The majority of the New Testament is made up of Epistles or letters. These letters were sent from a church leader(s) to a specific church (or churches) in the first century (with the exception of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon which were sent to individuals). While keeping this in mind, the challenge is to put each letter in its context in order to understand the broader meaning for our lives today.
Think for a minute about listening to a phone conversation. As you listen to another person’s conversation, you can only hear what they are saying and how they are responding to the person on the phone. By using some critical thinking, you can get a pretty good idea of what the conversation is about from the one side. This is the same goal when we read the Epistles. You are hearing one side of a conversation so the challenge is to reconstruct the situation to the best of our ability.
Below are a list of the Epistles (or letters) in the Bible:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
- James (could have also been a sermon)
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
As you can see, most of the books you are probably familiar with are Epistles. Although many of the passages are relatively simple to understand, there are also numerous verses people have taken out of context and built dogmatic beliefs around.
In order to properly understand each Epistle, you will need ask three specific questions. These same three questions apply to the rest of the Scriptures but in varying ways:
1. What is the historical context of the letter?
As stated in the previous post, each section of the Bible was written to a specific people (or person) at a specific time in history. Although the Bible itself is timeless, one needs to understand the historical nature in order to understand the timeless nature of Scripture.
You can learn the vast majority of the historical context by reading through the entire letter and taking note of what the author is addressing. As you are taking notes, I recommend trying to answer the following questions regarding the historical context:
1. Who is the author? What is their relationship to the church in question?
2. Where is the church located and what is its background (it would be best to consult a commentary or Bible Dictionary for this information)
3. What is the attitude of the author? Are they happy? Angry? Frustrated?
4. What do you notice about the church itself? Are there specific areas being addressed?
2. What is the literary context of the letter?
When it comes to understanding how to read the Epistles, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to THINK PARAGRAPHS!!! In other words, you need to consider the overall passage that each verse is located in. As a letter, the individual verses were not meant to be thought of outside of the sections they are in.
The best way to ‘think paragraphs’ is to read a section of Scripture and then ask yourself, “What is the big idea”? Once you figure out what the main point of the paragraph/section is, look for the supporting points. This will enable you to understand each verse as it was meant to be understood; as a logical part of a greater whole.
3. What did the passage mean to the original hearers of the letter?
Once you have a basic understanding of both the historical and literary context of the passage you are studying, you can start to figure out what the passage meant to the original hearers. Even if it is a passage that is relatively clear (such as Romans 1:16), understanding the context of the church in Rome will give you a greater appreciation of the text.
A rule of thumb is that the passage CANNOT mean something entirely different than what the author meant for it to mean.For example, the purpose of the Epistles is not to encourage your insane conspiracy theories about the government as the United States did not exist (this is a pet peeve of mine – rather than trying to justify your wacky beliefs with the Bible, go collect some canned food for the apocalypse).
Once you understand what it meant to the original hearers, you are able to accurately ascertain what the application is for today. For most passages it is easy; other passages are incredibly difficult (see 1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
Once again, I am only able to cover these concepts very briefly. For a more in-depth understanding that includes example from the Epistles themselves, go order How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth!