The Pauline Epistles are indispensable resources for any Christian seeking God in the modern world. Here’s what you need to know about them.
What are the Pauline Epistles?
The Pauline Epistles—or the Epistles of Paul—were letters written to the early Church by the apostle Paul. God preserved many of those letters for us as books of the Bible.
These ancient epistles contain valuable insight into modern-day Christian living, while also providing us a snapshot of the early Christian Church.
Paul wrote more books of the Bible than any other author—including Moses, Solomon and any of the original apostles. He is credited with writing at least 13 books in the New Testament (14, if we include the book of Hebrews). His writings have been scrutinized by more scholars and students of the Scriptures than perhaps any other Bible author.
The Pauline Epistles are essential to read and study if we want a fuller understanding of the Holy Scriptures. But how much do you understand about these books? Why were they written? To whom were they written? What were the issues that Paul was dealing with in these many letters?
What is an epistle?
Epistle is simply a word that means a “written message” or a “letter.” Some of Paul’s epistles were written from jail cells (commonly referred to as Paul’s Prison Epistles); some are addressed to individuals; and some are addressed to congregations. Paul’s letters were mostly dictated to an amanuensis (secretary), except for the letter to the Galatians, at least part of which Paul says he wrote with his own hand (Galatians 6:11).
Paul wrote these letters over approximately a 15- to 20-year period between about A.D. 48 and 67. The estimates of the dates these letters were written will vary slightly from authority to authority, but they were within this general time frame.
The Pauline Epistles: a snapshot of early Church history
Paul’s letters provide us insight into the congregations of the early Christian Church in the first century. What can we learn from these 14 letters that were preserved for us under direct inspiration from God (2 Timothy 3:16)? In studying them carefully, we can find answers to many questions, such as:
- Who were these people to whom Paul wrote?
- What did they believe?
- What challenges did they face?
- How did Paul’s teachings differ from the Old Testament practices?
- What was important to these early Christians?
- What were their church congregations like?
- Why were they so severely persecuted?
- Are Paul’s letters applicable for us today?
Paul’s letters in order
The Pauline Epistles don’t actually appear in the Bible in the same order they were written. Not all Bible authorities agree on the correct order of Paul’s letters, but context clues within the letters themselves along with extrabiblical evidence allow us to make a reasonably accurate guess:
- 1 Thessalonians.
- 2 Thessalonians.
- 1 Corinthians.
- 2 Corinthians.
- Hebrews (?).
- 1 Timothy.
- 2 Timothy.
When Paul wasn’t writing letters to congregations of the early Church, he was either visiting them in person or journeying through the Roman Empire to spread the gospel message. Those journeys are recorded in the book of Acts, giving us extra insight into both the Pauline Epistles themselves and the general time frame when Paul would have written those epistles.
For instance, the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon—the Prison Epistles—would have been written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome.
(If you’d like a more detailed look at Paul’s journeys and the timeline of the epistles, read “Chronology of Paul’s Journeys and Epistles.”)
Did Paul write Hebrews?
It’s not clear whether Paul wrote the book of Hebrews or not. Unlike his other epistles, his name doesn’t appear anywhere in the letter. Some early traditions attribute the book to Paul, but the earliest available copies of the Bible’s manuscripts do not include an author’s name.
The purpose of Paul’s letters
Much of the content of the Pauline Epistles was aimed at correcting false teachings and lax behavior that had crept into congregations of the early Church.It didn’t take long before heresy, false doctrine and spiritual compromises started to sneak into the early Church. Much of the content of the Pauline Epistles was aimed at correcting false teachings and lax behavior that had crept into congregations of the early Church.
But Paul was also an encourager. Many of his letters are filled with hope, always returning to “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Paul was filled with a “deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). He wanted nothing more than to see God’s people remain faithful to their calling and join him in claiming “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Here are just a few of the topics that Paul addresses in these letters:
- Divorce and remarriage.
- Speaking in tongues.
- Christian conscience.
- Works and grace.
- Spiritual gifts.
- The resurrection.
- A woman’s role in the Church.
- Conduct at church services.
- Identifying and appointing Church leaders.
- The place of God’s law in relation to salvation.
An overview of the Pauline Epistles
Let’s now look at a very brief summary of Paul’s letters (in the order they appear in the Bible).
- Romans proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men and women, whether Jew or gentile. It shows the way to everlasting life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Both 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to the church at Corinth and deal with the need to recognize and put sin out of our lives. The congregation is instructed to love one another and to look forward to the glorious return of Jesus Christ to this earth.
- In Galatians Paul was dealing with some who were trying to convince gentile Galatians that they needed to be circumcised to be made right with God. Paul shows that we can only be justified and forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ. Then we need to live in the Spirit, producing the fruit of the Spirit, which doesn’t break the law.
- Ephesians explains how it is Christ who brings all people together. When we embrace Christ, we will put off the old man and embrace a new way of life, the way of love, the way of helping one another.
- Philippians is a letter to the congregation at Philippi, encouraging them to continue with their good works and dedicated service to God. The congregation at Philippi was a constant source of encouragement to the apostle Paul.
- Colossians is an admonition to resist some of the pagan, philosophical ideas of the times, like asceticism and the ideas that developed into gnosticism. The way to God is through Jesus Christ and obedience to His moral law of love.
- The two letters to the Thessalonians deal with the issue of when Jesus Christ will return. Many expected Christ to return at that time, but 2 Thessalonians reveals that the end time will be preceded by certain events that have not occurred yet.
- The pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written to ministers to address issues directly affecting the congregations they served, such as qualifications for elders and deacons; helping widows; and avoiding useless arguments, foolish disputes and all contentions.
- In the very short letter to Philemon, a member in Colosse, Paul tries to encourage reconciliation between Philemon and a slave who had run away from him and become a Christian.
- Hebrews does not give the name of its author, but some early traditions attributed it to Paul. Hebrews deals with the making of the New Covenant between God and His people. The Old Covenant between God and the descendants of Israel is now being replaced with a New Covenant made possible by a new High Priest, that is, Jesus Christ. Instead of physical blessings for obedience to the letter of the law for the descendants of Abraham, people of all nations who please God by striving to obey Him according to the spirit of the law can be given the gift of God, everlasting life through Jesus Christ.
The Love Chapter in the Bible
In 1 Corinthians 13—a chapter of the Bible that’s come to be known as “the Love Chapter”—we find Paul’s explanation of true, godly love.
In one of the Bible’s most famous passages, Paul writes, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
This Love Chapter in the Bible is an excellent resource for Christian self-examination. It’s important to look at ourselves and make sure the way we treat others matches up with this description of how God wants us to treat others. Study more in our article “The Love Chapter.”
Paul’s last letter
The book of 2 Timothy appears to be the very last letter Paul wrote before he was executed by the Roman government (or, at least, the last epistle that was preserved in the Bible). In this final farewell letter, Paul urges the young pastor Timothy to treasure his calling and to “be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
For Paul’s part, he was focusing less on his own imminent death and more on the incredible future that God is preparing for the human race.
He wrote: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
A few paragraphs later, the final Pauline Epistle ends with these words of hope: “The Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Grace be with you. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:22).
The Pauline Epistles point to the Kingdom of God
The apostle Paul was one of God’s greatest servants and was used by Him to boldly proclaim the good news of the coming Kingdom of God to the world in the first century and, through these epistles, to people in all ages.
The Pauline Epistles didn’t just matter a couple of thousand years ago. The lessons Paul teaches in those letters are just as important for us today. As we also journey toward “the crown of righteousness” that Paul claimed, each of these letters is vitally important for us to understand. (And you can read about each one in greater depth in our Related Articles section below!)