Overview of the Bible
Reading the Bible can sometimes be difficult. Seeing and understanding how the different books in the Bible all fit together can be difficult too. We hope this brief overview of each book in the Bible helps as you read different portions of the Bible and see the unfolding plan of God to glorify himself by saving humans through Jesus Christ.
I. THE LAW / THE PENTATEUCH / THE TORAH
The first five books of the Bible set the foundation for everything else in the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole. It describes the earliest history of humanity, the problem of sin, and the beginning promise of God to reverse everything that has gone wrong with God’s good world. It tells us about how God works with one particular family, the descendants of that family, and his requirements (laws) for that group of people (Israel).
Genesis – This is the book of beginnings. It tells us about the creation of the world, the entrance of sin into the world, and the beginnings of God’s relationship with and promises to Abraham and his descendants who find themselves living in Egypt at the end of the book.
Exodus – The book opens by explaining how the descendants of Abraham gradually found themselves hopelessly enslaved in the land of Egypt. God, however, is faithful to his promises to Abraham, and through Moses he rescues his people and displays his mighty power to the world. The rest of the book describes how the descendants of Abraham (now called the “people of Israel”) enter into a relationship with God at Mount Sinai where they receive God’s law (including the Ten Commandments).
Leviticus – This book is a continuation of the law that the people of Israel received at Mount Sinai. It explains the seriousness of sin, the holiness of God, and the way the people are able to have a restored relationship with God through the offering of a sacrifice as a substitute. This sacrifice restores the relationship between God and people through a word called “atonement.” This book also explains the construction of the tabernacle (the place where God met with his people) and the jobs of the priests.
Numbers – After receiving the Law at Mount Sinai, the people of Israel rebelled against God by refusing to enter into the land that God was going to give them. Because of that disobedience God made the people wander into the desert wilderness for forty years as judgment on their sin. This book tells the story of those years of wanderings and the continued faithfulness of God to a people that had been rebellious.
Deuteronomy – This book opens at the end of those forty years of wilderness wanderings that were recounted in Numbers. The people of Israel are about to finally enter the land God will give them (called “The Promised Land” or “Canaan”) and in this book Moses reviews the laws that God had given them at Sinai and they renew their agreement to be God’s special people and abide by his commandments. At the end of the book Moses dies.
II. THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT ISRAEL
The books of history are both fascinating and fairly straight-forward. They narrate the long history of Abraham’s descendants and God’s continued faithfulness to them as the people (and the world) await the fulfillment of God’s promise to fix what went wrong in Eden.
Joshua – This book begins the general history of Israel and opens right after the death of Moses. Joshua becomes the new leader of God’s people and leads them to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Canaan. The rest of the book tells about how God gives the people of Israel victory over the inhabitants of the land and keeps his promise to give them the land to be their new home. It ends with the people being settled in their new home and the land being divided into twelve tribes (like states).
Judges – This is a book about Israel’s rebellion against God but God’s continued faithfulness to his people. Over and over again the people stop worshipping God and begin to worship idols. God punishes the people by sending enemies to conquer them. Once the people cry out for help God sends “judges” (or military leaders) to lead his people to defeat Israel’s enemies and restore peace and security.
Ruth – This little book is a bridge between the stories of Joshua and the judges and the period of Israel’s history that includes kings. The book tells the story of a foreign woman (from Moab) named Ruth who finds herself living among the people of Israel in the small village of Bethlehem. She is destitute, widowed, and trying to provide for her elderly mother-in-law named Naomi. She falls in love with a godly man named Boaz, marries, is rescued, and even though she is of foreign descent is adopted into the people of Israel. Most amazingly, she becomes the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David.
1st Samuel – This book tells three stories. First it tells about the life and ministry of the Judge-Priest-Prophet named Samuel. Secondly it tells the story of the rise and fall of Israel’s first king named Saul. Finally, it tells the story of the early life and rise to fame of the man who would become Israel’s second and greatest king, David.
2nd Samuel – This book tells the story of how David became king of Israel and then recounts the major events of his forty year reign as king of Israel. It especially centers on David’s devotion to God, God’s unending faithfulness to David, and the terrible impact David’s sin (murder and adultery) that lead to horrific consequences for his reign and the trajectory of his descendant kings who will follow after him. David’s sin begins the slide that will end in exile, yet God’s faithfulness to David transcends that judgment by promising that God will send a deliverer, a savior, who will be a descendant of David to rescue and rule over God’s people forever!
1st Kings – This book tells the story of David’s son Solomon and how through his sin and foolishness the kingdom of Israel was split into two separate nations. The northern nation became known as Israel (made up of 10 tribes or states) and the southern half became known as Judah (made up of 2 tribes or states). It then recounts the generally tragic stories of some of the kings of the two nations who came after Solomon and the brave and faithful witness of God’s spokesman and prophet, Elijah.
2nd Kings – This book continues the story told in 1st Kings. It tells the continuing tragic story of the various kings of Israel and Judah, the life and ministry of Elijah’s successor Elisha, and the events that ultimately doomed Israel and Judah because of their continued rebellion against God by worshipping idols. By the end of the book Israel (The Northern Kingdom) has been decimated by the Assyrians and Judah (The Southern Kingdom) has been defeated and its people taken into exile by Babylon.
1st Chronicles – This book rewinds the story and retells the story of David and his kingdom, offering a different but similar perspective to the events recorded in 1st Samuel.
2nd Chronicles – This book condenses and summarizes the events described in 1st and 2nd Kings, but unlike those books it does not include information regarding the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It focuses instead on the kings who were the physical descendants of David who continued to rule the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the death of Solomon.
Ezra – This book picks up the story that ended in 2nd Kings. The people of Judah have been taken by force from their homes and relocated to live in Babylon. This book tells how the Persians (who defeated the Babylonians) began to allow the people to return to their native home led by men like the priest Ezra who helps bring the people back to their land and renew their commitment to worship God and abide by his Word.
Nehemiah – This book tells the story of a leader named Nehemiah, who lived at the time of Ezra, who returns to his native land with the exiles and helps lead the people to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed.
Esther – This book tells the story (set about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah) of a Jewish girl named Esther who ends up becoming the queen of Persia (marrying King Xerxes). Because God places her in this position she is able to be used by him to rescue his people from an evil plot to exterminate the Jews.
III. WISDOM LITERATURE
With the end of Esther, the Old Testament moves from the history of Israel to a group of books that were used by the people of Israel in their relationship with God. The Old Testament Law (contained in the first section) contains the foundational religious, national, and ethical demands that God places on his people. The books of wisdom provide real-world guidance in living life with God by tackling some of life’s biggest issues. These books deal with the rule of God, suffering, worship, practical guidance, the meaning of life, and romance/sexuality.
Job – This book marks a major change in the Old Testament. Many of the books before Job have been narratives that recounted the history of Israel. This book begins a section of wisdom, worship, and poetry. The book of Job tells the story of a very righteous man who loves God and is obedient to him. In spite of his faithfulness, Job becomes the victim of tremendous suffering and spends the book trying to understand why God is letting him go through such pain. The themes of faithfulness, suffering, and the goodness of God are what this book is all about.
Psalms – This is the hymn book of the Jewish people. It includes 150 poems and prayers that were once set to music and used by Israel during their times of worship. These poems are intended to lead us in our own worship of God today.
Proverbs – This book contains a collection of wisdom teachings intended to guide God’s people through the often complex world of daily life. It helps explain what following God in the real world looks like and includes helpful guidance for character, integrity, and faithfulness to God.
Ecclesiastes – This book was probably written by David’s son Solomon toward the end of his life. It is the testimony of an old man who had everything in life – education, wealth, power, fame, women, sex, pleasure, and comfort. He realizes at the end of his life, however, how worthless all these things are in comparison to how fleeting life is. All the things he has are passing away. He realizes at the end of his life that a faithful relationship with God is the only lasting thing that matters.
The Song of Solomon – This book is a beautiful love poem that celebrates the goodness of the relationship that God intended men and women to have with one another. Its themes of faithfulness, love, romance, attraction, and sexuality make it unlike any other book in the Bible.
IV. THE PROPHETS
The final major section of the Old Testament contains a group of books named after various prophets. Prophets were men sent by God to deliver specific messages to his people Israel and/or the nations which surrounded them. These books are the written messages that these men delivered. They contain mostly sermons (with some narrative) directed to people and kings during the long history of Israel (recorded in the historical books). These messages call the people back to love for and obedience to God, demonstrate God’s passion for his glory, declare God’s judgment and wrath toward sin, and further promises a coming king (or “Messiah”) who will set the world right again.
Isaiah – This book begins the last major section of the Old Testament, known as the Prophets. The prophets were men who delivered messages from God to his people, calling them to faithfulness to him and the covenant, warning them that God would judge them for their rebellion, and promising them that God would ultimately deliver his people and restore a relationship with humans forever through a promised deliverer (called “The Messiah”). It is helpful to know that the prophets were men who lived, worked, preached, and wrote during the time period that is recorded earlier in the Old Testament in 2nd Kings – Nehemiah. Isaiah preached and wrote a message to the nation of Judah. The major message is that God is the supreme king of the universe who rules in power and glory, therefore the people should repent because God would judge their sin and hope because God would accomplish a glorious rescue and victory in the future through a promised deliverer.
Jeremiah – This book is in many ways the flip-side of Isaiah. Jeremiah preached and wrote years after Isaiah and by this time the sin and rebellion of the people had grown so bad that the people of Judah refused to hear God’s warnings of judgment and his pleas for them to repent. Where Isaiah’s message is powerful and glorious, Jeremiah’s is tragically somber. Jeremiah proclaimed the truth of God’s impending judgment. He warned Judah that Babylon would come and defeat them, but in the end no one would listen and the events that Jeremiah foretold came to pass.
Lamentations – This is an acrostic (in the Hebrew alphabet) poem written as a song of sadness by the prophet Jeremiah. His message had not been believed. No one had listened. God had punished Judah’s sin. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people taken into exile. This book is Jeremiah’s cry of sorrow at the heartbreaking result of a people who refused to listen to and love God. It is his heartbreaking cry of hope that somehow, someway, at sometime God would restore his people once again.
Ezekiel – This book opens with the people of Judah in captive exile in the land of Babylon. Ezekiel is a priest who receives a glorious vision of God while he is so far away from his native land. The major messages of this book are that God is with his people in the midst of their suffering and will act to restore and renew his people once again.
Daniel – This book is also set during the Babylonian exile and contains more narrative than many of the prophets so it gives us a good picture of life during the exile. It tells the story and details the messages of a godly and faithful man from Judah named Daniel who rises to a position of leadership in Babylon during the exile. The major messages of this book are that God will powerfully preserve his people and will act and rule over the future to accomplish his purposes which will not be defeated.
Hosea – Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel before they were destroyed by Assyria in 722 BC. It proclaims a message of God’s unending and faithful love and commitment to his people even when they are faithless to him and refuse to love him in return.
Joel – Joel proclaims a message of judgment and hope centered on a future “Day of the LORD.” On that day Joel said that God would pour out on his people and the nations the fierceness of his wrath and the joyous hope of renewal and rescue.
Amos – This book is all about the justice of God. God will punish sin and he will not let the guilty go unpunished. The nations that refused to worship of God would face his judgment, and that included the northern nation of Israel who because it was a part of the people of God would be punished even more severely.
Obadiah – This little book is directed not at Israel or Judah but at the nation of Edom which had been a longtime enemy of God’s people. It promises judgment and wrath on Edom for its sin, but the future renewal and restoration of God’s people in the kingdom of God.
Jonah – This little book is unlike any other. It tells the story of a faithful God and his faithless representative, the prophet Jonah. God commands Jonah to go preach to Nineveh. Jonah runs. God catches Jonah and sends him back. Jonah finally preaches to Nineveh, and amazingly Nineveh repents and turns to God. This, however, makes Jonah angry because he wanted God to punish the evil sin of Nineveh and not forgive them. This book showcases the relentless and reckless love and grace of God, even when his servants don’t demonstrate those same characteristics.
Micah – Micah was a prophet preacher to Judah at the same time as Isaiah. His message is very similar. Judgment will come because of the people’s rebellion, but there is hope because God is a faithful king who will forgive and redeem his people through a future king that will come from God.
Nahum – This book is written to the Assyrian city of Nineveh. This was the same city that Jonah had been sent to earlier and at that time the people had repented and turned to God. Obviously over time the people of this great superpower city had turned back once again to rebellion against God. This is God’s message that he will enact judgment. Nineveh, despite its present strength and power would be destroyed because of its sin.
Habakkuk – This prophetic book is very similar to the book of Job. Habakkuk is a prophet who is looking around at a world that seems to be spinning out of control. No one is listening to God. No one is trusting God, and the people who are supposed to be the people of God are being judged by God while foreign nations who worship pagan idols seem to be prospering and strong. In the midst of all this Habakkuk questions God’s goodness and justice. By the end of the book, however, he has learned to be patient and trust God to do what is best and right.
Zephaniah – Like Joel this book is all about “The Day of the LORD.” The message is clear: At a future date God will fully express his hatred and judgment on sin as well as his grace, goodness, and love for his people.
Haggai – This book is set during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and so after the exile in Babylon has ended an the people of God have begun to return to their homeland around Jerusalem. Haggai, in the midst of trying times and hard economic circumstances, calls the people of God to renew their worship and join together to rebuild the temple as a place to worship God and offer sacrifices for sins.
Zechariah – This book, written after the exile, calls the people of God to not give up hope in the promises that God had made to them throughout the centuries. Even though God seemed silent and Persia still ruled, God would accomplish his purposes. A future king (Messiah) would come and would accomplish everything that God had promised.
Malachi – This is the last book of the Old Testament and it points ahead into the New Testament. It calls the people of God who have returned from the exile to revival and true worship of God as they eagerly await the promised redeemer and king that God had been promising.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
I. The GOSPELS AND ACTS
Matthew – This is the first book in the New Testament and the first of the four books called “The Gospels.” It recounts the life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Its particular emphasis is on Jesus being the promised Messiah, the descendant of David, and the great king and deliverer that God’s people had been awaiting who had finally come to usher in the kingdom of God.
Mark – This is the shortest and simplest of the narratives about Jesus and was probably the first gospel to be written. It is a simple and straightforward account of the ministry of Jesus emphasizing his role not only as the true king but as the suffering savior who redeems and rescues God’s people through his death.
Luke – This gospel recounts the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Its particular emphasis is on the truth that Jesus Christ is the great hope and savior not only of the Jews (the physical descendants of Abraham) but also for the nations, people from every race, language, and nation.
John – This last gospel triumphantly organizes the life and teachings of Jesus, culminating with his death and resurrection, around one great message: Jesus Christ is God himself who because of his great love has taken on human flesh to rescue his people and renew creation. Jesus truly is a man, but he is also truly God and he gives life (complete life and forever life) to all those who believe on him.
Acts – This book of narrative history recounts the first thirty years or so after Jesus’ resurrection. It highlights the growth of the church and the spread of the message of Jesus Christ to the world. It especially highlights the travels and message of Peter and Paul.
II. THE EPISTLES (LETTERS) OF PAUL
Romans – The book of Romans is the first in a major section of the New Testament that contains letters written by Paul, whose life and ministry had been told in the book of Acts. This letter (or “epistle”) was written to Christians living in Rome. It is an organized explanation of the gospel message and why it is important. It explains the sin of humanity, the judgment of God, his rescue in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s authority and rule over history (especially regarding the physical people of Israel), and the way the grace that comes through the cross should impact the way Christians live in the world around them.
1st Corinthians – This book is written to a local church that was in big trouble. The Christians in Corinth were facing lots of problems and so Paul wrote this letter to try and correct their mistakes and provide safety from some very serious dangers. This book, perhaps more than any other, tells us what God desires for his people, the church.
2nd Corinthians – This is a follow-up letter to the first letter to Corinth. It is Paul’s most autobiographical book and really highlights once again the ministry of the church and the role that suffering plays in the Christian’s life.
Galatians – This letter was written to a group of Christians who were facing a problem called legalism. They were beginning to believe that in order to follow Jesus they had to do a certain number of things. Paul tells them in this book that the good news of the gospel is that Jesus and Jesus alone has done what is necessary to be saved, and that the only way a person can have a relationship with God is by grace alone through faith alone.
Ephesians – The book of Ephesians is all about the mighty and triumphant work of Jesus Christ. Jesus has solved the problem of sin, is the rescuer and the one who renews creation, and has united people from every nation into one body, his church. This church is the people of God (the “New Israel”) and is created to reflect and magnify the greatness of God.
Philippians – This wonderful little book presents two major messages. First, the gospel of Jesus Christ (who he is and what he has accomplished) is to be the central core of a Christian’s life. Secondly, Jesus Christ being the center of a Christian’s life gives the believer security, comfort, provision, and joy in the midst of whatever circumstances they may go through in life.
Colossians – This book is a companion to Philippians. It is written to a different group of Christians but the themes stand with those in the book that comes right before it. Jesus Christ, who is God, has accomplished victory, triumph, and rescue for his people through what he did on the cross. Because of that, Christians are to live new lives that reflect the greatness of Jesus.
1st Thessalonians – This book is all about the future. Paul responds to a very serious problem. Jesus had ascended into heaven. His followers had spread his message all over the known world. Now, those people who first believed in Jesus were beginning to die. So where was Jesus? Had he forgotten about his people? Was he really going to return? Did Christians have hope for the future? Paul answers these questions in this book. The future is hopeful for the Christian because Jesus is king and he will return one day for his people, including those who have physically died.
2nd Thessalonians – This book is in many ways, even though it is a separate letter, like a “P.S.” that goes with the book of 1st Thessalonians. It again deals with the future return of Jesus Christ (“The Second Coming”) but adds a little something different from the earlier letter. The first book had focused exclusively on Jesus returning to retrieve his people and usher in the ultimate victory of eternal life. This second book includes that hope of Christians, but also addresses the victory that Jesus will win over those who at his return still are in rebellion against him and oppose his rule and authority. The big message is that Jesus wins.
1st Timothy – This is the first of several letters that Paul wrote to individuals instead of to churches. This letter was written to a young friend of Paul’s named Timothy. In this book Paul encourages his young friend to be faithful to Jesus, the church, and the work that God has called him to do. This book, along with the letters to Corinth, gives us a very specific understanding of what the church should be doing.
2nd Timothy – This is another letter to Paul’s young friend Timothy. It was probably written just prior to Paul’s death and is probably the last letter that Paul wrote. This book is a final word of encouragement from an old man who knows that his death is approaching. He passes the baton of ministry to his friend and pleads with him to remain faithful to the gospel and to its service.
Titus – This little book is all about Christian leadership. It especially warns the church about the specific danger of false teaching and why it is so important to guard and defend the truth of the gospel.
Philemon – This book is unlike any in the New Testament! It is a personal letter written by Paul to a close friend named Philemon. In it Paul is pleading for Philemon to forgive and receive back a runaway Roman slave named Onesimus who had become a Christian after meeting Paul in Rome. The major themes of this little book include what it means to belong to the family of God, forgiveness, and the freedom that only Jesus Christ can give.
III. THE GENERAL EPISTLES (LETTERS)
Hebrews – This book is a New Testament reflection on the Old Testament. It was written by an unknown author to a group of Jewish Christians who were beginning to suffer for their faith. It explains how Jesus is the ultimate and final fulfillment of everything that the Old Testament had promised and pointed toward. It loudly proclaims that the Old Testament is all about Jesus!
James – How should Christians live? If Christians are saved by grace and faith alone, then is there an incentive for them to live good lives of obedience to God? This letter, written by Jesus’ half-brother James, explains exactly what it means to live a life of obedience to Jesus Christ. It boldly proclaims that a true understanding of the gospel leads to a radical and ever deepening commitment to follow Jesus in all of life.
1st Peter – This little letter, written by one of Jesus’ disciples, is all about the promises and hope of the gospel in the midst of a world where believers will face suffering and pain.
2nd Peter – This letter, written again by Peter, is a companion to the first book. It reminds the church that it is the grace of God that gives power and hope to believers in a world where they will struggle and suffer.
1st John –This book is all about assurance. How can a person know if they have been rescued by Jesus Christ? What does the authentic Christian life look like? John (who also wrote the Gospel of John, 2nd John, 3rd John, and Revelation) tells us three big things. First, the Christian can have confident assurance regarding salvation. Second, believing in Jesus Christ and the things the Bible tells us about him is the first foundation of assurance. Third, having deep and genuine love for others (especially fellow Christians) is the second foundational assurance that a person belongs to Jesus Christ.
2nd John – This book reemphasizes the major themes of 1st John and warns against the dangers of false teachers.
3rd John – This book calls Christians to persevere in steadfast faithfulness, living out the message of 1st and 2nd John even in the midst of opposition and false teaching.
Jude – This book, probably written by another one of Jesus’ half-brothers calls the church to fight for and defend the truth of God’s Word.
IV. APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
Revelation – This is the last book in the Bible, and possibly the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. It is sometimes a book that frightens people or leads to serious confusion and misunderstanding. It must be acknowledged that some of the things in this book are difficult to understand and many Christians have lots of different views as to the precise meaning of its teachings. A few major themes, however, are certain. First, this book is written to encourage believers during troubled times and strengthen them to steadfast and persevering faithfulness and love to Jesus Christ in the middle of present and future uncertainty. The church is called to this faithful love based on the hope it has for the future, a hope that is grounded in the reality of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he will do in the ages to come. This book assures Christians that in a world that seems to be out of control, Jesus is really in charge. He is victorious. The future is in his hands. He will reign supreme as king. No one will be able to defeat him. His people will not be forsaken. They will spend forever with him. The Bible opens with a grand vision of a sovereign God creating and ruling over the universe. The Bible closes by looking ahead into the distant future. What we find in that vision is the same sovereign God, Jesus Christ, is still in control, ruling over the universe, reigning in power, and enjoying a perfect relationship with his people free from death and sin all because of what he himself has done.