There are 21 letters in the New Testament of the Bible. About half of them are signed by Paul, who was one of the first leaders of the Christian church. Paul never met Jesus in person, but had a profound vision of him while he was on a journey. Ironically, the purpose of the journey had been to arrest Christians. The vision persuaded Paul that Jesus was the Messiah (the leader whom the Jews had anticipated for many years). He retreated to present-day Turkey where he made an in-depth study of the Old Testament.
While he was researching, an unexpected development took place in the Christian church. Gentiles (people who were not Jewish) were beginning to worship Jesus as God. In view of his dramatic change of belief, Paul was seen as the ideal person to manage the colossal transformation that would be involved in incorporating these new Christians. Paul prepared the church to become international, and made a series of journeys around the Mediterranean explaining the claims of Jesus and founding churches when people responded in faith.
Most of the letters that are now in the Bible were written by Paul to these new churches and their leaders after he had moved on. He explained the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and its place in the eternal plans of God. And he described the difference that this should make to the everyday behaviour of believers.
Other letters in the Bible were written to Christians who were scattered through what is now known as the Middle East. A repeated theme is their need for strength and trust during the persecution of Christians that was increasingly common. They have practical advice for living as followers of Jesus. They address misunderstandings about his true nature. And they show God reaching out to humankind in endless love.
The final book of the Bible, Revelation, also begins with a series of letters. They use heightened and poetic language to encourage or reprove churches. The remainder of the book contains flamboyant images of angels and beasts. It was a kind of code, with thinly-disguised allusions to the political world of the time. It was written to help Christians in the first century recognise that evil was not going to prevail. Christians in subsequent generations have often been baffled by this. But they have taken heart from the fact that it points to a future in which God triumphs and establishes a Kingdom of ultimate peace and justice in which they will share.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Where to find it:
1 Corinthians 13:3-8.
About these words:
An example of practical advice about what makes living as a Christian distinctive. It comes from one of the letters written by Paul to a church in Corinth. This Bible passage is often read today at weddings.
And they said…
Jim Packer, theologian:
One of the many great qualities of the Bible is this – that it does not yield its secrets to the irreverent or the censorious.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, 1900-2002:
Men search this way and that in their search for new sources of comfort and inspiration. But the enduring truths are to be found in the Word of God.