The following thirteen epistles are all written by the apostle Paul, and possibly the fourteenth, which is Hebrews. The first of these is the Epistle to the Romans. Although Paul did not establish the church at Rome, he wrote to the Romans, a group of Gentiles who accepted Christ as their Saviour. While the four gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark written to the Romans, all focus on the words and work of Christ, the Epistle to the Romans explores the significance of His death for the world. In the book of Acts, we read about the gospel being preached by the apostles.
In Romans, the apostle Paul emphasises on the foundations of the Christian faith, and one is justified before God only and exclusively by faith, and the apostle wrote about Abraham as an example in Romans 4. The apostle here uses a question- and-answer format in presenting this epistle. The Epistle to the Romans was written in about AD 57, near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:23-21:14). However, the earliest epistle in the New Testament is James, written between about AD 46 and about AD 49. But, James cannot be first, as it seems chronologically, because it emphasises on works, which confuses people,
but we shall get to James shortly. The other thing is that James is written to the twelve tribes scattered abroad (James 1:1), which is the nation of Israel. One would think that all of the epistles would be written to Israel if James would be the first epistle.
Now the Epistle to the Romans first states that every person and nation is guilty before God (Romans 1-3:20). First, in Romans 1 the Gentile nations who heard about God have continued in their sins, and therefore are judged. Then in chapter 2 and 3:1-20 the Jews, who have been privileged, have also continued in their sins against God, and therefore are judged. But, from Romans 3:21 til Romans 5 we read how one can be made righteous before God (Romans 5:9-11, 19). We have before us in Romans 5 our peace with God (Romans 5:1-2) after accepting the Lord Jesus as our Saviour. Then we find out what righteousness is later in the chapter. Then in chapter 6 the believer is to die to sin. But in chapter 7, if the believer does not die to sin, he or she will find great difficulty in doing good things, but find it easy doing the hateful things, resulting in defeat for the believer. Then in chapter 8 there is the believer who is led by the Holy Spirit dwelling in him or her, resulting in victory over the flesh. From chapter 9 to 11 we read about God’s dealings with Israel in the past, present, and future reconciliation. Finally from chapter 12 to 16 we have exhortations as to practical righteousness.
We really need the foundation and principles of the Christian faith before anything else, and the Epistle to the Romans brings forth the things we first need in order to go on.
We now come to the two Epistles to the Corinthians. The First Epistle to the Corinthians sets out the fundamental doctrines and principles of gathering in the local assembly or church (believers gathering to the name of Christ). While Romans brings forth the principles of the Christian faith, we now need to know the principles and doctrines concerning the local assembly as a collective group gathering to the name of the Lord Jesus.
The apostle Paul wrote 1 and 2 Corinthians in about AD 56, approximately one year before Romans was written. About five years after his visit to Corinth, the apostle had to write to the Corinthians because he heard that the assembly had a lot of problems that the apostle dealt with in the first epistle. This epistle was written in Ephesus, as the apostle was there and planning to leave (1 Corinthians 16:5-8).
There are two major divisions in 1 Corinthians. From chapter 1 to 6 we have corrections in the assembly, and as the Corinthians needed this, we too need it (see 1 Corinthians 1:2). Then from chapter 7 to 16 the apostle answers questions that the Corinthians wrote to him.
Then we have the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. After correcting the Corinthians concerning assembly matters and answering to their questions, the apostle then sets out the order and ministry that is to be conducted in the local assembly, as well as all the other assemblies throughout the world.
As mentioned above, 2 Corinthians was written in about AD 56, in Macedonia and then he sent it with Titus and another brother (2 Corinthians 8:16-24).
In this second epistle, we have before us the order and ministry in the local assembly, and perhaps the key chapters are 8 and 9, which give instructions and principles concerning collections and giving.
The following epistle is the Epistle to the Galatians. After setting out assembly principles in the epistles to the Corinthians, this epistle to the Galatians is an epistle of reproof. The Christian Jews were trying to mix law and grace together, and forcing the Gentile converts to be Jews first, then Christians. However, the apostle Paul came face to face with the apostle Peter and corrected him (Galatians 2:11ff). Therefore, Galatians tells us that Christ has freed the believer from bondage to the law and to sin, and has placed him or her in a position of liberty.
The Epistle to the Galatians was written between about AD 49 and AD 56. The epistle was probably written in Syrian Antioch in about AD 49, just before Paul went to the Council in Jerusalem.
How much we need this epistle to the Galatians, emphasising that believers are free from the law. There are very well-known verses, for example Galatians 2:20-21 reads, “I am crucified with Christ, and no longer live, I, but Christ lives in me; but in that I now live in flesh, I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness is by law, then Christ has died for nothing.” Then in chapter 5, we have the truth concerning freedom, but it must not be used as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serves one another (Galatians 5:13). We are then to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and the result producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
We now come to the Epistle to the Ephesians. After realising that the believer is free from the law and the bondage of sin (Galatians), he or she can enjoy the heavenly blessings in Christ, which is brought out in Ephesians. This also sets out the believer’s heavenly position (Ephesians 2:6).
The Epistle to the Ephesians was written between about AD 60 and AD 61 in Rome, during his first Roman imprisonment. Ephesians 3:1; 4:1 and 6:20 all refer to his imprisonment, and fit well with the background in Acts 28:16-31. As mentioned above, the believer’s heavenly position in Christ and the privileges are given in chapter 2. But, as the believer is still on earth, there is a responsibility to put on the armour of God to fight against wiles of the devil, which is given to us in chapter 6. As we have seen the believer’s position in heaven, we also see the relationship of Christ with the Church (believers in Christ) in chapter 5.
Following Ephesians is the Epistle to the Philippians. We have seen in Ephesians the believer’s position in heaven, and also Christ’s relationship with the believer. Then Philippians focuses on our responsibilities, as we are still on earth. This epistle also focuses on the believer’s joy in the Lord, after realising our heavenly position in Christ from the previous epistle.
The Epistle to the Philippians was written in about AD 62, also in Rome during the apostle’s first imprisonment (Philippians 1:7, 13-14).
Although in prison, the apostle Paul was able to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 4:4) no matter what the circumstances were around him. We too should be encouraged by the apostle to forget about the miseries of the world and look up to the Lord and rejoice, because our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 2:16; 3:14, 20).
Although joy is the theme in Philippians, there is also the believer’s responsibility to have a worthy walk on earth (Philippians 1:27). In order to fulfil our responsibilities on earth, like the apostle, we are to make Christ our Motive in life (chapter 1), our Example (chapter 2), our Object (chapter 3) and our Strength (chapter 4).
We now come to the Epistle to the Colossians. After realising our position in heaven (Ephesians), then our joy in Christ as well as our responsibilities (Philippians), we have in Colossians Christ our Head, as well as His pre-eminence in all things, which is brought forth in chapter 1, the key chapter. The Epistle to the Colossians was written about the same time as Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon, all written by the apostle Paul in the Roman prison (Colossians 4:3, 10, 18), between about AD 60 and AD 62. Now Colossians focuses on Christ’s pre- eminence, and His Headship over all creation, and His true attributes. Colossians 2:9-10 reads, “For in him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily; and ye are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and authority.” Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the supremacy of Christ, and then chapters 3 and 4 the believer’s submission to Christ. As Christ is the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), He is the author of reconciliation (Colossians 1:19-22). Thus we find in Colossians nourishing, heavenly food that will preserve us from the evils in this world.
We now come to 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the last epistles written to assemblies or churches collectively. These two epistles have one thing in common – the apostle Paul focuses on the coming of the Lord. Having learned of our heavenly position in Christ (Ephesians), our joy in the Lord as well as our responsibilities (Philippians), and having learned that Christ is pre-eminent in all things (Colossians), we now look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus.
The epistles to the Thessalonians were the earliest epistles written by the apostle Paul, in about AD 51. Both epistles may have been written in the same year that Paul was in Thessalonica (Acts 17), during his second missionary journey, though it was written in Corinth, as the apostle was in Corinth (Acts 18) during his second journey.
It is a great comparison between the epistles to the Corinthians and the epistles to the Thessalonians. The Corinthian people were perhaps the most gifted people (1 Corinthians 1:5-7), though they were still unfaithful and needed spiritual maturity (1 Corinthians 3). However, the Thessalonians were very young in their faith, although they were not so gifted like those in Corinth. Nevertheless, they were faithful, and the apostle commended them for that (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Now we come to the great theme in these two epistles – the coming of the Lord. In 1 Thessalonians, this is a comfort to the believer (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11) and in chapter 4:13-18 it is known as the rapture, when the Lord will come for His saints, and we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then in chapter 5 we have the second stage of the coming of the Lord, which is His appearing to earth with His saints, and this is also a comfort to the believer.
We now come to 2 Thessalonians, which also focuses on the coming of the Lord, but in another perspective. In the first epistle, we have the coming of the Lord as to the believer’s perspective. Now in the second epistle, we have the coming of the Lord as to God’s perspective, and this will be destruction for, and a solemn warning to, the unbeliever, who rejects the gospel of Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2:1- 12). We have in chapter 2 a great and most striking prophetic Scripture about the Day of the Lord, but this will not happen until the Church is taken up to heaven.
Having addressed the assemblies or churches collectively, the apostle Paul then addresses individual believers – Timothy, Titus and Philemon. These individual epistles all have in common that they focus on living godly lives, and being examples both in the assembly and outside the assembly. While we are of course waiting for the coming of the Lord (1 and 2 Thessalonians), we need to live godly lives and be examples to men in and out of the assembly.
After the great theme of the coming of the Lord in the epistles to the Thessalonians, we come to the First Epistle to Timothy. In this epistle, the apostle focuses on the Church as the House of God, and the conduct of the Church is in order. This is a major responsibility while we are waiting for the coming of the Lord. This epistle also presents the characteristics of those
worthy to be leaders or elders, not exercising lordship, but being good examples to everyone (1 Timothy 3).
The First Epistle to Timothy was written in AD 62 or 63, from Macedonia, while Timothy was serving the apostle as his representative in Ephesus.
Therefore, we have in First Timothy the assembly or Church in order, and the qualifications of elders. The assembly too was to be a place of prayer, and chapter 2 sets out the instructions for men and women in the assembly. The key chapter is First Timothy 3, the pillar and base of the truth. We read in 1 Timothy 3:16, “And confessedly the mystery of piety is great. God has been manifested in flesh, has been justified in the Spirit, has appeared to angels, has been preached among the nations, has been believed on in the world, has been received up in glory.” This is the great truth of the Lord Jesus, from being manifested in the flesh, ending in His ascension in glory.
Then we come to the Second Epistle to Timothy. While the first epistle presents the Church as the House of God (1 Timothy 3:15), in the second epistle, it is viewed as a great house (2 Timothy 2:20). What happened here? Obviously, there has been disorder in the church. The apostle warned Timothy in the first epistle of false teachers (1 Timothy 4), and now they had already come and damaged the House of God. In 1 Timothy, God gave only the faithful men leadership in the assembly. Now in 2 Timothy God there are faithful and unfaithful men in charge of the assembly. There have been signs of apostasy (2 Timothy 3), and those who once were close to the apostle have forsaken him (2 Timothy 4:10). The Second Epistle to Timothy was written in about AD 67, in the Roman prison, where the apostle was held prisoner for the second time. It is under different circumstances that this second epistle was written. How sad a state we have in this second epistle. Nevertheless, the apostle encourages Timothy, and each one of us, that there can still be an enduring and successful ministry (2 Timothy 2). In order for true and faithful servants of the Lord to be successful, and each of us, we are to separate ourselves from the vessels for dishonour, from the unfaithful and professing teachers (2 Timothy 2:20-23). Then we are to be gentle, able to teach, and patient (2 Timothy 2:24-26). How encouraging this is for us, even though we are in the last and closing days of evil, as it is described in chapter 3.
Following the epistles to Timothy, we come to the Epistle to Titus. This epistle is an appendix to 2 Timothy, focusing on how to maintain the truth, which then produces godliness and order in the Church. Therefore truth is according to godliness.
The Epistle to Titus was written in about AD 63, probably in Corinth, where the apostle took advantage of the journey of Zenas and Apollos (Titus 3:13). Ironically, Titus was also the name of the Roman general who had Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70. The key chapter is Titus 2, where the apostle summarised the key commands, which ensure godly relationships within the assembly. Then the deity and redemptive work of Christ are beautifully set out in Titus 2:13-14, “awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all lawlessness, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous for good works.” Therefore, in the Epistle to Titus, good works are desirable and profitable for all believers.
We now come to the last epistle of the apostle Paul to an individual – the Epistle to Philemon. While the Epistle to Titus focuses on truth according to godliness, this wonderful
epistle shows us how to practice godliness in forgiving those who offend us.
The Epistle to Philemon was written between about AD 60 and 61, around the same time as Ephesians and Colossians. Like Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians, this epistle was written in the Roman prison where the apostle was held in his first imprisonment.
With only one chapter, the Epistle to Philemon focuses on forgiveness to those who offend us, especially after they have been converted, as was in the case of Onesimus. Now back in the days of the apostle, a slave who ran away from his master was in danger of death if found out. His master can report it to the courts, and the punishment for the runaway slave was death. Does not this situation remind us of ourselves? We have offended God, but Christ’s work of meditation before the Father (His death on the cross) saved us from our own death. Therefore, while 2 Timothy and Titus focuses on the truth and on godliness, Philemon is the practice of godliness (how to act in godliness) in forgiveness. Perhaps the key verses in Philemon are 16 and 17, “not any longer as a bondman, but above a bondman, a beloved brother, specially to me, and how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord? If therefore thou holdest me to be a partner with thee, receive him as me.” We are to forgive those who offend us, especially those who come to know Christ, and to receive them.
Following Philemon is the Epistle to the Hebrews. While the author of Hebrews is unknown, we can assume that it was the apostle Paul, due to the language and style of the writing in this epistle. While Philemon focuses on forgiveness, the key theme is the apostle interceding for Onesimus, the runaway slave. The epistle to the Hebrews presents Christ as our Great High Priest interceding for us as our Mediator (Hebrews 4:14-16; 7:24-27; 9:15). The Epistle to the Hebrews was written between about AD 64 and 68. While the place
of writing is unknown, one thing stands out. In the year AD 64, the first great persecution of Christians broke out under Nero, the Roman Caesar who was in power. This persecution took place in Rome, so the recipients of Hebrews were Jewish Christians living in Rome. Therefore, we can assume that this epistle was written in Rome, as the apostle himself (if Paul) was in Rome.
Now this epistle has another major theme besides the Priesthood of Christ. The key chapter in this epistle is chapter 11, the chapter of faith. The apostle focuses on being justified before God only and exclusively by faith, because without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). We see in chapter 11 that all of these witnesses had one thing in common – their faith stood out. Although many faced trials (Hebrews 11:36-38), they were rewarded, as they were looking for another city (Hebrews 11:10; 13:14).
I trust that after reading brief descriptions of these wonderful epistles that this will wet your appetites in searching out the Scriptures and digging further into these epistles.
One thought on “The Epistles of Paul”
Great job Phil!