Overview: the Epistles of the New Testament

A brief summary of each letter in the New Testament

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Are you familiar with the term "epistle"? It means "letter." And in the context of the Bible, the epistles always refer to the group of letters grouped together in the middle of the New Testament. Written by leaders of the early church, these letters contain valuable insight and principles for living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

There are 21 separate letters found in the New Testament, which makes the epistles the largest of the Bible's literary genre in terms of the number of books.

(Strangely, the epistles are among the smallest genres of the Bible in terms of actual word count.) For that reason, I've divided my general overview of the epistles as a literary genre into three separate articles.

In addition to the summaries of the epistles below, I encourage you to read my two previous articles: Exploring the Epistles and Were the Epistles Written for You and Me? Both of these articles contain valuable information for properly understanding and applying the principles of the epistles in your life today.

And now, without further delay, here are summaries of the different epistles contained in the Bible's New Testament.

The Pauline Epistles

The following books of the New Testament were written by the apostle Paul over a period of several years, and from several different locations.

The Book of Romans: One of the longest epistles, Paul wrote this letter to the growing church in Rome as a way of expressing his enthusiasm for their success and his desire to visit them personally.

The bulk of the letter, however, is a deep and poignant study on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Paul wrote about salvation, faith, grace, sanctification, and many practical concerns for living as a follower of Jesus in a culture that has rejected Him.

1 and 2 Corinthians: Paul took a great interest in the churches spread throughout the region of Corinth -- so much so that he wrote at least four separate letters to that congregation.

Only two of those letters have been preserved, which we know as 1 and 2 Corinthians. Because the city of Corinth was corrupt with all kinds of immorality, much of Paul's instructions to this church center on remaining separate from the sinful practices of the surrounding culture and remaining united as Christians.

Galatians: Paul had founded the church in Galatia (modern day Turkey) around 51 A.D., then continued his missionary journeys. During his absence, however, groups of false teachers had corrupted the Galatians by claiming that Christians must continue to observe the different laws from the Old Testament in order to remain clean before God. Therefore, much of Paul's epistle to the Galatians is an appeal for them to return to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith -- and to avoid the legalistic practices of the false teachers.

Ephesians: As with Galatians, the letter to the Ephesians emphasizes God's grace and the fact that human beings cannot attain salvation through works or legalism. Paul also emphasized the importance of unity in the church and its singular mission -- a message that was especially important in this letter because the city of Ephesus was a major trade center populated by people of many separate ethnicities.

Philippians: While the major theme of Ephesians is grace, the major theme of the letter to the Philippians is joy. Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to relish the joy of living as servants of God and disciples of Jesus Christ -- a message that was all the more poignant because Paul was confined in a Roman prison cell while writing it.

Colossians: This is another letter Paul wrote while suffering as a prisoner in RomeĀ and another in which Paul sought to correct numerous false teachings that had infiltrated the church. Apparently, the Colossians had began worshiping angels and other heavenly beings, along with the teachings of Gnosticism -- including the idea that Jesus Christ was not fully God, but merely a man. Throughout Colossians, then, Paul lifts up the centrality of Jesus in the universe, His divinity, and His rightful place as Head of the church.

1 and 2 Thessalonians: Paul had visited the Greek city of Thessalonica during his second missionary journey, but was only able to remain there for a few weeks because of persecution. Therefore, he was concerned about the health of the fledgling congregation. After hearing a report from Timothy, Paul sent the letter we know as 1 Thessalonians to clarify some points on which the church members were confused -- including the second coming of Jesus Christ and the nature of eternal life. In the letter we know as 2 Thessalonians, Paul reminded the people of the need to continue living and working as followers of God until Christ returned.

1 and 2 Timothy: The books we know as 1 and 2 Timothy were the first epistles written to individuals, rather than regional congregations. Paul had mentored Timothy for years and sent him to lead the growing church in Ephesus. For that reason, Paul's epistles to Timothy contain practical advice for pastoral ministry -- including teachings on proper doctrine, avoiding unnecessary debates, the order of worship during gatherings, qualifications for church leaders, and so on. The letter we know as 2 Timothy is quite personal and offers encouragement regarding Timothy's faith and ministry as a servant of God.

Titus: Like Timothy, Titus was a protege of Paul's who had been sent to lead a specific congregation -- specifically, the church located on the island of Crete. Once again, this letter contains a mix of leadership advice and personal encouragement.

Philemon: The epistle to Philemon is unique among Paul's letter in that it was largely written as a response to a single situation.

Specifically, Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church. He had a slave named Onesimus who ran away. Strangely, Onesimus ministered to Paul while the apostle was imprisoned in Rome. Therefore, this epistle was an appeal for Philemon to welcome a runaway slave back into his home as a fellow disciple of Christ.

The General Epistles

The remaining letters of the New Testament were written by a diverse collection of leaders in the early church.

Hebrews: One of the unique circumstances surrounding the Book of Hebrews is that Bible scholars aren't precisely sure who wrote it. There are many different theories, but none can be proven currently. Possible authors include Paul, Apollos, Barnabus, and others. While the author may be unclear, the primary theme of this epistle is easily identifiable -- it serves as a warning to Jewish Christians not to abandon the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, and not to re-embrace the practices and laws of the Old Testament. For this reason, one of the major focuses of this epistle is the superiority of Christ over all other beings.

James: One of the primary leaders of the early church, James was also one of Jesus' brothers. Written to all people who considered themselves followers of Christ, James's epistle is a thoroughly practical guide to living the Christian life. One of the most important themes of this epistle is for Christians to reject hypocrisy and favoritism, and instead to help those in need as an act of obedience to Christ.

1 and 2 Peter: Peter was also a primary leader within the early church, especially in Jerusalem. Like Paul, Peter wrote his epistles while under arrest as a prisoner in Rome. Therefore, it's no surprise that his words teach about the reality of suffering and persecution for followers of Jesus, but also the hope we possess for eternal life. Peter's second epistle also contains strong warnings against different false teachers who were attempting to lead the church astray.

1, 2, and 3 John: Written around A.D. 90, the epistles from the apostle John are among the last books written in the New Testament. Because they were written after the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) and the first waves of Roman persecution for Christians, these letters were intended as encouragement and guidance for Christians living in a hostile world. One of the major themes of John's writing is the reality of God's love and the truth that our experiences with God should push us to love one another.

Jude: Jude was also one of Jesus' brothers and a leader in the early church. Once again, the main purpose of Jude's epistle was to warn Christians against false teachers who had infiltrated the church. Specifically, Jude wanted to correct the idea that Christians could enjoy immorality without qualms because God would grant them grace and forgiveness afterward.

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O'Neal, Sam. "Overview: the Epistles of the New Testament." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/overview-the-epistles-of-the-new-testament-363407. O'Neal, Sam. (2017, February 5). Overview: the Epistles of the New Testament. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-the-epistles-of-the-new-testament-363407 O'Neal, Sam. "Overview: the Epistles of the New Testament." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-the-epistles-of-the-new-testament-363407 (accessed November 18, 2017).