Letters from God

What do you think of when it comes to letters? A gas bill? A tax demand? A love letter? When was the last time you wrote one? Not an email, but a letter with pen and paper? They seem to be going out of fashion. But they have a place.

There are almost 80 references to letters in the Scriptures. Some gave opportunity for God to display his power - such as the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Others caused people to pray - such as Hezekiah in 2 Kings 19:14.

The council in Jerusalem sent a letter to the Gentile churches which prevented a split in the infant Jesus movement (Acts 15:23, 30).  The entire Corinthian church were a ‘letter’ written on Paul’s heart,

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:1–3 NIV11)

Letters matter to God. He commissioned lots of them which have been preserved in the New Testament. They are called “Epistles”. You have probably read them, but have you thought about how to read them? First, some background.

The New Testament contains 21 letters. That’s 21 out of the 27 NT books - a high proportion of the whole. 13 are from Paul, while the other 8 are called ‘general’ epistles. Hebrews is anonymous, while the rest are by Peter, James, Jude and John.

Some are written to churches (Colossians), some to leaders (Timothy), some to groups of churches (1 & 2 Peter), some to individuals (Philemon) and some to unknown people (Hebrews). At least one letter was intended to be circulated to more than one church, and we suspect this was the norm,

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” (Col 4:16 NIV11)

Have you ever found some of the NT letters confusing? It’s hardly surprising when you consider that you are listening to one side of the conversation. I have a neighbour with a very loud voice. In the warm weather she walks in her garden talking to her children on the phone. I try not to listen, but it’s impossible not to at times. As a result I know a lot more about her family than she realises. I have only heard her side, but I can guess a lot of what her children are saying by her responses.

That’s the way to read a letter in the Bible. The author is not writing a newspaper article, a blog or an essay. They are writing to help real people with specify issues. Here are some tips on reading an epistle. Try them next time you read one.

1. Read the epistle in one sitting, with the goal of seeing it as a whole.

2. Note clues about the situation

Look for repeated words and ideas and what is missing (like the lack of thanksgiving in Galatians). What is the writer unhappy about? What is the make-up of the community, and what is their relationship to the author?

3. Arguments – how does the writer argue, not just what does he argue

Note the examples the author uses; are they specific to the community he is writing to?  In what style is he making his arguments?

4. Read the Epistle through as a whole again, now that you’re beginning to understand it and its background.  This time listen to it speaking rather than seeking clues.

5. Conclusions – What did it mean?  What does it mean?

What is the overall effect of the letter? What did the writer want to convince that particular community to do? What might God want to teach us in the 21st century from this ancient document and from the situation behind it?  What does it mean to us and how do we apply it?

Remember, Epistles are meant to help us live the Christian life well.

“The pattern of God’s own heart is the final goal of human obedience and submission. We find that heart lived out in the life of Jesus, and the statutes of Israel and the Epistles call us to live out of that heart.” (‘Searching for the Pattern’, by John Mark Hicks)

Ideas and Questions for Reflection

  1. Why do you think God gave us letters, not just gospels?
  2. Do you have a favourite letter? What is it about that letter that connects for you?
  3. Could you make it a Bible study project to become an ‘expert’ in one of the letters?

AIM UK & Ireland

The next session is on the 18th of June and covers New Testament Interpretation. If you'd be interested in joining us, please go to the website or drop me an email.