Starting next week, we will be reading the book of Colossians. Since this is the first time we will be reading one of Paul's letters, I thought it might be helpful to offer a short guide on how to read the epistles. The post below is a general guide to Paul's Epistles, with some specific guidance for Colossians.
The New Testament contains two kinds of books. The first are narrative books - stories - which include the Gospels and Acts. These are typically the first books that a new Christian is encouraged to read, both because they contain the most important information about our faith (they tell the story of Jesus and the church) and because they are the easiest to understand.
The second kind of book we find in the New Testament is letters. 22 of the 27 books in the New Testament are letters written by apostles - mostly Paul - to churches or individuals. If you have only ever read the gospels before jumping into one of the letters, you are in for a bit of a shock. While the gospels are easy to follow, the letters can be dense, difficult and intimidating. In the longer ones - Romans, for instance - you can get positively lost.
There are four things that can help you keep your footing as you read these epistles - the fancy word for “long letter” we use to describe these books. The first is to read slowly and carefully. In the gospels, you can easily devour a chapter or more in a sitting. In the epistles, I recommend reading half a chapter at a time (at least at first). This is a pace that will let you read deeply and think about what is being said. As you do so, I encourage you to take notes, to underline and to write down any questions you might have as you read.
The next thing that can help is knowing that these letters typically follow an outline. That outline differs a bit from book to book and from one author to the next, but I can give you a basic outline that will work for most of Paul’s letters. First, Paul introduces himself. He then offers a short prayer for the people he is writing to. After that, he will teach them some lesson about God - this can go on for several chapters, and is often referred to as the “Theological Section.” After that, Paul will apply that general lesson to the specific circumstances of his audience, in what we call the “Practical Section.” Finally, Paul will close the letter with some personal remarks and say farewell.
As you read, keep this outline in mind and, if you get lost, ask yourself what section you are in. The answer to that question will help you figure out what point the author is trying to make.
Third, it helps to know who the author is and who he is speaking to and why. Reading the epistles is a bit like listening to one half of a telephone conversation. If you don’t know the people or the subject they are talking about, it is almost impossible to follow. But, if it is someone you know, and you have a pretty good idea of the topic, you can probably follow along just fine - and learn a few things along the way.
Colossians, for instance, is written by Paul to the church of Colossae while Paul is in prison for his faith. This is a church that Paul had never visited, but that he knows about because it was founded by a close friend of his. He is writing to this group of new believers because he wants to give them a strong foundation in their faith, and because he has heard rumor that some false teachers are in the area.
Finally, I encourage you to find someone in your life that can help you when you have questions about what you are reading. Some of the material in these letters is deep - having someone you can talk to can really help you understand God’s word better. A pastor, a mentor, a Sunday School teacher - find someone who is more mature than you in the faith. By the way, you are welcome to email me your questions if that would help - my email is scott.milam [at] gmail.com