Understanding Epistles: How to understand NT letters

by | Sep 9, 2015 | 04 Bible Study 101, Genre

Understanding Epistles:Epistle is an old-fashioned word for a letter. The Epistles are letters of the New Testament written by the apostles to the early churches and believers of the 1st Century.   Every genre found in the Bible presents unique challenges for understanding.  Epistles are no exception.

Here are some guidelines for studying epistles.

1.  Epistles have a format.

Just like modern letters, New Testament letters follow a format.  While our letters usually start with a date, then a salutation, the body of the letter and a close, New Testament letters typically follow the format:

  • Author
  • Recipient
  • Greeting
  • Prayer/thanksgiving
  • Body of the letter
  • Final greeting & farewell.

While the majority of New Testament epistles follow this format, the apostles did not invent it.  They were using the standard format of the day. Many thousands of ancient letters exist that have this format.

2.  Epistles are occasional.

Most New Testament epistles are “occasional” — meaning they were written for a specific occasion.  The author is addressing a particular circumstance either on the readers’ side or the authors’ side.

The occasion may be some behavior which needs correcting, a doctrinal error which needs addressing, a misunderstanding that needs illuminating or cultural problem that needs clarity.  For example, the occasion for John’s first epistle is the dispute over the heresies spreading in the young church;  the Thessalonians believed they were currently experiencing the Day of the Lord; and a group known as the Judaizers was trying to convince the Galatians that being circumcised was necessary for salvation.

The challenge for us modern Bible students is quite often we have the answer (the epistle) but not the question.   Like hearing one half of the telephone conversation, we have to decipher the other half.

Basic rule: A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his readers.

3. Epistles are task theology.

With the possible exception of Romans, the fact that epistles are a response to a specific situation means that they are not a theological treatise, and we should not treat them as we would a dissertation from a seminary classroom.

New Testament letters don’t always start at the beginning and proceed logically.  Sometimes they are redundant and start in the middle.  Frequently, they assume the reader has a certain amount of background and familiarity with the situation.

Letters are what we call “task theology” — that is theology applied to the task at hand.  We still learn a great deal of theology from them, but it’s a derived theology.  We look at the how the author applied theology to the task of the letter and then extrapolate to apply it to our task today.

Second rule: Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e. similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s word to us is the same as His word to them.

4.  Epistles were written in a specific culture.

New Testament epistles were written in the 1st Century by a 1st Century author to a 1st Century audience. Therefore, we need to study the culture of the day and the relationship between the author and his readers.

Before studying Ephesians, we would seek information about the city of Ephesus, Paul’s relationship to the Ephesian church and what was happening at the time he wrote.

5.  Think paragraphs.

Begin studying an epistle by reading the letter like a letter: read it all the way through in one sitting.  Then work on outlining it and tracing the line of thought.  That line of thought will be presented in paragraphs – natural unit of thought, one building on the other, just like a normal letter.

6.   Start with questions, not answers.

The basic question you want to answer is “What’s the point?”  What does Paul say in this paragraph and why did he say it?  Why did he say it now?  How does it relate to what he just said in the previous paragraph?  To what he’s going to say in the next?

Many Bibles identify natural paragraph divisions in their translation, but you learn more when you make your outline.   Outlining forces you to slow down and look at connections you might otherwise breeze over.  When you are done outlining, consult a couple commentaries or translations to see if your paragraph divisions match theirs.

After outlining read through the letter again looking for answers to the following questions:

  1. Who is writing the letter?
  2. Who is the audience of the letter?
  3. Does the writer state his purpose for writing the letter?
  4. What situation does the author face while writing his letter?
  5. What situation do the recipients of the letter face?
  6. What are the geographical issues related to this letter?
  7. What are the major themes, concepts, and words in the letter?

With a good outline and background information, you’ll be ready to tackle the letter verse by verse and paragraph by paragraph.  After you know the point for the original audience, then ask “So what?  What does that mean for me, today?”

These guidelines apply to the New Testament Epistles which are often grouped as follows:

Pauline Epistles to Churches

Pastoral Epistles

  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

General Epistles

Part of the Series: Bible Study 101

More: Understanding Genre

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