The Lord Jesus and His Apostles said that the Bible is the Word of God. But how do we know which books belong in the Bible? Many people think humans or the Church have decided which books should be in the Bible. But this is very wrong. In fact, God has inspired His Word directly to the men of God who wrote and preached the Word of God led by the Holy Spirit, and that Word that they preached, whether orally or by written letters, was accepted by those who believed with a true faith immediately when it was preached. In fact, it is not the trust of a believer in a certain book that makes this book the Word of God, but it is the Word of God that makes a person a believer:
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.“ (Romans 10:17)
“for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)
The Church (the Assembly of believers in Christ) didn’t exist without the Word of God (cf. John 15:3, Ephesians 5:26). So it is not the believers (i.e. the Church) who give the Word of God its divine authority, but as soon as God speaks that Word, then it is authoritative and is the Word of God, the Word that “God said” (cf. the introduction of the article The Bible is the Word of God).
In this article, we will see how this Word preached by the prophets and Apostles itself told the Church which books belong in the Bible.
The Lord Jesus and His Apostles clearly told us what the Canon of the Scripture is
I. The Canon of the Old Testament
A. The Lord Jesus
The Lord Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. He has the authority to tell us what His Word is. And in fact the Lord Jesus clearly told us what the Canon of the Old Testament is:
1. Jesus clearly told us what the parts of the Old Testament are. I quote one of those places where He clearly tells us about the parts of the Old Testament:
“Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”” (Luke 24:44)
The Old Testament of the Jews in the days of Jesus was divided to those three parts that Jesus mentioned: “The Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” The last part called “Psalms” by Jesus is the part that was also called “Writings”. The “Writings” were also called “Psalms” by the name of their first Book. So Jesus was clearly telling us that the Old Testament begins with the first Book of the Law of Moses called Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshit,) and ends with the Book of 2 Chronicles which is the last Book of the “Writings” (Hebrew: Ketuvim) or “Psalms” part. To get a better idea about this, please see the parts of the Jewish Bible, and find out which are the first and the last Books of the “Writings” here.
2. Besides telling us what the general parts of the Old Testament are, Jesus also told us clearly what are the first Book and the last Book of the Old Testament:
“so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation,
from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.” (Luke 11:50-51)
Now, we all know that the first man who was killed in the history of this world is Abel. But the problem is that Zechariah was not the last man who became a martyr before Jesus came. We can at least mention the Maccabees’ martyrs (mentioned in the Apocrypha) and other martyrs who were killed after Zechariah. Besides, why would the blood of Abel and of all those martyrs be charged against that generation of the days of Jesus? Did they kill Abel? Did they kill all those prophets? So why did Jesus mention Abel, and why did He mention Zechariah and not another one as the last martyr? For the simple reason that Jesus meant all the martyrs mentioned in the Old Testament Canon. In the context of this passage, Jesus tells the Pharisees:
“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them.
“So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs.” (Luke 11:47-48)
So Jesus was blaming them of being the murderers of all the prophets as they are witnesses and approve the deeds of their fathers by being ready to kill Him, just as He makes it clear in the following passages:
“But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.
“You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” (John 8:40-41)
“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
This is how those Jews were responsible of the murder of all those prophets who lived long before those Jews were born, and this is how anyone of us will be responsible of that murder if we don’t pass from being the children of the devil to be the children of God by faith.
And it is exactly after that passage of Luke 11:47-48 (quoted above) that Jesus continues and says:
“For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute,
so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation,
from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.” (Luke 11:49-51)
“For this reason” and what comes after it explain why the blood of all those prophets would be charged against that generation. Imagine how the murder was big! Their fathers killed the prophets, and they would kill the Lord of all those prophets. They rejected the Stone that is the chief corner stone! Read the parable of the Vineyard Owner in Mark 12:1-12 to see more deeply how Jesus told them that they would kill the “beloved son” saying “This is the heir”!!
Abel was the first martyr mentioned in the Book of Genesis which is the FIRST Book of the Jewish Bible, and Zechariah was the last martyr mentioned in the Book of 2 Chronicles which is the LAST Book of the Jewish Bible. So by mentioning Abel and Zechariah in this context, Jesus was saying that the blood of all the prophets of the Old Testament, from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, would be charged against that generation. If a preacher today would use the same method of speaking that Jesus used, he would say: “Those who refuse to believe in Christ are responsible for the murder of all the prophets from Genesis to Revelation”. So as Jesus didn’t mention any book other than the 39 Books of the Old Testament that we have, then He clearly told us what the first Book and the last Book of the Old Testament are: The first Book is Genesis, and the last Book is 2 Chronicles (according to the Jewish Bible). And this includes all the parts of the Old Testament that we have today and nothing else, only the order is changed and the Book of Malachi is now put at the end as the last prophet.
B. The Apostles of Jesus
The Apostles of our Lord clearly called the whole Old Testament “Scripture”:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16)
There are many similar passages in the New Testament where the Apostles call the Old Testament “Scripture”. Now, imagine yourself in the days of those Apostles, hearing them say this, and imagine you didn’t have any Canon of the Old Testament, i.e. that you didn’t know which are the Books of the Old Testament!! You would very simply ask them: “Which books do you mean when you say ‘Scripture’??” These statements about the Scripture clearly show that the Canon of the Old Testament was clear in the days of the Apostles.
Now, what we have seen in the previous paragraphs is enough to make it clear for any true believer which are the Books of the Old Testament. But there are people who prefer to believe humans instead of believing the Word of God. Humans tell them that the Canon of the Old Testament was not clear in the days of Jesus and of His Apostles, and they simply believe them and make the Bible a liar!! They believe the human lie about a council of Jamnia in which they suppose that the Jews made up their mind concerning the Canon of the Old Testament. First, humans have no authority to decide which Books must be part of the Bible, so the Jews didn’t and don’t have that right. Secondly, the hypothetical council of Jamnia is said to have happened after 70 A.D., i.e. after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem!! Imagine that they assume that the Jews didn’t have a clear Canon of their Book and didn’t have a clear religion all that time, and that it was only after their religion was devastated in 70 A.D. that they finally decided to know what their Book is!! This clearly contradicts the fact that Jesus and His Apostles mentioned the Old Testament very clearly, as we have seen above. So were Jesus and His Apostles only mentioning an imaginary Canon when they talked about the “Scripture” or about “the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms”?! They didn’t even care to explain what that “Scripture” is, because the Canon was clearly known, and Jesus is the only authority to decide what that Canon is, because He is God, the Author of the Bible.
To have a better idea about this “council” of Jamnia, I quote the following:
The Council of Jamnia or Council of Yavne is a hypothetical 1st century council at which it is postulated the canon of the Hebrew Bible was defined.
Some time before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai relocated to the city of Yavne/Jamnia, where he received permission from the Romans to found a school of Halakha (Jewish law). His school became a major source for the later Mishna, which records the Tannaim, and a wellspring of Rabbinic Judaism.
In 1871 Heinrich Graetz, drawing on Mishnaic and Talmudic sources, concluded that there must have been a late 1st century Council of Jamnia which had decided the Jewish canon. This became the prevailing scholarly consensus for much of the 20th century, but from the 1960s onwards it came increasingly into question. In particular, later scholars noted that none of Graetz’s sources actually mentioned books that had been withdrawn from a canon, and questioned the whole premise that the discussions of the rabbis were about canonicity at all. (source)
This source from which I quoted (wikipedia) does not believe in the authority of Jesus and His Apostles as to the decision of the Canon, so it later says that today there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish Canon was set. But we know from the Bible that the Canon was already clear in the days of Jesus, and Jesus and His Apostles clearly mentioned it, as we have seen above.
II. The Canon of the New Testament
Anyone who compares the Old Testament Book and the New Testament Book will quickly notice that there is a clear difference: The Old Testament is full of the shadows or symbols of things to come that are all fulfilled in the New Testament. Why is this? Because in the Old Testament the Word had not become flesh yet, while in the New Testament the subject of all the prophecies came: the Lord JESUS CHRIST. As Jesus Himself said, He came to fulfill the Law and the prophets (cf. Matthew 5:17). While all the prophets of the Old Testament all prophesied according to the Covenant that was given through the Prophet of the Old Covenant, Moses, all the Apostles and prophets of the New Testament prophesied or spoke according to the New Covenant brought by the Prophet of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ [Read our article What does the word “Messiah” mean? Who is the Messiah? to have a fuller explanation about this Prophet who is like Moses]. But Moses was just an image of Christ. Christ is the Lord of Moses, and Moses cannot even be compared to Jesus in nature and authority (cf. Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was given the Law from God, i.e. the Word of God was given to Moses, but Moses himself was not the Word. The truth was given to Moses, but he was not the Truth. As for Jesus Christ, He is the Word and the Truth incarnate (cf. John 1:1,14; John 14:6). Indeed, while God had spoken long ago to the fathers in many ways in the prophets, and yet in the last days He has spoken to us in His Son who is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3; cf. Hebrews 1:1-3 and John 1:18). So while the Old Testament Canon was confirmed by Jesus Christ, the New Testament Canon is in Jesus Himself! In other words, anything in this Canon of the New Testament is according to what was revealed of God in Christ, and there is nothing in this Canon of the New Testament that is not in accordance with this final revelation in Jesus Christ who is the subject of all revelations. And indeed, when Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, He made it clear that the Holy Spirit would not bring any additional revelation to what was revealed in Christ Himself (cf. John 16:13-15) as we will see in the following lines. This is a very important truth that many do not know, so we should explain it with precision.
Let’s see how the Lord and His Apostles made it clear what the Canon of the New Testament is:
A. The Lord Jesus
As I explained above, Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God to mankind. In Him, all the prophecies are fulfilled. So if we want to really understand the nature of the New Testament Canon, we should first understand very well this very important fact: That nothing can be included in the New Testament as Scripture if it is not written directly by an eyewitness of Christ or by a companion of such an eyewitness who wrote under the supervision of this eyewitness.
This is what Christ said. Indeed, this is how He promised the Canon of the New Testament:
“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes forth from with the Father, he shall bear witness concerning me; and ye too bear witness, because ye are with me from [the] beginning.” (John 15:26-27)
And He made it even clearer:
“But when he is come, the Spirit of truth, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but whatsoever he shall hear he shall speak; and he will announce to you what is coming. He shall glorify me, for he shall receive of mine and shall announce [it] to you. All things that the Father has are mine; on account of this I have said that he receives of mine and shall announce [it] to you.” (John 16:13-15)
Now, the Spirit always inspired Scripture. But in these passages, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to bear witness concerning Him. He also said that the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles into all the truth, and that this truth is not a new revelation that is added on the final revelation that came in Christ, but that this truth would be the whole explanation of the truth of Christ, as the Spirit would receive of what is Christ’s and would announce it to the Apostles, and He would not add an additional revelation to what came as final revelation in Christ. This is a promise that the New Testament Scripture would all be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it would all be in accordance with the final revelation that came in Christ Himself (“concerning me”). Besides, Jesus also said that what would be announced to the Apostles by the Spirit would include all what is to come (remember the Book of Revelation). He further explains that the ones through whom this witness would be given were the Apostles, as they were with Jesus from the beginning. So in these statements of Jesus we have the two basic rules of the New Testament Canon:
– It should not be a new revelation added to what was revealed in Christ, but it should be the same final revelation that came in Christ.
– It should be written under the authority of those who were with Jesus from the beginning.
In other words, any book that doesn’t present the Faith (the final revelation) that we received in Christ should not be part of the New Testament. And any book that was not written under the authority of those who were with Jesus from the beginning should not be part of the New Testament. This last point means that only the Apostles and their close associates could write the Books of the New Testament. Furthermore, these associates of the Apostles should write under the supervision and the approval of the Apostles, as writing the witness of those who were with Jesus from the beginning is an essential condition. No one can be the actual bearer of the witness about Christ unless he was with Him from the beginning.
With these words, Jesus clarified that the Canon of the New Testament is in Himself, as the Holy Spirit would not speak from Himself but would take from what is the Christ’s and would announce it to the Apostles. And as only the Apostles and their close associates could write the canonical Books of the New Testament, so there would be no New Testament canonical Book written after the death of the last Apostle John about whom also Jesus announced: “If I will that he abide until I come, what [is that] to thee? Follow thou me.” (John 21:22) This clearly limits the New Testament Canon in the first century A.D., in the time of the Apostles.
Now, in addition to the above conditions, the Lord Jesus also chose an Apostle to send him to the Gentiles: Paul. Indeed, the above definition of an Apostle doesn’t fit the Apostle Paul, and that’s what Paul himself also says:
“and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9)
The Apostle Paul is the “untimely born” Apostle who saw the risen Christ and was sent by Him, so he was a true Apostle. And that’s the amazing Grace of God who made this person who persecuted the Church an Apostle. And this is also what the Apostle Paul adds in the next verse:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
In this verse, “them” are all the other Apostles. So you see how the Lord sovereignly chose Paul to be His Apostle, and the witness of His Resurrection. Let me just remind you that the essential characteristic of an Apostle is that he is taught directly by Christ, and that he is a witness of His Resurrection. And both these happened with Paul. On the way to Damascus, the risen Christ appeared to Paul, so Paul is a witness of the risen Christ, and the Lord told him:
“rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you,
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’” (Acts 26:17-18)
So the Lord clearly sent Paul as an Apostle.
And as I said above, an Apostle should have had learned from the Lord directly. And that’s what happened with Paul. Look what he says:
“But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:15-17)
So the Apostle Paul was not taught by other Apostles, but by Christ directly.
And yet, if all these things were not written in the Bible, we would not accept Paul as an Apostle as we would think he was deceiving us concerning his vision. But what does it mean that “these things are written in the Bible”? This means that all these things have the direct apostolic authority and are written in the Bible by apostolic authority. As I explained above, all those who wrote the New Testament Books should have had that authority of the original witness bearers who were with Jesus from the beginning. And indeed, the Apostle Paul tells us that the Apostles of Christ gave him approval as an Apostle who has an equal apostolic authority as Peter has (see Galatians 2:6-9). And this is not just by the witness of Paul about himself, but we also have the direct witness of Peter himself who wrote about Paul:
“and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
So not only did Peter witness for the apostleship of Paul, but he also said that his writings are SCRIPTURE. We will see this in more details in the next section that deals with the witness of the Apostles concerning the Canon.
In the previous section we have seen that the Lord Jesus Himself authoritatively told us which are the principle parts and the different Books of the Old Testament. He has authoritatively told us what the Canon of the Old Testament was. Now, concerning the New Testament, once again Jesus would be the authoritative source that declares the Canon, but this time through the Spirit who has come. In other words, the Spirit would give the authoritative answer concerning what the Canon of the New Testament is. And we have seen that this answer of the Spirit is from Christ, as the Spirit would only take from Christ and announce it to the Apostles. So the Holy Spirit would confirm the Canon of Jesus that says that only what is according to His final revelation would be written as Scripture, and that only those who were with Him from the beginning would be the original bearers of the witness. In the following lines we will see how the Holy Spirit confirmed the New Testament Canon through the Apostles of Christ and their associates, and later we will see how the Church used this confirmation to declare the New Testament Canon.
B. The Apostles of Jesus
The Holy Spirit is God. He is the One who wrote the Bible through the prophets and the men of God who were led by Him to write the Scripture:
“knowing this first, that [the scope of] no prophecy of scripture is had from its own particular interpretation, for prophecy was not ever uttered by [the] will of man, but holy men of God spake under the power of [the] Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
The same Holy Spirit confirmed the final revelation that came in Jesus Christ, i.e. the Canon of the New Testament. As we have seen above, the Lord Jesus confirmed the Canon of the Old Testament, and the same God, the Holy Spirit, would confirm the Canon of the New Testament.
Indeed, the Lord confirmed the Word (or the Canon) of the New Testament:
“And they, going forth, preached everywhere, the Lord working with [them], and confirming the word by the signs following upon [it].” (Mark 16:20)
“They stayed therefore a good while, speaking boldly, [confiding] in the Lord, who gave witness to the word of his grace, giving signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” (Acts 14:3)
In these verses, “the Lord” is Jesus Christ who, just as He promised, came in the Holy Spirit and continued to work with the Church (cf. Matthew 28:20). The Lord confirmed the Word preached by the Apostles whether orally or in a written form. For more information about this, you can read our article What about the signs that Jesus talked about in Mark 16?
It is in this way that the Lord the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17) confirmed the Canon of the New Testament as soon as it was written, and as I said in the introduction, the Church existed by receiving this Word as soon as it was revealed by the Holy Spirit:
“And for this cause we also give thanks to God unceasingly that, having received [the] word of [the] report of God by us, ye accepted, not men’s word, but, even as it is truly, God’s word, which also works in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
So as soon as the Church received any Epistle from any Apostle, she accepted it, not as men’s word, but as it truly is, i.e. as God’s Word. The Church accepted the Canon of Scripture as soon as it was revealed and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. So it’s not true, as many think, that the Canon of Scripture was not known and that the Church had to invent it later. And also it is not true that the only available Scripture in the time of the Apostles was the Old Testament Scripture, as all the writings of the Apostles and of their companions were already being written and sent to the different local churches and were accepted as the Scripture (the Word of God) immediately as soon as they were written. So by the time of the last Apostle John, the whole Canon of the New Testament was already in circulation in the different local churches. But as the Church is not an organization but an organism, so there was not a certain “Pope” or dictator who could organize the collection of all those Books that were sent to the different local churches, but only the Holy Spirit is the Leader of the Church who sovereignly kept and confirmed the Scripture’s Canon as we will see in more details below. If there were a dictator “Pope”, the Church would not need to do all that hard work to collect the Books that were confirmed by the Holy Spirit, as we will see. So the letters of the Apostles reached local churches, and they were known by more local churches if they were shared by the original receivers with other local churches. The more a letter was shared, the more it had the chance not to be a disputed Book later, as we will see below. It is in this context that we should mention the interesting case of the Epistles of Paul: The Epistles of Paul were the Books of the New Testament that were merely universally accepted as canonical by all Christians even from the most early times of the Church. The reason of this can be seen in the fact that Paul was the Apostle of the Gentiles, and among those who wrote New Testament Books he is the Apostle who traveled the most. And in his Epistles, he usually asks the original receivers to share their Epistle with other local churches (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Colossians 4:16). It is in this way that the Epistles of Paul had a high chance to be known by all the local churches everywhere. And in this context also, if the Apostle Paul witnessed for any other Book of the New Testament, that Book also would have a higher acceptance.
With this last statement, I pass to the important fact that the Apostles also witnessed for other New Testament Books, calling them Scripture:
– Peter says about the writings of Paul:
“and account the longsuffering of our Lord [to be] salvation; according as our beloved brother Paul also has written to you according to the wisdom given to him, as also in all [his] epistles, speaking in them of these things; among which some things are hard to be understood, which the untaught and ill-established wrest, as also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
So Peter says the writings of Paul are part of the rest of the Scripture. Peter calls the writings of Paul “Scripture”. It is once again interesting to note that Paul’s Epistles were known by the original receivers of the second Epistle of Peter, although the Epistles of Peter were not widely known among the other receivers of Paul’s Epistles. This is a main reason why Peter’s second Epistle was very much disputed in the early Church.
Now, read this one carefully:
“For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”” (1 Timothy 5:18)
Paul says he’s quoting what? THE SCRIPTURE. We all know that the first quote is from the Law. Well, can you tell me from which Book is the other quote in this verse?? Well, yes, it’s from the NEW Testament! It’s from the Gospel according to MATTHEW and according to LUKE! Read with me:
“or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.” (Matthew 10:10)
“Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house.” (Luke 10:7)
This quote of Paul directly confirms the Gospel according to Luke, and indirectly the Gospel according to Matthew, as Paul quoted the exact words of Luke and the meaning of Matthew’s words.
The Apostle Paul called the Gospel according to Luke “the Scripture“.
In this context, as Paul calls the New Testament Books that were already written in his time “Scripture”, so whenever he says “Scripture” he also means all the Books of the New Testament as well as the Books of the Old Testament:
“Every scripture [is] divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, fully fitted to every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
As you can see, the Holy Spirit clearly confirmed all the Books of the New Testament, and the Canon was known to the Church: It was all the inspired Books written by the Apostles and their close associates.
Let’s also note that the Apostles also confirmed what Jesus said:
– That no new revelation would be added by the Holy Spirit on the final revelation that came in Christ. All the new revelation of the New Testament would be in accordance with what was revealed of God in Christ, as the Holy Spirit would only take from what is Christ’s and would announce it to the Apostles (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:11, Ephesians 2:19-20, Galatians 1:8-9, Jude 3, Hebrews 1:1-2, Revelation 22:18-19 compared with Revelation 19:10). I leave the more detailed explanation of this point to the final part of this article where I will elaborate about how the Canon of Scripture was closed.
– Only Apostles and their companions who had the confirmation of the Holy Spirit could write Scripture: In all his Epistles Paul defends his apostleship against those who doubted it, as that was an essential condition (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:12, Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:1, Galatians 1:15-17, Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, 2 Timothy 1:1). In all these passages to which I referred, the Apostle Paul wants to make it clear that he was appointed an Apostle by the Will of God and that he was sent by Jesus Christ and not by men. No other Apostle makes all this effort to affirm this fact about himself, because as we have seen above Paul had a particular case of apostleship and therefore the false apostles were trying to make people doubt his apostleship. As we have seen above, the other Apostles confirmed the apostleship of Paul (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16, Acts 9:27-28, Acts 13:1-3, Acts 15:12,22,25-26, etc). Furthermore, the Apostles made it clear that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus (cf. 1 John 1:1-3, 2 Peter 1:18). The Apostle Peter made it clear that an essential condition for a witness of the Resurrection (i.e. for an Apostle of Christ) is that he should have been a witness of Christ from the baptism of John until Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension to Heaven (cf. Acts 1:21-22). The other writers of the New Testament made this point clear in different ways (example: Hebrews 2:3-4).
As no one after the days of the Apostles could add any part to the Bible, because no one after the death of the last Apostle, John, received any new revelation, so with all the above affirmations the Apostles also clarified that the Canon is closed with the final revelation that came in Christ Jesus, as we will see in more details in the final section of this article.
What are the standards according to which the Holy Church accepts and rejects books as canonical?
“Canon” comes from Greek and Hebrew words meaning “measuring rod”, so it is a standard that all scriptural books must meet.
N.B.: It is not the Church who DECIDES which book is Scripture, but God decides! The Church just accepts those Books as Scripture according to that standard. And that standard comes from the Word of God, as we will see… The Church concludes the questions to ask from those Books that God has already confirmed as Scripture! And that helps the Church to avoid receiving false books.
So let’s see what are the five questions that have been asked by the Church in accepting and rejecting books as canonical:
1. Was it written by a prophet or an inspired man of God?
Why is this question? Because God says that ONLY a prophet or an inspired man of God will speak the Word of God:
“‘I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1)
“no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:21)
Note: In this context, “inspired man of God” is not a nature but the fact of being led or moved by the Holy Spirit at the moment of writing Scripture (cf. 2 Peter 1:21). In other words, not all the writings of a prophet or Apostle are inspired, but he is inspired only when he writes Scripture or speaks the Word of God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). There is not an inspired man as such, but inspired Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16). ONLY Jesus Christ is the incarnation of all what God says (cf. John 1:1,14,18, Hebrews 1:1-2), as He is the Anointed One and to Him “God gives the Spirit without measure.“ (John 3:34).
2. Was he (the prophet) confirmed by an act of God?
Why is this question? Because the Word of God says:
“how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard,
God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.” (Hebrews 2:3-4)
This means that we should expect some miraculous confirmation of those who speak the Word of God. Moses had his rod that turned into a serpent, Jesus had principally the Resurrection, and the Apostles continued Jesus’ miracles… Read also our article What about the signs that Jesus talked about in Mark 16?
3. Does it tell the truth about God?
Why is this question? Because God says through the Apostle Paul:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8).
So agreement with all earlier revelation is essential. This also helps us recognize false prophecies made in the Name of God, like the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon!
And remember the following:
“When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:22)
4. Does it have the power of God?
Why is this question? Because God says that His Word has the Divine transforming power in the lives of its readers!
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12).
5. Was it accepted by the people of God who originally heard the message?
Why is this question? Because:
“For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
The people of God means the REAL people of God, and not simply a faction of those who call themselves people of God!!!
– The scrolls of Moses were immediately placed in the ark of the covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 31:24-26)
– The same for Joshua (cf. Joshua 24:26)
– The same for Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 10:25)
– Daniel studies the Book of Jeremiah within FIFTY years after it was written! This shows that Jeremiah’s Book was accepted by the people of God as Scripture! (cf. Daniel 9:2)
– Peter calls Paul’s writings “Scripture” (cf. 2 Peter 3:16)
So these are the five questions according to which the Holy Church of God ACCEPTED those Books that God DECIDED as Scripture! This doesn’t mean that there was a time when the Church had not accepted these Books and later she accepted them. This means that these are the standards of the Canon according to which the Church knows which are the Books of the Bible and thus rejects all the human writings that seek to be introduced into the Bible. As you can see, all these standards are found in the Scripture itself about which the Church did not have any doubt, as all true believers had already accepted the Word of God as I explained in the introduction.
Concerning the Old Testament Canon, there is no historical difficulty, as the Lord and His Apostles clearly confirmed the 39 Books that we have. In the following lines, I will explain the case of the declaration of the New Testament Canon, as there is much misunderstanding about it.
Just as by drinking water you don’t give water its power to quench your thirst, the believers also by believing the Word of God do not give it its divine authority. And if someone later makes a bottle of counterfeit water full of poison, it is your duty to declare which is the true water that quenched your thirst so that people may not be deceived by the counterfeit. To do this, you will have to find out some essential characteristics in the water that you originally drank that cannot exist in any counterfeit water, and those characteristics will be the rules according to which you will declare your judgment concerning the counterfeit and you will accept the true water. By doing this you are not refusing something that you had previously accepted or accepting something that you previously refused. Now, imagine you were a group of people who originally drank from the true water: in this case, the whole group will have to declare which bottles really contain the real water and which bottles contain the counterfeit. This group of people contains members who live in different places on the earth, and each has drunk from that water in his country, and you don’t know each other personally, but you all are that one group that drank from the true water and is now quenched and knows which is the true water. Occasionally, you communicate with each other and you discuss about the different bottles from which each of you drank, and some may doubt another’s bottle as they never received a similar bottle to make sure it really contains the pure water. During time, this group is challenged by charlatans who make bottles of the counterfeit water and want to convince people that their bottles truly contain the real water that quenches thirst. This group cares for the health and life of people, so it comes and makes a meeting somewhere, and each member brings the bottle(s) from which he originally drank. And so you all begin to make tests on the water that you drank in order to determine the essential characteristics that it has and that cannot be shared by the counterfeit. But I remind you: you people don’t know each other personally, and some of you may even be charlatans who come to the meeting as quenched persons (“in sheep’s clothing” — cf. Matthew 7:15-20, Acts 20:29-31, and 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). So what you need to do is not only to test the waters that are in the bottles of the members, but you also need to test their source to make sure the member who presents it is not a charlatan. Thus many debates will arise, and some bottles will be disputed among the members, and all the disputes will have as a main principle the quality of the true water that no counterfeit water may have. This process may need more than one meeting and more than one declaration, but at the end there will not be a counterfeit water that is accepted, and there will not be a true bottle that is refused. Now add to all this that the one who originally made the water is in this group, and you will have the assurance that you will finally have the whole number of the true bottles with the true pure water that this person has made, as he knows what he has made and is able to know to which members of that group he has sent it originally. Must those disputes between the members throw a doubt on the final result? Not at all! On the contrary, it gives us a higher assurance that things were not considered carelessly, and thus no counterfeit bottle may have crept in! Does the fact that there were more than one meeting mean that there is something wrong that should make us doubt concerning the final result? Not at all! On the contrary, these different meetings make us more assured that the members of this group were not led by one “Magisterium” or “Pope” who decides things as a dictator!
Unbelievers assume that we deny that the Church had to declare which books belong in the Bible. This assumption is the result of ignorance concerning our Faith. Just like any other doctrine (example: the doctrine of the Trinity(*)), the Church had to declare her doctrine concerning the Word of God. This is part of the one Faith that was once for all received by the Church from the Apostles in the first century (cf. Jude 3). So the fact that the Church wanted to make sure which books belong in the Bible in itself proves that the Apostles taught the Church to love and respect the written Word of God and to follow the Word of God as the sole authority. Otherwise, it would not be so important to make sure which books belong in the Bible. The unbelievers want to give the Church a certain authority that doesn’t belong to her, not because they love the Church, but because they want to take from among her the authority of God who is among her members! The unbelievers want to take the authority of God and to give it to the Church! The true Church will not be deceived by this deception of the evil one by which Eve was deceived (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3). The Church does not have the authority to make a certain book canonical; she can only accept or declare as true a Book that God has already made canonical, as we have seen in this article. When the Church declares a Book as canonical, this doesn’t mean that she made it canonical. It is God who made it canonical the same moment He wrote it through a prophet or a man of God. The Church only accepts and declares the Book of this prophet or man of God as canonical. As I said above, just as by drinking water you don’t give water its power to quench your thirst, the believers also by believing the Word of God do not give it its divine authority. Now apply the above example of the water and of the group of quenched people on the Word of God and on the Church. As we have seen in the introduction, the Church was originally formed by the Word of God that was preached orally and in written form by the Apostles and their companions. In this article we concentrate our study on the written Word. So the group that was quenched is the group of believers all over the reached world, i.e. the Church. These believers have received the written Word of God from the Apostles and their companions, and each has believed it in the place where he was. So the Books that contain the Word of God are the bottles of true water, and any book that does not contain the Word of God is a counterfeit bottle. The Church originally had no problem continuing to be quenched by this water that she had, without having it in one bottle, i.e without having the Word of God in one Volume. After all, we don’t need to have the whole water in one bottle in order to be quenched by it. But after a while some misunderstandings rose between the different Christians living in different places, as they didn’t all receive the whole set of inspired Books. So some discussions were taking place between them concerning the Books. During time, the Church was challenged by charlatans who made books of human writings, i.e. bottles of counterfeit water full of spiritual poison that injures the spiritual life. These charlatans or cults wanted to convince people that their books are the Word of God, i.e. bottles that truly contain the real water that quenches thirst. The Church really cares for the spiritual health and life of people, so she didn’t want people to be deceived, and so her members began to discuss this matter from country to country in written debates. These debates do not mean that these members hate each other, but they are discussions that have as purpose to reach the truth concerning this matter. But they soon realized that this method would not help them to have a unified position concerning this matter, so they made a Council somewhere, and each member brought the book(s) that he had originally received from the Apostles and their companions. Here I want to remind you that these Councils of the Church happened in a time when the visible Church was not divided to denominations; the whole catholic (i.e. universal; this is different from the Roman Catholic heresy(*)) and apostolic Church wanted to have a unified expression of her doctrine concerning the Canon of Scripture, so she had Councils. Thus the Church came together and had Councils. And so the Church began to make tests on the content of those books (i.e. the Word of God) in order to determine the essential characteristics that it has and that cannot be shared by the counterfeit books. I will note here that the Church not only had the writings of the Apostles and of their companions, but she also had the whole Old Testament Canon about which Jesus and His Apostles already witnessed as we have seen above. So the Church tried to find out some essential characteristics in the Word of God (i.e. the water) that her members originally believed (i.e. drank) that could not exist in any counterfeit human word (i.e. counterfeit poisonous water), and those characteristics would be the rules (i.e. Canon; the word “canon” comes from a Greek word meaning “measuring rod” or “rule”) according to which the Church would declare her judgment concerning the counterfeit books and she would accept the true Books. By doing so, the Church was not refusing something that she had previously accepted or accepting something that she had previously refused. But I remind you: these different members of the Church who come from different countries do not know each other personally and they cannot know each other’s hearts, and some of them may even be charlatans who come to the Council claiming to be true believers (“in sheep’s clothing” — cf. Matthew 7:15-20, Acts 20:29-31, and 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). So what the Church needed to do was not only to test the content of those books brought or defended by the different members, but she also needed to test their source to make sure the member who presented or defended the book(s) is not a charlatan. Thus many debates arise, and some books are disputed among the members, and all the disputes have as a main principle the characteristics of the Word of God (i.e. the quality of the true water) that no counterfeit book may have. And indeed some Books of the New Testament were disputed like this: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. As I previously noted, the less or never disputed Books were the Epistles of Paul, as they had a wide-spreading when they were written. Now, this process may need more than one Council and more than one declaration, but at the end there will not be a counterfeit book that is accepted, and there will not be a true Book that is refused. And indeed this is what happened: The Church didn’t declare her final expression of doctrine concerning the Canon after a single Council, but more than one Council had to take place. Now add to all this (and before all this!) that the One who originally made the true Books authoritative (i.e. the Spirit of God) is in the Church, and you will have the assurance that you will finally have the whole number of the true Books with the true pure Word of God that God has revealed, as God is Omnipotent and Omniscient and He has promised to protect and keep His Word (cf. Isaiah 40:8, Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 59:21, 1 Peter 1:24-25). Must those disputes between the members throw a doubt on the final result? Not at all! On the contrary, it gives us a higher assurance that things were not considered carelessly, and thus no counterfeit book may have crept in! Does the fact that there were more than one Council mean that there is something wrong that should make us doubt concerning the final result? Not at all! On the contrary, these different Councils make us more assured that the Bishops were not led in their final declarations by one “Pope” who decides things as a dictator! We are assured that the only true Author of the Bible is the Holy Spirit Himself!
James White explains all this in a very interesting illustration:
“I have written eight books. The action of my writing those books creates the canon of my works. If a friend of mine does not have accurate or full knowledge of how many books I have written, does that mean there is no canon of my books? No, of course not. In fact, if I was the only one who knew how many books I had written, would that mean that the canon of my books does not exist? The point is clear. The canon is one issue, and it comes from God’s action of inspiring the Scriptures. Our knowledge of the canon is another. Our knowledge can grow and mature, as it did at times in history. But the canon is not defined by us nor is it affected by our knowledge or ignorance” (James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996. p. 94).
This is what truly happened in the history of the Church concerning the Canon of Scripture, and heresies and cults today want to deceive you concerning these facts. Of course, when we talk about the history of the Church, then we’re explaining the particular Canon of the New Testament, as the Old Testament Canon was already closed and was confirmed by Jesus Christ as we have seen. The confirmation of the New Testament Canon happened by the Holy Spirit through His Apostles and then it was declared by the Church just as I explained above. Of course, above I only gave one reason (the counterfeit books) for the need that made the Church declare her doctrine concerning the Canon of Scripture and to collect all the true Books in one Volume. This is just one of the reasons, i.e. the counterfeit books of the charlatans or cults. But let me give you a more detailed explanation about the reasons that made the Church decide to have a clear declaration of the Canon of Scripture and one Volume for all the Books of this Canon:
1. The high respect that the Apostles taught the Church to have towards the written Word of God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:19, etc.): As I explained above, the Church had to declare her doctrine concerning the Word of God just as she had to declare her doctrine concerning all the other points of the one Faith that was once for all received by the Church from the Apostles in the first century (cf. Jude 3). So the fact that the Church wanted to make sure which books belong in the Bible in itself proves that the Apostles taught the Church to love and respect the written Word of God and to follow the Word of God as the sole authority. Otherwise, it would not be so important to find out which books belong in the Bible. As I previously explained, the members of the Church everywhere could have access to the Word of God, but in the limited number of Books that reached to them. Some had almost all the Books, and others had less. But of course all the members everywhere were interested in having the whole set of the Books that contain the Word of God. Therefore the early Church was interested in collecting those Books that were inspired and thus prophetic into one Volume and in preserving them. When you read the writings of the Church Fathers and of the apologists, you quickly notice that they proved every teaching by the inspired Books that were available to them, because they followed them as the sole authority for doctrine and living. Indeed, you often read in literature about which Church Fathers quoted from which Book and which Church Fathers didn’t quote from a certain Book. This shows the nature of the respect that the Church Fathers had towards the written Word of God.
2. The need to know which available books are authoritative and could determine the Will of God for doctrine and living as 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says: This point is related to point 1. As the Church considered the written Word of God as the authority that determines the Will of God for doctrine and living, so it would be the best to have the whole set of inspired Books in one Volume so that the believers may have the whole witness of Scripture in order to find the interpretation of the Scripture to itself. In this way, the early Church also indirectly declared her conviction that only the Scripture can interpret the Scripture. So if you have the whole set, then you have a bigger ability to find the true interpretation that the Church Fathers were searching for in the Books that were available to each of them. Besides this and in consistence with this principle, only the really inspired Books had to be read in the church as the Word of God. So the Church needed to make sure which are those inspired Books so that the uninspired books may not be read as Word of God. You notice that these points 1 and 2 show that the early Church indirectly declared her doctrine of Sola Scriptura, i.e. the Scripture is the sole authority in doctrine and life, and that only the Scripture interprets the Scripture.
3. Defense against other religions and philosophies: “As the Christian movement was confronted with philosophical and religious trends current in the Mediterranean world of its time, the need for an authentic expression and preservation of the foundation of its belief became the basic motivation toward the realization of the New Testament canon. This grew more acute after the demise of the first generation of eyewitnesses” (Quoted in HOW WE GOT OUR BIBLE by Mike Vlach from Andrie B. Du Toit, “Canon”, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 102). This is another proof that the Church considered the Scripture as the sole authority, or else they would not need to know which Books are authoritative and could teach them the truth against false religions and philosophies. If the Church or the bishops were the source of authority, then people could just turn to the Church or to the bishops to know the truth. But just as the Apostle Paul said to the bishops of Ephesus after warning them about false teachers, the bishops need to find the truth in the Word of God: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32) The Church strongly believed this truth in those early times.
4. Heretical threats: As I said above, certain heretics and cults began to come up with human writings which they claimed are the Word of God and have authority over the believers. The Church needed to declare which books are canonical and contain the Word of God. To do this, she needed to find the rules in the already accepted Scripture, i.e. in the Word of God, as I explained above. Around 140 A.D., the heretic Marcion had his own “canon” that excluded the Old Testament and the most of the New Testament canonical writings we possess. Marcion believed that only his altered version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s Epistles were inspired Scripture. Montanists and Gnostic groups were also threats to the early Church.
5. The need to know which Books deserve that Christians suffer and die for them during persecutions: The emperor Diocletian made an edict in 303 A.D. commanding that all Christian sacred Books be confiscated and be burned (read more about this). Thus a great persecution began against Christians (from 303 to 306, and it even continued in different forms until 311), and Christians risked to lose their life for the sake of copies of the sacred writings. So the Church had to clarify which Books are really sacred and belong in the Scripture and thus are worthy that Christians suffer and die for them. Here we should ask ourselves a question, we the Christians of the 21st century who received this Bible from the hands of those martyrs who were ready to offer their lives rather than to give up or deny any copy of any part of the Bible: Are we ready to do like them today if another persecution arise?… Let’s keep on the alert at all times, praying that we may have strength to escape all these things, and to stand before the Son of Man (cf. Luke 21:36).
The Canon of Scripture is closed
Although the matter of the closure of the Canon has been elaborated in short in the section where I explained how the Lord the Spirit confirmed through the Apostles the Canon of the New Testament, yet I have left the detailed explanation of this matter to the final part of this article, because I wanted to put a stress on it, as there is much confusion concerning it in the minds of many people, even Christians. Indeed this deals with the definition of the Canon; and as we have seen previously, many have a wrong definition of the Canon: They think the Church invented the Canon, while the truth is that the Canon was revealed by God and the Church accepted and declared it as we have seen above. This misunderstanding is the main reason of the confusion. So this is the main reason why I wanted to give this matter what it deserves in a separate part in this article.
The Church does not have the authority to make a certain book canonical; she can only accept or declare as true a Book that God has already made canonical, as we have seen in this article. When the Church declares a Book as canonical, this doesn’t mean that she made it canonical. It is God who made it canonical the same moment He wrote it through a prophet or a man of God. The Church only accepts and declares the Book of this prophet or man of God as canonical. As J. I. Packer has said: “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity” (God Speaks to Man, p. 81).
THE CANON OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Concerning the Canon of the Old Testament, what we have explained above should already be enough to show that the Canon is closed: The Lord Jesus and His Apostles clearly told us which are the general parts of the Old Testament Canon (the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms — cf. Luke 24:44), and which are the first and the last Books in that Canon according to the order in which they were in their time (The first was Genesis and the last was 2 Chronicles — cf. Luke 11:50-51 and the explanation above), and they called the whole set “Scripture” (ex. 2 Timothy 3:16). So it is clear that the Canon of the Old Testament was closed long before Jesus was born, when the last canonical Book of the Old Testament was written. Thus no additional book can be added to the Old Testament, as the Canon of the Old Testament was closed and that closure was confirmed by the Lord and by His Apostles. It is in this way that the human writings called “Apocrypha” are not part of that Canon (for more details about this, read our article What is the Apocrypha? And why do some groups or “churches” add it to their copies of the Bible?). In the same way, no other book newly “discovered” by cultists can be added to the closed Canon of the Old Testament.
The following are the 39 Books of the Old Testament Canon:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
Nothing can be added to these Books in the Canon of the Old Testament.
THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Covenant is not like the Old Covenant: “not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:32). The Old Covenant was a shadow of the New Covenant, while the New Covenant is not a shadow of any other covenant that is to come later; it is the eternal and final Covenant of Grace (cf. Hebrews 13:20). The Apostle says about the two Covenants:
“not that we are competent of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but our competency [is] of God; who has also made us competent, [as] ministers of [the] new covenant; not of letter, but of spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens. (But if the ministry of death, in letters, graven in stones, began with glory, so that the children of Israel could not fix their eyes on the face of Moses, on account of the glory of his face, [a glory] which is annulled; how shall not rather the ministry of the Spirit subsist in glory? For if the ministry of condemnation [be] glory, much rather the ministry of righteousness abounds in glory. For also that [which was] glorified is not glorified in this respect, on account of the surpassing glory. For if that annulled [was introduced] with glory, much rather that which abides [subsists] in glory. Having therefore such hope, we use much boldness: and not according as Moses put a veil on his own face, so that the children of Israel should not fix their eyes on the end of that annulled. But their thoughts have been darkened, for unto this day the same veil remains in reading the old covenant, unremoved, which in Christ is annulled. But unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil lies upon their heart. But when it shall turn to [the] Lord, the veil is taken away.) Now the Lord is the Spirit, but where the Spirit of [the] Lord [is, there is] liberty. But we all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by [the] Lord [the] Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:5-18)
According to this passage, we have the following important facts about the two Covenants:
– The Old Covenant: It is the Covenant of the Law, of the letter that kills, as the Law declares a condemnation against sin and cannot save the sinner. Therefore, this Covenant is called the ministry of death and of condemnation. This Covenant is annulled in Christ. However, this Covenant is glorious, although not as glorious as the New Covenant.
– The New Covenant: It is the Covenant of the Spirit who quickens and gives life, as we were dead in our trespasses and sins and the Lord made us alive by His Righteousness by Grace through faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Ephesians 2:1-5; Romans 1:16-17). So this Covenant is the Covenant of Grace that abides, the ministry of the Spirit and of Righteousness, and the Word of this Covenant is the Gospel of Grace, the Word of God’s Grace (cf. Acts 20:32, Acts 20:24). This Covenant is more glorious than the Old Covenant which was annulled.
What we just read together is very essential for anyone who wants to understand the nature of the New Testament Canon.
In this passage, you see that the Spirit is the Lord who already came, who had not come yet in the Old Covenant (cf. John 7:39). John 7:39 explains that the Lord Jesus had to be glorified before the Spirit could come. The eternal Redemption should have been accomplished (cf. Hebrews 9:12) before the Spirit could come and dwell in the Church. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness, so He cannot abide in any place where there is not a total holiness. This total holiness was not possible with the sacrifices that the Old Covenant priests needed to offer again and again; it’s only possible by the blood of Christ who offered Himself to God by the eternal Spirit without blemish once for all and thus made the dwelling place of the Spirit clean once for all (cf. Hebrews 9:14). So you already began to notice that with the New Covenant the Perfect came, and there is no more need to wait for another Perfect… Now, this Spirit already came and is in the Church once for all, and not to come and go many times. And this Spirit does not speak on His own initiative, therefore He guides us into all the truth (cf. John 16:13). Notice the causality relation between the guiding into all the truth and the fact that the Spirit does not speak on His own initiative: indeed, the Spirit does not do the particular work of the letter that had to prepare for the coming Christ; the Spirit glorifies the Christ who already came, as He takes of what is the Christ’s and discloses it to us (cf. John 16:14). The Spirit came to present the final truth as it is in Christ, and not to put any foundation for a new truth or covenant other than that New Covenant which was made through Christ. For this reason, all of the Old Covenant prophets were prophesying about the substance that would come (cf. Colossians 2:17), while the New Covenant prophets do not need to prophesy about any substance that is to come, as the truth already came in Christ (cf. John 1:17). This is also in a sense the reason why Old Covenant prophecies were sealed, and their seal could be broken only in Christ, and the prophecies of the New Covenant should not be sealed anymore (cf. Daniel 12:4,9, Revelation 5:1-10, Revelation 22:10).
People usually have a wrong understanding about who a prophet is: they think a prophet is someone who just predicts things about the future without any relation with any plan of God. The fact is that prophets are those who speak for God before the people, and all what they say is in relation with the eternal Plan of God which is always expressed within a covenantal form. In other terms, the prophets are not magicians who tell you whether you will win the lottery or not, or whether you will get married or not… they declare the revelations of God according to His Plan. The Old Covenant was the shadow of the substance, and in the times of the Old Covenant God had not yet said His final Word or revelation (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3), so the prophets of the Old Covenant were telling about what was to come in terms of the Old Covenant. Now that the Perfect and final revelation of who God is came (cf. John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1-3) we don’t need any new covenant anymore, and all the truth is revealed in Christ once for all, even what is to come. As I explained above, Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God to mankind. In Him, all the prophecies are fulfilled, and they are not still waiting for their fulfillment (cf. Matthew 5:17). Even what is to come will fulfill prophecies according to what was already fulfilled in Christ, and not according to another covenant. Indeed, while God had spoken long ago to the fathers in many ways in the prophets, and yet in the last days He has spoken to us in His Son; and He will not speak to us in any additional way, as the Son is the radiance of His Glory and the exact representation of His Nature (cf. John 1:18 and Hebrews 1:1-3). There is no further revelation about God beyond the Son, as the Son is the perfect revelation of God:
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,
in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high“ (Hebrews 1:1-3)
Today is not a period of new revelations, but a waiting period during which the Son is at the right hand of the Majesty on high, waiting until all His enemies are made a footstool for His feet (cf. Psalm 110:1). The purification of sins is already made once for all.
Long ago, God didn’t reveal Himself in His incarnated Son who is Himself the Gospel. The Book was sealed, and only Christ could break the seals. Although the prophets spoke of Him, and yet He was not revealed or manifested in flesh:
“that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints,
to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:26-27) Read also 1 Timothy 3:16.
This revelation in the Son was HIDDEN from the past ages and generations, and it was revealed to His saints in the apostolic age and for all coming generations ONCE FOR ALL:
“the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
It was ONCE FOR ALL handed down to the saints in the apostolic age and it is still the SAME revelation that we receive today. There is no new revelation. The whole full and final revelation of God in His Son already came in the apostolic age.
Now, after this once for all revelation that was received by the saints, the Apostle warns:
“even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8-9)
No one should preach a new revelation, claiming that it is from God. If he does, then he is anathema or accursed according to the Word of God.
Indeed, the Apostle also said:
“So then, brethren, stand firm, and hold fast the instructions which ye have been taught, whether by word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
First of all, these teachings must be what has been taught BY THE APOSTLES directly (“by word” or “by… letter”), and not as second-hand traditions (not as word “from us” and letters “as if from us”) In other words, Paul was telling the Thessalonians not to believe whatever they hear as taught by an Apostle, but to believe only what they have received DIRECTLY from him and from the true Apostles. Why does he say this? Let’s see together in the context why Paul says this:
“Now we beg you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, nor troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter, as [if it were] by us, as that the day of the Lord is present.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2)
Heretics and cultists present to us today traditions “AS IF” from the Apostles or from God. But the Apostle warns us from such messages and letters, and tells us to remember whatever we have received from him and from the other Apostles DIRECTLY and not as second-hand. In other words, this passage in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is clearly AGAINST any addition to the closed Canon of the New Testament. The passage says that we must not accept any message from anyone unless we receive it from the mouth of the Apostles directly or by a letter sent from them directly.
I already quoted 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2. Here we see that some people came and disturbed the Christians in Thessalonica by oral INDIRECT messages and written messages AS IF from the Apostles. So the Apostle Paul tells them not to be shaken, but to stand firm in the oral teachings that they heard directly from the Apostles and in the written teachings that they also received directly from the Apostles. In other words, he tells them not to believe second-hand reports or any book that claims canonical authority, but to remember what he directly taught them. Again I go to the context:
“Do ye not remember that, being yet with you, I said these things to you?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5)
The Apostle wants us to believe and stand firm in the things that he told us WHILE BEING WITH US. So the Apostle doesn’t want us to believe what we hear as second-hand tradition, but he wants us to remember what he told us while he was with us. As the Apostle Paul and all the other Apostles are not alive today, then this is one of the strongest verses AGAINST listening to anyone who tells us anything as second-hand traditions. But the letters of Paul are in the Scripture, and we can read them today. The same is true about the writings of the other Apostles and of their companions who taught us the apostolic teachings in written form. Therefore, the Bible is the only source to know the true first-hand traditions of Paul and of all the Apostles. There is no other way to hear Paul or any Apostle giving us the first-hand teachings. And we can’t and we MUST NOT rely on second-hand traditions, as Paul tells us. So the only way to know what were the teachings of the Apostles is to find them in the letters written directly FROM THE APOSTLES, i.e. the Bible.
So, according to the Apostle Paul, the only way to know God’s New Testament truth is to accept the traditions of the Apostles. The word “traditions” means any teaching that the Apostles taught. And these traditions must get to us only in 2 ways:
– Direct oral teachings that we hear from the Apostles, being present when they preach. And we must not accept second-hand oral reports of those teachings, because in that case we may be deceived by false teachers. As the Apostles are not alive today, so we don’t have this first way today. We don’t have Apostles today, but we have their writings. Here we get to the second way:
– Documents written by the Apostles and their companions, i.e. the New Testament Books. In this case also we must not accept books that are written by deceivers and that bear the name of an Apostle, like “Gospel of Peter” or “Gospel of Judas” etc… We must only accept what was written by the Apostles and their companions. In this case, we DO have the documents: They all are in the Bible.
So we must receive the first-hand traditions ONLY. And which is the only first-hand tradition that we have today from the Apostles? It is the BIBLE ONLY. If there were tapes or DVDs in the days of the Apostles, we would be able to receive the oral traditions also as first-hand traditions. But there were no DVDs or tapes in those days. So the only direct teachings and traditions that we have from the Apostles are in their Epistles that we find in the Bible.
So in summary, we only have the Bible today as sufficient source for knowledge about God’s truth. No one should preach a new revelation that we didn’t receive from the Apostles, claiming that it is from God. If he does, then he is anathema or accursed according to the Word of God, even if he is a true Apostle or an angel from Heaven (cf. Galatians 1:8-9).
Now, follow this truth with what the Lord said in John 16:13-15:
“But when he is come, the Spirit of truth, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but whatsoever he shall hear he shall speak; and he will announce to you what is coming. He shall glorify me, for he shall receive of mine and shall announce [it] to you. All things that the Father has are mine; on account of this I have said that he receives of mine and shall announce [it] to you.” (John 16:13-15)
Even the future events (as revealed in the Book of Revelation, for example) are not another revelation; they are not another truth, but the same final revelation which came once for all in Christ, the same Grace and truth that were realized through Christ (cf. Revelation 1:1, Hebrews 1:1-2, John 1:17). The Spirit did not come to reveal anything that He did not hear from Christ. The Spirit revealed even what is to come according to the truth that was revealed once for all in Christ.
So what we have seen till here means the following: That the Books of the New Testament Canon are only those Books that contain the Word of God’s Grace, the Gospel of Grace, as it was once for all realized through Jesus Christ. Nothing can be added to this once for all revelation in Christ, and whoever adds anything to this Gospel of Grace, and thus preaches another gospel, is accursed by God’s Word even if he is an Apostle like Paul or an angel from Heaven(cf. Galatians 1:8-9)!
Now, the Lord didn’t just say that only the Word of God’s Grace will be part of the New Testament. If this were the case, then any present day writing that agrees with what was once for all received in Christ could claim to deserve to be added to the New Testament Canon. But the Lord made it also clear through whom He would write the New Testament Books and how He would thus put one and a final foundation for the Church, i.e. a Faith that cannot be changed according to the opinions of men. Let’s see this together; Jesus said:
“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes forth from with the Father, he shall bear witness concerning me; and ye too bear witness, because ye are with me from [the] beginning.” (John 15:26-27)
In this passage, the Lord made it clear that nothing can be included in the New Testament as Scripture if it is not written directly by an eyewitness of Christ or by a companion of such an eyewitness who wrote under the supervision of this eyewitness. Jesus explained that the ones through whom this witness would be given were the Apostles, as they were with Jesus from the beginning. So in these statements of Jesus we have the two basic rules of the New Testament Canon:
– It should not be a new revelation added to what was revealed in Christ, but it should be the same new and final revelation that came in Christ.
– It should be written under the authority of those who were with Jesus from the beginning.
In other words, any book that doesn’t present the Faith (the final revelation) that we received in Christ should not be part of the New Testament. And any book that was not written under the authority of those who were with Jesus from the beginning should not be part of the New Testament. This last point means that only the Apostles and their close associates could write the Books of the New Testament. Furthermore, these associates of the Apostles should write under the supervision and the approval of the Apostles, as writing the witness of those who were with Jesus from the beginning is an essential condition. No one can be the actual bearer of the witness about Christ unless he was with Him from the beginning. So even the writings of Paul who saw the risen Christ would not be accepted as Scripture if he didn’t have the witness of those Apostles who were with Christ from the beginning, as I explained above. Jesus chose Paul to be His Apostle to the Gentiles, and He made all provision so that Paul would have the whole authority of an Apostle according to the rules of the Canon. I will not enter again in the details of this fact, as I have already explained it in details above.
So with these words, Jesus clarified that the Canon of the New Testament is in Himself, as the Holy Spirit would not speak from Himself but would take from what is the Christ’s and would announce it to the Apostles. And as only the Apostles and their close associates could write the canonical Books of the New Testament, so there would be no New Testament canonical Book written after the death of the last Apostle John about whom also Jesus announced: “If I will that he abide until I come, what [is that] to thee? Follow thou me.” (John 21:22) This clearly limits the New Testament Canon in the first century A.D., in the time of the Apostles. It also limits it to the authority given to the Apostles in a way that any book written without the witness of these Apostles is not canonical.
Indeed, the Apostles and the prophets of the New Covenant were not just putting an optional foundation; they have put a once for all foundation which is according to the Faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (cf. Jude 3), and this foundation is Christ Jesus as revealed through the Apostles and the prophets of Christ once for all (cf. Ephesians 2:20, 1 Corinthians 3:11). So once this one foundation was put, there was no more need for other foundations, but there would only be a building upon that same foundation. If this were not the case, Ephesians 2:20 would not call those Apostles and prophets the sole foundation upon which the whole building is built. 1 Corinthians 3:11 also says that no one can put any other foundation than Christ. Those Apostles and prophets received the whole truth from the Spirit as Christ promised (i.e. the Faith which was once for all handed down to the saints — cf. Jude 3). All prophets who came after that time were not prophets who had to put new foundations each time. So all present day real prophets proclaim that same revelation that came in Christ Jesus and that was handed down to us once for all in the first century A.D. through the Apostles and the prophets as the new revelation, the Gospel of Grace, the hidden wisdom and mystery that was revealed in the last days in Christ Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 3:9-10, Colossians 1:26-27). Before the Canon was closed, the prophets used to tell people first-hand and second-hand revelations (i.e. a revelation received for the first time, and another declared according to an already received first-hand revelation), but after the Canon was closed, there is only second-hand revelation, i.e. a declaration of a once for all received revelation (i.e. the Scripture). Today’s prophets speak for God before the people about this once for all received revelation upon which they can add nothing. Anyone who claims to have any other revelation than this Gospel of Grace that was once for all handed down to the saints in the first century (cf. Jude 3, Colossians 1:26-27) is anathema even if he is an angel from Heaven (cf. Galatians 1:8-9). So there is no new revelation, i.e. no new canon that can be added to the Bible. There is nothing beyond the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2), i.e. the revelation of Grace that came in Christ.
So while the Old Testament Canon was confirmed by Jesus Christ, the New Testament Canon is in Jesus Himself! In other words, anything in this Canon of the New Testament is according to what was revealed of God in Christ once for all, and there is nothing in this Canon of the New Testament that is not in accordance with this final revelation in Jesus Christ who is the subject of all revelations. And indeed, when Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, He made it clear that the Holy Spirit will not bring any additional revelation to what was revealed in Christ Himself (cf. John 16:13-15).
This is indeed what the Lord and His Apostles explained, as it is proven with the passages to which I referred. The Canon of the New Testament is closed.
The following are the 27 Books of the New Testament Canon:
The Gospel according to Matthew, The Gospel according to Mark, The Gospel according to Luke, The Gospel according to John, The Acts of the Apostles, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, The First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, The First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, The Second Epistle of Paul to Timothy, The Epistle of Paul to Titus, The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Epistle of James, The First Epistle of Peter, The Second Epistle of Peter, The First Epistle of John, The Second Epistle of John, The Third Epistle of John, The Epistle of Jude, The Revelation of John.
Nothing can be added to these Books in the Canon of the New Testament which is the eternal and final Covenant.
So the Word of God warns us:
“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
We should not add anything to the Word of God nor take away from it. If you add anything to what He is saying, then, as the verse says, you will NOT be able to keep the Commandments of the Lord!! Why? Because you will be keeping your own additions’ commandments, and not what He really commands you. What we need to do is not to add to the Word of God, but to OBEY it. It is very clear in the Bible.
Again, the Word of God warns:
“Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)
If you add to the Word of God, God will reprove you and you will be found a liar. Instead of that, you should trust Him! Please note also that after the author says that every word of God is pure, he adds that this means God is a shield to those who put their trust in HIM!! So the Word of God is what God says and it expresses who God is. So when you add to it, you are trying to change the understanding of who He is! And indeed this is what Satan originally did with our first parents: with his personal interpretations of God’s Word, he misrepresented the loving Nature of God and wanted Eve to think He’s an oppressor despot who is keeping from her some beneficial needs like the forbidden fruit!
Again, the Word of God warns:
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
The Book of Revelation contains the consummation of everything until the new heaven and the new earth and the Wedding of the Lamb. It gives us the explanation of the fulfillment of all prophecies according to the final revelation of God’s truth in His Son (read about this final revelation in Hebrews 1:1-2. We have seen the full explanation above). This indeed is explained at the beginning of the Book of Revelation (cf. Revelation 1:1-2). So if you add anything to the prophecy (singular) of this Book, you will be adding to the whole Word of God, and if you take away from it, you will be taking away from the whole Word of God. And the verses 18 and 19 above give you a clear warning. Note also that the Apostle John is the Apostle who remained with us after all the Apostles fell asleep in the Lord, just as the Lord Himself had foretold (cf. John 21:22-23). So this last Book that the last Apostle of Christ wrote closes the Canon by saying that we should not add anything to it. We have seen that no other Apostle remained after the Apostle John, and no one other than an Apostle of Christ could be the original bearer of the witness. So no new book could be added to the Canon of Scripture after that last Apostle, John, fell asleep in the Lord.
Grace be with you!
Disciple of Jesus Christ