Christopher R. Smith
My pastor shifted uncomfortably in the pulpit. He didn’t know how to begin his sermon. Finally he blurted out, “I can tell you one thing: the book of Acts was never meant to be preached through chapter-by-chapter!” He and his associate had been taking turns doing that, but their sermons had become disjointed, filled with digressions on “what we were talking about last time” and promises to “say more about this next week.” The chapters just weren’t lining up with the episodes in the narrative.
There was a good reason for my pastor’s frustration. Chapters and verses in the New Testament were never intended to guide preaching or devotional reading. They were introduced so that reference works could be created. Chapters were added by Stephen Langton at the University of Paris around 1200 so passages could be cited in commentaries. Verses were put in around 1550 by Robert Estienne, a French scholar and printer who was working on a concordance to the Greek New Testament.
Chapters are designed to be about the same length. But the stories, oracles, poems and discussions that make up biblical books are of many different lengths. Chapters typically cut longer units into pieces. They add to the confusion by combining shorter units. In 1 Corinthians Paul discusses twelve different topics. His longer discussions have been cut up into chapters 1–4, 8–10 and 12–14. Shorter discussions are combined in chapters 6, 7, 11 and 16. Only two chapters (5 and 15) correspond accurately with a single discussion. This example shows why, in most cases, it’s difficult to make sense of a biblical book when reading or preaching through it chapter-by-chapter.
But if we eliminate chapter and verse numbers, won’t we be cast adrift on a sea of unorganized type? Isn’t something better than nothing?
Actually, the alternative isn’t nothing. Far from it. The biblical authors built natural structures right into the text of their works. We can learn to recognize these structures and follow them as we read, study and preach. The biblical books follow the conventions of the literary genres of their day. And the biblical authors often reinforce these outlines by repeating key phrases. Paul typically begins a new discussion in 1 Corinthians with “now concerning” (peri de, περι δε). At the end of each major section in Acts, Luke writes something like “the word of God grew and multiplied.”
Second John has a natural literary structure. Following the letter-writing practices of his day, John begins with his own name, then the recipient’s name, followed by a good wish. In the main body of the letter, he urges obedience and warns against false teachers. He conventionally closes by wishing for a reunion and sending greetings.
When compared with 3 John, 2 John shows how arbitrary verse divisions can be. The two letters end the same way. In 2 John, “reunion” and “greetings” each constitute one verse. But in 3 John, only the first part of “reunion” is found in verse 13; the second part is combined with “greetings” in verse 14!
When we consider a slightly longer letter such as Colossians, we see how chapter divisions are just as badly placed.
Paul has not met the Colossians. So he expands his opening section to explain, in a prayer, that he knows them through a mutual friend named Epaphras. He gives the essentials of his gospel and describes his struggle on behalf of the Gentiles. In the main body, he offers correction, followed by instruction. He ends the letter with personal greetings. The break between chapters 1 and 2 cuts off a small part of the opening section and groups it with the main body.
The break between chapters 2 and 3 is more reasonable. It comes between the two major themes. But the division between chapters 3 and 4 is ridiculous. It actually breaks up a sub-section of a sub-section. Why was a chapter break put there? Perhaps to give prominence to the command, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair.” But certainly not to reflect the natural literary outline of the letter.
The Medieval imposition of chapters and verses on the biblical text inevitably leads to confusion. It’s unfortunate that a chapter-by-chapter approach is practically our default mode for expository preaching, home Bible studies, and devotional reading.
But there are alternatives. Using Bible software we can cut and paste without chapters and verses, or view the Bible text without paragraph divisions. In some printed versions, such as The New English Bible, the numbers are moved to the margins. The Books of The Bible from the International Bible Society presents the biblical text visually according to its natural literary outline. The text appears in a single column, with larger and smaller sections set off by white space of varying widths. Chapter and verse numbers are removed entirely from the text. (A traditional chapter and verse range is provided at the bottom of each page.) An introduction to each book describes how it is structured.
With resources like these, it’s safe to preach through Acts again—not chapter-by-chapter, but literary section by literary section.