Reading the NT Epistles
Introduction and Timeline
Knowing how to read the Epistles is very important, since they make up 21 of the 27 books in
Paul wrote 13 of them.
Ascertaining the dates of the Epistles, their places of origin, and the recipients is in some
instances quite difficult because, unlike modern books, a date is never included, the recipients
are not always mentioned, and the place where the letters were written is not stated.
In most cases, though, we can be fairly confident of an approximate date, and the recipients are
often explicitly named.
Most of these letters have three parts:
o (1) the opening;
o (2) the body; and
o (3) the closing.
The opening of a letter has four different elements:
o (1) the sender (e.g., Paul);
o (2) the recipients (e.g., the Corinthians);
o (3) the salutation (e.g., “grace and peace to you”); and
o (4) a prayer (usually a thanksgiving).
Not all the letters follow this pattern.
The body of the letter, which is the longest section in all the letters, does not follow any
Therefore one needs to trace out the flow of thought in each letter carefully.
o The Pauline letters and Hebrews are marked by careful logical progression.
o In contrast, 1 John repeatedly circles back to the same themes and James writes in a
style that is reminiscent of wisdom literature such as Proverbs, a collection of shorter
teachings on many topics but with no clear overall structure.
The closings in letters vary considerably.
o Paul often includes
commendation of coworkers,
prayer, prayer requests,
an autographed greeting,
and a grace benediction.
Scholars generally affirm the unity of the letters and have noted their careful structure and the
artistry of their unified composition.
It is helpful, therefore, to compose a detailed outline as we study the letters, so that as readers
we are able to trace the flow of the argument.
By doing this we gain a greater understanding of each letter as a whole, since we are prone to
read small sections without having a clear map of the entire document.
Having a good understanding of the entirety of the letter assists significantly in interpretation.
Often one part of the letter (e.g., the closing) casts light on other parts.
The Epistles are distinguished from the Gospels in that they are not narrative compositions.
In terms of redemptive history, they are written on the other side of the cross and resurrection,
so that they typically reflect more deeply on the significance of Christ's death and resurrection
than the Gospels do.
The implications of the fulfillment of God's promises in Jesus Christ are explored and applied to
the readers in the Epistles.
Among the major themes in the Epistles are the following:
o (1) Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God's promises in redemptive history. He is Messiah,
Lord, the Son of God, and the true revelation of God.
o (2) The new life of believers is a gift of God, anchored in the cross and empowered by
the Holy Spirit.
o (3) Christians experience salvation by faith, and faith expresses itself in a transformed
life. The Epistles spend considerable space elaborating on believers' newness of life.
o (4) Believers belong to the restored Israel, the church of Jesus Christ, which must live
out her calling as God's people in a sinful world.
o (5) In this present evil age believers suffer affliction and persecution, but they look
forward with joy to the coming of Jesus Christ and the consummation of their salvation.
o (6) False teachers dangerously subvert the true gospel of Christ.
The Circumstances behind the Letters
The Epistles are not abstract philosophical or theological essays that explain the salvation
accomplished by Jesus Christ.
In most every instance, they are addressed to specific situations facing churches.
o Is clear in reading Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter and Jude that these letters were written
because false teaching had infiltrated the churches.
o In reading 1-2 Corinthians, we realize that Paul wrote in response to various problems in
the Corinthian church.
o Philippians hints that the church had suffered from some type of dissension and lack of
o Colossians responds to some kind of mystical teaching that promises readers fullness of
life apart from, or going beyond, Christ.
In interpreting the Epistles, then, we should try to understand the specific circumstances that
the original readers were facing.
As readers of the epistles today, we face a disadvantage that the first readers did not have, for
they knew firsthand the situation that the letter writer addressed.
o Our knowledge of the circumstances is partial and incomplete.
o Reading the letters can be like listening to half of a telephone conversation—we hear
only the writer’s response to the situation in a particular church.
o Still, we trust that God in his goodness has given us all we need to know in order to
interpret the Epistle adequately to apply them faithfully.