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Tuesday
May132014

Theological Term of the Week

epistle
A New Testament letter from an apostle to a congregation or individual. Of the New Testament books, all but Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Revelation are epistles.

  • From the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul’s greeting and closing blessing:

    Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, 

    To the churches of Galatia: 

    Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:1-5 ESV)

    The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Galatians 6:18 ESV)

  • From the glossary of the Literary Study Bible:
    [An epistle is] a NT letter that possesses the usual ingredients and structure of letters generally. An epistle is not a sermon or treatise. Most NT epistles are occasional letters, meaning that specific questions or crises gave rise to them and shaped their content. NT epistles, except for Romans, are thus not freestanding treatises; they are embedded in a specific occasion and setting. NT epistles follow the customary conventions of Greek and Roman letters of the same era, with modifications. Three of the stock ingredients of NT epistles correspond to the letters of the day: salutation, body, and conclusion. But even here we find innovations, as the salutation, for example becomes a theologically charged “grace and peace” formula, and the body deals specifically with moral and religious issues. Additionally, NT letters have two unique units: a thanksgiving that consists of a liturgically formulated statement of thanks and praise for spiritual blessings, and a paraenesis composed of lists of virtues and vices, or moral commands.
  • From 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer:
    The letters in the New Testament are not abstract treatises of systematic theology. They are often passionate appeals, written to specific persons in particular situations in the first century A.D. In a word, they are occasional—addressing specific occasions.
    At one level, the occasional nature of the New Testament letters makes them challenging to apply. The writer of 1 Corinthians, Paul, is long dead, along with all the believers in Corinth whom he addressed in the letter. Furthermore, while we find analogous situations in modern times, none of the matters addressed in the letter are exactly the same as those today. Yet, even in these occasional letters, we see intimations that the original authors and recipients saw a timeless authoritativeness in their compositions. Paul’s letters are called “Scripture” by Peter (2 Peter 3:16). Paul insists that his letters be copied and read by churches to which they were originally not addressed (Col. 4:16). Furthermore, the authors of New Testament letters write authoritatively (1 Cor. 5:4-5), presenting their teaching, not as ad hoc suggestions, but as passing on “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Even letters to individuals, such as Paul’s letters to Philemon and Timothy, give intimations that the broader church is intended to hear and heed the personal letters’ instructions (Philem. 2; 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22).

Learn more:

  1. GotQuestions.org: What is an epistle?
  2. Michael Vlach: Interpreting the Epistles
  3. Dennis Bratcher: The Genre of New Testament Letters and Epistles
  4. Robert Bradshaw: How to Read the New Testament Letters (pdf)
  5. James Keen: The Epistles - How do I apply them? (pdf)

Related terms:

Filed under Scripture

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