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Thursday, September 9, 2010

New Testament Tales - Which Epistle is Which?

Which Letter is Which?
1. Which epistle tells us to anoint the sick with oil?
2. Which epistle warns of the dangers of the tongue?
3. Which epistle mentions “the rapture”?
4. Which epistle says the greatest of these is love?
5. Which epistle includes a request that two church leaders try to get along with each other?
6. Which epistle contains a long discourse about how the whole world knows about God?
7. Which epistle contains instructions on women covering their heads?
8. Which epistle is written in sorrow and talks about joy?
9. Which epistle mentions somebody’s mother and grandmother?
10. Which epistle asks for mercy on a runaway slave?

The epistle of James is believed to be the first one written. James writes about everyday concerns in Jerusalem, the bridling of the tongue to avoid inflaming hostilities (between Christians and Jews, since they lived together and Christians were still a small sect of Judaism), and prayer for the sick, accompanied by anointing with healing oils (nothing radical; just practical advice). He doesn’t mention the circumcision debate or questions about eating meat sacrificed to idols, both of which became important as Christianity spread to the Gentiles and the Gentile world.

The next epistle is probably Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey (probably carrying Peter’s lost letter from the council at Jerusalem: Acts 17:1), and it seems from his letters that the apocalyptic part of Jesus’ message became more important to them than the message about life on earth. Paul’s letters to them encourage them not to stop working just because the end is near, and dispel a doubt about whether those who die before the end can still be saved.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians mention divisions in the church (1 Cor 1:11), issues of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:1), plus many musings on matters that would have been of serious importance in a community living among Gentile idol-worshipers (the use of courts 6:1, avoiding sexual temptation 7:1, the importance of virgins 7:25, food offered to idols 8:1, the way women might wear their hair 11:6), but it's in Philippians (4:2) that he asks two women leaders, Euodia and Syntyche, to work on their friendship. The best-known passage in Corinthians may be the song that reminds us of the importance of love (1 Cor 13), a fitting conclusion to a discourse on rules, and a wise reminder to readers that the rules are made for the people (and particular rules for particular societies), not the other way around.

Paul’s letter to the Romans contains less personal and particular discussion, and much longer, well-reasoned arguments, as is fitting for the people he is writing to—a group of people with serious questions, as opposed to a group of believers with serious issues. The beginning of the letter might almost be written to serious believers today, explaining how all should be able to know God, and how God gives societies over to sin and impurity when we exchange God’s glory for mere objects and images. The argument ends with a reminder not to try to pass judgment on others when we ourselves are sinners (Romans 2:1)

Paul’s letter to the Philipians, most probably written when he had been held prisoner for several years in Rome, is filled with messages of joy despite Paul’s evident fight against discouragement (Phil 2:17). It also includes personal details of Paul’s imprisonment and those who visit him—as a historical document it’s a valuable illustration of how house arrest was enforced. Timothy is clearly one of Paul’s friends, like a son with a father (2:22), and later (assuming a time-line where Paul is eventually released) Paul writes personally to Timothy who is now leading a church on his own. Paul includes instructions on how someone might be deemed qualified to lead a church. Paul’s second letter to Timothy includes praises for his mother and grandmother who brought him to faith (2 Tim 1:5). Onesimus, another friend of Paul in prison, is sent from Rome with Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col 4:9), and carries a second letter to his former master, begging for Christian mercy (Philemon 1:10).

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