One of the benefits of being in a church that teaches through a book of the Bible (like we are currently doing with Ephesians in our series Beyond Measure) is the opportunity it provides all of us to read along in our own personal study of Scripture.
The Bible is made up of many different genres (or types) of literature. One of those genres is “epistle”–Ephesians is an example of this type. Epistle is essentially the technical term for the books in the Bible that are letters. The epistles are found in the New Testament and most of them were written by the Apostle Paul.
A book I have found very helpful in reading and understanding the Bible – with its different types of literature – is How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. We ask all of our ministry interns to read this book. It’s helpful for anyone wanting to grow in their Bible reading.
We’ve been encouraging a Read, Reflect, Respond approach to engage with the Bible. Fee and Stuart offer additional insights and guidelines in their book for understanding epistles as a unique type of literature within Scripture.
Who, to whom, why and what.
We best understand letters when we know who was writing and who was on the receiving end. Any Study Bible or Bible dictionary will have notes about an epistle’s author and audience. It will also help us understand the “occasion” or purpose of the letter. Why was this letter written? This helps us understand what is in the letter.
Read it from beginning to end.
If we were to receive a letter, we would no doubt read it all the way through from beginning to end. But it can be tempting to “cherry pick” verses out of context from a book in the Bible. It’s always helpful to read–particularly an epistle like Ephesians–all the way through in one sitting. In Ephesians, the second half of the letter becomes more practical, but these points of application are rooted in the theology of the first half of the letter. Reading the entire book in one sitting prevents us from missing that crucial point.
Think in paragraphs.
Epistles are written in paragraphs, just like a letter today. To understand particular verses or sentences, we need to read and understand them within the paragraphs we find them. I know this is starting to sound a lot like English class, but it can be so helpful to identify the theme or thesis of each paragraph in an epistle. This helps us correctly understand individual verses, phrases, or words.
Reflect collectively, not only individually.
These letters in the Bible were written by individuals (such as Paul) but were written to churches (groups of people). It is easy for our default to be, “What does this passage mean to me?” Instead, we should be asking, “What does this passage mean to us today?”
For example, Consider Paul’s prayer in chapter 3 and the powerful words about God, “…who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” This was no doubt in the context of the entire church in Ephesus. We might quickly think about our individual lives with these words, but what would it mean to pray these words for our church in our community, or even the greater church and its impact in the world?
Respond: reflect on their lives, before your own.
An epistle can’t mean something to us that it didn’t mean to its original recipients.
Our teaching team says it often, “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” Fee and Stuart remind us that an epistle can’t mean something to us that it didn’t mean to its original recipients. When we are moving from reflecting to responding to Scripture, if our situations are similar, the application can be more direct. When our situations are dissimilar, however, we need to understand their particulars, identify principles, and then move toward application.
An example from Ephesians is the reality of the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers–a passion driving most of Paul’s work and writing. That might not be the specific conflict we deal with today, but we do face divisions among ourselves – and whether those be of a socio-economic or cultural nature, the words to the Ephesians speak directly to us and lead to similar applications.
When reading a letter in Scripture, such as Ephesians, we are sort of, “reading someone else’s mail” – but as the Word of God to us. A book like How to Read the Bible for all its Worth can provide the guidelines that will help us get the most out of our Bible reading. I think the Apostle Paul would be delighted to know how much God continues to use his letter to the Ephesians to greatly influence Christ-followers and the church today. So long as we take the time to read it.