Here's a little scenario: we have decided we want to study a book of the bible. What may be our first inclination when we choose the book? Something short, right? Where are the shorter books of the bible found? We are intimidated at the prospect of slogging our way through Leviticus, so we look in the New Testament and decide we like the book of Philippians, so we're going to study it. It's short; it must be easy, right? Wrong.
Studying the Epistles of the New Testament is probably one of the most difficult studies. We automatically think that prophecy is more difficult, and it certainly is, but Epistles are difficult. Why?
Epistles are what is called "occasional" literature. That does't mean its appearance is not regular; it means that it was written for a specific occasion. All of the Epistle writers wrote their letters to a specific audience, often a specific person, for a specific reason. We have very little in the way of means to discern what the occasion was. We only have one side of the conversation. So, while we are sitting and reading the book of Philippians and we get to that beautiful passage about emptying ourselves, we have no real idea of exactly why Paul chose to bring that up. We can certainly pick up clues, but the task of studying an Epistle puts us in the position of being Sherlock Holmes, and reconstructing things. It is like hearing someone on the phone, but only hearing one end of the conversation, and trying to figure out what the conversation is about. It isn't impossible, but we have to remember that ultimately, we are limited.
Because of the nature of the Epistles, we also have to be really careful with our study. We have to take time with our study. We tend to look at the Epistles for practical advice, and while they are full of them, we have to keep in mind the cultural and historical times and ask ourselves if what we're attempting to apply is a universal truth, or a cultural quirk of time. This means establishing our background well, and that will involve reading carefully and closely. Epistles are what Fee and Stuart call "task theology." The letters were written not as theological discussions, but communications designed to give opinion, observation, and correction. Of course theology is derived from it, but not every jot and tittle of an Epistle is theology.
When we read an Epistle, it is important to read it all the way through in one sitting. With the shorter ones, that ought to be relatively easy, but if you're a young mother and you're pressed for time, the longer ones may take more than one sitting. It is important to read them as wholes, though. If you were to receive a letter from a beloved friend, would you read his letter to you over a number of days? Romans and Hebrews are long, and maybe the first time you read them through in one sitting you may miss things, but you're going to end up reading it more than once, anyway.
As you read an Epistle, you will see a definite structure to them. Not every Epistle is the same and some have elements missing, but most Epistles have this format:
Body of Letter
Even as you look at those elements, you can think of how you've seen them in letters. In Ephesians, Paul's opening discusses the spiritual blessings we have in Christ. In Galatians, he doesn't really give them a thanksgiving, but dives right into his concerns for their situation. Some of the most wonderful models for prayer come from the beginning and end of letters. These divisions won't be applied exactly over every letter we read, but most have this structure.
After reading it through the first couple of times, we want to look for logical divisions. Chapter divisions are not inspired, so while some of them may be logical, sometimes, they aren't. When we are reading an Epistle, we want to look for the topics that the writer addresses. As we read again, look for things such as repeated phrases and words, contrasts, and terms of conclusion. Romans 12:1 begins with the term of conclusion, "therefore" and signals the major division in Romans. Another term of conclusion is "for this reason." When you see those terms, it signals a division, but it also calls upon us to look back at what is being concluded, and provides us with connections between the sections.
Fee and Stuart exhort us to "think paragraphs" when we study the Epistles:
We simply cannot stress enough the importance of your own learing to THINK PARAGRAPHS, and not just as natural units of thought but as the absolute necessary key to understanding the argument in various epistles. You will recall that the one question you need to learn to ask over and over again is, What's the point? Therefore, you want to be able to do two things: (1) In a compact way state the content of each paragraph. What does Paul say in this paragraph? (2) In another sentence or two try to explain why do you think Paul says this at this point? How does this content contribute to the argument.
This approach has helped me a lot. Years ago, when I still used a New American Standard Bible, I bought a big one with wide margins and used the margins for summarizing paragraphs. It really helped. Most study bibles have subheadings, so you can be assisted in that way. I have found it really helpful to keep a notebook with paragraph summaries. In addition to my summaries, I will write in brackets any questions I have to which I want to return, turns of phrases that I'm not entirely certain about, or words that I feel I lack solid understanding of. I don't think it's important for us to understand everything the first few times through, but we will read things over and over again, and that will help us work toward understanding. I have actually found that studying an Epistle is the fastest way to memorize it. I'm sure I've said this in another post, but there is no substitute for reading and re-reading.
As we are reading and making divisions, we can also look for other things, such as clues to the occasion of the letter, information about the recipients, and the attitude of the author. These all help with discerning the reason for the letter. I have found it easier to look for topical divisions first and then hone in on smaller details later. I have a friend, when she studies the Epistles, looks at the author, recipients and occasion of the letter first, and then summarizes paragraphs. I don't know as if there's one perfect way as long as we do both. Getting the topics identified and seeing how they work together is an important step in studying an Epistle. And of course, there are always helpful introductory writings to letters in study bibles. The ESV Study Bible contains excellent introductions. You may want to do all the work yourself first before you read them, but I do find them really helpful.
Once we have our sections divided up, we can look more closely at each one and ask if there are further ways of dividing them by viewing individual sentences and seeing how they have come together to form an argument. Only after that can we start focusing on various words and phrases to discern meaning.
I'd like to keep this post short today. What I plan to do next week is to do a sample of sorts, using the book of Titus, breaking it down into a hopefully helpful outline.
One last point: while we don't automatically think about figurative language in the context of a letter, it is used. Things like metaphor, simile, proverb, paradox, rhetorical questions, parallel constructions, etc. are all used in Epistles. Ephesians 6:10-20 is an extended metaphor. Paul uses metaphorical language when he talks about the Christian life as being like athletic training. The book of I John is full of metaphor, talking about light and dark in its discussion of sin. It's important to look for those elements when we are trying to figure out what is being taught.
Lord willing, next week, I'll look at Titus and work through an outline. I have recently been asked to teach this topic to the women of our church for six weeks in September, so being able to write it about it here on my blog is giving a great opportunity to "practice," as it were.