Interpreting the Epistles

Written by Michael Vlach.

I.  Introduction to the Epistles

 

A.    What are epistles?  Epistles are letters written to an individual, group, or public audience. Some have made a distinction between ancient letters and epistles. Technically, a letter was written to a specific person or person and not for the public in general. In contrast, an epistle was an artistic literary form that was intended for the public (see Fee and Stuart, 46). For our purposes we will consider all books of the New Testament as epistles except for Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Revelation.

 

B.      Biblical epistles.  The epistles of the Bible include 1 and 2 Corinthians; Romans; Galatians; Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; Philemon; 1 and 2 Thessalonians; 1 and 2 Timothy; Titus; Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude.

 

C.     Elements of biblical epistles

 

1.      name of the writer (ex. Paul)

2.      name of recipients (ex. church of God in Corinth)

3.      greeting (ex. Grace and peace to you. . . )

4.      prayer, wish, or thanksgiving (ex. I always thank God for you. . . )

5.      body of letter

6.      final greetings and farewell

 

D.    Reason for epistles  All epistles are occasional documents—they arose because of special situations in the first century. “Almost all of the New Testament letters were occasioned from the reader’s side (Philemon and perhaps James and Romans are exceptions). Usually the occasion was some kind of behavior that needed correcting, or a doctrinal error that needed setting right, or a misunderstanding that needed further light” (Fee and Stuart, 48).

 

II. Principles for Understanding Epistles

 

A.    Remember that most of the problems in interpreting epistles are due to the fact that they address specific situations, issues, and problems of specific first-century audiences. Often we have to read between the lines to understand what the issues are.

 

1.      Part of understanding 2 Thessalonians is deciphering that the Thessalonians believed they were currently experiencing the Day of the Lord (see 2 Thess. 2).

 

2.      Part of understanding Galatians means realizing that a group known as the Judaizers was trying to convince the Galatians that being circumcised was necessary for salvation.

 

B.      Understand that although the epistles contain a lot of theology, they are not theological treatises or systematic theology books. Much of the theology addresses specific the historical situations of the audiences.

 

C.     As much as possible try to reconstruct the historical situation facing the writer and readers(s) of the epistle. A good commentary or Bible survey book can help in this regard. For example, understanding Corinthians means being aware that the city ofCorinth was a strategic center for commerce with a heavily pluralistic population. Many travelers and residents came through Corinth who had many different beliefs and worldviews. Plus, sexual immorality was heavily rampant there. Corinth, thus, was much more like Los Angeles or New York City than SewardNebraska.

 

D.    Read the whole letter straight through before beginning specific studies of individual passages. Remember, that epistles are letters and letters are meant to be read through in their entirety. Try to catch the big idea or purpose of the letter.

 

E.      Read the letter again and jot down answers to the following questions:

 

1.      Who is writing the letter?

2.      Who is the audience of the letter?

3.      Why is the author writing the letter?

4.      What situation does the author face while writing his letter?

5.      What problems does the author address in the letter?

6.      What are the geographical issues related to this letter?

7.      Does the writer state his purpose for writing the letter?

8.      What are the major themes, concepts, and words in the letter?

 

F.      Identify the paragraphs of thought in the letter you are studying and ask yourself, “What point is the author making in this paragraph?” Philippians 2:1-11, for example, is the great passage that explains how Jesus “emptied Himself” for our sake. The main point of this passage, though, is not to teach Christology. The main point is that Paul wants his readers to show humility to each other, Christ being the supreme example of humility. 

 

NOTE: Many Bible already break down the natural paragraph divisions, but do your own divisional study anyway. When you are done, consult a good Bible commentary or Bible survey book to see if your paragraph divisions match those in other books.

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