Lesson 8: The Epistles of Paul and You
The apostle Paul energetically preached the gospel throughout the Roman world, establishing congregations and following up with letters to instruct, correct and encourage the ministers and members he served. How should we apply the messages of his epistles in our lives today?
the last lesson we saw the dramatic conversion of Saul, the persecutor
of the Church who became the apostle Paul. Jesus Christ told Ananias
that Paul would "bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children
of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My
name's sake" (Acts 9:15-16).
The book of Acts and Paul's letters demonstrate the fulfillment of
those words—including the sufferings. He reluctantly describes them
in 2 Corinthians. Here he defends himself against comparisons with the
boasts of false apostles:
"Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more:
in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently,
in deaths often.
"From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.
"Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was
shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often,
in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen,
in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness,
in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil,
in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold
and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep
concern for all the churches.
"Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn
"If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity"
(2 Corinthians 11:23-30).
Understanding Paul's story can help us understand the tone and zeal that
come across in many of his letters.
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What Are Epistles?
Epistle is just an old-fashioned word for a letter. "In the social
world in which the early Christian writings appeared, letters were one of
the most important media with which to communicate: almost anything could
be (and was) shared in letter form…
"Getting those letters to the recipients was much more chancy than it would
be today. The Roman Empire finally established a fairly trustworthy system
of roadways and postal service, but for ordinary working people like the early
Christian writers one still had to find a colleague willing to carry along
messages and letters when undertaking a business or family trip" (Leland Ryken
and Tremper Longman III, editors, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993,
pp. 445, 448).
Some letters were like sermons with a salutation, but often the letters were
part of a dialog. In Paul's letters he often "responds to gossip and to requests
for information and teaching in letters sent to him… Thus letters often represent
something like half the scene… Frequently it is difficult to figure out just
what religious positions on the opposing side Paul is confronting!" (ibid.,
That's part of the reason Paul's letters can be challenging to understand.
The apostle Peter warned that the writings of Paul can be twisted, but he
also made clear that Paul's epistles were considered inspired Scripture: "And
consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved
brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as
also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some
things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their
own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).
"All of Paul's other letters arise from a particular occasion and have a
definite purpose. Romans is different; from the content it seems to have a
much more general didactic [teaching] aim" (The Nelson Study Bible, introduction
Since Paul did not start the church in Rome and had not yet even visited
it, this letter is less personal and more systematic in its presentation of
foundational Christian principles. Paul wanted to help establish them by explaining
God's plan of salvation (Romans 1:11). He addressed subjects such as sin and
the need for Christ's sacrifice, faith, righteousness, baptism, being led
by the Holy Spirit and living a Christian life. He wanted to help Jewish and
gentile believers live in harmony.
After showing that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), how did Paul summarize
the results of sin and the solution to sin?
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ
Jesus our Lord.
Paul shows clearly that we can be saved from the death penalty only by Christ's
sacrifice. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we
were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Through Christ's life
and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed and fulfill the law
of love (Romans 5:10; 12:2; 13:10).
Some of Paul's comments about the law and justification in Romans have been
misunderstood. For a detailed look at these, see "The
Justice and Judgment of God" and the accompanying sidebars in our free
booklet The New Covenant: Does
It Abolish God's Law?
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in response to troubling reports he had heard and
letters he received from them. Corinth was a tough place to be a Christian,
as the city was known for its temple prostitutes and low moral standards.
Some of the problems Paul addressed include: divisions in the church, a case
of incest, members suing other members, confusion at church services and more.
In contrast to all the problems in Corinth, how did Paul describe
the beauty of godly love?
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself,
is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not
provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in
the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures
all things. Love never fails…
This kind of love would solve all the problems the Corinthians faced. It
is the spiritual gift that the Corinthians, and we, should have been seeking
Sadly, many members in Corinth were filled with arrogance and pride about
their knowledge and spiritual gifts. Paul powerfully explained how their pride
needed to be replaced with love. "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up"
(1 Corinthians 8:1, New Revised Standard Version).
In addition to the Love Chapter, Paul also pointed to the Christian hope
of the resurrection in chapter 15.
"2 Corinthians is perhaps the most intensely personal of all Paul's letters.
We feel for ourselves the weight of his burden of care for all the churches
(11:28): the depth of his love for them and his anguished concern for their
spiritual progress. We see in personal terms the cost of his missionary programme:
hardship, suffering, deprivation, humiliation, almost beyond human endurance.
And we see unshakable faith shining through it all, transforming every circumstance"
(Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 596).
Paul had to take a corrective tone with the Corinthians. But in 2 Corinthians
he expressed appreciation that many of them had responded.
How did Paul describe the thoroughness of their repentance?
2 Corinthians 7:9-11
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance.
For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from
us in nothing.
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted;
but the sorrow of the world produces death.
For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence
it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear,
what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved
yourselves to be clear in this matter.
Paul's description of godly sorrow and repentance provides a pattern and
encouragement for all of us in repenting of our sins and striving to avoid
repeating them. For more about repentance, see our lesson "Repentance—A
Permanent Change of Direction."
"In the early New Testament Church, certain false teachers attempted to persuade
gentile converts that they could not be justified (have their sins forgiven)
by simply repenting, believing the gospel, and accepting the sacrifice of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
"Instead, they were teaching that justification was possible only if they
were physically circumcised and adhered to other temporary laws that were
given at Mt. Sinai. The apostles rejected this argument categorically. Paul
forcefully argued against it in his letter to the Galatians…
"His point was, they did not need to be adopted as Jews to become 'sons of
God' (Galatians 3:26) and receive eternal life" ("Circumcision
vs. a 'New Creation' in Christ" from the booklet The
New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law? Some of Paul's comments
about the law and freedom in Galatians have been misunderstood. For a detailed
look at these, see this chapter and the accompanying sidebars).
How does Paul describe the transformation that he experienced?
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ
lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith
in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
"Buried with Jesus in the watery grave of baptism, Paul now lived a life
that was no longer his own. He described his transformed life as one of allowing
Christ to live again within him. This is how we please God—by emulating His
"To imitate Christ we must ask God for help, through His Spirit, so we can
bring our thoughts, attitudes and actions in line with His. We must allow
His Spirit to become the guiding force in our lives to produce the qualities
of true Christianity. We must ask ourselves whether we are truly being led
by God's Spirit or resisting it" (Transforming
Your Life: The Process of Conversion).
What fruit will the Holy Spirit produce in us if we allow it to lead
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is
For more about how to bear this wonderful fruit, see "The
Fruit of the Spirit" article reprint series.
Paul wrote this letter, as well as Philippians, Colossians and Philemon,
from prison, so they are often called the Prison Epistles. Ephesians may have
been intended to be passed along to other congregations in the area, since
Paul did not include the types of personal greetings he often had in his letters.
"Paul's letter to the Ephesians is about God's marvelous plan to bring peace,
unity and salvation to all peoples—Jews and gentiles alike.
To achieve that goal, God has 'made known to us the mystery of his will
according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into
effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all
things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even
Christ' (Ephesians 1:9-10, NIV)" ("Peace
and Unity in Christ" from the booklet The
New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law? This chapter and the accompanying
sidebars look a many frequently asked questions about Ephesians and Colossians).
Paul uses several analogies to illustrate the Church's beautiful goal of
unity, such as a building, a body and the relationship of husband and wife.
But he doesn't pretend that it will be easy. Christians face formidable foes
in living the Christian life.
What equipment does Paul recommend for Christians battling Satan,
society and ourselves?
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand
in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate
of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel
of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able
to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the
word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,
being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all
For more about how to effectively use the armor of God, see our series of
lessons on "The
Armor of God."
"The most prominent theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is joy, specifically
the joy of serving Jesus. The general tone of the letter reflects Paul's gratitude
toward the Philippians and his joy in God. This may seem strange because Paul
wrote this letter while he was in prison. Paul, however, had the ability to
recognize opportunities for sharing the gospel even in apparent setbacks"
(The Nelson Study Bible, introduction to Philippians).
What are some of the memorable encouraging scriptures in Philippians?
Philippians 4:4-8, 13
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with
thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever
things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever
things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything
praiseworthy—meditate on these things…
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
"The many parallels between Colossians and Ephesians indicate that the two
letters were written about the same time. Both letters reveal the centrality
of Christ and His relationship to the church" (The Nelson Study Bible, introduction
"The immediate occasion for the writing of Colossians was the arrival of
Epaphras (1:8) in Rome with disturbing news about the presence of heretical
teaching at Colosse that was threatening the well-being of the church" (Zondervan
NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 1994, p. 813).
The nature of the heresy and other questions are addresses in the chapter
"Peace and Unity in Christ"
and accompanying sidebars from the booklet The
New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?
Where did Paul tell the Colossians to put their focus?
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.
Paul started the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey
and his first foray into Europe (Acts 17:1-9). Thessalonica was the capital
of the Roman province of Macedonia and may have had a population of 200,000.
After Paul left, he sent Timothy back to see how the church was doing, and
when Timothy returned, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2,
"In response to Timothy's report, Paul wrote this letter (1) to express satisfaction
and thanks to God for the healthy spiritual condition of the church (1:2-10),
(2) to make a strong case against the false insinuations against himself and
his associates (2:1-3:13), and (3) to suggest specific ways in which the already
strong Christian behavior of the Thessalonians could be improved as they lived
a life of holiness (4:1-5:24)" (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol.
2, 1994, p. 844).
How did Paul comfort those whose loved ones had died?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have
fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with
Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and
remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice
of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in
the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the
Therefore comfort one another with these words.
The hope of the resurrection at Jesus Christ's return is the real, encouraging
hope that has strengthened Christians through the ages.
"Despite Paul's letter [1 Thessalonians] the Christians at Thessalonica remained
puzzled about Jesus' return. Some thought the day of his return had already
come. In this second letter, written a few months after the first, Paul warns
that before Jesus comes again, there will be a time of great wickedness (chapter
2). He finishes his letter by urging the Christians to keep the faith, and
keep at their work (chapter 3)" (Eerdmans' Family Encyclopedia of the
Bible, 1978, p. 94).
What must happen before Jesus Christ's return?
2 Thessalonians 2:1-4
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering
together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled,
either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day
of Christ had come.
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the
falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition,
who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped,
so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
For more about end-time prophecies and this man of sin, see our lessons "The
Beast, the False Prophet and the Antichrist" and "The
"Timothy had accompanied Paul for years (Acts 16:1-3; 17:10; 20:4), assisting
him and acting as his liaison to a number of churches. Paul had not only taught
Timothy the essentials of the Christian faith, he had modeled Christian leadership
to him. Now Paul was leaving Timothy in charge of the church at Ephesus. From
Macedonia, Paul wrote to encourage his 'son' in the faith. In effect, this
letter is Timothy's commission, his orders from his concerned teacher, the
apostle Paul" (The Nelson Study Bible, introduction to 1 Timothy).
Why did Paul write this letter to Timothy?
1 Timothy 3:15
But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct
yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the
pillar and ground of the truth.
Both Paul's letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus are known as Pastoral
Epistles. He wrote them to teach ministers how to serve and nurture the Church,
how to deal with problems and encourage Christian growth.
"Paul wrote First Timothy in order to instruct his young protégé on how the
church should function and how mature men and women of God should interact
in it (6:11-16). Specifics are given on developing and recognizing godly leadership
and avoiding false doctrine in the church (3:1-13; 4:1-6). Paul insists that
Christian maturity should be expected in leadership, while it is developed
in the lives of all believers (4:6-10)" (ibid.).
"As Paul penned his second letter to Timothy, he was aware of his coming
death (4:6-8). A number of believers had deserted him (4:16), and only Luke
was with him at the writing of this letter (4:11). At the end of the letter,
one can sense Paul's concern. He implores Timothy: 'Be diligent to come to
me quickly' (4:9)" (ibid., introduction to 2 Timothy).
What did Paul warn would happen in "the last days"?
2 Timothy 3:1-5
But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will
be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers,
disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers,
without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty,
lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness
but denying its power. And from such people turn away!
The downward spiral of these self-centered attitudes and actions is a result
of Satan's influence on this world. These trends are bringing our world to
the brink of destruction, but Jesus Christ has promised to prevent humanity
from annihilating ourselves (Matthew 24:21-22; our free booklet Are
We Living in the Time of the End? explains the biblical predictions
for the time just ahead of us now).
What solid foundation does God give us to help us make it through
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine,
for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the
man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
We need God's promises, instructions, correction and encouragement at all
times, but especially in counteracting the end-time attitudes and the persecution
Paul predicted (2 Timothy 3:12-13). By focusing on God's Word, we can have
a rock-solid foundation for Christian growth with eternal benefits.
It seems Paul was released from prison after Acts 28 and started churches
in Crete. He left Titus there to "set in order the things that are lacking,
and appoint elders in every city" (Titus 1:5). In this Pastoral Epistle, Paul
instructs Titus about choosing and training elders, as well as teaching every
segment of the Church to live godly lives.
What did Paul teach we should do between Christ's first and second
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching
us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly,
righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope
and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave
Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify
for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
Jesus Christ's willingness to die to make it possible for us to be saved
from the death penalty of sin should motivate us to purify our lives and zealously
do good works. As we earnestly look forward to Christ's return in glory to
save this entire world, we should set the example of living God's way of life
The short letter to Philemon ushers us into a society much different from
our own. The Roman world was a world of rigid social structure built on slavery.
In Rome itself, slaves outnumbered Roman citizens!
Philemon's slave Onesimus apparently had stolen something and had run away
to Rome. There he met Paul and was converted to Christianity. Amazingly, Paul
also knew his master Philemon and was willing to intercede for Onesimus.
In this letter, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and treat him
as a Christian brother. This short letter is a powerful display of love and
The book of Hebrews does not mention its author's name, but it was traditionally
considered to be the work of the apostle Paul. We consider this likely, though
other theories have been advanced. Whoever the author was, he seems to have
been addressing a group of Christian Jews who were feeling nostalgic and melancholy
about what seemed like the good old days of their prior Jewish culture and
rituals. As a result, they were in danger of giving up their Christian faith.
The verse that probably best sums up the book's theme of perseverance is
10:36: "For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will
of God, you may receive the promise."
"The writer sets out to strengthen their faith. He shows Jesus as the one
who truly and finally reveals God to man.
"The writer shows that Jesus is far greater than the angels, or the great
men of the Old Testament, Moses and Joshua (1:1-4:13). He shows that Jesus,
as priest 'for ever,' is far greater than the priests of the Old Testament
(4:14-7:28). He shows that Jesus provides a better agreement between God and
man, and a final once-for-all sacrifice, to which the Old Testament writers
pointed forward (chapters 8-10). Jesus is the perfect priest, offering the
perfect sacrifice, reconciling God and man.
"The writer looks at the shining example of faith given by the great men
and women in Israel's history (chapter 11). He urges his readers not to turn
back, but to stay faithful to Jesus despite suffering and persecution (chapters
12-13)" (Eerdmans' Family Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1978, p. 94).
How does the book of Hebrews explain faith?
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not
The rest of the chapter expands on this important concept, showing by many
inspiring examples how the faithful men and women of the Bible pleased God
and were strengthened by their belief, not only that He exists, but that "He
is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). For more on
this, see Life's Ultimate Question:
Does God Exist? and You
Can Have Living Faith.
Some of the passages in Hebrews about changes to the Old Covenant and the
institution of a New Covenant can be challenging to understand. For a detailed
study of these passages, see the chapters "A
New Covenant for Transforming the Heart" and "The
High Priest Essential to Salvation," as well as the accompanying sidebars,
in our booklet The New Covenant:
Does It Abolish God's Law?
Choose one of the Epistles of Paul to read starting today. As you study
the letter, ask yourself how the situations faced by the person or people
Paul was writing to relate to things you are going through today. What commands,
correction and encouragement can you apply in your life? Though some of
the first-century circumstances were unique, many challenges are common
to the human experience.
If you come across material that you need help to understand, you may find
some of the "Related Resources" below can help, or feel free to send your
questions to our Personal Correspondence team.
Next Lesson: Lesson 9: The General Epistles and You
Questions about this lesson? Feedback about
How to Understand the Bible
Bible and Archaeology: Archaeology and the Epistles
of Faith: Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles
of Faith: Timothy: Paul's Son in the Faith
Armor of God series
Beast, the False Prophet and the Antichrist
Are We Living in the Time of
Life's Ultimate Question: Does
You Can Have Living Faith
The New Covenant: Does It Abolish