9 min read

Three Helpful Steps for Reading the Epistles

Paul’s letter to the Philippians has some of the “greatest hits” verses of the New Testament:

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

It’s easy for readers of Paul’s letters to latch on to one powerful verse that inspires them. Certainly his letters are inspirational, but sometimes we can find ourselves neglecting the larger context or, worse, pulling a verse out of context. Every single inspirational verse is part of a greater work of literature—the entire epistle. The authors of these letters intended to convey rich layers of meaning throughout the whole letter.

Which raises the question: how can the common modern reader discover these deeper layers of meaning?

Here's the good news: it's easier than you think. We are going to look at three helpful steps for reading the epistles. This blog is designed as a study, so we’d recommend that you have your Bible out and use what you learn here as your guide.

Step One: Find the Structure

The letters are not a jumble of random thoughts; they are carefully structured and cohesive works that follow a flow of ideas from start to finish. Most ancient letters have a four-part structure: the introduction, opening prayer, body, and closing section. But even within that broad structure, Paul and other ancient writers created sections in their letters that were distinct but related to one another.

So how do you find the structure? Here are a few tips:

  • Start with a video. The best way to get a head start on finding the literary structure of the letters is to start with a BibleProject video. We’ve created videos for each of the New Testament letters (and the rest of the Bible) that focus on the structure, main ideas, and key points in the letters—all in an easy visual format. (The video on Philippians is a great example.)

  • Read it a few times. The next step is a simple one. Read the letter more than once if you can. Try to read it all in one sitting instead of in bits and pieces (or break it in half for the longer letters). As you read them over and over again, you will begin to see new meanings emerging like a picture developing before your eyes.

  • Find the literary breadcrumbs. To continue finding the structure, pay attention to any changes of topic that mark new sections and ask yourself how each idea relates to what came before and what came after. Look for connecting words (since, therefore, finally, but, etc.) that the writers use to transition from one idea to the next. Through these and other methods, Paul and his co-senders have left “literary breadcrumbs” so readers can follow the main ideas.

The Structure of Philippians

Philippians is a great example of biblical letter literary structure. If you follow the suggestions above, you will begin to see distinct sections that are all united by common themes. (Hint: these themes are all condensed in the amazing Jesus poem in chapter 2).

The letter to the Philippians breaks down into the following sections.

Section 1: Opening Prayer 1:1-11

This section begins with a greeting and ends with a prayer that introduces Paul’s main themes.

Section 2: Paul’s Imprisonment 1:12-26

Paul picks up the topic of his imprisonment.

Section 3: Following Jesus’ Example 1:27-2:18

Paul turns the focus on how the Philippians should live and calls them to follow Jesus’ example. The section starts with the transition phrase, “Only let your lives be worthy… .”

Section 4: Timothy and Epaphroditus 2:19-30

Paul jumps from Jesus to Timothy and Epaphroditus, highlighting them as examples before moving on to another topic.

Section 5: Paul’s Example 3:1-4:1

This section begins with a big transition word, “Finally, my brothers… .”

Section 6: Challenge to Live after Paul’s Example 4:2-9

Again, Paul starts a new section with a transition phrase (“Therefore, my brothers…”) and returns to his theme of how they should live as Christians.

Section 7: Closing Thanks 4:10-23

The final section ends with a classic closing benediction, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus… The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

Keep those sections in mind. We’ll come back to them in a minute. Next, we need to look at literary devices.

Step Two: Look for the Literary Devices

The New Testament letters are ancient works of literature. The techniques or literary devices they use can be really different from what we’re used to! Being familiar with these literary devices helps us understand the meaning the author is wanting to communicate.

One literary device in particular stands out when we are trying to understand the literary meanings in Philippians––the chiasm.

What is a Chiasm?

A chiasm is a common literary device in biblical poetry that uses repetition to highlight the writer’s main idea, make comparisons, and connect the main idea to other subtopics.

Chiasms have a symmetrical structure that can look like this:

  • A
    • B
      • C
        • D: The center of the chiasm is often a really important idea
      • C2
    • B2
  • A2

The Chiasm in Philippians 2

If we look for repetition, we can find a chiasm in Philippians 2:6-11 that tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a poetic format. Check out how this “Jesus poem” maps onto the structure of a chiasm.

A Jesus' Glory as God. Verse 2:6: “Though he was in the form of God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

B Jesus’ Service to Others. Verse 2:7: “But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

C Jesus’ Humility. Verse 2:7-8: “Being born in the likeness of men and being found in human form, he humbled himself”

D Jesus’ Death. Verse 2:8: ”by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is the key idea!

C2 Jesus’ Exaltation. Verse 2:9: “Therefore God has exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”

B2 All Humanity Bows to Jesus. Verse 2:10: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth”

A2 Jesus Gives Glory to God. Verse 2:11: “and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

How Would I Notice This?

At this point, you may be asking how you might notice something like a chiasm, especially since they are so unfamiliar to the modern reader. One of the best ways to start is to read along and write out what you think the main idea of each section is. When you notice some repetition in ideas, look back and try to see if the author is relating other ideas into a discernible structure or a chiasm.

What Does the Chiasm Show Us?

At the crux of the chiasm (point “D”), Paul draws the other ideas together around Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the turning point which shows how far Jesus was willing to go to serve his people.

Jesus’ life plotted the path for the return journey that all his followers get to take: give yourself away to be found in God, humble yourself and God will exalt you, die to yourself in order to find true life.

All this was waiting just below the surface of the letter! But there is more.

Step Three: Notice the Repetition

Biblical repetition comes in many forms. It is often simply a repeated word, but it can also be whole quotations from other places in Scripture, repeated design patterns or motifs that recur throughout the Bible, or even repeated settings, images, characters, and events. You can learn more about each of these types of repetition with our How to Read the Bible series.

When you develop eyes to see these repetitions, new layers of meaning will open up throughout the Bible. Philippians is no exception.

Repetition in Philippians

The chiasm (from step one) and the literary structure of Philippians (from step two) come together on step three. Paul’s main ideas about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are repeated in each section of the letter. It is as if Paul is drawing seeds from the life of Jesus and planting them in the rest of the letter, so that they can bear fruit in the lives of the people as they become more like Jesus.

Let’s take a look.

Section 1: Opening Prayer 1:1-11

Themes: Humility, joy, hardship, hope beyond suffering, God’s glory. Like Jesus, Paul’s service to others brought him face to face with humiliation and death, but he is still confident that God will glorify himself in Paul’s suffering.

Section 2: Paul’s Imprisonment 1:12-26

Themes: Hardship, death, hope beyond suffering, God’s glory. Even if Paul’s service to the Church ended in his own death, it would be a gain because he could be with Jesus. However, like Jesus, he will continue to live, suffer, and serve in order to be a blessing to others.

Section 3: Following Jesus’ Example 1:27-2:18

Themes: Hardship, humility, love, service, hope beyond suffering, God’s glory. Paul tells the Philippians that even though they face persecution and danger, their lives as Christians should be consistent with the truth of God in Jesus who gave himself up in love for others. Suffering because of Jesus is a way of living out the Gospel.

Section 4: Timothy and Epaphroditus 2:19-30

Themes: Hardship, service, death, love. Paul points out two fellow believers who are living after Jesus’ example. First, he commends Timothy because he puts the needs of God’s people before his own. Second, he acknowledges that Epaphroditus left his home, just as Jesus did, to serve Paul in his time of need and nearly lost his life in the process.

Section 5: Paul’s example 3:1-4:1

Themes: Hardship, humility, hope beyond suffering. Paul turns next to his own story as an example. He recounts the things about himself that others might regard as an impressive “spiritual resume” and says that he has renounced all of that for the sake of knowing Jesus. In other words, Paul empties himself of his own glory after the pattern of the God who came not to be served but to serve.

Section 6: Challenge to Live after Paul’s example 4:2-9

Themes: Service, joy, hope beyond suffering. Here Paul challenges two women leaders to follow Jesus’ humble example and become unified. He then goes on to encourage the Philippians to give their fears and troubles in prayer to God, who will guard them in Jesus, the one who has passed into death and back again.

Section 7: Closing Thanks 4:10-23

Themes: Joy, service, God’s glory. Paul’s imprisonment and hardships haven’t meant his ruin; rather, they are the very way God has blessed him (and others through him) and through which he has experienced God’s strengthening in any circumstance.

What Does it All Mean?

Through the use of literary devices, structure, and repetition, Paul is trying to get the people of Philippi to sink deep roots into the reality of what Jesus has done, so that they will be able to live transformed lives. He is trying to compel them to form a community that “shines as stars” in the midst of a darkened world and to be filled with peace and unity as they share the Gospel with the world. This still rings true for us today.

Concluding Thoughts

The New Testament letters are more than just collections of good verses to be lifted out of context and memorized. Seeing Paul’s ideas in their literary context deepens the meaning of what he is saying, connecting them to the deeper reality of what God accomplished in Jesus. And you can study each letter in this way! With the three steps for reading epistles fresh in your mind, we recommend choosing a letter (Ephesians, Galatians, etc.) to practice for yourself.