The apostle Paul wrote many letters (epistles) that have become part of the New Testament. What can we learn from these Epistles of Paul?
The casual Bible reader might be surprised to discover that the person who wrote more books of the Bible than any other was not Moses, Solomon or any of the original apostles. It was the apostle Paul. He is credited with writing at least 13 books in the New Testament; 14, if the book of Hebrews is included. His writings have been scrutinized by more scholars and students of the Scriptures than perhaps any other Bible author.
The Epistles of Paul 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?
Epistle is simply a word that means a “written message” or a “letter.” Some of the epistles were written from jail cells; 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.
These letters provide us insight into the congregations of the Christian community 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?
Listing the Epistles of Paul
The Epistles of Paul appear in the Bible in the following order:
Hebrews (Hebrews does not name its author, but it has traditionally been assigned to Paul.)
Subjects and summary
These letters were all written for different reasons and may cover a multitude of subjects. Here are just a few of the topics that Paul addresses in these letters:
- Divorce and remarriage.
- Speaking in tongues.
- Christian conscience.
- Spiritual gifts.
- The resurrection.
- A woman’s role in the Church.
- Conduct at church services.
- The place of God’s law in relation to salvation.
Let’s now look at a very brief summary of Paul’s 14 letters.
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 Colossae, 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 can have the opportunity to have everlasting life through Jesus Christ.
Good news for all ages
These 14 letters are vitally important for all Christians to understand. In future articles, we will go into much greater detail about the messages and instructions contained in each of these Epistles of Paul.
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.
For further study, read the articles in the section: “New Testament: Overview.”