If you love God’s word, you will want to understand the New Testament genres.
But what are the four New Testament genres? Moreover, why are New Testament Genres so important? And most importantly, how do the New Testament genres help us interpret God’s Word?
Knowing genres help the books make sense. In other words, once we understand the book’s literary genre, we can intelligently interpret it.
The first thing to remember is the Apostle Paul told his younger friend Timothy. He wrote that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). In effect, we need to be sure we understand it.
In brief, Paul meant that the Bible is God’s communication to humans like us (see Matt. 5:17; Mark 13:31; Rev. 22:18–19).
In particular, the sixty-six books God himself has shared are what he has intended us to know. But it’s not always easy to figure this out. Why?
Basically, there are several different genres in Scripture.
What is Genre?
Firstly, when discussing New Testament genres, we need to define our terms.
In the first place, a literary “genre” refers to a type of writing characterized by a particular form and content.
So when we can distinguish the various genres in Scripture, this helps us interpret the Bible more accurately and not confuse what God wants us to hear.
Previously, we covered genres in the Old Testament. But there are also four genres in the New Testament.
1. The Gospels are the First of the New Testament Genres
First on the list of New Testament genres are the Gospels. In particular, the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Although the Gospels are similar to other ancient historical biographies, they are also unique.
- As histories, the Gospels root Jesus’ life story within first-century Judaism during the Graeco-Roman civilization. Still, they have a distinct bias (which is not a bad thing).
- As biographies, the Gospels include biographical material on Christ, but they are more than memoirs.
The overriding purpose of these “Gospels” is to explain and praise the person and work of Jesus.
In addition, the Gospels include both doctrine (theological teaching) and narrative (stories).
On the other hand, they are far more action-packed than a customary historical narrative.
It is important to realize the significance of Christ’s miracles and encounters with individuals. These are concurrently interspersed with his teachings in parables (another type of genre with a specific purpose) and discourses (long speeches).
But most importantly, of all the New Testament genres, the Gospels most clearly announce the good news of salvation through Jesus.
That is to say, the Gospels call for a decision on the part of the reader that can lead to faith in Jesus Christ. For example, John points out that this is why he wrote his gospel (John 20:31)!
2. The Second of the New Testament Genres is Acts
The second of the New Testament genres is the “Acts of the Apostles.” Moreover, Acts is the second of a two-volume work written by Luke.
The first “volume” is what we know as the Gospel of Luke, and it belongs to the Gospel New Testament genre.
Consequently, the second volume is what we know as the book of Acts.
Of the New Testament genres, Acts is unique. In brief, it shares features with Hellenistic (Greek) writings, the Old Testament, and the Gospel genre.
- Like other Hellenistic writings, Luke gives Acts a preface with a formal dedication (to a person named “Theophilus,” Acts 1:1). And Hellenistic historical works also included formal speeches, tales of voyages, and the different episodes in both friendly and hostile circumstances, like are mentioned in Acts.
- The Old Testament profoundly impacted Acts: both with extensive Old Testament quotations but also by including Old Testament-like “divine commissioning narratives.” Divine commissioning narratives occurred when either God or his angel appears to a human, gives them a task, and assures them of God’s presence. For example, when the apostles are in jail (Acts 5:17-21) or Paul experiences one of these commissions (Acts 16:6-10).
- The Gospel genre also influenced Acts: it parallels Luke’s story of Jesus, and it also tells the stories of Peter’s and Paul’s miracles, defenses, and sufferings. And Acts interprets all of history as ultimately under the direction of a sovereign God.
3. The Letters (Epistles) are the Third New Testament Genre
An “epistle” is a letter presented as a message from God with the authors writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). And there are the twenty-one epistles to various churches or individuals in the New Testament (Romans through Jude in your table of contents).
These letters have an established first-century literary form consisting of four standard elements:
- Salutation (greeting) (“Grace to you and peace…” Phil. 1:2)
- A thanksgiving prayer on behalf of the readers (“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…” Phil. 1:3)
- The body, which is the main point of the letter (“I want you to know…” Phil. 1:12)
- Farewell (“Greet every saint...The brothers who are with me greet you…” Phil. 4:21-23)
How should we read these letters written to someone else? The person (usually an apostle) writing the letter instructs in two ways:
- First, they explain certain truths or doctrines, often giving logical support for those truths (e.g., Rom. 1-11)
- Then, based on this instruction, they encourage or advise the readers to follow specific courses of action or develop certain characteristics (e.g., Rom. 12-16).
As you read these letters, try to catch turning points of the letter from instruction to the application, like in Romans:
“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God [because of the instruction of the previous chapters], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [now to apply these truths in certain ways]” (Rom. 12:1-2).
4. The Fourth New Testament Genre is Apocalyptic
Finally, the fourth New Testament genre found in the Old Testament is the “apocalyptic” genre.
The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic work that:
- Reveals the future given by God (Rev. 1:1)
- Through a mediator or an angel (Rev. 1:1; 22:16)
- Who delivers the disclosure to a seer/prophet (Rev. 1:1)
- In visions (Rev. 1:10)
- Using symbolism (Rev. 1:20; 7:4–8)
These writings aren’t intended to be used to predict the precise date when the end of the world will happen. But they are designed to encourage us to endure to the end of our lives and be ready for Jesus to come in God’s perfect time.
Revelation was written during persecution (Rev. 1:9). Revelation's central message is an incredible ending to the Bible: the final triumph of God over the evil kingdoms of the earth (Rev. 1:1; 19:17–21).
Let God Speak Clearly
Having an idea of the literary genre is an essential ingredient in understanding the various books of Scripture. If we misunderstand the genre, we risk misunderstanding the author's meaning (both to their original audience and applying it to our lives!). But once we get the genre, God speaks even more clearly to us and helps us find our next steps in knowing and following him.