EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Early on, we would like to share a crucially important statement with the readers regarding our treatment of all books from here forward (including Revelation): Though we have truncated the entire message of most of these books, we are not translators! We chose to have four or five different translations open for each book (always the KJV, and the others varied) while we earnestly focused on every verse, attempting to capture the true message behind them responsibly so we could squash down and reiterate the bulk of the content for you. For example, if the original Greek said the definite article “the” in a certain spot, and we said “a” in our summary—or if Revelation said “scarlet” and we write “red”—we are not attempting to provide the readers with new, Holy-Spirit inspired material that contradicts the Word. Also, when something has been stated already, we may choose not to say it again, even though the Bible repeats certain words and phrases for emphasis. Instead, we are hoping to simplify and give the book’s message in a general way that newer readers can understand and mature readers can be refreshed in taking in.
Up to the Gospels, the purpose of this work was to show how Christ “showed up” in all of the biblical books. Then, “finding Christ” in the Gospels was a no-brainer, as they are all narratives of His life and redemptive sacrifice of the cross, followed by His Resurrection and appearances afterward. Acts was equally obvious, as it outlined His Ascension, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit He promised to send, and the growth of the early Church as a result of that Day of Pentecost event. (It was also an introduction to Paul).
So, where does Jesus “appear” in the Epistles? Is it not just a random collection of old letters?
Mature believers know the answer to that immediately. Every one of these books points to what individuals within the Church Body should now be doing with their lives to continue following Christ, after conversion. In that way, they are all about Him, and nothing but Him.
The Epistles are somewhat similar to the Wisdom literature. There are a few major differences, such as the fact that the Epistles are letters to specific people and congregations in operation during the formation of the early Church, while the Wisdom literature was for a more general audience. But generally speaking, the Epistles provide much guidance on the subject of how to live a pleasing life unto God, so they share a comparable spirit and purpose. Because these letters were all written for the members of the fledgling Church while it sprouted its initial roots, they will be treated together, as the Wisdom books and the Prophets were.
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It’s crucial to understand before proceeding that these letters were not just “howdy” notes from believers to fellow churches—even though many include warm greetings. Much to the contrary, with few exceptions, they were often undiluted and harsh rebukes that corrected major issues plaguing the early churches in Judea and the surrounding regions. That’s not to say the Epistles were written like a wagging finger that arrogantly chides, “You oughtta know better than that!” They didn’t know better, and that was the point, but the writers of these messages also knew they couldn’t take the opposite approach of so much acceptance or toleration that it would produce a lenient attitude leading to blasphemy in the Church, so the “voices” behind the letters are often stern: Early church members were praised for their faith, but then they were firmly redirected toward proper religious practice wherein their faith led to sacrilege. This is why the Epistles fall into the category of “didactic literature” (writings with the central purpose of teaching; in a biblical context, this term refers to instructions on morality).
Many new Christians, even in modern times, don’t know any better than to rush in and, with well-meaning zeal, practice forms of worship that are sometimes inherently heretical. Here’s one way to look at it: Allie Anderson of SkyWatch Television often says, “Even a group of folks who have no science or religion at all in a faraway culture can observe the natural elements—rain, astrological phenomena, the harvest, etc. If you leave them to their own devices, eventually they will be found worshipping the ocean because of the mystery of the tide.” This has been shown to be true throughout ancient history. If you can imagine taking a group like this and thrusting them into the Gospel scene, you can sort of see the kind of folks the Epistles were addressing. That’s not to say they didn’t have very developed theologies of their home cultures, as we know from our studies up to this point in the book that we are primarily dealing with Jewish, as well as Greco-Roman pantheonic, religions. But the similarity is found in how unenlightened the world was about this new “Christianity” at the time of its early formation (called “the Way” at the time), and sincere believers were making quite a mess of theology based on what they had believed for centuries prior. For instance, the letters written to Pastor Timothy were dealing with issues in Ephesus, where the Artemisium, the temple of Artemis/Diana (daughter of Zeus/Jupiter, twin sister of Apollo), was erected. The Ephesians believed she was “top goddess,” or that there were no other gods above her. Mystery cults, magic rites, and strange sexual-religious practices were in abundance surrounding this goddess. Gentile men and women (but especially women) therefore brought a lot of pagan ideas into their worship of Christ simply because they didn’t know any better. So Paul, through his recipient, Timothy, had to respond to the situation like an emergency, rushing in and saying the equivalent of, “Guys! Guys! You’re all so sweet, and I know you mean well, but we Christians don’t conduct worship of the Christ in that way!” Then another church from another city would have a similar problem, and he would speak up again: “No wait! You don’t understand! That’s not what we do! You have to leave that in the past!” Before long, Peter, James, Jude, and the author of Hebrews were also addressing similar issues. Without these letters, many of the churches that began just after the stoning of Stephen and the scattering of the Jews would have suffered a tremendous efficacy failure, and for that reason, we certainly couldn’t live without these paramount warnings in our congregations today!
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That said, there are a ton of interpretational differences throughout the Epistles. That’s true for all of the Word, but it can be especially true for these letters. That’s because we’re reading personal memos, written by one person to another (or by one person to a congregation). It’s a bit like peeping into someone’s emails or private texts. (Note that no “postal service” was in effect at this time. Mail couriers served the government, only. Therefore, personal “mail” like the Epistles had to be hand-delivered by friends or work associates, and many times, the letters did not land at the intended designation. This makes the Epistles even more precious and rare!) At times, details are left out for readers because both the sender and the recipient knew what was being discussed. In cases like this, all we can do is guess about what’s missing. (This is a major issue for the Corinthian letters and the correspondence to Timothy, which are frequently assumed to be, in part, prohibitions against women teachers and preachers in the church. We will address more about this later, using Howell’s Handmaidens Conspiracy to assist us with a few excerpts, but that’s at least one specific example to think about moving forward.) But that does not mean the Epistles are any “less” biblical than any other books of the Bible. The information gleaned from this ancient mail has been more useful than any other part of Scripture when it comes to how believers should live in every era following Christ’s Ascension, and what churches across the world should consider the standards for worship gatherings for all eras of time.
Regarding such “gatherings,” it is likewise important to remember exactly where these meetings took place. Christians were heavily persecuted during these times, and there was no such thing as walking down a couple of blocks to “try out a new church” when believers were uncomfortable. Worship took place in hidden locations and in the homes of congregational leaders. As such, when quarrels broke out among believers (which happened a great deal, as these letters show), the only choice they had was to work it out maturely. This may sound like a bad deal, but because of those squabbles we have the Epistles to teach us (in all times) how to find solutions to difficulties in relationships. Persecution also united the brethren in desperation for survival.
As noted, Paul wrote thirteen books in the New Testament. Those were Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. (Some scholars [although it appears they are among the minority] believe Paul also wrote the letter to the Hebrews, which could bring his number to fourteen total New Testament books. These authors do not come to this conclusion, however, as we will briefly address later.) As Paul was a church-planter all throughout Acts, his writings address congregations or pastors that he, himself, began, and thankfully he was committed enough to stick with these individuals for discipleship and continued growth. Conveniently, Paul’s books are included in the canon all in a row immediately after Acts, so as we just visited his story at the end of our reflection on that book, we can shift from what he did to what he wrote without interruption. From there, we will consider the other New Testament writers, who contributed Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude. (Revelation is not an epistle, and, as the last book of the Bible, it will be considered on its own in our final study.)
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Note Paul’s works can be divided thus: soteriological (salvation) letters (Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians); “Prison Epistles” (those he wrote while incarcerated: Ephesians Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon); eschatological letters (the studies of the end times; 1 and 2 Thessalonians); and “Pastoral Epistles” (those he wrote to pastors; Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy).
(As a final note before we launch: Without doubt, these documents apply to us as Christians of today. However, to preserve the “feel” of the New Testament era—while we both read summaries of the letters as well as historical and cultural backgrounds that required their writing—we are preserving the author’s voice as it speaks to the first recipients. For instance, instead of saying, “Paul says we should live wisely,” we say, “Paul explains to the Corinthians that they must live wisely.” It is an “author and recipient” relationship that fits the framework of this book. When a teaching is related to a particular city’s issue, and therefore that changes whether or not we should apply the advice today, those exceptions are either so obvious they don’t require explanation [such as Paul’s instructions to greet Priscilla and Aquila, two folks we cannot greet in modern times], or are addressed in our voice with an explanation of what was going on at that time that is not occurring in ours. Otherwise, assume that when an Epistle writer instructs the early Church to do something, he is speaking to all Christians of all times.)
UP NEXT: Romans