You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

There’s one mistake even long-time Christians sometimes make when reading the Bible. We often assume that we just open the Bible and—no matter where in the Bible we’re reading—we read it exactly the same way. We read Psalms the same way we do Philippians, and Leviticus just as we would Matthew. The problem is this doesn’t work, and many believers end up frustrated. They struggle with their Bible reading, but they’re not sure why.

The Bible is one cohesive, interwoven whole, and it’s all the Word of God. But the Bible is also a collection of very different kinds of writings. In our everyday reading, we read from many different genres. We’re used to this, and we routinely adjust our expectations accordingly. Do you read a cookbook the same way you read a spy novel? Of course not. Do you pick up a tax guide with the same sense of anticipation you’d feel opening a love letter? No way (unless you’re really into tax guides). Usually, we don’t even have to think of these differences in our reading material, but many of us have never realized the same thing is true of our reading of Scripture. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the different kinds of writing we find in the Bible, and why it’s important that we approach these scriptural genres with different expectations and methods.

We’re going to begin with the letters to the churches. In many ways, these are the biblical books that most directly apply to us. These letters were written to New Covenant believers; we’re New Covenant believers. They were written to, and about, local churches; we’re part of a local church. Many of the same issues that challenged them then also challenge us today. So it makes perfect sense for us to spend time studying these letters.

If you’ve been reading the past few Taking Root studies, you’ll remember the importance of context. You’ll know we need to be aware of who wrote the letter, to whom they were writing, and what the circumstances were. Here’s another fun tip: many times the authors themselves tell us why they’re writing. This gives us a very clear perspective of the rest of the letter. Here’s a classic example. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he explicitly states the purpose of the letter:

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God.

1 Timothy 3:14-15

Sure enough, when we look through the rest of this letter, we find it packed with instructions on how the local church is to be organized and maintained to ensure its health and vitality.

Another thing to be aware of is noticeable patterns. For example, the more you read Paul’s letters, the more you’ll notice that he tends to focus on big, overarching spiritual principles in the first part of his letters, then in the second half he shows how these principles relate to our everyday lives. You may also notice he almost always begins his letters by giving thanks for the church to whom he’s writing, and praising them for things they’re doing well. This is why the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians quickly arrests our attention. Paul doesn’t give thanks for them or praise them, instead he immediately confronts them:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7

Not only does this dramatically reveal the extreme importance of this issue for Paul, but it also gives us a great insight into the theme of the rest of the letter. These Galatians were being swayed by false teachers who sought to add to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ wasn’t enough for these people; they had a list of things one must also do to become a Christian. Paul devotes this entire letter to confronting those who would allow legalistic rules and regulations to be added to the gospel. Is this still an issue for believers today? Absolutely.

It’s also helpful to watch for patterns within a particular letter. If you carefully read
1 Corinthians, you’ll begin to notice how Paul repeats certain phrases:

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter [7:1].

Now regarding the question about . . . [7:25].

Now regarding your question about . . . [8:1].

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about
. . . [12:1].

Now regarding your question about . . . [16:1].

It’s clear that Paul is responding to a list of questions the people had, and he’s working through these topics one by one. As you study this letter, you’ll also begin to see there’s a serious problem with disunity in the church in Corinth, and that the people seem to be divided over these issues. They weren’t just asking these questions out of some theological curiosity. They were looking for Paul to settle their doctrinal squabbles. For each subject Paul addresses, he interacts with two opposing views—often giving needed correction to both sides!

Along with these clear parallel references, there are other places in this letter where we see Paul introducing subjects. These are either additional issues that the Corinthians had asked about, or simply topics that Paul felt it crucial to further explore:

But there is one thing I want you to know: . . . [11:2-3].

But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you . . . [11:17].

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of . . . [15:1].

The way the author structures the letter isn’t an accident. For instance, 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 are all about spiritual gifts. But right in the middle of this section of the book—in chapter 13—we find a change of topic. Why did Paul (and the Holy Spirit) “interrupt” this discussion of spiritual gifts with a whole chapter on love? I can guarantee you one thing: It’s no coincidence.

Also be aware of repeated words and phrases right in the immediate section you’re reading. This can help you see what the author is emphasizing. For example, read through 1 Corinthians chapter 12-14 and see how many times Paul uses words like edify, build up, help, bless, strengthen, etc. (The words may vary depending on the translation you’re using.) Some of us even like to mark these repeated words and phrases right in our Bibles. What do these repeated words tell us about Paul’s focus in this section of the letter? What does this have to do with spiritual gifts?

The more our radar is sensitive to these kinds of patterns, the more we’ll understand what we’re reading. The more familiar you become with these letters, the more you’ll see they each have a definite outline and flow of thought. It’s often helpful to first read through an entire letter in one sitting without trying to resolve any of the details. This will give you a feel for how the whole letter fits together. Then, when you more carefully study each section and paragraph, you’ll have a better idea of how it fits into the theme of the whole letter. As with anything, the more you practice this, the more skilled you’ll become.

This post will give you a taste of reading and studying the letters to the churches. But what about the parts of these letters that aren’t so easy to figure out? What about the places where there are significant cultural differences between the 1st century and today? Are we to woodenly apply everything to our lives today in exactly the same manner they did then? Or can we just shrug off these passages as “for them then,” but no longer applicable for us? How can we know what applies to us now, what doesn’t, and why? We’ll look at these questions next week.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches [see above]

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

2 thoughts on “You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

  1. Thanks Curt, this is very insightful. Sometimes I use a “read through the Bible” system that takes two or three chapters from the OT, and a chapter from the NT. It might break up some of the “dry” OT passages, but it also disrupts the train of thought. While study Bible notes are helpful for the context, they too can disrupt the flow. I love my study Bibles, but sometimes I just need to pick up a “clean” Bible and read it without the distractions. Another tool I use on my smart phone and tablet is an audio Bible that is in sync with a written Bible. Having the spoken Word read out loud as I read along helps keeps me on track. “You Version” has this feature for free.

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks, Joe! These are great suggestions. There is definitely a time to set aside the study Bible for awhile (or ignore the notes). If we check each note, we can easily lose the flow of thought. And we need to get to the point where we can wrestle with the meaning of a passage without always using the study notes as a cheat sheet. I’m going to write a little more on this next week. I love the audio Bible idea too. Great tip!

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