Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Pauline Epistles: Part Two - Paul's Letters to Individuals

As we mentioned last week, Paul wrote thirteen letters which are included in the New Testament. Some add the letter to the Hebrews but today most 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 four letters Paul wrote to the individuals.

We can further divide the four letters Paul wrote to individuals into two groups. The first group is commonly known as the Pastoral Letters

This group includes 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. In today’s world most churches have “pastors.” They may be called “ministers” or “priests” or “reverend” or “Father” but the point is, these individuals are in charge of providing the congregation with pastoral ministry. We don’t know exactly when or how these official leadership positions developed in the early Christian church, but these three letters are commonly called the “Pastoral Letters” because they are addressed to individuals charged with oversight of congregations.

I mentioned last week that there is considerable debate as to whether these particular letters are authentic to Paul. Many argue they are pseudepigraphical – that is, not written by Paul, but by a “school of Paul” that was attempting to address issues that were coming up as the church continued to evolve in the midst of threats to its doctrine and Jesus delayed his return. There are internal reasons why these letters in particular are attacked as not being written by Paul. These include the fact that the language and style are not typical of Paul’s letters. Also, certain theological ideas are different from what Paul expresses elsewhere, and the description of church government seems too developed for Paul’s lifetime, and the typical timeline of Paul given elsewhere in the Bible (Acts mainly) does not seem to concur with the circumstances surrounding these letters.

The major themes in the pastoral letters are what you might expect since they were addressed to pastors:

1.       Church Government: The appointment of church officers and leaders is a primary concern in the Pastoral letters. Terms such as “bishops, “elders,” “deacons,” and “pastors” are mentioned.
2.       False Teaching and Sound Doctrine: All three pastorals exhibit concern to correct false teaching in the church. All three also place an emphasis on sound doctrine and knowledge of truth.
3.       Women and Ministry: The pastorals promote attitudes towards women and the role of women in church and society that have been the focus of much discussion. In general, women are to manage their households and be submissive to their husbands. Some say women cannot hold the office of deacon, nor should they be permitted to teach or to have authority over men. Not surprisingly, this them has been considered problematic by many Christians. Some Christians regard what the pastorals say about women as indicative of divinely mandated gender roles; others interpret those comments as socially conditioned remarks for a particular time and place rather than as a timeless truth that applies in every setting.
4.       Suffering and Shame: A great deal of attention is given to calls for fortitude in the face of suffering and shame. Timothy, for instance, is invited to join Paul in “suffering for the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8). The point seems to be that Jesus did not escape suffering, nor had Paul, so why should these pastors? Instead, they are urged to proclaim the message of good news from within the context of persecution, humiliation and possible martyrdom.

As you might expect, the Pastorals have fallen on hard times in the modern church and in modern society. In 1 Timothy there is a reference to superstitious legends as “old wives’ tales (4:7). The letter to Titus indicates that Jews are especially given to being “rebellious people, idle talkers, and deceivers” (1:10). The letter to Titus also agrees with a pagan perception that natives are Crete are, “always liars, vicious brutes and lazy gluttons” (1:12-13).  Even the household directions in these letters base their assumptions on specific (and not very complimentary) assumptions regarding age and gender. They move away from the ideal of “mutual submission” found in other letters attributed to Paul (see Eph. 5:21) toward a more authoritative, one-sided form of power and decision-making. Such language and demarcation of roles are no longer “politically correct” and considered rude and inappropriate in our modern culture.

1 Timothy
First Timothy is a letter that forms a kind of handbook of church administration and discipline. It was written by Paul to give encouragement and instruction to Timothy, a young leader in the church. Paul advised Timothy on such practical topics as qualifications for church leaders, public worship, confronting false teaching, and how to treat various groups of people within the church. The letter was probably written around AD 64, possibly from Rome or Macedonia, probably just prior to Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome. Acts 25-28 describes how Paul was sent to Rome as a prisoner. Most scholars believe Paul was released around AD 62 and that during the next few years he was able to travel. During this time, Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Soon, however, Emperor Nero began his campaign to eliminate Christianity. It is believed that during this time Paul was imprisoned and eventually executed. Key verse: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers and example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12).

A.      Instructions on Right Belief (1:1-20)
B.      Instructions for the Church (2:1 – 3:16)
C.      Instructions for Leaders (4:1 – 6:21)

2 Timothy
This letter was meant to give final instructions to Timothy, the pastor of the church at Ephesus. The letter was probably written about AD 66 or 67 from prison in Rome. After a year or two of freedom, Paul was arrested again and now sat virtually alone in prison. In contrast from his first imprisonment in Rome, when Paul lived in a rented house (Acts 28:30), this time he was in a cold dark dungeon (4:13), chained like a common criminal (1:26; 2:9). Consistent tradition holds that Paul was held a prisoner in the Mamertine dungeon in Rome during this imprisonment. Paul knew his work was done and his life was nearly over. Only Luke is with him. He writes this letter to pass the torch on to a new generation of church leaders. He also asks for visits from his friends and he asks for his books and parchments to be brought to him. Because this is his last letter, 2 Timothy reveals Paul’s heart and his priorities – sound doctrine, steadfast faith, confident endurance, and enduring love. Key verse: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2:15)

A.      Foundations of Christian Service (1:1 – 2:26)
B.      Difficult Times for Christian Service (3:1 – 4:22)

Titus was written to advise Titus in his responsibility of supervising the churches on the island of Crete. Titus was a Greek believer, probably converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. The letter was probably written about AD 64, around the same time as 1 Timothy, probably from Macedonia when Paul traveled between his Roman imprisonments. The letter is very similar to 1 Timothy in its descriptions of Elders and Deacons, etc..,. Key verse: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (1:5).

A.      Leadership in the Church (1:1 – 16)
B.      Right Living in the Church (2:1 – 15)
C.      Right Living in Society (3:1 – 15)

Unlike the previous letters, which were written to leaders of churches, the letter to Philemon is a private, personal letter written to a friend. Philemon was most likely a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. Paul writes to convince Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, and to accept him as a brother in the faith. Onesimus had apparently stolen from his master and run away. He ran to Rome where he encountered Paul, and there responded to the good news and came to faith in Christ. Paul asks Philemon to take Onesimus back and to forgive his servant. The letter was probably written around AD 60 during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, at about the same time as Colossians and Ephesians were written.

Slavery was very common in the Roman Empire, and evidently some Christians owned slaves. Paul never condemns the institution in his writings, but he makes a radical statement here by calling this slave Philemon’s brother in Christ. Why would Paul make Onesimus go back? Roman law required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Thus, if Onesimus actually was “on the run” from Philemon, Paul would have been obligated by law to return him. Of interest also is that in Roman law there was a provision for slaves who were on the outs with their masters to seek arbitration with a colleague or friend of that master. This may have been the situation going on here.

Key verses are “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved bother… “(1:15-16).

A possible postscript to this story surfaces some fifty years later via the writings of the church leader Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius reveals that the bishop of the church of Ephesus at that time (ca. 110) was a man named “Onesimus” (Ignatius, o the Ephesians 1:3). Could this be the same person? Did Onesimus the one-time runaway slave end up becoming eh bishop of one of the world’s most prominent churches? If Onesimus was a teenager at the time of Paul, he could have still been alive (in his seventies) by the time Ignatius wrote. As some scholars point out, the name Onesimus was frequently (though not always) a slave’s name, and it would not be very likely for another slave named Onesimus to rise to such prominence in this same geographical reason in so short a period of time. Also, it makes sense that the slave who became bishop came from a prominent household (Philemon) and was one who had served as a trusted assistant to the Apostle Paul. We’ll never know for sure, but what a great conclusion it would make to this story.

A.      Pauls’ Appreciation of Philemon (1:1 – 7)
B.      Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (1:8 – 25)

The Life Application Bible: New Revised Standard Version
The NIV Study Bible
Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell, Baker Academic, 2009
Exploring the New Testament by Walter M. Dunnett Crossway Books, 2001

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