We have seen that the New Testament Epistles are published apostolic sermons intended to be read publicly to the recipient churches—with rich theological content, skillful rhetorical crafting, and deeply personal emotion.
Now let me suggest five questions that can help you understand these sometimes-difficult books.
Have I Read the Entire Letter?
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give this challenge: “You need to develop the habit of reading the whole letter through in one sitting. You will need to block out an hour or so to do this, but nothing can ever substitute for this exercise. It is the way one reads every other letter.”1
Reading the whole letter provides context. It helps you pick up the big ideas, the flow of thought of the letter. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that in biblical interpretation, “Context is king!” Nowhere is that truer than in the Epistles. When you put together a puzzle, you likely look at the picture on the box top to see where each individual piece might fit in. That’s what reading through the whole letter will do for you. Once you see the Epistle’s big picture, you will begin to understand how the individual verses and paragraphs fit into to the author’s overall message.
In fact, one of the best practices for understanding a New Testament letter is to read through the whole letter with pen in hand and try to write out in one sentence the big idea of each paragraph. Trace the flow of one idea to the next throughout the letter; follow the thread of thinking.
Fee and Stuart again offer help: “We simply cannot stress enough the importance of your learning to Think Paragraphs . . . as the absolutely necessary key to understanding the argument in the various epistles.”
You’ve heard of hijacking and carjacking; close attention to the context keeps us from “versejacking”—ripping a verse from its surroundings and taking it places it was never intended to go. When Paul says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” he is not saying Jesus will give him the power to bench-press 400 pounds (as some athletes have used that verse). In context, he is saying he can be content in any situation—whether in plenty or in want.
Or consider the line in Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” On its own, the sentence about the Lord’s nearness might sound like a comfort: Don’t be afraid. God is close at hand. But read the preceding context. Paul has just told two ladies in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, to stop fighting with each other.
When my 7- and 9-year-old sons are fussing with each other as they clean their room, I will sometimes march in and say with authority, “You guys better knock off the fighting and start treating each other right! Are you understanding me? I hope you are, because I am going to be right outside your door.” My boys know that the promise of my presence is not an encouragement but a warning. If they don’t straighten up, they know I’ll come striding back in wielding the swift right hand of judgment!
Contextually, then, the promise of Philippians 4:5 is not meant to comfort, but to caution these two Christian sisters to treat each other with gentleness. It’s in the same vein as James 5:9, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” This all becomes clear when you read the verse in the larger flow of the letter.
One more suggestion as you read: use the opening paragraph as a window to the letter. Just as a preacher will introduce his topic in the first five minutes of his sermon, so the Epistle writers often left clues to the themes of the book (or problems in the church) in the first paragraph of the letter. So Romans 1:16 could serve as a theme verse to the letter; 1 Corinthians 1:7, 8 hints at the spiritual gifts issue and the bodily resurrection controversy addressed further on in the letter; James 1:9-11 introduces the topic of attitudes toward rich and poor that will be developed later, and so on.
Have I Dug Deeply Into the Historical Background?
As one hermeneutics textbook points out, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his readers.”2 If we are to understand what God’s Word is saying to us today, we must first figure out what God’s Word meant in its original historical context. So we must ask questions like: Who wrote this letter? When was it written? To whom was it written? What is the occasion or circumstances for its writing? What can we know about the culture to which it is written?
Sometimes historical background enriches our understanding of a text. For example, Paul begins his letter to Titus by mentioning “the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time” (Titus 1:2). When you learn that Titus is working on Crete, Paul’s odd reminder that God “does not lie” suddenly makes sense. Why? A little digging will unearth this fact: the island of Crete was known for its dishonesty. One of the island’s own prophets said, “Cretans are always liars” (Titus 1:12).
In fact, Cretans actually claimed that Zeus was buried on their island. On hearing this, the ancient world laughed because they knew that, obviously, the “greatest” of the gods cannot die, and even if he could, he would never be buried on a backwater, third-rate island like Crete. How unbelievable! The Cretans not only were liars—they were bad liars. Their reputation for duplicity was so widespread that the Greeks actually turned the word Crete into a verb—kretizo—that meant “to lie or deceive.”
So in Titus 1:2, Paul is addressing a culture whose inhabitants expect promises to be empty and fraudulent. That’s why he wants to underscore the complete truthfulness and trustworthiness of God. A promise from God is not like a promise from a Cretan. “If God says that we have the hope of eternal life,” writes Paul, “then you can know it’s true.” That is a promise so secure you can build your life on it. Without the historical background, we could still understand Titus 1:2—God doesn’t lie. But the historical background enriches our understanding—adding color and nuance to our reading.
Other times, however, historical background actually enlightens our understanding. There are some passages we simply would not interpret accurately if we didn’t study the history behind them. For example, Paul tells Timothy the women in the church at Ephesus should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9, New International Version, 1984). Is Paul saying braided hair is intrinsically immodest? Does that mean women who braid their hair today are violating scriptural command?
To answer those questions, dig into the historical background. When you do, you’ll discover Ephesus was dominated by the massive Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple employed hundreds of prostitutes for the “worship” of this fertility goddess, and these prostitutes “wore their hair in numerous small pendant braids with gold droplets or pearls or gems every inch or so, making a shimmering screen of their locks.”3
Against the historical backdrop, then, it seems Paul is saying women should not wear any hairstyle or clothes that resemble their sexually seductive culture—an admonition that is still needed today. But Paul is not necessarily saying braided hair is by its very nature immodest. (Ironically, in today’s American culture, braided hair is sometimes seen as the opposite: a simple, modest style worn by women in groups like the Amish.) In this example, the background has not simply enriched our understanding; it has enlightened it. Understanding the historical setting has saved us from misunderstanding the passage.
How exactly can you reconstruct the historical background? Certainly by reading the letter carefully you can gather clues to the situation the writer is addressing. (Although one scholar points out that hearing only Paul’s response to the problems is like hearing only one end of a telephone conversation, so be careful of jumping to conclusions too soon.) A good study Bible and commentaries can help as well.4
Have I Paid Close Attention to the Words?
In the New Testament Epistles especially, we are wise to pay close attention to the specific words chosen by the writers. To begin with, a more literal English translation like the New American Standard Bible or the English Standard Version will often help. For example, the NIV renders 1 Timothy 2:15, “Women will be saved through childbearing,” and we wonder, is Paul saying women are saved by having babies? But the NIV leaves out the definite article the before childbearing (which the NASB includes). Literally, then, the verse would say that women will be “saved through THE childbearing.”
While it is an unusual way to put it, Paul is likely saying that women (and all people) will be saved through The Childbirth—a reference to Jesus’ incarnation. After mentioning in 2:14 that a woman (Eve) brought sin into the world, Paul is saying in 2:15 that a woman (Mary) also brought salvation into the world by giving birth to the Savior. The word the before childbearing is our tip-off to this understanding, so consider using a more literal English translation for your serious Bible study.
It is often helpful to pay attention to previous uses of a particular word to try to understand its meaning. Take the oft-debated verse from Paul: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV, 1984). In English, translating the word as silent makes it read as if a woman should not make any sound at all in church—no talking whatsoever. In fact, some Christian groups have taken this to be the verse’s meaning, and they forbid a woman from even praying publicly or leading singing in the worship assembly.
But is that what the word silent means in the original Greek? The context of 1 Timothy 2 makes clear that the Greek word, hesuchia, does not mean “the complete absence of sound.” First Timothy 2:2 tells us all Christians are to live “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The word quiet there is a form of hesuchia, and clearly Paul is not saying Christians are to walk around their entire lives without speaking at all. (I guess that would make mimes the top of the spiritual ladder.) Rather he is telling Christians to live with a quiet, calm, respectful demeanor—not as a troublemaker or rabble-rouser.
So when Paul uses the word hesuchia just a few verses later in 2:12 to say a woman in church “must be silent,” he does not mean she must completely cease speaking. He is instead saying she should listen and learn with a quiet, calm, respectful demeanor.
All of this is to say: pay close attention to the words the Epistle’s author chooses. But let me add a word of caution. Sometimes Bible students make their worst mistakes in word studies. So be careful not to fall into some common word study fallacies. I’ll mention two frequent fallacies. Don’t fall into the English-only fallacy, in which you study the English word rather than the underlying Greek word—such as the English word silent instead of the Greek word hesuchia.
Likewise, don’t fall into the time-frame fallacy, in which you import a chronologically much later meaning of the word into an earlier usage. Preachers often read Romans 1:16 which calls the gospel “the power (dunamis) of God,” and because dunamis is where we get our English word dynamite, they talk about the gospel as the dynamite of God. Of course, Paul would never have thought of dynamite when he wrote the word, so while that’s not the worst hermeneutical sin you can commit, it is importing a later meaning into an earlier usage. (However, I do like the story of the preacher who had the letters TNT engraved on the cover of his Bible to remind him of the power of God’s Word. Pretty cool.)
Helpful tools for word studies? Check out John Kohlenberger’s Greek English Concordance to the New Testament, Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, and websites like www.mybibletools.com, www.studylight.org, and www.blueletterbible.org.
Have I Considered the Rest of the Bible’s Teaching?
A very important observation about New Testament Epistles: they are “task theology,” not “systematic theology.”5 In other words, the New Testament letters are not written to thoroughly and categorically explain all of Christian doctrine. Rather, they are written to apply Christian doctrine to a particular situation in the church, so the writer only serves the slice of the theological pie needed to accomplish his specific pastoral task. As readers, then, we must consider the rest of the Bible’s teaching on a particular doctrine so that we do not mistake a particular theological piece for the whole.
An example: sometimes the letters of Paul and the letter from James seem to be at odds with each other. In places like Romans 3:28, Paul says we are justified by faith, not works.6 But James says things like “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (see James 2:24, NIV 1984). It sounds like Paul and James are facing off against each other like two old western gunfighters.
But if the Epistles are “task theology,” then a closer reading reveals Paul and James are each addressing very different situations and are trying to accomplish two very different tasks. Paul is confronting teachers of “works righteousness”—the false belief that we can earn our salvation—so he emphasizes justification by faith. James, however, is confronting the opposite problem of “easy believism”—the false idea that simple mental assent to certain doctrinal statements is enough for salvation—so he emphasizes a faith that expresses itself in deeds. So James and Paul are not drawing their theological pistols on each other. Rather, they are standing back to back in the middle of the street, firing at opposite opponents.
Another example may help. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.” At first blush, that sounds like Paul is forbidding a woman to ever offer any biblical content to a man. However, when you consider the rest of Paul’s writing, you discover he wrote about women prophesying in the worship assembly (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Likewise Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3) are all prophetesses among God’s people. Priscilla privately taught Apollos in Acts 18:26.
So whatever 1 Timothy 2:12 means (and I am not getting into that in this article), it apparently does not mean that a woman cannot ever offer any biblical content to a man. Looking at the rest of the Bible’s teaching has made that much clearer.
The point is simply this: because the Epistles are task theology, not systematic theology, we must always place our Epistle passage in the context of the rest of the Bible’s teaching. “Remembering that the epistles address specific occasions will preserve us from theological myopia, that is, building a system on [only] a portion of the epistles’ rich doctrine.”7
Have I Traced the Connection Between the Indicative and the Imperative?
When you start reading the Epistles, it doesn’t take long to notice a general pattern in most of these letters, especially Paul’s. Often, the first half of the letter deals with Christian doctrine, while the last half deals with Christian duty. After his explanation of Christian belief, he follows up with an exhortation to Christian behavior. See Romans 1-11 and 12-16, Ephesians 1-3 and 4-6, or Colossians 1, 2 and 3, 4 as examples.
In other words, Paul grounds the imperative in the indicative. All the commands he gives in the last half of a letter find their rationale in the theology he has already taught in the letter’s first half. For example, in Ephesians 5, Paul could have said, “Husbands, love your wives because it will make for a smoother, more peaceful household, and you will enjoy living in a conflict-free atmosphere.” Paul could have given that kind of pragmatic basis for being a loving husband: “Happy wife, happy life!” (All of which, by the way, would have been absolutely true.)
But Paul doesn’t ground his command in the practical. He grounds it in the theological. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). “That is, because marriage is an earthly picture of a spiritual mystery, we ought to love our wives.”8 The indicative truth in Ephesians 1-3 (Christ’s love for the church) is the foundation for the imperative in Ephesians 5 (husband’s love for wife).
This constant interplay between the indicative and imperative can be seen throughout the Epistles. First Thessalonians 4 teaches that because Jesus will come again (indicative), we should not grieve as those who have no hope (imperative). Second Corinthians 8 teaches that because Jesus became poor for us (indicative), we should give generously for him (imperative). First John 4 says that because God loves us (indicative), we should love one another (imperative).
So as careful Bible students, when we read the indicative sections of the letters, we should ask ourselves what the imperative implications of these truths might be. When we read the imperative sections, we should ask what the underlying indicative motivations of these commands might be. The imperatives are not simply behavioral addendums, and the indicatives are not simply doctrinal prologues. The two sections of the letter are intimately interwoven, so trace those connections for a richer reading of the Epistle.
Though I’ve never seen it, the movie Immortal Beloved tells a true story from the life of Beethoven. As a young man, Beethoven falls passionately in love with a beautiful young lady. In a series of letters, addressed to his “Immortal Beloved,” he asks her to meet him one afternoon, and she wonders in anticipation: could this be the day he proposes marriage?
But Beethoven is delayed, and by the time he arrives, the young lady is gone. Unfortunate circumstances follow, and tragically the two never speak again. Years later, after Beethoven’s death, the young woman learns that he had sent a letter explaining his delay and asking her to wait for him. But she never received it. What a difference it would have made! If only she’d had the chance to read the letter.
I know of another Lover who is waiting until the day he can be united with his beloved. He too has written us letters—explaining his delay, asking us to wait for him, and giving us instructions for the meantime. These love letters are an incredible gift. What a difference it would make if we read them! Here’s your chance. . . .
1Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 47.
2Fee and Stuart, 60.
3John Stott, Guard the Truth (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 84.
4It is good to remember, however, that commentaries can sometimes get it wrong. In addition to his music, Johnny Cash also wrote a novel on the life of Paul, entitled Man in White. In his study, Cash spent years reading reference books and commentaries. “I discovered,” Cash once quipped, “that the Bible can shed a lot of light on the commentaries.”
5Fee and Stuart, 46.
6It’s interesting to note Paul uses the word justification 15 times in Romans, 8 times in Galatians, and only 2 times in the rest of his letters combined. While Rome and Galatia battled the heresy of “works righteousness,” requiring Paul to teach on justification by faith, the other churches to which he wrote apparently didn’t face that problem.
7Jeff Arthurs, Preaching with Variety (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 155.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.