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What Is An Epistle?

An epistle is a letter of correspondence between two or more parties. An epistle is generally the same as a letter. But, an epistle is more formal, and a letter is more personal. It was the format in which several books of the New Testament were originally written.

The 21 New Testament Epistles (Romans through Jude) followed the general custom and form of letters, which was an important form of communication in the Greek-speaking world, about 300 years before the birth of Jesus.

The ancient Greek letters might be roughly divided into six classes:

  1. private letters, averaging slightly less than a hundred words in length, and written on papyrus (an early form of paper);

  2. correspondence between government officials;

  3. letters intended for publication, such as the correspondence of the church fathers in the fourth century AD;

  4. letters written to communicate ideas;

  5. letters attributed to famous personalities; and

  6. imaginary letters, somewhat like our modern novels, which were designed to entertain.

These letters were written with a reed pen on either papyrus or parchments of scraped animal skins. A sheet of papyrus was normally about 10 to 12 inches in size, and could accommodate about 200 words. Before the letter was sent, it was folded or rolled or tied, and often sealed to insure privacy.

The Roman government provided postal service only for official documents. Private letters had to be sent by special messengers or friendly travellers. Letters normally were sent to designated parties, but some letters were open or circular - they could be read by various parties somewhat like our daily newspapers. Most of Paul's letters were addressed to specific congregations. The other non-Pauline letters, also called the General Epistles, were mostly letters that were being circulated to several churches.

Most of the ancient letters were dictated to a secretary or scribe. In Romans 16:22, Paul's secretary was identified as Tertius. When receiving dictation, a scribe could use a form of shorthand, in either Greek or Latin. These shorthand writings would then be converted to script, and submitted to the author for approval. In addition to dictation, on some occasions, an author might provide a secretary with a summary of ideas, allowing him to draft the epistle. This practice might be the case of writing the Epistle of 1 Peter.

The epistles normally followed a pattern that included:

  1. an introduction, listing the names of sender and recipient, followed by a formal greeting inquiring about the recipient's health and a thanksgiving note;

  2. a body, or purpose for writing; and

  3. a conclusion, consisting of appropriate remarks and a farewell note. The farewell was normally written by the hand of the sender to show the recipient that it was indeed an authentic letter, just like a hand-written signature at the end of our letters today.

The apostles Paul wrote his epistles following this pattern. However, Paul replaced the basic greetings of inquiry about health with a salutation combining Christian grace and Hebraic shalom peace. His thanksgiving was more than a formality, it was a sincere expression of gratitude caring and longing for the well-being of his congregations. He also replaced the farewell remarks in favor of personal greetings, a prayer, an exhortation or a benediction.

Paul's epistles were letters written to communicate ideas. More than just abstract essays, Paul's letters were written as follow-ups to his missionary journeys and church-planting efforts. With the exception of the Epistle of Romans, his purpose was to further the spiritual growth of the churches that he founded.

The body of the Pauline epistles consisted of two parts:

  • a theological or doctrinal section, and

  • an ethical or practical section.

These two sections flowed together in the same way that justification would lead to sanctification in the life of the believer, and faith in God would produce faithfulness in the believer!

Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God. Being an apostle was like being a prime minister in the kingdom of Christ. He attributed this privilege not to his own merit, strength or sufficiency; but to the free grace and goodwill of God. As such, he devoted himself to do his utmost for the LORD God Almighty!

Paul was a man of great humility. He was a father to many disciples such as Timothy, and an excellent example to the elders and ministers of the churches. He always treated them accordingly with kindness, love and respect. In spite of what he was undergoing, Paul was gracious and loving as he penned the epistles during his days of imprisonment. Faithfulness ran through his blood and epistles. His Christian life was characterized by love, joy and peace!

Paul's epistles illustrated his personality. Perhaps the most prominent impression Paul left with his readers was his pastoral care and concern. His life was intimately involved in the struggles of his churches. His sense of divine calling shone through in every epistle. This led Paul to assume a position of authority when addressing his congregations. His authority, however, was not rooted in a superiority complex but in his love and devotion to his people and churches.

The Pauline epistles were arranged in the New Testament according to length, from the longest epistle of Romans to the shortest epistle of Philemon, and not by importance or the dates when they were written.

Do we begin again to commend ourselves?
Or do we need, as some others,
epistles of commendation to you or
letters of commendation from you?

You are our epistle written in our hearts,
known and read by all men;
clearly you are an epistle of Christ,
ministered by us, written not with ink
but by the Spirit of the living God,
not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh,
that is, of the heart. (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

May our lives be living epistles like Paul's. May the Holy Spirit continue to pen the chapters of our lives daily, and may all our pages be clearly known and read by all men, exhorting them to also live their lives for Jesus as they follow our godly examples!

Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Written On
10 May 2005