Frequently Asked Questions – How to Read a New Testament Epistle

This blog is the fourth in a series of posts on questions that I get asked all the time in my role as a New Testament professor. This series will run through the summer of 2017. The first post on “Judgment, Paul, and Jesus” can be read HERE.

At Charleston Southern University I am blessed and humbled to be able to teach New Testament Survey every semester, and I get a constant stream of questions about the gospel, the Bible, and Christian practice. I am excited to get to share some of those questions and answers with you.

FAQ #3: How Do We Read a New Testament Letter?

When we open our Bibles to one of the letters in the New Testament, we should always take a minute to remind ourselves of what we are reading. We are reading the Word of God, God’s revelation to us in these last days through his Son by way of the Apostles. We can never forget that. We should also remind ourselves, however, that we are reading a letter—a letter that was written by a person to another group of people, a long time ago, and as the result of a particular occasion. We have to capture both of those realities about the Scripture to read it the way the Bible wants us to read it.

Here are some principles of which I remind my students, to help them understand the New Testament letters as both God’s Word for us and as first-century letter.[1] Some of this sounds a little technical, but if you’ll stick with me, I think you’ll see that it is mostly common sense.

The letters in the New Testament are a combination of personal correspondence, public letter, and theological treatise. We should never read one of the New Testament letters and forget that we are reading a letter that had a human author, an occasion, and recipients. But none of the New Testament letters are purely personal correspondence intended for just those people, way back then. The letters in the New Testament are also open letters from God through His Apostles to God’s Church at all times and in all places. We must balance both as we read.

— Some parts of the New Testament letters are personal correspondence. When we encounter these, we must interpret them as such. They are, however, still God’s Word, so we can draw principles for Christian living from them. For example, no reader of the Bible who reads Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:21: “Do your best to come to me before winter” interprets that to mean that God wants all Christians to head off to Rome before winter. Of course they don’t. Those words are personal correspondence between Paul and Timothy at a particular time and for a particular occasion. Paul wanted to see Timothy one more time before he was executed and knew that if Timothy didn’t come quickly, that would never happen. Those words were written from one specific person to another specific person, two thousand years ago. In the same way, when Paul tells Timothy to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach” in 1 Timothy 5:23, we don’t take that to be Paul’s commentary on social drinking. It is one friend telling another friend (who apparently has frequent health problems) to take care of himself. Fortunately, these personal correspondences are pretty easy to spot, and we should be hesitant to read them any other way than as personal correspondence without a compelling reason arising from the text itself.

— Nearly all parts of the New Testament letters, however, fall into the category of public letter. If you were to open the New York Times to the op-ed section and see the headline, “An Open Letter to Donald Trump,” it wouldn’t take you long to figure out that this letter was written in such a way that it was designed to be read by a much larger audience than President Trump himself. Likewise, though you may not be the immediate audience for the New Testament epistles, you are ultimately part of Paul’s intended audience. You are not, for example, a Christian living in Corinth two thousand years ago struggling with the issue of meat offered to idols, but you are a member of Christ’s Church struggling with doubtful practices. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were intentionally written to both them and you for then and for now, so you can confidently read them as God’s word to you, not by accident but by the author’s clear intention. This is why Paul instructed the churches to circulate his letter among themselves (Colossians 4:16). He wanted all the churches, even those who were not the direct recipients of his letters, to read them. Paul wanted you to read them as well.

— And, of course, most obviously, the New Testament letters are theological treatises. For theology it matters very little to us when or to whom God reveals Himself, because theological truths transcend time and audience. When Paul tells ancient Greeks living in modern-day Turkey about God, man, Jesus, sin, sex, love, righteousness, and salvation, what he says to them back then is still just as true for us today. The theological statements in the New Testament epistles require very little “translating” for a modern audience.

If my four suggestions above hold true, then we must always carefully and precisely move from the particular situations in the New Testament letters to modern, universal application. Very often, we find ourselves going to the New Testament letters in search of an answer to modern questions. And in the New Testament we don’t always find a direct answer to our question, but we do find an answer to a similar or related question. We should then try to carefully search the text to see in what ways our situation is like theirs, and the degree to which we can establish that one is like the other, is the degree to which we can confidently apply the Scripture to our situation. For example, it is highly unlikely that you will encounter Christians in America who are struggling over whether or not it is permissible to eat meat that has been offered to an idol in a temple. But you will find Christians struggling over all sorts of modern cultural issues that are similar enough to the “meat offered to idols” texts written by Paul to get our attention. That is God still speaking to us today on these issues through His Word. Since, however, our issue is never exactly like theirs, we must be exceedingly humble, careful, and precise as we apply the Scripture to these modern issues.


[1] All of the principles that follow are drawn, in some form, from the excellent resources I wrote about in my last blog.

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