Paul wrote thirteen letters which are included in the New Testament. Some add the letter to the Hebrews but today scholars almost unanimously agree that Paul didn't write Hebrews. Nine of Paul's letters were written to churches, four were written to individuals. Today we're going to look at the nine he wrote to the churches.
Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents we have. Most of them were written even before the Gospels were written. Paul's letters (also called Epistles) are also the largest collection of writings by any one person in the New Testament.
When these letters were put into the New Testament as we know it, they were not inserted in chronological order – that is, by when they happened. Instead they were organized by length and by whether they were addressed to churches or to individuals.
So first we find Romans because it is the longest letter written to a church. Next you find I Corinthians because it is the next to longest letter written to a church, and so on. After all the church letters, the personal letters are given, again by length. Thus I Timothy is first in that category because it is longest letter Paul wrote to an individual.
Let’s begin by looking at the background of Paul.
The Background of Paul
Not a whole lot is known about Paul’s early life. We do know that his name was originally Saul. He was born of Jewish parents around A.D. 5 in Tarsus, a city in modern day Turkey. He spent considerable time in Jerusalem where he studied under Gamaliel of the prestigious Hillel school. He is called a young man at the death of Stephen (Acts 7:58). According to Acts 22:28 he was born with Roman citizenship and was obviously fluent in speaking and writing in the Greek language. Before he became a Christian missionary, he was a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christians. His trade was tent-making.
After his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus in A.D. 35-37, Paul participated in missionary expeditions. On the first journey (A.D. 45-47), Barnabas was his partner. On the second journey (A.D. 50-54), Silas (or Silvanus) was his partner. For part of the third journey (A.D. 50-54), Luke was his partner. Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem in A.D. 58, in Cæsarea from A.D. 58-60, and in Rome from A.D. 61-63 and from A.D. 65-67. According to consistent tradition, he was martyred under Nero (AD 54-68).
Paul the Missionary and Church Planter
Much of what we know of the church-planting endeavors Paul we know from reading about them in the Book of Acts. As Luke describes it, Paul would typically use the most important city of a territory as his base of operations. Then he would go city to city in that region and find out where the local synagogue was – or where the Jews gathered to pray. Then he would join them and begin proselytizing the Jews, telling them about Jesus. He was usually rejected by them. Then Paul would turn to the local Gentile population with his message about Jesus Christ. After staying in that location for a while Paul would assign leaders for the newly formed churches there and then move on to another city or region and start all over again.
The Occasion of Paul’s Letters
After Paul had been gone for a while he typically would write letters back to the churches he had planted offering encouragement in the face of persecution, clarifying points of doctrine, and settling church disputes by correcting, rebuking and teaching through his letters.
The Style and Format of Paul’s Letters
Letter-writing was already quite an art before Paul arrived on the scene. Thousands of letters from the Hellenistic period have been discovered covering a wide variety of topics. They all followed the same basic structure, a greeting, followed by the body of the letter, and a short farewell which normally included a wish for health or good fortune.
Paul follows this basic structure, with each of the elements expanded a bit.
1. In the greeting, Paul changes the secular word “greeting” (chairein) to “grace” (charis) and he adds the Jewish word for peace, eirene.
2. Paul follows the greeting with a prayer – usually a prayer of thanksgiving “I give thanks…” eucharisto.
3. In the body of the letter Paul addresses the specific difficulties of the community or begins to develop his argument. He says things like, “I want you to know…”
4. The body of Paul’s letters then eases into the final greetings and farewell. The greetings are often extensive, wishing God’s blessings on the readers and offering farewells.
Since writing on parchment or papyrus was awkward and physically tedious, particularly in letters as long as some of Paul’s were, the job of actually writing down the letters was often given to a trained secretary known as an amanuensis. There is come disagreement about the latitude these skilled and trusted secretaries were given. Perhaps they were like presidential speech writers today who, given the main point to be made, could work up appropriate words in keeping with Paul’s thought and style. Or perhaps they were made to write down Paul’s words verbatim. We just don’t know. The scribe typically would have been a Christian colleague who would have known Paul’s position on most items. Several of these secretaries are mentioned in the Bible including Tertius (who penned Paul’s Letter to the Romans – see Romans 16.22), and Silas (who also wrote down some of Peter’s letters – see 1 Peter 5:12) and Timothy (see 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2 Corinthians 1:19, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:1 & Philemon 1:1). Paul often pens a greeting in his own hand, which indicates he dictated the rest (see 1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 3:17; and possibly Gal. 6:11).
Paul’s letters are not always easy to follow. Trained as a Pharisee, Paul thrived on intense religious debate and obscure arguments about the Jewish law. It’s not surprising then that, on occasion, his religious arguments are difficult for us to follow today. Even Peter (who was thoroughly conversant with the Jewish religion) comments that Paul’s letters contain some things that are ‘difficult to understand’ (see 2 Peter 3:15-16).
Authentic and Inauthentic Letters
The authenticity of some of Paul’s letters has been debated for centuries. At some point most of the thirteen have had to prove they were written by Paul. As a result of all the debate, today nearly all reputable scholars accept seven letters as being written by Paul: Romans, 1 Thess., 1 and 2 Cor., Philemon, Galatians and Philippians. There is almost equal unanimity in rejecting the two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus. Serious debate is still out there concerning 2 Thess., Colossians and Ephesians, but the growing consensus does not recognize them as authentic.
So who wrote them if Paul didn’t? Most believe it was followers of Paul who might be called the Pauline school. These devoted followers of Paul continued to enforce and expand his views by writing in his name. In other words, these were written in the spirit of Paul’s thought, but not necessarily by Paul himself. What does it matter? Well, when people start arguing doctrine and they use a position of Paul outlined in, say 2 Thessalonians, they are standing on shakier ground than if they are arguing from 1 Corinthians. I personally believe Paul wrote them all and don’t have any issue fitting them into his life or schedule.
What’s the criterion for telling if a letter is authentic or not? One criterion has to do with the style of the letter, the vocabulary, the consistency and content of the theology, the density of the arguments found and any historical inaccuracies that may be found in a particular letter. There are other criteria used as well. For instance, at the end of Ephesians, Paul doesn’t mention a single person in the church by name even though he spent three years there, unlike most of Paul’s letters where he gives a whole laundry list of “shout outs” to individuals by name.
I wouldn’t get too hung up on the authenticity question – they all made it into the Canon, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s look briefly at the nine letters now in the order in which they appear in the New Testament.
Rome was the capital of the ancient world and was situated along the Tiber River in Italy, about fifteen miles from where it enters the Mediterranean Sea. Pompey brought many Jewish captives and immigrants to Rome. A special district was assigned to them. Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius showed them favor. It was in the time of Nero that Paul was martyred.
Paul's time spent in Rome was as a prisoner and can be found in Acts chapters 27 and 28. The preceding chapters of Acts tell you why he is a prisoner. It is during this Rome imprisonment that it is believed Paul wrote many of his letters to churches, since he was not free to go visit them in person. When Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church, he had never been to Rome yet. He wrote it to prepare the way. It is the fullest statement of Paul's faith and clearly shows the connection between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith.
Romans is not meant to be a quick, easy read. It is meant to be read slowly and carefully and completely. Paul writes Romans as an organized and carefully presented statement of his faith – it does not have the form of a typical letter.
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. The key verse (among many) would be Romans 5:1 where he writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Date of Writing: About AD 57, most likely from Corinth.
A. What to Believe (1:1 – 11:36)
a. Sinfulness of Mankind
b. Forgiveness of Sin through Christ
c. Freedom from Sin’s Grasp
d. Israel’s Past, Present and Future
B. How to Behave (12:1 – 16:27)
a. Personal Responsibility
b. Personal Notes
Corinth was a major cosmopolitan city of at least 500,000 people in ancient Greece. It was a seaport and a major trade center – the most important city in Achaia located on the Isthmus of Corinth and about forty miles west of Athens. Because of its geographical position, the city formed the most direct communication between the Ionian and the Ægean Seas.
Paul's visit to Corinth can be found in Acts 18. Sometime later, after Paul left Corinth, he wrote First and Second Corinthians and probably at least two other lost letters in response to questions and problems that the church in Corinth was experiencing.
Although Jewish people did live there and attended Jewish synagogues, the majority of the Corinthian population was pagan, worshipping idols. Paul addresses the largely Gentile church he founded there on his second missionary journey about how to live for Christ in a corrupt society. He covers the issue of idol worship and pagan lifestyles, commanding the Christians to live differently from the pagans.
The letter was most likely written about AD 55 near the end of Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus in his third missionary journey.
First Corinthians is a very practical letter focusing on the character of the Corinthian church. 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.
A. Paul Addresses Church Problems (1:1 – 6:20)
a. Divisions in the Church
b. Disorders in the Church
B. Paul Answers Church Questions (7:1 – 16:24)
a. Instruction on Christian Marriage
b. Instruction on Christian Freedom
c. Instruction on Public Worship
d. Instruction on the Resurrection
See 1 Corinthians for background on Corinth and the church there.
Paul had already written three letters to the Corinthians (two are now lost). In 1 Corinthians (the second of these letters), he used strong words to correct and teach. Most of the church had responded in the right spirit; there were, however, those who were denying Paul’s authority and questioning his motives. 2 Corinthians is a very personal letter where Paul bares his soul and tells of his love for the Corinthian church.
A. Paul explains his actions (1:1 – 2:13)
B. Paul defends his ministry (2:14 – 7:16)
C. Paul defends the collection (8:1 – 9:15)
D. Paul defends his authority (10:1 – 13:13)
Unlike the previous letters, which were written to a specific church, Galatians is written to several churches in the region of Galatia, a Roman province in what is modern day Turkey. The letter to the Galatians would have been read and sent from church to church in the region of Galatia. Paul's visit to Galatia is briefly mentioned in Acts 18:23.
Galatians is a very early letter, written about AD 49 or 50 around the time of the Jerusalem Council. It was likely written from Antioch in modern day Syria.
Most of the early converts to Christianity were Jewish Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah. As Jewish Christians, they struggled with the dual identity of their Jewishness and the requirements of Torah versus their new-found freedom in Christ. Judaizers, an extremist faction in the church, argued that even Gentile converts had to submit to Jewish customs in addition to believing in Christ. Paul writes to correct this problem. Later, at the council in Jerusalem, the conflict was officially resolved by the church leaders. The Good News Paul shares in this letter is that salvation is by God’s grace alone, not works.
A. Authenticity of the Gospel (1:1 – 2:21)
B. Superiority of the Gospel (3:1 – 5:1)
C. Freedom of the Gospel (5:2 – 6:18)
Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. The city is located on the Mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey. Paul's visit to Ephesus is described in Acts 19.
Because of the worship of the pagan goddess Diana there, manufacturing of portable shrines became a prosperous trade. Paul established the church in Ephesus in AD 53 on his homeward journey to Jerusalem during his second missionary trip. He returned a year later, on his third missionary trip, and stayed there for three years., teaching and preaching with great effectiveness (Acts 19:1-20).
The letter to the Ephesians was probably written about AD 60 from Rome during Paul’s imprisonment (Ephesians 3:1 Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:18-20). The letter wasn’t written to confront any particular heresy or problem in the church. It was sent to strengthen and encourage the churches in the area. Since Paul had spent three years there, he was close with them. Paul met with the Ephesians elders for the last time at Miletus (Acts: 17-38), a meeting that was filled with sadness because Paul was leaving them for the last time. Because there are no specific references to people or problems in the church, and because the words “at Ephesus” (v. 1) are not present in the earliest transcripts, the letter might not have originally been written just to the church there. Paul may have intended this to be a circular letter to be read to all the churches in the area.
A. Unity in Christ (1:1 – 3:21)
B. Unity in the Church (4:1 – 6:24)
Philippi is a city in Macedonia named after Philip of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father), who built it. The ancient city was located about nine miles from the sea on the Egnatian Way, the main road between Rome and Asia and the Eastern Empire. This made it the “gateway to Europe” in its day and the foremost city in the region during Paul’s time. The account of Paul’s planting the church at Philippi is given in Acts 16:6-40.
The letter was written about AD 61 from Rome where Paul was imprisoned. Paul sends to the Philippians the salutation of some belonging to the household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22) shows very plainly that the epistle was written 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.
A. Joy in Suffering (1:1 – 30)
B. Joy in Serving (2:1 – 30)
C. Joy in Believing (3:1 – 4:1)
D. Joy in Giving (4:2 – 23)
Colossae was a town in modern day Turkey. There is no direct reference to Colossae mentioned in the book of Acts while Paul was on his missionary journeys. Nevertheless, we know Colossae was near Laodicea, the leading city in the region. Twice Paul mentions going through this region (Phrygia). The first reference is during Paul's second missionary journey in Acts 16:6. The other reference is during Paul's third missionary journey in Acts 18:23 and again in 19:1. At any or all of these times Paul may have visited Laodicea and/or Colossae. It is also possible that Paul never stopped in Colossae, but this church of believers founded by Epaphras (Col. 1:7) was of great interest to Paul and he simply wanted to strengthen it.
Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae to clear up their confusion about what Christianity really means. He told them to share their letter with the church in Laodicea and to also read the Laodicea's (lost) letter. He teaches them that faith in Christ is the way to God, not philosophy or legalism. Apparently the church had been infiltrated by religious relativism, with some believers attempting to combine elements of paganism and secular philosophy with Christian doctrine. Paul confronts these false teachings and affirms the sufficiency of Christ.
Colossians was written about AD 60 during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. That Paul was in prison when he wrote is seen from his remarks in Colossians 4:2-4, and 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.
Paul teaches that because Christ is the exact likeness of God, when we learn what he is like, we see what we need to become.
A. What Christ has done (1:1 – 2:23)
B. What Christians should do (3:1 – 4:18)
Thessalonica is located on the Macedonian shore in modern day Greece. In the first century, it was the most populous city of Macedonia. Paul established the church in Thessalonica during his second missionary journey around AD 51. Paul's visit to Thessalonica and how he was run out of town by the Jews is recorded in Acts 17:1-15.
The persecution Paul faced probably prompted Paul to write a letter to the Christians he left behind in Thessalonica, because he knew they too would be persecuted for their faith. In addition, there was a misunderstanding concerning Christ’s second coming – some thought Christ would return immediately and so were confused when their loved ones died because they expected Jesus to return beforehand.
Since this letter was written a short time after his visit, it is among the earliest writings of the entire New Testament, probably about AD 51 or 52 most likely from Corinth.
A. Faithfulness to the Lord (1:1 – 3:13)
B. Watchfulness for the Lord (4:1 – 5:28)
Thessalonica: See 1 Thessalonians.
2 Thessalonians, you will recall, is one of the letters scholars have doubts about Paul actually writing. If he did, he wrote it shortly after 1 Thessalonians, probably in AD 51-52. Due to the increasing persecution of the church, some felt the Day of the Lord must be upon them – many were confused by the timing of Christ’s return. In light of this misunderstanding, the church is in a state of panic, thinking the end time is upon them. Some have dropped their work altogether, devoting themselves to waiting for Jesus to come. Paul directly confronts this misunderstanding by responding in three steps. First he reaffirms a basic understanding he shares with the church: this intense affliction will lead to their salvation and to the punishment of their oppressors (1:6-10). Second, he corrects the narrowness of the Thessalonians vision – their local affliction is not necessarily the climax to world history. Finally, he directs their attention from apocalyptic scenarios to their own lives. “Brethren, do not weary in well-doing” (3:13).
A. The Bright Hope of Christ’s Return (1:1 – 2:17)
B. Living in the Light of Christ’s Return (3:1 – 18)
1. The Life Application Study Bible
2. Bruce Wilkinson, Your Daily Walk