Paul’s Living Letters

The readings for October include three of the letters the apostle Paul sent to ecclesias of the first century: Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians. We also begin the book of Acts, which contains the historical context of each of these letters and several others. While the message of these letters sets them apart from other literature of that day, we should also be aware of how unique these letters are in the communication of divine truth.

Of course there are letters in the Old Testament, but they are, almost without exception, the means by which doom and judgement were communicated. There is no exhortation or encouragement as they are almost always negative. In the New Testament, it is entirely different. Letters are the major means of communication of divine truth. After the gospel history is recorded, the rest of the New Testament is composed of letters from the apostles, from Jesus himself, or from close associates. They are written to individuals, to ecclesias, to designated groups of believers and to Jews scattered abroad. They contain all of the things that the Old Testament letters don’t contain — exhortation, encouragement, exposition of the Old Testament, explanations of doctrine and the meaning of Christ’s death and our salvation. They also contain what the Old Testament letters had — rebuke, warning of judgement and prophecy.

Letters are related to real life

Another important aspect of these letters is the way they confirm the reality of Christ’s existence and purpose. They were written by real people who saw these things happen and heard Jesus’ teaching firsthand. The letters were received by individuals and ecclesias who were living the events of the period and who knew the authors as trustworthy men. In short, they accepted them as the gospel truth and they were the best judges as to whether they were true.

How do we know this? Because they didn’t discard them like junk mail. Each ecclesia kept, preserved, copied, circulated, quoted and generally treated these letters as direct revelations from God! The following generation did the same because they believed their fathers.

So we know today that these letters are true, otherwise they would have been thrown out long ago. These are living letters. They have a text, a context and a certified history; that’s why they are so important for us to study today.

Galatians in the Acts

To illustrate the reality and life that we find in these letters, let’s examine the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Determining the context is not as easy as it sounds, because we don’t have any record in the Acts of Paul writing the various letters. The evidence of when they were written must be found by comparing the activities of Paul and his helpers in Acts with what we find in the letters themselves. This involves a bit of detective work, but it is well worth the effort.

On his first missionary journey, after leaving Cyprus, the Apostle Paul headed for the Asian mainland and traveled north through Galatia. He visited the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. In Antioch and Iconium he and Barnabas went to the synagogue and preached the gospel of Christ. Acts 13:45 tells us what happened in Antioch. “But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.”

The same thing happened at Iconium (Acts 14:2) and Lystra (Acts 14:19). In addition to the wonderful way the Gentiles accepted the faith in Galatia, the general opposition of the Jews in the region appears to be the other predominant theme that runs through the story of the first missionary journey. From Derbe, Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps through the same three cities, and as they went they confirmed the souls of the disciples (Acts 14:22).

The epistle written

Arriving back at Antioch of Syria, where the journey began, Paul almost certainly at this time wrote the epistle to the Galatian ecclesias he and Barnabas had just established! The reason is not hard to figure out. Note Acts 15:1-2:

“And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.”

Now compare Galatians 2:11-14 where we find very similar wording:

“But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”

Judaism was the problem. As soon as he and Barnabas had left the region, it appears that Jewish Christians were barring the Gentile believers from the Truth because they weren’t circumcised. Look at the vigor with which the apostle attacks their change of heart:

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:6-8).

“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Gal. 3:1-2).

A vital issue

Paul wastes no time hitting the error of Judaism directly. Were they saved by faith in the gospel of Christ or were they saved by the works of the law such as circumcision? In the whole letter Paul shows himself to be greatly moved, and no wonder! The very future of the gospel was threatened!

In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul deals with the following issues:

  • He attacks the preaching of another gospel that was not the same one he had preached to them.
  • He asserted his authority on the Truth. He had received it from Jesus Christ himself.
  • He shows that there is no racial distinction in Christ’s Ecclesia. It is not those who are blood descendants of Abraham who are his seed. It is those who believe who are the promised children of Abraham.

Paul’s care for the ecclesias

Both in Antioch and in the Galatian ecclesias just established, the Apostle Paul was dealing with an influence which threatened to destroy the early church. Eventually, of course, it did destroy the true church as these same Judaistic tendencies blossomed into the Catholic Church with its priesthood, altars and continuous offering of the blood and body of Christ in its masses. No wonder his letter to the Galatians is such a passionate appeal to those who were in danger. When we see the context of this letter we begin to understand the depth of Paul’s statement in II Corinthians 11:28: “Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”

It wasn’t a case of Paul being able to sit in his home, his mind unencumbered with anything else and compose a letter to the Galatians. At the same time, he was dealing with the delegation from James, the Judaizers from Jerusalem, even Peter and Barnabas being carried away with this threat of the law. He was fighting these battles during the day and we can imagine that late into the night he would finally make the time to write to the new ecclesias in Galatia about the same threat that apparently had engulfed them. This was the reality of his care for all of the churches. This context breathes life into these letters so that they in turn can breathe life into our commitment to serve our ecclesia with life and vigor as Paul did.

Jim Robinson