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New Testament Letters

Context is Crucial

In this live episode, Tim and Jon interact with an audience in Dallas, Texas for the launch of a new series on how to read the New Testament letters. Letters make up much of the New Testament, and knowing how to view and interpret them is essential for seeing the story of Jesus woven through the New Testament.
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Episode Details

June 15, 2020
55 min

Episode Details

June 15, 2020
55 min

Show Notes

QUOTE

The letters actually become easy and accessible only when we ignore their literary form. And when we honor their literary form, all of a sudden we have a way to account for all of what’s there, not just some of what’s there. This is the swirl of challenges that comes with reading the New Testament letters.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The New Testament is made up of 27 literary works, and almost half are letters. The 13 New Testament letters make up a large share of most teaching and preaching today.
  • It’s important to remember that the New Testament letters are just that—letters. This leads us to ask important questions about their context.
  • Asking key questions about the context of ancient letters in four areas will help us make sense of common and difficult passages.

Reading the New Testament Letters

In part one (0:00–35:45), Tim and Jon begin a new series on how to read the New Testament letters. This episode was recorded live at Munger Place Church in Dallas, Texas and features audience interaction at the end of the episode.

Tim shares that the Greek word for letter is epistle. Often, ancient letters were short and written to individuals. However, the New Testament epistles are often much longer and written to whole communities.

The New Testament contains 27 literary works, and almost half are letters. These letters often feel approachable, so a disproportionate share of attention is given to these biblical texts.

The New Testament letters are just that—letters. They’re not generalized theological essays on Christian ethics. They arose from a specific cultural and relational context and addressed the issues of their day. The letters all contain background information that is not explicitly mentioned. Tim and Jon illustrate this point by running a live experiment with the audience.

Jon expresses his frustration at the nature of letters. Why didn’t God just give us detailed theological essays? Why letters, with their lack of context and potential for misunderstanding? Tim shares that God has chosen the letters to speak a divine word to all generations, and their literary form is an important part of the message.

Tim shares a few examples of common verses from the letters.

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 2:8-9
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

1 John 4:7
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

These verses are popular, easy to understand, and often read out of context. In contrast, Tim shares a few passages that are much more difficult to understand outside of context.

1 Timothy 5:23
Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

1 Peter 5:14
Greet one another with a kiss of love.

1 Corinthians 7:29
From now on those who have wives should live as if they have none.

1 Corinthians 11:14
Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him...

1 Corinthians 14:34
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.

Tim says that the letters become accessible only when we ignore their literary form. But when we honor that form, we can take account of all of the context, including content that is difficult to understand today.

Audience Question and Response

In part two (35:45–end), Tim and Jon answer audience questions on the conversation so far.

What is the advantage for having part of Scripture in the form of letters?

Tim shares first that the letters aren’t just theology and ethics; they give us an important window into how leaders related to the communities they served. Second, even though we wish we had the theology more clearly spelled out, the fact that the Bible often isn’t what we want should be instructive.

How do you reconcile James 2 (“faith without works is dead”) and Ephesians 2 (“by grace you have been saved through faith”)?

Tim shares that it’s possible that the New Testament authors use the same words with different meanings depending on their context. For example, James is likely bringing clarification to an intra-apostolic conversation about Paul’s words.

How do we know the difference between New Testament commandments that apply to us and those that were meant only for their original audience’s context?

Tim says that the uncharitable way to say it is that every tradition of the Church in every generation picks and chooses. The question then becomes defining what criteria is used for choosing. Tim shares how this is illustrated in the question of women speaking in church as well as instructions about slavery.

How can we know what implicit references are being made within a New Testament letter or other biblical text?

The apostles were immersed in the Scriptures, which led them to sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly draw upon moments from the Hebrew Scriptures. Tim gives an illustration from Philippians 1:19 where Paul is indirectly quoting from the Greek translation of Job 9. Paul sees his current situation in the same way Job did in the passage he quotes. Though Paul is likely aware of this connection, he doesn’t have to work at it. It’s ingrained in his writing.

A wise reading of the New Testament letters will seek to understand their ancient context. Tim shares that there are four layers of context he finds helpful for understanding New Testament letters.

  1. Where do these letters fit in the broader storyline of the Bible?
  2. What is the original Jewish, Greek, or Roman cultural context?
  3. What is the situational context that prompted this letter?
  4. What is the unified message of the letter as a whole?

These are four of the points we’ll explore further in our upcoming episodes on how to read the New Testament letters.

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents
  • Memory Gospel by Moby

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.

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