Introduction to the Epistles and Revelation
An “epistle” is simply another term for an ancient letter. Some have suggested that epistles were more formal than letters, but such a distinction is debated and thus usually ignored. Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, twenty-one are letters (about thirty-five percent of the New Testament): thirteen authored by the apostle Paul, two by the apostle Peter, one by James the brother of Jesus, and one by Jude the brother of James. Two of the three letters typically attributed to John are written by “the elder” (2Jn 1; 3Jn 1), with 1 John being formally anonymous. Both the style and content suggest that the three letters were written by the same author. Additionally, the similarity of these epistles with the Gospel of John and Revelation also suggest that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, is the author. Finally, the letter of Hebrews is also anonymous with no consensus regarding its author.
Although no books of the Old Testament are classified as letters, several contain short letters within their broader literary genre of historical narratives (e.g., 2 Sam 11:14–15; Ezra 4–5). Letters were common in the ancient world, which is evidenced both by the number of letters in the New Testament canon and by the frequency of letters and the mention of letter-writing.
We know that Paul wrote other letters to churches that are not included in the New Testament canon since he references them in his writings (1Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 2:3–4; Col 4:16). A letter was written by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem “to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (Acts 15:23). The believers in Ephesus wrote a letter for Apollos to the brothers in Achaia (Acts 18:27). Paul mentions a letter written by the Corinthian church asking him for clarifications regarding certain issues (1Cor 7:1). Paul references his plans to write a letter for those in Corinth who will take the monetary gift from the Gentile churches to the church in Jerusalem (1Cor 16:3). Finally, we read of a letter claiming to be written by Paul regarding the coming of Christ (2Thes 2:2).
Ancient letter-writing was often done using the help of an amanuensis or secretary. For example, we read, “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22). Apparently, it was Paul’s normal practice to use an amanuensis. At times Paul makes it clear that he is writing instead of his secretary (1Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2Thes 3:17; Phlm 19; cf. 1Pet 5:12). It was Paul’s practice to write his final greeting with his own hand as a sign of the letter’s authenticity (2Thes 3:17).
Most New Testament letters follow the basic form of the Greco-Roman letter, having an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction typically begins with an address or greetings (sender to recipient, “greetings”). For example, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings” (Jas 1:1). Paul’s introductory greetings are often longer, introducing important themes that arise in the body of the letter (e.g., Rom 1:1–7; Gal 1:1–5). In several letters, Paul includes co-workers as quasi co-authors of his letters (Timothy: Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; Phlm 1; Timothy and Silvanus [Silas]: 1Thes 1:1; 2Thes 1:1). He also mentions “all the brothers who are with me” in Gal 1:1. Paul often includes a thanksgiving section (e.g., Rom 1:8; 1Cor 1:4; Phil 1:3–4) or a section blessing or praising God (e.g., 2Cor 1:3–7; Eph 1:3–14; cf. 1Pet 1:3–9). In Paul’s letters, Galatians is a notable exception, containing neither a thanksgiving nor a blessing. Because Paul diverges from his normal pattern in Galatians, this omission emphasizes the critical situation of the Galatian churches in departing from the apostolic gospel (Gal 1:6–9). A few New Testament letters have no opening greeting (e.g., Heb, 1Jn).
The body of New Testament epistles has a great range of both length and content. Regarding length, the longest letter is Romans (7,111 words) and the shortest is 2 John (219 words). The content of letters also differs greatly since most letters were occasional or situational letters. In other words, letters were typically written to address specific problems or encourage specific behavior in a local congregation or group of churches. Paul often had debates with imaginary questioners to get his point across to his readers (also known as a diatribe; see Rom 2:1–5; 3:1–9; 6:1, 15; 7:1, 7, 13; 1Cor 15:35–36). At other times Paul would quote and comment on an Old Testament text (also known as midrash; see 1 Cor 10:1–5; 15:54–55). Another method used was ethical exhortation (also known as paraenesis; see Rom 12:9–21; Eph 4–6). That is, New Testament letters often have a hortatory function where the author warns, rebukes, exhorts, charges, thanks, encourages, or reminds his readers. Such exhortations are always grounded in the reality of Jesus’s cross-work, providing the motivation and power to obey God’s Word. Other types of material found in the body of a New Testament epistle include hymns and creeds (Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20; 1Tim 3:16; Eph 5:14), vice and virtue lists (1Tim 3:2–7, 8–13; Titus 1:5–9), and household codes (Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; 1Tim 5:1–2; Titus 2:1–10; 1Pet 2:18–3:7).
Finally, New Testament letters ended with a conclusion. Paul’s letters often contained a greeting (where the author sends greetings to specific individuals in the church or the author passes along greetings from those who are with him), travel plans (see Rom 15:22–33; 1Cor 16:5–9; Titus 3:12), and even a doxology (Rom 16:25–27; Phil 4:20; cf. Heb 13:20–21) or benediction (1Cor 16:23; Gal 6:18; Eph 6:23–24; 2Thes 3:16, 18).
Letters played an important role in Paul’s strategy of building and strengthening churches. When he could and when the time was appropriate, he would personally visit the churches. But when it was not possible to visit, Paul would write letters to encourage his churches and send his co-workers to them on his behalf (such as Phoebe: 1Cor 16:1–2; Tychicus: Eph 6:21; Col 4:7; Epaphroditus: Phil 2:25–30; and Silas: 1Pet 5:12).
The apostle Paul is the author of thirteen letters in the New Testament. Of these letters, nine are addressed to churches and four to individuals (though see 1Tim 6:21; 2Tim 4:22; Titus 3:15; Phlm 1–2 which suggest that, in one sense, these letters were also written to local congregations).
Paul’s letters can be divided into four main groups:
- Eschatological Epistles: 1–2 Thessalonians (early 50s AD). These two letters emphasize the importance of Christ’s second coming. For example, Christ’s return is referenced in every chapter in 1 Thessalonians.
- Theological Epistles: Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians (mid 50s AD; Galatians possibly 48). These letters are among Paul’s longest and most theologically weighty writings.
- Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (early 60s AD). These letters were most likely written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment (AD 60–62), even as he claims in each letter to be “in chains.” Many of the themes and references to individuals overlap.
- Pastoral Epistles: 1–2 Timothy and Titus (mid 60s AD). These three letters, written to Paul’s apostolic delegates Timothy and Titus, include qualifications for church leaders and material that relates to pastoral ministry.
Paul’s letters are ordered in the New Testament canon into two groups: letters to churches and then letters to individuals. Within these two groupings, the letters are further arranged from longest to shortest.
Outside of Paul’s epistles, there are eight other epistles authored by five different individuals: the author of Hebrews, Peter, James, Jude, and John. They are categorized as “general” or “catholic” epistles since they are not addressed to specific congregations and thus are considered to have more general content. Unlike Paul’s letters that are named according to location of the recipients, these epistles are named according to the perceived author (except for Hebrews, which is named according to the identity of the recipients since many in the early church thought it was written by Paul).
Although its author remains unknown, the message of the letter to the Hebrews is clear: since Jesus is superior to the old covenant (including the Old Testament prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua, and Aaron), the readers are warned not to return to Judaism but to hold firm their confession of Christ to the end. James writes his epistle to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas 1:1), which probably refers to believers who were scattered outside of Palestine. Peter, who writes to the chosen exiles of the dispersion, including Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1Pet 1:1), encourages them to endure suffering since Christ also suffered leaving them an example. Second Peter and Jude do not mention any specific destination of their letters, but both letters warn against the teachings and lifestyle of false teachers. The apostle John, also known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20) and “the elder” (2Jn 1; 3Jn 1), writes to a church (or churches) probably in Asia Minor at the end of his life. He writes to explain the difference between those who are true believers (thus giving them assurance) and those who are not (thus exposing them).
The following four principles will aid the reader in properly interpreting epistles.
- Know the literary form of epistles. This helps us know what is usual and what is unexpected (and thus stressed).
- Know the entire epistle. Although we would not read a friend’s letter piecemeal (e.g., reading one paragraph every day over the next two weeks), that is how the New Testament letters are often read. Most of the letters are short and, at least at times, should be read in one sitting. Remember that verse and chapter divisions are not original (and thus not inspired) and may actually cause us to lose site of the larger context.
- Know how much weight to give to parallel texts. The general rule is that the further away a supposed parallel text is from the text in question, the less interpretive weight it bears. In other words, the immediate context of the verse (paragraph, chapter, epistle) is usually far more helpful than a passage by another author in another book (especially if it is a different literary genre).
- Know the historical context of the epistle. Because epistles are occasional, often responding to specific questions, problems, or issues the church was facing, it is helpful to always keep the historical context in mind when interpreting the individual parts of the letter. Most New Testament letters are written to a particular audience for a particular reason. Although extra-biblical material may be useful, the best and most reliable data we have for reconstructing the historical context is from the various letters themselves. And yet, studying the historical situation can help correct faulty views that fail to understand the message of the Bible from the perspective of the original audience.
Also known as “the apocalypse” (the Greek word for “revelation” is apokalypsis), the book of Revelation stands as a unique book closing out the New Testament canon. This book contains “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) that was revealed to John in a vision while he was exiled on the island of Patmos for his witness to Christ (1:9). It also includes at least three literary genres: (1) epistle (the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor; 2:1–3:22); (2) prophecy (1:3); and (3) apocalyptic literature (1:1).
John conveys the contents of this vision to encourage his readers by assuring them that Christ will defeat Satan and his followers, and that God will vindicate his people. The book is written to give hope to God’s persecuted people by assuring them that the victory belongs to the Lord. Christ is pictured as a conqueror over death (1:18; 2:8), Hades (1:18), the dragon (12:9–11; 20:10), the beast (15:2; 19:20; 20:10), the false prophet (19:20; 20:10), and all those who worship the beast (19:20). Those who pledge their allegiance to the lamb will one day reign with him in the new heavens and the new earth once he returns victoriously to rescue his people and finally and fully defeat his enemies.
Although Revelation is admittedly difficult to interpret, four basic principles will help guide the reader to correctly understand this important book.
- Be familiar with Old Testament apocalyptic literature. Revelation does not directly cite the Old Testament apocalyptic literature, but it is full of allusions and echoes. Without knowledge of books such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, much of the imagery used by John may not make sense.
- Interpret Revelation considering the original audience. This is a basic rule of interpreting any New Testament book but is perhaps especially helpful when interpreting Revelation, which is not primarily a manual for the end times but is a message of hope for persecuted first-century Christians.
- Interpret the book as apocalyptic literature. Revelation is loaded with symbolism and figurative language. Thus, the symbols should not be interpreted in a literal manner, even though the symbols point to an assured reality.
- Understand the way the book handles chronology. The events recorded in Revelation should not necessarily be taken as occurring chronologically. John often employs a cyclical pattern or recapitulation. For example, it appears that the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls all describe the end of the world (6:12–17; 11:19; 16:18–21).
The Message and Function of the Epistles and Revelation in the Biblical Canon
The life and saving work of Christ marked an epic advance in the outworking of God’s redemptive purpose, and the implications for the faith and life of the believer were massive. Just who is Jesus? Given our worship of Jesus, how are we to understand God? Just how has he saved us? What are the entailments of his saving work? Is there more to come? How, then, should we live as we await his return? The epistles and Revelation are given to address these kinds of questions, providing instruction for the life and faith of the church as we await the culmination of our salvation when Jesus comes again.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles.
- John Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook.
- Karen H. Jobes, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles.
- Herbert W. Bateman IV, Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook.
- Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation.
- Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation.
- Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation.
- Marvin Pate, Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook.