What Are the Epistles?

The New Testament Epistles Are Letters to the Early Churches and Believers

Epistles
Paul writing from prison. SuperStock / Getty Images

The Epistles are letters written to the fledgling churches and individual believers in the earliest days of Christianity. The Apostle Paul wrote the first 13 of these letters, each addressing a specific situation or problem. In terms of volume, Paul's writings constitute about one-fourth of the entire New Testament.

Four of Paul's letters, the Prison Epistles, were composed while he was confined in prison. Three letters called the Pastoral Epistles were directed toward church leaders, Timothy and Titus, and discuss ministerial matters.

The General Epistles, also known as the Catholic Epistles, are the seven New Testament letters written by James, Peter, John, and Jude. These epistles, with the exceptions of 2 and 3 John, are addressed to a general audience of believers rather than to a specific church.

The Pauline Epistles

  • Romans—The book of Romans, the Apostle Paul's inspirational masterpiece, explains God's plan of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians—Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to confront and correct the young church in Corinth as it was struggling with matters of disunity, immorality, and immaturity.
  • 2 Corinthians—This epistle is a deeply personal letter from Paul to the church in Corinth, giving great transparency into Paul's heart.
  • Galatians—The book of Galatians warns that we are not saved by obeying the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ, teaching us how to be free from the burden of the Law.
  • 1 Thessalonians—Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonica encourages new believers to stand firm in the face of strong persecution.
  • 2 Thessalonians—Paul's second letter to the church in Thessalonica was written to clear up confusion about end times and the second coming of Christ.

Paul's Prison Epistles

Between 60 and 62 CE, the Apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, one of several of his incarcerations recorded in the Bible. The four known letters in the Canon from that period include three to the churches at Ephesus, Colosse, and Philippi; and a personal letter to his friend Philemon. 

  • Ephesians (Prison Epistle)—The book of Ephesians gives practical, encouraging advice on living a life that honors God, which is why it's still relevant in a conflict-ridden world.
  • Philippians (Prison Epistle)—Philippians is one of Paul's most personal letters, written to the church in Philippi. In it, we learn the secret to Paul's contentment.
  • Colossians (Prison Epistle)—The book of Colossians warns believers against the dangers which threaten them.
  • Philemon (Prison Epistle)—Philemon, one of the shortest books in the Bible, teaches an important lesson on forgiveness as Paul deals with the issue of a runaway slave.

Paul's Pastoral Epistles

The pastoral epistles include three letters which were sent to Timothy, the first-century Christian bishop of Ephesus, and Titus, a Christian missionary and church leader based on the island of Crete. Second Timothy is the only one that scholars agree was likely written by Paul himself; the others may have been written after Paul died, between 80–100 CE.  

  • 1 Timothy—The book of 1 Timothy describes Christ-centered living in the Christian church, directed to both leaders and members.
  • 2 Timothy—Written by Paul just before his death, 2 Timothy is a moving letter, teaching us how we can be confident even during hardship.
  • Titus—The book of Titus is about choosing competent church leaders, a topic especially relevant in today's immoral, materialistic society.

The General Epistles

  • Hebrews—The book of Hebrews, written by an unknown early Christian, builds a case for the superiority of Jesus Christ and Christianity.
  • James—James's epistle has a well-deserved reputation for providing practical advice for Christians.
  • 1 Peter—The book of 1 Peter offers hope to believers in times of suffering and persecution.
  • 2 Peter—Peter's second letter contains his final words to the church: a warning against false teachers and an encouragement to press on in faith and hope.
  • 1 John—1 John contains some of the Bible's most beautiful descriptions of God and his unfailing love.
  • 2 John—John's second letter delivers a stern warning about ministers who deceive others.
  • 3 John—The third epistle of John catalogs the qualities of four types of Christians we should and should not imitate.
  • Jude—The epistle of Jude, written by Jude who is also called Thaddeus, shows Christians the dangers of listening to false teachers, a warning that still applies to many preachers today.