Since they make up almost 80% of the New Testament, it’s important for us to know how best to understand the epistles. These letters were written by an apostle or early church leader to another individual, church, or group of churches. The epistles are a great blessing to the church today. They teach us what we should believe (theology) and how we should behave (ethical instruction) as the people of God. I certainly need that!
Epistles are a unique literary genre. (See also: “How Biblical Genre Impacts Our Understanding.”) We cannot interpret/understand them the same way we do biblical narrative or prophecy (See also “5 Tips for Understanding Biblical Narrative” and “Tips for Understanding the Prophets”.) These letters are very situational because they are tied to specific people in a specific time in history, with specific problems and issues.
In order to properly understand the epistles and apply their teachings, we need to get a good grasp on the original situation. When we better understand what the letter meant to the original recipient, then we can better understand God’s original meaning. Then, we can more accurately apply His truths to our lives. (See also “4 Guidelines to Help You Understand the Bible.”)
8 Tips to Understand the Epistles
- Discover the author, date, and recipients – These basic facts can be found in the introduction and/or closing of most of the letters. There are also a lot of great resources to help you know more about them and enhance your understanding. (See the resource section below for some suggestions.)
- Pinpoint the author’s purpose – Scholars refer to this as the “occasion.” Why did the author write these particular people then? Was there a problem or problems that needed to be addressed? Was there a specific doctrine he wanted to teach?
- Read the entire book in one sitting – This helps us identify main themes, running arguments, and the overall purpose of the letter. Reading a letter in chunks makes this more difficult. Most letters are short enough to read the whole thing in less than an hour. Some are short enough to read in just a few minutes.
- Keep every passage in its literary context – Pulling a verse or passage out of the surrounding context is probably the mistake we Bible students make most often. (See “Do You Misuse Philippians 4:13?” for a prime example.)
- Compare letter to the book of Acts – Many of the events recorded in Acts can shed light on issues addressed in the epistles – particularly Paul’s letters. For instance, Paul’s unique love for the Philippians is better understood when we read of his time in Philippi. The emphasis on sexual morality in 1 Corinthians can be better understood by getting the background on the pagan worship in Corinth.
- Research the culture and history – More than 2,000 years separate us from the time of the epistles. So much has changed about society, family life, the way we do business, world religions, and a host of other things. All of this impacts our understanding and how we should apply what we read. For instance, Paul’s guidelines for head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is directly tied to customs of the day and the impact paganism had on society. We must understand those things so we can separate Paul’s teaching that is situational only.
- Look for the underlying spiritual principles – When we understand the cultural and historical context we can more easily separate the timeless truths and principles from those things that aren’t directly applicable. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses meat sacrificed to idols. That’s not something we typically encounter today. But the underlying spiritual principle of not exercising any freedom that could cause another believer to stumble or struggle is directly applicable to us.
- Watch for creeds and hymns – Some of the NT letter writers included short segments within their letters that most scholars agree were probably creeds or hymns of the early church. These would have been well-known by the recipients and probably even used in worship. Many of these can be spotted in an epistle due to their poetic style. Examples of this include Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16.
Suggested Helps and Resources
All this may seem a bit daunting. The good news is, a lot of great resources are available to help us. Here are a few that I use myself. (Note: The links below are affiliate links.)
- Good Study Bible – We can get a lot of the above information from the notes in a study Bible.
- The IVP Bible Background Commentaries – This 2-volume set is absolutely invaluable to me. I use them almost every day. They give great historical and cultural background on most Bible passages. The OT and NT volumes can be purchased together.
- Online Study tools – There are so many digital resources out there! I’ve collected a few that I’ve used and put together a list. Check it out here!
- Bible Dictionary – A good dictionary gives information on people, places, books of the Bible, and so much more. I regularly use “Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.”
- Bible Handbook – These helpful resources give information on history, culture, and the background on individual Bible books. I like the “Zondervan Handbook to the Bible.”
Let’s talk! What’s your favorite letter in the Bible? Why? What is one of your favorite resources?