As we come now to the New Testament letters (Romans–Jude), we are stepping into familiar territory for most Christians. These letters are theologically rich, and we often find them speaking directly into our lives. But there are some important aspects of these letters that we need to consider as we seek to understand them.
Perhaps the most significant factor to keep in mind is that all of these New Testament letters are situational (commentators call them “occasional”). They’re all grounded in real life situations. They address real needs, real problems, real questions. When we read these letters, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. Perhaps that sounds a bit deflating for those who feel the letters speaking directly to them. But consider this: All of the theology in these letters is practical theology. It’s applied theology.
When we read 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul gives us some profound theology. In one instance, he explains that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (6:19). That’s deep theology! It ought to be written about in theology textbooks and preached in sermons. But we also need to realize that Paul spoke that truth for a practical reason. The situation that led Paul to record that theological truth was the sexual immorality of the Corinthian church. They seemed to think they could be sexually promiscuous because they weren’t harming their souls: only “the body” was involved. But Paul responds by saying, “Are you kidding me? Your body matters! It’s the temple of the Spirit! Plus you don’t even own your body; it now belongs to God.”
The situational nature of these letters should always lead us to ask not just what theology is presented, but also why that particular doctrine is presented in that particular letter.
One welcome aspect of the letters is that they tend to speak directly. Whereas poetry and wisdom literature often communicates in imagery and figures of speech, the letters are filled with commands and direct teaching. The letters still use metaphors and rhetorical devices, but in general their tone is more explanatory than poetic. For most modern readers, that makes them a bit easier to follow.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few tips for reading the letters:
1. Try to reconstruct the original situation.
We’re only getting one side of a conversation when we read the letters. But in order to fully understand what’s being said, we want to grasp the original situation as well as we can. What kind of relationship does the author seem to have with his readers? What types of sins seem to characterize that church? How is the author encouraged by his readers? Does the doctrinal teaching seem to be directed toward a particular form of false teaching? Looking for answers to these types of questions will help us understand what the letter means.
2. Trace the flow of thought.
Always remember that these are more than collections of verses. The authors wrote these letters to make points, to present arguments, to challenge their readers over the course of the letter. So try to trace the way the argument unfolds. When you find a practical exhortation, ask if the author is grounding that exhortation in some theological truth he presented earlier. You don’t understand an individual verse until you understand how it fits within the overall flow of the letter.
Before you can determine how the letter speaks to you today, you have to ask how the letter spoke to the original audience. Always try to put yourself in their sandals. How would Paul’s rebukes have felt to you if you were a member of the church in Corinth? How would Paul’s encouragement have given you hope if you were a member of the church in Thessalonica? What cultural factors would have shaped their understanding of a particular teaching, such as Paul explaining how to relate to meat that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8?
4. Explore the theology in the letter.
What does the letter teach us about God? What does it teach us about humanity, or sin, or salvation, or the end times? We always have to keep in mind that these doctrines were presented in practical situations, but they still have much to teach us about theology.
5. Ask how the letter should be practically applied today.
We’re never done reading the Bible until we respond to its truth appropriately. (Even then we’re not done.) So once we’ve tried to understand how the original audience would have understood the letter, we need to ask what implications it holds for how we live our lives today. Sometimes this is easy to figure out (though not necessarily easy to follow through on), like when Paul tells us to rejoice always. Other times it can be difficult and even controversial to figure out how the letters apply today (think of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 or speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14). But the point is, we need to examine these letters carefully and apply them appropriately.