Daily Bible Study Tips: Overview of Paul's Letters,
II Corinthians - Philemon

Overview of Paul’s Letters: Romans and I Corinthians

Overview of Paul’s Letters: II Corinthians - Philemon
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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Comments on Galatians and Ephesians

Comments on Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy

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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.”

Copyright 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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