When was the last time you received a letter in the mail? In this day of e-mails, Twitter, and Facebook most of us don't receive as many letters as we used to. But in the days before electronics, nearly all of our communication with the people who didn't live near us was by letter. It was, and still is a fairly easy process: some paper, something to write with, an envelope and a stamp.
However, in the days of the apostle Paul, writing a letter was not nearly as easy. Letters had to be written on papyrus, which was expensive and not available to most people. But papyrus is durable–it can survive indefinitely–as long as it doesn't get moist or wet. That made it perfect for writing important letters and documents.
Archaeologists have unearthed ancient trash heaps containing hundreds of documents that were written on papyrus–many written some 2000 years ago, during the time the apostle Paul and other epistle writers of the New Testament lived.
Among these documents are many private letters. These letters conform to a written style, exactly like what the apostle Paul used in his writing.
Letters of that day always began with a greeting, followed by a prayer for the health of the recipients. Next, there was always a giving of thanks to the gods. Next came the particular contents of the letter with all the news and instructions, and finally a closing salutation and personal greetings to individuals.
If you look at any of Paul's letters, you will find that very pattern. The point is, Paul did not intend for his letters to be theological treatises or scientific essays. He was simply writing letters, like friends would write to each other. He wrote most of them to deal with an immediate problem occurring in the particular church he was writing to. Also, he didn’t have a nice quiet office or study where he could sit down and ponder over each word, to say everything just right. He would hear of a crisis in one of the churches and write or dictate a letter to deal with it.
He was not thinking about us or about our problems when he wrote; he was thinking about the people he was writing to and their immediate problems or questions. He was not trying to go down in history as a great writer of theology; he was just writing letters to help a group of people he loved and cared about. Paul never had a thought that someday people would look at his letters as Holy Scripture.
Yet, God took Paul's very human letters and redeemed them; using them to speak to Christians everywhere, including us today, about the very same kinds of troubles and crises that have faced the church throughout the centuries.
Consider this: Just as God can take ordinary pastoral letters and gloriously transform them to convey the Good New of the gospel–both to the church and to the world–so God can take ordinary people like you and me and gloriously transform them, so that they might, in the power of Christ and through the Holy Spirit, be living testimonies to the Lord who has saved them.
I’m Joseph Tkach, speaking of LIFE.