How Should We Read the Epistles of the New Testament?I was just eight years old at the time, but I still remember the day an irritated elderly lady came storming out of her house to yell at me. I was walking home from our three-room rural elementary school, goofing off with a couple of friends, when I opened the street-side mailbox at a random house and pretended to rifle through my mail—except it wasn’t my mail. It was the elderly lady’s mail. And she did not think my antics were one bit amusing.
Has it ever occurred to you while reading one of the epistles (letters) in the New Testament that you’re reading someone else’s mail? In a way we are, and in a way we aren’t. For two millennia Christians have read the 20 New Testament epistles as Holy Scripture, as the word of God for us. At the same time, the epistles were personal writings produced for specific people or groups of people, often responding to their particular needs. So we cannot understand the epistles unless we take the effort to discover what lies behind the words.
Some letters read like highly crafted treatises, like the magisterial epistle to the Romans. Others, like 1 and 2 Corinthians, are intricately connected with the needs of a particular group, the believers in the church in Corinth. They had evidently written the apostle Paul and asked specific questions, because he says in 1 Corinthians 7:1, “Now for the matters you wrote about… ” and then goes on at some length, responding point by point. Earlier in that same letter, Paul was responding to certain oral reports he’d gotten about what was going on in that complicated and troubled church.
A wide range of circumstances prompted the writing of the epistles. Disorder in a church, the threat of false teaching, trepidation about the end of the world, confusion about death, controversy over religious practices, ambiguity about ethics, weakness in leadership. Some epistles were meant as a word of encouragement or just a way of reconnecting. The books of Hebrews and Romans offer an expansive theological perspective. Some letters focus on a particular theological point: grace in the case of Galatians, Christ in the case of Colossians, the church in the case of Ephesians. Taken as a whole, these 20 letters add to the Canon of Holy Scripture a multifaceted, real-life description of both faith and behavior.
If you’re going to linger in a particular epistle, you will benefit from reading the article about that particular New Testament book in a good Bible dictionary or in the introduction of a commentary. You will get the essential features: who wrote it, to whom it was written, the occasion of its writing, the date, etc. If you are reading an epistle more quickly, the notes in a good study Bible will give you the important facts in brief.
It’s best to mediate on some parts of the epistles. For instance, the amazing songs and creeds and prayers embedded in some of them. Other parts of the epistles have complicated details that require the help of Bible linguists, historians, archaeologists, and the like, which we will find in Bible commentaries. If we get the help to understand what “food sacrificed to idols” means in 1 Corinthians 8, we’ll be able to learn the lesson there about Christian conscience and freedom. And we cannot understand the epistle of Philemon unless we learn something about slavery in the first century.
Epistles are one genre of Scripture that are best read in long form. Ignore the chapter and verse numbers, which were added to the biblical text in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Reading an epistle straight through is an entirely different experience from reading a few verses at a time. Think of it this way: If you went to your mailbox today and received a multiple-page letter from a beloved relative, you’d read it straight through. You wouldn’t read one paragraph today, another tomorrow, and so on. When someone asks you, “Did you get my email yesterday?” try saying, “Yes, and I’m savoring it by reading one sentence a day,” and see what response you get. No, we read letters well when we read them naturally.
Reading Scripture in context is a sign of respect for God as much as reading a letter from your mother straight through is a sign of love. The reason, of course, is comprehension. Details at the conclusion of the epistle of Hebrews make the most sense if the start of the epistle is still rattling around in your mind.
The epistles of the New Testament may not have been addressed to us, but they are for us. And we will cherish them as much as—and more than—any letter of love or encouragement a friend ever sent to us.