Question: How can I understand the Bible better when I read it?
Bill Warren responds: Epistles comprise 21 of the 27 NT books. Most NT epistles are public letters sent to specific groups of Christians, making them quite different from casual personal letters among family or friends.
These public letters were written to be read aloud to the groups receiving them, not simply to be read privately by individuals. Of course, most of the Christian recipients could not read, so having the letters read aloud to them was the only means of accessing the text.
As letters, the epistles follow the common first-century letter writing forms (Philippians is cited as an example). The epistles (except Hebrews) begin with a salutation and greeting, stating the writers names and to whom they are writing, and then expressing greetings (Phil. 1:1-2). Expressions of thankfulness and prayers for the recipients follow (Phil. 1:3-11). Then the circumstances that led to the writing of the letter are normally given, concluding with a statement of the main purpose of the letter (Phil. 12-30). Next comes the main body of the letter, with the primary theological development of the letter given here as the main arguments are presented and defended (Phil. 2:1-3:21). The letters normally end with a series of encouraging remarks followed by some greetings and requests (Phil. 4:1-20), and then are closed with a parting note and prayer for the recipients (Phil. 4:21-23).
This structure steers us to look for the main content in the body of the epistle, with only brief mentions of the main arguments in the other parts of the letter.
For example, Galatians’ purpose is stated in Gal. 2:15-21, then the main body starts in Galatians chapter 3, so we should look at Galatians 3-4 especially to see Paul’s main arguments about what he wants to convince his readers to understand and do.
We also need to remember that epistles are written to specific people living in specific time periods in specific places with specific concerns. The letters are a way of addressing these specific concerns, so we should seek to understand as much as possible about the audience and their setting. This can be done by reading about the recipients’ city in a Bible dictionary or searching on the Internet for information. Often knowledge of the background helps clarify the meaning of the text rapidly. For example, Philippi was a city that prized its privilege of enjoying Roman citizenship, so when Paul says that their citizenship is now in heaven (Phil. 3:20), he is saying that their allegiance to Christ is to be esteemed as vastly more important than their highly prized Roman citizenship, and that their true leader and savior, Christ Jesus, will come from heaven, not Rome.