same context that Jesus goes on, and a few verses later compliments the Ephesians for rejecting the one who taught it was permissible to “eat meat sacrificed to idols.” (Rev. 2:14.) Paul three times says it is permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols. (Romans 14:21;1 Corinthians 8:4-13, and 1Corinthians 10:19-29.) It is transparent of whom Jesus speaks.
Again, reading the writings in the sequence proposed above lets you see the weakness of Paul’s claims. By way of review:
- Paul admits he is a Benjamite. (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5.)
- Paul admits he learns nothing from the twelves apostles. (Gal. 2:7.)
- Paul admits he divides the church along Gentile-Jewish lines, claiming the twelve ceded to him the exclusive control over Gentiles. (Gal. 2:9.)
- Jesus then uses the “ravening wolves” term for the false prophets claiming to be Christians. (Matt. 7:15.)
- The only reference to “ravening wolves” in the Bible identically matches Paul in every way for he would be (a) a Benjamite ravening wolf (Gen.49:27) identified as one who starts out being a killer and ends up dividing the carcass he previously killed; and (b) Ezekiel prophesies of a time of leaders who also are “ravening wolves” who do violence to the Law, causing the people to disregard it, including the true sabbath (Ezekiel ch. 22), just as Paul did.
God’s Purpose Becomes Self-Evident
Thus, this reading sequence of the writings is revealing. God let Paul prove by his many writings a complete ignorance of Jesus’ teachings. Matthew’s Gospel proves how absolutely ignorant Paul was of the true doctrines of Jesus Christ. There is an absolutely stark contrast on salvation and the Law. And thereby one can see clearly the amazing prophecy of Jesus about the Benjamite Ravening Wolf which devastates Paul’s validity.
Incidentally, I detail in another book all the proof of the Benjamite Wolf Prophecy in Genesis. (See chapter fourteen of my prior book, Jesus’ Words Only (2007) at page 347 et seq.)
Leave The Tares Alone
Hence, Paul and his followers are obviously the tares in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Jesus through Apostle Matthew identified how to treat Paul and his followers: treat them as tares, but Jesus does not ask for their expulsion from the church. Jesus in Matthew is gentle.
Enhanced Stature Of Jesus By Recognizing This Prophecy
Jesus, in my view both Divine and Son-of-God (for reasons explained elsewhere), also proved to be a great prophet. He did so not only by prophesying the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem but also by telling His followers how to identify the false apostle (see Rev. 2:2, self-serving claim of being his apostle) and Christ’s enemy from the tribe of Benjamin. Jesus did this in such a gentle kindly way that even the knowledge of what Jesus was doing has escaped most of His followers. That by itself proves the wonderful lovable nature of Jesus. Even as He delivers a prophecy, which if recognized enhances His stature, He wraps it in mysterious language from the Hebrew Scripture so that only those most attentive to common verbiage (i.e., “ravening wolf”) will see the true message.
Like the “where is Waldo” puzzles of our youth, Jesus’ message about the “ravening wolf” prophecy is not easily recognized. Once seen, it can never be missed again. The message becomes utterly transparent. Before seeing it, it is faded into the background and invisible.
The solution to puzzles is often by turning the picture around. By putting the books of the New Testament in an opposite sequence of the normal reading order, the true solution to the puzzle emerges.
It is precisely the same kind of puzzle that kept Jews from seeing the Messianic passages in the Hebrew Scripture. Once you see the fulfillment of them in Jesus, those passages become absolutely transparent. Until then, the messianic prophecies remained faded into the background and were difficult to discern.
The New Testament as currently laid out likewise is a puzzle. To see Jesus’ prophecy of the Benjamite Wolf, you must turn the pieces around. Then the veracity of Jesus’s prediction of the "ravening wolf" in sheep’s clothing is transparently obvious.
On the other hand, while we are to leave the Tares alone, we do not have to consent to treating the Benjamite Wolf’s writings as inspired. Sometimes they are edifying. Yet, Jesus warned so much about the deceptive quality of the “ravening wolves” that it is necessary to ignore Paul, and see instead Paul is a living fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus about the “ravening wolves.”
Thus, the benefit of reading the New Testament in the “Paul-first, gospels second” order is to see better the complete ignorance of Paul for any doctrines of Jesus Christ. After reading Paul first, we find ourselves hungering after the words of the Lord Jesus. We are famished because Paul gives us nothing substantive from Jesus.
However, when we turn to Jesus, we can see a great light arrives. We move out of darkness into the light of the words of the one I hope you will receive as Savior. Now we can learn correctly the doctrines and message of Jesus, free of baggage that has weighed them down for far too long. Jesus is then given the honor that God-the-Father intended (i.e., “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!”) and which John-the-Baptist acknowledged (‘he must increase, and I must decrease’).
Bercot’s Alternative Approach: Does It Really Work?
Bercot takes the current New Testament as a single document. Thus, he gives opposite advice than I do about starting with Paul. Bercot says ‘start with Jesus,’ in effect.
Yet, Bercot still comes out with the same conclusion about the relative unimportance of Paul to understand the words of Jesus. Bercot says let’s start with Jesus in order to understand the New Testament. Thus, even though he comes at it from a reverse direction, his conclusion is the same as mine.
Let’s read what he says to test the wisdom of starting reading the New Testament with the words of Jesus.
David W. Bercot, an attorney, in Common Sense: A New Approach to Understanding Scripture (1992) explains that we need to interpret the New Testament, as currently combined, like a lawyer might examine a decision to find its meaning:
Likewise, when interpeting any single document, I always start at the beginning. I don’t skip down to the middle and start reading.
The same principle applies to interpreting Scripture. When searching for the truths of Christianity, this means going back to the words of Jesus himself. This is a rather obvious principle, yet here the majority of evangelical Christians get sidetracked. They begin with Paul, not Jesus. Many evangelicals virtually ignore Jesus' teachings— claiming they apply to an earlier dispensation, or to the ‘kingdom age.’ Others reshape Jesus’ words to fit Paul’s words.
How strange. Jesus said “A disciple is not about his teacher.” (Matt. 10:24.) Yet we make Paul, the disciple, greater than the teacher. We subordinate Jesus to Paul. We understand Jesus’ words only in the context of Paul's writings. In sharp contrast, the early Christians understood Paul in the context of Jesus’ teachings. Their gospel was above all the gospel of Jesus.
Principle #2: Start at the beginning with the teachings of Jesus.
Our upside down approach to Scripture is a fairly new tradition. It began with Martin Luther who said that the Book of Romans is “the chief part of the New Testament.” We may not use his exact words, but in practice we follow in his footsteps. However, a common sense approach to Scripture requires us to begin with the Author of Christianity, Jesus Christ— not with Paul. In our illustration of discovering what Scripture teaches about salvation, it means that we begin with the four gospels.(Id., at 21-22.)
Bercot admirably believes by reading Jesus’ words first, one will be strengthened to rely upon Jesus’ words and not Paul’s at a later point. However, this has not proven true in practice. The appearance of Paul second makes it appear Paul is correcting or superceding the message in the Gospels, as indeed Bercot acknowledges has been the effect.
Thus, while I admire Bercot’s direction, it creates still the risk that a novice reader of the New Testament will end up with misconceptions. By you reading Paul first, and seeing that the Jesus you hunt for is nowhere quoted or expounded upon, the honest searcher will know that Paul’s writings are not where you will find any message from Jesus. The only place to find Jesus, including His final message, is in the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation.
Hence, while it may be counter-intuitive to learn the message of Christianity by first reading Paul, and first identifying Paul's doctrines, and then reading Jesus to identify His different doctrines, it is an essential approach. Otherwise, the misconceptions that afflict Christianity will continue unabated.
Paul is not a new layer of Christianity but a completely different version of Christianity. By reading Paul first, you finally can see that Paul’s version is completely incompatible with the version of Christianity that you were attracted to in the words and person of Jesus.
However, Bercot’s advice demonstrates that one can find out the meaning of the New Testament perhaps by reading Jesus’ words first. It is just not advisable to do so.
Blessings in Christ,