According to the Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, an epistle is a letter of correspondence between two or more parties; the form in which several books of the New Testament were originally written. The word “epistle” is generally synonymous with letter.
It’s important to state that there’s no real precedent for the New Testament epistles in the Old Testament or Jewish literature. Rather, its 21 epistles [Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude] follow the general custom and form of letters, which became an important form of communication in the Greek–speaking world about 300 years before the birth of Jesus.
This is a crucial reason why you have to pay close attention to certain factors in order to guide your hearts as you study the 21 Epistles in the New Testament, given that your understanding of the Epistles is fundamental to your understanding of the entire Bible. What I mean is that it’s only when you can rightly interpret the Holy Spirit’s thoughts conveyed through the Epistles that you’ll be able to appreciate biblical truths coded in the books of the Old Testament.
Look at what Peter said about this: “So we have seen and proved that what the prophets said came true. You will do well to pay close attention to everything they have written, for, like lights shining into dark corners, their words help us to understand many things that otherwise would be dark and difficult. But when you consider the wonderful truth of the prophets’ words, then the light will dawn in your souls and Christ the Morning Star will shine in your hearts” [2Peter 1:19 TLB].
So as you study the epistles,
- Pay close attention to the specific audience to which each specific Epistle is written. One thing you will discover about biblical truths revealed in the epistles is that, some epistles were written to different audiences by the same writer [as it’s the case with the Pauline epistles].
- The second thing you need is to pay attention to the prevailing circumstances that prompted the writing of the Epistle in question. This factor is important because different circumstances might have prompted the writing of different epistles by the same writer, either to the same or a different audience.
The three epistles of John the Beloved [1, 2 and 3 John] for example, were written to four different audiences, with each epistle prompted by different circumstances.
For instance, 1 John chapter 1 was written to Greek Gnostic; chapters 2-5 were written to Christians. John’s second epistle [2 John] was a personal letter that John specifically addressed to a dear sister called Cyria and her children [2 John 1:1]; while John’s third epistle [3 John] was addressed to Gaius, his personal friend [3 John 1:1].
You will find out that in all these instances, the audience was different as well as the circumstances that prompted John to write. This boils down to the fact the in spite of the fact that these three epistles were written by the same person [John the Beloved], his purpose for writing differed from one audience to another.
Now, this Is My Concern: What’s the Implication of this?
It’s very possible that John could speak of the same subject from different perspectives, while at the same time being extremely mindful of three things: first, his specific audience, second, the prevailing circumstance at the time of writing [a situation that was to be dealt with in the epistle], and now;
- The spiritual state of his audience.
I must emphasize that this third factor is of great relevance, because it has to do with the level of faith of the audience; and we all know that God will always speak to us based on our level of faith at the time of speaking. To substantiate this truth, Paul specifically told the Christians in Corinth that “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” [1 Corinthians 3:1].
Similarly, Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit was defined by their faith [Romans 12:3-8].
Talking about the Heroes of Faith, the anonymous author of the Book of Hebrews leaves us with a list of different heroes of faith, and what each of them was able to do because of their faith [Hebrews 11].
In spite of the fact that they achieved different feats at different times, one thing that was common with all of them is their faith. The point I’m trying to make is that God will always relate with you based on your faith. So while studying the Epistles, you must not fail to take into consideration the faith factor of the audience to which a particular writer is speaking.
For instance in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, he quipped “All things are yours…” [1 Corinthians 3:21]. When speaking to the Christians in Philippi he said “But My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” [Philippians 4:19]. These two statements imply two different things.
The implication of what he said to the Christians in Corinth is that they already had everything, so they had to live with that mind set. This was because of their level of faith, in spite of the fact that he still saw them as spiritual babes in Christ given that they hadn’t grown as he anticipated.
The statement he made to the church in Philippi implied that their need was going to be met sometime in the future, but at the time of speaking, it wasn’t met yet. This may sound contradictory, but trust me, it isn’t. He spoke to these two audiences based on their level of faith.
Now look at what I found out: if he could speak to the Christians in Corinth the way he did in spite of the fact that he referred to them as babes [nepios] in Christ, yet he didn’t say the same thing he told them to the Christians in Philippi; the question is “where do you think he placed the Philippian Christians?” My answer: far below the level of faith of the Corinthian Christians.
As a Christian the choice is yours. If you choose to think that your needs are yet to be met, find, that’s the level of your faith; but if you choose to think that all things are yours, find, that’s the level of your faith, and it’s what determines how you pray. Whichever side you choose, don’t forget that the scope of God’s manifestations in your life is defined by your faith.
In several occasions, Jesus told different people “Let it be according to your faith”, or “Your faith has made you whole”.
Dear friend, I had to explain all this just to establish the fact that God’s revelation to you is according to your faith. He wouldn’t talk to you more than the scope of your faith, because if He does, you’d either become confused and go heretic, or break down. Since our faith is progressive, revelation is also progressive. Your revelation grows with your faith.
God has always been conscious of this fact, and even the writers of the 21 epistles in the New Testament took this into consideration, given that they were inspired by God through the Holy Spirit – the very Spirit of God. They didn’t write what they felt like writing; rather, they wrote what the Holy Spirit inspired them to write [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21].
The Case of the Pauline Epistles
The Pauline Epistles are the epistles that were written by Apostle Paul. One of the things that he addressed in his epistles was to command that women remain silent in the churches. Specifically, he wrote this in two of his epistles: to the Christians in Corinth [1 Corinthians 14:34-38], and a personal letter to Timothy [1 Timothy 2:12-15]. In both cases, his instructions were clearly spelled out: women should be silent in the churches.
Paul’ First Epistle to Timothy to the Church in Ephesus
In his personal letter to Timothy, Paul was actually speaking to the Christians in Ephesus. It’s necessary I tell you that the city of Ephesus had only one large church, and Timothy was privileged to be the pastor of that church. Timothy’s purpose among others was to stop the men who were spreading wrong doctrine [1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:1].
These false teachers taught that people could be saved by looking up to the Law of Moses instead of looking up to Jesus Christ.
With his understanding of God’s Word, Paul knew that such a teaching was unscriptural, so he stood against it. The reason is because such teachings would reduce Christ’s sacrificial death for man’s salvation to nothing.
What did Paul do about the situation? He went on to teach Timothy why the Law was actually given, and for whom, and that Christ still remains God’s master plan to save mankind.
I’d want you to remember that all this while, Paul had been setting up a stage for Timothy to deal with the issue of false teachings, which was rampant in the city of Ephesus, and had gradually, crept into the church.
To do this, Paul had to remind Timothy of the source of our salvation – who’s Jesus Christ; and that the issue in question was actually God’s battle, and not Timothy’s; so that the latter would always recognize the need to allow God to deal with the situation. What Timothy was expected to do was to stand on God’s Word, a spiritual recommendation for a sound and always growing faith [1 Timothy 1:18-19].
What follows immediately as soon as we get to the second chapter of first Timothy is a continuation of the command Paul started giving in the eighteenth verse of the first chapter. The purpose of this command was to serve as a guide on how Timothy was going to deal with the issue of false doctrine.
My question is this: What was Paul’s spiritual prescription to Timothy for dealing with false doctrine? The first thing Timothy was expected to do was to pray for those in authority in the City of Ephesus [1 Timothy 2:1-3]. This was what he needed to do in order to deal with the issue outside the church.
To be continued on my next post as THREE THINGS YOU MUST CONSIDER AS YOU STUDY THE EPISTLES [PART 2].
You’re deeply loved, highly favoured, and greatly blessed.
Jesus is Lord!