This is part ten of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
A brief survey of the New Testament quickly reveals that, by title count, one man authored large chunk of it: 13 of 27 books – nearly half – were written by Saint Paul. By page count, with the shortness of many of these books, the total volume of the New Testament’s text actually written by Paul is significantly less than that; nevertheless his name dominates New Testament studies, especially with the fact that close to half of the book of Acts chronicles Paul’s missionary and church-planting efforts.
One of the great benefits of having so many different writings from the same author collected in our Bible is that we can see how one of the great thinkers among the Apostles responded to a variety of situations, both pastoral and theological. We can see how his language, style, and emphasis developed from his earlier writings to his later writings, giving us glimpses into the development and establishment of the Church and the Christian religion as its own identity apart from Old Covenant Judaism. We can also see, throughout his writings, the consistent pastoral heart of Saint Paul, yearning for the health and salvation of his flock, pulling for the Gospel of Christ against all adversaries, offering prayer for God’s people, wishing them well and offering them greetings from others. There is about as much to be learned from the style and incidental features of his letters than there is from the actual body of the text itself!
Two of his epistles, Romans and Galatians, have already been discussed in this study. The remaining eight we shall now briefly outline.
The two epistles to the Thessalonians are brief letters to a newly-established church, and represent some of Paul’s earliest writings. In this letters he urges the people to continue to pursue the living of holy lives, boldly offering himself as a positive example and pointing to the operation of God within and among them. These epistles also contain some well-known teachings about the return of Christ at the end of the age, for one of the fears that arose in this new congregation was if those who had died would be left out of the glory of his return and establishment of the eternal Kingdom. While Paul taught that the return of Christ should impact their choices for how to life, he also urged them not be hasty as if Christ’s return was just around the corner. It could be soon, so be prepared, but it could also be a long way off, so don’t sit on your hands in waiting.
The two epistles to the Corinthians are a real gem of Christian teaching. This is primarily because the Corinthians were such a problem church. They were beset by immorality and false teachers, pursuit of wealth and earthly wisdom, and were beginning to devolve into factions laying erroneous claim to the patronage of various favorite teachers. In short, the sorts of problems they had are very similar to the sorts of problems we find in the American churches today. Paul writes to them about apostolic authority, the superiority of godly wisdom to earthly wisdom, the nature of Holy Communion and Holy Matrimony, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection. He rebukes their love for money and encourages them to be generous with one another and with the Church in need in other places.
The epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians are among what are known as the Prison Epistles, because they were written while Paul was imprisoned, taking place during the latter chapters of the Book of Acts. These are often considered some of Paul’s most mature writings, richly weaving together both teaching and prayer in the first chapter of each. His love for Christ and the flock, and his celebration of them both, are made very clear in these brief writings. To the Ephesians he particularly writes about the nature of the Church as God’s chosen people. Various human relationships, especially that of holy matrimony, are therefore to be pictures of the Gospel, displaying the love Christ has for us. To the Philippians he especially dwells on the opposition we encounter in the course of our lives in Christ. Humility in the face of persecution and other suffering, caution in the face of false teachers, whatever happens, all issues are subplots in the course of living a life of rejoicing in the goodness of God and the love of Christ. And to the Colossians Paul emphasizes the centrality of Christ in the Christian life. Warding away so-called supplements from other religions and superstitions, he upholds the eternal deity of Christ and our relationship under him as our Creator and Lord and King. He writes about our membership in Christ through Baptism as the new circumcision, and the pursuit of godly living and relationships in light of that fact of belonging to Christ.
The epistle to Philemon is very short. Paul writes to one man whose slave has run away, found Paul, and been converted to Christianity. He encourages Philemon to receive back Onesimus the slave as a brother rather than merely as a runaway slave. It is a brilliant snapshot of the sort of Christ-centered relationships that were outlined in two of the previous epistles.
The two epistles to Timothy and one to Titus are together known as the Pastoral Epistles, for those two men were both former traveling companions of his who had been left in charge of Ephesus and Crete, respectively, as their Bishops or overseers. From these three letters we find unmatched insight into the nature of the pastoral office, the responsibilities of the clergy, the requirements for ordination, and the sense of accountability and order that Apostolic Christianity established from the very beginning. As a result, these epistles may be of less immediate value in informing the average reader’s Christian life, other than giving them insight into the sorts of people their pastors and leaders ought to be. But also as a result, these epistles are a hotbed of debate and controversy among interpreters who champion conflicting views of their teaching. Despite those challenges, these three epistles are among the best places in the Bible to go to learn about godly leadership and keeping the Church’s clergymen in the right perspective.
Thanks to his various letters to particular churches or persons, Saint Paul has left us with an excellent array of subjects to learn about and doctrines to ponder. By engaging with letters dealing with specific issues we are able to learn a great deal about the Christian life “on the ground” rather than just in general theory. We are able to see Christian theology in action, rather than just in academic recitation. It is no wonder, then, that, for many Christians, Saint Paul is the best-known and most-loved of the first generations of Christians.