Today, we usually write letters with a specific purpose in mind and then often add other information too. The NT letters are similar, there was a reason for writing them, normally to address specific situations in the churches. Many were written either in response to dangerous false teaching spreading in the church, or to address problems such as disunity. Sometimes the apostle was answering questions from the church.
It is important to recognise that the Bible is not a book of dry academic systematic theology. Theological truths are not organised in logical systematic themes, but are revealed as the apostles applied theology to real-life situations in the churches in the first century. We need to recognise that the letters were not originally written to us, but to churches in the first century which were experiencing real problems, which the author was addressing. The authors took the great truths of Christian doctrine and applied them to concrete situations in the first century.
The form of letter writing
When they wrote letters, the apostles took the normal Greek style of writing letters and gave them Christian content. Greek letters normally had the following sections, which can be found in most of the letters in the NT.
1. The name of the writer, followed by a brief description
2. The name of the recipient(s), followed by a brief description
3. A greeting, “Grace and peace ...”
4. A thanksgiving for the readers and a prayer which often summarises the main themes of the letter.
5. The main body of the letter
6. Final greetings and news
Letters in the New Testament
In the NT, we have thirteen letters by Paul. Nine of these were written to churches, and four to individual co-workers (Timothy, Titus and Philemon). There are also nine general letters. One is anonymous (Hebrews), and the other eight are named by their author (James, Peter, John, Jude).
How should we read them?
First we need to observe what they are saying. Just as we would read a modern letter from beginning to end, so we should read the epistles as a whole. Identify the flow of the argument, or the specific issues addressed.
Secondly, we need to interpret the epistles in their historical context, asking who the original readers were, and why the letter was written to them. It is helpful to read the relevant section in Acts to find out the events surrounding the planting of the church. Then we need to identify the problems in the church that the author is addressing, and what response he wanted. To understand their original message we need to imagine we were part of that church, and find out what was going on in the church that required the letter to be written.
Thirdly, we should determine the eternal timeless truths and apply them by bringing them across the centuries to our situation today. It is essential to remember the cultural gap, that the letters were written 2000 years ago into a Mediterranean culture, often very different from our own.
Almost all of the NT letters address false teaching in the churches. The author speaks against the false teaching, as well as affirming the truths of the Gospel that the false teachers were undermining. For example, in the Book of Galatians, the legalists were teaching that all Gentile believers must become Jews and be circumcised before they can be real Christians. In his response, Paul shows that this teaching forsakes grace and returns people to the law, and so is not the real Gospel. It will help us understand the book better if we can identify the following
1. Who the false teachers were.
2. Determine the message they brought.
3. See the effect their teaching was having in the church.