The Lord Jesus Christ clearly identified the foundational principles involved in methodical Bible study. In one instance, He pointed to three distinct divisions calling them “the law of Moses,” “the prophets,” and “the psalms.”
Luke 24:44 … written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. 45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,
Christ's referencing of divisions clarifies the fact that God intended for the body of scripture to be divided. Yet, even these three simple divisions do not cover the entirety of the Old Testament. They simply illustrate that the scriptures can be (and should be) divided into parts and that doing so facilitates methodical Bible study.
Word of Caution
Dividing the scripture into sections can become quite complex with its own unique set of potential pitfalls. For example, the last seventeen books of the Old Testament (Isaiah through Malachi) present a prominent prophetic emphasis. This does not exclude other books from containing prophecy. In fact, prophecy can be traced all the way back to the opening chapters of Genesis (Genesis 3:15). Additionally, the Book of Psalms contains an extensive amount of prophecy. These truths are important to note since the Lord Jesus Christ declared that all “scripture” (meaning the entirety of the Old Testament) testified or prophesied of Him. In fact, Jesus frequently spoke of the existing Old Testament scriptures as prophesying of events in His day. Along with the example from Luke chapter 24 mentioned earlier, here is another example:
John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
Old Testament Book Divisions
This section includes five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, primarily covering the 2,500 years from the creation of man to the death of Moses. After detailing God’s creative work, focus almost immediately shifts to God’s dealings with the first couple in the garden of Eden. The Pentateuch time period ends with God focused upon one nation wandering through the wilderness.
This section includes twelve books, Joshua through Esther, covering nearly a 1,000-year period reflecting an emphasis on Israel’s historical record. This record begins with the initial conquest of Canaan and ends with the Jews scattered (some into captivity, while others remained in the land of promise). This section chronicles the rise of the judges and the establishment of the kings, along with the captivities and the multiple returns of the Jewish people into their promised land.
This section includes five books, Job through Song of Solomon, grouped more for the type and nature of the content rather than any chronological order. This section is noted for its literary beauty (from the tale of Job’s loss turned to triumph, to the songs of the Old Testament saints, to the great thinker Solomon who wrote about the sheer vanity of all things under the sun).
Prophecy (Old Testament)
This section includes seventeen books, Isaiah through Malachi, commonly divided into Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel) and Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi) with these designations based on the length of their respective messages. (Note: Lamentations is smaller than several of the so-called Minor Prophets, yet it sequentially falls within the Major Prophets and has a direct association with the Major Prophet Jeremiah.) This section centers around the captivities and restoration of God’s chosen people, the Jews. Much of its content has been fulfilled in part and will find a complete fulfillment when God restores the Jewish people.
New Testament Book Divisions
This section includes four books, Matthew through John, covering approximately thirty-three years of events, commencing with the conception of John the Baptist and ending with the final ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ back into Heaven. Although the specific themes vary in each of the gospel books, they serve the general purpose of presenting the person and overall work of the Lord Jesus Christ amongst the Jews. Among other details, this section chronicles Christ’s baptism, His ministry, His calling and equipping of twelve disciples (later called apostles), His betrayal, His unjust crucifixion, His triumphant resurrection, and His final ascension back to the Father in Heaven.
The Acts of the Apostles
This section includes one book, Acts, commencing with the time period immediately preceding Christ’s ascension back into Heaven which aligns with the final event recorded in the previous section. The book of Acts concludes with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. This book chronicles the acts (or actions) of the apostles similar to how the Old Testament books of First and Second Kings and First and Second Chronicles covered “the acts of” the kings. It spans approximately forty years, purposefully majoring upon the historical record. The nature of this book necessitates its standing alone especially because of its transitional nature (i.e., Peter to Paul, Jew to Gentile, signs to no signs, etc.). Much of the applicable doctrine and practical instructions taught during this period are more extensively covered in the epistles following the book of Acts. However, not every church practice found in the book continues throughout the epistles.
Note: Although the purpose of the book of Acts primarily serves as a historical record, remember that “All scripture … is profitable for doctrine” (2 Timothy 3:16). As with any application, the reader’s crucial starting point when reading Acts involves considering by whom, to whom, and at what time the doctrine was being conveyed. Most false teachers, religious sects, and cults have ignored this important study feature to the detriment of themselves and those whom they influence.
This section includes twenty-one books, Romans through Jude, containing the vast majority of the doctrinal and practical teachings received by the early church. While it is true that these teachings directly applied to churches and individuals living during the first century, the doctrines and practical instruction were intended to apply to saints for the duration of the Church Age. The majority of the teachings within this section were specifically given to the apostle Paul for the church. In fact, by design, his name is the first word in the first thirteen epistles in this section which are combined together to focus the reader on the truths taught therein.
Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ …
1 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ …
2 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ …
Galatians 1:1 Paul, an apostle, (not of men, …
Ephesians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ …
Philippians 1:1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ …
Colossians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ …
1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus …
2 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus …
1 Timothy 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God …
2 Timothy 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ …
Titus 1:1 Paul, a servant of God …
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ …
Note: This section of twenty-one epistles has often been further divided and classified into the Epistles and the General Epistles with a single division placed between the books of Philemon and Hebrews. Not only does this division create potential misconceptions, but it is wholly inaccurate. An epistle is a General Epistle when addressed to a general audience—John’s second and third epistles do not match this description. Unfortunately, any rigid application of this classification creates additional problems. For instance, those who indiscriminately apply this rule to the so-called General Epistles (like Hebrews) sometimes claim that the books of Hebrews through Jude lack much specific application to Christians in the Church Age. This manmade philosophy has unfortunately hindered Christian growth and maturity. Furthermore, some teachers have formulated these two designations in order to de-emphasize the application for the church those writings outside the thirteen epistles that begin with Paul’s name (Romans through Philemon). Obviously, this type of error ultimately leads to the teaching that the books following Philemon contain far less significance for believers than God intended.
The entire twenty-one epistles should be classified more by the general or specific audience to whom each epistle is addressed. The point is that a general audience epistle is addressed to a broader audience. Yet, Third John addressed “unto the well beloved Gaius” reveals a more specifically defined audience. Thus, the more appropriate designation would be a division between the Epistles and the General Epistles as follows. The Epistles include Romans through Hebrews along with Second John and Third John; whereas, the General Epistles include James through First John and Jude.
These twenty-one epistles are where the church finds its primary doctrine, practice, and purpose. This does not mean that variations in these epistles do not exist based upon the audience receiving the epistle. The next verse could explain why God led Paul1 to write the book of Hebrews to the Jewish Christians in the early church and not designate it with his customary style found in all his other thirteen epistles.
1 Corinthians 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
According to Paul, he fashioned his behavior according to the audience he was attempting to influence. In the case of his writing the book of Hebrews, it is obvious that his target audience was uniquely Jewish in nature. Unfortunately, the most extreme dispensational teachings tend to equate Paul’s explicit graciousness as expressed in the previous verse as only applicable during his Acts missionary journeys. This contradicts not only the immediate context but also what Paul had expressed in the previous chapter of First Corinthians. This is a key issue with those who hyper-divide the Bible—too much of it is relegated to the chopping block. Some of these same hyperdispensationalists discount many other teachings in Paul’s earliest epistles like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yet, Paul offers an enduring commitment to put others first, something lacking far too often amongst those who claim to be the most Bible literate. In Paul’s own words within the same context he said he would use “ALL means to save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Paul could certainly have classified authoring Hebrews as attempting to reach the Jews “BY ALL MEANS.” This is especially true since Hebrews does not contradict any of Paul’s other teachings—including the proclamation of eternal security (Hebrews 13:5-6). The hyperdispensationalist wants to limit Paul’s gracious behavior to the Jews as only applicable to the Acts period, but God ensured that this type of spiritual infidelity could be easily exposed. For example, Paul was no longer bound by the Law to eat only certain meats. Yet, consider the extent to which Paul said he would go to reach his brethren.
1 Corinthians 8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
Paul said he would not exercise his rights as long as the “world standeth” if it would offend his weaker brother. The responsibility for souls and charitable living transcended the Acts period and only the selfish and self-centered would want this truth limited to the past. According to this verse, did Paul commit to become “as a Jew” only during the Acts period? Or was Paul willing to abstain from meats that were forbidden under the Law until the Lord’s return? The way a person answers that question reveals the individual as a Bible-believer or a Bible-rejector.
Prophecy (New Testament)
This section again only includes one book, Revelation, beginning with letters to seven first century literal New Testament churches and culminating at the commencement of eternity future. Although seldom considered by most Bible teachers, Revelation is very much a historical book. Revelation begins with a historical record of messages delivered to seven churches and then describes the history of John’s reception of the Revelation. Finally, it describes future history as it chronicles end-time events. The focus of Revelation is not so much on instruction of practical truths but more on the past, present, and future unfolding of events.
Another Perspective (A Simplified Division)
Another way in which the testaments can be divided shows an interesting correlation between their structure and order. This is accomplished by dividing both testaments into three sections: (1) past or historical, (2) practice, and (3) prophetic. In the Old Testament, the past, or historical, section would encompass Genesis through Esther; the practice section would include Job through Song of Solomon; the prophetic section would include the books of Isaiah through Malachi. In the New Testament, the past section includes Matthew through Acts; the practice section includes the books of Romans through Jude; the prophetic section includes only the book of Revelation.