How to Interpret New Testament Letter
A. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
The best thing to do is begin by reading the whole letter in one sitting. It is really the only way to see the big picture. Think about it, both ancient and contemporary letters were meant to be read from start to finish. Don’t let the chapter and verse divisions in your Bible tempt you to skip around and read only small sections of the letter in isolation.
The next step is to reconstruct the historical context of the biblical writer and his audience:
1) Who was the author?
2) What was his background?
3) When did he write?
4) What was the nature of his ministry?
5) What kind of relationship did he have with his audience?
6) Why was he writing?
7) Who was the biblical audience?
8) What were their circumstances?
9) How was their relationship to God?
10) What about their relationship to the author and each other?
11) Are there any historical-cultural factors that might shed light on the book?
This is not always easy and it can be dangerous if we create a situation that is not supported by evidence from the letter itself, but we have little choice but to do at least some reading between the lines. How do we do this? We read the letter carefully, use dictionaries, commentaries, and other study tools.
The final step is to trace the author’s flow of thought. To do this, we need to think paragraphs. Some Bibles do not have the text broken into paragraphs. I would suggest getting one that does. In each paragraph, look for details, notice important connections, and study significant words. All of this will help us to determine what the text meant to the original audience.
B. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
The differences are not usually that vast because they were writing to Christians. However, they sometimes deal with situations foreign to us. For instance, the issue of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols produces a wider gap for us to cross. Whereas, fleeing from sexual immorality produces a narrower gap for us to cross. Our goal is to determine the distance in each passage.
C. What are the theological principles in this text?
God not only gives specific expressions of meaning to biblical audiences, He also sends a broader, theological message through these same texts to all of His people. How do we find it?
1) Does the author state a principle? Often in New Testament letters the author will state his message in the form of a theological principle (i.e., Ephesians 6:1—“Children, obey your parents in the Lord…”)
2) Does the broader context reveal a theological principle? Sometimes the author will supply a theological principle in the surrounding context (i.e., Ephesians 5:21—“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” is followed by specific examples of how people should submit to each other [wives/husbands; children/parents; slaves/masters]).
3) Why is a particular command or instruction given? For instance, the principle behind Galatians 5:2, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you,” is that people cannot achieve God’s acceptance by keeping the law or by human effort alone. God’s grace is given as a gift.
Remember the ways we can know if we have a theological principle:
1) The principle should be reflected in the biblical text.
2) The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
3) The principle should not be culturally bound.
4) The principle should be consistent with the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
5) The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.
D. How should Christians today apply the theological principles in their lives?
We do this by:
1) Observing how the theological principles in the biblical text address the original situation.
2) Searching for a situation in our lives or our world that contains all the key elements.
3) Making our applications specific by creating real-world scenarios that are both faithful to the meaning of the text and relevant to the contemporary audience.