The Epistles are generally divided into the Pauline Epistles and the Non-Pauline (General) Epistles. Paul’s epistles fall into two categories: nine epistles written to churches (Romans to 2 Thessalonians) and four pastoral and personal epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon). This is then followed by eight Hebrew Christian epistles (Hebrews to Jude). Naturally, many questions would arise as to the meaning and application of the gospel for Christians. Thus, the Epistles answer these questions, give the interpretation of the person and work of Christ, and apply the truth of the gospel to believers.
The Emphasis on the Lord Jesus:
- Romans: Christ the power of God to us.
- 1 Corinthians: Christ the wisdom of God to us.
- 2 Corinthians: Christ the comfort of God to us.
- Galatians: Christ the righteousness of God to us.
- Ephesians: Christ the riches of God to us.
- Philippians: Christ the sufficiency of God to us.
- Colossians: Christ the fullness of God to us.
- 1 Thessalonians: Christ the promise of God to us.
- 2 Thessalonians: Christ the reward of God to us.
The Emphasis on the Gospel Message:
- Romans: The Gospel and its message.
- 1 Corinthians: The Gospel and its ministry.
- 2 Corinthians: The Gospel and its ministers.
- Galatians: The Gospel and its mutilators.
- Ephesians: The Gospel and its heavenlies.
- Philippians: The Gospel and its earthlies.
- Colossians: The Gospel and its philosophies.
- 1 Thessalonians: The Gospel and the Church’s future.
- 2 Thessalonians: The Gospel and the Antichrist.
The Emphasis of the Gospel on the Believer’s Union:
- Romans: In Christ—justification.
- 1 Corinthians: In Christ—sanctification.
- 2 Corinthians: In Christ—consolation.
- Galatians: In Christ—liberation.
- Ephesians: In Christ—exaltation.
- Philippians: In Christ—exultation.
- Colossians: In Christ—completion.
- 1 Thessalonians: In Christ—translation.
- 2 Thessalonians: In Christ—compensation.
The apostle Paul energetically preached the gospel throughout the Roman world, establishing congregations and following up with letters to instruct, correct and encourage the ministers and members he served. How should we apply the messages of his epistles in our lives today?
In the last lesson we saw the dramatic conversion of Saul, the persecutor of the Church who became the apostle Paul. Jesus Christ told Ananias that Paul would “bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
The book of Acts and Paul’s letters demonstrate the fulfillment of those words—including the sufferings. He reluctantly describes them in 2 Corinthians. Here he defends himself against comparisons with the boasts of false apostles:
“Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-30 (KJV)
Understanding Paul’s story can help us understand the tone and zeal that come across in many of his letters.
What Are Epistles?
Epistle is just an old-fashioned word for a letter. In the social world in which the early Christian writings appeared, letters were one of the most important media with which to communicate: almost anything could be (and was) shared in letter form.
Getting those letters to the recipients was much more chancy than it would be today. The Roman Empire finally established a fairly trustworthy system of roadways and postal service, but for ordinary working people like the early Christian writers one still had to find a colleague willing to carry along messages and letters when undertaking a business or family trip.
Some letters were like sermons with a salutation, but often the letters were part of a dialog. In Paul’s letters he often responds to gossip and to requests for information and teaching in letters sent to him. Thus letters often represent something like half the scene, because we didn’t see the letters sent to him! Frequently it is difficult to figure out just what religious positions on the opposing side Paul is confronting, meaning Paul was writing to different churches that were at different stages of their Christian walk, and needed to straighten their many erroneous theologies so each epistle handles each church to correct them, not all churches had the same problem so they each needed to be handled individually in their need and correction!
That’s part of the reason Paul’s letters can be challenging to understand. The apostle Peter warned that the writings of Paul can be twisted, but he also made clear that Paul’s epistles were considered inspired Scripture.
“And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” 2 Peter 3:15-16 (KJV)
All of Paul’s other letters arise from a particular occasion and have a definite purpose. Romans is different; from the content it seems to have a much more general didactic [teaching] aim.
Since Paul did not start the church in Rome and had not yet even visited it, this letter is less personal and more systematic in its presentation of foundational Christian principles. Paul wanted to help establish them by explaining God’s plan of salvation (Romans 1:11). He addressed subjects such as sin and the need for Christ’s sacrifice, faith, righteousness, baptism, being led by the Holy Spirit and living a Christian life. He wanted to help Jewish and gentile believers live in harmony.
After showing that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), how did Paul summarize the results of sin and the solution to sin?
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23 (KJV)
Paul shows clearly that we can be saved from the death penalty only by Christ’s sacrifice.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (KJV)
Through Christ’s life and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed and fulfill the law of love (Romans 5:10; 12:2; 13:10).
Some of Paul’s comments about the law and justification in Romans have been misunderstood. Lord willing in future lessons we will cover these misunderstandings.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in response to troubling reports he had heard and letters he received from them. Corinth was a tough place to be a Christian, as the city was known for its temple prostitutes and low moral standards. Some of the problems Paul addressed include: divisions in the church, a case of incest, members suing other members, confusion at church services and more.
In contrast to all the problems in Corinth, how did Paul describe the beauty of godly love?
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (KJV)
This kind of love would solve all the problems the Corinthians faced. It is the spiritual gift that the Corinthians, and we, should have been seeking first.
Sadly, many members in Corinth were filled with arrogance and pride about their knowledge and spiritual gifts. Paul powerfully explained how their pride needed to be replaced with love.
“Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” 1 Corinthians 8:1 (KJV)
In addition to the Love Chapter, Paul also pointed to the Christian hope of the resurrection in chapter 15.
2 Corinthians is perhaps the most intensely personal of all Paul’s letters. We feel for ourselves the weight of his burden of care for all the churches (11:28): the depth of his love for them and his anguished concern for their spiritual progress. We see in personal terms the cost of his missionary programme: hardship, suffering, deprivation, humiliation, almost beyond human endurance. And we see unshakable faith shining through it all, transforming every circumstance.
Paul had to take a corrective tone with the Corinthians. But in 2 Corinthians he expressed appreciation that many of them had responded.
How did Paul describe the thoroughness of their repentance?
“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” 2 Corinthians 7:9-11 (KJV)
Paul’s description of godly sorrow and repentance provides a pattern and encouragement for all of us in repenting of our sins and striving to avoid repeating them.
In the early New Testament Church, certain false teachers attempted to persuade gentile converts that they could not be justified (have their sins forgiven) by simply repenting, believing the gospel, and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
Instead, they were teaching that justification was possible only if they were physically circumcised and adhered to other temporary laws that were given at Mt. Sinai. The apostles rejected this argument categorically. Paul forcefully argued against it in his letter to the Galatians.
His point was, they did not need to be adopted as Jews to become ‘sons of God’ (Galatians 3:26) and receive eternal life. Some of Paul’s comments about the law and freedom in Galatians have been misunderstood; and still are today.
How does Paul describe the transformation that he experienced?
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20 (KJV)
Buried with Jesus in the watery grave of baptism, Paul now lived a life that was no longer his own. He described his transformed life as one of allowing Christ to live again within him. This is how we please God; by emulating His Son.
To imitate Christ we must ask God for help, through His Spirit, so we can bring our thoughts, attitudes and actions in line with His. We must allow His Spirit to become the guiding force in our lives to produce the qualities of true Christianity. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly being led by God’s Spirit or resisting it.
What fruit will the Holy Spirit produce in us if we allow it to lead us?
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 (KJV)
Paul wrote this letter, as well as Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, from prison, so they are often called the Prison Epistles. Ephesians may have been intended to be passed along to other congregations in the area, since Paul did not include the types of personal greetings he often had in his letters.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about God’s marvelous plan to bring peace, unity and salvation to all peoples—Jews and gentiles alike. To achieve that goal, God has:
“Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” Ephesians 1:9-10 (KJV)
Paul uses several analogies to illustrate the Church’s beautiful goal of unity, such as a building, a body and the relationship of husband and wife. But he doesn’t pretend that it will be easy. Christians face formidable foes in living the Christian life.
What equipment does Paul recommend for Christians battling Satan, society and ourselves?
“Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” Ephesians 6:13-18 (KJV)
The most prominent theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is joy, specifically the joy of serving Jesus. The general tone of the letter reflects Paul’s gratitude toward the Philippians and his joy in God. This may seem strange because Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. Paul, however, had the ability to recognize opportunities for sharing the gospel even in apparent setbacks.
What are some of the memorable encouraging scriptures in Philippians?
“Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:4-8, 13 (KJV)
The many parallels between Colossians and Ephesians indicate that the two letters were written about the same time. Both letters reveal the centrality of Christ and His relationship to the church.
The immediate occasion for the writing of Colossians was the arrival of Epaphras (1:8) in Rome with disturbing news about the presence of heretical teaching at Colosse that was threatening the well-being of the church.
Where did Paul tell the Colossians to put their focus?
“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” Colossians 3:2 (KJV)
Paul started the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey and his first foray into Europe (Acts 17:1-9). Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and may have had a population of 200,000.
After Paul left, he sent Timothy back to see how the church was doing, and when Timothy returned, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 6-7).
In response to Timothy’s report, Paul wrote this letter
- To express satisfaction and thanks to God for the healthy spiritual condition of the church (1:2-10).
- To make a strong case against the false insinuations against himself and his associates (2:1-3:13).
- To suggest specific ways in which the already strong Christian behavior of the Thessalonians could be improved as they lived a life of holiness (4:1-5:24).
How did Paul comfort those whose loved ones had died?
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (KJV)
The hope of the resurrection at Jesus Christ’s return is the real, encouraging hope that has strengthened Christians through the ages.
Despite Paul’s letter [1 Thessalonians] the Christians at Thessalonica remained puzzled about Jesus’ return. Some thought the day of his return had already come. In this second letter, written a few months after the first, Paul warns that before Jesus comes again, there will be a time of great wickedness (chapter 2). He finishes his letter by urging the Christians to keep the faith, and keep at their work (chapter 3).
What must happen before Jesus Christ’s return?
“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 (KJV)
Timothy had accompanied Paul for years (Acts 16:1-3; 17:10; 20:4), assisting him and acting as his liaison to a number of churches. Paul had not only taught Timothy the essentials of the Christian faith, he had modeled Christian leadership to him. Now Paul was leaving Timothy in charge of the church at Ephesus. From Macedonia, Paul wrote to encourage his ‘son’ in the faith. In effect, this letter is Timothy’s commission, his orders from his concerned teacher, the apostle Paul.
Why did Paul write this letter to Timothy?
“But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15 (KJV)
Both Paul’s letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus are known as Pastoral Epistles. He wrote them to teach ministers how to serve and nurture the Church, how to deal with problems and encourage Christian growth.
Paul wrote First Timothy in order to instruct his young protégé on how the church should function and how mature men and women of God should interact in it (6:11-16). Specifics are given on developing and recognizing godly leadership and avoiding false doctrine in the church (3:1-13; 4:1-6). Paul insists that Christian maturity should be expected in leadership, while it is developed in the lives of all believers (4:6-10)”.
As Paul penned his second letter to Timothy, he was aware of his coming death (4:6-8). A number of believers had deserted him (4:16), and only Luke was with him at the writing of this letter (4:11). At the end of the letter, one can sense Paul’s concern. He implores Timothy:
“Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me.” 2 Timothy 4:9 (KJV)
What did Paul warn would happen in “the last days”?
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away!” 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (KJV)
The downward spiral of these self-centered attitudes and actions is a result of Satan’s influence on this world. Do we see that happening even now? These trends are bringing our world to the brink of destruction, but Jesus Christ has promised to prevent humanity from annihilating ourselves Matthew 24:21-22.
What solid foundation does God give us to help us make it through troubled times?
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)
We need God’s promises, instructions, correction and encouragement at all times, but especially in counteracting the end-time attitudes and the persecution Paul predicted (2 Timothy 3:12-13). By focusing on God’s Word, we can have a rock-solid foundation for Christian growth with eternal benefits.
It seems Paul was released from prison after Acts 28 and started churches in Crete. He left Titus there to
“For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” Titus 1:5 (KJV)
In this Pastoral Epistle, Paul instructs Titus about choosing and training elders, as well as teaching every segment of the Church to live godly lives.
What did Paul teach we should do between Christ’s first and second coming?
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Titus 2:11-14 (KJV)
Jesus Christ’s willingness to die to make it possible for us to be saved from the death penalty of sin should motivate us to purify our lives and zealously do good works. As we earnestly look forward to Christ’s return in glory to save this entire world, we should set the example of living God’s way of life now.
The short letter to Philemon ushers us into a society much different from our own. The Roman world was a world of rigid social structure built on slavery. In Rome itself, slaves outnumbered Roman citizens!
Philemon’s slave Onesimus apparently had stolen something and had run away to Rome. There he met Paul and was converted to Christianity. Amazingly, Paul also knew his master Philemon and was willing to intercede for Onesimus.
In this letter, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and treat him as a Christian brother. This short letter is a powerful display of love and persuasive psychology.
The book of Hebrews does not mention its author’s name, but it was traditionally considered to be the work of the apostle Paul. We consider this likely, though other theories have been advanced. Whoever the author was, he seems to have been addressing a group of Christian Jews who were feeling nostalgic and melancholy about what seemed like the good old days of their prior Jewish culture and rituals. As a result, they were in danger of giving up their Christian faith.
The verse that probably best sums up the book’s theme of perseverance is 10:36:
“For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.” Hebrews 10:36 (KJV)
The writer sets out to strengthen their faith. He shows Jesus as the one who truly and finally reveals God to man, not the law.
The writer shows that Jesus is far greater than the angels, or the great men of the Old Testament, Moses and Joshua (1:1-4:13). He shows that Jesus, as priest ‘for ever,’ is far greater than the priests of the Old Testament (4:14-7:28). He shows that Jesus provides a better agreement between God and man, and a final once-for-all sacrifice, to which the Old Testament writers pointed forward (chapters 8-10). Jesus is the perfect priest, offering the perfect sacrifice, reconciling God and man.
The writer looks at the shining example of faith given by the great men and women in Israel’s history (chapter 11). He urges his readers not to turn back, but to stay faithful to Jesus despite suffering and persecution (chapters 12-13).
How does the book of Hebrews explain faith?
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)
The rest of the chapter expands on this important concept, showing by many inspiring examples how the faithful men and women of the Bible pleased God and were strengthened by their belief, not only that He exists, but that
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6 (KJV)
Some of the passages in Hebrews about changes to the Old Covenant and the institution of a New Covenant can be challenging to understand, this is another one of the reasons there are so many different denominations.
Choose one of the Epistles of Paul to read starting today. As you study the letter, ask yourself how the situations faced by the person or people Paul was writing to relate to things you are going through today. What commands, correction and encouragement can you apply in your life? Though some of the first-century circumstances were unique, many challenges are common to the human experience.