Guest Author - LeeAnn Bonds
The word Epistle means a letter, like you would write to your mother in the olden days. In the Bible, twenty-one books of the New Testament are Epistles. This means they are actual letters, written by a specific person to a specific person or group of people, though a few are written to Christian believers in general. The authors are identified in the Epistles themselves, with two exceptions. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is not named, and John is not mentioned in I, II, and III John as the author.
The Pauline Epistles (Written by Paul)
The Apostle Paul wrote thirteen of the Epistles in the New Testament. He wrote nine of them to churches, and meant for them to be read aloud to the whole group, and sometimes passed on to other churches. They are largely advice on how to deal with problems they were facing in the early church, and their problems were many, severe, and complex. These helpful letters were frequently copied and recopied as they were shared. Paulís advice is just as useful today as it was two thousand years ago.
Paul wrote four letters to individual people. (Actually, he undoubtedly wrote many, many more, but four are canonized in Scripture). Two were to Timothy, a young pastor who served the church in Ephesus. Timothy was young and inexperienced, and Paul wrote to advise him on church issues.
Another letter was to Titus, a pastor in Crete. Paul advised him on appointing elders, and described how the faith should be lived out day to day in the lives of believers.
Paulís fourth personal letter was to Philemon, a slave owner. His slave Onesimus had run away, and Paul wanted Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, and forgive him, since they were now both followers of Jesus.
The General Epistles (Written by and to Various People)
Eight New Testament letters were written by people other than Paul. Six are written to Christians in general, and two are written to individuals.
As noted above, scholars still donít know who wrote Hebrews, though there are several theories. Hebrews contains much doctrine, and uses the Old Testament to explain the New Testament to Jewish believers.
James and Jude were written by two of Jesusí half-brothers, who didnít come to believe in Him until after His resurrection. First and Second Peter are by Peter, one of Jesusí twelve disciples. First, Second, and Third John were written by another disciple, John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and Revelation.
It is quite beneficial to read an entire Epistle at one time, especially aloud, as it would have been read by its original recipients, rather than just reading one chapter or a few verses. The chapter headings were added much later, and are helpful only to find a specific portion of Scripture quickly. They really are of no use in reading a letter, so take a little time and read the whole letter. You might start with James.