Six Steps for Studying the Epistles

Reading the Bible through in a year as I had done before, I came once again to the epistles. Though I’d read them previously, this time it occurred to me: These are letters from an actual person to actual people. There’s more than just information here; there’s emotion.

I realize that sounds pretty obvious to some people, but now I knew that, in the future, I’d read them differently. The emotion couldn’t have been only on the writer’s part, I thought, because those receiving them must have felt excited to get them.

We’re blessed to have Bibles we can pick up daily and read affirming, convicting and truth-filled messages. The original letters to the churches were often circulated and an individual may have heard the letter only once before it was on its way to be shared with another church. How precious they were. How empowered the readers must have been on receiving those letters.

Letter writing is becoming a lost art. What a joy to savor words on paper from someone who loves us and hopes the best for us. My realizations led me to read the epistles like I’d never read before, as if they’d been sent directly to me. Identifying with the people for whom they were intended, it was exciting. I received fresh insight, higher understanding, and a new appreciation for the first century Church.

These are some practices I discovered for knowing the power of the God’s word.

  1. Pray before reading. Thank God for the person who wrote the letter and that it made it safely to you. Pray that the Spirit will provide power to guide you and encourage you.
  2. Read from a different translation than you normally use. The wording may be just different enough that you get a better understanding of the scripture.
  3. If you underline or write notes in the margins of your Bible, read from one that has no margin notes or underlining so these don’t distract you. If you have none, perhaps you can borrow for this part of your study. If you must write, take notes in a separate journal.
  4. Read slowly and deliberately. Because many of us have read the epistles several times, we can be tempted to read through them quickly. However, familiarity with the text can get in the way. If you were reading a letter received in the mail, it wouldn’t be familiar. You couldn’t anticipate the next phrase and you would have to listen with your heart and mind all the way through. Also, since these letters were originally read to groups, try reading aloud.
  5. Pay attention to the greetings at the beginnings and ends of the letters. The early believers would have been overjoyed to hear these heartfelt words. Some of those mentioned are people the writer traveled with. The inclusion of their names offers hints into co-workers in ministry. Paul quite often did this. Sometimes the writer also included blessings and prayers. These have power to bless and encourage you as they did the original readers.
  6. Pray again when you’ve finished. If God has spoken to you through the writer’s words, thank Him and ask Him to keep revealing truth to you. Confess any sin the Holy Spirit has revealed in your life as a result of reading. Claim God’s promise of abundant life in Christ and share what you’ve learned with someone else.

After reading through the epistles this way, try using some of these ideas for reading other passages of scripture.

Be a blessing to someone today.

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“Teach Us To Pray”

Sometimes when I read about the life of prayer some people live or have lived, I feel like such a slouch. Paul, the apostle, mentions several times in his letters to the churches specifically how he prays for them. I believe this may be how I can pray for others, but also how I can pray God’s will into my own life. I certainly need love, strength, spiritual wisdom, and discernment of his will.

Here are a few of the ways Paul prayed for those he loved so much.

“I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:18-20).

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God(Philippians 1:9-11).

“So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light” (Colossians 1:9-12).

Even Jesus’s disciples wanted to learn how to pray more effectively. And he was happy to teach them. When asked, he replied with a model prayer, and this is how he taught us to pray:

This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 6:9-13).

Would you be willing to pray for others and yourself the way Paul did?

Heavenly Father, please give me patience with myself when it comes to prayer, while also opening my heart and mind to hear you more clearly. You speak but I’m sometimes chattering away. Give me words to worship you, pour out my heart to you, and stand in the gap for others. Teach me to pray so that I can become more spiritually mature. Give me insight into your hopes for me and help me to keep things simple.

The Intruders

Prayer and meditation get to be a problem for me. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. Sure, I can pray for a while and enjoy the company of the Lord some days with absolutely no problem. Then there are times when the noise in my brain is like the sound of scanning radio stations:

“Heavenly Father, thank you for being in my life today. You are worthy of my worship and I praise you for your faithfulness and love. Lord, I wish that Josie would stop gossiping about people. She can be so mean. Oh, wait, I do it too. Sorry. And by the way, thank you for forgiving my sin of gossiping. “Squirrel!” Lord, when I sit down to the computer to write today, please help me to write only what is on Your mind so that I can be an encouragement to others and not be a whiner.”

Then I whine.

Instead of guests in the temple of my body as I go to God in prayer, these rabbit trails are more like intruders. Do you see the problem I have? I’d like to be a great example and be one of those people who can pray for extended periods and nothing gets in the way. At this point in my walk with God, however, I’m just not.

As I said, I do have times when I enjoy a lengthy period of prayer. Occasions happen when I actually lose track of time in the morning and nearly make myself late for appointments. But as someone with the attention span of a spider monkey, I want to do this more often. Well, not the ‘late’ part.

Maybe you can relate and would like to do it too.

Reading and studying scripture is no problem for me; I eat it right up. And I’ve noticed that when Paul wrote his epistles, he would even include prayers in them. The man thought of everything. I would never think to write out a prayer for someone in a letter. But how blessed those people must have felt when they read them. They were also the kind of prayers with some meat to them because most of the time he prayed for their spiritual maturity or to know Christ more.

ex cu woman prayingIt’s been said that the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. Well, here I am—God and everyone can know right here. (Okay, God already knew.) I’m thinking the solution must be somewhere in his Word.

Given my own way, I tend to complicate things. However, God’s ideas are usually simple ones. So what, do I ask, does he have to say to me about improving this area of my life? (Even Christ’s disciples implored him, “Teach us to pray.”)

What occurs to me first is what most people refer to as the Lord’s Prayer. The model prayer Jesus gave his disciples would be better called This Particular Disciple’s Prayer.

First, I worship and acknowledge the Lord for who he is. Next, I pray that his will—not mine—is done in all things. (By the way, if I truly want to pray God’s will, acknowledging who he is right off is pretty important. Honest worship takes the focus off me.) Then, I pray for only today’s needs because “tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34) Acknowledging his forgiveness to me and praying for the willingness to forgive others as I’m forgiven is what I take up next with God. Then, because evil is everywhere, I pray to be delivered from temptation.

Some folks might ask, “What about praying for others’ needs and what about this or that or that other thing?” Good call. I agree that we are to stand strong; put on our armor. Pray for others—believers and unbelievers alike. Those we love. Our enemies as well. That’s scriptural too.

I’m just saying that this simple model Christ offers is a great start for someone like me, who sometimes can’t string two coherent thoughts together even when I’m NOT praying. And though I’m admitting my general frustration, I also know that the words don’t matter as much as the fellowship we have with our heavenly Father. (If you’re not the spider monkey type, maybe you don’t relate to this at all. But we all have distractions in our lives and I think “intruders” happen more often than we like to admit.)

So I’m hoping that in this writing effort, I was maybe a little bit encouraging. I hope I said something God might offer as a solution to a problem. If not, I pray to do better next time. And, hey, while I’m at it…

Lord, you know all things. You know me better than I know myself. I am a scatterbrain sometimes. When I sit down to enjoy prayer time with you and meet you to meditate on your word, help me to focus on only our time together. Help me to clear the clutter from my mind and heart as I would clear the clutter from my home. Please also help all those who come to you today to lean in to you and trust you. Allow them to know that you hear their prayers. Remind us that your Spirit speaks for us when we don’t know how to pray and that your Son is always interceding on our behalf. Thank you for your mercy and love. In Christ’s name, amen.