THE EPISTLES: YOU'VE GOT MAIL
Sorting Through It:
Without a doubt, we are more familiar with the genre of Epistle
than we are with any other literary type in the Bible. An epistle
is nothing more than a letter, and we see letters almost every
day, so we readily recognize the style and format. With only a
few, slight differences, ancient letters are very similar in form
to those of today.
Thousands of letters have survived from antiquity, and from them
we see that the regular letters of that day and the biblical
epistles follow the same standard format:
A. Addressor (the writer's name; example: "Paul, a
servant ... ")
B. Addressee (the recipient's name; example: "To all who are
in Rome ... ")
C. Greeting (example: "Grace to you and peace ... ")
2. Thanksgiving or blessing (example: "I thank my God ... for you
all ... ")
3. Body of the letter
A. Final greeting
B. Benediction (example: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
be with you all.")
Nineteen of the 21 Epistles in the New Testament contain most or
all of the above elements. Hebrews and 1 John are the two
exceptions; they lack most or all of these elements and are more
like sermons than letters.
Hebrews and 1 John aside, variations in the standard format can
sometimes be a clue to the author's intent. For example, Paul
omits the thanksgiving section in his letter to the Galatians.
Evidently, other teachers were persuading the Galatians to return
to the works of the law and abandon the gospel of grace that Paul
had preached to them. Paul seems so troubled that he goes
straight from the letter's opening to a strong condemnation of
those who "want to pervert the gospel of Christ" (1:7). Paul has
nothing to be thankful about concerning the turn of events in the
churches of Galatia.
In contrast. Paul is quite thankful when he writes to Philemon.
In the thanksgiving section. Paul praises Philemon for the love
he has shown to God's people. Then. in the body of the letter,
Paul asks Philemon to do him a favor: Receive back the runaway
slave, Onesimus, with the same kind of love that Paul has just
praised Philemon for having. How could Philemon refuse?
In this way, the opening and thanksgiving sections of the
Epistles, especially Paul's, set the tone for what follows in the
body of the letter. Always pay attention to how the author
identifies himself and his addressees in the opening and to what
he says in the thanksgiving or blessing section, if one is
In addition to having the same form as ancient letters, the New
Testament Epistles also served the same basic function as their
secular counterparts. Generally speaking, the purpose of ancient
letters was to 1) maintain contact, 2) provide information, or 3)
make requests. The Epistles were no exception. Paul and other
apostles wrote letters to stay in touch with the churches they
had established around the Mediterranean. They also wrote to give
information concerning doctrine, Christian practice and behavior,
questions, and disputes. And they even wrote to make requests,
such as Paul's request of Philemon to receive Onesimus; his
request of Timothy to bring his cloak, books, and parchments; and
his request of the church in Rome to receive him when he visits
and to help support him on a pending missionary journey to Spain.
In regard to the purpose of the Epistles, there is another key
factor that we must keep in mind: these letters are occasional
documents. By occasional, we mean that they arose out of specific
occasions or circumstances in the first-century church, such as
improper behavior and doctrinal error that needed correcting, and
questions submitted by a congregation that needed answering. Most
of the occasions for writing were initiated by the recipients of
the letters. For example, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in response to
a number of questions that the Corinthian church had sent to him
(1 Corinthians 7:1). On the other hand, Romans, Philemon, and
James seem to have been initiated by the senders.
It is precisely the occasional nature of the Epistles that gives
us the most trouble in understanding them. We have the writer's
responses, but we don't have the exact problems or questions he
was addressing. It's like listening to only one end of a
telephone conversation. In the first century, the sender and
receiver both knew the occasion for the letter. The dynamic was a
firsthand experience: Sender - Letter - Receiver. In the
twenty-first century, the dynamic has become a secondhand
experience at best: Sender - Letter - Original Receiver - Us
Today. In essence, we are reading someone else's mail.
Therefore, it is important for us to try to recover the original
occasion - to hear the other side of the conversation, so to
speak. The FIRST step is to listen very carefully to what the
writer says within the literary context of the letter. Pay close
attention to his choice of words, the flow of his presentation,
the logic of his arguments. Also notice how he describes his
readers or delineates their concerns or responds to opponents. In
short, the literary context is your primary source for clues
about the original situation. But here's the hard part: Don't
muddy the water with your own concerns. The questions we so often
want answered are not necessarily those asked in the first
century. So make a deliberate effort to focus on the specific
concerns of the writer and his readers. Read from their point of
SECOND, investigate the historical background of the letter. Who
wrote it? When was it written? Who were the readers? Where did
they live and under what circumstances? What issues or problems
were they facing? What political, social, or religious factors
were affecting their lives? Note especially any competing
religious views and movements.
THIRD, examine the cultural setting. What customs were involved?
What social and religious norms governed their thinking and
behavior? Were the readers influenced by any ancient taboos or
superstitions? According to first-century protocol and etiquette,
what was considered appropriate or inappropriate in terms of such
lifestyle issues as dress, hairstyle, demeanour, occupations,
social or ethnic classes, and the roles of men, women, children,
and slaves, etc.?
As with the literary context, look for clues about the historical
and cultural settings within the letter itself. Also, consult the
book of Acts for parallel information about the work of the
apostles, the churches they established, and the issues they
faced. After exhausting all of the relevant biblical material, we
may then need to fill in the gaps by consulting an updated Bible
dictionary or commentary, or both. And even after exhausting all
of the above, there may still be areas of uncertainty. So, when
discussing matters where the available information is incomplete,
remember that charity and tolerance are always in order.
After we have identified the occasion or occasions that prompted
a letter - by examining its literary, historical, and cultural
settings - we must apply its instructions. It is obvious that the
occasional nature of the Epistles makes much of their content
historically and culturally relative - that is, time-specific to
the first century. How, then, are we to apply this material
today? Should we assume that every statement or instruction was
intended for Christians of all times? Should we adopt
first-century culture as the divine norm for today? Or should we
just pick and choose, applying the instructions we're comfortable
with and ignoring the rest?
Christians through the centuries have struggled with these
questions of cultural relativity. Many of the divisions among
Christians today in doctrine and practice stem from the different
ways in which they have approached this subject. The
disagreements cover a broad spectrum - everything from the
practice of baptizing for the dead (based on a single comment by
Paul) to the role of women in the church. The root of many of
these disagreements lies not with the Epistles themselves but
with the presuppositions about them and the failure to recognize
their occasional nature.
An informed approach will utilize a careful study of the
literary, historical, and cultural settings of the Epistles to
separate the timeless principles and teachings from the
occasion-specific framework. In so doing, we will be able to
recognize that 1) some of the first-century content has little or
no personal application for us today, such as Paul's request for
his cloak, books, and parchments; 2) some has direct application
to us today, just as it did in the first century, such as all
inherently moral instruction; and 3) some of the first-century
situations no longer have direct equivalents today, such as
eating meat that had been sacrificed before an idol. But the
principle of not causing offense, as taught in relation to that
original situation, can be transferred and applied to a genuinely
comparable situation today.
Genres of the Epistles:
Some of the more significant types are listed below.
is an author's verbal defense or explanation of his beliefs or
conduct. Example: the Epistle to the Galatians in which Paul
defends his preaching of the gospel of grace.
is an author's first person account of his life, credentials,
mission, etc. Paul often uses autobiography to describe his call
to be an apostle or his sufferings for the sake of the gospel.
Example: Galatians 1 and 2.
Creed or hymn:
is a summary of Christian doctrine, usually expressed in the form
of an ancient poem, hymn, or a confession of faith. Many are
Christological in content. Examples: 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy
2:11-13; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20.
List of vices and virtues:
is a series of qualities or traits indicating what is considered
moral or immoral from a Christian perspective. Jews and pagans
often compiled similar lists. Examples: Galatians 5:19-23; Romans
1:29-31; 1 Corinthians 6:9,10.
is a set of instructions governing the relationships between
members of the ancient household: husbands and wives, parents and
children, masters and slaves. Examples: Colossians 3:18-4:1;
is a listing of qualifications and instructions for church
leaders: bishop (overseer), elder (presbyter), and deacon
(server). Examples: 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 4:11-6:19; Titus 1:5-3:11.
is an admonition, usually ethical in nature. Exhortations often
occur in an eclectic series referred to as a paraenesis, or
homiletic exhortation. A paraenesis is usually not part of the
author's theme or purpose for writing but is additional advice
that the author gives as an aside to the main flow of the text.
Examples: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:22; Ephesians 4:1-6:20.
is the epistle writer's explanation or interpretation of an Old
Testament passage, which he uses to support a point or theme.
Examples: In Galatians 3 Paul uses a series of literal
interpretations and offers an allegorical interpretation in
is a section, usually following the opening of an epistle, in
which the writer thanks God for some personal quality or action
of the letter's recipient. The section may also offer a blessing
or prayer wish for the recipient. Examples: 1 Corinthians 1:4-9;
1 Thessalonians 1:2-10.
is the closing blessing pronounced on the letter's recipient or
on the Lord himself. Sometimes the benediction may also include a
doxology - an expression of praise to God. Examples: Romans
16:25-27; Hebrews 13:20-25; Jude 24, 25.
Guidelines for interpreting the Epistles
1. Read through an epistle in one sitting. This is the way
epistles were meant to be read. Those addressed to churches or
groups were originally read aloud in congregational meetings. Get
the big picture before examining the parts. Note the recipients,
the occasion of the letter, and its flow of thought and logical
2. Recognize that the Epistles are occasional documents. This has
several implications for interpretation:
a) Because a passage was addressed to a specific recipient
at a specific time and place about a specific subject, it
had a specific meaning to that recipient. Therefore, a text
cannot mean something today that would have been foreign to
the original author and recipient. This principle may not
always lead us to what the text means, but it does rule out
what it cannot mean.
b) Their occasional nature, of necessity, makes their
content culturally relative. Therefore, distinguish between
the original occasions that have no modern equivalence,
those that have a direct equivalence, and those that have a
different but genuinely comparable equivalence in principle.
c) In regard to cultural relativity, distinguish between the
essential core of the Bible's message and those things that
are peripheral to it. Core teachings transcend culture; they
don't change with time (teachings like the fall, redemption,
the final consummation). Peripheral matters are more closely
connected to culture; they vary from culture to culture and
change with time (things like dress, cosmetics, jewelry,
worshipping styles or practices, recreational activities,
food and drink, etc.). Peripheral matters are not in and of
themselves moral issues; they only become so by their use or
abuse in given contexts. In recognizing this principle, one
guards against turning religious custom into the core
message and changing the core message to suit the culture.
d) The occasional nature of the Epistles means we must be
content with the text's response to the issues of the
original author and readers, rather than impose our issues
on the text.
e) The occasional nature also means that the Epistles are
not a complete collection of Christian theology and doctrine
from A to Z. They, of course, contain theology, but it is
task-theology, written to respond to the task at hand, that
is, the specific occasion that prompted the letter. In
several letters, Paul himself states that he delivered the
sum of his teachings to the churches when he was with them
in person. Unfortunately for us, he has no need to repeat
all when writing to them. His letters primarily clarify,
expand, or remind his readers of his oral teachings.
Therefore, we have a sufficient word for what we need but
not an exhaustive word for all we want. This means that we
must humbly recognize limitations in our theological
understandings, be tolerant in legitimately disputable
matters, and avoid dogmatism on peripheral issues.
Structure and genre identification:
Read the short letter to Philemon, and match its verses to the
corresponding components of the structural outline of an epistle.
A. Addressor B. Addressee C. Greeting
2. Thanksgiving or blessing
3. Body of the letter
A. Final greeting B. Benediction
What is the occasion that prompted this letter?
Given that slavery is no longer an accepted institution in modern
society, how are we to understand the cultural-specific
relationship between master and slave in this letter?
Does the cultural-specific occasion of this letter have a direct,
modern application, a genuinely comparable application in
principle, or no direct application? Explain your answer.
Determine if the following occasion-specific texts have a direct,
modem application, a genuinely comparable application in
principle, or no application at all. Also, explain the criteria
you used in determining your answers.
A. Colossians 3:12-15
B. Colossians 3:16
C. 1 Timothy 5:23
D. 2 Timothy 3:10-17
E. Romans 16:16
F. 1 Timothy 2:8-10
G. 1 Timothy 2:11,12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, compared to
H. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
TO BE CONTINUED