In reading “Preaching God’s Word” I found some helpful principles in interpreting New Testament letters. The authors Carter, Duvall, and Hays provide some clear and simple clues for observing important characteristics.
1. Letters were considered to be substitutes for the personal presence of the author.
For an Apostle of Christ a letter functioned as an extension of their authoritative presence. With the limitations of travel and technology in the New Testament times a handwritten letter was the most efficient way of communicating beyond physical reach.
2. New Testament letters were occasional or situational.
We always hear- ‘interpret a text in its context’; this is the reason. New Testament letters were written to address specific situations faced by real churches. Knowing the situation or occasion of the New Testament church will allow you to identify the theological principles within the letter as was intended. (This would clear up any discussion of the Paul vs. James on works; knowing that Paul was addressing a church dealing with legalism, and James was dealing with people who had become lazy and needed a reminder that real faith produces works).
3. New Testament letters were meant to be read aloud over an over to specific congregations.
In our day we read letters silently and privately. This was not the case in New Testament times. Letters were read aloud, therefore they lend themselves to oral presentation. Plus, they were not composed quickly as we compose emails. A letter was written with careful thought- they designed each letter for maximum impact on those particular listeners in particular situations.
4. The Letter’s opening often included clues for interpreting the whole letter.
If you notice, some letters begin with an affectionate tone ‘beloved’, or ‘saints’; while others don’t (Galatians). There is a reason for this. Also, watch for commands in the opening of a letter. A New Testament letter usually follows the opening- body- and conclusion outline. Watch for strong signals as to their purposes in writing the letter.