The Form of New Testament Letters
When we write a letter, we use a form or structure similar to the accompanying box:
The ancient world also had a standard form, and most New Testament letters fit that mold. That form consists of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Let’s look at each one in more detail.
There are four elements in a typical introduction—the name of the writer, the name of the recipients, a greeting, and an introductory prayer. In our letters we usually mention the writer’s name at the end, whereas in ancient letters the name of the writer comes first, followed by the name of the recipients. Here are a few examples:
Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers and sisters with me, to the churches in Galatia. . . . (Gal. 1:1–2)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. . . . (Phil. 1:1)
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations. . . . (Jas. 1:1)
Often the writer and recipients are described in more detail in words that give us greater insight into the letter. For example, since Paul’s apostleship is being called into question in Galatia, he begins the letter to the Galatians by emphasizing that his apostleship has a divine origin. Also, the lack of a term of affection in Galatians (such as Paul’s usual “saints” or “beloved”) sets a serious tone for the letter. When writing to the Philippian Christians, who are struggling with disunity, Paul does not call himself an apostle but a “servant.” Perhaps he is trying to teach the Philippians from the start that they need the humility of a servant in order to preserve unity.
James doesn’t say anything about being the half brother of Jesus (which he probably was), but instead describes himself as a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” His authority to lead comes from his spiritual, not his physical, relationship to Jesus. Also, James writes to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” perhaps indicating that he is writing to Jewish Christians who have been dispersed because of persecution.
The greeting follows the identification of the writer and the recipients. Most ancient Greek letters began with the word chairein(“greetings”). Paul and Peter both replaced chairein with the word charis (“grace”) and added the normal Jewish greeting “peace.” In this way they completely transformed the standard greeting and filled it with Christian meaning. “Grace and peace to you” is a greeting, but it is also a prayer that the recipients might continue to experience God’s unmerited favor and the peace that flows from it.
The final element in the introduction to a letter is the prayer. Ancient Greek letters usually began with a prayer to the gods. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what he has done in the lives of the recipients. Here is Paul’s opening prayer in 1 Corinthians:
4I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—6God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4–9)
Along with expressing pastoral gratitude for all that God has done, Paul uses the prayer section to introduce important themes that will be developed later in the letter. For instance, in the 1 Corinthians passage above, he tells his readers that they have been enriched in all knowledge and that they “do not lack any spiritual gift.” Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul will write extensively about knowledge and spiritual gifts—two problem areas for the Corinthians.
When changes are made to the prayer/thanksgiving section we should pay attention. For example, when Paul omits the prayer of thanksgiving in Galatians and moves straight from the greeting into a rebuke, he sends a strong signal that he is deeply upset that they are deserting the gospel of Christ for legalism.
Since the body of the letter is where the writer addresses specific situations facing the church community, it frequently makes up the largest part of a letter. There is no set format to the body of a New Testament letter. The different purposes of the writers and the different situations of their readers lead to different kinds of letter bodies. Within the body of the letter you will find instruction, persuasion, rebuke, exhortation, and much more.
There are a number of different elements that appear in the conclusion or closing of a New Testament letter.
- travel plans: e.g., Titus 3:12; Philemon 22
- commendation of coworkers: e.g., Romans 16:1–2
- prayer: e.g., 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Hebrews 13:20–21
- prayer requests: e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Hebrews 13:18–19
- greetings: e.g., Romans 16:3–16, 21–23; Hebrews 13:24; 2 John 13
- final instructions and exhortations: e.g., Colossians 4:16–17; 1 Timothy 6:20–21a
- holy kiss: e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14
- autograph: e.g., Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17
- benediction: e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:23–24; Ephesians 6:23–24
- doxology: e.g., 2 Peter 3:18; Jude 24–25
Not all the elements appear in every letter, of course, and the authors do not follow any set order. The final element, however, is normally the grace benediction (“Grace be with you”). What a great way to close a letter!
Not all New Testament letters conform to the standard letter form described above. Hebrews doesn’t start out like a typical letter, but it does have a letter-like ending. The anonymous author of Hebrews even refers to the book as a “word of exhortation” or a sermon (13:22). James opens like a letter, but it doesn’t close like one, and it is organized more like a collection of short sermons aimed at a general audience. First John doesn’t open or close like a normal letter, but it was written to specific group of people (1 John 2:7, 12–14, 19, 26).
Now that you have a general understanding of some important characteristics of New Testament letters and what form they take, let’s turn our attention to how to interpret the letters.