What is an epistle? A letter. Before e-mail and text messaging, a person use to get a pencil/pen and piece of paper and write about what is going on in their life, ask what’s going on in your life, how the family is doing, what the weather was doing, etc. They would put the letter in an envelope and mail it to whoever they wrote the letter to. The epistles of Paul were letters from Paul to groups of Christians and individuals. These letters were not social letters. They were sermons. Their purpose was to provide instructions on Godly living. Remember, there is no Bible. Yes, there was the Old Testament and early believers did read it; however, the Old Testament did not include the teachings of Jesus Christ. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote letters to the churches to share and instruct them in the teachings of Jesus.
If you recall from the book of Acts, Paul went on three missionary journeys through Asia Minor (present day Turkey) and Greece. He stopped at cities (Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, etc.) along his journeys to preach the Gospel and strengthen/encourage/disciple believers. After leaving a city, Paul did not forget the believers he left behind. During his travels, Paul regularly kept tabs on the fledgling churches. Christians from these churches would visit Paul, usually when he was in prison, and Paul would ask them how things were in Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia. He would then compose a letter to address whatever issues the churches were experiencing. Paul would give words of discipline, encouragement, clarification, instruction all based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The letter was read to the entire church; church leaders studied Paul’s words; church members discussed them in their homes. Oftentimes, the letter would be passed on to a nearby church for them to read. Ex. Colossians 4:16; Galatians. Paul’s letters were extremely valuable to early believers. No less than Peter himself placed Paul’s epistles on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (II Peter 3:15-16.) Therefore, the early believers made every effort to preserve his words so that they could regularly be reviewed as well as be passed on to future generations of believers. They did so by making copies.
Common themes found in Paul’s epistles:
1. How to be a Christian: Paul explained the principle of salvation – how does one become a Christian? In the process, Paul defined basic Christian concepts such as sin and faith.
2. What it means to be a Christian: After you become a Christian, what’s next? Paul explained the principle of righteousness – living a life based on God’s standards. That life should be different from the one you lived before you became a Christian. Paul explains the role the Holy Spirit plays in enabling us to live a righteous life.
3. Confronting adversity and tribulation: Early believers experienced persecution on every level – family, community, national. This persecution was not just physical. It was also social and economic. To the persecuted, Paul informed them about the source of contentment, hope, comfort, and peace.
4. Unity of believers: Paul emphasized the importance of unity in the church. He regularly compared the church to the human body and referred to the church as the body of Christ. A body is made up of different parts that must function together in order for the body to work properly. The early churches were made up of Jews and Gentiles who regularly did not get along. Among the more Gentile churches, factionalism was a problem. Members were divided over teachings, rituals, etc. To promote unity among believers, Paul taught on the concepts of forgiveness, acceptance, humility, and most importantly love all of which were characteristics embodied in Christ.
5. Words of warning against false teachings. The early church faced threats from false teachers. They included Jews who taught that in order to be a true Christian one had to strictly adhere to the Mosaic Law – circumcision, diet, festivals, etc. Paul condemned such teaching regularly in his epistles. He also cautioned early believers about “wolves in sheep clothing.” They were false teachers who claimed to have a more complete Gospel. The words sounded Christian but there would be a sprinkling of falsehoods that only a mature believer would recognize. Paul often had to counter these false teachings in his epistles.
Author – Paul
When – Written around 57 A.D.
To Whom - Believers in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.
Purpose – To explain salvation, sin, righteousness, faith versus works, and the vital role of the Holy Spirit.
Key verse - Romans 12:1-2