God did not give us a systematic theology textbook when he gave us the Bible. That is, he did not give us a book organized into a handful of topics that are discussed point-by-point, affirming timeless doctrinal propositions one-by-one. I am not saying it is bad to write, publish, or read systematic theologies (I have a Ph.D. in systematic theology!). No, it is good to read and study systematic theology. But we must understand that the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook. The Bible is a collection of various books that can be categorized into various genres, or kinds of literature. Unfortunately, in our zeal to affirm the truth of the content of Scripture, I think we as evangelicals have too often neglected the literary qualities of the various genres of the Bible. We sometimes give the impression that our main goal in studying the Bible is to tear through the literary wrapping paper in order to get to the content.1 For example, we often try to move too quickly to harmonize Gospel accounts with one another. Where there are differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we often want to know how we can fit them all together and get an idea of what “really happened.” While there is nothing wrong with some attempts at harmonization, the fact remains that God did not give us one single account about the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He gave us four, each with its own unique literary characteristics. And if we flatten them all out through harmonization (looking for the content), we will never be able to grasp what God has revealed through the literary features of the Gospels. As Christians we must be concerned not only about what God has said, but also how he has said it, for both the “what” (content) and the “how” (genre) are aspects of divine revelation. The genres of the Bible are not simply packages that hold content that we can discard once we get to the content. They are, as Kevin Vanhoozer has argued, lenses through which we are invited to view the world. The wisdom literature shows us one way to see the world, the psalms show us another, the biblical narratives show us another, the apocalyptic books show us another, and the epistles show us another. We begin today with the New Testament epistles because, of all the biblical genres, this one is probably the easiest to interpret. These letters were written to New Testament believers, most of whom were Gentiles. We likewise are Gentile, New Testament believers. We stand in the same place in redemptive history as those who received these letters, so there is a great deal in the letters that is directly applicable to us. The twenty-two New Testament epistles function as a lens through which we view the world in this way: they invite us to understand ourselves, the church, as pilgrims on a journey in need of guidance. They show us how to live in the overlap of the ages, where we face dangers, threats, and temptations at every turn, even while we are on our way to the eternal home God has promised us. My approach in teaching you the rules and techniques for reading the epistles is similar to that of Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. They use the letter of 1 Corinthians as an example. But since you could easily get that example from reading their book, I will use a different letter as an example, Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The first rule for interpreting New Testament epistles is I. Note the Literary Form of First Century Letters. Just as we have a set form that we follow when we write letters today, so did people in the first century. Normally, first-century letters followed this pattern:
1.Identification of the author 2.Identification of the recipient(s) 3.Greeting 4.Prayer and/or thanksgiving 5.Body 6.Farewell
To illustrate the literary form of first-century letters, I want to take you to an example in the book of Acts. In Acts 15:23-29, we read a letter written by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem to the churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Note that every conventional element is present in this letter except the prayer and/or thanksgiving. The greeting and farewell are very short and simple, and the body of the letter itself is quite short. When you read the letters of the New Testament, it is important to note where an author deviates from this set form, or where he adds a great deal of content to one aspect or another. For example, in the letter to the Galatians, Paul has no thanksgiving section at all. This omission seems to suggest that the threat to the gospel in Galatia was so great that Paul felt a word of thanksgiving was inappropriate. Another example is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the thanksgiving and prayer section goes on and on for all of chapter 1, revealing the depths of gratitude that flow out of Paul for God’s saving work. Coming now to Colossians, we notice in 1:1 that the author identifies himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.” The recipients are given in verse 2: “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.” The greeting comes next: “Grace to you and peace from God our father.” Paul typically uses “grace and peace” as his words of greeting. He could simply say, “greetings,” but he prefers distinctly Jewish and Christian language to refer to the favor of God and the blessings that flow from it. Next you will note that in verse 3 Paul begins with a word of thanksgiving about his readers. In verse 9 he tells of how he prays for them regularly. It is somewhat difficult to decide where the body of this letter begins, but we’ll worry about that later. As you near the end of the letter, you see that Paul commends Tychicus (the bearer of the letter) to the church, sends greetings from those who are with him (that is, Paul, not Tychicus), and then sends his final greeting, written in his own hand, at the end of the letter. This letter follows the conventions very closely, yet it also bears the distinctive marks of Paul’s letter writing style. Knowing the literary form of first-century letters will provide you with a template, a framework, that can help you make sense of the letter and that will provide great insights whenever you notice deviations or expansions on those letter-writing conventions.
The next rule for interpreting the epistles is II. Find the Occasion and Purpose of the Letter. What I mean here is that you should try to discover what prompted the author to write the letter and what the author is seeking to accomplish by writing it. In most cases (but not all), the authors of the New Testament letters are writing to address some problem in a church, either regarding a threat of false teaching or a failure to live out the gospel properly. At this step you want to find out as much as you can about the author, about the author’s situation when he was writing, and about the recipients and their situation. Consult Bible dictionaries, New Testament introductions, and commentaries for this information. But the most important thing to do at this stage is simply read the letter through in its entirety, paying close attention to clues that will tell you what occasion gave rise to it. In the letter of Colossians, we notice in 1:4 and 9 that Paul speaks of “hearing” about the faith of the Colossians and that in 1:7 that the believers in Colossae had learned the gospel from Epaphras. This fact implies that Paul had not planted the church, so he is writing to a church that is not one of “his” churches. In 2:1 Paul mentions that he has not seen these believers face-to-face, and yet in the previous section he indicates that he has a special calling to the Gentiles, and thus he has some responsibility to minister to this church. In 4:3 we discover that Paul is in prison, and in 4:7-9 we read that he is sending Tychicus and Onesimus as bearers of the letter in part to inform the Colossians about himself. But it is in chapter 2 that we have the clearest indications about why Paul felt compelled to write to them. Notice verses 8, and then look down to verses 16-23. Apparently, the Colossians were facing a threat of false teaching that amounted to the imposition of ascetic practices. The three items “festival, new moon, or a Sabbath” in 2:16 indicate that this is a Jewish influence of some kind. Paul also mentions “worship of angels” and “visions” in 2:18. These likewise were not unknown in Judaism of the first century. Although the precise identity of these false teachers remains something of a mystery, I think the simplest and best explanation is that the Colossians were, much like the Galatians, facing the threat of a Judaizing heresy. This Judaizing heresy may have had some different flavors in Colossae than it did in Galatia, and judging by the content of each letter, the Colossians had not been seduced by the false teaching as had the Galatian Christians (at least not yet). But both letters address the problem of the “elemental spirits of the world” (Col. 2:8, 20; Gal. 4:9), a phrase that refers to seeking to relate to God by the principle of doing rather than the principle of trusting. So that appears to be the occasion for the letter. So then, what is Paul’s purpose? Chapter two verse eight summarizes it nicely: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Paul calls the Colossian believers to rest in Christ’s sufficiency as the one in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily and not to seek to relate to God by any other means in addition to Christ. At this point, it is helpful to try to summarize the argument of the letter in one or two sentences. The argument of Colossians is basically this: Trust in Christ alone, not in merely human teachings and traditions that distract you from him.
And that brings us to the third rule or technique for interpreting epistles: III. Divide the Letter into Sections. In order to do this, you must learn to ask the right questions and look for the right clues. Are there any places where the author obviously changes the subject? Does the author repeat a particular phrase several times, indicating each time that a new section has begun? Often times, especially in the letters of Paul, we see the first section dealing primarily with doctrine (explaining the truth about who we are in Christ) and then moving on to practice (giving commands on the basis of who we are in Christ). So ask if there is a change in the moods of the verbs from indicative to imperative, and if so, note how that indicates different sections. Here you are simply looking for the major sections. I outline the letter to the Colossians this way:
I.Salutation, 1:1-2 II.Opening Prayer, 1:3-23 III.Paul’s Ministry and the Colossian Church, 1:24-2:5 IV.Life in Christ, 2:6-4:6 a.Opening Exhortation, 2:6-7 b.Christ’s Supremacy over Human Traditions, 2:8-23 c.A New Way of Life in Christ, 3:1-4:6 V.Final Greetings, 4:7-18
Let me advise you to do several things when outlining a book. First, do not think that chapter divisions in your English Bible always mark major points of transition. The Bible was not originally written with chapter and verse divisions. Those were added later, and sometimes they obscure rather than enhance our ability to understand the text. Do not depend on them every time. Second, don’t think that you are alone in the task of outlining a book. I think it is a good exercise to try to outline it on your own first, but you should always check yourself by the outlines that others have done. God has given teachers to the church for the purpose of helping us understand his word, so make use of them. And remember that we are interpreting the Bible together as a church. Go back through any one of Lee’s sermon series through a given New Testament letter, and you will find Lee’s approach to outlining a book. Make use of what others have done, and if you find that someone else’s outline makes better sense of the text than yours, then get rid of yours and go with the other person’s. Once you have an outline in place, go back and read the book all the way through again, keeping that outline in mind. Notice how enhanced your understanding of the flow of the author’s thought will be.
The fourth rule for interpreting the epistles is IV. Analyze Each Passage in Context. This is where you make good use of your outline and your understanding of the occasion and purpose of the letter. Let’s take Colossians 1:15-20 as an example today. I won’t be able to say all there is to say about it, but I will demonstrate a few things about how interpreting a passage in context works. Colossians 1:15-20 is a passage that uses exalted language to describe Christ. Why did Paul write it? There are two things to note at the beginning based on what we have already discussed today. First, Paul is writing against the threat of a teaching that would distract the Colossians believers from pursuing Christ alone and would lead them to ascetic practices and adherence to Jewish traditions as a way of relating to God. Paul’s exalted praise of Christ is his antidote to that false teaching, showing that Christ alone is enough, and that anything that distracts us from him distracts us from knowing God. Second, given our outline, we can see that this passage is part of the prayer section that comes at the beginning of the letter, in which Paul thanks God for the faith of the Colossians and prays for them to have spiritual wisdom and understanding. This “hymn to Christ,” along with the section about the redemption of the Colossian believers (1:21-23) is tacked on to Paul’s prayer for the Colossians. In other words, right after Paul says in 1:14, “He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” he launches into this extended praise of Christ as a way of showing the wonders of the redemption we have in him, which in turn is the basis upon which Paul offers his intercessory prayer. In other words, Paul did not just sit down one day and say, “What can I say about Christ?” and then decide to mail that to the Colossians. He is celebrating the redemption that they have in Christ, and he is opening up to them something of the wonder of that redemption by expounding on the glory of their Savior. Now we can begin to look at the passage in greater detail. What is Paul’s flow of thought here? Notice how many times the word “all things” or some synonym is used. In verse 15: “all creation”; verse 16 (twice): “all things”; verse 17 (again, twice): “all things”; verse 18: “everything”; verse 20: “all things.” Paul is writing about the relationship of all things to Christ, and it is clear from what he says that Christ is preeminent over all things. Furthermore, notice how many times he refers to creation in verses 15-16: three times. And while creation is not mentioned in verse 17, conceptually the idea that Christ holds together all things is another way of saying he is Lord of creation. But in verse 18 there is a switch. Notice how many times Christ is mentioned in connection with some aspect of his work of redemption. In verse 18 he is called “the head of the body, the church.” He is also called “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” And then in verse 20: “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Reading carefully, you notice a conceptual shift between verses 15-17 and verses 18-20 (right in the middle of the paragraph). That conceptual shift leads me to trace Paul’s argument this way:
Main idea: Christ is preeminent over all things. (1)He is Lord of creation (15-17). (2)He is Lord of new creation (18-20).
Now that we have a sense of the whole paragraph and its purpose in context, let’s look more closely at verse 15. These verses contain that puzzling statement that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation.” Jehovah’s Witnesses will seize on that idea to tell us that because Christ is “firstborn,” that must mean there was a time when he did not exist, and then he was “born” and became the first and greatest of all created beings. He is not fully God, but is the most exalted of all creatures. I want to show you why that interpretation simply won’t do. Let’s begin by investigating how that word “firstborn” can be used in Scripture. To us that sounds like Christ was the first one born to God. But how is the word actually being used? Checking a concordance, you will see that the word “firstborn” (Greek prototokos) appears nine times in the New Testament, two of which are in this passage. In addition, the corresponding Hebrew word is used numerous times in the Old Testament. If you look at all the uses of this term, you can divide its uses into at least two categories:
(1) Very often the word simply means the child who was born first in a family. It is used this way of Jesus in Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7. It refers to the firstborn in Israel who were spared from the destroyer at the Passover in Hebrews 11:28. Most of the Old Testament uses of this word (and there are numerous ones) have this meaning. (2) But there are a few places where the word is used metaphorically, particularly when it is used to express a relationship between God and an individual or the nation of Israel as a whole. In Exodus 4:22-23 the Lord commands Moses, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.”’” There is an analogy between God’s relationship to Israel and Pharaoh’s relationship to his firstborn son. But does that mean that Israel was “born” first in a temporal sense? No, it has nothing to do with that. Israel was by no means the first nation that God ever “birthed,” so to speak. But Israel was preeminent due to the nation’s special relationship with God, and that is the sense in which Israel is firstborn. The same idea is present in Psalm 89:27. Speaking in reference to David and the special covenant he has made with him, the Lord says, “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Here again it is a metaphorical sense. David was not the first person God ever “birthed,” but he was made the firstborn in the sense that he was exalted to a position of preeminence over the kings of the earth. Another example of a metaphorical sense is in Romans 8:29, where we read, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Notice here that Christ becomes the firstborn of many brothers, not by virtue of being “born first,” but by virtue of the fact that those whom God has chosen to be his own become conformed to his image. In this sense, Christ receives the status of being “firstborn” when God’s elect are made like him.
Based on the fact that the word “firstborn” can be used metaphorically to indicate preeminence without suggesting that one literally was “born first,” let’s see of that meaning fits in the context of Colossians 1:15. We notice in this context several things that would point is in that direction: (1) We are clearly not speaking the natural human process of birth. Whatever the word means here, it does not mean literally that Christ was the first child to come out of the womb of his mother (that is true with regard to his birth of Mary, but that is not what Paul is talking about here). That should incline us to consider in what sense the metaphor of “firstborn” is being used. (2) We go on to note that the word is used again in Col. 1:18, where Jesus is called “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Here the word is being used metaphorically, and it carries both the sense of preeminence and temporality. That is, Christ is “firstborn from the dead,” in the sense that he is the preeminent one of all those raised from the dead, but also in the sense that he was, temporally speaking, the first one raised from the dead (in the sense in which Paul is speaking here). So Jesus once belonged to the category of “dead,” but he was raised up from that, thus becoming the “firstborn from the dead.” But notice how the expression is different in verse 15. There it says he is “the firstborn of all creation.” The word “of” is used here, whereas the preposition “from” is used in verse 18. The word “of” is much more flexible in meaning. Grammatically, it could mean that Jesus belongs to the category of creation. But it could just as easily mean he is the firstborn over creation, much like you might say, “the King of the whole realm.” So which idea fits better? (3) Verse 16 seals the deal: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” You notice this verse begins with the word “for.” Ask yourself why this conjunction is chosen and what it signifies. What is the relationship between verses 15 and 16, and what does that word “for” tell us? (By the way, in the Greek it is the word hoti, which is normally translated “because”). It appears to me that the claim “by him all things were created” is the basis upon which Paul makes the claim that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation.” It is as though Paul is saying, “Christ is the image of the invisible God, which means he is the firstborn of all creation. And do you want to know why he is the firstborn of all creation? It is because by him all things were created.” Now that should make it clear to you that it is not Paul’s intention to claim that Christ is a created being. Christ is in the category of Creator in these verses, not created. Furthermore, Paul specifies that all things were created by him. Well, if all [created] things were created by him, how could he himself be a created thing? John 1:3 is even more explicit: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” There is no created thing that exists that was not made by Christ. He himself does not belong to the category of creation. He is Creator. I take it, then, based on all of these considerations, that Paul is using the word “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15, not to say that Christ was “born first” in time, but rather that Christ is preeminent over creation. That exercise showed you the importance of putting together grammar with word studies, awareness of the context, and parallel passages to reach the interpretation that best makes sense of the passage.
Now we come to the fifth and final rule for interpreting the epistles: V. Make Applications to Contemporary Life Once you have answered the question, “What does this passage mean?” you are still not finished with the task of interpretation. You have to go on and ask, “What is this passage saying to me?” I will have an entire lesson dedicated to this task at the end of our class, so I won’t say a great deal about it today. The best way to make application of the epistles to your own life is to ask yourself in what ways your situation may have similarities to the situation of the original recipients of the letter. The Colossians were facing a Judaizing heresy that was seeking to draw them away from Christ and put them under man-made traditions. Thank goodness we don’t have that anymore! Of course, I am being sarcastic. We may not have the same Jewish-flavored teachings in our context, but the “elemental spirits” of the world are still with us as a constant temptation to seek to relate to God by the things we do (or don’t do). These things, even if they are religious in nature, can draw us away from Christ. If we think that our standing with God depends on a checklist of do’s and don’ts (do your quiet time, go to church, and don’t go to R-rated movies), then we are allowing human tradition to draw us away from the one who is Lord over creation and Lord over the new creation. A passage like this one is a reminder that everything in our lives falls under the universal lordship of Christ, and so we should seek to bring everything under conscious submission to his lordship. This passage should direct us to see the absolute fullness of Christ and thus to see everything else in relation to him. I could go on and say more, but that will suffice as an application for today’s lesson.
The Bible is not a collection of timeless propositions. It is a collection of specific books written on specific occasions for specific purposes. Each genre, each category of literature, offers a way of seeing the world from a certain perspective that illuminates our understanding. The epistles show us that we are pilgrims on a journey in need of guidance. And so as long as we are on this journey, we must continue to read these letters together and follow the path they set for us to lead us home.