Much of the wisdom of the New Testament letters can be missed when we don’t consider the literary context of these letters. Learn more in this video.
Jon: Near the end of the Bible are twenty-one letters from leaders of the early Jesus movement. They were written to small church communities in cities throughout the Roman world.
Tim: Now, writing letters took a lot of effort and money in the ancient world. And so each one was carefully crafted from beginning to end, and that means we should read them as one whole literary work.
Jon: So let’s talk about how to read New Testament letters in their literary context.
Jon: Of all the early Christian leaders, the apostle Paul wrote the most letters. We have thirteen in the New Testament. I often imagine him alone in his study, writing long theological essays.
Tim: But Paul didn’t work or write alone. In fact, he often names people from his team who helped him produce the letters.
Jon: Oh right, like Timothy or Silas1.
Tim: Yeah. Paul was constantly with his missionary teammates on the road working out ideas as they talked, debated, and taught together. And Paul would have collected speeches, poems, and prayers in notebooks.
Jon: Like the ones he mentions in his second letter to Timothy2.
Tim: Right. And so Paul would get the right teammates in a room and start pulling together old and new material. Then they would hire a professional scribe and start creating drafts until they were satisfied with how it worked together as one whole.
Jon: Then mail it off!
Tim: Yeah. The letter would be given to a trusted teammate, who would also be given instructions on how to perform it before the recipients.
Jon: Perform it? Like read it aloud?
Tim: Yeah. Most people back then didn’t read. And so Paul mentions this more than once in his letters, that they were designed to be heard3, which is why they often sound like written speeches.
Jon: So it’s important for us to read and listen to these letters from beginning to end too, so we can appreciate how each part contributes to the whole.
Tim: Exactly. Now every culture has its own practice for how to organize a letter. And in the first century, there was a standard format. You have the opening, which names the author and then the receiver, then a prayer of thanks or a greeting, then comes the body of the letter.
Jon: This part is the main reason for writing in the first place—what the receiver is supposed to know or do something about.
Tim: Right. And then comes the conclusion, which could have greetings, travel plans, a final request, or a prayer.
Jon: So it’s helpful to see how a New Testament letter breaks down into these parts.
Tim: Right. So let’s take for example Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Jon: Okay. There’s the opening and then a long thanksgiving prayer to God4.
Tim: And in the center of this opening prayer, Paul introduces the main idea of the whole letter. It’s about God’s plan.
Jon: “To unite together all things in heaven and earth, in Messiah Jesus.”5 But what does that mean?
Tim: Well, as we move into the body of the letter, Paul is going to repeat and unpack this rich idea.
Jon: Right, but in the body of the letter, it’s easy to get lost and lose track of what Paul’s even talking about.
Tim: Totally. I mean, the letter to the Ephesians has about three thousand words.
Jon: And that one’s short compared to his other letters!
Tim: But remember, Paul wrote these letters to be heard aloud. And so he usually gives clues to the progression of thought with transition words, like “therefore,” or “because of this,” or “so then.”
Jon: Okay. So the body of Ephesians breaks down to a lot of paragraphs, but they all begin with these transition words.
Tim: Right. And each paragraph has its own main idea. So the first one is about how the risen Jesus is King of everything and everyone6. And as for you, that is, non-Israelites, you’re now included in the new humanity God is creating7. Therefore, God’s one new family consists of people from all nations8.
Jon: So God has unified a new humanity in Jesus. That’s the core idea here!
Tim: Right, and that theme unites all the paragraphs in chapters 1-3. Then we come to chapter 4, and we get a really significant transition.
Tim: Yeah. That transition word is actually a hinge between the first and second half of the letter. God has unified a new humanity in Jesus.
Jon: Therefore… what?
Tim: Great question. Let’s keep going, and we’ll summarize the paragraphs of chapter 4. God’s one new humanity is really diverse9, so we must live together as God’s new creation10, and that, therefore, requires that we learn how to love and forgive each other because we are one11.
Jon: This section is all about living in unity.
Tim: Right, and so you can see now how all the parts of the letter fit together into one flow of thought. God has unified a new humanity in Jesus. Therefore, live in a way that fosters that unity.
Jon: Seeing it broken down like this is really helpful. It’s like a roadmap, so I don’t get lost.
Tim: Right. And you can read every New Testament letter this way. Break it down into smaller parts to see the message of each paragraph.
Jon: And then trace repeated ideas and transition words to see how they all connect back together.
Tim: Then you’ll see how the apostles brilliantly combined all of the pieces into a literary whole that spoke to Jesus’ first followers and can still speak to us today.