Epistles and Letters
As stated in the study of Acts of the Apostles, that historic book constitutes the brooch into which the various letters and epistles of the New Testament, or gems, are set. Only when one understands the historical development of the New Testament can one appreciate fully its wonderful message of love.
There are twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Four of these are gospel records, that have been analyzed already in former studies. We have also examined Acts of the Apostles, Romans, and Hebrews and shall study the Revelation. Thus special attention is given to the eight larger New Testament books. There are nineteen left to be dealt with briefly in this section.
Letters to Individuals
I shall notice first the six letters written to individuals, next the letters to local churches, and, finally, to groups of churches.
The first of the letters to individuals was written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon, a friend of his, who with Archippus (Philemon 2) lived at Colosse (Colossians 4:17). This is the only letter by the Apostle to an individual concerning private matters. The occasion of his writing to this brother beloved was his sending back to Philemon his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul met when he was in prison in Rome and whom he led-to the Lord. When Onesimus was converted, he was willing to go back to his former master and be subject to him according to Roman law. Paul advised him to do so. The aged Apostle appealed to the heart of his brother Philemon to receive this run-away, converted slave as a brother beloved in the Lord and assured him that he was willing to reimburse him for any financial loss he might have suffered by the entire incident. In all probability the letter to Philemon has done more to liberate slaves in so-called Christian lands than any other one portion of the New Testament. Everyone should read it.
His next private letter was I Timothy. He probably wrote it from Macedonia after his release from his first imprisonment at Rome, though we cannot be dogmatic in regard to the exact time of his execution under Nero. In Acts 28 we read of two years of his imprisonment in Rome. Certain scholars think that he never was released. Upon this assumption difficulties immediately arise; for there is not time for all the journeys referred to by Paul in the pastoral letters, such as the one to the province of Asia, another to Spain, one to Greece, another to Macedonia, one to Achaia, and one to Illyricum. Personally, I am of the conviction that Paul was released from his first imprisonment, that he engaged in these missionary activities, and that he was again arrested, taken to Rome, and executed by Nero, that cruel monster, just before his own death in 68 A.D.
We do not observe personal problems cropping out in the pastoral epistles. On the contrary, we see instructions in regard to new problems that were arising, warnings against false teachers, and matters of church administration and discipline. He exhorted Timothy to give himself to the duties incumbent upon him. This letter, like all the others of the aged Apostle, pulsates with life.
Paul visited Crete and there left Titus to set in order those things that were lacking and to appoint elders in every city. In this letter, as in I Timothy, he warned this young minister against heretics, both Jewish and Gentile. He also gave instructions concerning the qualifications of elders and instructed Titus how to look after the work of God. There are a few personal items in the letter. By reading it one gets to the very heart of the great Apostle.
Some scholars think that Paul was arrested a second time (probably in Greece or Macedonia) and was taken to Rome where he stood trial and where he was executed probably in 68 A.D. He sent his second letter to Timothy whom he left at Ephesus and urged him to come with all speed, bringing his cloak, books, and especially the parchments.
In this, Paul's final writing, he urged Timothy to perform his duties as a minister of Christ, to watch after the flock of God, to train others to be able to carry on the work after his decease. Furthermore, he gave a most gloomy picture of conditions that will exist in the last days of this Dispensation.
In it he wrote his classic passage on the inspiration of the Scriptures, found in 3:16,17. He charged Timothy to preach the Word. At the same time he was looking for the executioner who would soon come and be the human means of his entering into the presence of the Great King, whom he loved and served.
The “Beloved Disciple” who spent a part of his last days at Ephesus wrote two private letters, II and III John. By conservative scholars it is usually supposed that these were written between 85 and 90 A.D. The second one was addressed to the elect lady. A discussion has arisen as to who is meant. Some think that he was talking to a certain Christian lady; others, that he was addressing the church under the symbolism of a woman. Though we may not be dogmatic on this point, I see no reason why we should not understand this lady as a literal woman. We do well to avoid speculation and reading a figurative meaning into language unless the facts of the context indicate clearly otherwise. In this letter John rejoices in the fact that this lady and her children are walking in the truth. He, the Apostle of love, urges that Christians love one another. He also warns her of the deceivers who have gone forth into the world, even those who confess not that Jesus Christ is coming again in the flesh. Those who do this are of the Antichrist. She and others are urged to look forward to a full reward.
The third letter was written to Gaius, the beloved. This brother was one on whom John could depend. Diotrephes seems to have been an official in the congregation to which Gaius belonged. Of Diotrephes John said that he loved to have the preeminence. John in his loving, tender way showed his solicitude concerning the cause of the Lord in every place. This epistle pulsates with love.
Letters to Local Churches
The Apostle Paul wrote three letters to the church at Corinth. The one which we call I Corinthians mentions a former letter which he had written to them (I Cor. 5:9). God has not seen fit to preserve this document to us. It is quite likely that Paul wrote the letter which we call I Corinthians when he was in Ephesus about 57 A.D. He had heard of the conditions that had arisen during his absence and was very solicitous for the welfare of that congregation. Many evils had sprung up among which the following may be listed: divisions, the carnal walk of Christians, believers going to law before unbelievers, the question of mixed marriages (believers uniting with unbelievers), meats offered to idols, desecration of the Lord's day service, unspiritual desire to speak with tongues, and doubts concerning the resurrection. All these questions the Apostle handled in a most logical and powerful manner.
He probably wrote II Corinthians early in the spring of 57 A.D. from Macedonia. In it he spoke of his having been brought nigh unto death and of the comfort with which God had comforted him. The classic passage, showing the glory of the ministry, is found in II Corinthians 2:14-5:21. He devotes some attention to the matter of the collection which the Gentile churches were making for the poor saints in Palestine. The fire of his indignation was aroused by the Judaizers who were endeavoring to tear down and to obstruct his work. In the second epistle to the Corinthians we see him with his righteous indignation stirred to the very depths and his willingness to battle for the right.
During Paul's imprisonment in Rome, 61-63 A.D., he wrote the Ephesian, Philippian, and Colossian letters. In Ephesians 1 appears the greatest statement concerning God's foreknowledge, foreordination, and plan of the ages to be found in the Scriptures. In chapters 1 and 3 are two marvelous petitions uttered by this great soul. In the fifth he discusses the church and related subjects.
The Philippian letter is one of joy and great consolation. The church at Philippi is supposed to have been the model or ideal New Testament church, because there is nothing said in a derogatory manner concerning it. Paul's classic passage on the deity of Christ is found in 2:5-11, which every Christian should understand. In the third chapter is also the statement of his purpose in life. He had, figuratively speaking, entered the race course. He was looking toward the goal and was pressing forward, bending every nerve and energy to win the prize. Men are saved by the grace of God but are to be rewarded according to their works. Personal matters crop out here and there in the epistle.
The Colossian letter was written very definitely to counteract incipient gnosticism, which was beginning to attack the church. With their philosophy, the gnostics were disturbing the faith of many. The Apostle, therefore, was compelled to discuss fully and adequately the pre-existence, the creative work, and the sustaining activity of the Lord Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, who is in deed and in truth the head of the body, the church. Paul's exhortation to various groups to live in conformity with their profession seems to reach its height in this epistle. There are some personal matters which give us the Apostle's heartbeat.
Paul's letters to the Thessalonians were the first which he wrote. They were sent from Corinth, probably in 52 or 53 A.D. He spent a very short time with those brethren when he first visited them and established the church in their midst. After his departure questions began to arise which disturbed their faith. In his first epistle he emphasized the teaching relative to the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the catching up of the living saints who will not die but will be translated when Jesus descends from heaven to the air. Also in this epistle we see certain personal matters which enable us better to understand the great Apostle.
Shortly after this writing, it seems that there were those who began to disturb the church, claiming that the rapture had already occurred and that the Thessalonians were then suffering the judgments of the great Tribulation. In order to correct this error, Paul wrote his second letter to them. In it he dealt with this troublesome matter (2:1-12). This is one of the most enlightening passages on the subject of the Antichrist, the man of sin, the son of perdition, that is to be found in the New Testament.
Epistles to Groups of Churches
The letter of James was written about 50 A.D. The style is the same as that found in the epistle written by the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:23-29). From James 1:1 we see that this message was sent to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. From reading the letter we see that the Hebrew believers were still associating with their unbelieving brethren in the synagogue.
The break had not come between them. Since these Hebrew believers had been schooled in terms of law prior to their accepting Christ, James was compelled to speak in terms which they could understand. This fact accounts for the seeming legalistic flavor found here and there in the letter. James presents the practical aspects of Christianity to his brethren and urges them to live in accordance with their profession.
About the same time that Paul wrote the Roman epistle, he also sent one to the brethren in the provinces of Galatia in Central Asia Minor. He was in Corinth when he wrote them, probably in 58 A.D. Many troubles had sprung up over the mission field, where Paul had bestowed much labor. The Judaizers especially, who claimed apostolic authority for their actions and teaching, were going everywhere, insisting that the formula for salvation was Christ plus observing the Law. Thus the gospel was interpreted in terms of the Law. It seems that the Galatians were very quickly moved by this heretical teaching. Paul, therefore, wrote the Galatian letter to correct the evil. In it he laid special emphasis upon the doctrine of justification by faith. This epistle, as no other, presents this glorious doctrine.
The Apostle Peter wrote two epistles. These bear his name. They were addressed to Hebrew Christians who were “sojourners of the Dispersion” in certain provinces in Central Asia Minor. The keynote of the first one, written about 65 A.D., is that Christians are sojourners, pilgrims. Like Abraham they do not have a permanent dwelling place. On the contrary, we are simply passing through this land for a better one. In this epistle the Apostle does not deal with great doctrinal problems but rather with practical questions involving life and conduct.
In his second epistle, which was written probably a year later, Peter looks out into the future and sees the rising up of heretics here and there. Hence he assures the brethren that he and the other apostles did not follow cunningly devised fables when they proclaimed the coming and the majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the contrary, they were eyewitnesses of the things which they had preached. This vision they saw when they were with Christ in the holy mountain. It was additional confirmation of the prophetic scriptures, uttered by men who were borne along by the Holy Spirit. In the second chapter appears the classic passage against heretics who deny the Lord, and who are endeavoring to win the unstable to their own licentious way of life. Objections against the doctrine of the second coming are examined. In answering the spurious opposition, the Apostle shows that in the Tribulation there will come great convulsions in nature as foretold by the Old Testament prophets and by our Lord. After that will come the millennial heavens and the millennial earth, wherein will dwell righteousness.
Some scholars think that Jude wrote about 66 A.D. He was one of the apostolic company and was probably the brother of James. His epistle is very brief. It is very much like II Peter 2 and deals with similar subjects. He quotes the book of Enoch regarding the return of our Lord. The doxology shows eternity, past, present, and future.
The beloved Apostle wrote I John between 80 and 85, according to the opinion of conservative scholars. The occasion of his writing was the rise of the Gnostic sects — Docetic and Cerinthian.
This epistle seems to have been written not to any particular group but for general use in combating the rising heresy and in maintaining a faithful testimony to the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ,
to His atonement, and to His present intercession at the right hand of God. The letter pulsates with love. It shows that by the power of the indwelling Spirit man may live a victorious life in
Christ. This epistle is the one into which a person may look as into a mirror and can see himself. It was written specifically in order that everyone who has accepted Christ might test the genuineness
of his profession. “These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God” (I John 5:13).