The Story of the Bible (The Letters of Paul)

So far in our series, we have covered the entire Old Testament and a good chunk of the New as well. Jesus has come and the Spirit has been sent out into the believer’s to continue sharing this good news that Jesus brings salvation. Now we have reached a section of the Bible that is almost narrative free, the Pauline letters. 

As we continue our series in the story of the Bible, it may seem like the story is just about over. The seed of the woman finally came, Jesus, and He overcame the power of the snake by defeating death and reigning victoriously. We then saw the Holy Spirit dwells in believers as well showing us that we really can become united with God once again and start to bring restoration to the world through Jesus. The key word there is “start”. As you can see, full restoration of the earth has not come yet as sin still has a mighty hand in the relationships we all live with. Jesus brought the idea of crushing sin into reality because he did crush sin, but it hasn’t become a full reality yet where all creation is sin free. 

The idea of full restoration has been the other storyline throughout the Bible that has hidden in the background. That storyline is reuniting heaven and earth as it was in the beginning. The garden of Eden was a place where God’s space and human space co-existed in a beautiful, harmonious relationship. Once sin entered the picture, however, the humans were exiled from perfect garden and lived in the world we know today. Ever since then, the narrative of the Bible has been pointing us back to this idea of existing in a heaven and earth overlap and Jesus is the one who sparked that restoration and he will finish it. We were looking for the seed to crush the serpent’s head to be free from sin and restore humanity back to God fully once again and we received that gift in Jesus. 

So now we come to a place in the Bible known traditionally as the Pauline letters. In other words, letters written by the apostle Paul to churches, groups of people, or individual people. His letters include, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. As can be seen, many times Paul wrote more than one letter to the same group or person indicating that Paul kept up with certain groups or people giving real significance and credibility to the Scriptures. We are going to go through each of these letters briefly to show how they all fit together in unity. 

These letters are all written after Jesus ascended so all of these are post-Jesus letters. The first letter we come to is the letter to the Romans. The letter to the Romans really covers the entire human condition from the beginning and ties it all together in the gospel. Paul describes the sin that separates us from God and the sinfulness of all humanity. He then talks about the grace of God and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ and the gospel. Paul takes the entire storyline of the Bible and sums it up by talking about sin and its effect on humanity. He then uses the gospel to talk about how Jesus broke the bondage of sin and provides salvation for all of humanity. The text and theology of the letter can become quite dense at times but it all has a simple theme. Jesus came and died to provide salvation for a sin-ridden world. 

The next two letters go together as they were both written to the same group of people. 1 & 2 Corinthians were written by Paul to the church at Corinth to address problems that were occuring at this church. The church is also a new theme in the New Testament. The word “church” as used in the New Testament has a couple of different meanings. It could be used to refer to a specific gathering of a group of believers as it does in this letter. It can also refer to the larger, universal group of believers that just refers to all believers (Ephesians 1:22). The church became a unity of believers of which Christ is the head (Ephesians 5:23). These two letters to the Corinthians address some major issues that were going on in their lives and in the body of the assembly. 1 Corinthians deals with the immoral acts that the Corinthians were taking part in and addresses some issues in worship when they came together. 2 Corinthians is like the booster letter that came after the first letter. The second letter encourages and provides confidence for these people that they are God’s people and warns against false teaching. These two letters combined create a beautiful yet real portrait of the Christian life. They describe the pain and temptation and sin we deal with everyday and yet we should still have the confidence that Christ has won the victory and we will share in that victory one day. 

The next letter is the letter written to the churches in Galatia. Paul starts out this letter by addressing the issue head on, they have fallen away from the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul then spends a good chunk of text defending this very gospel he preached to them. Paul then gets to the heart of the issue which was heavily influenced by Jewsish teaching. There was confusion about the Law of Moses and if they were to still follow it. Paul goes all the way back the Abraham promise and then connects the dots leading to Christ. Paul explains that because of Jesus it is no longer works of the law but life by the Spirit that should be the focus. Paul takes the entire biblical story into account here when discussing how Jesus came to be and how he has set us free from the law. It is not the law that we live by, it is now the Spirit which came through Jesus. This is a beautiful letter that clears confusion about “the old way of doing things” and makes clear the purpose of Jesus. 

The next letter of Paul we will discuss is the letter to the people in Ephesus. This letter has a unifying theme throughout the letter, that is that everyone is unified in one faith through the Lord Jesus. The letter to the Ephesians talks about the death of Jesus as a gift to us who receive it. It is the love, grace, and mercy of God that we are able to receive such a gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of our Savior. This letter brings into focus what the death of Christ means to all believers and how we are unified through Jesus Christ despite our differences and how we all work toward a unified life in Jesus. 

The letter to the Philippians is all about imitating the example of Christ and following his example. There is a beautiful Messianic poem in Chapter 2 that is referred to the rest of the letter. It points back to the Hebrew Scriptures and reviews the gospel story. Jesus is an example that should be followed even amidst persecution. This letter is about love, perseverance, and the example of Jesus that Paul follows and should be followed by all believers. 

The letter to the people of Colossae was written by Paul to encourage the people and to help them remember who their main focus should be in Jesus. Jesus should be the foundation in which we build our lives and dwell on earth. Paul discusses the new life we live in when we give our life to Christ and allow Him to change us. This letter was an encouragement not only to those in Colossae but also to those in Laodicea. This gives us the view that these letters were meant to be shared with the churches all around. This then, gives us the view of the effects of the Messianic movement. Everyone shares the knowledge and encouragement with each other and everyone benefits from it. It’s a small glimpse of what the new creation is meant to be. A place where everyone benefits and no one is lacking because Christ is the head and the giver of all. 

The letters of 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the next letters we come to in our journey through Paul’s letters. The first letter spends much time praising the church for their faith and love and devotion to Christ and how Paul has heard wonderful things about them even from Timothy who will appear in the next set of letters. The letter encourages the people to live and grow in purity in conduct and in their lives. Paul encourages them with the talk of Jesus’ return and how one day we will all be back together. It’s a beautiful description of how what seems like the end, will be just the beginning. We must remember that this life is not the end. There is hardship, there is suffering and persecution, but it is not the end. The second letter is a boost to this very idea about persecution and the return of Jesus. Apparently there were some false teachings spreading and so Paul clarifies these in this letter. These people were suffering hardships and persecution and how the man of lawlessness is still yet to be revealed. Paul calls them to stand firm until the return of Jesus and to not let go of what they love so dearly, faith in Jesus Christ. Paul challenges them to imitate Christ and stay true to the truth they were taught. In light of all this, these letters give us the hope of what is coming, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the new creation. 

The next two letters of 1 and 2 Timothy give us some insight on how groups of believers were to organize themselves in churches and fixes some major problems. Paul writes to his beloved companion, Timothy in his first letter to discuss the church at Ephesus. False teachings plagued this church and Paul encouraged Timothy to end these teachings and teach the truth. Paul then establishes guidelines for Timothy to follow for authority in the church and proper conduct. Paul then tells Timothy some good teachings about situations with widows, elders, and slaves. Paul then tells Timothy to flee from love of money and selfishness and to keep on the right path. The second letter is likely Paul’s last that we have. It is another personal letter to Timothy where Pual reminds him of the gospel for which Paul is suffering for as he writes the letter. Paul warns Timothy of corrupt teachers and encourages Timothy to establish right and true teachers. Paul then discusses his suffering and the present reality of Jesus who will take him home to the heavenly kingdom. These two letters bring into focus how real suffering is but also how real our reward is for staying faithful. Jesus is with us and his coming, and we all wait for that glorious day. 

The letter to Titus is an encouragement and commision to Titus to flip an entire culture upside down in the best way possible. Written to Titus, who was in Crete, Paul wants Titus to help the churches there to restore leadership that has gone corrupt and appoint leaders everywhere. The Cretan culture was soaked in sin and Titus’ message of Jesus and the gospel would be a new and transformed way of living. Paul wants Titus to teach that the ungodliness and evil in the world is not what those called to Jesus are to be about. Being transformed by Jesus means living a new and transformed life which creates this new life Paul is always talking about. 

The last of Paul’s letters, in canonical order, is written to a man named Philemon and displays the love of Jesus in action. Philemon had a runaway slave, Onesimus who came to Paul and who Paul was sending back. Paul demonstrates that love is necessary for reconciliation as Christ has done for us. Paul then urges Philemon to accept him not as a slave but as a brother, as equal. This demonstrates the enormous equalizing gift that the death of Jesus results in. We are all made equal because of Jesus and we are all one under Christ.  

As Paul’s letters demonstrate, Jesus is the center and should be the center of our lives. Jesus’ death and resurrection was a launching pad for the restoration of all creation. We should act, think, and speak like Jesus as we await the coming of his return to fully restore all creation. The Holy Spirit dwells in us to help us along in our journey and to renew us of our sinful nature. Paul’s letters give us real advice, trustworthy application, and a hope that Jesus is coming back and we wait for that day as we live in the new life we are called to live in.       

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