How Should We Interpret the Epistles?

Epistles are letters written for specific purposes. It is essential to determine who wrote the...
November 22, 2021

Epistles are letters written for specific purposes. It is essential to determine who wrote the letter, who received it, and why it was sent.

Organization of the Epistles

  • The epistles’ order is based upon size and author.
    • Paul – Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
    • ? – Hebrews
    • James – James
    • Peter – 1 Peter, 2 Peter
    • John – 1 John, 2 John, 3 John
    • Jude – Jude

Rules for Reading the Epistles

  • The epistles are occasional documents.
  • They are written arising out of a need and intended for a specific audience.
  • Epistles are letters, but they are different in that they are an artistic, literary genre that was intended for public reading.
  • Epistles were not intended to serve as a theological treatise.  They do not contain the entirety of the author’s theology.

Typical Order of an Epistle

  • Name of the author
  • Name of the recipient
  • Greeting
  • Prayer wish or thanksgiving
  • Body
  • Farewell

How to Study the Epistles

Historical Context

  • Reconstruct the situation to which the author is speaking
  • Make notes of written clues
  • What you notice about the recipients
  • Author’s attitude
  • Anything mentioned to the specific occasion of the letter
  • The epistle’s natural, logical divisions

Literary Context

  • Trace the author’s argument
  • Must begin to think paragraphs
  • Acknowledge difficulties
  • The texts are sometimes challenging to understand because they simply were not written to us.
  • Even if you are uncertain about specific details, the whole passage’s plain meaning is usually still within grasp.
  • In difficult situations, get some good help.

Hermeneutical Reminders

  • The text cannot mean what it never meant.
  • We are searching for authorial intent.
  • In most cases, a clear principle has been articulated that transcends the historical particularity.  We can understand and apply it.

Hermeneutical Guidelines

  • Distinguish between the essentials and the non-essentials of the writings.
  • Distinguish between what is moral and what is immoral.
  • Don’t expect the epistles to answer questions that have not been asked yet.