New Testamament Epistles

  • The Epistles are 1/3 of the New Testament.

  • There are 21.

  • Paul wrote 13.

An epistle is a letter written between two people or groups.  Just as we have customary forms to our letters, the NT Epistles have a typical shape based on ancient letter writing customs.

  • From: (“Paul, and Apostle…)
  • To: (The church inRome…)

  • Greeting: (“Grace and Peace to you…)

  • Discussion: (“First of all….)

  • Closing: (“Now unto Him who…)

Paul’s Letters fall into several categories:

  • I and II Thessalonians – the earliest and concerned with the Return of Jesus.
  • Romans, Galatians, I and II Corinthians – care concerned with explaining the message of Jesus.

  • Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon – were all written when Paul was in prison.  They mix teaching with practical advice.

  • I and II Timothy and Titus – these are Pastoral, in that they give instructions to other pastors on leading the churches. 

Other Writers: 

  • Anonymous – We are not sure who wrote Hebrews.  It was written to Jewish Christians who were scattered around the Roman world. 

  • James was written by the half-brother of Jesus, who was a leader in
    Jerusalem.  It is a practical book, like Proverbs.

  • Peter wrote I and II Peter, these mix teaching on God and practical advice for living in confusing and hard times.

  • John wrote I, II and III John.  These books should a lot like the Gospel of John, and emphasize life in Christ, Love for God and others. 

  • Jude wrote Jude. He is the younger half brother of Jesus.  He warns about False Teachers.

Some Guidelines for Epistles:

  • It is worthwhile comparing the Epistles to the Book of Acts, for that is where we read about Peter, Paul and the Churches.   Knowing some of the situation helps to understand the letters. 

 

  • Letters are usually written because of a specific situation.  They tend to mix doctrinal teaching with personal comments. 

 

  • In general, we need to keep in the mind the original listeners.  The more our context is like theirs, the more the epistles will “apply” to our lives.  The more they are different, the more we will have to draw principles.  (e.g.  Instructions to Slaves; Women’s hair styles; Living in a Pagan world) 
  • Usually the Epistles move from Teaching to Application.  For example, Romans 1-11 is mostly teaching about Sin and Salvation, and 12-16 is about the Christian life 
  • Noticing the structure of the book can be key in understanding it.  For example, it is best to read I Corinthians as Paul answering questions put to him by the Corinthian church.  The statement “Everything is permissible to me” (I Cor 6:12) is placed in quotes in the NIV to show that Paul is interacting with a slogan popular among the people.  We should not make that an absolute rule!
  • Fee and Stewart emphasize that Epistles should be read Paragraph by Paragraph. Most translations suggest paragraph divisions.  These were not in the original, but were added to make sense to us.  But it is best to interpret a verse in the context of its thought unit.

Exercises:

  1. Read I Corinthians 3:10-15.  This has been often used to teach that each individual believer will be judged for how he built his personal life in Christ.  Is that the intended meaning?
  1. Compare Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:15-17 and see what they do and do not say about what should be part of a Worship Service.
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