17. Paul and His Letters: Introduction

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Paul and His Letters: Introduction

Let me talk a little bit about the letters of Paul, because now we have two letters of Paul that have been written. Sometimes we refer to Paul’s epistle to the Romans and Paul’s epistle to Philemon; or Paul’s letter to the Romans and Paul’s letter to Philemon, etc. Epistles tend to be very formal, and not assume a prior relationship or knowledge, and tend to explain things pretty carefully. Letters build on a prior relationship, a prior understanding. They’re much more difficult for outsiders to understand.

I remember once getting a letter. My wife and I were in Israel, and our daughter wrote a letter which said something like “We went to get hamburgers, but we had to have fish again.” No one knew what that meant. It’s a letter. Our daughter was building on a common experience that she and her parents had had. That experience was, once we went into Hardee’s to order hamburgers. As we were waiting for them, a grease fire spread throughout the whole kitchen, and the whole place closed down. So we went next door to Arthur Treacher’s and had fish and chips. The letter was perfectly understandable to us. We had that experience. What happened was that they had gone to Hardee’s again, and there was another grease fire, so they went over and had fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s.

Letters are understandable to the people they are being written to, because they build on a relationship. So when Paul talks about baptizing for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, he and the Corinthians knew what that meant. We don’t have access to it. And when the writer of the Book of Revelation writes about the number of the beast being 666, he and no doubt his audience, knew that. Letters [i.e., epistles?] are addressed to people who aren’t into a more intimate circle, and therefore they’re more general in nature. And when you talk about Paul’s writings, Romans is more like an epistle; Philemon and Philippians are much more like letters. And so if you talk about Paul’s writings, what do you call them? Do you call them epistles or letters? I don’t know, since they usually tend to be a combination of the two.

The normal form of a letter was from A to B. A secular letter generally had greeting --we find examples of that in Acts 15:23, where they greet the church. James 1:1 also has that same kind of greeting, interestingly enough. On the other hand, Jewish letters would always begin with “Shalom”, or “Peace”. Christians had their own introduction. And so when Paul writes his letter, he borrows many times “peace”, but “grace” is especially prominent, and has now been added to the salutation. He uses “grace and peace”, or “grace, mercy, and peace”, or something like that. But grace has been added there.

This is generally followed to a thanksgiving, e.g., “I thank my God on every remembrance of you”, “I pray for you always”, “Blessed is our God and Father …”, etc. There’s always a word of thanksgiving or prayer. We will look at the letter of Galatians and will note that there is not one there, and that says an awful lot as to what Paul is getting at.

Then there’s the exhortation and instruction. This is followed by a conclusion, a benediction, and a wish for peace, some sort of a greeting or some sort of concluding autograph, e.g., “I write this with my own hand and a kiss”.