Letters For Life
I’d like to begin a new series. The topic: Paradigms and Parchments- The Apostolic Example of Problem Solving
When we’re facing a difficult issue, asking ourselves how to best handle or approach a particular problem, we often look to specific texts of Scripture for guidance. For example, suppose someone wants to know how they should interact with a brother or sister committing sexual immorality. One verse to be considered, among many, would be 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. Or suppose you want to know how to conduct yourself with unbelievers, especially within the context of evangelism. A verse like 2 Timothy 2:24-26 is surely instructive.
This is how we often look for answers in the Bible. We search out texts that address the issue, compile a list, and reflect. Now while this is very good and very necessary, I want to suggest and take some time to consider another approach, one that functions more on the macro level than the micro level of individual passages. What do I have in mind?
Might there be insights to be gleaned by considering not so much the individual verses in an epistle, but the letter as a whole? Or to say it a bit differently, can we learn something afresh by considering how the apostles dealt with problems in their letters as letters?
Allow me to illustrate.
Suppose you’re getting ready to confront a believer who is thinking about turning away from Christ. Suppose this saint is beginning to look for an easier path, one that doesn’t require them to make a firm stand for God. Perhaps they’re being ostracized or persecuted for their faith. Should they be exhorted? If so, how? What kind of things might you focus on? What about the balance between encouragement and rebuke, understanding and sternness, or God’s love and God’s wrath?
Interestingly, there’s a book in the bible that can help us answer many of these questions. It is called Hebrews. As described by the author himself, the letter is a “word of exhortation” (13:22). So there we go. If we want to know what a word of exhortation might look like, we should consider the epistle to the Hebrews- and not just simply a verse or two in it, but the letter as a whole, because the entire letter functions as an exhortation.
If we, therefore, were to try to discern how to best exhort someone who is seriously flirting with apostasy, we would do well to consider how the inspired author to the Hebrews handled similar issues. How did he approach his recipients? What kind of things did he focus on? How much encouragement did he dispense in the midst of rebuke? What was his angle or tact?
My contention is that much can be learned by examining the NT epistles in this way. So what I want to do, if you’re willing to journey alongside me, is consider afresh the apostolic methodology to problem solving. I want to look at each letter (or at least most of them) and draw insights from them, all in the hope that we will be better equipped with dealing not only more biblically with problems, but more carefully. And I suspect that through this study we’ll learn to say things we might not otherwise say, as well as handle issues with greater confidence, knowing that we have anchored our approach in the Scriptures.
Now having said all this, someone might want to raise their hand and ask whether or not we can or should mirror the apostles, especially when it comes to their writing ministry. They were inspired by God. We are not. They possessed a unique authority. We do not. So why try to mirror them? Isn’t it a bit audacious?
Here I would encourage you to look at Paul’s feet and hands, for it is there where we will see his manner of life and example. And it is a life and example meant to be observed and copied.
Consider the following:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17).
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess 1:6-7).
It’s true. We aren’t in position to observe Paul in person. Nevertheless, we can observe his manner of writing. We can see his heart and priorities through his letters. And we can also see how he dealt with problems. And that, I dare say, is something we can emulate. His pattern is received by us on parchments of paper, which is but an extension of his life.
It is in this vein that I marvel at certain early church documents like Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. Oh, what an influence Paul clearly had on this man. Polycarp was not only aware of Paul’s writings, but he emulated them, adopting the apostle’s style and “feel.”
So at the end of the day, I think we’re justified in embarking on this mission. In fact, we might even say that we must adopt this approach, seeing that we should imitate the lives of the spiritually mature. And who better than the writers of the NT?