Letters from Paul

Overview of Paul's Letters

Day 23, (Acts 27-28) – Romans 1 – 4
Day 24, Romans 5-10
Day 25, Romans 11 – 1 Corinthians 1
Day 26, I Corinthians 2-9
Day 27, I Corinthians 10-15
Day 28, I Corinthians 16 – II Corinthians 9
Day 29, II Corinthians 10 – Galatians 4
Day 30, Galatians 5 – Philippians 1
Day 31, Philippians 2 – I Thessalonians 2
Day 32, I Thessalonians 3 – I Timothy 5
Day 33, I Timothy 6 – Hebrews 1

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Day 23, (Acts 27-28) – Romans 1 – 4

These overviews were written while our church was listening each day to “You’ve Got the Time,” the recorded New Testament available from Faith Comes by Hearing. It takes 28 minutes a day, and I enjoyed it tremendously. “Day23, Romans 1 – 4” and so on tell you what section to listen to.
We now begin to read a new section of the New Testament, the Epistles. Epistles just means “letters.” The first important thing to know about these scriptures is that they consist of letters originally written to specific churches and individuals.

When we write someone a formal letter today, we use a certain format.  We put the return address and the address at the top, and we begin, “Dear Susie,” and we end, “Yours truly, John.” I once heard my attorney dictate the body of a letter, and he ended by saying, “Love, Me,” which meant that his secretary had done all this a thousand times, and he didn’t have to tell her how to prepare the rest of the letter. In a business letter, there may also be a line that begins, “Re:” that tells what the letter is about.

Letters in the first century had an arrangement similar to today’s business letter. (Mostly they were carried by hand, so there wasn’t an envelope.) The beginning of Romans shows the format:
The second important thing to know about the Epistles is that they are not arranged in chronological order. They are arranged first by descending order of volume by author, and then by descending order of length of letters by each author. Paul wrote lots of letters, so he comes first. Jude only wrote one short letter, so he’s last. (He may also be chronologically last, but that’s a coincidence.)

Here’s a guide to the order of Paul’s letters. I compiled it from the study notes in The Jerusalem Bible, but for our purposes, it doesn’t differ all that much from other chronologies.
Day 24, Romans 5-10
Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches that he had established or to people that he knew. These people knew him well, and if they didn’t have a good grasp of theology, his tendency was to yell at them (e.g., “Are you people of Galatia crazy?! – Gal. 3:3; “Do you want me to come back there with a stick?” – 1 Cor. 4:21). In addition to theology and counsel, these letters contain incomplete sentences, incomplete thoughts, cajolery, threats, congratulations, and exasperation. They often have whole sections that are answers to questions that were sent to Paul; since we don’t have the questions, we have to figure them out as best we can from context.

Romans, however, is written to the church at Rome, which Paul had never visited. He was planning to go there to see them, which was in itself unusual, because he prided himself on always taking the Gospel to places that had never heard it before. There is no yelling in the book of Romans. Instead, Paul carefully and systematically lays out his theology by way of introducing himself.

Day 25, Romans 11 – 1 Corinthians 1
Yesterday I gave you some idea about the differences that you will see in Paul’s letters, so now I want to say a few things about “attribution.” (This is just my opinion, so you don’t have to pay attention to it.) Biblical scholars have expended a great deal of thought and ink over the centuries on this topic, which means “deciding who wrote a particular work.” They study each verse with a microscope. They study word usage, sentence structure, quality of Greek, internal clues about dates, and a bunch of other factors. Then they write papers concluding that Paul didn’t write Book X, or John didn’t write Book Y.

Before you get too excited about this kind of stuff, here are two questions you should ask yourself:
Furthermore, sometimes the attribution scholars conclude things that seem to me to be just plain silly. I wrote my first paper for publication in 1970. I published an abstract this year. For 38 years, I have been writing papers and editing other folk’s papers for publication, singly and in collaboration with many other authors. I assure you that sometimes it’s very easy to tell that the same person wrote two works, and sometimes it’s impossible.

We actually have no more information now about who wrote each letter than the early Church leaders did when they made the original attributions. If I change the attribution without new information, it must mean that I think I’m smarter than, say John Chrysostom or Jerome or whoever made the attribution in the first place. I do admit to thinking I’m pretty smart, but I don’t think I’m smarter than those giants. Apparently a lot of scholars think they are.

For all these reasons, I take the conservative view that Church tradition is correct in saying that Paul wrote or dictated all the letters attributed to Paul, John wrote or dictated the letters attributed to John, and so on. If you choose not to believe that, I’m not going to get too excited about it.

Don’t get me wrong – I read Biblical commentaries for fun and for edification. Scholarship is important. It’s just that so far I’ve never seen a case wherein the disputed authorship of a book or letter made any difference whatsoever to the story of salvation, and I am a lot more concerned about your salvation and mine than I am about who wrote the book of Ephesians.

Day 26, I Corinthians 2-9
Are you keeping up with the scripture listening? I’m not. I’m having trouble putting away my old, time-wasting habits and developing a new, productive habit. When I can, though, I listen for longer than 28 minutes. I’m really enjoying the dramatization of the New International Version – it’s like reading a new translation. I’m looking forward to the day when I get an MP3-compatible player in my car (probably about 10 years from now, when the world has moved on to NQ4), which is where I play most of my music. Maybe I should hijack my husband’s iPod (a Christmas present that neither of us have learned how to use yet). Don’t worry if you have fallen behind. Make a new start and pick up where we are now. Skip the study tips and spend the time listening.

The city of Corinth was a pit of sin and depravity. It was an important and prosperous port, located on a narrow isthmus over which ships were hauled by hand to avoid going around the southern part of Greece by sea. The port was full of wealthy residents seeking the latest forms of dissipation and drunken and violent sailors looking for easy women. The sailors did not have to look far, because more than 1000 temple prostitutes served at the temple of Aphrodite. (Never be fooled into thinking that Aphrodite/Venus was a love goddess. This idol was a sex goddess.) In its own day, Corinth had a reputation for wealth and for drunken, immoral debauchery.

In this setting, the little church full of Gentile converts had a tough time putting away their old, pagan habits and developing new habits of holiness. Paul first spent a year and a half there around 51 or 52 AD (Acts 18) and later may have spent another three months with them (Acts 20:2-3, 2 Cor. 1:15). In spite of Paul’s instruction and example, the converts bickered about church politics, argued over who was the most important person in the church, ignored open sin, and presented a bad example to the unbelievers. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Naturally, they did not write to Paul about these things, but he found out anyway. Chapters 1 to 6 of I Corinthians are devoted to Paul’s response to what he had been told.

Day 27, I Corinthians 10-15
One of the really great things about the Epistles is that they show us problems that earlier churches have had. Maybe – just maybe – we can learn from their problems and avoid them in our own churches.

The church at Corinth had some questions (actually, knowing the Corinthians, they probably had some arguments). They wrote to Paul (I Cor. 7:1), ostensibly to ask for guidance, but probably because each person in the church thought Paul would agree with his or her position. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Chapters 7-14 of I Corinthians are devoted to answering these questions.

There are two important points about these chapters. First, we don’t know what the questions were. We need to figure out the questions as best we can in order to understand the answers – for example, if I answer, “Four dollars,” it’s important to know whether the question was “What’s the price of gas?” or “How much is your pension?” We don’t know for sure what the questions were, but we try to figure them out from context.

Second, the answers were written specifically to the church at Corinth, which had specific problems. We need to be a little careful in deciding how to apply these scriptures to our church and our problems. It would be an error, for example, not to serve meat at Wednesday Night Live for fear someone would be offended. On the other hand, it would be a worse error to decide that since there are no idols in meat-packing plants, the scripture doesn’t apply to us at all.

So with those two warnings in mind, here’s a guess at what the questions were.
After answering these questions, Paul reviews the Gospel (Ch. 15). In Ch. 16, he appeals to the Corinthians to take an offering for mission work, and he takes care of some business items.

Day 28, I Corinthians 16 – II Corinthians 9

Have you ever had people spread tales about you behind your back? Has it happened that someone you thought was a friend believed those tales? What was your reaction? Did you learn not to spread tales yourself? II Corinthians gives us a glimpse of the pain that can result when Christians allow themselves to be led into gossip and rumor mongering.

There is good reason to believe that Paul wrote at least three and probably four letters to the church at Corinth. In I Cor. 5:9, Paul refers to an earlier letter. In II Cor. 2:4, he refers to a letter he wrote with much anguish. It is possible that II Corinthians contains pieces of “The Previous Letter” and “The Letter of Tears” (also called “The Severe Letter”) inserted into what appears to be a most or all of a fourth letter.

Chs. 1 – 9 of II Corinthians appear to be all one letter, written after everything had been made up between Paul and the church at Corinth, although one little piece, II Cor. 6:14 – 7:1, might be a fragment of “The Previous Letter.” It’s also possible that Paul mentioned fornication more than once in letters to the church in Corinth, where that sin was built into the bones of the culture.

Chs. 10 – 13 are very widely believed to be part of “The Letter of Tears” or “Severe Letter” that preceded the letter in Chs. 1 – 9. William Barclay says of these chapters that they “are the most heart-broken cry that Paul ever wrote. They show that he has been hurt and insulted and slandered as he never was before or afterwards by any Church. His appearance, his speech, his apostleship, his honesty have all been under attack.” The church at Corinth, which Paul founded and served for a year and a half while supporting himself completely by the work of his own hands, should have known better than to believe tales about Paul.

Day 29, II Corinthians 10 – Galatians 4

Galatians addresses one of the early crises in the Church, the “Judaizing Crisis.” Do you remember Peter’s vision about taking the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11)? Do you remember that James, head of the Church in Jerusalem, decided that Gentiles should keep only four rules from the Law (Acts 15)? Some of the Christians who had converted from Judaism were not satisfied with this result. They believed that it was not enough for Gentile converts to profess faith in Christ and be baptized. They thought of Christianity primarily as a sect of Judaism, and thus they concluded that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism in addition to converting to Christianity.

These so-called Judaizers followed Paul and other missionaries around, preaching that what the new churches had been taught was inadequate for salvation. They wanted the new converts to be circumcised and follow the Law. Apparently the Galatians thought that maybe they should do that. Paul was furious! Galatians is his initial response to his own converts who were entertaining the idea that they could be more saved by following rules than by following Christ. (Romans is a more reasoned letter to strangers, partly on the same topic. Hebrews is a rabbinical-style argument written by someone other than Paul and aimed, apparently, at the Judaizers themselves to show them why they were wrong.)

By the way, Galatians shows why you should never hit the “send” button while you’re still mad. No telling who’s going to be reading your email 2000 years from now.

Day 30, Galatians 5 – Philippians 1

The primary topic of Ephesians is the relationship between Christ and the Church. This letter differs from Paul’s other letters in several ways, although Pauline authorship is not seriously questioned. The most obvious difference is that even though Paul spent three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 31), there is not a single personal remark or greeting in the letter. There are also stylistic differences, but these are readily accounted for by the fact that the letter was written late in Paul’s life, when he was in prison and had plenty of time on his hands. The earliest manuscripts do not contain the words “at Ephesus” in vs. 1:1, and we know that Paul sometimes directed his readers to pass his letters on to other churches (e.g., Col. 4:16). All this has led some scholars to propose that Ephesians was a kind of form letter, in which “at —” was to be filled in before the letter was passed on to each church; we just happen to have the one that was sent to or collected at Ephesus.

The most famous verses in Ephesians are 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In my opinion, the most neglected verse is 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” By grace we are saved through faith for works, but we like to think about our privilege of being saved more than we like to think about our responsibility to do God’s work. The most infamous verse, and the one most frequently taken out of context, is 5:22, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” as we read last Saturday.

Day 31, Philippians 2 – I Thessalonians 2

Paul spent a fair amount of time in prison, and both letters we read about today were written while he was in chains.

Philippians is the most kindly, the most joyful, the most mellow of all Paul’s letters. There is no word of correction, no rebuke. Paul had been successful in Philippi, making converts from all walks of life (Acts 16). It was here that Lydia, a wealthy woman who dealt in purple dye, convinced Paul to stay in her home as her guest, rather than work for his living as he did everywhere else. Here he and Silas cured the slave girl who was possessed by a divination spirit, an incident that ended with the conversion of the jailer and his entire family. In Philippians, Paul is writing to good friends, not just fellow-Christians and converts. (By the way, Barclay dates this letter very late, about 63 A.D., not early, as I told you from another reference. Does it matter? No.)

Colossians is more like the Paul we are used to. Various heresies have arisen in the church over the millennia, beginning in the earliest days of the Church. One of these heresies is called “Gnosticism” (NOSS-ti-sism), which means, roughly, “secret knowledge.” Think about the Masons. (Not that I have anything against Masons. I love Masons. I grew up in a Shriners Hospital.) You join the organization and learn a lot of rituals and stuff. Just when you think you know it all, you find out that there’s another level. You learn more rituals and stuff that you didn’t even know about, and just when you think you know it all, you find out that there’s another level. We all love this kind of arrangement, because it allows just about everybody to feel superior to just about everybody else.

Apparently the church Paul founded at Colossae had been taken in by some Gnostics. Paul says to them, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea … to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” They don't need any secret knowledge: they have Christ, and that's all there is to know.

Like most of the other letters, Colossians has its fair share of rebukes, a list of sins to avoid, and a list of spiritual goals. Avoid “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry... anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie.” Try to attain “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” forbearance, forgiveness, love, and peace.

Day 32, I Thessalonians 3 – I Timothy 5

Paul spent only a few weeks in Thessalonica before his friends hustled him out of town by dark of night for his own safety. Of course, that could never happen today, could it?

I have a good friend who teaches Bible, Greek, and Hebrew in a country where Christian missionaries are … not welcome, let’s say. Three weeks ago two people working with him were arrested and are being forced to leave the country. Fortunately my friend was in another city at the time, but now he is worried about how the students will be able to continue their studies.

Paul was also worried about his Thessalonians. He says, “when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you – for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.”

Nevertheless, the church had gotten a little off-track, and Paul wrote them a couple of letters trying to get them to focus on salvation today, not on doomsday and special rules and off-brand practices that people other than Paul are teaching them. Of course, that could never happen today, could it?

Day 33, I Timothy 6 – Hebrews 1

I and II Timothy and Titus are called the “pastoral letters.” Timothy and Titus were young missionary pastors whom Paul had been training and continued to train for ministry. The letters mostly remind them of things Paul has already taught them. He offers them guidance on personal conduct, the importance of sound doctrine, how to gain the respect of the church in spite of their relative youth, how to select and train church leaders, how to run the worship service, and how to deal with troublemakers and teachers of unsound doctrine.

Philemon is a personal letter to Philemon, asking that he accept back a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had converted to Christianity and had convinced to return to his master. Paul reminds Philemon of his own debt to Paul (vs. 1:19), but even so he offers to pay anything that Onesimus owes. Vs. 1:11 is a pun on Onesimus’s name, which means “profitable” or “useful.”

More Letters from Paul
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Galatians, Ephesians, Philemon
Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy

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