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New Testament Letters

Which New Testament Commands Should We Obey?

Do we have to follow all the commands in the New Testament? Did Paul know his words were inspired? And why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery? Tim and Jon respond to these questions and more in this week’s Question and Response episode.
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Episode Details

July 23, 2020
57 min

Episode Details

July 23, 2020
57 min

Show Notes

QUOTE

Paul often prayed that people in his churches would discern the will of God, and that’s what we’re talking about. Even Paul didn’t think he was giving all the comprehensive commands for people to live by. He wanted people to become mature and learn how to discern God’s will—but not on their own—in the church community they’re embedded in that’s being guided by the Spirit.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The apostles were more comfortable than we are today with quoting directly or indirectly from secondary sources, including the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Enoch.
  • It’s unlikely that the apostles could have guessed how their letters would become part of the unified New Testament that we have today. However, they clearly saw their words and ministry as carrying the same authority as Jesus.
  • Paul often prayed that followers of Jesus would have wisdom to discern the will of God. Paul understood that his words were applying to a specific concept and that deeper principles would require wisdom to apply to all cultures throughout time.

Could it be beneficial to memorize and perform New Testament letters?

Damian from Minnesota (00:36)

I’m a classically trained theater actor and performer, and listening to these episodes has made me wonder if it could be a fruitful practice for churches to have people like me, trained in speaking complex texts in an active, embodied way, read the letters in their entirety in live gatherings. What do you think about this idea? Is it stupid? Any pitfalls or problems you’d foresee?

Tim and Jon love this idea and share about a man they knew named Jason Nightingale who would memorize and perform entire New Testament letters. They both benefited from it and say this sort of practice should be a normal ministry within the Church.

Did Paul craft his letters as meditation literature?

Lauren from Indiana (03:17)

In episode three, Jon expressed some frustration that the theology in the New Testament isn't more thoroughly connected and explicated. It made me wonder whether Paul, as a Hebrew Scripture scholar who understood that it was, as you call it, Hebrew meditation literature—do you think it's possible that he crafted his epistles in that same way so that people would need to hear them and read them over and over to really get the depth of meaning?

Tim reflects that even Peter thought parts of Paul’s letters were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). So was this intentional? Tim thinks the letters are more likely an expression of how Paul’s mind worked. The letters should be read over and over, but the letters are also distinct from Hebrew meditation literature in their tone and design. But Paul’s words were certainly highly influenced by his meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jon shares that his frustration arose out of feeling that the letters were somehow incomplete. However, he now sees that the authors of the New Testament letters were applying the way of Jesus to a specific community, and that understanding helps us learn how to do the same thing in our communities today.

What did Paul include when he said “all Scripture” was God-breathed?

Amy from Ohio (10:11)

2 Timothy 3:16 says: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” What do you think Paul meant when he referred to "all Scripture?" Was he referring to what we would now call the Protestant Old Testament? Or would his understanding of "all Scripture" also have included other books? Also, was he referring to his letter and the letters of other apostles as well?

Tim mentions that this issue has historically divided traditions of Christians. Everyone can agree that at the time of Paul, the New Testament was not a unified whole. Tim shares that in the context of 2 Timothy 3, Paul is referencing the Scriptures Timothy was raised on, which would have been the Hebrew or Greek Old Testament.

Early Christian and Jewish communities had a clear conception of the Scriptures. The core content was agreed upon, but the boundaries were unclear. Paul also read and was influenced by other Jewish writings at the time like the Wisdom of Solomon, but we don’t know whether Paul would have considered this part of “all Scripture.” One key difference is that Paul never directly attributes these writings in the same way that he quotes from the Old Testament.

What about 1 Enoch?

Juan from Texas (15:54)

Since we can see hints of the book of 1 Enoch in both the letters of 2 Peter and Jude, how should we approach these intertestamental books to more effectively read the New Testament letters?

Tim brings up that Paul never directly quotes from Wisdom of Solomon, but Jude quotes directly from 1 Enoch. Modern Christians need to reckon with the fact that Jude and other early Christians had less of an issue referencing these texts. Tim says that these texts have value for us today in illuminating the thought-world of the apostles.

Did Paul know his letters were inspired?

Cathy from Colorado (19:45)

Do you think that Paul or any of the epistle writers knew that when they were writing these letters they would someday be read as Scripture on the same level as Genesis or Deuteronomy or Isaiah? And if they did or didn’t, does that make a difference in how we read the letters?

Daymiris from New Jersey (20:06)

How did these letters and not others get chosen to be in the Bible? Why did some of Paul's mail get chosen, and what happened to the ones that didn't get chosen?

Tim says it’s unlikely the apostles had the categories to think that their letters would be collected as part of a unified whole. However, this is different from whether the apostles thought their letters carried God’s authority. Paul repeatedly ties his words to God’s authority. The apostles saw themselves as emissaries of Jesus who carried his authority and message.

Jon asks whether we would consider the other letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians as Scripture if we found them today. Tim says the letters we have today were the most widely accepted due to their content, and we should trust that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to include the letters we now have.

Tim says that he used to be bothered by the form and missing content of the letters, but he has come to accept that these are part of what it means to have God’s inspired word for us.

Jon reminds us that the Bible is wisdom literature. Paul takes laws from the Old Testament and offers new, modern ways to apply them. In a similar way, we should read the letters in context so that we will be able to apply their wisdom to our lives today. If this is true, does that mean many things in the letters can be dismissed today? Tim examines this in our next question.

Are the letters wisdom or commands?

Mike from Nevada (33:10)

How should the Church today be using the epistles? Are they wisdom? Are they binding law? I assume it’s somewhere in between, and if so, how do we determine which things are prescriptive for all churches of all time, and which things are just timely instruction for that cultural moment? For example, it seems clear that Paul’s instruction about meat sacrificed to idols is timely for the Corinthian church, and churches today rarely, if ever, consider it binding. However, many churches won’t allow women to teach because of Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy. What should the Church be doing with the epistles?

Tim says that the New Testament letters are Scripture. And Paul shares his conviction that Scripture is breathed by God and tells us the full story of what God is doing, so that we can live wisely as the new humanity that God has created.

Paul’s words about meat sacrificed to idols point to a deeper principle about loving your neighbor. The same could be said about women teaching in the Church. Paul talks about how women should pray and prophesy in the Church, and he also says that women should be silent. This should cause us to ask about the bigger picture.

The question becomes: How does what Paul was doing for a 1st century church relate to how we should lead in our churches today? Tim says the way we discover this is by paying attention to context.

Why doesn’t the Bible condemn owning slaves?

Langston from Georgia (39:58)

My question is about slavery, specifically why the New Testament authors didn't just say not to own slaves if you're a Christian, like how they say not to sleep around if you're a Christian, and other things like that. I feel like that would go a lot better with what Jesus said and taught, but I know there's other stuff going on and things I don't fully understand. Also, as a descendant of slaves myself, this is something that keeps coming up, and I’d like to understand more about this.

Tim shares part of his own journey processing this question. The early Church was groundbreaking in their historic and cultural context in issues of social equality. The apostles were working out the implications of the Gospel in their culture—a culture where social change belonged only to the highest level of government. Paul and the other apostles were undermining this system by meeting together and treating one another with equal dignity.

Tim recommends Scot McKnight’s commentary on Philemon as well as a forthcoming book called Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley.

What does it mean to submit to government authorities?

Cody from California (48:20)

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul talks about submitting to government authorities. This feels in line with Jesus saying to give to Caesar what is Caesar's. I think in light of the recent 4th of July and movements to take down systemic racism in America, my head is buzzing with things like, was the American revolution unbiblical? How far do we submit if it's a totally unjust government? How does a command like this vibe with the Israelites destroying other nations in the Old Testament? Or is this something specific to those this letter is written to?

Tim shares that Romans 13:1-7 has been widely used and often abused in Church history because readers will apply the verses without paying attention to how Paul was using it in his context. Paul wrote to Gentiles and messianic Jews in Rome just a decade before the Jerusalem revolt. Jon mentions the phrase “subversive authority” that is unpacked in our Way of the Exile video and Exile podcast series.

Tim says that the attitude that seeks to only read and obey the Bible on a surface reading removes our personal responsibility to learn and use wisdom to live out the Bible in new and creative ways. Paul often prayed that Christians would be able to discern the will of God. He knew that his words didn’t cover the complete wisdom followers of Jesus would need in every culture and age. Our original calling to rule with God in his wisdom is given new life as we seek the wisdom of the Spirit in our modern age.

Additional Resources

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.

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