The New Testament letters were written to address specific situations among specific groups of people. In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss how to discern situational context, what to do when information is missing, and how context helps us apply the wisdom of the letters today.
When we read the letters as locked into a situational context, it doesn’t trap them in that context; that’s the way we’re going to discover how they can speak to other people in other cultures and times. It’s not by neglecting their situational context; it’s actually the opposite. It’s through that context.
In part one (0:00–11:20), Tim and Jon recap the series so far. Many people read the New Testament letters as either a theology handbook or a grab-bag of inspirational verses. This kind of reading causes us to miss the original form and context of the letters, which informs how we read and apply them today.
The letters fit into the unfolding story of the Bible. We understand their purpose better when we understand the shape of the biblical story. The letters also take place at a specific time in history, which is why it’s important to consider the context of the ancient Roman world at the time of Jesus and the apostles.
In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss situational context—looking at the individual situations that prompted Paul or the other apostles to write the letters. This often takes work on our part because we are tasked with piecing the situation together ourselves.
In part two (11:20–24:34), Tim and Jon begin looking at the New Testament letters and the skills needed to reconstruct situational context.
Tim says the first step is to read the letters as a whole and observe when the author mentions the purpose of the letter or the situation of the recipients. Tim and Jon begin with the book of Galatians. After Paul introduces himself and states who the letter is for, he gets right to the point.
I am stunned that you are so quickly abandoning the one who called you by the grace of the Messiah, for a different good news.
Jon lays out several logical follow-up questions that we could ask: “What is this ‘other gospel?’” and “Did Paul think this was a small problem or a major issue?” Tim continues reading in Galatians 1:11-12 to show how Paul felt he needed to defend his ministry.
When we read between the lines to infer situational context, we are practicing “mirror reading.” This method looks at the letters like a mirror reflecting real circumstances from one angle.
We hear more from Paul in Galatians 2:3-6. He talks about how he brought Titus, an uncircumcised Greek, and about the “false brothers” who “spied on our freedom… in order to make us slaves.” Paul is addressing the issue of circumcision and challenging the notion that only those who are Jewish by tradition can be part of the family of God.
Although we might not know specifically what this “other gospel” taught, Tim says we can see clearly by this point that it places ethnic differences above the unity of Jesus’ followers.
In part three (24:34–32:00), Tim and Jon talk about how the situational context in Galatians helps us understand broader theological principles in our own day.
Paul takes the example of ethnic differences and expands upon it in Galatians 3:26-28 to include socio-economic and gender boundary lines. Paul doesn’t give an expounded theology on these points, but we see that Paul’s argument about circumcision applies to a much broader context.
In the same way, modern readers should look at our own situation and examine any boundary lines that divide the family of God. Tim says that reading the situational context of the letters doesn’t trap them in history; rather, it clarifies the argument and helps us apply the principle across cultures and time.
In part four (32:00–40:50), Tim and Jon look at another example: Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In Philippians 1:3-6, Paul thanks the church for their “participation in the good news.” He goes on in verse 27 to encourage the church to live their public lives in a way that reflects the Gospel.
In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul encourages the church to put each other first, and he goes on to share how Jesus embodied this reality. In verse 14, he tells them to stop grumbling, and he then praises Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of selfless service. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul names two women who were leaders of the church and had a dispute. And at the very end of the letter, Paul thanks the church for their generosity in providing for his needs.
By practicing mirror reading, we see that the church at Philippi helped Paul by sending provisions with Epaphroditus. This is how Paul learned of division among some church leaders, which led him to write repeatedly about the need for selfless service.
But not every New Testament letter is easy to mirror read. Tim shares that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are much more difficult to interpret.
In part five (40:50–54:10), Tim and Jon discuss some of the difficulties with mirror reading Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. First, Tim says that 1 and 2 Corinthians are actually the second and fourth letters from Paul to this church. We only have a partial look at Paul's relationship with the Corinthians, and he often mentions details that have a backstory we simply cannot know.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Corinth was filled with division based on theological teachers. Paul writes that “Chloe’s people” informed him, and it prompts his own memories—none of which are given further context. But over the next several chapters, Paul unpacks how the message of Jesus stands in contrast to modern wisdom and eloquence.
Another difficult verse to mirror read is in 1 Corinthians 15. After a long line of thought, Paul says, “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf” (1 Corinthians 15:29)?
Jon shares why verses like this bother him. If the Bible was written to us in a personal sense, then we’re missing necessary context. Tim says that this is a moment that helps to expand our understanding of the Bible. In this passage, Paul’s own reasoning about the resurrection from death is strengthened by what we can presume about this practice. So while we can’t know much about this practice itself, we can see that, to Paul, it reinforces his main argument about the reality of the resurrection.
In part six (54:10–end), Tim and Jon summarize the episode and talk about where they’ll go from here. Reading the entirety of a letter helps us to understand the situational context. In the next episode, Tim and Jon will talk about a few guardrails for mirror reading and discovering situational context in the New Testament letters.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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