What’s in a letter?

A good chunk of the New Testament is made up of letters. Just like modern letters, the ancient letters in the Bible have recognizable parts. Understanding the parts of the letter will help us read and understand them better. 

The Introduction

The greeting tells us who the letter is from, and who it is written to. Check out the greeting from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1–7, NRSV)

The greeting tells us that this is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Rome. 

The greeting is usually followed by a prayer or an expression of thanksgiving:

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:8–15, NRSV)

The Body

The body of the letter is where the content is at. Pay special attention to the start of the body, right after the prayer/thanksgiving section as this will help establish the main points that the letter will make:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16–17, NRSV)

Here in Romans, Paul lays out his main points:

  1. The Gospel is the power of God for everyone who has faith, both Jews and Gentiles.
  2. The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel. 

 

The Conclusion

There are many different things that appear at the end of New Testament letters: travel plans, prayer requests, instructions, greetings to people in the church etc. There is usually a good word (benediction) at the end, like this one in Romans:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27, NRSV)

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