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

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

I have a friend who’s seen the movie Raising Arizona at least twenty times. If he walks into a room and someone’s watching this film, he can not only pick out the exact point of the movie they’re watching, he can start reciting the dialogue word-for-word! Now maybe you’re not that obsessive, but I’m sure there are movies or books you know almost that well. Even if you don’t start right at the beginning, it doesn’t take you long to figure out where you are in the story.

One of the problems with reading the Bible is that most of us aren’t that familiar with it when we begin. We start to get a sense it’s not just a collection of random stories, but we’re not sure where everything fits. Did David fight Goliath before Christ, or after? Did Peter and Paul hang out with Elijah and Abraham? And how many animals did Moses take on the ark? (Okay, that last one’s a trick question!)

If you don’t quite know how to sort all this out, don’t feel bad. I’ve known people who grew up in the church who weren’t sure if the story of Moses was in the Old Testament or the New. We all have to start somewhere. Some would simply say the more you read the Bible, the more familiar with it you’ll become. This is true, but a few tips can give you a head start so you don’t have to feel as if you’re beginning at square one.

Imagine this: you’re sitting in church and the pastor says, “Let’s all turn to the book of Habakkuk.” You look around and see people opening their Bibles and turning to the right book. So you start randomly flipping through your Bible—trying to look as if you know what you’re doing—hoping that somehow, miraculously you’ll happen to run across ‘Habakkuk.’ What you don’t know is that many of the people around you are doing the same thing!

Did you know that one of the most helpful pages in the Bible is one few people ever look at? It’s the Table of Contents. Located conveniently at the front of your Bible, it not only tells you what page a particular book is on, it can provide a lot more insights than you might expect.

Humor me. Open up your Bible and take a look at the table of contents. What do you notice? One of the first things you might see is that the Bible is divided into two sections: Old Testament and New Testament. Remember the first three rules of Bible study? Context, context, context, right? Well, part of reading in context is knowing where in the Bible you’re reading. It makes a big difference whether you’re reading in the Old or New Testament. What’s the difference?

Old Testament
As anyone knows who’s ever attempted to read the Bible from the beginning, the Old Testament begins with God creating the universe. Right away, the focus is on the earth. Fairly soon, we zoom into the story of one man, Abraham, and his family. The text keeps our attention on one group of his descendants, who become the nation of Israel. All the rest of the Old Testament tells the story of God’s interaction with this chosen nation of Israel.

The table of contents tells you if you’re reading in the Old Testament, so you can know that what you’re reading has to do specifically with God’s interaction with the nation of Israel. But beyond this, the books in the Old Testament are also grouped together in such a way that you can immediately know even more about what you’re reading.

—Historical books
All the books from Genesis through Esther deal with the history of the people of Israel. That doesn’t mean it’s nothing but one story after another; you’ll find quite a few laws and lists in these books too. But it all has to do with how the story of Israel develops: how they become a nation; how God establishes them as his people; how they repeatedly betray God and worship other gods; how God allows them to suffer the consequences; how they repent and turn to him; and how he restores them.

(This is a summary, of course. None of these descriptions are complete enough to give you the whole story. That’s why you have to read it for yourself!)

—Poetic books
From Job through Song of Songs we find poetic writings of God’s people praising him through music, pouring out their needs and anguish to him, reminding each other of God’s wisdom for everyday life, and celebrating the beauty of the life God had given them.

—Prophetic books
The rest of the Old Testament, Isaiah through Malachi, contains the writings of God’s prophets. The prophets were God’s messengers to his people. They reminded the people of their commitment to God, they confronted the people with their betrayal of God, and they warned them of the impending consequences of their rebellion. They also looked forward to a time when God would deliver and restore his people, and interact with them in an intimate way unlike anything they had ever experienced before.

New Testament
So how is the New Testament different from the Old? The New Testament begins with Jesus’ life on earth; it explains how Jesus provided, through his death and resurrection, the way for people to not only submit to God but to actually enter into relationship with him; and it describes the new community of God’s people that Christ established, no longer limited to the people of Israel but open to anyone who would trust in him. The Old Testament looks forward to the New Testament, and the New Testament explains, fulfills and supersedes the Old Testament.

—Gospels
These four books (Matthew through John) tell the story of Jesus’ life on earth: his teachings, his miracles, his followers, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.

—Historical book
The book of Acts gives us a slice of the early history of the church. The first part describes the birth and development of the church in Jerusalem and focuses mostly on the ministry of Peter. The second part tells of the expansion of the church, using the ministry of Paul and his team as a representative example of the explosive growth of the Christian faith in all directions.

—Letters to the churches
From Romans through Jude, we have letters written to churches (and a few letters written to people about the churches). Most of these were written by the apostle Paul, and the others were written by various other church leaders. These letters cover a wide range of issues that are relevant not only to the churches then, but to us today.

—Apocalyptic book
The book of Revelation (the last book in the Bible) is also known as the Apocalypse. Apocalypse means something that is revealed, hence the name “Revelation.” Apocalyptic writings always used very figurative or symbolic language, and they described a time in the future when God would dramatically intervene in his creation, usually in the last days of history. This closing book brings the big story around full circle from creation and fall in Genesis to judgment and restoration in Revelation.

The more you have a sense of the bigger story, where the story is going, and what part of the story you’re reading, the more you’ll understand the Bible. And the more you understand what you’re reading in the Bible, the more you’ll actually enjoy studying it, and really get something out of your reading!

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 [see above]

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

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