What is an Epistle?

Definition of epistle

An Epistle is a type of letter. The word comes from the Greek word epistolē, which means a letter. The difference from a regular letter is that the word epistle describes a kind of elegant or formal letter that is often directed or sent to a special person or a group of people.

Why is an “epistle” not just called a letter?

Many of the books in the New Testament are called “Epistles” because they were special letters sent to a particular church group to answer some questions, give instructions or teachings to a group, or to settle some problem in the congregation.

Even today we sometimes say, “I got a real epistle from . . ..” What that means is that it was probably a long letter and perhaps was focused on some particular issue or problem.

Interesting facts about epistles in the Bible

  • There are 21 books in the New Testament commonly called epistles.
  • Eleven of the New Testament epistles were written by the apostle Paul.
  • No one knows for sure who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. About forty different people have been suggested as authors. Most likely it is a sermon preached by Paul that someone, or he himself, later wrote out as an epistle.
  • The book of Revelation contains seven letters written to seven contemporary churches. The contents of these letters came directly from God through a vision to the apostle John. These seven “epistles” also have a prophetic application to a larger historic audience.
  • The first New Testament epistles written were most likely the ones we know as First and Second Thessalonians (around 51 A.D.).
  • Some people wrote “epistles” and signed Paul’s name to them. Paul mentions this in 2 Thessalonians 2:2. That is not right. Some people still do that today (or send a letter with no signature) because they don’t want anyone to know who really wrote it.

What was the general format or style of an epistle?

The epistles in the Bible all follow the typical way of writing a letter in those days. They usually start with the identity of the author or authors, the identity of the people the epistle is sent to, and a general greeting. Here is an example from 1 Corinthians:

  • Authors: “Paul . . . and Sosthenes our brother”
  • Sent to: “To the church of God which is at Corinth . . .”
  • Greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This was followed by the subject of the epistle. An epistle usually ended with a final thought or a prayer: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”

Some examples of Epistles in the Bible

The apostle Paul wrote many of the epistles that appear in the New Testament. They deal with all kinds of issues.

  • He wrote three epistles to the church in the city of Corinth, but only two have survived. The contents of these epistles deal with some serious issues in the church and some things that someone in the church wrote about to him in a letter: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me.” 1 Corinthians 7:1.
  • Paul wrote a letter to a man named Philemon about an escaped slave (possible a prisoner of war). Both Philemon and the slave (named Onesimus) were Christians, and the letter had to do with how they should treat each other.
  • He wrote an epistle to the members of the church in the city of Philippi to thank them for being faithful and for the help they had given him: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.”

Did Paul write all the epistles in the New Testament?

No. There are others known as “General Epistles” written by other people.

  • The apostle John wrote three of them. Third John is interesting. It is only 13 verses long and takes on a church leader who was mistreating visitors to the church — not an unknown problem even today!
  • A person named Jude wrote a letter that is only one chapter long dealing with some people in the church teaching erroneous ideas.
  • The apostle Peter wrote two epistles to a group of churches spread across what is today the country of Turkey.

What does this have to do with me?

God is calling each of us to be His letter or epistle to those around us. 2 Corinthians 5:18, 20 says that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation and being His ambassadors. He is pleading with us to tell the world about His goodness and love.

With this in mind why not write an “epistle” to a friend explaining the gospel and telling them why you are a Christian. Or perhaps you could live out a love letter from God through acts of service to a friend.