The New Testament Letters can be among the most challenging of the biblical genres. They seem so easy to apply to our lives. Yet we have to remember that these letters were not written specifically to us. They are personal correspondence written to various people and groups in the first century to address their needs and concerns.
Consider 1 Corinthians 15:58, where Paul says, “Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord.” This certainly seems applicable to us. A few paragraphs later Paul writes, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love” (16:13–14). Again, this is easily applied to all Christians. Yet Paul says a variety of other things, such as:
On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. (1 corinthians 16:2)
When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. (16:10)
These statements are clearly not written to us. Pau is not telling all believers to take up a collection every Sunday for the church in Jerusalem! He’s not going to come to us after passing through Macedonia. Timothy will not show up at our door. Still other statements in the letter are difficult to tell whether they apply to us or not:
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. (11:4–5)
Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. (7:27)
Should Christians greet each other with a kiss? Should men pray with their heads uncovered and women with their heads covered? Should Christians avoid marriage? Are these commands for all believers, or do they apply uniquely to the church at Corinth? Here are four principles of application to keep in mind when reading the epistles:
1 Determine the meaning of the text in its original context. When you open your mailbox and pull out a letter, you consider its nature and purpose. If it’s an advertisement, you might toss it. If it’s a bill, you might groan, but you probably won’t toss it. If it’s a letter from a close friend, you probably open it first and eagerly read it. In each case your goal is to identify the author, the recipient, the nature of the letter, and its purpose.
Our goals with the New Testament letters should be the same. These are real letters written to real historical readers. We need to understand that message in its original context before applying it to our own. Who wrote it and to whom? When, where, and why was it written? What is its message? The process of determining the original meaning of a text is called exegesis, which means drawing out the author’s intended meaning.
To develop good exegetical skills, it’s helpful to refer to the author’s intention. For example, we should say, “Paul tells the Corinthians to greet one another with a kiss” instead of “Paul tells us to . . .” Once we determine the message to them, we can then ask, How does this apply to us today?
Exegesis allows us to determine the author’s purpose in writing and apply the text in analogous situations today. This brings us to our next two principles.
2 Our application should reflect the author’s original purpose. This principle asserts that the purpose of a particular instruction is even more important than the directive itself. To illustrate this, suppose I give my son $10 and tell him to run the car through the automatic carwash down the street. An hour later he returns, gives me my $10 back and says he washed it himself, and also waxed it and vacuumed the interior. Although he did not directly obey my instructions, he fulfilled their purpose even beyond my expectations.
When Paul says to greet one another with a kiss, his goal is not to make sure there’s lots of kissing in church. It is rather to encourage the church to demonstrate family love and affection for one another, because the church is a family. This purpose could be fulfilled in a variety of ways, depending on the cultural context.
Similarly, when Paul says, “Do not look for a wife” (1 corinthians 7:27) he is not forbidding marriage. In the same context he assumes most Christians will marry (7:2). His purpose is to encourage believers to be content in the state they are in and to affirm the spiritual benefits of both marriage and singleness.
This principal has a flip-side. When the purpose of a command is unclear, we should be cautious in enforcing its application today. The question of head covering in 1 Corinthians 11 is difficult. Scholars debate the meaning of Paul’s command (is it about head coverings or long hair?), what do head coverings symbolize (the woman’s authority or her submission?), and various other difficult questions (like the meaning of the reference to angels in v. 10). We should be cautious in how we apply this passage today.
3 Principle of Correspondence: Apply the passage in analogous situations. Determining the purpose of the command enables us to apply the passage in truly analogous situations today. If the situation is essentially the same, it can be applied directly. For example, Paul says in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” Since drunkenness today causes much the same kinds of problems as in the first century, the command for us is similar to the command to them.
When the situation is not analogous, we can apply the command at the level of principle. For example, greeting with a kiss may not be an appropriate form of greeting in some contexts today. But the principle of Christian love and affection could be fulfilled in other ways, perhaps with a hug.
Or consider Jesus’s command to wash one another’s feet (john 13:14; 1 timothy 5:10). In the first century, people walked in sandals on dusty roads. When an honored guest arrived at a banquet or dinner party, a servant would wash their feet. The one washing the feet was humbled, while the one receiving the washing was honored. This is not necessarily analogous to today’s cultural context. The principle and purpose behind Jesus’s command is to serve others, which may be fulfilled through other forms of service.
4 The Principle of Consistency: Make decisions based on the full testimony of Scripture. A fourth principle operates on the assumption that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and will not contradict itself. Difficult or obscure passages should be interpreted in light of clearer ones and the whole testimony of Scripture should be taken into account.
For example, while the nature and function of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14 is greatly debated today, what is beyond dispute is that Paul places the greatest emphasis on the need for love and unity (1 corinthians 13). Debates on theological issues should take a back seat to our mission to take this message of salvation to the ends of the earth.
While these principles help us navigate the differences between the first-century culture and our own, most passages in the epistles can be applied directly to our lives. The good news of salvation has not changed in the last two thousand years. Nor have people changed. They still experience the same ups and downs, successes and failures, and joys and sorrows. The greater challenge for us is not understanding these imperatives, it is living them out. Yet, as Paul affirms, through Christ and in the power the Spirit, God is able to accomplish “more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (ephesians 3:20).
1. What challenges do we face in applying the epistles today?
2. What principles do you think are most helpful for finding appropriate application of the epistles for today?
3. What is the most difficult or challenging command from God to obey in your life? What steps can you take to live in obedience to God?