The letters of the Bible tend to be the most straightforward of the Biblical Literary genres. This can make it easy to get lost in complacent reading without taking the due diligence to research what one is reading. Many people do not even know that the Epistles (the letters of the New Testament) include instructions to not let women speak in church, not to eat medium-well meat, nor do people understand why there is so much talk about “clean” and “unclean” foods in the letters of the Bible. There is much to consider when reading these letters, but perhaps the most important thing to note is that the whole Bible (including these letters) is interwoven with itself. You see, most people think of the Bible as a strict progression of stories and events, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, Bible-y wible-y stuff!
What is an Epistle in the first place?
Good question to start with, if I do say so myself…. Which I do.
An Epistle is a letter written by an apostle or first century Christian leader to a particular person or church. Most of our Epistles are written to various Churches with their own personal struggles and most of them are written by the apostle Paul. (An apostle is someone who is sent by the Church body – that is fellow believers of Christ – to go make more groups of “churches” in other cities, like a Church-planter.)
The reason Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that women should not speak in church is because the church in Corinth (his audience) had a problem of people shouting across the church during a church service and this was not culturally acceptable. Paul wrote what he did in this scenario to address a personal problem and the real take away is that believers should do their best to craft their get-togethers in such a way that is socially acceptable to strangers or outsiders that may be joining your meetings – in this interpreting example the solution was to look away from the object of what was said and look to the context in order to discover the subject of the passage. There are many similar situations in the Epistles where this sort of problem occurs in interpretation. We must look closely at the context of their culture – remember, we are bridging the gap of time anytime we read the Bible, so that we must understand the historical, cultural, and Biblical context of everything we read.
In “bridging the gap of time”, we look at two major focuses in the study of the Epistles: the cultural context, and the “wibbly wobbliness” of the Bible – remember in the interpreting journey that we discussed in the post, Biblical Narratives, there is a need to put each section of scripture into the whole picture of the Bible.
Concerning the cultural context for the Epistles, we must investigate who the author was, what he was like, why he was writing, what was his agendas, who was he writing to, what were they like, what was the city like that the audience lived in, what was the audience’s relationship to the city like, what was the author and the audience’s relationship like, what was the relationship of the audience to one another, and what was the audience’s relationship to God like. All of these questions are important; otherwise, when reading 1 Corinthians 14, we might assume that Paul, or worst yet God, believed women to be lesser than men in the church. There are many issues addressed directly in the letters of the New Testament that are very specific and personal to certain groups and we must investigate the worlds of these people in order to find applicable subjects to our world today!
The Bible as a whole picture, or as an interwoven piece of literature, needs a different type of attention, however. YOU MUST READ YOUR WHOLE BIBLE!!!! LEAVE NOTHING OUT!!!! These letters in the New Testament make puns, jokes, and plenty of other references to the gospels and Old Testament books of the Bible; one must have read and studied these books, in order to make sense out of a lot of subjects in the New Testament letters.
Right now, I have a friend who asked me to write notes with quick references to other parts of the Bible the next time I go through it, so that he can use my notes to better understand the Bible as a whole. This is an extremely important step in understanding what any part of the Bible says – you must be familiar with the whole in order to understand the parts.
I have another friend who is a youth pastor – he’s having his whole youth read the entire Bible through in a year so that they can understand it and grow in God. If we want to be healthy believers, this is a necessity! I read my Bible through once a month (& I separately study parts of the Bible in depth, as well) and I still find parts of the Bible that are referencing other parts of the Bible that I never realized before! This is one reason why most people have a hard time understanding the Bible, because most people think of the Bible as a strict progression of events, but really from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, Bible-y wible-y stuff!
What I mean by that is that it is not written as a cause-and-effect story but instead it is interwoven and you simply cannot understand the individual parts without the whole.
My favourite Bible verse is Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom, He set us free!” To better understand this verse, one should look to the ending of Galatians chapter 4, where Paul writes about Ishmael and Isaac (the sons of Abraham). Paul uses their lives to illustrate how we are all either children of Abraham under the slave woman (by whom he had Ishmael), which the Bible says are to be cast out; or, we are children of the free woman (Sarah) whom the Bible says is given God’s promises. We are either slaves to the law and thus will be cast out from God, or we are children of freedom and thus receive the blessings and promises of God!
This is then followed up with, later in Galatians chapter 5, a list of the acts of the flesh and the list of the fruits of the Spirit. Often when ministers talk about these verses they speak as if these are things we can obtain or avoid (the Bible does say to fight the flesh) but this is not the point of this particular passage. This passage is describing what it is like to be free – first we are free from our own flesh and lusts and sinful nature, secondly Paul states that by being children of freedom we are granted the promises of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control!
These are gifts which we have by not being in the law which is why after listing the fruits of the Spirit Paul says, “against such there is no law” because we are not bound by laws but instead we are free with an abundance of promises that produce fruit in us!
Without an understanding of the Book of Genesis and the lives of Isaac and Ishmael, then we have no true understanding of this scripture in Galatians either. This is why we must have the Bible as a whole to reference certain scriptures, in order for us to grasp the whole meaning.
So, when we read the Epistles, we must investigate the author, reader(s), and the cities where the audience are; and, we must take the Bible as a whole in order to understand the individual parts. Knowing this will help prepare us to understand the Bible better and thus help us grow in our spiritual lives. We become healthy spiritually by practicing the discipline of Bible reading.
If someone calls themselves a football fan, then we expect them to know the names of players and teams and know the rules of the game; if someone calls themselves a Marvel fan or Doctor Who fan, then we expect them to have read the comics, watched all the movies, or seen a large portion of the show; if you call yourself a Christian, then the expectation should be that you have read your Bible!
I ask anyone reading this to challenge themselves to read their Bible all the way through in the next month, or the next 90 days, or possibly the next year (set your own goal and reach it!)! Reading your entire Bible all the way through will help you understand the individual parts of the Bible, so that you can have a healthy foundation for your spiritual lives. Remember the Bible is not a strict linear progression of stories and events, but instead it is all wibbly wobbly, Bible-y wible-y, and it is interwoven!
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Reading / Reference List:
1. YOUR BIBLE…. I prefer the English Standard Version (ESV), for accuracy.
2. As a guide on how to read the Bible, I use the book, Grasping God’s Word, by Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays. This is where a lot of my advice comes from in this area
3. The Bible As Literature, by John Gabel and Charles Wheeler, is another book that changed how I read the Bible for the better!