A close-up shot of an open Bible, showcasing the pages with the 21 epistles highlighted in vibrant colors, capturing the essence of their significance through the lens.

What Are The 21 Epistles In The Bible?

The New Testament contains 21 epistles, also known as letters, that provide teaching and instruction for Christians. If you’re looking for a quick answer, the 21 epistles are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the definition and purpose of epistles, provide an overview of each of the 21 epistles, look at their authors, themes, key passages, and more. With over 3000 words of detailed content, you’ll gain a thorough understanding of these important books that have shaped Christian theology and practice for nearly 2000 years.

What Are Epistles in the Bible?

Epistles are letters written to convey instruction, doctrine, or encouragement. In the Bible, there are 21 epistles, written by apostles to churches or individuals. The purpose of these epistles was to encourage, instruct, and spread the teachings of Christianity to believers across the ancient world.

Definition and Purpose of Epistles

The word “epistle” comes from the Greek word “epistolē” which means a written letter sent to a destination. The 21 New Testament epistles were letters written by apostles such as Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude to churches and individuals to teach doctrine, give practical advice, and share theological truths.

For example, Paul wrote letters to churches he helped establish like the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. His letters encouraged these churches in their faith, answered their questions, and addressed issues they were facing.

Other epistles like 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were written by Paul to individuals Timothy and Titus, providing them wisdom for ministry.

The epistles contain some of the most foundational Christian theology and doctrine in the Bible. From salvation, to the person of Christ, to principles for godly living, the epistles dive deep into the teachings of Christianity.

Epistles vs. Gospels and Other Books

The epistles differ from other New Testament books in their purpose, style, and content. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Acts records the history of the early church. Revelation contains apocalyptic prophecy.

The epistles were written after Jesus’ ascension to give practical instruction to churches and individuals based on His teachings. Their content is didactic and theological, often containing dense passages on doctrinal issues. They lack the narrative style of the Gospels or Acts.

While the epistles don’t contain many stories, they include powerful explanations of Christian doctrine and how believers should think, act, and live in light of the gospel. Passages like Romans 3 on justification, 1 Corinthians 13 on love, and James 2 on faith and works have deeply impacted Christianity.

Overview of the 21 Epistles

Pauline Epistles

The Pauline Epistles make up a collection of 13 letters written by Paul the Apostle that are included in the New Testament canon. These letters were written to early Christian churches and individuals from around AD 50–60 and onwards.

The 13 Pauline Epistles are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. They provide expositions of Paul’s beliefs and advice for the fledgling churches under his wing.

Key themes include righteousness through faith, the workings of the Spirit, the unity of the church, and perseverance through suffering.

The authenticity of the Pauline Epistles is well-established. Most scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon were certainly written by Paul himself.

There is somewhat less certainty over 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, but a strong case can still be made for Paul’s authorship of these. Establishing clear authorship is important as it lends authority to their theological content.

General Epistles

The General or Catholic Epistles describe a collection of 8 letters written to Christian congregations and individuals, covering issues of faith and conduct. Seven have clear authorship from three apostles – Peter, John and James, while the eighth Hebrews has an unknown authorship.

These epistles are:

  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
  • Hebrews

The themes covered in these epistles range from standing firm in persecution, to spiritual discernment, ethics for believer’s conduct, warning against false teachers, destiny of salvation, and the superiority of Christ.

While less extensive than Paul’s writings, they cover practical Christian living and complement the evangelistic writings of the New Testament.

Dating these General Epistles ranged from around AD 45-95, from the life of the early church onwards. The authorship of most is clear, although Hebrews stands alone as an exception. Establishing authorship helps anchor these writings directly to first generation apostles and disciples of Christ.

The 13 Pauline Epistles


Paul’s letter to the Romans is often considered his most important theological work. Written around 57-58 AD, Romans lays out foundational Christian beliefs like the depravity of humanity, justification by faith, and righteous living.

Key themes in Romans include salvation, the justice of God, and rejecting legalism. As one of his last letters, Romans captures Paul’s mature thinking on issues central to Christianity.

1 Corinthians

This epistle offered pastoral advice to the church in Corinth around 55 AD. The Corinthians wrote Paul about issues like marital relationships, food sacrificed to idols, proper conduct in worship, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection.

First Corinthians emphasizes Christian unity despite diversity within the body of Christ. It also lays out ethical standards for Christian behavior in matters of sexuality, lawsuits, marriage, food, and public worship.

2 Corinthians

Likely written a year after 1 Corinthians, this follow-up letter continues Paul’s dialogue with the Corinthian church. Second Corinthians aims to reconcile relationships between Paul and the congregation and defend his authentic apostleship.

Key themes include the character of Christian ministry, employing spiritual gifts for edification, the grace of giving, and Christ’s reconciling work on the cross.


Galatians is one of Paul’s earliest letters, written around 48 AD. Here Paul passionately argues against requiring Gentile Christians to follow Jewish religious laws. Attempting to sway believers from legalistic theological views, Galatians focuses on justification through faith alone, not works of the law.

Freedom through Christ and walking by the Spirit are central themes.


Often considered the quintessential Pauline epistle on the church, Ephesians (circa 60-62 AD) outlines ecclesiology and Christian unity. Major ideas in Ephesians include predestination, salvation by grace, one universal Church under Christ, and godly living.

Gentiles are grafted into God’s covenant people through Christ in this profound letter.


Paul wrote Philippians around 61-62 AD while imprisoned. Despite his dire circumstances, the letter radiates joy and encourages believers to rejoice always. Major themes are unity within the body of Christ, humility in suffering, and living as citizens of heaven during our earthly lives.

Philippians provides an intimate window into Paul’s outlook even in hardship.


Composed around the same timeframe as Ephesians, Colossians combats a syncretistic false teaching infiltrating the church. Paul argues for the supremacy and sole sufficiency of Christ for salvation. He refutes asceticism while urging righteous living and fellowship among believers.

Key ideas in Colossians are Christ’s deity, reconciliation through his blood, and living fruitfully unto God.

1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians is one of Paul’s earliest extant letters, written around 50 AD. Paul encourages persecuted believers in Thessalonica to persevere despite affliction. He reminds them of his conduct among them and gives ethical commands about holy living, brotherly love, sexual purity, and diligent work.

This epistle also teaches extensively on end times events surrounding Christ’s return.

2 Thessalonians

The sequel to Paul’s previous letter, 2 Thessalonians offers further eschatological teaching and clarification. Apparently a forged letter had circulated creating confusion about the day of the Lord. Paul encourages watchful, sober living in light of Christ’s return to judge evil.

He also confronts idleness and disorderly conduct within the congregation.

1 Timothy

1 Timothy and the following two epistles are called the pastoral letters, as they contain advice to young pastors. Here, Paul instructs his protégé Timothy regarding oversight of the Ephesian church. He stresses sound doctrine and godly living to counter false teaching and strengthen church leadership.

Major themes are proper doctrine/conduct, instructions on worship gatherings, and qualifications for leaders.

2 Timothy

In his last preserved letter before martyrdom (67 AD), Paul charges Timothy to endure hardship like a good soldier of Christ. He requests Timothy visit him and bring necessary items for his mission. While lamenting false teachers, Paul remains optimistic about reward through faithfulness.

Key ideas are boldness in ministry, persevering through trials, and relying on the authority of Scripture.


Titus contains similar instructions as 1 Timothy for appointing leaders on the island of Crete. Likewise Paul stresses sound doctrine and refuting ungodly living, with special focus on pure conduct and good works benefiting believers.

Authority and doctrinal precision undergird this letter aimed at establishing orderly churches.


Philemon is Paul’s shortest, most personal letter regarding a runaway slave named Onesimus. Seeking to reconcile Onesimus with his master Philemon, Paul makes a tactful appeal based upon love and forgiveness.

Though brief, Philemon profoundly asserts the equality of all in Christ and has fueled abolitionist thought throughout history.

The 8 General Epistles


The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the General Epistles in the New Testament. Though traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul, modern scholars agree it was likely written by someone else. The intended audience was Jewish Christians who were tempted to return to Judaism and Jewish practices.

The author argues that Jesus is superior to angels, Moses, and the Israelite high priests. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was ultimate and final, unlike the repeated sacrifices made by Jewish priests. This letter has many eloquent passages about faith and enduring persecution.


The Epistle of James was likely written by James, the brother of Jesus, who led the church in Jerusalem. This practical letter covers a range of topics including faith, wisdom, the poor, temptation, the tongue, pride, and more. James emphasizes that true faith will be accompanied by good works.

He also touches on the importance of wisdom, warning against selfish ambition, and judging others. The Epistle of James provides very practical instructions for Christian living.

1 Peter

1 Peter was written by the apostle Peter and addressed to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor. The letter encourages believers to persevere through trials and suffering. Peter reminds them that they have been born again to a living hope through Christ’s resurrection.

He calls them to live holy lives and reminds them that they are sojourners in this world. This epistle contains many instructions for Christian conduct in relationships, the workplace, the home, and society.

2 Peter

2 Peter was also written by the apostle Peter shortly before his death. In this letter, Peter warns believers about false teachers who will secretly introduce destructive heresies. He reminds readers of the trustworthy prophetic word about Christ’s return.

Peter calls his readers to grow in godliness while waiting patiently for the Lord’s return. This short epistle reminds believers to be on guard against false teaching while growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

1 John

1 John was written by the apostle John and emphasizes fellowship with God. Major themes include light versus darkness, truth versus lies and deception, love for one another, and assurance of salvation.

John provides tests by which readers can know if they are truly saved, such as belief in Jesus, obedience to God’s commands, and love for fellow believers. This deeply spiritual letter reminds Christians of the joy and peace that comes from walking in the light of God’s truth and love.

2 John

2 John is the shortest book in the Bible at only 13 verses long. It was written by the apostle John to “the chosen lady and her children.” This brief letter warns believers against showing hospitality to false teachers, so that they do not become partakers in evil deeds.

It closes with greetings from “the children of your elect sister.” The key themes are truth, love, and obedience to God’s commands.

3 John

3 John was also penned by the apostle John, this time to his friend Gaius. John commends Gaius for his hospitality to fellow believers and missionaries. He condemns Diotrephes who refuses to welcome other Christians.

This very short personal letter serves as an example of hospitality and caring for fellow believers, as well as a warning against prideful or independent leaders like Diotrephes.


The Epistle of Jude was written by Jude, another brother of Jesus. Though short, this letter contains a stern warning against ungodly persons who have secretly slipped into the church, distorting God’s grace into sensuality.

Jude calls believers to contend earnestly for the faith first delivered to them. He reminds them of God’s past judgments and promises that false teachers will also be judged. This urgent epistle is a wake-up call to defend true biblical doctrine.

Key Takeaways from the 21 Epistles

Central Themes and Teachings

The 21 epistles in the New Testament provide invaluable insight into early Christian theology and practice. Here are some of the central themes and teachings that emerge from these letters:

  • Justification by faith – This doctrine, most clearly articulated by Paul in Romans and Galatians, teaches that humans are justified before God through faith in Christ, not by works of the law.
  • New life in Christ – Several epistles, like Romans, Galatians, and Colossians, explain what it means to die to sin and be alive in Christ through faith.
  • Freedom from the law – Epistles like Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews underscore that Christians are not under the Mosaic law but under the new covenant in Christ.
  • Love, unity, and humility – Letters like 1 Corinthians and Philippians place great emphasis on Christians loving one another, being unified, and demonstrating humility.
  • Christ’s deity and humanity – Epistles like Colossians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, and Hebrews affirm Christ’s divinity as well as his incarnation as a human.
  • Gifts of the Spirit – 1 Corinthians has an extended discussion of spiritual gifts and their proper use in the church.
  • Church leadership – Letters like 1 Timothy and Titus cover qualifications for elders/overseers and deacons and their proper conduct.
  • Second coming of Christ – 1 Thessalonians provides important teaching about Jesus’ return and the resurrection of believers.

These timeless themes and doctrines found in the epistles continue to instruct Christians today on essentials of the faith.

Impact on Christian Theology and Practice

The New Testament epistles have profoundly shaped Christian theology and practice over the centuries. Here are some of the key ways they have influenced the church:

  • Provided a foundation for systematic theology – Theologians have mined the epistles, especially Paul’s letters, in formulating doctrines about God, sin, salvation, the church, and the end times.
  • Supplied content for creeds & confessions – Ecumenical creeds and Protestant confessions rely heavily on the theology of the epistles.
  • Influenced worship and liturgy – The epistles, particularly the pastoral letters, have impacted church leadership structure, preaching, baptism and communion liturgy, and more.
  • Informed ethical thought – Paul’s moral teachings and exhortations to holy living have played a key role in Christian ethics over the centuries.
  • Shaped preaching & teaching – Verse-by-verse expository preaching has its roots in early Christian practices modeled after the authorial logic of the epistles.
  • Established church polity – The organizational principles and leadership qualifications found in the pastoral epistles guide church governance to this day.
  • Promoted missions – The evangelistic zeal displayed in the epistles has fueled missionary activity from the ancient church to modern times.

As authoritative Scripture, the epistles are arguably unmatched in their influence on the beliefs, rituals, ethics, leadership, preaching, and global outreach of Christianity through the ages. Their impact continues to be felt as the church looks to these inspired texts to understand what it means to live as Christ’s body.


In this comprehensive overview, we’ve explored the definition and purpose of epistles, provided summaries of each of the 21 New Testament epistles, looked at their authors, themes, key passages, and more.

The epistles provide vital instruction for Christian living and have significantly shaped Christian theology over the centuries.

By studying these letters that were written nearly 2000 years ago, we gain wisdom and insight into how to apply biblical principles to our lives today. Whether you’re a new believer looking to deepen your understanding or a seasoned Christian wanting a refresher, studying the 21 epistles is an endeavor that will reap lifelong rewards.

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