Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. We begin another week with a question from a listener named Tom, who asks: “Hello Pastor John! The Epistles of Paul all seem to be addressed to specific audiences in the cities of Rome and Corinth and Philippi.” Indeed they are. “So how do we know that those Epistles now apply to me and to other people today? I know that the epistles are to believers but I am confused how that logically includes believers today. How does the Bible answer this question?”
It is a question that is really worth thinking about. We just kind of assume that, and it is good to pause and reflect on why is that. Why do we assume that they are so relevant and valid for us today? So, let me think out loud for a few minutes and give maybe six or seven ideas or reasons from the Scriptures why even the parts of the Bible that are very focused on one particular situation 2,000 years ago or more are relevant and are valid for us today.
1) We know that Paul wanted at least one of his letters read elsewhere. He says in Colossians 4:16, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans.” So, the very least we can say is: Even though there were peculiar relevance to the church in Colossae, Paul thought the letter would be useful in another place. That is a good pointer that Paul didn’t think of his letters as useful only in one place or time.
2) Not all epistles were designated for only one church. And the fact that they were written to whole regions and churches would caution us from thinking that the letters have only tiny, small, particular congregational significance. The book of James, for example, starts, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1). I think that is a code word for, Christians all over the Roman empire in all kinds of situations. Or 1 Peter begins like this: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). My, my, my. That is a lot of places and a lot of diversity that this letter is sent to. So, let’s be careful that we don’t over particularize the letters of the New Testament.
“The Holy Spirit knows how to make his words valid and relevant for his people of all time.”
3) The apostles knew that the teachings they were giving were not merely their own, but were the words of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit always knows how to make his words valid and relevant for his people of all time. So Paul says, for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:12–13, “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” Those who are spiritual would include us, and the Holy Spirit is able to see all of those who will be reading his words and know what to say through the apostle Paul so that they would be useful.
4) Here’s the fourth reason for thinking these are valid and relevant. The teaching of the apostles was seen as the foundation of the whole church universal, not just the foundation of a single, local congregation. For example, Ephesians 2:19–20 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” That verse is teaching that the apostles, that is, in their writing and in their teaching, have become a foundation for the household of God universal, not just a particular church in Ephesus. And so, the foundational nature of the apostolic teaching in their own minds is a pointer to the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would rest upon them and find them foundational and useful for their whole existence, the church’s whole existence.
“The teaching of the apostles is the foundation of the whole church universal, not just a single congregation.”
5) Much of the epistles are instruction about the nature of salvation, the nature of man, the nature of God and his way of working in the world, and not about a situation in the local church. Here are just a few examples. “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). There is nothing about that sentence that is time-bound or situation-bound. It is an explication of the historical reality of the gospel.
Here is another one: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one — who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:28–30). That is a statement that is not determined by any particular local situation. It is good for all time because it is rooted in the very nature of God.
“The epistles are good for all time because they are rooted in the very nature of God.”
One more example: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). That is a statement about the nature of fallen man that is good for all time. So, the point there is lots of instruction in the epistles is not related in particular to the situation or the time.
6) The arguments that are made in the epistles for why we should act a certain way, even if it is in a particular time and place, are arguments that are based on truths that are valid across time. For example, Ephesians 4:25, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.” Now, should we stop there and say, “Maybe that is not true for us today — maybe we can speak lies to each other”? He grounds it like this: “For we are members one of another.” In other words, he roots the call for truthfulness in a truth that is true for all time. In the body of Christ, we are members of one another.
“Even when arguments are made in a particular time and place, they are based on truths that are valid across time.”
Or Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Now, a person might say, “Maybe we should avenge ourselves today. Maybe that is only relevant for the Romans.” No. Here is the way he argues: “For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” So, the nature of the argument is in God, not in the situation.
Here is another example: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman” (1 Timothy 2:12–14). In other words, the argument for a woman’s listening and submitting to the teaching of the man in the church isn’t rooted in the local situation. It is rooted in creation.
Or take Philemon. Now Philemon is the most personal book in the Bible. It is so unbelievably concrete and specific. And yet Paul, in writing to Philemon to try to get him to take back Onesimus, who had been converted under Paul’s ministry in prison, he says, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 8–9). Now, in that way of talking, he is showing us something about the nature of love that is not grounded in the situation at all. It is grounded in the nature of love that prefers to appeal rather than to command.
7) And I have got a whole bunch more illustrations, but that is enough. Let me just close like this. Would it be like God — I don’t think it would be like our Good Shepherd — if he gave a book to his people in the first century that was useless to the people that he loves and intends to guide in the later centuries?