Getting the Most from the Epistles (Part One)
Think of them as love letters. Read them out loud like a sermon. Notice the wide range of literary tools their authors employed. Discover the truth and power waiting for every reader in these inspired letters from God.
Some time ago, my wife, Katie, and I were rummaging through a box of old college keepsakes. I reached for a large manila envelope, wondering what was inside. Old love letters! I pulled out a thick stack of envelopes Katie had sent me one summer when we were dating.
We had been apart all that summer, and I remember waiting eagerly for those twice-a-week letters in the mail. I would tear open the envelope and devour every sentence—reading and rereading every word, imagining the voice of my beloved speaking them to me. The letter read “Dear Matt,” but behind the words I could hear her heart’s true message—”my handsome hunk of a guy.”
Those letters were my lifeline to her. I didn’t set out to memorize those letters, but I could almost quote them because I lingered over them so long. As we rummaged through that attic box, Katie also reached for a manila envelope and pulled out . . . both of the letters I had written her that summer. (I’m a slob.)
Here’s the important question: Why did I read those letters so hungrily? You know the answer: It was because they were from someone I loved—someone who also loved me.
They Read for All They Are Worth
Mortimer Adler, former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a very smart dude, once wrote a best-selling book called How to Read a Book. The book taught readers how to fully comprehend an author’s message, and in it, Adler made a keen observation:
There is only one situation that I can think of in which men and women make an effort to read better than they usually do. When they are in love and are reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins; they read the whole in terms of the parts, and each part in terms of the whole; they grow sensitive to context and ambiguity, to insinuation and implication; they perceive the color of words, the odor of phrases, and the weight of sentences. They may even take the punctuation into account. Then, if never before or after, they read.1
You want to know something amazing? In his Word, God not only has inspired stories and statutes, prophecies and poetry, he also has inspired letters! One scholar says, “Christianity is unique in that of all the other sacred books of the world not one is composed of letters.”
Apart from face-to-face conversation, letters were the most personal form of communication available to first-century writers. In a world where gods were seen as aloof and removed from human contact, a God who communicated through letters was astonishing. This God was inviting personal relationship. My friend Mark Scott says, “Just as God wrapped the warmth of his love in his Son, he also wrapped the warmth of his teaching in the form of a letter.” Like the Incarnation itself, the New Testament Epistles are God choosing to get personal so that we could know him.
In other words: these are love letters. They are heartfelt words from a groom to his bride. We had better read for all we are worth.
Peter, Paul, and Marry?
Unfortunately, the New Testament Epistles can be tricky to read. Some sections aren’t hard at all, but then you run into passages like these:
• “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Corinthians 7:8). What is Paul saying here? Is he contradicting God who said in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for the man to be alone”? How do we reconcile these?
• “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). What does Paul mean by lacking? Is he suggesting Jesus’ suffering on the cross was somehow insufficient?
• “Women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15). What in the world does this mean? Is Paul adding a new step in the plan of salvation for women—hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized, and have a baby?2
So let’s admit that the Epistles can at times be difficult to read. The apostle Peter, in a moment of refreshing honesty, confessed that the apostle Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). These documents are not “see Spot run” simple; they require some heavy mental lifting.
Reflect on What I Am Saying
In fact, because the Epistles are probably the most theologically dense biblical genre—with more significant ideas per square inch than other types of biblical literature—may I take a moment to offer an encouragement? Sometimes well-meaning believers resist serious Bible study—assuming that careful examination of Scripture is too academic for devotional value. Surely, they think, the Lord will reveal what we need to know.
But in 2 Timothy 2:7, Paul tells Timothy, “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” The apostle affirms that God ultimately helps us understand his Word, but notice what Paul says: the Lord’s insight comes only after our study. Often the Lord will unlock the meaning of a passage only after we have rattled every doorknob in the text.
We cannot expect to be passive readers. To “reflect” deeply will require brainwork, but Paul says that using our own mind will help us know God’s mind better. Sixteenth-century scholar Erasmus once remarked, “People say to me, ‘How can scholarly knowledge facilitate the understanding of Holy Scripture?’ My answer is, How does ignorance contribute to it?”
So let me encourage you to read the New Testament Epistles “for all you’re worth.” Be willing to dig deeply and study thoroughly. But before we go any further, we had better define exactly what a New Testament Epistle is.
Preachers Always Go Long
Epistle is the dominant literary form of the New Testament, including 21 of its 27 books. But what is an epistle? (One little girl thought an epistle was “the wife of an apostle”!) Actually, an epistle was a letter in the ancient world “designed for wide circulation that addresses current issues and revives personal relationship.”3
The New Testament writers were not the only ancient communicators who used the epistle form. We still have surviving papyri with epistles from public figures like Cicero and Seneca. Epistles in the classical world followed a basic format:
• Prescript. Here the writer identifies himself and his recipients (which seems a smarter approach than our modern letter template which doesn’t reveal the writer’s name until the letter’s closing).
• Greetings. Here the writer often expresses a prayer for the recipient’s good health,
• Body. Here the writer conveys his primary message—which may be personal, business, or official in nature.
• Exhortations. Here the writer gives final instructions based upon the message he has already shared.
• Closing. Here the writer passes along other greetings and a final salutation or prayer.
As you can probably tell, the New Testament Epistle writers adapted this basic format with two changes. First, they “Christianized” it. For example, instead of “hello” and “hope you’re having a good day,” they passed along theologically loaded greetings like “grace and peace.”
Second, they wrote much longer letters than normal. (They were preachers, after all.) Cicero’s average letter was 295 words, Seneca’s was 955 words, but Paul’s long-winded letters averaged 2,500 words! Clearly, the New Testament letter writers had much of importance to say, prompting their readers to say things like, “His letters are weighty and forceful” (2 Corinthians 10:10).
A Big Homiletical Toolbox
In fact, it is helpful to think of the Epistles as published sermons. (See the box on p. 7.)
As a preaching professor, this is an especially meaningful angle for me. I tell my students they have a wide variety of rhetorical tools to use in a sermon. To explain a point, they can choose—from their homiletical toolbox—options like a supporting Bible verse, a story, a comparison, a statistic, a definition, or a quotation. (Preachers like Wayne Smith also have a whole section of jokes in their toolbox.)
A significant feature of the epistolary “sermons” in the New Testament is that they too draw from a big homiletical toolbox. As a reader of the New Testament letters, it will be helpful for you to understand something about a few of these rhetorical devices:
• Hymns. In texts like Philippians 2:5-11, Paul quotes ancient Christian hymns, and at other times, in places like 1 Timothy 1:17, he interrupts himself by bursting into the prayerful praise of doxology.
Why is this important? The hymns, so familiar to his audience, were theologically persuasive because they were already commonly accepted truth. But more important, these “praise pauses” kept moving his audience from teaching time into worship time.
Ozark Christian College Professor Don DeWelt was famous for punctuating his sermons with song, breaking forth in his rich baritone. In so doing, DeWelt—like Paul—reminded his hearers that the truth of God must always usher in the praise of God.
• Household Codes. Ancient sages, such as Aristotle, sometimes drew up a “household code”—a collection of advice to the head of a Greco-Roman household on how to rule his wife, children, and slaves to ensure an ordered society. Epistle texts like Ephesians 5:22–6:9 follow a similar “household code” pattern with three significant differences.
First, unlike the cultural codes that only laid obligation on the household’s “inferior” members (wives, children, slaves), the biblical codes also gave behavioral instructions to the “superior” husbands, fathers, and masters.
Second, unlike the cultural codes, the “inferior” members are not treated as powerless property. Instead, they are directly addressed as free moral agents who have the ability to choose how to act within the household.
Third, the motivation behind the biblical codes was not to protect the social order, but to promote the gospel. (See Titus 2:10.)
• Vice and Virtue Lists. Another common rhetorical tool used by ancient moralists was the vice or virtue list, and again, the New Testament letter writers borrowed this device in places like Galatians 5:19-23. Three observations about such lists will help you read well.
First, “the items listed, though distinct, were intended to be heard as a unit, not so much as individual behaviors.”4 The writer is trying to create an overall impression by heaping up qualities, whether good or bad. So instead of beginning with a dissection of the list’s individual terms, ask: what is the list’s big picture?
Second, the lists are usually suggestive, not exhaustive, so don’t treat them as if they’re comprehensive. None of the spiritual gift lists in the New Testament, for example, are the exact same—meaning Paul is apparently not trying to categorize every gift available.5
Third, the order of the vices/virtues in the list is sometimes important, so pay attention. Of the 19 vices in 2 Timothy 3:2-4, the first and last terms bracketing this list are “lovers of themselves” and “rather than lovers of God”—implying that the 17 vices in between are a result of these two bookending sins. Likewise, the order of the vice list in 1 Timothy 1:9, 10—not coincidentally—reads like a photographic negative of the Ten Commandments. Apparently Paul’s vice list is the flip side of the commandment list in Exodus 20.6
• Chiasm. This rhetorical tool is simply the arrangement of ideas to form a mirroring pattern. Each section in a text matches a later corresponding section. For example, look at the structure in Ephesians 2:1-10:
1. Because we walked in our sins (2:1, 2a),
2. And the devil was at work within us (2:2b),
3. God’s wrath was coming because of our deeds (2:3).
4. But because God is rich in mercy (2:4),
5. We are made alive with Christ (2:5a).
6. By grace we have been saved (2:5b).
5. We are raised up with Christ (2:6),
4. Because God is rich in grace (2:7).
3. God’s gift came, not because of our deeds (2:8, 9).
2. Now God is at work within us (2:10a),
1. So we walk in good works (2:10b).7
Most of us today are unfamiliar with chiasm, but first-century readers looked for it. “Ancients noticed and enjoyed chiasm much as we notice and enjoy rhyming sentences today. For us, rhyming makes something easier to remember and often gives us appreciation that the writer thought carefully when constructing his material . . . Readers in Paul’s day viewed chiasm the same way.”8
(Assignment: Can you detect the chiasm in Romans 10:9, 10?)
Here’s the important thing to remember about chiasm: Whereas we Westerners usually put something first or last for emphasis, the ancient Mediterraneans put the emphasis in the middle of the chiasm. So the accent in Ephesians 2:1-10 falls squarely on 2:5b—that’s the big idea of the passage.
• Metaphor. We are probably most familiar with this last “preacher’s tool.” The New Testament letters read like picture books, as the images flow constantly from the writers’ pens. The church is pictured as a bride, a body, and a flock of sheep; the Christian life is pictured as a race, a battle, and a farm; our salvation is compared to a slave given his freedom (redemption), a criminal given a clean record (justification), and an orphan given a new family (adoption).
But here’s a key principle: metaphors are flexible, not rigid. They don’t always mean the same thing in different places. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul says the church’s foundation is Jesus Christ, but in Ephesians 2:20, Paul says the church’s foundation is the apostles and prophets, while Jesus is the cornerstone. So don’t assume you know what a metaphor means because of its use elsewhere. Paul got creative with his metaphorical references, so check the context every time.
If There’s No Fire in the Sermon . . .
So these sermonic letters are skillfully crafted rhetorical works. But at the end of the day, like any good sermon, they’re personal. The New Testament preachers aren’t just talking from their heads; they’re cracking the door on their hearts.
I had a professor who exhorted us to preach passionately or not preach at all. He said, “If there’s no fire in the sermon, put the sermon in the fire!” The New Testament Epistles are certainly not dispassionate discourse—they are brimming over with emotion.
For example, James at times can be very tender—in five chapters, he uses the phrase “my brothers” or “my dear brothers” 15 times. But at other times, he speaks with biting sarcasm: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that” (2:19).
Or consider Paul, who especially runs the full emotional spectrum in his letters. He weeps for his fellow Israelites who are lost, staining the pages of Romans 9 with his tears: “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my race, the people of Israel” (vv. 3, 4). He smiles as he writes movingly of his special fondness for the Philippians (see Philippians 1:3-10).
But in Galatians, Paul’s face turns red with anger as he confronts the legalists who were requiring circumcision—he skips right past his customary prayer of thanksgiving at the beginning of the letter and instead launches into a blistering sermon:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you” (1:6);
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1)
“Those who belonged to the circumcision group . . . as for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (2:12; 5:12).
Whoa, Paul, did you just say what I think you said? Yes, he did! The apostle got worked up when people started messing with the gospel!
These letters are full of passion, so as you read, try to discern not only a letter’s meaning, but also its mood. Fred Craddock says some texts are boisterous and joyful—like 76 trombones coming down Main Street, while other texts are somber and poignant—like a violin and a crust of bread. What’s the emotional pulse of the passage?
NEXT WEEK: Five questions you can ask to increase your understanding of these sometimes-difficult books.
1Cited in Mortimer Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen.
2This article will not attempt to address all three of these difficult texts. A suggested resource for hard-to-understand passages is Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., et al. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
3Jeffrey Arthurs, Preaching with Variety (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 152.
4Mike Graves, The Sermon as Symphony (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1997), 182.
5Compare Romans 12:6-8 with 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
6For fuller explanation, see John Stott, Guard the Truth (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 49, 50.
7Look especially at this passage in a translation like the New American Standard Bible to see the similarity of language between the mirroring sections of the text.
8Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 134.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.
Polished, Published Sermons
We know what it means for a preacher to publish, because popular devotional writers like John Ortberg and Charles Swindoll have polished their sermon material into best-selling books. These books then often turn back into sermon series again when other preachers get ahold of them.
(Dave Stone once asked Max Lucado, “Do you write your books first and then preach them? Or do you preach the material first and then turn it into a book?” Lucado said, “Ninety-five percent of what I’ve written I’ve already preached.” Stone exclaimed with a smile, “Hey, 95 percent of what you’ve written I’ve already preached!”)
This is much the way Epistles worked. The material in Ephesians, let’s say, was likely preached by Paul before it was ever written. Even when the letter was written, it was not Paul with pen in hand, but Paul passionately preaching to a secretary who was desperately trying to keep up as the apostle dictated.
Paul’s letters are sermons far more than they are theological treatises. It is with immediate situations that they deal. They are sermons even in the sense that they were spoken rather than written. They were not carefully written by someone sitting at a desk; they were poured out by someone striding up and down a room as he dictated, seeing all the time in his mind’s eye the people to whom they were sent. Their torrential style, their cataract of thought, their involved sentences all bear the mark of the spoken rather than the written word.1
Once these “sermons” were published and sent, they turned into sermons again when they arrived at a church. When the New Testament letters came in the mail, they were not distributed to individual church members for their own private, silent reading and meditation. (The fact is: only 2 of every 10 people in the ancient world could read, and even among the literate, silent reading was virtually unknown.) Rather, these letters were usually carried by an apostolic messenger, such as Titus or Timothy, who would stand before the recipient congregation and read/re-preach the letter.
Even the letters to Timothy and Titus themselves were intended for public reading to the church. Our clue to this? The final greetings at the end of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are each plural, as in “Grace be with you all.” The congregations in Ephesus (1 and 2 Timothy) and Crete (Titus) are getting to listen in on Paul’s letters to his coworkers.
So the Epistles are sermons—spoken before they were written, and written in such a way as to be spoken again.
1William Barclay in Ward Gasque and Ralph Martin, eds., Apostolic History and the Gospel (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1970), 170.