It’s unusual to read someone else’s mail but that’s essentially what we’re doing when we read the New Testament Letters. However, these letters were written to the Church and since we’re also part of the Church maybe they’re written to us too.
What do we need to know about the New Testament Letters to help us understand them better and why are they still so relevant to the Church today?
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When it comes to historical context and the New Testament Letters, Tim points out three important aspects, or layers of context that are worth paying attention too.
The first aspect is that of the authors themselves. The apostles were the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry and the first followers to be commissioned by Jesus to go out and spread the gospel. They received Jesus’ message directly and they also received His Spirit to guide and inspire them as they grew the Church.
This also means that the apostles were uniquely positioned to act as heralds of the Kingdom. They were adept at explaining why the Kingdom was better than the current situation and they were passionate about inviting others to become its citizens.
The second aspect is that of the Roman culture in which the early church was developing. Situating the letters within their cultural context helps to add colour to the edges of what these letters address. It also helps us to make the reasonable assumptions which the author would have expected his audience to make at the time.
In addition, the ability to contrast the Kingdom with the surrounding culture also highlights how different the Kingdom truly was. I think this perspective is especially valuable to the Church coming out of Christendom.
Consider that in the West, cultural values looked like kingdom values for so long that we’re not sure how to stay relevant as the two sets of values drift apart today. As such, the Church can learn a lot from these letters by recognizing that our context is becoming more like that of the first century.
The Third aspect is the situational context of the letter. Essentially, what issues or questions were the letters specifically being written to address?
These letters were written to address a wide variety of issues about belief and practice for members of Jesus’ Kingdom. As such, they are a significant source of theology and instruction offered in the context of very real issues and questions being faced by the early Church. The Church faces similar issues and questions today and these letters can help us navigate them too.
Importantly, these letters were written to clarify the theology and practice of the Church and they were written by authors who had received Jesus’ teaching directly and who were being guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This combination of apostolic authority and divine inspiration is a large part of why they were included in the Bible that we still read today.