How Is the Bible Organized? And Why?

Imagine if a book on learning to use computers organized its chapters alphabetically? “Advanced Computing”would come before “Basic Computing.” Where’s the logic in that? What if the last chapter of the beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web came first. Or if the powerful classic Les Misérables opened with its last chapter. Talk about confusing the reader and ruining the experience!

Organization matters in books, articles, and especially the Bible. With 1,189 chapters of sacred text, we need divine organization. Fortunately, our all-wise God gave the men who organized the Bible wisdom and logic. 

How the Bible Is Organized—Orderly and Logically

The Bible is a book of books—sixty-six to be exact—divided into two large sections called the Old Testament and the New Testament. The New follows the Old. (Logical, of course.) We’ll look at the purpose of the two Testaments in a minute. First, let’s consider the order of the sixty-six books.

When I first read the Bible, I assumed its books were ordered chronologically. I was wrong. Since the Bible’s primary purpose is to help us know Christ and His salvation, both Testaments step off of the chronological timeline when doing so best supports this goal. God’s message of salvation matters more than mapping out history in order.

Therefore, rather than organizing the books in both Testaments by chronology, they’re divided based on their literary genre. Not a very exciting reason, right? But knowing this fact makes studying the Bible easier (and more logical) since each genre calls for a specific method of interpretation. 

For instance, history books like Genesis generally report actual events which call for a literal interpretation. Poetry and wisdom books like Psalms overflow with poetic symbolism and call for a largely figurative interpretation. But stay on your toes because many books contain several types of literature. Genesis starts out in Genesis 1 with an historical account of creation, but later, Moses wrote in a poetic form (see Genesis 49:8–12). Psalms is well-loved for its poetry but at times it recounts historical events in literal terms (see Psalm 78).

Why We Have Two Testaments

The word testament means covenant, promise, or agreement. Like a last will and testament, the Old and New Testaments are the official records of a promise (or binding agreement) made by the signer to its beneficiaries. 

God is the “signer” of the Old and New Testaments, and we who believe in Jesus are the beneficiaries. 

The Testaments aren’t equal in size but they’re equal in power and importance. Both contain the unfailing promises God made to His children beginning in Genesis. Each points to Christ and His salvation—the foundation and fulfillment of all His promises (2 Peter 1:20–21). 

Christ already fulfilled many of the promises when He came and died for our sins and rose to life. He’ll fulfill the rest when He returns as He declared in Revelation. 

Four hundred years of silence separates the two Testaments during which God didn’t speak to His people except through the Old Testament Scriptures. But in the fullness of time, God spoke again through His Son Jesus Christ. Thus began the New Testament Scriptures. 

God’s Concealed and Revealed Mystery in the Two Testaments

The ancient theologian St. Augustine wrote about the Old and New Testaments, “The New is in the Old concealed. The Old is in the New revealed.” As my mom loved to say, we’ll never fully understand the New Testament until we understand the Old Testament. (She meant the entire Old Testament, not just crowd favorites such as Psalms and Proverbs.)

While both Testaments proclaim the gospel of salvation, the Old Testament concealed the fullness of God’s plan. We see hints of it, but God didn’t boldly declare what Paul in the New Testament revealed as the Old Testament “mystery.” 

This blessed mystery is that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, would come in the form of man (still fully divine but also fully man), and that He would save people from the whole world, not just those from His chosen nation Israel (Rom. 11:25–26; 16:25; Phil. 2:5–11; and Col. 1:27). 

God’s people—Christ’s Bride, the Church—includes “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number” (Rev. 7:9). 

All who will repent and believe in Christ are His chosen people. 

God’s Chosen People

For thousands of years, all Israel believed God chose them alone. They didn’t recognize the hints woven into the Scriptures and the examples of Gentile believers such as Rahab from Jericho and the widow Ruth of Moab as being a taste of what was to come through the gospel.

It’s understandable that Israel would think they alone were God’s people because early in the Old Testament, He created Israel for Himself (Gen. 12). Through this nation, He displayed His character, works, and salvation to the whole world. God called Israel His chosen people (Deut. 7:6) and described them as His beloved (albeit unfaithful) bride (Ezek. 16:8–21). 

At the time the Old Testament was written, the authors didn’t know their Messiah would be a direct descendant of Gentiles (anyone not Jewish) such as Rahab and Ruth. 

The idea of these women being in the line of the Messiah would have horrified Israel since Rahab was a prostitute and both women came from enemy nations. Israel didn’t yet understand the depths of God’s amazing grace that extends salvation through faith, not works or heritage. 

It’s All about Christ

Much of the time, the Old Testament prophets didn’t realize the fullness of what they were writing. When the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “the righteous one will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), he didn’t know his words pointed to the gospel of grace by faith in Christ. He didn’t know his words revealed a glimpse of what God had concealed—that salvation came by faith in Christ alone.

Only after we read the New Testament do we recognize how often the Old Testament authors pointed to Jesus. Consider these five Old Testament chapters that point to Him: Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, Daniel 7, and Micah 5.

After the resurrection, Jesus explained to two of His followers how all the Scriptures pointed to Him. “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). “All the Scriptures” meant all of the Old Testament. 

A Summary of the Old and New Testaments

The Old and New Testaments cover different time periods but one story—the story of Christ, chosen from before the foundations of the world to redeem and restore His people into a right and eternal relationship with Him (1 Pet. 1:20). 

The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament cover the period before Jesus came to earth to go to the cross. It begins with creation and mankind’s fall into sin. 

Our desperate need for a savior and redeemer shouts through each book as we witness mankind’s continual rebellion against God and failure to perfectly keep His law. 

The Old Testament display of Israel’s hopeless inability to save itself from sin’s grip (and the horrific penalty of spiritual death) set the stage for the New Testament, where the grace and salvation of Christ would be revealed in the gospel message—which means “good news.” 

God first proclaimed the gospel in Genesis 3 to Adam and Eve. He later declared it to Abraham and his descendants, weaving together more than three hundred Old Testament prophecies about Christ.

The twenty-seven books and letters (epistles) of the New Testament cover the period from immediately before Christ’s birth to the cross, and all the way to His return and eternal kingdom. Jesus fulfilled every prophecy about Himself and revealed the fullness of God’s concealed plan of salvation and the New Testament covenant of grace.

The New Testament shines a light on the beautiful (and powerful) promises of God and doctrines of the Bible. It shows us the way to salvation and what it means to live as a Christian while we wait for Christ’s return. 

The Christian life is both more complicated and simpler than we imagine. We can’t lose our salvation once we’ve repented and believed in Christ, but without knowing and following the teachings of the New Testament, we’ll stumble our way through this life. We’ll fall into sins we thought we’d mastered. We’ll give in to temptations we didn’t see coming—or chose to ignore. 

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit will hold us secure, convict us of sin, and empower us to reject the lies and walk in the truth. Knowing and believing the Old and New Testaments makes all the difference in how we live and the joy we experience along the way. 

How the Order of the Bible Gives Us Hope 

I refuse to spoil the ending for those who’ve not yet read Charlotte’s Web or Les Misérables because I’m sure you will, right? But I’m happy to spoil the ending of the Bible. It ends as it began—but even better. 

In the beginning, God created a glorious world of order and beauty into which He placed Adam and Eve—man and wife, innocent and free of all sin—to rule the earth. If you’ve read the Bible or followed this article series, you know what happened when the serpent slithered into the scene. Death and chaos. 

Between the first and last pages of the Bible we watch sin and death ravage the world. But in the end, we see Christ destroy sin, death, and the serpent Satan and his demons. In Revelation, we witness the terrible day when all who reject Christ in this life will receive their eternal judgment. But we also read about the joy of all who believe in Christ as they receive their eternal rewards. 

God will restore what was lost in Genesis and create a kingdom that outshines the Garden of Eden. A world of perfect beauty which will never know the tyranny of sin or death. Christ will rule His kingdom with grace and righteousness—and we will reign with Him. 

It takes work to study the Bible and understand the layers of truth concealed and revealed in His Word, but eternal rewards await His children who persevere. You’ll come to love His Word more and more as the treasure it is. Even though the Bible is organized by something as unexciting as literary genre, you’ll find that God’s Word isn’t dull at all. It’s the marvelous, glorious, true, and faithful words of life.

What’s Next? 

Now that we’ve glanced at the overall picture of the Old and New Testaments, we’ll look closer at the five divisions of the Old Testament. I’ll answer some questions you may have had about the Old Testament—and maybe a few you didn’t know to ask. 

Are you ready to begin a new Bible study but not sure where to begin? Good news: Revive Our Hearts is here to help, but you’ve got to act soon! Shop the Summer Bible Study Sale through tomorrow for deals on some of our best-selling studies and more! 

About the Author

Jean Wilund

Jean Wilund

Jean Wilund is passionate about leading women into a greater understanding of the Bible and a deeper relationship with God. She serves Revive Our Hearts as a member of the blog team and a moderator for the Women's Ministry Leader … read more …

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