The New Testament Letters - Context


Purpose: To explain the need for Hermeneutics or the ability to interpret the epistles correctly given its unique characteristics. Chapter 2 will focus on literary context and chapter 3 on cultural context.  

Lesson Objectives: The student will be able to understand the different rules of Hermeneutics for the study of Epistles and be able to apply the Epistles to their lives as they were intended to.

Video content:  

Welcome back to Understanding your Bible. Last time we had a look at the basics of interpretation and the need for a good translation. We talked about why it’s important to understand the reason why the Bible was written and to whom it was written. It makes a difference in how we understand it for our own lives. We also talked about how it’s important to have a good translation and possibly a study Bible on hand so that you can enhance your ability to read the Bible.

The true meaning of the biblical text for us today is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken. But it cannot mean something different than what was originally intended to mean when it was first spoken. The text cannot mean what it never meant. Some people would try to give it new meaning and then give the Holy Spirit credit for it. The Holy Spirit cannot be called in to contradict himself, and he is the one who inspired the original intent. Therefore, this course is intended to help us discover that original intent, and in guiding us as we try faithfully to apply that meaning to our own situations.

Today we’re going to be looking at the context of the epistles. Remember that the reason for writing these epistles was for a specific purpose. On the one hand, they seem easy to interpret and yet on the other there are strange things that we don’t know how to interpret. Things like how do we get around the clear implications in 1 Corinthians 11:12-16 that women should wear a head covering while praying and prophesying-or the clear implication that they are to pray and prophesy in the community gathered to worship?

One of the important things to remember about the epistles is that they are occasional documents, and they are from the first century. Although they are inspired by the Holy Spirit and belong to all time, they were first written out of the context that the author had when he wrote to the original recipients. Sometimes it’s difficult to interpret these letters because of the occasional nature and because they were written to a first-century audience.

These letters were written because of some special circumstances. Almost all of the letters are written in response to some situation. Usually, it was a behaviour that needed correcting or a doctrinal error that needed setting right, or a misunderstanding that needed further explanation.

Our biggest problem with understanding and interpreting the epistles is that it’s like listening to one end of a telephone conversation and trying to figure out who is on the other end and what they are talking about. We must remember that the theology that is spoken about is because of a situation at hand. It’s because of this that we need to go to other places in the Bible to help us understand a fuller concept of some theological discussions.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:10-12, Paul says that he has been informed by people from Chloe’s household; 5:1 also refers to a report of information. In 7:1 he says, “now for the matters that you wrote about,” and many times during the book you see the repeated phrase, “now about” in 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; and 16:12. All of these are likely items from a letter that Paul received from the church. He’s trying to communicate to them answers to questions that they have sent him.


Historical context

Make sure you read and reread the letter so that you get a good sense of the historical context. In this sense, the overall big picture is important to understand when you try to read individual sentences or statements. In order to understand the historical context, most study Bibles have a section of introduction at the beginning of the book. It’s helpful to read this before going into Bible study on a certain letter so that you understand the reason for writing the letter, the group of people that it was written to, the major themes that are in the letter and any particularities that the scholars have picked up that will be helpful for understanding.


Literary Context

Whenever we want to study a passage and understand the context, we should read the entire book in one sitting so that we have a clear image in our mind as to the flow of the passage. When we have done this, we are ready to look at the Literary Context of the passage (what the passage meant to the original readers).  

I’d like you to think about the last time you wrote a letter. How many of you like to write letters? Who prefers to write emails to letters? Have any of you carried on a long correspondence with a friend or relative by letter?

One of the most important Ways to think about literary context is to think in paragraphs. Try to explain what and why Paul is saying what he is saying in this paragraph.

The Nature of Letters & Epistles:

How would you begin a letter, what form would you use? How would you close the letter? Is it always the same? What goes in the middle of the letter? 

All of the New Testament with the exception of the Gospels, Acts and Revelation are considered Epistles. Two of the styles of writing in Paul’s day were either Epistles, an artistic literary form or species of literature that was intended for the public, or Letters that were intended only for the person or persons to whom they were addressed.  Paul usually writes in a style of letters, but he also intended them to be read in the churches and even in place of his presence in the church. Almost all of Paul’s letters have the same form. They include:

  1. Name (Paul...),
  2. Name of the recipient (to the church of God in Corinth),
  3. Greeting (Grace and peace to you from God our Father…),
  4. Prayer Wish or Thanksgiving (I always thank God for you…),
  5. the Body of the letter and
  6. Final Greeting and Farewell (The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you…).

Small Group Learning: (20-25 min)

Have the group look up the following letters to see the similarities between how we write letters and the similarities in the NT letters. 

1.      1 Corinthians 1:1-4, 16:19-24

2.      Romans 1: 7,8, 16:20

3.      Philippians 1:1-4, 4:21-23

4.      Colossians 1:1-3, 4:18

5.      1 Thess. 1:1-2, 5:23-28

6.      3 John 1,2,14

7.      1 Peter 1:1-3, 5:1

*Exception to the Prayer Wish: Galatians, 1 Timothy, Titus.

1.      If the intention of a letter is to correspond to the church, what portion of the correspondence do we have? What is missing? If you were to read some of the letters you wrote to someone and didn’t have the corresponding previous letter, what would you do to find out the reason for writing the letter? How does that affect the interpretation of your letter and Paul’s letter?  

2.      Have someone with a study Bible read out loud the “occasion and purpose”, found in the introduction at the beginning of the book, that Paul had for writing to the Corinthians.

3.      If you are in a large group, break the group down into smaller groups of 4-5. Get together and read 1 Cor 5:1-13 on the incestuous man. Assign one person to be the reporter and one to record the discussion. 

a)      Once you have read the passage you will now discuss together the following. Remember to THINK IN PARAGRAPHS. 

i) What is the point of the whole passage? What is it all about and give specifics? 

ii)      In a compact way state the context of each paragraph.

iii)    In one sentence or two for each paragraph try to explain why you think Paul says this right at this point.

iv)    Have the group discuss what parts are still unclear and how they would find answers to their questions. 

4.      Have each group report and share the areas in common and identify if one group is missing the point. Make sure that the group understands that this is a discovery of what the text meant to the original readers. Let them know that with practice they can have a reasonably clear understanding of the text without the help of a commentary. 

Conclusion: Let them know that next time we will look at the same passage and discover how this passage should be used for today.  

Complete and Continue