Chapter 7: A Book of Biblical Proportions. 2, Epistles and Revelation

Letters

The Bible has many different kinds of literary genres.[1] In the two testaments you find history, poetry, legal codes, prophecy, songs, letters, sermons, gospels, and even one book of erotic poetry. Ideally, we should understand the different genres as we read, and genres overlap within books. Ezra contains autobiography, letters, and history; several of the prophets contain oracles and narratives. The gospels and Acts are history, but they’re also preaching. Hebrews is a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (though no epistolary greeting).  Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form a long history and contain accounts of individual incidents, but the books also encompass ancient legal codes and cultic (worship) instructions.   

We find very letters in the Old Testament, but letters form the largest body material in the New Testament.  The canon includes letters of James, John, Peter, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and Paul.  Paul’s several letters are arranged in order of length, although 1 and 2 Thessalonians were probably the earliest letters, and Philippians and 1 and 2 Timothy seem valedictory.  All these letters were written to individuals or churches in order to address particular issues, to deal with needs and problems, to convey information and greetings, and to communicate feelings. Although not intentionally written in an epigrammatic way, we can lift epigrams, slogans, and promises from the letters for our own needs, for within these letters are treasures of biblical proclamation and pearls of wisdom. If I were to give someone a single Bible book to convey the Gospel, I’d tell them to read Romans or Ephesians. Galatians is also excellent for communicating the Gospel, although it was written in frustration and anger; if you’ve a good commentary to help you, Galatians might help renew your faith.

The letters have different purposes and viewpoints. Like the Gospels, they’ve changing facets in which God’s light beautifies, changes, and illuminates. Reading in turn through my various marginal notes and scribbling:

Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to a church he wished to visit soon.  He argues that God accounts us righteous by faith rather than works of the law.   The righteousness of God is revealed in God’s justification of sinners through the atonement of Christ.

1 and 2 Corinthians is largely Paul’s words of teaching, advice, and reprimand to a congregation swayed by impressive teachers, confident in their own wisdom, and yet lacking in love and spiritual maturity.

Galatians is Paul’s frustrated letter to a Gentile church. Paul points out that the Galatians already evidence of God’s power and acceptance in their lives through the gifts of the Spirit.  They must not add anything on to God’s work, especially rites like circumcision.

Ephesians and Colossians are similar letters, written (if Paul did write them) while he was imprisoned. He shows the sufficiency of Christ and God’s free salvation. In Christ we are built up as a church; Christ has removed barriers between God and us.

Philippians, another “prison letter,” is a joyful letter, warm and affirming for a congregation Paul clearly feels gratitude.

1 and 2 Thessalonians concern the second coming of Christ and the need to be watchful, though the first letter is warm and the second letter, though also warm, contains more admonishment.

1 and 2 Timothy concern the qualities of church leaders and provides advice and encouragement to Paul’s young colleague.  Titus also deals with church leaders and the need to deal with false teaching.

Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has helped convert, and so Paul writes Onesimus’ master about the matter, hinting strongly that Onesimus should be freed.

Hebrews is an epistolary sermon by an unknown author to an unknown group of people. The title, which is a latter addition, is based on the fair assumption that the original audience consisted of converts from Judaism, who, more than a Gentile group, would have grasped all the many references to the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. The sermon is beautiful, intricate, and argues the sufficiency of Christ compared with the angels, the prophets, and the temple.

James stresses the validity of one’s faith through the good works of one’s personal growth and one’s relationships with others. The book only mentions Jesus twice and is similar in style to Old Testament wisdom literature.

1 and 2 Peter concern the steadfastness of one’s faith in times of persecution and also in regard to false teachers.

1, 2, and 3 John all provide glimpses into the lives of the early church. 1 John, especially, teaches the need to demonstrate one’s faith through love.

Tiny little Jude, which quotes a non-canonical writing (1 Enoch 1:9), is closely related textually to 2 Peter and is concerned false teachers and apostasy.

After these brief epistles, we come to the final book, Revelation, which concerns the final times. It’s actually a letter, too (1:4), to seven Asian churches.  John must be a different man than the apostle, for the book’s style is quite dissimilar from the gospel and the letters, and this author does not identify himself as an apostle. The book chronicles the many signs of the end times and is written in symbolic language that harkens back to Old Testament prophecies.

The letters, like the gospels, aren’t just “about” Jesus but also witness to his living reality. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16. This verse used to bother me; aren’t Jesus’ life and teachings important? They are, but Jesus’ life and teachings can’t be disconnected with his death and resurrection, and his earthly life cannot be disconnected with the eternal life that he now shares with us, And so it is not inappropriate that much of the New Testament deals not with specifics about Jesus’ life and teachings (the letters scarcely quote Jesus’ teachings explicitly, as I mentioned in chapter 1) but the grand fact of his salvation and gifts of the Spirit. Now, as readers of this material, we too receive the first-century preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, and our lives, too, become guided and maintained by the Spirit.

For some Christians, that’s enough material to read, explore, pray about, and study. But that’s only a third of the Bible!  So far, I’ve saved several important New Testament themes and ideas so I can show interconnections between the New Testament and the Old.

Link to next section

 


[1] An introduction to the Bible’s types of writings is Margaret Nutting Ralph, And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 2003).

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