Turn to the list of books given in the beginning of your New Testament. You will see that first come the four Gospels, or glimpses of the Saviour's life given by four different writers. Then follows the Acts of the Apostles, and, lastly, after the twenty-one epistles, the volume ends with the Revelation.
Now this is not the order in which the books were written -- they are only arranged like this for our convenience.
The first words of the New Testament were written, not as we should have supposed by one of the twelve apostles, or by some one who had loved and followed the Lord Jesus Christ when He was upon earth. They are written by a Pharisee who had been one of Christ's bitterest enemies.
Though Saul had, as far as we know, never seen the Saviour on earth, what he had heard of His work and teaching made him feel that in stamping out all the followers of the so-called Messiah, he would be doing God service. But we remember how the Saviour Himself appeared to Saul on his way to Damascus, and how his heart was changed, and his eyes were opened.
We can scarcely imagine the transformation which came over his mind. Together with all the other learned Jews he had considered Jesus of Nazareth to be an impostor, and to blaspheme the words of God's Holy Book when He applied them to Himself. Now Saul the Pharisee understood that he and his countrymen, not Jesus of Nazareth, were at fault. As he read the old prophesies he understood their true meaning, 'and straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.' (Acts ix.9.)
Then the full tide of Jewish anger turned upon him. That he should join the followers of the despised Nazarene and forsake the sacred traditions of the Law made all the Jews scattered through the then-known world into his bitterest enemies.
Paul, as he was afterwards called, loved his countrymen with a passionate love. He would gladly have died for them, and that he should be unable to show them what was so clear to himself, was certainly the greatest sorrow and disappointment of his life. But though he was unable to help his countrymen, as a nation, God made him the most successful missionary-traveller the world has ever known, and to him was given the privilege of writing a large part of the New Testament.
Before we think about his writings, however, let us look at the condition of the great heathen cities of the world at the time when he lived.
In the year A.D.54, that is, twenty years after our Saviour's death upon the cross, the Emperor Nero, who is still remembered as one of the worst men who ever lived, began to reign in Rome.
For many years the Roman Emperors had been masters of all the then-known nations, and for awhile they had ruled justly; but ever as the Roman Empire increased in power and riches, the Roman rulers grew more haughty and selfish, until at last they cared for nothing but their own pleasures, and spent their days in drinking and feasting, wasting enormous sums in senseless extravagance, while thousands of their subjects starved.
A dreadful city Rome must have been in those days, though to look at she was beautiful indeed.
A city of marble palaces, of fair white statues and green gardens; of huge public baths and theatres. On one side stood an enormous building, with a round space in the centre, and tiers of seats rising one above another like a circus. This was an amphitheatre, where shows and performances were given.
There were no sham combats in a Roman circus; no mere pretence of being wounded. Men fought with men in stern reality; worse still, men were made to fight with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, and fierce bulls tore and gored men to death, while the audience leaned back in their comfortable seats, watching the horrible scenes intently.
Every rich man in Rome at the time of which we write owned hundreds of slaves, who were the absolute property of their owners.
A slave-girl who arranged her mistress's hair badly was burnt with a hot iron. If a slave-boy broke a costly vase his master might whip him to death, or have him thrown into a tank full of ravenous fish. There was no limit to the master's power.
Although millions of people had scarcely a rag to cover them, or a crust to eat, the rich people flung their gold away on useless trifles. Indeed, a kind of competition existed among them as to who could waste his money the most foolishly.
'Nightingales sing more sweetly than any other bird,' thought one of these. 'I have it. I'll order a dish of nightingales' tongues for my feast next week; that will be something rare and expensive indeed!'
All his friends were charmed with the new idea, and nightingales' tongues became quite the fashion.
But all the time, in this mighty city, so black with sin, so red with cruelty, the pure white light of the Gospel of Christ had begun to shine.
'Gospel' means good news. The story of Jesus was blessed news indeed, for the suffering, hopeless people. As yet all unnoticed by the rulers of the heathen world, the little band of Christians was ever increasing.
[Illustration: THESSALONICA: NOW CALLED SALONICA. IT WAS TO THE CHRISTIANS OF THIS TOWN THAT PAUL WROTE HIS FIRST EPISTLE]
From Jerusalem the good news had spread to Rome and to numbers of other heathen cities. The Apostle Paul had preached and gained little groups of converts in Thessalonica and Philippi and other strongholds of evil, and in the year when Nero became Emperor of Rome, the first words of the New Testament were written.
It happened in this way: St. Paul was in Greece, carrying on the war for Christ in the very centre of the idol-worshippers. Most of the Roman ideas of the false gods had come from Greece. In Athens and Corinth the most beautiful buildings were heathen temples, and not a house in the whole land was without its images.
Paul had preached at Athens and Corinth, but in the very midst of his difficult work he heard that the little band of faithful followers he had left behind in the city of Thessalonica were in great trouble.
They had no books to help them except the Old Testament, written in Greek. Although they had tried hard to remember his words, many things still perplexed them. Besides, the Jews living in the city were their bitterest enemies, and had so stirred up the people against them, that they were in constant danger of losing their lives.
Would not their great leader tell them what they ought to believe, and how they ought to live?
Paul loved these Thessalonians, and longed to go to them. But he could not leave his work in Corinth. What then was he to do?
He could write a long letter to them, bidding them to 'Stand fast in the Lord.' (1 Thessalonians iii.8.) To remember that God had called them 'unto Holiness.' (1 Thessalonians iv.7.) Paul did not need to remind them to love one another, for that God Himself had taught them. (Verse 9.)
He told them, too, not to sorrow hopelessly for those who had died for Christ, for when Christ returns, as He surely will, those who have loved Him shall rise first to meet Him, and so be with Him for evermore. 'Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.' (Verse 18.)
We can imagine how eagerly the Thessalonian converts listened to the letter. We see, too, that the first Christian document ever written contained the full Gospel message, and that the heathen had already 'turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from Heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.' (1 Thessalonians i.9, 10.)
A few months later the Thessalonians were once more in great perplexity.
'What are we to believe?' they had asked. 'Paul tells us plainly that Christ will return to the earth. How can we settle down to our ordinary work with such a wonderful hope before us?'
From the answer which the Apostle sent to their questions -- which we call to-day the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians -- we can see clearly how troubled they must have been.
In order to understand their position we must remember that the words and acts of the Lord Jesus Christ had not as yet been written down, and all that the Thessalonians knew about Him was from Paul's preaching and teaching. They could not turn to their Bibles as you can when you long to know just what the Saviour would have you do.
So Paul wrote to them again, explaining that they must wait in patience, quietly doing their daily work, and earning their own bread, as he and his companions had done whilst living in Thessalonica. (2 Thessalonians iii.12.)
Most of St. Paul's Epistles -- that is, his letters -- were written in this way because of some special need or danger.
The converts in Corinth, Galatia, or Ephesus, were in difficulty, or in danger of losing their faith in Christ, and Paul, ever watchful, but unable to go to them at the moment, wrote the message of comfort and warning which God had put into His heart.
At last there came a time when Paul could visit his converts no more.
The Roman rulers were as yet not angry with the followers of Christ. They simply despised them, and thought the Jews very foolish to trouble about a pack of low, ignorant people. 'They are mostly slaves or such like whose opinions are worth nothing. Why do they not let them alone as we do?' said the proud Romans.
But at last so bitter had the Jews become against Paul, and so violent were their attacks on him, that the Roman Government was obliged to interfere. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and imprisoned in Caesarea. Here he remained for many months, until, at last, finding he would get no justice from the Roman governor, he demanded to be taken to Rome itself to the Judgment Seat of the Emperor.
Two or three years before this he had written a most wonderful letter to the Roman Christians.
'To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints,' his letter was addressed. He told them how he prayed for them, and how he longed to see them 'Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you.' (Romans i.10.)
His prayer was answered, but he came as a prisoner in the year of our Lord 61.
Yet Paul was not put in prison when he arrived in Rome. He was allowed to see his friends, and even to hire a lodging of his own, though day and night he had to be chained to a Roman soldier. The soldiers were changed when their watch expired, but never for one instant could the Apostle go free.
Many of these Roman soldiers were hard and proud, believing in nothing at all, not even in their own idol gods; but after a while, won by Paul's words and life, the soldiers learned to believe also, and became his converts.
For the first year of his imprisonment Paul wrote little, but he spoke and thought much; as the second year drew on he sent letters to many of those he so longed to see again which are as precious to us as they were to those old-time Christians.
Among these are the Epistles to the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, and a touching little appeal to Philemon concerning a runaway slave who had become one of Paul's converts at Rome.
We are almost certain that the Apostle was released for a time so that he was enabled to revisit many of his converts, as he so earnestly desired to do.
[Illustration: THE OLD ROMAN ROAD, DOWN WHICH ST. PAUL TRAVELLED INTO ROME, AS IT APPEARS TO-DAY]
Then he was once more taken prisoner and brought again to Rome, where Nero's wickedness had become repulsive even to the Romans themselves, cruel and hardened though they were.
To Timothy, who was to him as a son, Paul the prisoner wrote a farewell letter, just when he was to be brought before Nero the second time.
'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.' (2 Timothy iv.7.) So he wrote, and before he closed his letter he begged Timothy to make a special effort to come to him, and to bring with him 'the books, but especially the parchments.' (Verse 13.)
These 'books' would most likely be the first copies of two or three of the books of the New Testament, just the very beginnings. Perhaps the life of Jesus Christ, written by Mark, and a letter or two of Peter's; fragile, reed-paper rolls, which would tear and crack unless they were handled with the greatest care. These would be written just like the ordinary books of the time, for as yet no one dreamt that they would one day be bound up with the 'parchments,' and so form the Christians' Bible. For by the 'parchments' Paul almost certainly meant the Old Testament written in Greek.
He needed these very 'specially.' He had time to think and study now; and the old, old Books of the Law and the Prophets spoke from the first page to the last of his beloved Master, Jesus Christ.
Did he live to receive the parchments? We do not know. How did he die? The Bible does not tell us. But about the date St. Paul wrote the last of his words that have come down to us, a fierce time of trial swept like a storm over the little Christian colony in Rome.
In his mad wickedness, the Emperor Nero set fire to his own city so that he might watch the blaze. Half Rome was burnt, and then he grew alarmed, for the people were furiously angry at losing their homes. So he looked round for some one on whom to throw the blame.
In an evil hour he thought of the Christians. 'The Christians plotted to destroy my city -- death to them! Drag them from their houses, burn them, throw them to wild beasts!'
The order went forth, the excited people were only too ready to obey, and so the Lord's faithful followers were put to death by hundreds. Nero prided himself on inventing the most horrible tortures for them.
On one dreadful night he even caused a number of living men and women to be wrapped in cloths soaked in pitch, tied to the top of long poles, and then set on fire. This horrible deed was carried out in Nero's own beautiful gardens, which were thus all lighted up with the glare of the flames.
But nothing could shake the faith and courage of these saints and warriors.
'As it is written, For Thy sake we are killed all the day long.' (Romans viii.36.) But they feared none of these things; they were faithful unto death, and the Lord has given them a crown of life. (Revelation ii.10.)
 Romans ix.3.