A letter; but the term is applied particularly to the inspired letters in the New Testament, written by the apostles on various occasions, to approve, condemn, or direct the conduct of Christian churches. The Holy Spirit has thus provided that we should have the great doctrines of the true gospel not only historically stated by the evangelists, but applied familiarly to the various emergencies of daily life. It is not to be supposed that every note or memorandum written by the hands of the apostles, or by their direction, was divinely inspired, or proper for preservation to distant ages. Compare 1Co 5:9; Col 4:16. Those only have been preserved by the overruling hand of Providence which were so inspired, and from which useful directions had been drawn, and might in after-ages be drawn, as from a perpetual directory, for faith and practice-always supposing that similar circumstances require similar directions. In reading an Epistle, we ought to consider the occasion of it, the circumstances of those to whom it was addressed, the time when written, the general scope and design of it, as well as the intention of particular arguments and passages. We ought also to observe the style and manner of the writer, his mode of expression, the peculiar effect he designed to produce on those to whom he wrote, to whose temper, manners, general principles, and actual situation, he might address his arguments, etc.
Of the books of the New Testament, twenty-one are epistles; fourteen of them by Paul, one by James, two by Peter, three by John, and one by Jude. Being placed in our canon without reference to their chronological order, they are perused under considerable disadvantages; and it would be well to read them occasionally in connection with what the history in the Acts of the Apostles relates respecting the several churches to which they are addressed. This would also give us nearly their order of time, which should also be considered, together with the situation of the writer; as it may naturally be inferred that such compositions would partake of the writer's recent and present feelings. The epistles and James, by Peter and Jude, are very different in their style and application from those of Paul written to the Gentiles; and those of Paul written to the Gentiles; and those of Paul no doubt contain expressions and allude to facts much more familiar to their original readers than to later ages.
The first mentioned in the Old Testament is that of David to Joab, sent by Uriah (2Sa 11:14); a usage perhaps borrowed from the Phoenicians, with whose king Hiram he was intimate. The king's seal was usually attached in token of authority, and to guard against anyone but the person addressed reading it (1Ki 21:8-9). The seal was of clay impressed while moist (1Ki 21:8-9; Job 38:14). "A writing came to Jehoram from Elijah" (2Ch 21:12). Originally messages were sent orally (Ge 32:3; Nu 22:5,7,16; 24:12; Jg 11:12-13; 1Sa 11:7,9). Hezekiah had a system of couriers or posts to transmit his letters in various quarters; the plan especially prevalent in Persia (2Ch 30:6,10; Es 8:10,14).
We read of his "spreading before the Lord" Sennacherib's letter (2Ki 19:14). Sanballat's "open letter" was an infraction of the etiquette of the Persian court (Ne 6:5). Jeremiah wrote to the captives in Babylon (Jer 29:1-3). In the New Testament Luke begins both his "Gospel" and "Acts" in the form of a letter to Theophilus; but in substance both books are rather histories than epistles. Our Lord wrote no epistle, as that to Abgarus king of Edessa is most probably not authentic (Eusebius H. E., 1:13). His office was to enact the facts, and to fulfill the personal ministry, upon which the church was to be founded. The epistles are the inspired commentaries unfolding the truths in the histories, the Gospels, and Acts; just as the prophets interpret the spiritual lessons designed by God to be drawn from the Old Testament histories.
Twenty-one of the 27 New Testament books are strictly epistles. Three more are so in form: Luke, Acts, and Revelation addressed to the seven churches. Matthew, Mark, and John alone are not epistolary either in form or substance. Fourteen, including Hebrew, are by Paul; three by John; two by Peter; one by James; one by Jude. Paul dictated his to an amanuensis, authenticating them with his autograph at the close, wherewith be wrote the salutation "grace be with thee," or "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," etc. But, in order to show his regard to the Galatians, whom Judaizers tried to estrange, he wrote all that epistle himself in large characters, for so Ga 6:11-12 ought to be translated, "ye see in how large letters I have written." The largeness of letters was probably owing to his weakness of sight (Ga 4:15).
The words "I have written" ("wrote," egrapsa) distinguished this epistle as written by himself from 2Th 3:17, "I write," where he only writes the closing salutation. Phm 1:19 shows that that epistle also was all written by Paul as a special compliment to Philemon; whereas the accompanying epistle to the Colossians (Col 4:18) has only "the salutation" so written, as also 1Co 16:21. In Ro 16:22 his amanuensis, Tertius, salutes in his own name. Peter's closing salutation is "peace be with you"; as Paul's is "grace," etc. John after Paul's death takes up his closing benediction, "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all," at the end of Revelation.
In the beginning of most of Paul's epistles "grace and peace" are his opening greeting; in the pastoral epistles concerning ministers "mercy" is added, "grace, mercy, and peace" (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), for ministers of all men most need mercy (1Co 7:25; 2Co 7:1). All the epistles besides Paul's are called "universal" or "general." This designation holds good in a general and not strict sense; for the 2 and 3 John are addressed to specific persons in form, though in substance they are general. The epistolary form of inspiration gives scope for free expression of personal affection, and conveys divine truth, progressively unfolded to us, as to Christian faith, worship and polity with a freshness, point, and communion of heart with heart, such as could hardly be attained by formal, didactic treatises.