We are currently going over steps to form a better understanding of the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Last week I wanted us to Understand How A Good Translation is a Huge Help and this week we’ll focus on some tips for reading New Testament Letters well.
Remember when you were young and you had to figure out the correct way to write a letter? There are so many different occasions for letters and it seems like there is a format for everyone. It was this way when the New Testament was being written as well. Letters were a very important way to communicate with everyone.
Did you know 21 of the 27 New Testament books in the Bible are letters? The Four Gospels, Acts and Revelation are not Letters. If you have been in Church much you have probably heard them called Epistles, which is an uncommon word for letter. I want to take a moment and give you the Bible reader some basic tools to help you read a New Testament letter.
Remember the intended audience of the letter: Some letters were written as private letters of correspondence and some letters were written to be shared with the public. For example, Philemon is like a private email sent from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon about another man named Onesimus. The letter titled Ephesians, however, is believed to be a circular and general letter to many churches in the province of Asia. Today, if there were a group of churches organized by a region like the “Northwest” for example the letter of Ephesians would be like a letter to them on their organization’s Facebook page.
Remember the occasion of the letter: Why and to whom was the letter specifically written? What was its intended task? I remember getting a letter from a girl in elementary school saying:
I like you. Do you like me? Would you like to be boyfriend and girlfriend?
Please circle one:
YES NO MAYBE
Determining the occasion and audience of this letter is pretty easy. The occasion of the letter is an inquiry as to the status of my affection for Samantha. The audience is obviously Able and Samantha. All of the letters in the New Testament address specific audiences and situations. Learning to interpret these letters is in large part an exercise in trying to determine who the audience is and why they needed this letter.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart encourage four kinds of notes to take while trying to reconstruct or determine the occasion of a NT letter:
1. What you notice about the recipients themselves (e.g., whether Jew or Greek, whether wealthy or slave); 2. The writer’s attitudes; 3. any specific things mentioned as to the specific occasion of the letter; and 4. the letter’s natural, logical divisions.
Remember the form of the letter: Many New Testament letters are organized around this simple outline.
1. Opening or Greeting (“Howdy this is Paul”)
2. Prayer and Thanksgiving (“Love you guys, praying for you and I hope your doing well”)
3. Body (“I heard about this or that”, “you need to do this or that”, “this is why you need to do this or that”)
4. Some kind of Moral Encouragement. (“Do what’s right and don’t give up”); and
5. Closing (“Don’t forget this or that” and “remember this good thing about God”).
One good example on why remembering the form of a letter is important is in Galatians 1:1–7. Take a moment to read it. Paul is not writing a happy letter. You can tell by how he opens it with an uncharacteristically short greeting and thanksgiving portion of the letter. He jumps right into the body by verse 6! In this letter, even the outline helps us understand its tone and purpose.
Remember cross-referencing will not always help you understand the letters: A letter should be read and understood as a self-contained unit. The point of the letter is within the writing. So if you are reading First Corinthians, don’t go to Exodus to determine the point Paul is trying to make to the Corinthians. Like a puzzle in a box, all you need to put the pieces together is in the letter. The intended picture can become unclear if we bring puzzle pieces in from other boxes to gain understanding.
Remember the figurative elements of letter writing: Scholars Phillip and Leland Ryken remind us that we need to remember the mixed bag of figurative language we find in the letters as well. We need to be ready to interpret metaphors: “Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself” (Ephesians 2:20). We need to be ready to discern rhetorical questions: “What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Romans 8:31). We need to identify a paradox: “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We need to identify when an imaginary listener is being addressed: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). There are proverbs like coin phrases that have a memorable quality and purpose: “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8).
Remember shifts in the flow: Letters have a tendency to have a flow. When reading the New Testament, it is common to forget this. Sometimes there are rabbit trails that can cause you to lose the flow, just like a normal letter. Don’t be discouraged by this. Every thought is important and meaningful because God has inspired it, but you need to focus on paragraphs rather than the verse numbers to read New Testament letters well.
Grab a version that helps you read paragraphs rather than numbers and this will help you keep up with the shifting flow of the letters. Remember that a guy named Stephen Langton, for referencing purposes, added numbers to our Bibles in A.D. 1227. Unfortunately, they can really hurt our Bible reading and comprehension.
Go ahead and read 2 Corinthians 6:11-7:1. Chances are you have a typically formatted modern day Bible made for referencing. Even though Paul is not done with his point between verses on being separate from the world and purifying oneself, it may seem like he is because the reference numbers alongside the text has broken up the flow. Good old Stephen Langton changed the chapter on us before Paul was finished with his train of thought.
If we can become better at identifying the original audience of a New Testament letter, its occasion or purpose of the letter, form or structure, figurative use of language and main point or points that unfold in its flow, we will be much better Bible readers. Remember, it’s not how often we read the Bible, but how well we read it. That makes all the difference.