This week on the blog, we are taking a break from our normal programming and are looking at the letters of the Apostle Paul, why they were written and why it matters to our study of the New Testament. Over the last two posts of this three part series, we have looked at who Paul is and the historical context for his letters. In this blog post, we will be looking at the letters themselves, their content, and what the letters hoped to achieve when they were written.
So, as I've said we’ve talked a bit about Paul’s letters to the early church as far as when they were written, but let’s examine the why for a minute and really delve into the content of the Letters themselves. If you are starting a church built on the foundation of this truly radical new idea that the Messiah had come and offered salvation to all who believed by Grace alone, not by works; you stayed with these people for weeks, months, even years in some instances; but then you left fully aware that these churches will face opposition, just as you are facing it as a missionary yourself. What would be your motivation for writing to these churches?
Motivation One: Encouragement
One huge motivation would be to strengthen them, right? After a while, everyone grows weary when they are opposed so often and they are living on a faith that is being tested so frequently. In 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3, Paul writes “Finally,when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy to visit you. He is our brother and God’s co-worker in proclaiming the Good News of Christ. We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. But you know that we are destined for such troubles.” Paul understood that encouragement was integral to not only maintaining the current believers that he had met, lived with, and taught; but the growth of the church in the years to come. So Paul encouraged these churches and at the same time, he encouraged those he was writing to encourage one another as well. Let’s look at Ephesians 4:29 for a good example of this. “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Paul’s having a teaching moment here. He’s saying “Look, this is going to be difficult, faith is not an easy road and at times you might not always feel like reacting in a way that will encourage each other to push through. BUT, your words matter. Your words help bring others to Christ so we need to make sure that at all times we are encouraging those around us in their faith.” And this idea of encouraging one another is truly based in the framework of the bible as a whole, right? If we look back at Ecclesiastes 4:9, it says “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.” So Paul is really fulfilling what the bible teaches ALL of us to do when he writes these letters as encouragement to the early church.
Motivation Two: Vision for the Church
What other motivations would Paul have to write letters to the Early Churches? Paul, being of authority to speak for Jesus, he would have sought to share the Lord’s vision for the church and as Paul saw it, the church had an important role of bringing harmony not just to the Jews and the Gentiles, but really to the universe as a whole. Paul explains that this harmony comes when the church works as a body of many moving parts coming today to create one unstoppable force, if you will, and he illustrates this in Romans 12:4-8 when he says "Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.” Paul is really emphasizing here the idea that we are all called and all have a God given purpose but it is are responsibilities as individuals to decide to act on that calling and then in turn, come together to really see out callings and talents work themselves out within the bigger picture of faith and in perfect harmony of one another. And this is really important to the main tenants of Christianity, right? We understand that you don’t have to be of a certain group to be chosen by God, but rather all who believe can come to His table. This was an important concept for Paul to drive home as well because he was teaching to individuals of the MOST diverse backgrounds imaginable and seeking to find a way to bring them together and unify them in their belief in Jesus Christ.
So we have this vision of a unified Church that Paul paints for us in Romans but let’s continue on just a bit further into Romans 12 with verses 9 and 10 as he continues to build this vision of the church for us: “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.” What’s Paul talking about? He says “love with genuine affection” so is he saying that because I am a Christian that I need to be romantically in love with you? No, of course not! Paul isn’t saying that we have to fall head over heels in love with every person we meet to be good Christians but what was it that Christ said in John 15:9? He said “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.” So think about it this way, what Paul is telling the church to do is love as Christ loved because His love was genuine; and how did He love us? Just as His Father loved Him. What are the qualities of this love that Jesus showed the world? Faithful, humble, patient, kind, forgiving, and giving, right? Paul elaborates on how we as a church should love in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
There’s a lot to really understand about how we can act with one another individually and as a church here. We are really called as Christians to live at a different standard than that world and I think this is a passage that really drives that home. Let’s take a closer look at it. Patience and kindness, Paul doesn’t specify WHO to be patient and kind to so you can assume that he expects the church to be patient and kind to EVERYONE, yes even if they get on your nerves. Jealousy and boastfulness, pride and rudeness. These are not new ideas in scripture when Paul writes them and they shouldn’t be new to you either. Proverbs 14: 30: “jealousy is like cancer in the bones.” Proverbs 13:10: “Pride leads to conflict.” Matthew 5:22: “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” Paul says we are to keep no record of being wronged... but how many times should we do this Paul?! Once? Twice? If it happens three times, is it like baseball and they are out? Jesus had an answer for this in Matthew 18: 21-22 “Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!” THIS MEANS HOWEVER MANY TIMES IT TAKES! DO NOT PUT A LIMIT ON YOUR FORGIVENESS! Rejoice whenever the truth wins out. Do not hope for something bad to happen to someone else, but hope for good things at all times! Never lose faith, always be hopeful, endure through every circumstance. Come on! Get your get up and go on fire, like a burning building! Encourage others! Don’t be the Debbie Downer assuming everything that can go wrong will go wrong but instead exemplify your Christian faith by living as though you KNOW that this is the day the Lord has made and you will REJOICE and BE GLAD in it! So we have all these things Paul is envisioning for the church, the way believers should act and what does it stem from? LOVE. Love as Christ had loved. This is the vision of the Church. Complicated though it may seem in Paul’s letters, that he’s writing so much to them and sharing this grand vision. He wrote fourteen letters and he says things like “ Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise” (Ephesians 5:15); and “Throw off your sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception” (Ephesians 4:22); or “Do everything without complaining and arguing.” (Philippians 2:14); or maybe even: “Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.” (Galatians 6:4) But ALL of this, every single one starts with Christ-like love. You see, if we start with the basic foundation of love for our God who sent Christ to die for our sins, we begin to want to please Him in the way we act because we understand his love for us and the extraordinary things he has done and then things in our lives start to change! We start to think about each step we take and each word that comes from our mouths, as if it really matters what we say or do (which it absolutely does). We begin to see the how we treat people and how lying and cheating or being impatient or rude does not fit into the mold that Christ-like love offers us and those things start to change too. We see that the things we create with our hands and the attitude we keep while doing those things honors the God we serve and we start to take pride in those things in ways we never found important before because we understand that our excellence peaks others’ interest in why we are so different. Our kindness and optimism opens the door to non-believers wanting what we might have that makes us stand tall even in the most difficult of times and the warmth invites them into the greater conversation about salvation in Christ. Paul knew all this and his vision for the church illustrates the necessity of this great body, through the simple act of love, coming together and exemplifying the life Christ died for us to have and the gateway through which others must come to reach the Lord. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus calls us the Salt of the Earth, meaning we as believers and we as a church should be making others thirsty for what we have! We should not be known as uptight or judgmental and condemning but warm, caring, loving, hardworking, and honest. We should all try to reach beyond what the world expects of us and seek what God expected of His Son and even if we do not reach that perfect standard, which we won’t, we are all flawed and human, we can work each day to be closer than the day before.
Motivation Three: Prayer for the Church
So Paul wrote these letters to Strengthen the early Church and to share his vision with the Early Church but there was one more motivation, that I would say goes along with the other two but that is a really important factor all its own: that is He used the letters as a means to pray for the Church. The idea of praying for one another is nothing new for us and would certainly not be anything new for Paul, but it is a crucial component of faith. Paul knew this and as he was teaching the early churches, he impressed upon them this need to pray for brothers and sisters of faith and really led by example. And Paul’s prayers were absolutely beautiful, full of love, and extremely humble. I think Ephesians 1:15-19 is a great example of this when it says: “Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.” Paul does not hesitate to tell his readers that he is praying for them, nor is he reluctant to tell them what he is praying for. If we look at this prayer for what it is, we will see that it is a model for what prayer should be when we pray for one another and that does not, as you can see, include smearing a person in our lives in front of God in order to lay out all that we want Him to change in them and all that we want them to be. What Paul is showing us here really is where this prayer starts to go hand in hand with the other two motivations of these letters. He is showing us how to encourage one another and what the vision for the church (particularly that CRUCIAL Christ-like love) looks like. And what does Paul pray for here for the early church? He prays that they might know God, grow in spiritual wisdom, and then be able to live that out in their lives. Though short, I believe the prayer portion of Paul’s letters is one of the most impactful aspects of them!
What Have We Learned?
So, Coming to the end of this short series, what have we learned? Well we learned that Paul began his missions to spread the Good News of Salvation through Christ to Europe and Asia Minor and in that time, Paul wrote a series of letters to encourage the believers that he had taught to continue on their spiritual journeys and to share the vision of the church, as it relates to the teachings of Jesus in harmony with the biblical teachings of the Old Testament. As we have seen, Paul speaks to the recipients of his letters in first person just as if he were talking to them face-to-face; he wrote them in letter form so there was some type of greeting at the beginning; Paul encouraged the others’ faith; he spoke to them about the vision for them as believers that he saw for the growth of the church and how their obedience to a Christ-like life could help live out these visions; and then the last motivation or aspect of the Letters of Paul that we discussed was the prayer portion which Paul really used to bless the early churches and to bring the two other motivations we spoke about into view in the way in which they should be lived out.
I hope you enjoyed this study of Paul's letters as much as I enjoyed teaching it to you and that it has enhanced your understanding of the New and Old Testament!
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