Updated: Nov 11, 2019
The New Testament has 27 books. The first 5 books are the historical books and record the life and ministry of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the beginning of the universal church and the spread of the gospel message. The next 21 books of the New Testament are letters (also called epistles.) Revelation is unique and stands alone in that while it is a letter to churches; it is a prophetical book.
All of the letters are instructional in nature. They encourage and instruct Christians on various issues related to our personal life and to our churches.
These books tell us how to live the Christian life.
The canon of New Testament Scripture is organized by
The Historical Books – Matthew through Acts
Paul’s Letters – Romans through Philemon
General Letters – Hebrew through Jude
Pauline Letters: Paul wrote 13 – Romans to Philemon
Paul’s Letters to Churches – Romans – 2 Thessalonians
Romans to the church in Rome
1 and 2 Corinthians to the church at Corinth
Galatians to the church in Galatia
Ephesians to the church in Ephesus
Philippians to the church in Philippi
Colossians to the church in Colossae
1 and 2 Thessalonians to the church in Thessalonica
Paul’s Letters to Individuals – 1 Timothy – Philemon
1 and 2 Timothy to Timothy
Titus to Titus
Philemon to Philemon
Most of the General Epistles/Letters were written during the years of heavy Roman persecution of the Christian population.
The content encourages the Christians to stand firm in their faith.
The content and tone combats false teaching (heresy).
General Structure of the New Testament Letters:
A word of grace followed by a word of thanksgiving
Body of the letter
Closing with a praise to God (doxology) and/ or a blessing (benediction)
I have heard people talk about “taking the Bible literally.” Do I take the Bible literally? Yes and no. Instead let me say I believe the Bible is the Word of God (I have sound logical reasons for believing this) and it is therefore, relevant and applicable to my life. The Bible is my rule of faith. I try to read and apply the Bible in context.
There is a lot of applicability in these letters for our lives! However, it is important to know that the letters were written in specific historical and cultural contexts. We should understand how the writer intended it to apply to us.
The culture of the New Testament was quite different than ours is today. Human nature, however, hasn’t changed since the beginning of time! The letters were written to churches and individuals to address specific situations that were going on in that day. Do those same issues happen today? Most certainly they do. But the differences in our culture today and the culture at the time the letters were written does require some level of discernment on our part. It would therefore be helpful for us to know as much about the historical and cultural context of the letter so we correctly apply the text to our lives.
To read over them and fail to discern the underlying principle.
To misunderstand the significance of the cultural expression in a passage.
To interpret all expressions of culture in the New Testament as normative for us today.
To obtain historical and cultural context I suggest you read the introduction to that book of the Bible in a study Bible or to read about the letter in a book that gives you an overview of each book of the Bible such as Stephen M. Miller’s book, The Complete Guide to the Bible (affiliate link.) Also study Bible text notes can be helpful for specific verses.
And always pray before you read Scripture asking for discernment and clarity.
When I first felt God prompting me to teach and as I was being mentored to teach, there was one Scripture verse which bothered me.
It was 1 Timothy 2:12.
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
If I took this verse "literally," I would not be able to teach men.
Before I taught I researched that verse. I read the text notes in all of my study Bibles, and I read commentaries by reliable authors (one who believed women should not teach men.) I read both sides of the argument over this verse on reliable internet sources. And I sought wise counsel from a seminary student; two seminary graduates; and a pastor who has his doctorate in theology, is a published Christian author, was a professor at a seminary and used to be president of a well-known seminary. And I prayed for discernment.
Based on my due diligence, I concluded it was acceptable for me to teach men.
Yes, there are some verses which are colored by historical and cultural context, but these are the exception and not the rule.
There is so much that is applicable for us in the New Testament letters!
Randomly opening my Bible to the First Letter of John – 1:8-9 says:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Applicability – We are sinners. Confess those sins to God and He will forgive us and make us clean. It's not rocket science, thank goodness!
Colossians 3: 12-17 This passage is quite applicable.
…put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other,…
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,…
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you,…
The New Testament Letters tell us how to live the Christian life. How we should behave in our relationships with others. How to handle hardships in our life. They give us encouragement. They give us hope. They tell us how to live an abundant life.
"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
John 10:10b NASB
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