BIBLE BITS: The New Testament letters demonstrate the relevancy of the Gospel

By Rev. Dr. Joe Weaks

Pastor, Connection Christian Church

Folks are sometimes surprised to learn this little bit about the New Testament, that the earliest-written books are not the Gospels, but rather are Paul’s letters. First Thessalonians is likely the first of Paul’s letters, written in the 50’s (as in just shy of 2,000 years ago).

But some NT letters are written after the turn of the first century. The letters in the NT span decades. Each of these letters represent leaders in the church writing to the people in the Christian community with instructions about how to be faithful followers of Jesus in their day and time and context.

This is one of the reasons we find so much rich theological variety across the NT letters. Each letter written to a different church community in a different time and setting emphasizes a different aspect of the Christian message, aspects that are particularly relevant to their current setting. One clear example of this progression is the differing teaching on belief and deeds between Romans and James.

In the letter of Romans, Paul is trying to convince the church that discipleship is all about your belief/faith/trust about Jesus. He says again and again, we are not made righteous by our deeds, but by our belief/faith/trust. You can not do anything to earn righteousness. But in the book of James, a church leader goes on and on in with instruction that no one can consider themselves a disciple of Jesus unless that discipleship clearly produces action/deeds/works. A promise that doesn’t produce results turns out to be an empty promise in the first place. Each author is emphasizing their message so eagerly that the two books feel nearly incompatible.

This is because they are demonstrating how relevant a life of discipleship is. The answer to “what must I emphasize in my faith practice?” is relative to the needs of you and your community at a given time and space. If I’m offering guidance on what any person needs to work on to grow in their faith, the answer depends on their context, their current struggles, their current opportunities. The New Testament letters demonstrate two things. One, what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus is affected by your context. And second, the point of a life of faith is that it be relevant to the circumstances you live in.