Essentials of the New Testament - Lesson 10

2 Corinthians, Romans, and the Prison Epistles (Part 1)

The outline and summary of the content of 2 Corinthians includes themes like financial stewardship and Christians being "ambassadors of reconciliation." Romans finds its theme in 1:16-17, the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for both Jews and Greeks. The books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon are known as the "Prison Epistles." (50 min.)

Craig Blomberg
Essentials of the New Testament
Lesson 10
Watching Now
2 Corinthians, Romans, and the Prison Epistles (Part 1)

I. 2 Corinthians

A. Background

1. Mixed Reactions to the Previous Letter (2:1-4)

2. Different ’Tones’ in Chapters 1-9 and 10-13

3. A Proposed Resolution

4. Evidence of Another Letter

5. Date: AD 56

B. Problems in Outlining

1. The Hardest Letter of Paul to Outline

2. The Possibility of Different Letters

3. The Possibility of Jewish Thinking

4. The Possibility of Symmetry and Parallelism

C. Key Theological Themes in 2 Corinthians

1. The Role of Suffering in the Christian Life (1:3-11)

2. Being Ambassadors of Reconciliation (5:11-21)

3. Not Being Unequally Yoked (6:14-7:1)

4. Financial Stewardship (8:1-9:15)

5. Paul’s Authority (11:21-33)

6. Dealing with a “Thorn in the Flesh” (12:1-10)

D. Key Applications

II. Romans

A. Background

1. Recipients: Christians in Rome

2. Purpose


Date: A.D. 57

B. Outline

1. Thesis: Not Ashamed of the Gospel (1:16-17)

2. God’s Wrath against Ungodliness (1:18–3:20)

3. Justification by Faith (3:21–5:21)

4. Sanctification through the Spirit (6:1–8:39)

5. The Role of Israel in God’s Plan of Salvation (9:1–11:36)

6. The Ethics of Christian Living (12:1-15:13)

7. Conclusion (15:14–16:27)

C. Key Applications from Romans

III. The Prison Epistles (Part 1)

A. Background

1. The Books

2. The Author

3. Recipients

4. Date

B. Exegetical Highlights

1. Philemon

2. Colossians

3. Ephesians

  • There are many reasons why studying the Bible is informative and profitable. Effective approaches you use to study the New Testament will take into account questions of introduction, exegesis, theology and application. Your conclusions will be affected by your presuppositions and the extent to which you allow your previous knowledge and life experience to be part of the process. (45 min.)

  • The nations that controlled the nation of Israel prior to and during the writing of the New Testament affected the political and cultural climate in which it was written. The influence of the Greek religion and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is an underlying theme throughout the New Testament. Roman rule in Israel and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 are significant to both Judaism and Christianity. The four main groups in Judaism were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. (38 min.)

  • How and why were the books in the New Testament chosen to form the canon we have today? The three major criteria are that the writings be widely accepted, non-contradictory with previously acknowledged revelation and genuinely going back to an apostle or close associate of an apostle. The four Gospels have similarities and differences in their content and writing style. Matthew, Mark and Luke have so many similarities that they are called the Synoptic Gospels. John is significantly different in content and style from the other three. (47 min.)

  • This lesson is an introduction and overview to each of the four Gospels. We’ll look at the term, gospel, and the genre of gospel. Understanding the circumstances surrounding the writing of each Gospel helps us better understand the central themes of each book. We’ll look at the major themes of each book and how to apply them. (42 min.)

  • By comparing the texts of the Gospels, we can trace the major periods, activities and teachings of Jesus' life. Matthew and Luke describe events surrounding Jesus' birth and childhood. We can trace major events in the life and ministry of Jesus by following the order of events in the Gospel of Mark. (46 min.)

  • The public ministry of Jesus, also described as the "Great Galilean" ministry, is described in different ways in all four Gospels. After his public ministry, there was a phase in which the ministry of Jesus is characterized by growing rejection of him, leading to his death and resurrection. (49 min.)

  • The events surrounding the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, and an introduction to the book of Acts. (36 min.)

  • A summary of the book of Acts beginning with the third major section starting at Acts 9:32. Also, a summary of the background and contents of Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. (39 min.)

  • A major theme in Second Thessalonians is "the Day of the Lord." There are common themes and teachings in First and Second Thessalonians. First Corinthians emphasizes the themes of Jesus' death and resurrection, as well as the importance and use of spiritual gifts, and how we conduct ourselves in relation to those who are pursuing Christ and those who are not. (45 min.)

  • The outline and summary of the content of 2 Corinthians includes themes like financial stewardship and Christians being "ambassadors of reconciliation." Romans finds its theme in 1:16-17, the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for both Jews and Greeks. The books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon are known as the "Prison Epistles." (50 min.)

  • Common themes and applications from the Prison Epistles and the Pastoral Epistles are theologically significant as well as practical in their application in daily life. Hebrews emphasizes Jesus as the great High Priest and includes warning passages against committing apostasy. James emphasizes the relationship between faith and works in a way that complements what Paul writes in his letters, even though it sometimes seems contradictory at first. (52 min.)

  • A dominant theme of the book of First Peter is how to live during times of suffering, particularly when that suffering is a result of being persecuted for your faith. The messages in Revelation for seven specific churches are also relevant for churches and individuals today. Much of Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style and contains imagery of the last days. (51 min.)

Dr. Craig Blomberg begins with a discussion of why this topic is important, he moves into New Testament backgrounds, how we received our Bible, a summary of all four gospels, and then on to the letters of Paul and others.

Recommended Books

Understanding the New Testament - Student Guide

Understanding the New Testament - Student Guide

This course is an overview of the content and themes of the New Testament by Dr. Craig Blomberg. Beginning with a discussion of why this topic is important, he moves into...

Understanding the New Testament - Student Guide

Dr. Craig Blomberg
Essentials of the New Testament
2 Corinthians, Romans, and the Prison Epistles (Part 1)
Lesson Transcript




This is tape ten in the series New Testament Introduction and Survey. After 1 Corinthians the reaction in Corinth to Paul’s letter appears to have been mixed. By the time he writes 2 Corinthians the first nine chapters sound much more positive whereas chapters 10 to 13 sound much more negative. Has fresh news arrived as Paul writes? Are different groups in Corinth being addressed? Is 10 to 13 a separate letter either before or after chapters 1 to 9?

All of these options have been suggested, but recent studies of the letter suggest a way of seeing it as written all at one time in a kind of A, B, A structure with chapters 1 to 7 dealing with the positive results of the Corinthians’ reforms in response to a correct understanding of Paul’s apostolic ministry, followed by the one main area they still have some progress to make in, Chapters 8 to 9 with the collection for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem, followed by the area in which they do not yet grasp Paul’s apostolic ministry, namely the role of suffering as over against those who are misguided in their views of how mature the church has become and thus 10 to 13 use more tough tones in dealing with the topic and addressing the Corinthians.

At any rate, we know that Paul has both visited the church in Corinth and written them an additional letter since 1 Corinthians (see the references in 2:9 and again in chapter 7) to a sorrowful letter that Paul has penned that seemed necessary to finally get the believers there to come around and also the reference in 12:14 to this now being his third visit as he is en route from Ephesus after his third missionary journey having traveled through Troas in northwestern Turkey (see 7:4-5) and having come into Macedonia, the northern half of the Greek peninsula, en route to Achaia where Corinth was located in the southern half of the Greek peninsula. The date is, thus, probably A.D. 56, give or take a year.

Problems in Outlining

The outline of the letter, not least because of all of these separate parts is by far the hardest to perceive of all of Paul’s letters, 2:14–7:4 has sometimes been called a major digression, because Paul’s comments leading up to this section deal with his travel plans and his eagerness to find out how things are progressing in Corinth and 7:5 picks up right where he leaves off in 2:13. 6:14–7:1 has often been called a minor digression, because the same phenomenon occurs if you delete these verses that sternly warn against improper, intimate mixture with idolatry and idolaters, those serving false gods, again the text reads quite smoothly.

Even chapters 8 and 9 together and separately have at times been taken as not central to Paul’s purposes and all of these segments just referred to as digressions have by some been taken as separate letters. But there is no actual textual support in antiquity for this approach, so if there is a way to understand the letter as being a unity, it is better to see it that way.

It seems as if Paul is here following a kind of logic that proceeds more along the lines of Jewish outline by linking words and themes each leading to the next, and then it is at least arguably that in chapters 6 and 7 he is retracing those themes in reverse order, which creates some of the symmetry and parallelisms that we find between the beginning and the ending section of this material. At any rate, it may prove more valuable simply to highlight some key themes and passages along the way rather than to confidently declare we have discerned the exact outline of the book.

Key Theological Themes

Certainly one of those key themes is the role of suffering in the Christian life. Already in Paul’s thanksgiving, which is expressed in the more Jewish category of a berakah, or a praise or blessing to God for his mercies, we read in 1:3-11 of the comfort that Paul repeatedly has received from God as he has gone through tough times, not least in order that he might turn around and bless others by sharing some of that comfort with them when they are going through tough times.

As we move on into chapter 2 and the reference to a particular sinner who has now repented and should be welcomed back into the community tantalizing to question whether this was the incestuous offender of 1 Corinthians 5, though there is no way to be sure about this, we see a second principle relating to suffering, namely, that it should lead to repentance if sin has been involved. It is important not to assume that sin, other than the general sin of living in this fallen world, is behind a particular experience of suffering, but it is also important to diagnose oneself in each such context in case there are sins one needs to confess and repent of and change one’s ways.

In 4:7-11, a powerful catalogue of Paul’s sufferings, we learn a third principle that when we allow God’s grace to sustain us in such situations and live, as it were, above our circumstances, then others can much more clearly see than in normal situations that it is God’s supernatural power that gives us the ability to continue to live in faith and hope and love, in other words, it points people to Jesus rather than to ourselves. For this reason we can expect that the normal Christian life will include some suffering, some of which is overt persecution for our public Christian stands (see 6:4-10).

A fourth principle appears several times as we read about how whatever suffering, however severe it may be in this life that we must experience, it is more than offset or counterbalanced or compensated for by the present glory of the New Covenant, of unity with Christ and his church (3:18), of the fact of our individual salvation and new birth, we are being made into a new creation (5:17), and most important of all, the hope of immediate presence with Christ and eventual resurrection of the body and life everlasting after our deaths and/or after Christ’s return (see 5:1-10).

The theological heart of the letter then comes in 5:11-21 as we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, helping others overcome their alienation with God by repenting and trusting in Jesus as well as functioning as peacemakers and helping
people to be reconciled one with another. In this context 5:20 appears as one of Paul’s most significant statements on the substitutionary role of Christ’s death or atonement, the one who knew no sin was made sin on our behalf that we might be reconciled to God.

Chapter 6 does indeed include a somewhat distinct, brief exhortation beginning at verse 14 and running through 7:1 about not being unequally yoked with unbelievers. The word for yoked here is different from that used elsewhere in the New Testament for marriage, and while one can deduce from a passage like 1 Corinthians 7:40 that it is important to marry someone who shares one’s spiritual commitments, Paul probably has other kinds of concerns such as worshipping false gods and being yoked in any context, and particularly in worship, with such people here in 6:14–7:1 as one reads the actual details of the passage.

Chapters 8 and 9 do indeed provide crucial teaching about financial stewardship in the context of Paul’s collection for those still suffering in Judea in and around Jerusalem as a result of the famine in the late 40s. We see here principles of giving that climax in such texts as 8:13-15 in which it becomes clear that the more one has the higher percentage one ought to share with the needy, giving from one’s surplus, not trading places with rich and poor, but being very honest about how much is surplus. And then again in 9:6-7 where we see the principle that generous or stingy giving in the material realm will have consequences for God’s generous or stingy blessing of us in the spiritual realm. This is not a passage that promises material compensation for material giving but refers to blessings of every kind and it is up to God in his sovereignty through his Spirit which kind of blessings he will give his people when they are generous in any particular situation.

Chapters 10 to 13, then, as we have already mentioned, do take on a much harsher, at times even ironic or sarcastic tone. It is possible without seeing the letter as formed out of more than one separate piece of correspondence to imagine Paul dictating his thoughts over a period of time as he is traveling en route to Corinth and having received fresh news of new intruders into the Corinthian church, perhaps very much like the Judaizers that we saw at Galatia and thus having to add these chapters, if they were not planned from the outset. But, as we have already said, there are ways to see the letter as a unity from the start as well.

Although Paul feels like a fool in being forced into doing so, his main tactics in these chapters is to compare his credentials with these false teachers, apparently along the lines of those who were insisting that Jewish credentials gave them some superior role and so he boasts in his Jewish credentials also, particularly in 11:21 through the middle of 23. But then he abruptly shifts gears and shows that the area in which these competing teachers cannot even begin to match him is in the catalogue of sufferings he has endured. Some of them simply for itinerant ministry and travel with the hardships of the ancient world, some of them overtly for his Christian faith, and so the most profound and extensive list of all he has had to endure proceeds through the end of chapter 11.

Perhaps the most striking of all being the number of times that he subjected himself to the thirty-nine lashes, the severe whippings from Jews in local synagogues, five times he declares in verse 24, which Paul could easily have exempted himself from by simply renouncing his Judaism and his affiliation with the synagogue and allegiance to Christ as any Gentile coming to Christian faith did in his time. But his concern for reaching his fellow Jews for the Lord made him stay in his Jewish context and receive repeatedly these horrific punishments.

Chapter 12 also returns to the theme of the value of suffering with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, some mystery ailment or bodily injury that refused to go away, that Paul prayed about particularly intensely on several occasions only to eventually be told it was not God’s intention to remove this. Strikingly, this passage comes in 12:7-9 right after his admission that he had some very unique, supernatural, possibly out-of-body experience that granted him visions of heaven and the throne room of God in ways that few other people have ever claimed to experience.

But to balance that, lest he become too prideful, he then had to endure these subsequent sufferings. The key principle in all of this, which is applicable to any situation of suffering, comes in 12:9, another rare, red-letter verse in which Jesus speaks directly, as it were, from heaven even after his earthly life. The Lord says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Here we have perhaps the most important text in all of Scripture against the common but extremely misguided notion that it is always God’s will for his people to be healthy and/or wealthy, to experience good circumstances in this life. Indeed the text comes close to saying the opposite, that the more common experience, the situation in which God seems most likely to work is the situation in which his people are not outwardly blessed as among the rich and lovely and beautiful and most fortunate of human beings, because it is precisely in such contexts when God’s people turn to him and live with a measure of victory above their circumstances that others can truly see the supernatural power that they are relying on and as a result be drawn to Christ.

Key Applications

If we sum up this theological overview for 2 Corinthians then we might say something along the lines of suffering need not lead us to despair, it is not always, or perhaps often directly caused by God, but he does allow it, he sustains us in the middle of it, he uses it to bring us to maturity as Christians and to accomplish his will on earth often in more profound ways than in other settings. Clearly, by way of application, this is the most important New Testament book on dealing with the hardships of life and they are to be expected as the norm and not the exception.


We turn now to the epistle to the Romans, perhaps the most beloved and well known of New Testament letters, certainly one of the most influential throughout church history leading Martin Luther at the time of the Protestant Reformation, even much earlier leading Augustine to his conversion in the 400s, and countless others who have seen the heart of Paul’s Gospel most clearly and comprehensively surveyed, the most systematic exposition of salvation as God has provided it in Christ for humanity.


The readers are Christians in Rome, the capital of the empire in the Italian peninsula, and this will be the first church chronologically to which Paul is writing which he did not personally establish or found. It may be Jewish pilgrims to the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death back in A.D. 30, or possibly 33, who returned back to Rome after hearing Peter preach and some of them becoming believers in Jesus who began the church there, we simply do not know. At any rate, because Paul cannot count on the church in Rome having heard the Gospel presented the way he believes it is important to phrase things, we have this most systematic of presentations of the Gospel.

We learn from reading verses in chapters 1 and 15 when Paul is discussing his travel plans that he is en route to Jerusalem, which means we are at the very end of the third missionary journey, he is departing from Corinth. If we compare the itinerary described in Acts 18 and 19 he is hoping to deliver the collection to the Christian leaders in Jerusalem and then begin again on a fourth missionary journey traveling still further afield, further to the west, and to make it for the first time now all the way to Rome and after a period of ministry there go even to the western-most parts of the known world for someone in the ancient Mediterranean, namely, the province and country of Spain.

Of course, we know from having read Acts that these plans, at least in the short run, are thwarted by his arrest in Jerusalem. He does, in fact, make it to Rome, but not as part of a fourth missionary journey, rather as a prisoner. Whether or not he makes it to Spain depends on whether he was released from that imprisonment and we will discuss this matter further when we come to background for 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Our date, therefore, is probably around 57 A.D. shortly after writing 2 Corinthians and returning to Corinth and finding the situation significantly improved there.


Thesis: Not Ashamed of the Gospel (1:16-17)

Paul begins with the conventional greeting and prayer of thanksgiving and then starts the body of his letter in 1:16-17 with two sentences that together form a likely thesis or main point for his entire epistle. He is not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is salvation for both Jews and Greeks and the principle by which people appropriate this through which the righteousness or justice of God is revealed is entirely by faith and not works of any law or to use Paul’s exact words in verse 17, “The righteousness of God is revealed as by faith from first to last just as it is written” – and then he quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous will live by faith.”

God’s Wrath against Ungodliness (1:18–3:20)

One might expect Paul to proceed to unpack these thoughts immediately, but instead he refers in 1:18 to a parallel revelation, namely, of the wrath of God against all sin and ungodliness. His logic, no doubt, is that for the good news of salvation to be cherished one has to convince one’s audience that there is something from which they need to be saved and so 1:18-3:20 outlines the universal sinfulness of humankind. The rest of chapter 1 clearly focuses on classic Gentile sins, particularly as viewed from a Jewish perspective.

2:17 clearly introduces the case of the Jew as well. Jews who have the law but fail to live up to it find themselves in the same predicament of sin having separated them from God, as do Gentiles who are without God’s special revelation in the laws of Moses. In between 2:1-16 can be seen as anticipating the argument about the sinfulness of the Jew – “you who pass judgment on someone else” – in 2:1 perhaps reflecting the smugness that some hearing all of the Gentile sins ticked off in the previous half chapter could have begun to have, but because there is no explicit reference to Jews until 2:17 it is also possible to take 2:1-16 as reflecting the morally upstanding Gentile who would not see him or herself necessarily reflected in the vice list of the end of chapter 1. At any rate, by the time Paul reaches 3:10-20, he calls on no less than ten Old Testament passages to demonstrate that all humanity is sinful, no one is righteous by God’s perfectly holy standards, and, therefore, all of us need a savior.

Justification by Faith (3:21–5:21)

That brings him then to return to unpacking the thesis of the letter in 3:21 and following. 3:21-31 can be seen as the one or two paragraph version of Paul’s thesis that one is justified or declared righteous by God, wholly by faith and not through human merit of any kind.

As in Galatians, Paul appeals to the example of Abraham who was the father of the Jewish nation, but long before his obedience demonstrated his righteousness we read in Genesis 15:6 that he was declared or reckoned as righteous because of his faith. This accounts for the heart of Romans 4.

Romans 5 then develops the results of justification, which lead to peace objectively, that is, right-standing and cessation of hostility with God, but also the interpersonal dimension that we find in reconciliation, a relationship that goes beyond objective peace to subjective joy. But the Christian life does not end with being declared righteous.

Sanctification through the Spirit (6:1–8:39)

We are expected to grow in righteousness so that chapters 6 through 8 turn to what Paul frequently calls sanctification, actually becoming progressively more and more righteous or holy. It is assumed that the beginning of one’s Christian life contains the public right of initiation of baptism in water that is the outward sign of an inward change of heart. Thus, it can be closely associated with conversion as in 6:1-4, but it will involve a lifelong struggle against sin as the rest of chapters 6 and 7 make clear culminating in 7:14-25 with its striking contrast between Paul now even as a Christian struggling between what he knows he should do and what he does not do, what he knows the law of God tells him to do, but he finds himself violating it over and over.

Some finding this tension too strong to be reconciled with a redeemed life have assumed it must refer to an experience Paul had struggling with his obedience as a Jew prior to coming to faith in Christ, but texts like Galatians 1 in which Paul describes how he was growing in the faith as a Jew, and again in Philippians 3 blameless with respect to works of the law, and the various contexts of those statements suggest it is more probable that this is a tension that Paul did not experience as a Jew. It was only as a result of God’s revelation of himself on the Damascus Road that he recognized his plight, and precisely because he now understood correctly how God is pleased and what holiness and perfection by God’s standards look like, that he is aware of how far short he falls. Certainly this has been the recurring testimony of those Christians throughout church history whom many of us would nevertheless look to as the great saints or most godly servants of God over the last two thousand years.

Nevertheless, there is the promise, Chapter 8, that there are no judgments that will lead to the ultimate condemnation of the believer, which he or she needs to fear, verse 1. And by the end of the chapter we read that the process begun with justification progressing through sanctification will come without fail to the true believer in the state of glorification, namely, being perfected and made sinless for eternity in the resurrection life to come. Thus, the chapter culminates in marvelous promises related to the believer’s security such that no one, nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.

The Role of Israel in God’s Plan of Salvation (9:1–11:36)

Much as we discussed with digressions in 2 Corinthians, Romans 9–11 can at first glance be seen as something not expected in this progression of Paul’s theological instruction, but on closer inspection they probably do make very good sense in this context. Romans 9–11 deals with the role of Israel in God’s plan of salvation, and after outlining all that he has in the first eight chapters it would have been very natural for Jew and Gentile alike in Paul’s Roman audience, having heard all of the many times that he bolsters his teaching with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, to ask why then, even now, a scant 25 years or so after the death of Christ are more Gentiles than Jews becoming believers and conversely why have comparatively few Jews accepted the Gospel message.

Oversimplifying some we can reply that Paul gives three answers, one for each of the three chapters, or a bit more precisely that each answer follows on from a question that the previous answer raises. Thus, chapter 9 in a nutshell teaches that sadly this pattern of predominant rejection of God’s message and messengers among Jewish people has been the case throughout their history. This is no new phenomenon unfortunately in the first century.

The tail end of chapter 9 sets up chapter 10 by then answering the question of why this has been the case. It is because Jews more often than not, again tragically, have been tempted to assume that salvation was by adequate obedience to the law rather than through faith in trusting God’s promises for the future and now that the fulfillment of those promises has arrived in Jesus the Messiah trusting in him explicitly.

Chapter 11 can then be seen as responding to the implicit question of whether this will always be the state, and the answer is no. Paul envisions a time in conjunction with the end of human history when the general whole of Jewish people alive at that time will come to faith in Jesus as Messiah, but these now are the times which he describes as of the Gentiles in which those who accept the Gospel are much more likely to be Gentiles than Jews, a period of time that we would still appear to be in. Now he is ready to turn to the ethical implications that flow from these theological truths that have dominated the first eleven chapters.

The Ethics of Christian Living (12:1–15:13)

Chapters 12 to 16 of Romans, therefore, teach on the ethics of the Christian life. We can see a systematic order of principles here as well especially after having encountered a similar sequence in 1 Corinthians. The basic principle is renewal of body and mind (12:1-2), but the individual task varying for each believer in specifics is for them to exercise their spiritual gifts but to do so in love, 12:3-13:14, a section, which after speaking of the gifts, begins and ends with explicit teaching on love and whose topics in between can be seen as specific outworkings of that Christian love. Finally, in areas that the Bible does not pronounce absolute right or wrong concerning, there should be tolerance as yet another outgrowth of Christian love, 14:1-15:13. Here we recall much of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8 through 10 on the weaker and stronger brothers or sisters.

Conclusion (15:14–16:27)

Paul then concludes with detailed travel plans and closing greetings.

Key Applications

To summarize the heart of Paul’s theology in this magnificent letter we may distill three particular points. Every human being is a sinner and therefore separated from God. The process of reconciliation with God, therefore, involves justification, being declared right by God because of what Christ did on the cross, which we do not deserve; sanctification, in which we actually begin to grow in righteousness; and glorification in the life to come, in which we are made perfect never again to sin.

Finally, the truly reconciled person will exhibit substantial behavioral changes as reflected in the closing chapters with its ethical exhortations, while at the same time exhibiting substantial struggle or tension even if in time it is more inward than outward
so that one can never claim to have arrived spiritually in this life or even to have come anywhere close to it. Clearly this is the best epistle, if we seek a one-sentence context in which to apply it, for clearly outlining God’s plan of salvation for those who know little or nothing of it.



The remaining letters of Paul fall into two major categories: the Prison Epistles, so called because Paul is in prison in Rome, that period of house arrest described at the end of the Book of Acts when writing them, and the Pastoral Epistles, the three letters written to individual pastors of local churches rather than first of all to the churches collectively, and apparently if they are genuinely from Paul’s hand must reflect a time subsequent to Acts 28 – these letters are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

The four prison epistles are Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, and Philippians. Philemon and Philippians are accepted by almost all scholars as genuinely from Paul’s hand. Colossians and Ephesians have often been disputed, however, due to a very
different Greek style of writing, due to some key differences in contents of the letters, and due to questions about the circumstances in which they were penned. It may well be, though, that Paul was using a different scribe for these two letters and/or giving that individual freedom to write up Paul’s thoughts more in their own words.

It does appear that the circumstances are identical for Colossians and Philemon given the number of individuals who appear at the end of these letters who are identical as Paul’s traveling companions or those greeted in the church of Colossae. It also appears that Ephesians and Colossians belong together because of the joint references to Tychicus as the letter carrier. It may well be that Ephesians has a different style and/or contents because it appears to have been written for more than one church and indeed the oldest manuscripts in verse 1 do not have the words “in Ephesus” suggesting that each church may have filled in its own location as it was passed around to a variety of communities.

In terms of the readers, Philemon is the owner of a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus and the first letter thus far addressed to an individual, though it appears that he may be the owner and patron and elder of a house church that meets in his home, probably in Colossae because of the links between those two letters.

The letter to the Colossians then written to Colossae, a church roughly a hundred miles to the east of Ephesus, but again as with Romans no record of Paul ever having visited them, so that here we have the second church in which Paul needs to write somewhat more generally and he probably learned about them through his disciple Epaphras (see 1:7) who founded the Christian church there. Perhaps Epaphras was a person that Paul met when he was ministering during that three-year period of time in Ephesus and who then moved to plant the church in Colossae, or perhaps he was visiting from Colossae since Ephesus was the nearest major city and trade port to Colossae in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Ephesians may have been a circular letter because of its reference at the end of Colossians to an unknown letter to the Laodiceans, which the Colossians are to read and then give their letter to them. Intriguingly, Ephesus and Laodicea are both cities
that the Book of Revelation would later be written to as part of a circular collection of letters and narrative that the Apostle John would send out to seven churches in Asia Minor and western Turkey all connected by roads in the order in which their names
appear in that document. All of this makes it attractive to imagine Ephesians having been sent out to a number of communities including Laodicea and on this occasion including Colossae, though again, this is a speculative hypothesis.

Philippians, finally, is addressed to that church that Paul founded on his second missionary journey as the first church plant of his in the continent of Europe, a congregation, which, we learn from the details of Philippians 1:13 and 4:22 and elsewhere, had been of great encouragement to Paul even while he was in prison, a great help financially (4:10-20), so that in a sense this document functions as a thank you note to the Philippians for their support as well as addressing key theological and ethical concerns of the church in Philippi.

Because of the links already noted between Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, if they do genuinely come from Paul, they were probably sent out with the same letter carrier or carriers at about the same time from Rome eastward to Ephesus and then to Colossae somewhere in 60 or 61 A.D. Because of the more difficult times that Paul has gone through in prison that appear to suggest a later, bleaker stage of his imprisonment during that two-year period of house arrest with which the Book of Acts ends, Philippians may well have been sent out separately after the other three prison epistles closer to A.D. 61 to 62.

Exegetical Highlights


Turning now to exegetical highlights of these various letters, in Philemon, Paul is sending the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, urging him to welcome him back now as a fellow Christian. Seemingly too short a letter to be considered inspired and timeless forever, but when we turn to theological implications we will see why.


Colossians like Romans falls into two major sections, this time of almost equal halves, doctrinal and theological teaching in chapters 1 to 2 and ethical or practical teaching in chapters 3 to 4. Key exegetical highlights of the doctrinal section of Colossians include the so-called poem or hymn stressing the deity of Christ in 1:15-20, followed by one of the strongest statements of the deity of Christ in 2:9, while the rest of chapter 2 turns to combating the so-called Colossian heresy, false teaching there that seems to have combined certain elements of Judaizing, note the emphasis on ceremonies and rituals that fit into the Jewish calendar described in 2:16-17, but also the worship of angels in 2:18, a characteristic feature of Greek thought and of developing forms of Gnosticism and almost unknown in Jewish circles.

As a result, Paul encourages godly, ethical behavior highlighting particularly in the latter verses of chapter 3 and the opening verses of chapter 4 what many scholars have come to call the household code or domestic instructions, right relationships among believers in positions of subordination and of authority. Here the three pairs described are wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. Paul will unpack his thoughts in more detail in Ephesians with a similar household code.


Ephesians likewise divides into two equally-sized halves of doctrine and ethics, three chapters a piece. Ephesians begins with lofty thoughts introduced already in Romans 9, though we did not stop to comment on them there, about the predestining and electing role of God in calling believers to himself. But it is interesting that this is never described here or elsewhere in Scripture as in any sense violating human responsibility and freedom (see 1:11-12).

The doctrinal portions of Ephesians also stress as strongly as anywhere God’s saving grace, Ephesians 2:8-9, not by works, not by anything that humans could ever merit, and yet with a paradox that also is found throughout all of Scripture, to paraphrase the words of Calvin at the time of the Protestant Reformation, while salvation is always by faith alone, the faith that saves is never alone, it always does produce or is demonstrated by good works, so that Ephesians 2:10 immediately follows this magnificent statement of salvation by grace through faith with the complimentary affirmation that we are the workmanship of Christ Jesus created for good works.

Chapter 3 focuses on the mystery of the unity in Christ, now more clearly displayed than ever in the history of God’s dealings with humanity between Jew and Gentile and by application between any two warring nationalities or ethnic groups on the face of the planet.

The ethical half of Ephesians then turns in chapters 4 to 6 to using spiritual gifts to promote the unity of the church (recall Paul’s similar comments in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12). An expanded household code that makes it clear that right relationships in situations of authority and subordination are a sign of being filled with the Spirit just as much as is praying and giving thanks and singing spiritual songs. Indeed this segment in Ephesians is prefaced in Ephesians 5:21 by the reminder of mutual submission, all Christians submit to certain other Christians in a variety of contexts throughout life and unpopular as it may be in some parts of the world, deferring to others and putting others needs above self is a characteristic quality trait of the Christian life. Nor can we relegate the statements about submission and authority solely to situations in the first century, for in the context of the submission of wives and the authority of husbands; this is likened to the relationship between Christ and his church, clearly New Covenant imagery.

On the other hand, the concept of biblical authority for people in relationships of headship has very often been abused and treated as if Christ made no difference. Clearly the way Christ exercised his authority, as Ephesians 5 explicitly goes on to highlight, was by giving of himself sacrificially in love for his people. Thus, the only legitimate form of Christian authority that a head of a family or of a church or of a community or a nation can exercise is that of servanthood rather than authoritarianism, that which puts the interests of those under that individual above one’s own interests, thus challenging a large segment of the Christian church throughout history, even where it has been recognized, that these commands have a timeless nature.

The fact that Philemon, as well as 1 Corinthians 7:21 and elsewhere, suggest that Christians should free themselves from slavery whenever possible, also reminds us that commands such as those to slaves and masters in the household codes of Colossians and Ephesians are not meant to insist that the very institution of slavery is timeless, merely that when people find themselves in these kinds of situations, without any alternatives, this is how Christians are to relate to each other.

In our next tape, we will turn to the exegetical highlights of Philippians and then we will go back much more briefly through each of these four epistles commenting on significant theological and applicational summaries.

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