I bring this up because, unlike the letter to the Romans, many New Testament letters contain specific responses to specific challenges that specific people or congregations faced. This brings three things to mind for me.
First, just consider for a moment about the important role these letters played for Paul and how many he must have written in his life. Romans 16 shows us that Paul had an amazing capacity for creating and maintaining relationships. He cared deeply for each person in each congregation he planted and so he must have carried on a lively correspondence, much of which is lost to us today. But this should not come as a surprise.
Many of God’s great leaders used letter writing as a key component of their ministry. A selection of Martin Luther’s letters is contained in 5 Volumes and scholars still mine Jonathan Edwards’ voluminous correspondence for spiritual gems. This brings me to a question I’ve had for years: What sort of trail am I leaving behind? What letters have I sent to encourage, guide or even admonish those I love? And for our words sent as emails and texts, will the “delete” button of our digital age cause these to easily be lost? The example given by Paul and so many others is clear—God can use our influence long after we enter the Lord’s presence. Even though we may not influence thousands, all of us have influence over a few. How we steward that influence is worth some prayerful thought.
The second thing that comes to mind is more theological. If these letters convey specific information about specific situations in specific churches that existed centuries ago, why would it relate to me? Paul addressed that very question in the second verse of 1 Corinthians. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.”
Every person in every church in every time is bound together by the Lord and called to be set apart for Him. The New Testament authors understood that their Spirit-inspired words would help Christians grow in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus; they believed that their words applied to every Christian in every place and every time. Additionally, many of the General Epistles were circulated among several churches in that region with the expectation that they would be referred to in years to come (Colossians 4:16; 1 Peter 1:1). New Testament authors understood that what they wrote carried the same weight as Old Testament scripture (see Peter’s words about Paul’s writings in 2 Peter 3:16). Far from being time-bound, culture-locked letters, the New Testament Epistles we read carry words of life that touch us today.
As you read, ask the Lord to show you what He wants you to know. And when you come upon specific situations that are outside your own cultural experience (like eating food sacrificed to idols or head coverings) make a note of it and keep walking the path for there is plenty of fruit ahead that will be easy to pick and refreshing to your soul. You can always return and bridge the larger cultural gaps later.
The final thing I ponder has to do with finding and living out God’s will for our lives. It seems to me that the raw, detail-oriented, real-life situations found in the Epistles give evidence that their lives were just like ours and that pursuing God’s purposes can be done—in fact must be done—in the context of our dish-washing, frenetic-paced, digitally-controlled, relationally-challenging 21st century world. So, keep your eyes open, your ears attuned, your mind clear and your heart soft. God can meet you and speak to you anywhere, any time and in any situation; He can reveal His will to you even through the challenges of your daily grind.
Thanks for walking this path with me! I do so enjoy your company.