How to Interpret New Testament Letters

To interpret a New Testament letter, we return to the five steps of the Interpretive Journey discussed in unit 1.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Begin by reading the whole letter in one sitting. This may take a while for longer letters, but it’s the only way to see the big picture. Before you walk through the “land of the letter,” you need to fly over it and see the terrain from above. You may want to make a note of main themes you encounter while moving through the letter, or you may prefer to wait until the end and summarize the main idea of the book in a sentence or two.

Both ancient and contemporary letters were meant to be read from start to finish. Don’t let the chapter-and-verse divisions in your Bible tempt you to skip around and read only small sections of the letter in isolation. Moisés Silva explains how this pick-and-choose approach is not the way we read letters today and why it is not the best way to read a New Testament letter:

What would one think of a man who receives a five-page letter from his fiancée on Monday and decides to read only the third page on that day, the last page on Thursday, the first page two weeks later, and so on? We are all aware of the fact that reading a letter in such piece-meal fashion would likely create nothing but confusion. The meaning of a paragraph on the third page may depend heavily on something said at the beginning of the letter, or its real significance may not become apparent until the next page is read. The more cogently the letter was written, the riskier it would be to break it up arbitrarily. Moreover, part of the meaning of a document is the total impact it makes on the reader, and that meaning is often more than the sum of its parts.[5]

We begin to understand what the text meant to the biblical audience by reading the whole letter from beginning to end, the way it was meant to be read.

Since letters are occasional or situational, the next step in discovering what the text meant to the biblical audience is to reconstruct the historical-cultural context of the biblical writer and his audience. Do you remember learning how to do this in unit 5? Study tools such as Bible dictionaries and commentaries will help you find answers to the following questions:

  • Who was the author?
  • What was his background?
  • When did he write?
  • What was the nature of his ministry?
  • What kind of relationship did he have with the audience?
  • Why was he writing?
  • Who was the biblical audience?
  • What were their circumstances?
  • How was their relationship to God?
  • What about their relationship to the author and to each other?
  • What was happening at the time the book was written?
  • Are there any historical-cultural factors that might shed light on the book?

Reconstructing the original situation is not always easy. Because reading a New Testament letter is a lot like listening to one end of a telephone conversation, we have to read between the lines a bit in order to reconstruct the original situation. This can be dangerous if we invent a situation that is not supported by evidence from the letter itself, but we have little choice but to do at least some reading between the lines. How do we do this? The best approach is to read the letter carefully and gather bits and pieces of information that you can use to reconstruct the situation. (If you happen to be studying one of Paul’s letters, you can also gain insight from the book of Acts.) Then use dictionaries, commentaries, and other study tools to see what scholars have to say about the historical-cultural context of the letter. Summarize your reconstruction of the situation in a paragraph or two.

After you have an idea about the situation of the author and the recipients, you need to identify the literary context of the specific passage you are studying. As we learned in unit 6, the main goal when it comes to literary context is to trace the author’s flow of thought. In the case of New Testament letters, remember to think paragraphs! Summarize the main point of the paragraph that comes before your passage, the one that contains your passage, and the one that comes right after your passage. Find out how these paragraphs link together to communicate the author’s message. Specifically, look for the role that your passage plays in the author’s flow of thought. Summarize what you have found.

After reading the whole letter, reconstructing the historical-cultural situation, and tracing the author’s flow of thought in the paragraphs surrounding your passage, determine what the passage meant to the biblical audience. Use your observation skills to read the text carefully. Look for details. Notice important connections. Study significant words. Finally, write out a statement of what the passage meant to the first-century audience.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

In New Testament letters, the river of differences is not usually wide. Letters were written to Christians (often Jewish Christians), not to the Old Testament people of Israel or to the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus and the early church.

Nevertheless, even in the letters the river can sometimes present a challenge. Although they were written to Christians like us, they sometimes deal with situations foreign to us. Here the river becomes wider and more difficult to cross. For example, when Paul addresses the issue of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, the river is fairly wide. When was the last time you struggled with whether to eat meat offered as part of a sacrifice to idols? But when Paul writes about running away from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18–20) or the priority of love (1 Cor. 13:1–13), the river is more like a narrow creek that we can easily jump over. After examining your passage, write a paragraph describing the differences that define the width of the river you need to cross.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What are the theological principles in this text?

Here we are looking for theological principles reflected in the meaning of the text you identified in Step 1. God not only gives specific expressions of meaning to biblical audiences, he also sends a broader, theological message through these same texts to all of his people. In light of how our situation compares to and differs from the situation of the biblical audience, try to identify the theological principles reflected in the text. Write out the principle (or principles) in a sentence or two, using present-tense verbs. For example, in unit 2 we gave the following theological principle for Joshua 1:1–9: “To be effective in serving God and successful in the task to which he has called us, we must draw strength and courage from his presence. We must also be obedient to God’s Word, meditating on it constantly.”

In his book Applying the Bible, Jack Kuhatschek mentions three questions that can help us locate theological principles in a passage.[6] (1) Does the author state a principle? Often in New Testament letters the author will state his message in the form of a theological principle (e.g., Eph. 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord”). When this happens, you already have your principle.

(2) Does the broader context reveal a theological principle? Sometimes the author will supply a theological principle in the surrounding context. For example, in Ephesians 5:21 Paul writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He follows this general principle with specific examples of how people in the ancient household should submit to each other (wives/husbands, children/fathers, slaves/masters). If you happen to be studying any of the specific examples, you would want to be aware of the general principle given earlier in 5:21.

(3) We should ask why a particular command or instruction was given. Sometimes when you locate the reason behind the command or instruction, you will also find the theological principle. In Galatians 5:2 Paul writes, “I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” When we ask why the apostle warns the Galatians against circumcision, we find the theological principle that people cannot achieve God’s acceptance by keeping the law or by human effort alone (symbolized by circumcision). God’s grace is given as a gift.

After you have written out your principle or principles in one or two sentences using present-tense verbs, test them against the criteria we mentioned in unit 2 (see below). This will help you determine whether you have truly discovered a theological principle:

  • The principle should be reflected in the biblical text.
  • The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
  • The principle should not be culturally bound.
  • The principle should be consistent with the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
  • The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.

Theological principles provide a bridge across the river of historical and cultural barriers that separate the ancient text and the contemporary audience.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?

Here you need to see how the theological principle you have discovered fits with the rest of Scripture. Is it supported or refuted by the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere?

Since New Testament letters are situational, you need to make sure that the way you formulate a principle from one letter doesn’t contradict the clear teaching of another part of the Bible, even another New Testament letter. Take Galatians 2:16 and James 2:24 as an example:

So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16b)

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:24)

When interpreting one of these passages, you might be tempted to state a principle that, if taken absolutely, would clearly contradict the other passage. Paul and James are addressing two completely different situations in their letters. Both are contending for the importance of a genuine faith that results in obedience. In fact, they both use Abraham as their example of a faith that acts (see Gal. 3:6–9; James 2:21–24). So when writing out a principle for one of these passages, you need to be aware of the broader biblical teaching on the relationship between faith and works.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

In the last phase of interpreting a New Testament letter, we ask how Christians today can live out the theological principle or principles. Remember that while these principles are determined by the meaning of the text, they may be applied in a number of different ways today. In unit 8 we learned how to apply theological principles and even used a passage from a New Testament letter to illustrate the process (Phil. 4:13).

There are three steps. (a) We observe how the theological principles in the biblical text address the original situation. We identify the key elements that are present in the intersection between the principle and the situation. (b) We search for a situation in our lives or our world that contains all the key elements. When we find such parallel contemporary situations, we can be confident that we are applying the meaning of the biblical text. (c) We need to make our applications specific by creating real-world scenarios that are both faithful to the meaning of the text and relevant to the contemporary audience. Remember, to truly grasp God’s Word, we need to obey what we learn.

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