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Paul's Letters and Theology

This lesson will discuss four topics:

  1. Why are Paul’s letters arranged the way they are?
  2. Why do some people think Paul did not write some of the letters?
  3. What are “house churches”?
  4. Paul's theology (his understaning of God, salvaton, etc.)

Why are Paul’s letters arranged the way they are?

The letters of Paul in the NT are:

Most people think these letters are arranged in the order that Paul wrote them, but these letters are not arranged chronologically. The first letter Paul wrote was probably Galatians, and the last letter Paul wrote was II Timothy. So why are the letters of Paul arranged this way? Simple, they follow two rules:

  1. The first group is letters to cities and the second group is letters to individuals.
  2. Within each of those two groups, the letters are arranged from longest to shortest.

For example, Romans is longer than I Corinthians, which is longer than II Corinthians, which is longer than Galatians, etc., with II Thessalonians being the shortest of the letters to cities.

Romans
I Corinthians
II Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
I Thessalonians
II Thessalonians
Letters to cities longest







shortest
I Timothy
II Timothy
Titus
Philemon
Letters to individuals   longest


shortest

Why do some people think Paul did not write some of the letters?

Each of the 9 letters after Galatians could be examined from those different opinions, that Paul didn’t write it or that Paul did write it. But for the purposes of this class, and to keep the information simpler, I will present each of the letters as if Paul wrote them.

Copying letters

In those days it was common for important people to write letters and for the letters to be copied and spread around. This happened with the books of the NT (including the Gospels and Acts). Although hiring someone to copy by hand was expensive, all of the books of the NT were copied and passed to other house churches. That is one way we can take confidence in what is written in the NT: scholars have discovered a number of copies, copies of copies, etc. and they all agree (except on some very minor points).

What are “house churches”?

The instructions above state that Paul wrote letters to cities. To be more specific Paul wrote letters to house churches in those cities. When Christianity first developed after Jesus, Christians gathered in each other’s homes. These are called "house churches." As a house church grew it split and two homes hosted these Christian gatherings, and on and on they grew in numbers. This process continued and eventually Christianity consisted of hundreds and perhaps thousands of “house churches” across the Roman Empire. How many people belonged to one house church? No one knows, but think about it this way: how many people can comfortably fit in your house? That is how large they were. Therefore, when a lesson mentions that Paul wrote letters to cities, you know that he wrote letters to house churches in those cities.

Paul's theology

Paul became the leader of the young Christian movement because he had the correct understanding of the message of Jesus. That may sound odd, but usually movements begin with one person or a group of people, and only later do other people fully understand the movement. For example, consider these countries, when they received their freedom, and when their constitutions were written:

The same process happened in Christianity. Peter and the other Apostles traveled with Jesus and began the new Christian movement, but it took Paul (at a later time) to fully understand the message of Jesus. Another way to see this process: Peter played an important role in the development of Christianity and Paul played a different role, just like those who fight to start a country have different skills than those who write the constitution of a country.

In order to fully understand the message of Jesus, though, we have to examine the message of the entire Bible. That means we have to understand how Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the Holy Spirit are connected. And in the process you will understand that Jesus’ message really tied the OT and the NT together.

Abraham

God and Abraham formed a Covenant around 1950 B.C. In that Covenant God told Abraham to begin the practice of circumcision for all baby boys at 8 days of age. God’s people, who became known as the Jews, continued that practice. The Covenant established the people of God (the Jews).

(I like the word "established" because it means it started the people of God and was continually used to cause people to become part of the people of God.)

Moses

In the Old Testament, God gave the Law to Moses around 1450 B.C. (some scholars believe closer to 1250 B.C., but the date doesn't matter for this class). This Law consisted of rules for living (such as the 10 Commandments), sacrifices, worship, etc. The Law taught the people of God (the Jews in the Old Testament) how to live.

Jesus part 1

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had practiced both the Covenant (with its ruling on infant male circumcision) and the Law for around 1500 years. Jesus was born a Jew and therefore he was circumcised and followed the Law of Moses. Later, after Jesus was baptized, he began to preach. Jesus preached for about 3 years. In all those years he did not say not to follow the Covenant (and circumcision) and not to follow the Law. The only comment he made about them was in the Sermon in the Mount: Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

When he mentioned the Law, Jews would have understood that this included the Covenant with circumcision as well. But what did it mean to “fulfill” the Law? No one understood while Jesus was alive. We will move on and come back to that later.

Peter

He traveled with Jesus for three years and was one of the Original Apostles. He was also a Jew. Before he met Jesus, since Peter was a Jew, he believed that males needed to be circumcised (the Covenant) and everyone needed to follow the Law in order to please God. That is what the Covenant and Law taught. The Jews had practiced that for 1500 years. Jesus did not say to stop, so Peter believed those two were necessary to please God. After Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter continued to believe that males needed to be circumcised and everyone needed to follow the Law. But now he added “belief in Jesus” to that. So for Peter, that meant there were three steps to pleasing God:

  1. Circumcision, if male;
  2. Follow the Law; and
  3. Believe in Jesus (and to follow his teachings)

This just made sense to Peter. Jesus did not tell the Apostles to stop circumcision and to stop following the Law, and so they didn’t. Jesus did say that he came to fulfill them, but neither Peter nor the other Apostles really understood what that meant. But Peter did have one great contribution to the young Christian movement: courage.

Everyone knows people who are courageous, and even people who will do crazy things, but Peter’s courage was beyond that. Here are three stories from Peter’s life to show his incredible courage.

  1. Peter and the apostles were with Jesus on the night when he was arrested. Jesus began to pray, and he prayed long into the night. After it was dark, Judas, soldiers, and others approached Jesus to arrest him. Peter had a sword and swung it: he was only able to cut the ear off of one of the servants. But think about it this way: Peter was not a soldier, yet he was willing to attack a group of trained soldiers in the middle of the night with only one sword so that he could protect Jesus. And he was such a terrible swordsman that all he could do was to cut someone’s ear off. Think about it: if someone is standing in front of you, and all you can do is cut off his ear, that shows what a terrible swordsman you are. So Peter was a horrible swordsman, but he decided to defend Jesus anyway. That took a great amount of courage, because Peter probably thought he was going to die fighting to protect Jesus.
  2. After Jesus was arrested, he was taken to the house of the High Priest. Peter and John followed. John was probably a teenager at that time and so no one noticed him. The house had a courtyard in the middle of it, and Peter went into the courtyard. Three different people accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ followers, but each time Peter denied that he knew Jesus. Then Jesus looked at Peter and Peter left the house weeping.
    • Christians have long used this story to show that Peter denied Jesus at a time when Jesus needed him the most. But this is my question: where were the other Apostles? John was there, but he was young and so was not in considered dangerous. But the other Apostles fled to safety. Only Peter followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest and even went inside to the courtyard in the middle of the house. Yes, Peter did deny Jesus, but at least he was there. That took great courage.
  3. After Jesus ascended out of view from the Apostles, they returned to Jerusalem. Think about their situation: their leader (Jesus) had just been crucified, and they probably all thought they were in danger of being arrested and crucified. So their plan was to stay out of sight and not be noticed. Then the day of Pentecost came and many people noticed that they were speaking in tongues. If you think about it from the Apostles’ viewpoint, the worse had happened: they were discovered. What did Peter do? He went out and preached to the crowd. He was probably thinking that he would speak, be arrested, and be crucified, but he spoke to the crowd anyway. Once again that took great courage.

These examples show that Peter had great courage, and that was the quality that the young Christian movement needed. Jesus, their leader, had been killed in a gruesome way, and the movement needed someone with an immense amount of courage who would say: “Follow my example: let’s go!” Therefore, Peter had the right quality at the right time. He did not have the full understanding, but he was able to get the movement started. But just like a constitution comes along after the nation is formed, the proper understanding would appear in the person of Paul 20 years later.

Note: before Paul (and really the Council of Jerusalem), if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian, he/she would have been told by the Apostles to be circumcised if male (according to the Old Testament Covenant between Abraham and God), follow the Law (of Moses), and believe in Jesus. That changed with Paul because he properly understood the teachings of Jesus concerning circumcision and the Law, and he convinced the other Apostles and leaders. This probably happened at the Council of Jerusalem in the year 50 (Acts 15).

Acts does not indicate that Peter and the other Apostles and leaders understood that God no longer required believers to be circumcised (if male) or follow the Law of Moses before the Council of Jerusalem. Plus, Peter and others seemed to still struggled with the circumcision issue: Galatians 2:11-21 tells the story of Paul confronting Peter over circumcision; that happened after the Council of Jerusalem (which is reported in Galatians 2:1-10).

Paul

Paul was a courageous man also, but his main contribution was his clear understanding of the purpose of Jesus. Paul realized what Jesus meant when Jesus said that he came to “fulfill” the Law. Paul understood that the Covenant and Law were not deleted, but Jesus "improved" them. But what does that mean?

Think back to the purpose of the Covenant and the Law:

Discussing the Covenant first: Paul realized that the important aspect of the Covenant was the faith Abraham had in God and not in the act of circumcision. Paul understood that someone could be circumcised but that does not mean that they have faith in God. Therefore Abraham’s faith was the important part of the Covenant and not circumcision. God was not interested solely in having Abraham circumcised but firstly in Abraham believing in God. In a rough analogy, circumcision is like the ring in a wedding: it is not the important part, but only symbolizes the important part, which is the relationship. Therefore circumcision is only the symbol. Paul wrote about this in Romans 4:10 and the first part of 11: “Under what circumstances was it [a relationship to God] credited to him [Abraham]? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

Paul realized that circumcision was necessary before the time of Jesus as a symbol, but after Jesus, that type of physical symbol was no longer necessary. The act of circumcision was limited in that it was only a physical act. Therefore Paul did not believe that Gentile males needed to be circumcised. Faith in Jesus was what established one as part of the people of God after Jesus, not circumcision.

Now the Law: Paul understood the purpose of the Law, which was to show God’s people how to live. But Paul also realized that the Law was insufficient. Think about it this way: one of the 10 Commandments says not to kill. But none of the 10 Commandments says to love everyone. Therefore, I could think about killing someone, but as long as I didn’t do it, I was obeying that command. One of the 10 Commandments says not to commit adultery. So, I could think about committing adultery, but as long as I didn’t actually commit adultery, I was obeying that command as well. Paul realized that the 10 Commandments, and all of the Law, were limited in that it only monitored behavior and not attitude. Paul wrote about this in Galatians 3:23-25: "Before this faith [in Jesus] came, we were held prisoners by the Law, and locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith [in Jesus] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the Law."

Therefore, Paul no longer believed that Christians should follow the Law. But then, what did Paul believe? How were Christians supposed to live? To that we have to go back to Jesus and then discuss the Holy Spirit.

Jesus part 2

In the Sermon on the Mount, which I pointed out earlier where Jesus made his statement about fulfilling the Law and Prophets, he also used two of the 10 Commandments to explain what “fulfill” meant. Peter didn’t understand it, but Paul did. Jesus mentions the two Commandments I mentioned above, points out that they are inadequate, and describes how he is enlarging their meaning:

In these two passages, Jesus shows that following the 10 Commandments, and by extension the Law, is no longer sufficient. After him people will be held to a higher standard, that of loving others. When Jesus said he was going to fulfill the Law and Prophets, he meant that he was going to raise the standard or raise the bar. So he did not do away with the Law and Prophets, but he built on them and expected even more from people. But in all fairness, how could he require more of people who came after him than people in the OT?

Holy Spirit

This is possible because of the Holy Spirit. Remember back to a discussion on the Trinity, that the role of the Holy Spirit is to teach. After the time of Jesus, the standard will be raised because the Holy Spirit will teach and remind people how God wants them to live. Jesus mentioned this in John 16:7,8: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [meaning the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness [meaning how to live] and judgment."

Jesus explains that after he is gone the Holy Spirit will come to those who believe in him. That is how it is possible, because the Holy Spirit will teach each believer in Jesus. That is why Christians no longer need to follow the 10 Commandments or the rest of the Law: the Holy Spirit teaches them to love everyone and so they don’t need a written law that requires them to do less (love vs. do not kill)

Summary

Abraham Abraham and God agreed on a Covenant, which included circumcision for all males.
  -This established the People of God.
Moses God gave the 10 Commandments and many other laws (over 600) for the Jews to follow.
  -This told the People of God how to live.
Jesus He said that he came to fulfill the Law and by extension the Covenant
  -The Original Apostles did not fully understand him.
Peter He thought a Christian should be circumcised (if male), follow the Law, and believe in Jesus.
  -He did not fully understand “fulfill”, but that didn’t matter because his main contribution was courage.
Paul He did fully understand Jesus’ purpose and what Jesus meant by “fulfill": God desires faith and not circumcision nor for people to follow the Law.
  -He became the main Christian leader after the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50.
Holy Spirit Jesus actually said what Paul came to understand later:
  -Circumcision was replaced with true faith.
  -The Law was replaced by the Holy Spirit, who teaches Christians.
Therefore Before Jesus: the Covenant with circumcision and the Law was in effect (in the Old Testament period)
After Jesus: a person only needs faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit would then teach the Christian how to live.

©2016 Mark Nickens