In the New Testament, there are 21 letters written by early Christian leaders to communities of Jesus' followers in the ancient Roman world. A wise reading of these letters involves learning about their historical context. Who were the letters written to, where did the recipients live, and what prompted sending the letter? In this video we explore the different layers of historical context with these letters, so that we can better understand the wisdom they still have to offer.Video Details
Can We Take the New Testament Letters, or Epistles, at Face Value?
When we read the New Testament letters (also known as the epistles), it can be easy to see ourselves on the pages. We read about Christians trying to figure out how to live well, get along with each other, and love God. We can relate to verses like “love one another” (Romans 13:8) and “forgive as God forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). So it gets tricky when we come to sections that don’t seem to line up with our own experiences. How can we apply Scripture to our lives when it talks about things like new moon festivals (Colossians 2:16), head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:6), or a command to bring Paul his cloak (2 Timothy 4:13)? Can we take these epistles at face value as being written to us, or do we have a long and difficult process of study ahead? Or is there something in between?
Epistles: Written to Me or Written for Us?
Some have a view that if the Bible says it, that’s good enough for them──truth to be taken literally. And this view often comes from a place of high respect for Scripture. That respect is a great starting point. However, an important next step is to see that these letters are works of literature. This means thinking about who wrote them, who received them, when, and why.
While we as Jesus followers might feel “closest” to the New Testament audiences, the original recipients are still far removed from us in time, place, and culture. Reading these letters as if they’re written directly to modern Christians can leave opportunities to miss the fuller, richer meaning of the text. Let’s look at a few examples.
I Can Do All Things Through Christ?
Philippians 4:13 is a great example of this. Paul writes, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” This verse is easy to adopt as a motivational mantra or use as a pep talk for personal challenges. But Paul was specifically writing about an attitude of contentment during times of great hardship. Understanding this context may seem like a loss if we’re used to applying Philippians 4:13 in a certain way. But when we look at Paul’s life and the challenges he encountered, and when we read about the encouragement Jesus gave him to endure hard things with joy, we are engaging with the text in a way that more closely mirrors how the first audience did.
Put on the Armor of God?
Another example is the “armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6:10-17. It’s almost certain that the church in Ephesus recognized the messianic references Paul uses in this epistle, showing that the armor is about “putting on Christ” and not about us mustering up our own righteousness or faith. The applications to our lives are stronger when we see these passages in context. They may not have been written to us, but we can certainly learn a lot from eavesdropping on these letters! So where do we go from here?
Three Elements of a Full Experience of the Epistles
An optimal approach to Scripture incorporates the work of study, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work of community. Let’s take a look at each one of these.
1. The work of study deepens our understanding of the Epistles
Learning to examine the Bible as literature is one of the best ways to respect the literary genius behind the text. This might seem like a tall order. Do we all need Bible college degrees? Are we going to have to learn ancient languages? Is it okay for us to simply open up the New Testament and dive in without training? Take heart! It may seem like the Bible is complex and layered, but it’s because of this complexity that we can find truth, encouragement, and wisdom at any level. We can all grow in our skill and knowledge, but we’re invited to jump into the text no matter where we are. The New Testament letters are a great place to hone our ability to study the Bible, whether we are new to the work of study or have been at it for years. One idea is to invest in a Bible that’s specifically labeled a study Bible. These Bibles are full of helpful tools that offer context, outlines, and hyperlinks to the common themes of Scripture. BibleProject’s How to Read the Bible playlist is also a great place to start or grow your ability to study well.
2. The Holy Spirit shapes our reading of the Epistles
The New Testament epistles are a popular choice for daily, focused reading––a ritual of time and attention on Scripture with an intent to gain guidance and enrichment. Sometimes, a verse or a passage leaps off the page as though it applies directly to our personal situation. In these times, we might feel encouraged or directed towards a certain choice or attitude. The Holy Spirit often brings verses or passages to light in a way that seems personal. These are good times to commit Scripture to memory, process in prayer, or take note by writing the reference down in a journal.
3. Community influences our application of the Epistles
When we approach Scripture with curiosity about how it was intended to be read, there’s a better chance of understanding it well. Paul ends 1 Thessalonians with the instruction, “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.” Gathering with other Christians to engage Scripture is how the original audiences of these letters heard the passages! We can incorporate community by meeting with others to go through the Bible together or by finding a study book or commentary written by someone who has put in hard work and has insight to share. By hearing about how others wrestle with Scripture, we can develop our own tools and abilities. It’s helpful when Bible study groups first explore the question, “what did this passage mean to its original audience?” before they ask, “how does this verse relate to my life?” This line of questioning leads to a deeper, better application to us personally and in community.
Bringing it Together
When we open up the letters written to the churches and individuals of the New Testament, we are participating in a story that seems both far away and relevant. While the letters weren’t written directly to you and me, we can have confidence in God’s wisdom emerging from the pages today. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the biblical authors is faithful to give us insight as we read. The benefit of community brings us closer to the context of the letters and encourages us to press on when Scripture seems distant from our modern lives. And with the work of study, we can expect thoughtful literature as we learn to read the Bible well. Incorporating these three elements into our approach, instead of leaning on just one, will go a long way toward a fuller, richer experience of Scripture.
Be encouraged to open Paul’s letter to the Colossians on your own tomorrow morning, perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand. Find a few friends who will meet weekly to go through the book of Romans together. Invest in study tools that will help you to dive deeper into the book of Hebrews. No matter where you are in your engagement of the Bible, the New Testament letters will inform and enlighten you.
Missy Takano is a missionary with TeachBeyond at the Black Forest Academy in Kandern, Germany, where she lives with her husband and two kids. She holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Multnomah University with an emphasis on New Testament Greek. She loves to wrestle with Scripture until it lives in her in a way that she can communicate it with others richly.