The book of Acts describes how the Apostle Paul planted churches on his missionary journeys. He wasn’t the only one planting churches. Before long, there were lots of churches all over the known world. But since Christianity was so new, they fell pre to false teaching and ignorance about the truth of the Gospel.
To combat this error, Paul and others wrote letters. They instructed people in the truth, refuted error, and praised them for remaining faithful. Much of our New Testament is composed of these letters. Out of twenty-seven books, twenty-one are letters written to believers to address issues or errors that were growing in the church. They vary in length from the very hefty Romans and 1 Corinthians (16 chapters) down to the book of 2nd John (13 verses).
The letters, or “epistles,” can all be found after the book of Acts and before the book of Revelation. Together they make up the bulk of the New Testament.
The first books are Paul’s letters to churches, organized from longest to shortest:
- 1 & 2 Corinthians – Paul wrote a letter between these two, but it was not considered inspired and is not included in our Bible.
- Galatians – Galatia was a region located in modern Turkey where Paul planted churches. He wrote this letter to be shared among all the churches.
- Ephesians – Ephesus was a large city on the coast of modern Turkey. Paul’s protégé Timothy pastured there.
- Philippians – The city of Philippi in Macedonia was the first city where Paul planted a church in Europe.
- Colossians – this was written to the church in Colossae.
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians – Thessaloniki was a major city in Macedonia where Paul planted a church on his second missionary journey.
Then we have Paul’s letters to individuals
- 1 and 2 Timothy – Timothy was Paul’s student and became the pastor at the large church in Ephesus.
- Titus – Another ministry partner of Paul, Titus was sent to the island of Crete to straighten out the church situation there.
- Philemon – A friend of Paul’s whose slave had run away. Paul sent the letter back to Philemon by the hand of the same slave, who was returning to resume his service.
The book of Hebrews comes next. Written as an open letter to Jewish believers, we don’t know who wrote the letter. It celebrates Jesus as the superior way, better than all other elements of the Jewish faith.
Next is the letter from James, the brother of Jesus, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James wrote to the Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem because of the intense persecution of the Jews.
Then we have 2 letters from Peter, the disciple, and Apostle. Very likely he wrote from Rome, possibly while imprisoned and awaiting his execution.
John, the Beloved Disciple has three short letters. His can be seen as dealing with similar themes as what John followed in his Gospel.
Jude, one of the shortest letters in the New Testament was written by the brother of James – and another of Jesus half-siblings.
Together all these letters provide instruction on how to live the Christian life. Often the readers were embroiled in some kind of issue or error that they needed to turn away from. Other times, they needed to be reminded of the truth they already knew. Some of the letters were written largely for encouragement.
In all, these letters were written by human hand, but inspired by the Holy Spirit. They were practical to meet the needs of the initial readers in whatever circumstance they found themselves. But they are are the words of God for us today.
In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul describes the purpose and function of scripture.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)
In these couple verses, Paul lays out a comprehensive system of maturation that is enabled and driven by the word of God.
- Teaching. The meaning of this word is to instruct in the truth. God’s word teaches us the truth about God and ourselves and how we are to live.
- Reproof. To reprove means to point out or identify errors. This means that when we stray from the truth, the Bible shows us the error of our ways.
- Correction. As you might expect, this means that the Bible adjusts our lives to bring us back into line with the truth. This correction can be gentle or more direct, but the goal is to return us to right living.
- Training. Just like we train to become proficient at physical activities, the Bible trains us in spiritual matters. Through practice and repetition, we become better at living in the truth
The people in the early church were all converts from some other religious system. They carried habits and preferences for how to worship God into their Christian faith. This led to conflict and error.
In the culture around the church were unscrupulous people who saw the new believers as ripe for deception. Lacking maturity and knowledge, these wolves in sheep’s clothing came to the church and tried to introduce errors that favored them, either financially or in terms of prestige.
Needless to say, the early church needed clarity and instruction because they experienced all sorts of problems. These letters were God’s answer for His people.
Fast forward two thousand years and the Church still struggles. We fall victim to false teachings and misapply the truth, twisting it in ways it was never intended. These letters to the early church are equally essential for us today.
The Bible is God’s word. Every word of it. It’s profitable for us to study it and apply it to our lives.
The Epistles Teach Sound Doctrine
Laced throughout the letters of the New Testament we find sound doctrine. Doctrine means teaching that we affirm to be true. This means that the epistles teach the truth. It would be impossible to briefly list all the sound doctrine that we find in these books. These few examples will serve to illustrate the kinds of truth we find.
The Bible identifies our true standing before God. If you want a sobering read, take a look at the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In painstaking detail, Paul builds a case that humanity is sinful and stands condemned before a holy God.
Romans 3:23 summarizes this very simply when it says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is the cherry on the top of three hard-hitting chapters that don’t pull any punches.
The reality of our sinful state leads us to cry out for a Savior. Trapped in the guilt of our sin, there is no other way that we can escape the deserved wrath of God. This is Paul’s intention. He wants us to be clear on where we stand apart from the grace of God.
The letter to the church in Philippi explained how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. In chapter two of his letter, Paul explained how Jesus set aside His divine rights, without giving up His divinity so that He could become human and subject Himself to the humiliation of public execution.
This is a really hard concept to get our heads around. How can one Person be two things at the same time? Paul offers an explanation that gives us more information but does not necessarily answer every question. However, even though we don’t have all the answers we might want, Paul offers the comfort that Jesus did come as both God and Man. Because He was human, He could be a perfect representative sacrifice for us. But because He was God, he was able to satisfy the full demands of the law.
Without this revelation, we might be left to wonder about our salvation. Instead, we are given information and insight that anchors us to the truth that was revealed to the Apostle Paul.
The Bible introduces us to spiritual gifts and explains that every believer is gifted by the Holy Spirit to contribute to their local body. The church in Corinth had messed this up and was making a mess of things. Paul wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 12 to set the record straight.
The issue of spiritual gifting was not well explained in the Old Testament. So there was little information for the early Christians to use to understand this amazing thing that had happened to them. Fortunately, Paul’s Holy Spirit fueled letter provided just what they needed, and what we need, to understand what the Spirit does for us.
This teaching also instructs us in the truth that every believer has a role to play in the life of their church. There are no spectator gifts. Everyone has a contribution to make. Everyone participated in the mission by serving one another.
This passage teaches important truths about how Christians should relate together and how they should expect a diversity of roles. These differences are less about the value of the gift, but about serving all the different needs of the Body of Christ.
The Epistles Tackle Error
Even though the early church had the Apostles, they still managed to find their way into all sorts of false teaching. Today we are no better off. We are just as likely to stray from the truth of God’s word and need to be shown the error of our ways.
In the very short book of Jude, the author writes to an unnamed group of believers to point out to them the dangers of listening to false teachers who would lead them away from the truth into apostasy.
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:5)
Jude then goes on to remind his readers what God has reserved for those to turn from the truth. He points to the fate of the Egyptians, the fallen angels, and even the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. His warning is loud and clear about straying from the path into false teachings.
To the people in the churches of Galatia, Paul writes of an encounter he had with the Apostle Peter. Peter had been living among Gentiles and had adopted some of their practices. But when he came to Jerusalem, he suddenly returned to the Jewish practices. This added fuel to the raging debate of whether the gentile Christians had to also become Jewish converts.
Paul confronted Peter about his hypocrisy and that he was leading a bad example. The gospel liberated people – it did not bind them to old rules and requirements. The Jewish desire to force the gentiles into a Hebrew mold was misguided and needed to be stopped.
The error was the extra burden of following Jewish law. Christ had fulfilled the law and given us the gospel. It was wrong to return to the restrictions of that law, even though they may have been comforting and familiar.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul spends most of chapter five calling out the church for allowing people who were living in unrepentant sin to continue in the church without rebuke or correction. Paul puts his finger right on the heart of the matter and tells them that this behavior is not good and must be immediately addressed.
The Epistles Offer Encouragement and Exhortation
The Epistles are not all bad news and correction. They also encourage us that we have found something much better than we ever had before and that we are children of the King.
Hebrews eleven, often called “Faith’s Hall of Fame” celebrates the faith of many of the great men and women of the Old Testament. They were given to us as examples to show us what faith in action looks like. The entire chapter is filled with person after person and references to their faith.
Since we are surrounded by such a cloud of examples, then, we are encouraged to pursue faith on our own. We follow the same God as all these great people. And we have seen the mystery of the Gospel revealed in Jesus. The Old Testament saints were looking forward, placing their faith in God to provide a way. We know Who the way is, so we should be excited by what God has for us.
First John chapter four is often called the love chapter because the Apostle John exhorts his readers to love one another.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
We who know God and have experienced His love are in the unique position of understanding what love is really like. We’ve experienced it more deeply and broadly than mere human love. Therefore, we ought to reflect the love that we have received.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul described our fight against “the evil one.” Paul used the metaphor of a soldier in full armor deploying against the enemy. Paul helpfully gives us our orders: “Stand Firm!”
We do not need to defeat the devil. Jesus has already done that. We simply need to resist him by standing firm. And to do this, we’ve been given exactly the armor and tools we will need to succeed.
Paul’s exhortation to stand firm because the battle is already won is an encouragement to us today as we see the prevalence of evil and wickedness in the world around us.
The Epistles Instruct in Church Practice
Since the church was a new institution and Jesus promised that He would build the church, He also ensured that we were instructed how to properly be the church. The epistles are loaded wit practical instructions for how the church (which is the household of God ) ought to be run.
In Titus and 2 Timothy, Paul describes the criteria for people to become leaders of the church. Without these standards, the church would have been flooded with attention seekers and power mongers who wanted to use the power of the church for their purposes.
Paul provides very clear standards and qualifications for these leaders. It gave the churches the ability to discern between appropriate leaders and dangerous wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul instructed them on how to conduct their church services. Their worship services had devolved into chaos. Gluttony and selfishness had infected the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and people had created a value system of spiritual gifts that didn’t align with God’s purpose at all.
Paul wrote to them to rebuke them and provide clear teaching on the proper way to use gifts and take communion. He wanted them to straighten out their practices so that God would be glorified. Since God has not changed in the intervening years, the instructions for how to worship God hold for us today.
Peter, himself a pastor, wrote about the proper function and role of a pastor in the church. It was not to be an exalted role, wielding power over the church. The pastor was to consider himself an under-shepherd. He did not have authority of his own but received a commission from the over-shepherd, who is Jesus.
This was a foreign concept in the early church. But even today, we see people who try to grab any platform and use it for their ends. Fortunately, God has provided us with the instruction that we need to not fall into that trap and live lives that bring glory to God.
These are only a few examples of what we find in the epistles. To learn more, it’s great to dive in and study God’s communication to us. There is much practical wisdom and effective correction and instruction in them.
The Epistles Are Not “Better”
Many people think these are the best parts of the Bible because they are written to people most like us. They most directly address situations that are familiar and relevant to us today. These people create a hierarchy of books of the Bible and place the epistles at the top.
This is not accurate or appropriate. The entire Bible is God’s inspired word. Every bit of it was “breathed out” by the Holy Spirit. We cannot say that any part of God’s communication to us is better than any other part.
The epistles certainly have a direct application to us today. However, we cannot elevate them over other parts of the Bible lest we fall into error ourselves. We find amazing divine truth on every page, and should not be partial to one or another location.
At the same time, we cannot deny the practicality of these letters. They speak directly to us, in our natural condition. Just like the first-century church, we are people saved by grace, seeking to obey the word of God. We have some advantages in that the entire Bible has been preserved for us, while the first century Christians were living through this period of revelation.
Dive into the epistles – but no more than any other book of the Bible. All of God’s word is good.