The word “epistle” means letter. It’s written to specific individuals or groups as a formal treatise or for purposes such as answering questions, resolving problems, and encouragement. The fact that the New Testament is so largely composed of letters distinguishes it from all other sacred writings of the world.
With the exception of the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation, the New Testament is epistle. This literary type is important to understand because we derive most of our biblical doctrine from the epistles and they decipher much of the Old Testament and Gospels.
First, read an epistle like you would any letter, in one sitting. Interpret the words literally and pay close attention to understand the recipient(s), the author’s flow of logic, terms, tone, and clues to the specific occasion and issues.
Biblical epistles followed a format common in ancient Greco-Roman letters:
- Opening salutation containing writer's name, the recipient's name, and a greeting
- A prayer, blessing, or thanksgiving
- The body of the letter (what the sender wanted to say that occasioned the letter)
- Final greeting and farewell
Not every epistle will include all four of these characteristics—and missing elements may be significant! For example, in Galatians 1:1–6 Paul changes the format and omits prayer, thanksgiving, and blessing. This helps underscore and communicate his distress over the actions of the Galatian church members.
Next, ask questions. Reading these letters is like listening to one end of a phone conversation. We read Paul’s answers and now need to figure out the questions and issues involved.
Who wrote the passage? Who is speaking? Who is the audience
What does the passage say? What is the main subject? What is the immediate context? What is the overall idea the author is writing about?
When was it written? When do the events occur? Paying attention to verb tenses helps here.
Why was this written? Many authors state their purpose in the text.
How will these events take place?
When it comes to the letters written by Paul, we can usually go back to the book of Acts and see what the city was like and the circumstances surrounding the original situation in that region. This helps give us a picture of what may have motivated the writing of the letter.
Third, think in terms of paragraphs and their main points. Notice especially when you get to words like “finally,” “therefore,” or “now” as these words can signal breaks between large blocks of text.
For example, Romans 12:1 (NASB) begins with a “therefore” and signals a transition in the book. And 1 Corinthians 15:1 demonstrates a transition by using the word “now.” Philippians 3:1 uses the word “finally” as a transition. By following these transitions you can understand when the author is moving from one topic to another.
Finally, look for what would apply at all times and to all people. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that epistles were written 2,000 years ago for specific people in a Mideast culture, in specific circumstances, and to address specific issues. That is part of the function of the form of a letter.
Resist the modern temptation to universalize these letters and make them absolute. They must be heard within the context in which they were written, and within the occasions they were addressing. To take writings intended to address specific historical circumstances—such as Paul’s admonitions to the factions and immature Christians at Corinth—and assume they are universal law for all circumstances and all times is to radically misunderstand the nature of New Testament letters even as Scripture.
Keeping in mind the genre of letters/epistles and the forms that help identify them as letters will help us keep their situational nature in view. This provides us some guidelines and boundaries for how to read and apply the epistles in contemporary contexts.