Epistles: No Ordinary Letters

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I was doing some teaching recently on how to preach from epistles, and, being no expert, I picked up Jeffrey Arthurs book, Preaching with Variety, which contains a very helpful chapter on epistles.

He notes the following things:

  • Letter writing was common in the ancient world, and it had certain fairly fixed literary conventions.
  • Ancient letters were often intended for a general audience and wide circulation.
  • Delivery of an official letter from Rome to Caesarea took 54 days; no doubt many of Paul’s epistles would have take longer.
  • The average length of Cicero’s letters was 295 words; Seneca, 955; Paul averaged 2,500 words!
  • Envoys would often not just read the epistle but expound and clarify.
  • The process of making a final copy was laborious and expensive. Arthurs estimates that it might have taken almost 12 hours to make the final copy of Romans and, in today’s terms, might have cost $2,275.

All of that is to say an ancient epistle isn’t that similar to our modern idea of a letter. They weren’t simply dashed off in a matter of minutes. Great care was taken in the production of them – it had to be, it took time to produce and deliver, and wasn’t cheap. And the length of some of Paul’s letters in particular tells us he must have given considerable thought to the structure and contents.

I remember hearing a while ago someone arguing that epistles would have been read in one go, so we should perhaps do the same, or at least not get too bogged down in detail. But if Arthurs is correct it would suggest that letters weren’t simply read in one go and then passed on. Recipients made copies and considered the detail. A letter, especially from an Apostle, was a precious thing.

Expository ministry is out of fashion in some quarters. People are tempted to raid the Bible for a topic or springboard text. But that fails to give due weight to the time, care, cost, and intent behind a carefully crafted epistle. An expository approach to preaching epistles, for my money, best cuts with the grain of their origin, production, and form. Like the envoys of old, the modern preacher must read, expound, and clarify.

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