Hermeneutics - Epistles

Overview of the Epistles Genre

The Epistles are a set of letters found in the New Testament written by early church apostles to individuals or to churches. They are a favorite genre of Biblical study because they offer a rich trove of theology, as well as practical instruction for Christians and churches.

Through these letters the authors sought to clarify doctrine and its proper application, a very necessary task given the polytheistic Greco-Roman world view the culture in which the early church was growing. Many times the arguments advanced are an effort to clarify Christian doctrine against the cultural grain. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul admits these arguments may seem foolish to people of the time, but they are based on God’s revelation in history.

It’s helpful to understand the cultural point of view in order to understand the logic and arguments being put forth by the authors. Often the epistle authors write with three major viewpoints in mind:

  1. Greek Dualism
    This philosophy taught that reality is divided into the spiritual and physical. Humans are spirits encased—or enslaved—in a physical body. The authors of the epistles advanced both doctrinal and practical arguments against dualism:
    • Doctrinal arguments against dualism:
      • Dualism conflicts with several attributes of Jesus including his full humanity (1 John 1:1, 4:1-2 & John 1:14), full deity (Col. 2:9 & Heb. 1:3), and the fact that he experienced bodily resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-17).
      • Dualism conflicts with the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christians (1 Cor. 15:12, 18, 19, 50-58)
      • Dualism conflicts with the singular authority of Christ to forgive sins and rule creation since forgiveness was based on a blood-shedding atoning sacrifice, and Jesus’ right to rule is based on his sacrifice (Col. 1:15-20).
    • Practical arguments against dualism:
      • The philosophy of dualism often led to pervasive license within the culture. If humans were spirits trapped within a body, and the physical world was separated from the spiritual world, then the physical could be indulged without it harming the spiritual. Paul uses Christian doctrine to argue against this in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:12-20.
      • Conversely, the philosophy of dualism also led to asceticism. If the physical realm trapped and imprisoned the spiritual, then one might be able to escape this prison by radical self-denial. See Paul’s argument against this in Colossians 2:20-23.
  2. Spiritual Illumination by Mystical Experience
    The Roman culture embraced mystery religions from Asia, offering “secret” knowledge and mystical awareness—revelation—to those willing to follow its often-bombastic rituals. In contrast, Christianity was emerging with the offer of revelation through the observance and study of God’s movement in history and His communication of truth.
    • Doctrinal arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • God offers objective revelation, in the face of the tendency toward “gnosis” and false teachings (1 Tim. 6:20-21, Col. 2:8-9, 2 Cor. 10:3-5)
      • Spiritual revelation is based on historic fact (1 Cor. 15:1-10; see also Luke 1:1-4)
    • Practical arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • Group gatherings were to be orderly, in contrast with the chaotic rituals of the mystics (1 Cor. 11:20-22; 14:6-19)
      • They were to stress faithfulness to the Word of God above experience. (Rom. 12:1-2)
  3. Cyclical View of History
    The Roman culture regarded man’s existence as being in an endless cycle, with both history and nature on an endless and unchanging loop. There was no sense of ultimate purpose or destiny to human history, and no sense of progression in history. This stands against the epistle’s argument for the importance of God’s revelation of salvation over time (1 Thes. 4:13-5:11), and the hope that Christians can derive from knowing there is a beginning (Gen. 1:1), a meaningful sequence of events, and a final culmination.

Epistle Overview

Read the entire epistle and identify:

  • Author, audience and others referred to in the letter - Look within the epistle itself for information about the author, audience, and other people mentioned in the letter.
  • The main themes of the letter - When identifying the main themes look for:
    • Repeated terms or phrases
    • Statements of purpose within the epistle—sometimes the author will say something like “I am writing to you for this purpose...”—e.g. 2 Peter 3:1
    • The relative “space” given by the author to a particular point—if he devotes more time to a point.
  • The purpose for the letter—Why do you think it was written?
    From your overview study, come up with an overall purpose for the letter—why it was written. Consider the original audience as well as the main themes you identified. This purpose should take into account most if not all of the main themes. This will help ensure your understanding of individual passages is rooted in the author’s original intent.

Overview Step Example

Author, audience, and others mentioned:

Author Audience Third Parties
  • 1:1 Paul an apostle of Christ by God’s command
  • 1:13—16 former blasphemer, persecutor who acted ignorantly; foremost of sinners
  • 1:20 involved in church discipline in Ephesus (?)
  • 2:7 appointed an apostle, teacher to the Gentiles
  • 3:14,15 desires to come to Ephesus, but may be delayed
  • 1:2 Timothy, Paul’s true child in the faith
  • 1:3 In Ephesus at Paul’s urging to instruct
  • 1:18 entrusted to fight the good fight, in accordance with prophecies made about him
  • 3:1ff (5:22) appoint worthy elders and deacons
  • 4:12 young
  • 5:23 drink wine for frequent stomach and other ailments
  • 6:12 called to eternal life, made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses
  • 1:3,4 teachers of strange doctrine centering on speculations and genealogies
  • 1:6,7 teachers of fruitless discussion, making ignorant and confident claims about the Law
  • 1:20 Hymenaeus and Alexander’s faith is shipwrecked, and Paul delivered them to Satan to learn not to blaspheme
  • 2:9ff women not adorning themselves properly, or acting properly in meetings (?)
  • 6:3—10 false teachers who seek profit from their message
  • 6:17 some are rich and having moral problems associated with wealth
  • 6:20,21 some have left the faith pursuing what is falsely called “knowledge”

 

Main Themes:

Proper conduct in the body of Christ (3:15)

  • Prayer for state officials (2:1,2)
  • Appropriate roles for women (2:9—15)
  • Character of elders and deacons (3:2—13)
  • Proper conduct in relationships in the church (5:1—16)
  • Treatment of elders (5:17—21)
  • Slave/master relationships (6:1,2)

Instructing those in error (1:3; 6:17,18)

  • Love is goal of instruction (1:5)
  • Countering speculation and distortions of Law (1:3—7)
  • Public reading of scripture and teaching (4:13)
  • Oppose the teaching falsely called “knowledge” (6:20)
  • Maintaining sound principle (3:1,15; 4:6,11,16; 5:7,21; 6:2,17,18)

Character of a worker (4:6,12)

  • Self discipline (4:7—12)
  • Progress in the Word (4:14—16)
  • Relating to those older (5:1)
  • Flee pursuit of wealth, pursue righteousness… (6:11)
  • Guard what has been entrusted (6:14,20)

Summary: Considering the audience and main themes, why was this book written?

Paul, the apostle, writes to the younger Timothy encouraging him personally, and focusing his attention on the key issues threatening the church in Ephesus.

Passage Study - Step 1

Step 1: Examine the structure of each paragraph within the epistle

  1. Outline the epistle by paragraph
    Read the entire epistle, noting where the overall book breaks into passages suitable for more in-depth study. By reviewing the entire epistle, you'll be able to make more sense of each passage by seeing how they relate to the total picture. Such an overview will also help you get to the epistle’s primary purpose, argument and intended audience.
    Remember that paragraph identification is helpful to understand the flow of the letter, but isn't an exact science. The apostolic authors did not use paragraphs (or verses) when they wrote their letters.
    Here is an example of how different Bible translations and authors have divided the paragraphs for 1 Timothy 1:
     NASB   NIV   RSV   NEB   JND Kelly   Wuest   Leffel 
    1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2
    3-17 3-7 3-7 3-4 3-11 3-4 3-7 
          5-7   5-11  
      8-11 8-11 8-11     8-11
      12-14 12-17 12-14 12-17 12-17 12-17
      15-17   15-17      
    18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 
  2. Paragraph Diagram: Outline the individual paragraph's structure - Your goal here is to identify the main and supporting points the author is making.
    • What is the main point of the preceding & subsequent paragraphs?
      Note the themes and logic of the passages that come before and after the one you are studying. This provides the context of the passage you are studying, and gives you clues about your passage’s purpose.
    • What is the main point of this paragraph? - Tips for finding the main point of a given passage—look for:
      • Connective words that indicate the author is drawing a conclusion such as “therefore...” and “so then...”
      • Statements of general principle or evaluation. (1 Cor. 8:1—“Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies”)
      • Imperatives—commands (1 Cor. 7:10—“The wife should not leave her husband”)
      • Independent clauses (1 Cor. 1:4—“I thank my God always concerning you”)
      • Repeated terms (1 Cor. 13—“love")
    • How is the main point supported, illustrated, or explained? Tips for finding supporting points in a given passage:
      • Look for connective words:
        • “Because” or “such as”—often they justify or give reason for the main point. (Rom. 5:6)
        • "But,” “however,” or “if”—often they offer a contrast to the main point, or qualify it. (Phil. 2:17)
        • “That” or “so that”—often they apply the main point or show its results (Col. 3:12)
      • Look for examples of a general principle: (1 Cor. 9:24)
      • Look for indicatives—statements of truth that motivate and inform imperatives (commands) (Gal. 5:17)
      • Look for dependent clauses that qualify or clarify the main point (Phil. 3:20-21—“...from which we eagerly wait for a Savior who will transform the body of your humble state into conformity with the body of His glory..."

Paragraphy Diagram Example - 1 Corinthians 1:4-9

"I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you in Christ, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."

Main point:  "I thank my God always concern in you..." (independent clause)

Supporting points:

Why for the grace given to you in Christ
Result that in everything you were enriched in Him
How in all speech and knowledge as Christ’s testimony was confirmed in you
Result so that you do no lack any gift
Result awaiting the revelation of Christ
Qualification who will confirm you to the end
How blameless
When in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ
Why God is faithful
How through His calling into fellowship with His Son Jesus our Lord

Structure summary:  Paul is thankful to God concerning the Corinthians:

Reason #1: God’s grace in Christ

  • enriching in speech and knowledge
  • not lacking in any gift
  • awaiting the revelation of Christ who will confirm you to the end blameless in the day of the Lord

Reason #2: God is faithful

  • through His calling into fellowship with Christ

Passage Study - Step 2

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain Roman and Jewish cultural practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning. (See Appendix A on The Epistles in Greco-Roman Times)
  2. Theological - What truths do we learn about God, man, salvation, discipleship, etc. through this passage? See specific questions below:
    1. What does the passage teach about key theological topics?
      1. God’s plan of salvation on earth
        What does the passage teach about God’s program on earth? How does the passage define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
        Pay close attention to terms used to describe salvation. For instance, "redemption," "regeneration," "sanctified," etc. What do these words mean? See a Bible dictionary. How do these terms relate to the rest of Scripture?
      2. Jesus and his nature
        What does the passage teach about Jesus, including his nature and his relationship with God, the Holy Spirit, the church, and others?
        Remember that New Testament letters were written to clarify misunderstandings about who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish.
      3. A life of discipleship or the church
        What does the passage teach about the sacrifices and benefits of a life of discipleship? What does it teach about the nature of the church and its mission?
      4. Other doctrinal points found in the passage
    2. What language is used to describe this theology?
      Identify words or phrases that are intended to convey truth about God, man, salvation, and discipleship. Understand how the words were used and understood by the original audience. For example in 1 Tim. 1:12-17, Paul uses the terms “king eternal” and “glory”—terms that indicate a sovereign ruler, worthy of being bestowed honor because of his superiority. Understanding the meaning of terms like this greatly helps inform your understanding of the passage.

Content Study Example - 1 Timothy 1:12-17

A Prayer of Paul

Main point: Begins and ends with praising God (v. 12, 17)

  • The Lord is indeed worthy of our praise!  The main point focuses on the absolute “otherness” of Christ, as eternal, invisible, and immortal.  Yet, at the same time, He is our King and Lord—he relates to us in history and personally.
  • Note the details of word study on “King” and “glory”
  • Gratitude is the only appropriate, sane, response to genuine understanding of the greatness of Christ.

Supporting Point #1: We praise him because he gives us strength (v. 12)

  • Note that we operate on the basis of the power of the invisible, eternal, immortal King.  (that’s why we can “do all things”  Phil. 4:13)
  • Specifically, His strength is evident in:
  • Putting us in his service—no one is qualified to be God’s servant, yet what a privilege it is.
  • In his eternal being, he has more grace and mercy than I have sin

Supporting Point #2: We praise him because of his redemptive power (v. 15)

  • An a fortiori argument—if Christ can save Paul, he can save anyone!
  • The Judge of the universe is patient—note the repeated formula of the O.T., as Jonah said, “for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2). 

Conclusion: If we understand the depth of our sin, as Paul did so keenly, we will be driven by gratitude and thanks to Christ

Passage Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the passage

  1. What was the original audience to do with this message?
  2. How might you apply this to yourself or your church?

Application Study Example - 1 Timothy 1:12-17

As Paul encourages Timothy in the next paragraph to “fight the good fight”, it is crucial for him to know why and how.  This prayer of Paul’s supplies it for him:

  • Gratitude motivated: How extraordinary is Christ’s salvation, that we have not only forgiveness, but the honor to be pressed into the service of the King!
  • Divinely empowered: It is Christ who strengthens us.  Timothy was all too aware of his fear and anxiety.
  • Drawing focus to the Lord—in contrast to the human speculation characteristic of the religion practiced by so many in Ephesus—and U. S.

Appendix A - The Epistles in Greco-Roman Times

The epistles were written in the context of a Greco-Roman world view, and many times the arguments advanced are an effort to clarify Christian doctrine against the cultural grain. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul admits these arguments may seem foolish to people of the time, but they are based on God’s revelation in history.

It’s helpful to understand the cultural point of view in order to understand the logic and arguments being put forth by the authors. Often the epistle authors write with three major viewpoints in mind:

  1. Greek Dualism
    This philosophy taught that reality is divided into the spiritual and physical. Humans are spirits encased—or enslaved—in a physical body. The authors of the epistles advanced both doctrinal and practical arguments against dualism:
    • Doctrinal arguments against dualism:
      • Dualism conflicts with several attributes of Jesus including his full humanity (1 John 1:1, 4:1-2 & John 1:14), full deity (Col. 2:9 & Heb. 1:3), and the fact that he experienced bodily resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-17).
      • Dualism conflicts with the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christians (1 Cor. 15:12, 18, 19, 50-58)
      • Dualism conflicts with the singular authority of Christ to forgive sins and rule creation since forgiveness was based on a blood-shedding atoning sacrifice, and Jesus’ right to rule is based on his sacrifice (Col. 1:15-20).
    • Practical arguments against dualism:
      • The philosophy of dualism often led to pervasive license within the culture. If humans were spirits trapped within a body, and the physical world was separated from the spiritual world, then the physical could be indulged without it harming the spiritual. Paul uses Christian doctrine to argue against this in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:12-20.
      • Conversely, the philosophy of dualism also led to asceticism. If the physical realm trapped and imprisoned the spiritual, then one might be able to escape this prison by radical self-denial. See Paul’s argument against this in Colossians 2:20-23.
  2. Spiritual Illumination by Mystical Experience
    The Roman culture embraced mystery religions from Asia, offering “secret” knowledge and mystical awareness—revelation—to those willing to follow its often-bombastic rituals. In contrast, Christianity was emerging with the offer of revelation through the observance and study of God’s movement in history and His communication of truth.
    • Doctrinal arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • God offers objective revelation, in the face of the tendency toward “gnosis” and false teachings (1 Tim. 6:20-21, Col. 2:8-9, 2 Cor. 10:3-5)
      • Spiritual revelation is based on historic fact (1 Cor. 15:1-10; see also Luke 1:1-4)
    • Practical arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • Group gatherings were to be orderly, in contrast with the chaotic rituals of the mystics (1 Cor. 11:20-22; 14:6-19)
      • They were to stress faithfulness to the Word of God above experience. (Rom. 12:1-2)
  3. Cyclical View of History
    The Roman culture regarded man’s existence as being in an endless cycle, with both history and nature on an endless and unchanging loop. There was no sense of ultimate purpose or destiny to human history, and no sense of progression in history. This stands against the epistle’s argument for the importance of God’s revelation of salvation over time (1 Thes. 4:13-5:11), and the hope that Christians can derive from knowing there is a beginning (Gen. 1:1), a meaningful sequence of events, and a final culmination.

Christian Ethics in the Context of Greco-Roman Culture

The Christian world view stood in stark contrast with the popular views of basic social structures of the time, including slavery, religion, family, and government. As such, Christianity became a driving force of social transformation in these arenas. This heart of this ethos is summed up in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. For more on this topic, see John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus.

  • Slavery: Slavery was widespread in the Greco-Roman culture, with slaves outnumbering the free. Though the culture promoted a sharp divide between slaves and the rest of society, the Christian was to see every person as a brother and an equal. Slavery is addressed throughout the epistles: slave status in the church (Philemon 8-21); freedom is to be valued (1 Cor. 7:20-24); relationship and attitude between slave and master (Eph. 6:5-9); and the condemnation of slavery (1 Tim 1:10—cf. Ex 21:16; Philemon 8).
  • Jews and Gentiles: The epistle authors also challenged the divide between the Jews and Gentiles of the time, calling on them to unite as Christians and regard each other as brothers (Gal. 3:28). They were to practically care for each others’ needs (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8-9). They were also given instructions on cultural and religious practices, in light of their new status as Christians, including the status of circumcision (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:2-4) and eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-13). The authors were helping the new Christians understand what practices were controlled by doctrine and what were controlled by cultural norms.
  • Family: Cultural practices dictated a much higher status for men over women, which played out in family life at the time. Women and children were to be subservient. The new Christian ethics of equality and community challenged this, calling for a mutual submission and respect. Ephesians 5:21-33 places the primary burden of responsibility in the family on the man to love and care for his wife and children.
  • Government: Paul promoted an ethic of subordination and respect for the government, even when the government seemed unreasonable (1 Tim. 2:1-3; Rom. 12:14-13:7).

IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament by Craig Keener is a great verse-by-verse resouce on how the text is rooted in Jewish and Roman cultural practices and beliefs.

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