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Chapter 15: The Epistles of Paul


Paul was not only the greatest of the apostles in the extent of his labors and his sufferings, but he was the most voluminous of all the writers of the New Testament. His writings occupy nearly one-fourth of the whole book. They are not printed in the order in which they were written. They all circulated originally, as did all the books of the New Testament, as separate documents; and when they were collected into larger volumes, they were placed without regard to chronological order. {19} We shall mention their dates, so far as these are known, when speaking of them individually; for it is important, before reading an epistle, to consider who wrote it, when and under what circumstances it was written, and to whom it was addressed.

It is sometimes said by unfriendly writers, that Paul is the real author of Christianity, meaning that he made of that which was first preached a system which had not been intended by Christ. The charge is false, yet in the mind of the great Head of the Church it was allotted to Paul to elaborate, and to set forth much more fully than others did, the divine teachings of Jesus; and also to add much to the revelation of God's will which was first announced by Jesus. No man can, therefore, fully understand the doctrine of Christ without the aid of Paul's exposition of it. Hence the importance to every one of studying carefully his Epistles.

{19} The order of the Epistles, in the collection, as of the Prophetic books, was determined not by date of writing, but a larger extent, by size.--W.

1. Romans. Although the Epistle to the Romans was not the first written by Paul, it is well that it is placed first, and next after Acts; for its chief subjects is a discussion of the grounds on which a sinner is justified before God, and it is well for the sinner, as soon as possible after he has turned to the Lord, to be made acquainted with this subject. Passing out of Acts into Romans is the forward step which he next needs to take.

This epistle should be read in connection with the twentieth and twenty-first chapters of Acts, from which the reader can see that it was written in Corinth just before Paul's last journey to Jerusalem was begun. Being written to a church containing in its membership a large number of well-matured members with rich and varied experiences, its discussions of important themes are more profound than those in any other epistle.

The chief theme of the epistle is the great doctrine of justification by faith. The apostle shows that the ground of our justification before God is our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as distinguished from works of law. He was led to this discussion by the teaching of certain Jews that we are to be justified by keeping perfectly the law. To the propounding of his doctrine and the refutation of objections to it, the apostle devotes the first eleven chapters of his epistle, and the rest is given to exhortations and the recital of interesting experiences of himself and others. There are some things in the doctrinal part which are not adapted to the minds of children, but all can be read with profit the last part.

2. First Corinthians. Some remarks in the last chapter of this epistle, connected with the nineteenth chapter of Acts, show where the apostle was when he wrote it. The planting of the Corinthian church is described in the eighteenth chapter of Acts, and these two chapters in the latter book should be read before beginning the study of the epistle. Not much information can be obtained from those about the condition of the church when the epistle was written; for this we are dependent chiefly on the epistle itself. As we read the latter, we find, one after another, the circumstances in the condition of the church which called forth the epistle and suggested the topics which it treats. These are all of a practical character, corrective of various kinds of misconduct which had sprung up among the members of this church since Paul had left them. For this reason this is one of the most valuable of all the epistles for the regulation of the life and deportment of a church.

3. Second Corinthians. By comparing 2 Corinthians 1:8-11; 2 Corinthians 2:12,13; and 2 Corinthians 8:5-7 of the epistle, with \\#Ac 19:23 20:1\\, we learn the place and the circumstances of the apostle when this epistle was written. He had heard through Titus, who is here mentioned for the first time, the effects of his first epistle to the same church, and this information led to the writing of the second. The condition of the church, together with the great peril through which the apostle had just passed in Ephesus, combined very greatly to depress his spirits; and consequently, this is the saddest of all the epistles in the New Testament. It reveals much more fully than any of the other epistles of Paul, or even the thrilling narratives in Acts, the depths of sorrow and suffering through which this great apostle was continually wading in the prosecution of his mission to the Gentiles. The inner life of Paul is more fully revealed here than elsewhere, and this gives the principal value to us of this admirable epistle. {20}

{20} A lost epistle earlier than First Corinthians is mentioned (1 Corinthians 5:9) and perhaps another lost letter is referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:8, which passages do not seem to refer to First Corinthians.--W.

4. Galatians. There is little in this epistle to indicate the time or the place at which it was written. The surprise which the writer expresses that the Galatians should have turned so soon away from him to another gospel (Galatians 1:6), shows that it was written very soon after his last visit, but this is quite indefinite. He had come from Galatia to Ephesus, and after two years and three months there he went through Macedonia to Greece (Acts 18:23; Acts 19:1,21,22 Acts 20:1,2). Some scholars think that he wrote the epistle while yet in Ephesus, which was less than three years from the time he left the Galatians; and others, that he wrote it after he reached Corinth, which was a few months later.

We know nothing of the Galatian churches except what we learn from the epistle; but from this we learn several very interesting facts as to their first reception of Paul and their present relation to him, and also the cause of their present alienation from him. These spring upon the reader of the epistle like flashes of light and sudden darkness, and we shall not anticipate them here.

In opposition to certain false teachers who were nominal Christians and perverters of the truth, Paul teaches here, as in Romans, that the ground of our justification before God is obedient faith, and not works of law. The discussion is brief but conclusive, and he follows it with some admirable and always needed teaching and exhortations on the practical duties of Christian life.

5. Ephesians. It is doubtful, to say the least, whether this epistle ought to bear the title which it has; for there is a total absence of those personal greetings which abound in Paul's other epistles addressed to churches which he planted; and this is unaccountable if he was writing to a church with which he had labored more than two years--longer than he stayed with any other. He also speaks of the faith of these brethren as if it was with him a matter of hearsay rather than of personal knowledge (Ephesians 1:15,16); and he refers to own apostleship to the Gentiles as a matter of hearsay with them, if they had heard it at all (Ephesians 3:1-4). With these indications agrees the fact that in some very early manuscript copies of the epistle the words "at Ephesus" in the salutation (Ephesians 1:1) are not found. It is now most commonly supposed to have been written for a kind of circular letter, and sent to several churches, that at Ephesus among them; and that the name Ephesus got into some early copies from the fact that Ephesus was the principal of the cities for which it was intended. It was written while Paul was a prisoner in Rome (Ephesians 3:1 Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:18-20).

The epistle opens with some very grand utterances about the eternal purpose and foreknowledge of God respecting Christ and his work of redemption, and also respecting the call of the Gentiles to be partakers with God's ancient people in his grace. This part closes with the third chapter, and Paul's prayer for the brethren addressed, which closes this chapter, is one of the most impressive passages in all his writings. It should be studied as a model of earnest prayer and lofty sentiment. The remainder of the epistle is of a practical character, having respect to the unity of the church, to its growth in every virtue, and to the details of Christian life on the part of all classes of disciples. Especially remarkable and valuable is the passage in the last chapter, in which the apostle runs a parallel between the pieces of armor worn by an ancient warrior, and the various duties and privileges of a Christian in his struggle against the power of darkness. Fighting and running foot races are favorite illustrations with Paul, because in each, as in the Christian life, a man has to be doing his best all the time to avoid being defeated.

6. Philippians. The account of planting the church at Philippi is given in Acts 16:6-40, and it should be read before beginning the study of this epistle. The fact that Paul was in bonds at the time of writing (Philippians 1:12,13); that the pretorian guard, which was the body guard of the Emperor kept at Rome, had all heard of his preaching (Philippians 1:13,14); and that he sends to the Philippians the salutation of some belonging to the household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22), show very plainly that the epistle was written, as was Ephesians while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. This is the imprisonment mentioned at the close of Acts. The immediate occasion of his writing was the circumstance that a brother named Epaphroditus, having come from Philippi to Rome to bring a contribution for Paul's necessities (Philippians 4:10-20), had been taken sick, and the Philippians had heard that he was very near the point of death; so Paul sent him back, and doubtless made him the bearer of this epistle (Philippians 2:19-30). The epistle is full of tender sympathy, and not a word of reproach to the church is found in it, but many words of warm commendation.

7. Colossians. This is another of the epistles of the imprisonment, of which there are four, namely: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. That Paul was in prison when he wrote is seen from his remarks in Colossians 4:2-4, and \\#Col 4:18\\. He appears to have sent the epistle by the hand of Tychicus, who also bore Ephesians (Colossians 4:8; Ephesians 6:21,22), and this shows that they were both written and forwarded at the same time. This accounts for the fact of a very great similarity between the two epistles, greater than between any other two.

The first chapter of this epistle contains one of the grandest exhibitions of the present glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to be found anywhere in the New Testament. It also abounds in stirring exhortations to Christian activity and zeal, all of which are enforced by the apostle's own example.

8. First Thessalonians. In coming to this epistle we turn back in point of time, from Paul's imprisonment mentioned at the close of Acts, to his first visit to Corinth, described in Acts 18:1-18; for it was during that visit that the epistle was written. His labors at Thessalonia are described in Acts 17:1-9. He went thence to Berea (Acts 17:10), thence to Athens (\\#Ac 17:15\\), and thence to Corinth (Acts 18:1). There Silas and Timothy, whom he had left behind, overtook him (Acts 18:5); and in the epistle he says: "But when Timothy came even now unto us from you," etc. ; which shows that the epistle was written immediately on Timothy's arrival, This, as we learn from the chronology made out from the book of Acts, was in the year 52; and this is the earliest of Paul's epistles, and also the earliest book of the New Testament. {21}

The epistle shows that the Thessalonian church was suffered greatly from persecution, but that it was conducting itself in such a manner as to spread the light of the gospel abroad through surrounding communities (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10). These faithful disciples being but partly instructed in Christian teaching, were in trouble respecting their deceased brethren; and this led Paul to give them one of the plainest possible lessons about the resurrection of the dead, that by this information they might comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The same words have been a source of unspeakable comfort to the saints from that day to this, and they have served the purpose of a text on funeral occasions more frequently perhaps than any other passage in the Bible.

{21} Unless, as many scholars think, the epistle of James is to be dated about the year 50 A.D., in which case it would be chronologically the first book of the New Testament.--W.

9. Second Thessalonians. This epistle seems have been written soon after the first to the same church; for the persecution mentioned in the first was still in progress (2 Thessalonians 1:2,3), and the condition of the church in general was unchanged. It was written, too, when the writer was solicitous about being delivered from "unreasonable and evil men" {2 Thessalonians 3:2}, which agrees with the interval between his withdrawal from the synagogue in Corinth to the house of Justus and the assurance given him by the Lord that no one should set on him to harm him (Acts 18:5-10). The most conspicuous matters discussed in it are the fate of the wicked at the second coming of the Lord, and the coming of "the man of sin" here first mentioned by the apostle {2 Thessalonians 2:3}. It also contains some very plain and emphatic instructions as to how the church should deal with those members who walk disorderly; and in the close shows that Paul always wrote the salutations of his epistles with his own hand as a "token" of their genuineness {2 Thessalonians 3:17}. He was in the habit, as we have seen from Romans, of dictating his epistles to an amanuensis; but his autograph in the salutation identified them as his.

9. Second Thessalonians. This epistle seems have been written soon after the first to the same church; for the persecution mentioned in the first was still in progress (2 Thessalonians 1:2,3), and the condition of the church in general was unchanged. It was written, too, when the writer was solicitous about being delivered from "unreasonable and evil men" {2 Thessalonians 3:2}, which agrees with the interval between his withdrawal from the synagogue in Corinth to the house of Justus and the assurance given him by the Lord that no one should set on him to harm him (Acts 18:5-10). The most conspicuous matters discussed in it are the fate of the wicked at the second coming of the Lord, and the coming of "the man of sin" here first mentioned by the apostle {2 Thessalonians 2:3}. It also contains some very plain and emphatic instructions as to how the church should deal with those members who walk disorderly; and in the close shows that Paul always wrote the salutations of his epistles with his own hand as a "token" of their genuineness {2 Thessalonians 3:17}. He was in the habit, as we have seen from Romans, of dictating his epistles to an amanuensis; but his autograph in the salutation identified them as his.

10. First Timothy. When Paul wrote this epistle he had left Timothy in Ephesus and gone into Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3). During that portion of his life covered by Acts of Apostles he had never done this. He had only once gone from Ephesus into Macedonia, and then he had sent Timothy before him (Acts 19:21,22; Acts 20:1). As Acts follows his career until his imprisonment in Rome, where it closes, he must have made the visit to Ephesus here referred to, subsequent to that imprisonment. He must therefore have been released from that imprisonment, as he expected to be, and have gone abroad once more in his apostolic work.

This epistle was especially intended for the instruction of an Evangelist, which Timothy was, in regard to his labors among the churches. Consequently, it should be studied exhaustively by every preacher of the gospel for his own guidance and edification. But much of the instruction given in it has reference to the duties of church officers; and therefore the epistle is a study for them as well as for preachers. Moreover, the private members of the churches cannot know how to demean themselves toward the officers and the preachers, without knowing what duties and what authorities are imposed upon the latter; therefore it is a study for all church members, having different special aims for different classes. For a knowledge of the practical detail of church organization, we are more dependent on this epistle than on any other.

It would be wise for the student, in connection with this epistle, or with the second to Timothy, to take his concordance and find all the places in which Timothy's name occurs, so as to become familiar with all that is written about him. He is one of the most interesting characters mentioned in the New Testament.

11. Second Timothy. Paul is once more a prisoner (2 Timothy 1:8,16-18 2 Timothy 2:9); and it is the imprisonment which terminated in his death (2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18). It is the last writing which we have from his pen, and this imparts to it that peculiar interest which always attaches to the final utterances of a man of God. It is devoted mostly to personal matters, all the great doctrines of the faith having been set forth in previous documents. The sadness of his situation is indirectly revealed, especially in the first chapter. The exhortations to Timothy, and to all the brethren, in the second chapter, are among the most stirring that Paul ever wrote; and the prediction of a great apostasy which chiefly occupies the third chapter, sounds almost like a wail of despair in regard to the church's future; but the shout of triumph with which he greets his approaching death in the fourth chapter, has thrilled the souls of the saints as scarcely anything else in the Bible. If it so thrills us at the remote period, how must it have inflamed the hearts of Paul's fellow-soldiers and of his thousands of converts! He was anxious to see Timothy once more before he died; he begged him to come to him before winter, and to bring a cloak which he had left at Troas, and which he would need in the fireless prison should cold weather come before his execution. He also wanted something to read, and he thought of doing some more writing; hence the request that Timothy should bring some books and parchments which he had also left at Troas (2 Timothy 4:13-21). No one can read this epistle thoughtfully without being better and wiser.

12. Titus. But little is known of Titus. He is not once mentioned in Acts; and all that we know of him is found in four of Paul's epistles. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem at the time of the conference on Circumcision (Galatians 2:1); he was afterward sent by Paul from Ephesus on an important mission to Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:12,13; 2 Corinthians 7:5-7; 2 Corinthians 8:16-23; 2 Corinthians 12:18); he was with Paul in the island of Crete after the release of the latter from Roman imprisonment, where he left him to set in order the things that were yet wanting in the churches planted there (Titus 1:5); and he was with Paul in Rome during his last imprisonment, but went thence to Dalmatia before Paul's death (2 Timothy 4:10).

He was still in Crete when this epistle was addressed to him (Titus 1:5); but was requested by Paul to come to Nicopolis as soon as another evangelist should come to take his place (Titus 3:12). The purpose of the epistle is very much the same as that of First Timothy; that is, to instruct Titus as an evangelist in regard to his labors among the churches, and at the same time to impart indirectly the same instruction to the churches. It is a study for young preachers, and not less so for all who would be useful in the church. Its first chapter, in connection with the third chapter of First Timothy, furnishes full instruction with reference to the qualifications required for elders of the church; and as all members are sometimes called upon to act in the selection of these officers, these passages should be familiar to all.

13. Philemon. This is one of the epistles of the imprisonment; that is, of the first imprisonment in Rome (Philemon 1:1,13). It was written in behalf of Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, who had run away from his master, had landed in Rome, had turned to the Lord under Paul's preaching, and for a while had been assisting Paul in his ministry (Philemon 10-15). Paul broadly suggests to Philemon the propriety of setting him free, and promises to pay out of his own purse anything that Onesimus may owe Philemon (Philemon 17-21). We learn indirectly from Colossians that Colosse was the home of Onesimus {Colossians 4:9} and therefore of Philemon his master. The latter was a man of great benevolence, and of apparent wealth. A church met in his house (Philemon 2-7).

14. Hebrews. This epistle has been generally regarded from the beginning as one of Paul's; but from the second century to the present time many eminent scholars have doubted or denied its Pauline authorship. Three early writers, all born in the second century, but active in the early part of the third, may be regarded as the representatives of the opinions on the question until recent times. Origen said that the thoughts were Paul's, but that the style was not. He was not able to decide who composed it. Clement of Alexandria was of the opinion that Paul wrote it in Hebrew, and that it was translated into Greek by Luke. He thought that the style was Luke's, but the thoughts Paul's. Tertullian ascribed it to Barnabas. In modern time Luther suggested that it might have been written by Apollos, and quite a number of recent scholars have revived and advocated this opinion. Perhaps the question will never be settled to the satisfaction of all. But though opinions may vary as to the person who wrote it, all believing scholars agree that it was written by some apostolic man, and that its contents are to be received a true and authoritative.

The particular community to which it was addressed is left as obscure as the person who wrote it, though it is very clear from the contents that it was primarily intended for a community of Christian Jews, and ultimately for all such and for all believers. It was quite difficult in the first generation of the church to induce the Jews who became Christians to altogether give up those parts of their old religion which were set aside by the new; and some were found who were inclined to go back to Judaism after having accepted the Christian faith. It was for the benefit of these that the epistle was written. Its main line of argument shows the superiority of Christ as a priest over Aaron, and the superiority of his sacrifice of himself over the sacrifices of the law. It shows, indeed, not only the superiority of the former, but the priesthood of Aaron and the sacrifices of the law had been actually set aside to be observed no more. It shows also that all of the ritual of the law which depended on this priesthood and these sacrifices had passed away with them.

While this was the immediate design of the book, its value was not exhausted in its effect on the Jews; for it contains many trains of thought and many practical exhortations which are adapted to all the instruction and edification of all classes of disciples in every age and country. Its exhortations, examples, and warnings, like its chief argument, are drawn almost exclusively from the books of the Old Testament, and no one is prepared to read it intelligibly who is not familiar with those books, and especially with the law of Moses. In studying it one must make almost constant reference, either by memory, or by the marginal references, or by a concordance, to the law books of Moses. Next to the epistle to the Romans, it is generally regarded as the most important epistle in the New Testament for setting forth the distinctive doctrines of Christ.

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