Interpreting the Last Nine

Last week I shared “A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible”. I put much of that guide together while studying the letters of Paul, but lately I’ve been applying the steps and skills from the guide to a different section of the New Testament. These days I’ve been studying and teaching the last nine books, Hebrews through Revelation.

Unlike Paul’s letters, these books are written to broad Christian audiences living in many areas of the first-century Greco-Roman world. So Hebrews through Jude are sometimes called the “General Epistles” (not including Revelation, though it’s really a letter, too). The name does not mean they only have general, not specific, things to say. The audiences, not the messages, are general.

While we can put a general label on the audiences, the books themselves are harder to categorize. They are quite different from one another. For instance, when I move from James to what follows, 1 Peter, it strikes me that two mature Christian leaders, both writers of the NT, could express their faith in such different ways. While both books consist of five chapters and focus on the Christian life, the way they go about it could hardly be more different. 1 Peter emphasizes who believers are through Christ, and mentions Christ 22 times, while James concentrates on the need for believers to be doers of the word, and mentions Christ only twice.

The last nine books of the NT are also different than the rest of the NT. For instance, the Greek noun for “gospel” is used only twice from Hebrews to Revelation, though it occurs 74 times in the writings that come before them. On the other hand, the Greek noun for “endurance” or “perseverance” is used fourteen times: seven times more often than the word “gospel”. That’s a taste of how the focus in these books is different from the first eighteen books of the NT.

So we shouldn’t open these books and expect to hear exactly the same kind of message we find in the rest of the NT. Each one of the books has its own distinct voice and offers a distinct witness about the Christian life. And that’s how I want to study them – to find out what particular message and testimony each one bears. This way, we can receive not just a general Christian message but a fresh and pointed word from each book, to challenge and shape our lives.