Once upon a time, before relentless retail ads and Nigerian princes in need of assistance, email was something people looked forward to receiving. We even had a cute little voice announce each message for us: “You’ve got mail!”
It was awesome.
But before email, we had regular mail. People actually wrote words on paper, tucked that paper in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope, and dropped it in a mailbox so the Postal Service would deliver it to your house. We called those pieces of mail “letters” and people got super-excited when they received one.
Ah, the old days.
Please, Mister Postman
People have been writing letters for a long time. The earliest evidence that we have for written communication dates to 14th century B.C. (a letter from a Canaanite king ruling Jerusalem to the Egyptians, asking for military help), but you don’t need to head to a museum to read some ancient correspondence.
The Bible is full of ancient letters.
In fact, 75% of the New Testament is made up of letters written to various churches, groups, and individuals. Everything between Acts and Revelation is a letter, but to make it clear, here’s a list of what the old timers call “Epistles”:
1 & 2 Corinthians
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
1 & 2 Peter
1, 2, & 3 John
The point of the biblical letters was to communicate teaching, correct heresy and sinful behavior, and encourage leaders to stay true to the faith. Most of the letters, everything from Romans through Philemon, were written by the Apostle Paul (and some credit him with Hebrews as well). The other letters were written by the person whose name is on them: James, Peter, John, and Jude.
Can You Hear Me Now?
What’s important to remember about the letters in the Bible is that they were written first to specific people in history. They weren’t just written in the hopes that someone, somewhere in time would read them; they were intended to be read aloud to their recipients. So when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, his observations and statements were meant to be taken to heart by the people who heard the letter.
These letters still contain wisdom and insight for Christians living today, some 2,000 years later. That’s the beauty of the Bible—because God inspired its authors, the words and ideas they expressed in their time still have meaning and relevance in ours. Our task is to become so familiar with Scripture that we can correctly understand its teaching.
When reading the letters of the New Testament, it is helpful to remember their first context (the original audience) as you work out their meaning for today. Challenging passages can and should be read over and over again in order to get the full understanding. Also, regular discussion of the Scriptures with other believers—as well as study materials like commentaries and encyclopedias—help deepen your grasp of the text.
It is also helpful to remember that the first person Scripture applies to is yourself. In fact, that was the point of each and every letter in the Bible—the correction of individuals in their walk with Christ. As Paul wrote to Timothy:
“Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.”