The 13 epistles that bear Paul’s name represent the plethora of Paul’s writings. As an apostle for Christ, Paul came to Christianity from a Jewish skeptic’s worldview, and it took a powerful encounter with the living Jesus for Paul to be converted to Christianity. But just as hard as he persecuted the fledgling church, so also he devoted his life to proclaiming Jesus to the known world.
He is most noted for his missionary work with Gentiles, which caused him much heartache with his native people. But God used his well-trained mind and fervent heart to explain some of the deeper things of God. At times, you will find Paul deep in theological debate, and at other times, he is worshipping Jesus as his heart for the Church serves God’s loving kindness.
No writer has written more books of the Bible than Paul, the persecutor-turned-apostle. Of the 13 letters, most are to churches, but some are to individuals. Paul discusses everything from theological principles to how to apply these principles. In almost all of his letters, he has a pattern of telling us the background (what is happening), the theological framework (what should be happening) and how to get there (the application). Paul's unique education and journeys made him a superstar apostle for Christ's kingdom, and his letters spur all believers on to greater life in Christ.
Toward the end of his ministry, while in prison under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote four prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon). The first three letters have similar subject matter and wording. He wrote these letters at the same time. He also wrote the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus) in which he encourages young leaders and talks about church leadership.
Epistles are easy for us to understand. They have prayers, commands, principles, and straight and plain language for us to easily understand without much study. Epistles were written to address a particular issue or occasion. We do not receive a systematic approach to theology or church and Christian issues. Epistles have two audiences: the original audience they were written to in the first century, and us when we apply them to our context for our day.
Epistles had a literary structure and were a specific form of communication. They contained six parts: (1) Name of the author, (2) Name of the recipient(s), (3) Greeting, (4) Prayer wish or thanksgiving, (5) Body of the letter, and (6) Final greeting and farewell. But some of Paul’s letters look more like an essay or treatise and don’t follow this rigid format. They are still letters because they address an audience, deal with an occasion or issue, and have other parts of an epistle.
No matter where Paul went in his ministry, he was dogged by the Judaizers, a group of Jewish false teachers who distorted his teachings and called Gentile churches to follow Mosaic law to the letter after converting to Christianity. We can see Paul’s rebuttal of these false teachers in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Colossians. Toward the end of his life, he was counseling Titus and Timothy on Greek and Roman false teaching that crept into the churches.
Date: 57-58 AD
Purpose: To give evidence of the sinfulness of humanity, God’s gracious gift of salvation, and how to live the Christian life.
Key People: Paul, Roman Christians
Key Passages: Romans 1:16-17; 3:23; 6:23; 8:31-39; 12:1-2
I. The Sinfulness of Gentiles and Jews (1-4)
II. The Glories of Salvation (Five-8)
III. The Jewish Nation and God’s Plans (9-11)
IV. Living the Christian Life (12-16)
Written to the Romans, a church that Paul neither founded nor visited yet, Paul lays out the most systematic approach to his message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul shows that he is not ashamed of the gospel by demonstrating how the gospel is necessary both to Gentiles and to Jews, followed by an understanding of the change that God makes by his Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians.
In chapters 9-11, Paul shows us how Jesus composes his church from both believing Jews and believing Gentiles using the horticultural imagery of grafting trees. Paul then finishes his theological treatise with applications for Christians to live a life that pleases God. Because this letter is not situational, it represents the best of a systematic approach to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Paul sent this letter before he visited the church.
Date: 54-55 AD
Purpose: To answer the questions of the Corinthian believers in their situations.
Key People: Paul, Corinthian Christians
Key Passages: 1 Corinthians 1:22; 6:19-20; 15:14
I. Divisions in the Church (1-4)
II. Immorality in the Church (5-6)
III. Questions about Marriage (7)
IV. Questions about Meat Sacrificed to Idols (8-10)
V. Questions about Worship (11-14)
VI. Questions about the Resurrection (15)
VII. Closing Arguments and Greetings (16)
The first letter written to the Corinthians is in response to a letter sent by the leadership of the Corinthian church to Paul asking him to respond on several issues that were contentious among the Corinthian believers. Paul was probably at Ephesus when he received their letter with questions and penned this letter. Paul responds with this long letter answering each issue as they presented it. The Corinthian church is one of the most unruly churches in the New Testament letters.
Using the terminology of “concerning this issue” or “on the issue of” Paul systematically answers the questions of the leadership. One of his most scathing rebukes concerns dealing with an immoral brother, division in the church, and their false understanding of the issues presented. Without letters like this, we would not have many answers to basic Christian living and how to apply the gospel to everyday life.
The city of Corinth was a bustling city, but full of immorality of all kinds. Temples to Roman and Greek gods littered the city with temple prostitutes in every temple. The Corinthian Christians had to deal with the immorality of their culture and city. This is why Paul calls them to holiness.
Date: 56-67 AD
Purpose: To defend Paul’s ministry and apostolic authority after being attacked by the Corinthian Christians.
Key People: Paul, Corinthian Christians, Timothy
Key Passages: 2 Corinthians 4:7; 5:17
I. Introduction and Paul’s Change of Plans (1:1-2:13)
II. Paul’s Ministry and Instructions (2:14-9)
III. Paul Defends His Ministry and Apostleship (10-12:14)
IV. Paul’s Closing and Greetings (12:15-13)
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians finalizes some of the opening issues of his previous letter, like restoring the repentant immoral brother of 1 Corinthians 5. He responds to charges from super apostles and the Corinthians concerning his heart for them, is apostolic authority, and his ministry.
The Corinthian leadership attacked Paul’s authority after receiving his first letter answering their questions. Paul’s scathing language caused some of the leadership to question his apostleship. In his defense, Paul responds by giving us unique insight into the life of an apostle. The challenges he faced prove his calling to be an apostle for Jesus. This is the most personable letter to a church Paul writes. We learn more about Paul and his life from his own testimony in this letter.
Date: 48 AD
Purpose: To address the wayward beliefs and practices of the Galatian church, defend the one true gospel, and call the church to follow Christ alone.
Key People: Paul, Galatian Christians, Judaizers
Key Passages: Galatians 2:20; 3:1; 5:1, 22; 6:1-5
I. Introduction and Defense of Paul’s Apostolic Authority (1:1-2:14)
II. Justification by Faith, Not Works or the Law (2:15-4:31)
III. Christian Freedom, Walking by the Spirit, and the Fruit of the Spirit (5)
IV. Christian Responsibility and Conclusion (6)
One of the earliest writings of the New Testament, Paul wrote to the Galatians region in one of Rome’s provinces. He unusually skips an introduction to address the dangers of settling for less than Jesus alone in our Christian walk. The Judaizers that followed Paul around were attempting to convince the Galatians that they needed both Christ and the laws of Moses, in this case circumcision. Paul reminds the Galatians that all they need is Jesus.
Paul begins with the false doctrines of the Judaizers, followed by an impassioned plea for the Galatians to ignore these false teachings in favor of the one true gospel. Using Abraham as an example of faith, Paul shows we only need faith in Jesus, not the Mosaic law or its customs. He settles on freedom as the theme of the Christian life and the fruit of the Spirit that combats the sins of the flesh. Paul completes the epistle by offering applicable methods for serving Christ in community.
Date: 60 AD
Purpose: To encourage unity in the body of Christ and emphasize God’s grace in salvation.
Key People: Paul, Ephesian Christians
Key Passages: Ephesians 1:13-14; 2:8, 10; 3:20-21; 4:11-16; 5:22-32; 6:10-20
I. The Blessings of Christian Inheritance (1-2)
II. Paul’s Work and Prayer (3)
III. Christian Church and Unty (4)
IV. Following Jesus and the Household Codes (5-6:9)
V. the armor of God (6:10-24)
One of the prison epistles, Paul focuses on the power of our salvation, the change that occurs in salvation, the importance of Christ’s gifts to the church, and the iconic armor of God that helps us in spiritual warfare. Scholars believe Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians together because they share several themes and language. Paul shows us the way things were, the way they should be, and how to get there.
Paul writes to the Ephesian church, which he founded and visited often for a long period of time throughout his missionary journeys. He dealt with a riot in the city and the idolatrous worship of the goddess Artemis. But he also experienced one of the greatest revivals of his missionary ministry. He does not address specific issues in the Ephesian church, but focuses on the themes of grace and unity.
Date: 60 AD
Purpose: To share his joy in the Lord with the Philippian church and describe Christian character.
Key People: Paul, Philippian Christians, Timothy, Epaphroditus
Key Passages: Philippians 2:5-11; 3:12-14; 4:4, 8
I. Joy in Suffering (1)
II. Joy in Serving Jesus (2)
III. Joy in Jesus (3)
IV. Joy and Contentment (4)
One of four prison epistles Paul wrote during his house arrest in Rome, he focuses on the theme of joy in the Christian life. Despite currently being shackled and believing he may be martyred, Paul tells us to rejoice in the joy of serving God. This book contains powerful theological images like the humble servant of chapter 2. It pushes us to have joy no matter what our circumstances. The anchor of joy in Jesus is greater than the waves of trials that buffet us.
Date: 60 AD
Purpose: To affirm the preeminence of Jesus and combat strange and false teaching.
Key People: Paul, Colossian Christians, Epaphras, Tychicus
Key Passages: Colossians 1:15-20; 2:9-10; 3:15
I. Jesus’ Deity and Preeminence (1)
II. The Danger of False Teachers and False Doctrines (2)
III. Household Codes and Christian Living (3)
IV. Christian Evangelism and Witness (4)
One of four prison epistles as Paul was in Rome under house arrest for proclaiming the gospel, he writes to express the deity of Christ and the power of Christian living and witness. Even though Paul had never visited the Colossian church and someone else founded it, his pastor’s heart for them is evident.
Paul discovers the church is allowing false teaching of strange doctrines to prevail. He writes to address them generally because he is not personally involved in their founding or growth. He focuses on Christian doctrine and basic Christian practical living. Scholars believe Colossians was written alongside Ephesians because they share theological themes and language.
Date: 50-54 AD
Purpose: To encourage a newly founded and persecuted church that they had not missed the rapture.
Key People: Paul, Thessalonian Christians, Timothy
Key Passages: 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13; 4:13-18; 5:16-22
I. Greetings and Exhortation (1-2)
II. Timothy’s Report about the Thessalonians (3)
III. Expectations for Christian Living (4:1-12)
IV. Teaching about the Rapture (4:13-5:11)
V. Closing Exhortations (5:12-28)
Paul had to leave the Thessalonians quicker than he planned. He was not sure if the young church would survive under persecution. These new Christians could have either buckled under the pressure or excelled. He sent Timothy to check in on them and found they were excelling in the faith.
But because Paul could not finish his teachings before he left, he reminded them of Jesus’ second coming to rapture the Church. The Thessalonians, because of their persecution, were afraid they had missed the second coming of Christ. Paul assured them they had not. He gave signs of Jesus’ return. This is a letter full of exhortations.
Date: 50-54 AD
Purpose: To encourage the Thessalonians under persecution and teach about Christ’s second coming and the Antichrist.
Key People: Paul, Thessalonian Christians, Antichrist
Key Passages: 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2:1-4
I. Right Christian Living and Enduring Persecution (1)
II. The Man of Lawlessness and the Day of the Lord (2)
III. Correcting Wrong Behavior Because of Wrong Doctrine (3)
In his second letter to the Thessalonians written not more than a year before his first letter, Paul is encouraged by the Thessalonians’ striving to live the Christian life despite persecution. But they still were not clear on end times events. So Paul reminds them of his teaching on the man of lawlessness (Antichrist) and the day of the Lord’s judgment.
False teachers had crept into the church, and Paul wrote to correct wrong behavior because of misunderstanding of Jesus’ return. This church was still very young, but they were living for Jesus in an environment of strong persecution.
Date: 63-66 AD
Purpose: To encourage the young minister Timothy in his leadership of the church in Ephesus.
Key People: Paul, Timothy
Key Passages: 1 Timothy 4:4-5; 6:6-7, 11-12
I. Correct Doctrine (1)
II. Public Worship (2-3)
III. False Teaching (4)
IV. Church Discipline (5)
V. Pastoral Motives (6)
In the first of three Pastoral Epistles, the elder statesman Paul encourages and counsels the young minister Timothy, his son in the faith, on multiple issues. Timothy was pastoring the church in Ephesus. Paul wrote to remind him of his teaching as he mentored Timothy. This is one of Paul’s letters to an individual rather than a church. And it has to do with church leadership. He spends a lot of time talking about how to deal with false teachers.
Date: 67 AD
Purpose: To encourage Timothy to endure and be faithful as a leader in the church.
Key People: Paul, Timothy, John Mark, Onesiphorus
Key Passages: 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17; 4:7-8
I. A Spiritual Father’s Counsel (1)
II. Counsel for Christian Workers (2)
III. The Last Days (3)
IV. Paul’s Final Encouragement (4)
Paul writes this second Pastoral Epistle, although it is his last letter chronologically, to encourage Timothy once again as he faces martyrdom by the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero. Even though Paul was about to be martyred for the faith, he is concerned with others, especially Timothy. Paul testifies about his own faith, but wants his last days to be poured into others.
Date: 63-26 AD
Purpose: To offer pastoral counsel to the young minister for his mission in Crete.
Key People: Paul, Titus, Cretans
Key Passages: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-5
I. Appointing Godly Elders for the Church (1)
II. Counsel for Groups in the Church (2)
III. Good Deeds over Pointless Arguments (3)
Paul writes to Titus, the third of the Pastoral Epistles, although written second after 1 Timothy, to counsel him on how to set up the churches in Crete and church leadership. Titus was a Greek, one of Paul’s converts. He traveled extensively with Paul, and Paul must have considered him to be a very capable young man and church leader. Titus ended up in the Greek island of Crete and spent much of his ministry there.
Date: 60 AD
Purpose: To lovingly counsel a Christian slave owner to take back his now Christian slave.
Key People: Paul, Philemon, Onesimus
Key Passages: Philemon 15-16
I. Paul’s Thanks for Philemon (1-7)
II. Pleading for Philemon’s Runaway Slave (8-16)
III. Reminding Philemon of Paul’s Influence in His Life (17-25)
Probably written last among the prison epistles, Paul writes to a Christian slave owner, Philemon, concerning his runaway slave Onesimus. It is one of a few letters of Paul written to an individual rather than a church. It is a kind request from Paul to set free the newly converted slave Onesimus.
Philemon’s slave had escaped, stealing some of his money, and running to Rome. While in Rome, Onesimus meets Paul and is converted to Christianity. Paul vouches for this slave and, without calling upon his apostolic authority, kindly asks Philemon to set his prisoner free because he is a fellow brother in Christ.
This letter demonstrates the change that occurs in society when Jesus comes into our hearts. While Paul does not have the authority to end slavery in Rome, he calls for Christian love and unity amongst Christian slave owners and Christian slaves.