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historical context

Knowing the historical context of the NT letters

Imagine yourself as a brother or sister in one of the churches of Galatia during the summer of A.D. 50. Everyone is abuzz, for you’ve just received a letter from Paul in Antioch. Rumor has it this letter is no holds barred. They’re saying that it has to do with the men who have come into the assembly of late who are teaching things that contradict the message Paul brought you when he and Barnabas were here.

When you first received this letter you heard it read aloud in the assembly. You may or may not be able to read yourself, so maybe all you ever did was hear it read to you. Eventually, copies of this historic letter were made. Some leading brothers in the church intended to spread its liberating message to all the saints in other cities and regions. These were words that everyone had to hear.

The point is, when you read the letter you read it as just that, a letter. It was not a “book” to you. It was not divided into chapter and verse. Nothing about it resembled a textbook, or a manual on “how to be free from the law and live the Christian life.” Never once was it suggested to you in any way that you had to dissect it, analyze it, and cross reference it with other of Paul’s letters in order to find the “key” to a victorious life. In fact, looking back on the first century from our present-day vantage point, such a thought is ridiculous.

The early believers to whom these letters came, as in this case with the churches of Galatia, were themselves immersed in the actual conditions and circumstances that gave rise to the letter. Nowhere did they stop and think “what does that word mean,” or “what is Paul referring to there?” They never asked these questions because they were fully aware of the context surrounding his words. The messages of the new testament epistles, whatever they were, were messages that were given rise to by certain circumstances, and that dealt with very specific issues.

Fast forward to our day. Joe Christian has just gotten saved. At the altar or in new believers class, he has been told that one of the best ways to get to know God’s will and to grow as a Christian is, of course, to study the Bible. So he sits down, eager to begin, and flips open to the book of Galatians. He reads some things that inspire him, some that convict him, and a lot that he simply does not understand. He is forced to look over most of its meaning, or to consign his own meaning to the text (you’ve never done that?). If he is anything like this brother, it will take years of conventional Bible study and topical/expositional sermons preached by his favorite preachers before he really begins to understand his New Testament. Please realize this does not mean that conventional Bible study is incapable of yielding any fruit at all, or that all those sermons were bad or wrong, or that the Holy Spirit inside of me was not enough to help me understand the scriptures. It only means that it took me a good while to begin to get a grasp on the first century story.

What might help us avoid this whole predicament? Perhaps by returning to what we first pointed out: Those first believers, to whom these letters first came, were themselves immersed in the conditions and circumstances that initially led to their writing. They had a handle on what was going on around them, you see. They knew the context. It may be advisable to us, then, that our first steps in attempting to understand God’s story begin much the same way, by immersing ourselves to the best of our ability in the actual conditions and circumstances that surrounded the initial writing of those letters. Perhaps then all those hard-to-understand verses with their obscure references will begin to light up and make sense to us. We may even feel the need to throw out those verse divisions altogether. But above all, we may catch a glimpse of Christ and His church, and of God’s eternal purpose concerning Him, one that we never had under the old way of studying our Bible, that will excite us to a fresh pursuit of Him.


About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend.


3 thoughts on “Knowing the historical context of the NT letters

  1. Good thougths. And we should do do our best to avoid proof-texting. If you need to grab a bunch of verses from different books to make your point, it likely wasn’t one of the main topics of the early church. If someone wanted to apply the same proof texting methods to a bunch of my emails, I’m sure they could come up with a bunch of things I never really said. Grab one sentence from each of a 10 different letters to 10 different people… it could make for some interesting miscommunication.

    Unfortunately, the typical evangelical gospel presentation falls into this category. I have doubts anyone in the early church put together a gospel presentation like we typically hear today. If they did I think the whole thing would be written in it’s entirety in a few of the books.

    …. but I’m getting off topic, onto one of my favorite rabbit trails.

    Good post, good thoughts..

    Posted by jhutton | October 31, 2011, 10:08 pm
    • Thanks brother. I appreciate your comments. It’s a very good point you make about proof-texting and the dangers that come from pulling a verse here and a verse there to form teachings that are nowhere central to any of the letters themselves.

      Posted by Josh | November 2, 2011, 4:43 am


  1. Pingback: We just got a letter | The Assembling of the Church - October 31, 2011

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