Lesson 9 – Life-changing Letters from Old Friends of the Church
Here we are in session nine. We are going to take a look at the instructional portion of The New Testament. In our last session of Walk Thru – or maybe it felt more like, ran through – the book of Acts, carrying ourselves from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and then with the Apostle Paul way beyond that. Sadly, we couldn’t look at some of the details, but that is why we are getting the structure, so that you can come back with details and begin to fit more of them into this structure. I appreciate the fact that you have been diligent, you’re still with us. We are looking at going through the whole Bible in ten sessions, so we have had challenges, haven’t we? But I think we have all grown and benefited, me included. Never is there a time when I go through this that I don’t find myself thinking of something new that I haven’t thought of before. That is the great part about having a structure to work around. I want to commend you and encourage you, as I always do, to review.
Remember, we started in The Old Testament; and really with both The Old and New Testament we saw that there is a pattern, that each starts with foundational books that kind of set a compass, if you will. Then there are some historical books that show us how these foundations begin to work out in life. Then there are some instructional books that speak into this history.
It is just like in our lives, our parents in a sense set some foundations, probably some good and maybe some not so good, we don’t know. Then we take those into our life and we begin to live it out in the history of our lives. If we are fortunate, we have resources and people and the like, who come and speak into our lives, encouraging us, helping us change things that may not be working well, doing those kinds of things. I want you to see that because literally this is a living, very organic history and you have to see it that way. If you have this data and details, it is really living. It is about the lives of people living out the most important thing imaginable and that is being connected to God – God The Father, God The Son, God The Spirit, as we see both in an Old Testament context before the coming of Christ, and then with the coming of Christ and afterward. They are living this out in real ways in life and having God provide us with resources and the like, to begin through our lives and our words, to create a witness and a testimony through this great gift that he offers, which is the gift of life through the sending and ministry of His Son, His death, His Resurrection. It is a powerful, powerful story. We don’t want to get lost in historical details because it is so incredibly organic in that regard.
We see these matching up beautifully. We have taken a look at the foundation and the history. The New Testament is much more compact, right? Five hundred centuries here, thousands of years in The Old Testament. Here in The New Testament, maybe 90 years. So this is very intense and very compact and in some ways easier to deal with, in other ways much harder because it is so tight and focused. It is mostly focused on the life of Jesus Christ, who he is, why God sent His Son, what the outworking of his ministry was; then the transition of that ministry from Him to people in the book of Acts; and from people in the book of Acts to generation, after generation, after generation, into our own time. So this is very significant and very dynamic.
We want to look at the instructional part of this. We have two sections in this. We call one section poetical and one section we have we call prophetical. There were two kinds of instructions going on here. One instruction related to the heart of the people, what are the people wrestling with in their hearts, their behavior? How did they deal with challenges? How did they feel? We see that in this history. The other piece gives us instruction in terms of the prophets reflecting on events that were going on and how the people were doing. Were they handling it well or not handling it well? Giving them instruction as to how to deal with those things. We have those two going on there.
Here we have a whole different kind of literature and we have letters. Many of your Bibles call them epistles. That is a good term. An epistle is really a long letter. All of these letters were much longer than the normal personal letter of the day. So epistle is a good word, but I usually translate it into letter because it brings the personal aspect to it. These were very personal. These were from the heart of one person to other people that that person cared for or probably loved deeply, knew somewhat or knew deeply. So they have that sense of a letter and we need to look at them that way.
Sometimes we who get identified with Bible teaching and theology, those things, we like to dissect these letters. We pull the theology out of them and we pull this out and we look at this word and we look at that. There is nothing wrong with that. Except when I get a letter from a friend, I never do that to their letter. I read the whole letter. I get a sense of, what is this whole letter saying to me, what is this friend communicating to me? I think one of the first things, if I could encourage you as a student to do is that whenever you come to these letters, no matter how many times you have been in them, no matter what you plan to do, how about if you sit down and read the whole letter once or twice. Ask yourself, “What is this friend who loved Jesus’ disciples dearly, what is this friend trying to communicate in terms of the big picture? Because these are those kinds of things we are going to look at and some of the details of course, but I think we want to think of them in that way if we can.
Let me give you some quick understanding of the letters. I’m a chart guy and these short things charts tend to communicate, so that is why I use these. Some big picture ideas related to these letters, some of these letters are looking back to the cross. In a sense, some are looking downstream, anticipating something, anticipating the coming of the Messiah. These instructional letters know that the Messiah has come. So they are looking back, asking, “What are the implications of this One who came, who lived out a ministry for a short time, who commanded certain things, who went to a cross and died, who rose again, who has invested now his life in us, as God The Father invests Himself in us as well and God The Spirit, what does all of that look like?” We are looking back this direction largely, trying to get a handle on that. We get a little bit of a different perspective from Old to New Testament. These emphasize, as I said before, Christ’s death and resurrection as the highlight of fulfilled promises. These are a source of doctrine and theology for the church. Remember, there was no church. Then in Acts the church gets birthed and as things get birthed and grow, they need to learn how to grow up. Just like you and I need to learn things to grow up well, the church needed to learn.
Along come people like Peter and Paul and John and Jude and James and an unknown author of Hebrews. They begin to write into these church themes, trying to help these congregations, these communities of faith, how they operate in the cultures they are in, what they do, how they believe, how they face persecution, how they handle problems, all of those kinds of things. How to be encouraged. How to be aware of false teaching. They begin to speak into all of those things that had not been dealt with before. So that is the essence of these kinds of things. They underscore new life in terms of new life in Christ. They certainly give you insight into Old Testament teachings. Who hasn’t read the letters and found themselves, if they know The Old Testament at all, reading something in a letter and going, “Oh, that is what that meant!” So the letters help us understand a lot of The Old Testament.
Faith is center stage. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and not of yourselves, it’s the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no-one can boast.” Faith is in this context. It is part of calling for a response. Do I have it within me to believe, to exercise as it were, faith; and to take that faith into my life and to use it? I was talking to a congregation not long ago and they were asking me, What are the most important faith things we do? One of the great faith things is prayer. Jesus says to his audience in Luke, “I’m going to tell you a parable, that you will pray and not lose heart.” That literally could be translated, “You would pray and not have your faith diminished.” Prayer is one of those great tools. It is reflected on over and over in scripture and certainly is very present in all of these letters.
Suffering is seen as an aspect of discipleship and a privilege. I and II Peter are great books to look at in terms of how the early church faced and looked at discipleship and the reality of suffering as it related to it. Also, a great danger is pointed out in multiple books and that is the danger of false teachers and false teaching. That is going to be one of the great tools that Satan, who is prince of the air, who is very present and very aggressive in terms of the work that God has sent Jesus Christ and The Spirit into this world to do. One of the great tools in his hand is the tool of false teachers and counterfeiting. As close as he can get the untruth to the truth, the better. In the epistles, in these letters, we see a lot of reflection on false teaching because it becomes a difficulty in the early church.
With that, I want to take you into these letters. I basically want to take you into a house. I am going to use a house kind of analogy illustration. Every good house has a foundation, so we have a foundation. We know that in that foundation of our house there are four books that we call the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You know a bit about those and because you have this structure that you are going to use for the rest of your life, you are going to add more and more to it. You are going to know more and more about those gospels.
There is a sub floor to this and it is found in the historical part, understanding the history. Here in The New Testament that is found in the book of Acts. There is just one book that gives us a summary of history. Remember, it is not the whole picture. Just like in the foundation, we have portraits of the life of Christ. Here in the book of acts we have portraits of things going on in the early church. It is not everything, but you can look at one of those things and say, “I’ll bet that was happening in multiple other places.” So you begin to see how it is working its way with these selected summaries, if you will.
I want to take you now into the letters. The letters are going to make up the structure of our house. We are going to look at this wall on the left first. I am going to write here, “Paul’s letters.” These letters are going to go to churches. They are going to start with a real cornerstone book called Romans. It is going to end up here at a book, II Thessalonians. In this cycle there are going to be nine letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galations, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians , I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians in this grouping. They are all addressed to churches where Paul is giving instruction to churches in terms of how they should live, how they should work, how to carry on their everyday business of being a community of faith. Romans is basically the cornerstone of these nine books that are to churches.
Romans contains all of the elements that are scattered through these other books. So it is a cornerstone and then all of these others take pieces and fill them out all of the way through. This is a powerful piece addressed to these early churches, helping them become the community of faith that God called them to be.
On this wall we have books that are general letters. I mean by that, they don’t come from one author, they come from multiple authors. They come from an author of Hebrews that we don’t know; they come from James; they come from Peter; they come from John; they come from Jude. We have those letters. Over here there are nine and slightly different. Rather than being addressed to churches, they are addressed to believers. This has a high community look to it; this has more of a believer look to it, “I’m talking to you now as a believer,” Over here, “I’m talking to you as a group of believers, a community called the church.” It is a subtle difference, but it is very present in these letters here.
So we have general letters to believers. We have letters to churches. And here we have letters from Paul to leaders. It starts with I Timothy and it ends with Philemon. In between there is II Timothy and Titus.
I’m constructing the house this way with a roof, to make it feel like it is the bridge. Whether you are here in these developing communities called churches, or if you here in terms of these letters addressed more to believers, a lot of what goes on relies on the quality of leadership. I Timothy and II Timothy, Titus and Philemon give us a look at the development of leaders - let’s call them elders - and that the elders in the church, these called and qualified men who have become leaders, are giving direction to these situations. Remember in The Old Testament we said that oftentimes as leadership goes, so go the people. That truth still holds. Over here in the church world, more often than not, the leadership sets the tone, sets the direction and as the leadership goes, so go the people. Those things kind of hold along the way.
We have all of our 22 letters, nine here, four here, nine here for 22. There are differences in these letters. I would like for you to take a note or two with me. Let me give you some big picture differences. This is more community, we have already said this. This side is more individual. It is not totally that way, but it has that feel to it. Believers. Churches. One of the other differences is basically these are birth books. These are growth books. This is how a church gets birthed and grows. These are the elements of the faith community. This is how you and I grow. Both of those are connected. They are very important, aren’t they? The community part is really important and how it is put together and how it grows and what it does in its mission and vision and all of that. But within that community are individuals who are believers, who are called to become something. They are called to become mature. They are called to grow up. They are a crucial part of this community acting effectively. These letters focus on the growing up side. These letters focus more on the community development, dare I say the organizational side. That is a risky word to use because it is more organic than organizational in some respects.
These tend to focus on teaching. There has never been a church, so there needs to be some teaching on what the church is and all of that. These tend to focus more on applying. It is not that there isn’t application here, but the emphasis is more on teach. It’s not that there isn’t teaching here, but the emphasis is more on applying, doing. Here we have basically principles. Here we have more practice. Here we have an emphasis on doctrine. On this side we have the emphasis more on practicalities, the practical side of things. Here the emphasis tends to be on justification or what we oftentimes call salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” On this side it is much more about sanctification or being set apart, living a set-apart life for The Lord.
You have different emphases as you move through these letters and these are the connectors. Leadership, shepherding is vitally important, no matter which one of these columns you are in. There is much that rests on how you are being led and the quality and integrity and maturity of leaders. You get a sense of how these go. I’m going to jump into leadership a little bit. If I’m mentoring a believer, an individual believer, who is wresting with growing up issues, I will ultimately, most always mentor out of these books, these general letters, because they have the things that will lead to growth, application, to practice, the kind of things that often are not present in a life that is struggling with growth related issues.
I just finished some work with a church in Bellevue, Washington, a church plant, not long ago. They got birthed really well, but now they are wrestling with some things and they asked me to come in. I have been with them about a year now. They are just about to call a new lead pastor, so it’s kind of cool. We have largely worked in this area because what I found was that even though they were birthed, they were brought into existence, they were not steeped in the realities of church that are presented in these letters. How to deal with opposition, how to deal with opportunity, how they take the things that Christ has invested in them, their whole identity in Him, that they are adopted by Him. All of those things that rest on Him, they are chosen by Him, they have been delivered. All of these things that they needed to know about to come to work, they didn’t know. So for a year we have been working through basically to tweak this kind of adolescent church and go back and pick up some of the things that they missed. I would not necessarily do that with an individual. I would tend to be on this side. It is not a total application, but you can see how this works. Here is why it works.
Everything has a life cycle, including spiritual things. If you look at this chart, there is in some ways a life cycle that runs through it. On this side we have a lot of the energy of birth. You will see it in these letters. Not that the letters don’t address problems, they do; but by and large it is the victorious side of the picture. Galatians wrestles with legalism issues, but it does not feel like they lose that battle. Ephesians seems to be on target. Philippians is one of these great churches where yes, they need some attitude adjustments, but it looks like they have made some of those adjustments along the way. Colossians gets called to just the centrality of Christ. You get a sense that they moved there. They seem to have a feel to them that, “Yes, there are problems, but progress is being made overall.” This is part of the birthing process. It is energetic, it is moving, it is growing. When you get into these letters you find that there is a subtle shift, almost to a sort of warning pattern. What happens with everything that lives is that it eventually becomes routine and habitual. Even with churches, when it becomes routine and habitual, when it becomes the way they do things, when it becomes that, “We always do it that way, we never do it this way,” that then we run into this side where there is a chance of having problems that don’t get solved, a decline with those kinds of things.
All of these letters that fit into this, from Hebrews clear through Revelation, and reflect that. Hebrews is built around warnings that relate to a church of believers who are not mature. James speaks into the element of faith, pointing out places where faith may be declining. Peter talks about the power of suffering in our lives and what it can do to us if we don’t handle it well. John talks about the importance of fellowship if we are going to stay on target. Jude warns us that the church is losing its ability to contend for the faith. Revelation begins with seven churches who all have problems. They have all drifted off to the side. What God is doing is what He has done in The Old Testament and what he does in The New Testament and what he does now, is he is always calling through teachers and preachers and missionaries and others, calling us back into this more thriving, growing, impactful position. That is kind of how this fits.
What is happening here is, you get a break in these letters and on this side of the equation there are a lot of things that need to be addressed to key individual believers and to communities of faith they are attached to, which are drifting into insignificance and drifting into no impact. These are huge, are they not? This is such a significant piece speaking into this history and beyond it. Many of these letters, some of them really extend beyond the history in the book of Acts and come after with Paul in prison in Rome. We know that he was released from prison once, put back in prison and then executed. He never got out of prison again. There are many books, some that he writes and others, that fit in that after-Acts period of time.
We get a good sense of what is going on. Some of these letters in particular reflect the fact that the truth has been around long enough that it has reached some peak performance, if you will, and is beginning to have some things creep into it that are causing it to decline. This is very instructive of this history. The prophets were always trying to keep Israel from falling into that pattern of decline, calling them back to fundamental things. That is exactly what these letters from these people are doing, calling communities to build themselves around the fundamental things and believers in those communities to be alert, to stay sharp, to not fall into the traps that would cause them to decline. Powerful piece, is it not? Let’s see if we can put a wrap on this one as well. I think you get some of the ideas.
Paul is the most prolific of the authors, he wrote 13 of these letters. John wrote four, Peter two, James one, Jude one and one that was written by an author who is not identified. Some think it was Paul, but he was not identified. The dates of these letters can be estimated at about 40 AD and extend through 90 AD. It is a very tight window in which these letters were written, compared to The Old Testament and the writing and development of those materials.
The organization of the letters tend to be similar in some ways and very different in others. All of them have an opening, generally a salutation and identification of the author, a prayer maybe, those kinds of things. The bodies of these letters are very diverse. They are all different all over the place. It is hard to get the incredible pattern there. The closing of them is pretty much similar where they discuss plans, requests for prayer and other things, the greeting of people, some after thoughts, even like we teachers today have after thoughts, then oftentimes a benediction or blessing at the end of them. So they have kind of a similar feel to them in a lot of respects. Remember, these are letters, they are personal. Try to read them with that mindset. This is a person who loves believers and churches, probably knows some of them at least a little, if not a lot. They really love what is going on. They love the church. They love Christ’s disciples. It is written out of that kind of context; and we need to see those sorts of things, even when the element happens to be correction.
Two cornerstone books, and we are finished with this piece. Remember, I said Romans is kind of the cornerstone book. I call it that because it really holds the elements that are scattered through these books that go from Romans to II Thessalonians. Let me give you a quick outline of Romans. You will see the flow of this. Remember, I said that kind of the centerpiece of this is justification or salvation. Romans goes like this. It starts with sin because all of us start there, then moves to what I will call salvation. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Then God through Jesus Christ offers a solution to sin. The solution is what is found in Christ, what he got for us in His death, burial, Resurrection and what we call the gospel. I respond to that belief. Romans takes us from being outside the family of God to inside the family of God through the work of Christ. Then it takes us to being set apart, or sanctified. We are not just in the family, but now we are set apart for something. We are called to be something in this world. We are called to be disciples and there is something that goes with that. Then the author, who is Paul, reminds us that this all works out under the sovereignty of God, which is the fourth part of Romans, which reflects on the sovereignty of God in all of this. Then in the last piece he says this works its way out into a life of service. He gives us a big picture of what a life of service looks like. That should sound familiar because we have seen these things in the gospels and he simply re-states a lot of those things that he knows from the stories that he has heard and been told about the reality of Christ’s work in the world.
So Romans is foundational like that. You can see why it fits there. You can see why the organizers of our English Bible said what they did was inspired, if you think of the Word of God as inspired. They certainly had a great sense of how these fit together. That is why they positioned this in the way they did, because it sets the stage.
In the same way, the foundation is Hebrews and this takes us through Revelation and this becomes the cornerstone of these books. What is here in Hebrews will work is way out through all of the books that are here, through James and I and II Peter and I, II, III John and James and Revelation. Let me give you a quick look at what Hebrews does. It is built around warnings. I’m not going to state those warnings, but here is the essence of the warnings. The first warning, he talks about the essential of having the Word deeply in your life. It warns us about drifting from the Word and how you are constantly doing. So you can see that what we have been doing, creating a way of managing the Word, is so crucial to this first segment of Hebrews. When we have this, it becomes such a key to us staying with the Word and not drifting.
One of the ways that I use this is, on nights when I can’t sleep – and there are many of those for strange reason that I can’t explain – I will think my way through this and I will stop at a book. I think I will stop at James. I’ll think, “What do I know about James?” I know James fits in these letters. I know James fits in the general epistles. I know James fits in this part that is really about wrestling with maturity and sometimes the lack of maturity in the church. I will begin to in my mind see what I know about this. When I have a structure that allows me to do that and hold these things and begin to place these things, then I become a manager of the Word. It is a drift inhibitor. I think that is very important.
The second thing is, it warns about obedience, how important obedience is. The guy in Hebrews knew Matthew. The guy in Hebrews knew Mark. The guy in Hebrews understood that obedience is crucial in the way we carry out the life of faith. If we are going to grow up, if we are going to mature, in that warning he is saying, “Here is the key. You need to make your obedience immediate. When you know what to do, do it.” James says, “To the person who knows what to do, but doesn’t do it, to that person it becomes a sin.” So in Hebrews, the author says this is crucial. If you want to mature, pay attention to the Word and make obedience a practice.
The third thing is practice. That is, I will practice what I know. It is not just about knowing it, I practice it. He says, “The sad part about you Hebrew believers, you need to be taught all over again. You should be growing up and you are still babies. The reason you are still babies is that you don’t practice what you know. You know it, but you don’t to it.” So he urges doing. See how this fits into this side of it? Get back to a healthy place.
The fourth thing is a warning. It is a warning about sin. Sin is first in Romans, it is fourth in Hebrews. At this point the author basically says with regard to maturity, sin is deadly and what if you become willfully sinful. The author here I am sure knows we all sin; and John says, “If we deny that we sin, we are making out God to be a liar.” Then he says, “By the way, if you confess your sin, then God is faithful to forgive your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” So I don’t think the author of Hebrews is saying that we can function without sin. What he is saying is that sometimes we willfully go there. When we willfully go there, it is deadly to our maturity. It destroys us maturity wise. The solution is to draw near. Draw near to God, draw near to each other, draw near to The Word, draw near to the practice of The Word to good works that we encourage each other to do because they hold back sin. He warns us about not assembling together, because the minute we become lone rangers, we become in danger at this point.
The fifth thing that it points to is correction. In all of this, no matter how faithful we become as followers of Jesus, we at times need correction. One of the great marks of maturity is the receiving of correction. It is one of the hardest ones, isn’t it? I hate it sometimes. Yet, I thank God for the times when people have stopped me from doing something that would have been deadly to my life, and helped me make a correction. I remember a guy I worked for who risked our whole relationship to make a correction in my life. As to what it was, we really do not have time. I probably was angry with him for several months and kind of stayed away from him until one day I went, “You know, he was right.” I changed almost at that moment. I finally went, “I’m going to quit fighting this, I know this correction was right, I’m going to do this immediately.” I can tell you that his investment in me, the risking of that relationship to help me and eventually my accepting it, changed the path of my life that otherwise would have been hugely destructive. This is such an important piece.
So Hebrews has that element to it, the maturity element. Watch for the words. Be careful of your obedience. Practice what you know. Assemble together. Draw near to God. Draw near to each other. Draw near to the Word. Draw near to good works. Assemble, don’t become the lone ranger because when we do, we risk becoming vulnerable to sin as a practice and it will kill your maturity. Be willing to accept correction because none of us will ever get it all right.
So there you have these letters, powerful letters addressed to the church and to believers, to help you accomplish this foundational mission, to be disciples who live their lives in the history, working out the work of Jesus Christ, being the mustard seeds who get multiplied into expansion, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, always important. Those are the letters.
The last session is ahead. We’ll see you there.