Introduction to the Epistles of the New Testament

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The Epistles of the New Testament
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The Epistles of the New Testament

Why so many epistles?

At first glace, it may seem odd that the most of the books in the New Testament are epistles (letters). The Christian faith is built on historical events described primarily in the narratives of the Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, like their Old Testament counterparts, the Gospels and Acts often did not explicitly state all the implications of their narratives for Christian readers in different times and places. For this reason, in his wisdom God ordained that epistles be written to apply the gospel message about Christ to specific needs and challenges that particular churches faced.

The New Testament epistles contain theology applied to the life of the Church. They should not be viewed as fleeting personal letters. They possess an official character by virtue of their association with the apostles of Christ. Yet, neither should they be treated as formal theological treatises. They are letters, written to meet relatively specific needs.

To understand New Testament epistles correctly, we must make a genuine effort to understand the problems that each letter addressed. Though our problems may not be identical to those of the first readers, discovering similarities between ourselves and the original readers will help us apply the epistles to our lives in responsible ways.

Paul's Life and Epistles

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, became God's instrument to make known the "mystery" of the gospel, especially to the Gentiles (Eph. 3:2 6). Familiar with Greek thought and carefully trained in Judaism, he had violently opposed the Christian faith. An extraordinary revelation of Jesus Christ, however, resulted in his conversion and subsequent ministry (Acts 9:1 22).

We know almost nothing of Paul's early ministry in the provinces of Cilicia and Syria, which lasted over a decade (Acts 9:30; 11:25 26; Gal. 1:21; 2:1). In the late A.D. 40s his missionary labors began in earnest. Commissioned by the Church in Antioch with Barnabas as his co-worker, Paul first took the Gospel to the island of Cyprus and to several cities in the province of Galatia, in the middle of Asia Minor (Acts 1314). According to some interpreters, it was upon his return to Antioch that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to counteract the influence of certain men known then as "the circumcision group" (Gal. 2:12) who later became known as Judaizers. This group wanted to impose traditional Jewish applications of the Law of Moses on Gentile believers.

After the council of apostles and leaders met in Jerusalem (Acts 15), around A.D. 50-52 Paul set out on a second journey, this time accompanied by Silas. They visited some of the previously established churches, recruited Timothy along the way, and proceeded to evangelize Europe. Churches were established in a number of important cities such as Philippi, Thessalonica (both in the northern province of Macedonia) and Corinth (Acts 15:36-18:22). He resided in Corinth for a year and a half, and while there he wrote his two letters to the Thessalonians, who were in great need of encouragement and instruction as a result of severe persecution.

A third journey (c. A.D. 53 57) took Paul through the Galatian region again. He then settled for an extended period of time in Ephesus, an important metropolis on the west coast of Asia Minor (Acts 19). During this stay, Paul heard some disturbing news about a number of problems in Corinth. The important letter known as 1 Corinthians was Paul's response to this situation. Some believe that Paul also wrote Galatians around this time.

Continuing his third journey, Paul then traveled north through Macedonia, where he heard from Titus that the Church in Corinth as a whole had repented. In response, the apostle penned 2 Corinthians, and followed this letter with a personal visit. Upon arriving in Corinth, Paul wrote his famous epistle to the Romans, in which he carefully articulated the distinctiveness of his preaching in the light of the many objections he had faced during his ministry. After three months, the apostle retraced his steps on the way back to Judea (Acts 20:1-21:16).

A riot in Jerusalem led to Paul's arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Caesarea for two years (Acts 21:27; 24:27). After he appealed his case to the emperor, he was taken to Rome, where he waited for at least another two years to see the emperor (Acts 27:1; 28:31). Paul's so called "Prison Epistles" (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) were probably written from Rome in the late A.D. 50s or early 60s. Some interpreters place one or more of these letters in the period of the Caesarean imprisonment or even further back during his stay in Ephesus.

Although the book of Acts does not give us information beyond this Roman imprisonment, it is likely that Paul was released and engaged in yet a fourth missionary journey. He may have traveled as far west as Spain (Rom. 15:24), then east to Ephesus and other regions of the Aegean (1 Tim. 1:3; Tit. 1:5; 3:12). Both 1 Timothy and Titus, which along with 2 Timothy are known as the Pastoral Epistles, may have been written during this period. According to tradition, in the mid 60s Paul was imprisoned again, this time in Rome. From there, he wrote 2 Timothy shortly before his execution (2 Tim. 4:6 18).

During his remarkable career, Paul not only brought the good news of Jesus to many places where it had not been before, but he also left behind in his epistles a treasury of Christian teaching, the depth of which the church has not yet exhausted.

The General Epistles

Unfortunately, the magnitude of Paul's achievement has often led Christians to ignore the rest of New Testament epistles, but God used other individuals (James, Peter, John, Jude, and the unknown author of Hebrews) to reveal truths and provide perspectives not found in the Pauline material. These letters are often known collectively as the "General Epistles" or "Catholic Epistles" because many were written to more universal audiences than were Paul's carefully targeted letters. Unlike Paul's letters, which are called by the names of their recipients, it is traditional to refer to the General Epistles by the names of their authors. This is partly because we do not know much about the Churches addressed, and partly because some of them were written to multiple Churches.

Some interpreters have referred to the General Epistles as "tracts for the times" because they deal largely with issues that nearly all Christians face. All Christians are exhorted to rejoice in the midst of trials (Jas 1:2; 1 Pet. 4:13) and to contend for the faith delivered to us (Jude 1:3). We readily learn to respond to those general exhortations with faith and obedience and so to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).

Related Resources:

Pauline Epistles

Overview of the Book of Romans
Overview of the Book of 1 Corinthians
Overview of the Book of 2 Cornithians
Overview of the Book of Galatians
Overview of the Book of Ephesians
Overview of the Book of Philippians
Overview of the Book of Colossians
Overview of the Book of 1 Thessalonians
Overview of the Book of 2 Thessalonians
Overview of the Book of 1 Timothy
Overview of the Book of 2 Timothy
Overview of the Book of Titus
Overview of the Book of Philemon

The Paul Project
Articles on the Pauline Epistles
Q&A on the Pauline Epistles
Sermons on the Pauline Epistles

General Epistles

Overview of the Book of Hebrews
Overview of the Book of James
Overview of the Book of 1 Peter
Overview of the Book of 2 Peter
Overview of the Book of 1 John
Overview of the Book of 2 John
Overview of the Book of 3 John
Overview of the Book of Jude
Overview of the Book of Revelation

Articles on the General Epistles & Revelation
Q&A on the General Epistles & Revelation
Sermons on the General Epistles & Revelation

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).