The majority of the New Testament is made up of epistles (all except the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation). These documents are written for a specific occasion or event. Epistles often shed light onto a doctrinal disagreement or address a behavior that needs correcting within the early church.
On the surface, the Epistles may seem straight-forward, but sometimes these letters aren’t always easy to interpret.
For example, read 1 Corinthians 11:6 on the topic of head coverings:
“For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.”
There are several different ways to interpret this passage:
- The text has no applicability to modern believers and is merely cultural.
- The head covering stands for hair and women should wear their hair long.
- This is applicable still today and head-coverings should still be worn in worship settings.
- It is a symbol that stands for something in the modern world.
We have brothers and sisters in Christ who interpret this passage in these different ways. While it may change the way some people dress during worship services or choose to wear their hair, thepassage doesn’t subtract from the transforming truth of who Jesus Christ is and came to save—everyone.
When studying the Epistles, you will come across passages that are difficult. I encourage you to approach the text humbly and read several articles, commentaries, and Bible dictionaries that offer the different interpretations of the Scripture. Also, discuss the passage with friends.
As you dive into the Epistles in the next few days, notice the context of each passage.
Here are 7 Things to Remember When Studying the Epistles:
1. Epistles are letters meant to be read publically; letters are meant to be read by those to whom they’re addressed. Differences appear in an epistle like Romans and a much more personal letter, like Philemon. Yet both are useful for the Church today.
2. The Epistles were written to Christ-followers as they grow and live in the Body of Christ. While many of the instructions contain timeless truths, they must be read in historical and social context.
3. Many epistles or letters contain these six parts (with some exceptions):
- The name of the writer
- The name of the person or people the letter is written to
- A greeting
- The body of the letter
- Final greeting
4. Epistles were written as occasional documents (for a specific occasion) and in the first century—which makes interpretation trickier than other genres. As you read, find out the occasion for writing—consult a Bible dictionary or commentary for assistance. For example, for the book of Philippians, Paul was imprisoned and the Philippian church sent him a generous gift.
5. Because these letters are written for specific instances, they are not written to be complete Christian theology. (Sorry, not even Romans!). While there is theology mixed into these letters, they must be taken in context with the time they were written and the occasion for which they were written, not as completely doctrinal treatises.
6. Try and read each letter as it was meant to be read-in one sitting.
7. You may find yourself running across passages that you struggle to understand or interpret. If you get tripped up over unfamiliar phrases or practice, remember the point of the letter still rings true for the Body of Christ today. If you are still stumped, consult a few commentaries, Bible dictionaries, or trusted resources for insight.