I thank Brian and Nicole Rossen for asking me how I’d arrange the books of the NT and why.
The why is easy. Most people start reading the NT with Matthew. But to understand Matthew, you must first understand John. If you do not grasp the promise of everlasting life by faith apart from works in John’s Gospel, you will be confused as you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They all assume you already know the message of John.
Explaining how I’d change the order is harder.
John. I’d start there because this is the place to start. Correctly understand the saving message before you move on.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts. If understood in light of John’s Gospel, these books lay the foundation for the rest of the NT.
Galatians. This is Paul’s defense of the gospel of justification by faith alone, apart from works, and should be the first Pauline Epistle presented in the NT. It was his first epistle and arguably his most important.
Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Because Paul wrote these from prison in Rome, they are called the Prison Epistles. They cover vital doctrines and are less difficult to understand than some of Paul’s other epistles.
1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans. The Corinthian Epistles tell us much about church issues. Romans comes later because it is a difficult epistle to understand. One must understand the Gospel of John and Paul’s letters to the Galatians before undertaking Romans.
1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. These are called the Pastoral Epistles because they tell us about the leadership of local churches.
Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude. These are called the General Epistles because they are not directed to a specific individual or church. (Some think that Paul wrote Hebrews. However, the fact that Paul doesn’t put his name to it, as he did in his other letters, suggests it is by someone associated with Paul, such as Barnabas, Luke, or Aquila and Priscilla.)
1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Revelation. These books concern the Rapture, Tribulation, Millennium, and new heavens and earth.
This, then, is my preferred order of the NT books: John, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation.
A word on why the NT was arranged as currently presented in Bibles. The four Gospels are first because they tell us about the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew appears first because the early church thought it was the first Gospel written, followed chronologically by Mark, Luke, and John, in that order. (Most NT scholars today think that Mark was first, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel to compose their Gospels. I believe that all four Gospel writers wrote independently, and that John’s Gospel was written first.)
Acts is next because it gives the church’s early history, especially regarding the ministries of Peter and Paul. Then come Paul’s letters. They were broken into two groups: letters to churches (Romans to 2 Thessalonians) and letters to individuals (1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon). Each grouping generally places the longest letters first and the shortest last. Then came the General Epistles, starting with the longest. The closing book was the key NT book on the prophetic future. It was placed last because it speaks of the eternal kingdom and perfectly complements the book of Genesis. (Compare Genesis 1-3 with Revelation 21-22.)
If you want to know more about how we got this order of the NT books, you might want to look at this article by Akin and this scholarly article by Goswell. Here is an article by Miller on the order of the NT books based on when each was written.i
In most Hebrew Bibles, the first book is Genesis, and the last is Chronicles (with 1-2 Chronicles as one book). When Jesus said, “From the blood of Abel [in Genesis] to the blood of Zechariah [in Chronicles]” (Matt 23:35; Luke 11:51), He was authenticating that the books contained in the OT were indeed God’s Word. We might even guess from this statement that the Lord was validating the order of books in the OT, though that is far from certain.
We have no such support for ordering the NT books. I’d say editors are free to arrange the books in any order they wish.
I’m not holding my breath until someone comes out with a New Testament in a new order. But I encourage people to start reading the Bible with John’s Gospel. We should point people to the only evangelistic book in the Bible as the place to begin.
i I disagree with a few of his conclusions on dating. I agree that James was first. John probably was second (mid 40s), then Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, etc. While 1-3 John and Revelation may be the last four written, I’d date all of them before AD 70. I do not think any NT letters were written after the temple’s destruction.