The Bible is such a familiar and respected book that it’s easy to forget it was written in an ancient culture. Just as modern authors are the product of modern times, and the works they produce assume knowledge from modern culture, we need to recognize the unfamiliar genres of the biblical books. Whatever we read has clues within the text that trigger a reading strategy and cue us how to understand the author’s message. Even those biblical genres that may feel most familiar—narrative, for instance—were written from an ancient perspective by authors who didn’t know what cultural and historical information we would need and want to know. In the New Testament, we find the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, the history of the expansion of the early church in Acts, 21 letters, and one strange book, Revelation, that is a letter, prophecy, and apocalypse rolled into one. Here we focus on eight of the 21 letters—Hebrews and the general epistles, so named from the Greek word for “letter” (epistolé), and “general” because they appear to have been written to a much broader audience than one designated church.
Reading the Epistles
If you think about it, when we read the New Testament letters, we’re actually reading someone else’s mail. All of these books were originally written and sent to people living in specific kinds of situations at the letters’ original destinations. And so imagine you happened upon this handwritten note:
Thanks for the great time the other day! That drive-in was super.
After telling you about that problem I was having, I saw a doctor. Good news, everything is OK.
I’ll dial you up soon.
Even though we can read the words of this note easily, it isn’t clear what they refer to. Was the “drive-in” a burger joint or an outdoor movie theater? What was Sally’s “problem”? What kind of doctor did she see? We might suppose “dial you up” means Sally will call Grace, but that’s an odd expression. And wouldn’t a text or email make it easier to connect, unless the note was written before that technology existed? Are Sally and Grace friends? Sisters? Cousins? The questions that might occur to us would not have occurred to Grace, the original reader for whom the note was intended. This illustrates that reading and understanding are two different things. Nevertheless, despite our incomplete knowledge, we get the point: Sally is thanking Grace for a good time together and giving her some reassuring news. And so it is when we read the New Testament, which often inspires questions its authors never thought would be asked.
It might be unsettling to realize that the epistles of the New Testament are God’s Word for us but they weren’t written to us. So when we study them, we can run into issues similar to those that arise from our reading Sally’s note to Grace. God’s Word didn’t drop out of heaven into our laps but has come to us through human authors. The books of the Bible were written in ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a smattering of Aramaic), in diverse places and cultures of the ancient world millennia ago. And that historical fact raises some interesting implications for how we read and interpret the Bible today. Though the New Testament authors knew that their words were expressing God’s thoughts (1 Thess. 2:13), they could not have written with the specifics of 21st-century readers in mind. They also had no choice but to express themselves to the original readers, who shared the language, culture, and social conventions of their day.
When we read the New Testament letters, we’re actually reading someone else’s mail.
Furthermore, because we have only one side of the communication, reading these letters is similar to overhearing a cell phone call in a public place—which makes us wonder what the person on the other end is saying. There’s a lot in the New Testament letters we wish we understood better. For instance, wouldn’t we love to know what it was Paul had previously told the Thessalonians about the man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3-5)?
Although our knowledge of the ancient world will probably never be as vast as what the biblical authors and original readers knew, we can become better students of the Word by keeping in mind some principles regarding the historical-cultural setting in which the books were written:
1. Consider the literary genre of the New Testament book we’re reading. In the case of the epistles, we’re reading written correspondence, so we don’t expect them to contain highly structured poetic devices and imagery, as we might find in prophecy or poetry. The letters were written to instruct, encourage, exhort, and edify in rather straightforward language. While Hebrews does display a high level of Greek rhetorical skill and 2 John employs metaphor to refer to the recipients of the letter, the general epistles are not as poetic as the Psalms or as symbolic as the book of Revelation. Their message lies more on the surface meaning of the words rather than on metaphorical or symbolic meanings.
For example, it would be incorrect to use etymology to derive some deeper meaning of the name “Demetrius” in 3 John 1:12. This was not a name created by the author to characterize a person, as we might find in poetry. The name probably originally derived from the name of the Greek goddess Demeter, but it would be wrong to therefore claim that affirming Demetrius was approving the worship of Demeter. Because 3 John is a letter of introduction, we should recognize that Demetrius, a common name in the first century, is the actual name of the man who carried the letter to Gaius.
2. Read an epistle in one sitting. Many of us have the habit of reading just a few sentences of the Bible as a thought for the day, but no New Testament author intended his letter to be read in that manner. Taking verses out of their context almost guarantees misunderstanding. For instance, we could enjoy joking that the title of the book of Hebrews provides biblical support for the man of the house to make the coffee (“He brews”). But we certainly could not claim the authority of God’s Word for that interpretation! This illustrates how we must never rip a phrase of the Bible out of its historical and textual context, assign meanings to the words that could never have meant that to the original readers, or personalize it for our own use apart from redemptive history.
To understand an epistle well, we must read the entire letter—preferably in one sitting—and keep the whole in mind as we seek to understand its parts. The longest of the general epistles, Hebrews, takes about 45 minutes to read. The short epistles of 2 and 3 John and Jude each take less than 5 minutes. Read closely, not for speed, and watch for words, ideas, people, and places that deserve further attention.
3. Identify the purpose and main point of the letter. The apostles wrote these letters to provide spiritual and pastoral guidance for groups of Christians living at a distance. Observe the tone of the letter. Is it consolation and encouragement in the face of persecution? Rebuke and correction of heresy? Does the writer supply instruction? Hebrews reads like a sermon preached to persuade Christians to persevere in their faith in Jesus, because there is no other source of salvation—not even if it were possible to go back to Judaism, the faith from which many of the original readers had apparently converted.
Many of us read a few sentences of the Bible as a thought for the day, but no New Testament author intended his letter to be read in that manner.
James instructs his readers that while we are saved by faith, the works produced by that faith prove it genuine—namely, how we speak, how we treat the rich and the poor, and how we endure trials and tests. First Peter is a letter of encouragement for those facing social ostracism and persecution for their Christian faith. Likewise, 2 Peter and Jude were sent to call attention to and correct a heresy that was infecting the church with immorality and cheapening God’s grace. And John’s letters were written in spiritually confusing times to reassure readers of eternal life in Christ.
4. Sketch out the main flow of the argument. Because the epistles were written to instruct and persuade, they typically have a logical flow to their arguments. Make a list of the main propositions by lining them up in your mind or on the left edge of a piece of paper. List any subordinate or modifying phrases, indented under each proposition. Then label each main proposition: Is it an assertion? Does it state an event? Is it a command to obey, a wish to share, a warning to heed, a promise to be believed?
For instance, consider the assertions in the opening verse of 1 Peter: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” addresses “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of [Asia Minor] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit” and wishes them grace and peace “in abundance” (NIV).
Immediately we recognize this is the standard format for the opening of a letter, which triggers a reading strategy for this genre. Peter identifies himself as the writer having apostolic authority and then describes his original readers as chosen by God even though suffering exile, introducing two themes that will be addressed further in the body of the letter. We can clearly see the Trinitarian nature of the “choosing” involving the Father, Son, and Spirit, and we can identify the theological theme of election as a point worth understanding better.
5. Check if important words recur elsewhere. Noting the important words of the introductory verses and using a concordance for whatever English translation we’re reading, we can check to see if the same or similar words occur elsewhere. In the case of 1 Peter 1:1 (NIV), we notice the word sprinkle in reference to Christ’s blood. A concordance shows us that the sprinkling of blood is found often in the Pentateuch as a ritual of consecration. Exodus 24:8 is particularly relevant, as Moses sprinkled blood on the people to establish their covenant with God. By checking forms of the word “chosen” elsewhere in 1 Peter, we find that Christ also was chosen (1 Peter 1:20; 1 Peter 2:4 NIV), that He is the referent behind the image of the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:6 NIV), and that Peter considers Christians to be “a chosen people” (1 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 5:13 NIV). Even though such work takes effort, it pays off in a deeper understanding of how the apostles develop and define their major themes.
6. Become aware of the historical and cultural specifics of the letter. For the example listed above, we may stumble over the list of place names that are hard to pronounce or are unfamiliar. This should nudge us to consult a Bible atlas, where we find that Peter wrote to Christians living in the northern region of what is now the Muslim nation of Turkey. We become better Bible readers by supplementing our reading with good resources that explain historical and cultural backgrounds.
References to other biblical people and events can be more challenging to understand. For instance, Cain is mentioned three times in the general epistles (Heb. 11:4; 1 John 3:12; Jude 1:11) referring to Abel’s murderous brother who is first mentioned in Genesis 4. In what way are the ungodly people Jude condemns like Cain? The answer may not be clear from simply reading Genesis 4, as Jude is unlikely claiming they were all murderers. Many centuries had passed between the writing of Genesis and the time of Jude, during which Jewish religious tradition came to think of Cain, the first murderer, as one who represented the paradigmatic sinner who scoffs at God’s judgment of sin. This sense connects Jude’s warning about not taking the way of Cain with his previous statement about not mocking God’s judgment and perverting grace into license for immorality (Jude 1:4). Jude’s warning continues through all generations and is relevant to readers today: We must not presume on God’s grace by thinking we can be saved but live like the devil.
The apostles wrote these letters to provide spiritual and pastoral guidance for groups of Christians living at a distance.
Similarly, Jude and other New Testament writers at times reference literature that would have been known to the original readers but is either lost or known only to scholars today. For instance, Jude refers to stories contained in the Testament of Moses and the Book of Enoch, writings of the ancient world that were well known at the time he penned his epistle but were lost to western religious tradition after the second century. Archeologists rediscovered texts of Enoch in the 20th century, providing a better understanding of these obscure cultural references. Consulting study Bibles, Bible handbooks, and commentaries will provide relevant information, but Jude’s message is clear even if we don’t possess the texts: We are not to assert our own autonomous spiritual authority. Jude, like Peter, James, John, the author of Hebrews, and the other New Testament authors, writes to encourage and exhort all readers to follow Christ faithfully.
Bridging the Distance
Is it a problem that the New Testament was written so long ago in a culture so different from our own? Does this somehow diminish the power of God’s Word in our lives? Rather than viewing the antiquity of the Bible as a problem, recognize that God chose to give us His Word in this form and manner. We must accept and respect His choice. Next, the fact that the epistles spoke into real-life situations in first-century Greco-Roman culture provides some guidelines on how to read these books. We observe that the Bible is not some elusive, philosophical, or theological abstraction, but a word spoken into actual life situations to be a practical and transforming power in people’s lives. That gives us confidence to turn to the Bible for relevant guidance as we face similar situations today.
Recall that when we read Sally’s note to Grace, we got the message, even with only a general understanding of its details. The same is true with Bible reading because of what theologians call the perspicuity of Scripture. That is, the message of Scripture is clear enough to communicate to us even though we lack the same degree of knowledge that was shared by writers and their original readers. Not only do all the epistles and other books of the New Testament present a demand for their readers to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ; they also explain how Christ informs the life situation of every reader, whether in ancient or modern times. And so, while we may always have questions about the Bible, such uncertainties in no way impede the power of God’s Word.
The specifics of the epistles’ original readers and their situations may differ from those in our times and culture, but human nature, our relationship to God and to others, the reality of sin, and the gift of forgiveness provide a stable continuity in which to witness the power of the Word. For instance, Jude’s scathing judgment of those who pervert the grace of God into license for sin (Jude 1:4) is a clear warning for believers today, even though we don’t know to whom he specifically wrote those words or what specifically the heretics were teaching.
Similarly, we do not know the specifics about the crisis in the churches that originally received John’s three letters. However, we do know it was precipitated by the actions of particular people who taught some brand of heresy about Jesus Christ and disturbed the faith of many (1 John 2:18-19). What is clear—and as important today as then—is that the apostolic teaching on the significance of Jesus’ life and death is the authoritative source we must hold to (1 John 1:1-4). John tells us that the true significance of Jesus is found in His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection and not, for instance, in His religious and ethical teachings, as important as those may be.
Likewise, when James teaches not to show favoritism for the rich in the church (James 2:1-9) or admonishes employers to deal justly with hired workers (James 5:1-6), it isn’t hard to apply the thought today. So, instead of seeing the specificity of the epistles as a problem, we can be thankful God showed us His thoughts about actual life situations in the ancient world and deemed they would speak into lives in every generation—even today’s.
God showed us His thoughts about actual life situations in the ancient world and deemed they would speak into lives in every generation.
We can hear the Bible as God’s Word to us today when we put ourselves within the spiritual context of the books. The epistles were written to Christian believers. While anyone today, regardless of religious belief, can read the words of the New Testament, those who share the faith of the biblical writer can best understand what they read. The apostle John explains in his gospel that he writes the story of Jesus “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). The premise of faith in Christ is the most fundamental assumption the biblical writers expect and wish to share with their readers.
When we align our assumptions about the New Testament with those of its authors, we become better Bible readers. The Bible as a whole presents the sweeping story of God’s redemption of humankind. The New Testament epistles give us examples of real people who became part of that story through their conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, first the authors themselves and then the people to whom they wrote. Until the story of one’s own life becomes a part of that larger story, one cannot truly understand the warnings, promises, encouragements, and exhortations of the epistles.
When we observe how God spoke through inspired apostles into the lives of first-century believers, the Holy Spirit whispers the significance of God’s Word into our hearts today. Therefore, despite questions we might have about the language, history, culture, and geography of the first century, the New Testament contains all we need to understand the message of God’s love for us in Christ. It is sufficient in every generation. We are not the people to whom the epistles were first sent, but when we identify ourselves with those original readers by sharing their same faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Word written to them is His Word written to us.
Illustrations by MUTI