Imagine for a moment that you lived sometime around 60 A.D. You have recently become a follower of Jesus Christ, and you are meeting together with other believers for the first time.
When you walk through the door, you soon realize that something special (even for this group) has happened. A traveling companion of Paul (or Peter, or John, or James, or one of the other New Testament authors) recently arrived with a letter for the church. Although you’ve never heard of this person, you quickly learn that he was one of the first people to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world.
You discover that this group of Christians came through your city not long ago (just a few months or maybe a year earlier). Some of the people in your group had been following Jesus since that time, but most are fairly recent converts, like yourself.
Eventually, during the course of your time together, someone reads the letter. It takes between 15 minutes to just over an hour for the entire letter to be read. Parts of the letter were very encouraging. But, other parts were hard to understand (even Peter said that parts of Paul’s letters were hard to understand – 2 Peter 3:15-16). There were even some things in the letter that seemed completely unreasonable or impossible.
In other words, you didn’t understand everything that you heard. As the letter was being read, you looked around the room. You noticed that there were others who appeared to be struggling with parts of the letters.
Now… the purpose of this post… who interpreted this letter for you? Who interpreted it for others in the room?
There were no seminary trained professionals. In fact, most people in the room had been following Jesus for less than a year. A few may have been converted just over a year earlier. Even Paul’s traveling companion had only been introduced to Jesus Christ a couple of years ago.
There were no commentaries written about this letter. There were no devotional books. You could not turn to New Testament scholars to help you understand.
So, who interpreted the letter for you? Or, perhaps even more important, once you understood what the letter meant, who taught you how to apply it in your own life? What about those around you?
Who were the first interpreters?
Is there anything in those letters themselves that give us clues as to how they would have been interpreted and applied?
How can thinking about these questions help us today?