Letters of Saint Paul
Fourteen letters, also called epistles, which are ascribed to the apostle Paul are included in the holy scriptures of the New Testament Church. We will comment on the letters in the order in which they are normally printed in the English Bible and read in the Church’s liturgical year.
The letter to the Romans was written by Saint Paul from Corinth sometime at the end of the fifties of the first century. It is one of the most formal and detailed expositions of the doctrinal teaching of Saint Paul that we have. It is not one of the easier parts of the scripture to understand without careful study.
In this letter, the apostle Paul writes about the relationship of the Christian faith to the unbelievers, particularly the unbelieving Jews. The apostle upholds the validity and holiness of the Mosaic law while passionately defending the doctrine that salvation comes only in Christ, by faith and by grace. He discourses powerfully about the meaning of union with Christ through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He urges great humility on the part of the gentile Christians toward Israel, and calls with great pathos and love for the regrafting of the unbelieving Jews to the genuine community of God which is in Christ Who is Himself from Israel “according to the flesh” (9.5) for the sake of its salvation and that of all the world.
The end of the letter is a long exhortation concerning the proper behavior of Christians, finally closing with a long list of personal greetings from the apostle and his co-workers, including one Tertius, the actual writer of the letter, to many members of the Roman Church, urging, once more, steadfastness of faith.
The letter to the Romans is read in the Church’s liturgical lectionary during the first weeks following the feast of Pentecost. Selections from it are also read on various other liturgical occasions, one of which, for example, is the sacramental liturgy of baptism and chrismation (6.3–11).
The first Christian community in Corinth, was noted neither for its inner peace and harmony, nor for the exemplary moral behavior of its members. The two letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians which we have in the New Testament, written in the mid-fifties of the first century, are filled not only with doctrinal and ethical teachings, the answers to concrete questions and problems, but also with no little scolding and chastisement by the author, as well as numerous defenses of his own apostolic authority. These letters clearly demonstrate the fact that the first Christians were not all saints, and that the early Church experienced no fewer difficulties than the Church does today or at any time in its history in the world.
After a short greeting and word of gratitude to God for the grace given to the Corinthians, the first letter begins with Saint Paul’s appeal for unity in the Church. There are deep disagreements and dissensions among the members of the community, and the apostle urges all to be fully united in the crucified Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in Whom there can be no divisions at all (1–3) He then defends his apostleship generally and his fatherhood of the Corinthian Church in particular, both of which were being attacked by some members of the Church. (4) Next, he deals with the problem on sexual immorality among members of the community and the matter of their going to court before pagan judges (5–6). After this comes Saint Paul’s counsel about Christian marriage and his advice concerning the eating of food offered to idols (7–8). Then once again he defends his apostleship, stressing the fact that he has always supported himself materially and has burdened no one.
The divisions and troubles in the Corinthian community were most concretely expressed at the eucharistic gatherings of the Church. There was general disrespect and abuse of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the practice had developed where each clique was having its own separate meal. These divisions were caused in no small part by the fact that some of the community had certain spiritual gifts, for example, that of praising God in unknown tongues, which they considered as signs of their superiority over others. There also was trouble caused by women in the Church, who were using their new freedom in Christ for disruption and disorder.
In his letter Saint Paul urges respect and discernment for the holy eucharist as the central realization of the unity of the Church, coming from Christ, Himself. He warns against divisions in the Church because of the various spiritual gifts, urging the absolute unity of the Church as the one body of Christ which has many members and many gifts for the edification of all. He insists on the absolute primacy and superiority of love over every virtue and gift, without which all else is made void and is destroyed. He tempers those who had the gift of praising God in strange tongues, a gift which was obviously presenting a most acute problem, and calls for the exercise of all gifts and most particularly the simple and direct teaching of the Word of God in the Church. He appeals to the women to maintain themselves in dress and behavior proper to Christians. And finally he insists that “all things should be done decently and in order” (10–14).
The first letter to the Corinthians ends with a long discourse about the meaning of the resurrection of the dead in Christ which is the center of the Christian faith and preaching. The apostle closes with an appeal for money for the poor, and promising a visit, he once again insists on the absolute necessity of strength of faith, humble service and most especially, love.
The entire second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians is a detailed enumeration and description of his sufferings and trials in the apostolate of Christ. In this letter, the apostle once again defends himself before the Corinthians, some of whom were reacting very badly to him and to his guidance and instruction in the faith. He defends the “pain” that, he is causing these people because of his exhortations and admonitions to them concerning their beliefs and. Behavior, and he calls them to listen to him and to follow him in his life in Christ.
Of special interest in the second letter, in addition to the detailed record of Saint Paul’s activities and all that he had to bear for the gospel of Christ, is the doctrine of the apostle concerning the relationship of Christians with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church. Worthy of special note also, is the apostolic teaching about the significance of the scriptures for the Christians (3–4) and the teaching about contributions, of money for the work of the Church. (9) The closing line of the second letter to the Corinthians, which, like all epistles, forms part of the Church’s lectionary, is used in the divine liturgies of the Orthodox Church during the eucharistic canon.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God (the Father), and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13.14)
Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13)
The letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians, most likely the southern Galatians (Lystra, Derbe, Iconium), was sent from Antioch in the early fifties. In this most vehement epistle, the apostle Paul expresses his profound anger and distress at the fact that the Galatians, who had received the genuine gospel of Christ from him, had been seduced into practicing “another gospel” which held that man’s salvation requires the ritual observance of the Old Testament law, including the practice of circumcision.
The heart of this letter to the “foolish Galatians” (3.1) is Saint Paul’s uncompromising defense of the fact -that his gospel is not his but Christ’s, the gospel of salvation not by the law, but by grace and faith in the crucified Savior Who gives the Holy Spirit to all who believe. The apostle stresses the fact that in Christ and the Spirit there is freedom from slavery to the flesh, slavery to the elemental spirits of the universe, and slavery to the ritual requirements of the law through which no one can be saved. For the true “Israel of God” (6.16) in Christ and the Spirit, there is perfect freedom, divine sonship and a new creation. Those “who are led by the Spirit . . . are not under the law” (5.18).
The letter to the Galatians is included in the Church’s liturgical lectionary, with the famous lines from the fourth chapter being the epistle reading of the Orthodox Church at the divine liturgy of Christmas (4.4–7). This letter also provides the Church with the verse which is sung at the solemn procession of the liturgy of baptism and chrismation, and which also replaces the Thrice-Holy Hymn at the divine liturgies of the great feasts of the Church which were once celebrations of the entrance of the catechumens into the sacramental life of the Church (see Worship, “Baptism”).
For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3.27).
The letters of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians are called the captivity epistles since they are held to have been written by the apostle from his house arrest in Rome around 60 A.D. In some early sources, the letter to the Ephesians does not contain the words “who are at Ephesus,” thus leading some to think of the epistle as a general letter meant for all of the churches.
Saint Paul’s purpose in the letter to the Ephesians is to share his “insight into the mystery of Christ” (3.4) and “to make all men see what is the plan of the for ages in God Who created all things . . .” (3.9) In the first part of the letter, the apostle attempts to describe the mystery. He uses many words in long sentences, overflowing with adjectives, in his effort to accomplish his task. Defying a neat outline, the main points of the message are clear.
The plan of God for Christ, before the foundation of the world, is “to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1.10) The plan is accomplished through the crucifixion, resurrection and glorification of Christ at the right hand of God. The fruits of God’s plan are given freely to all men by God’s free gift of grace, to Jews and gentiles alike, who believe-in the Lord. They are given in the One Holy Spirit, in the One Church of Christ, “which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1.23). In the Church of Christ, with each part of the body knit together and functioning properly in harmony and unity, man grows up in truth and in love “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4.12–16). He gains access to God the Father through Christ in the Spirit thus becoming “a holy temple of the Lord . . . a dwelling place of God” (2.18–22), “filled with all the fullness, of God” (3.19).
In the second part of the letter, Saint Paul spells out the implications of the “great mystery . . . Christ and the Church” (5.32). He urges sound doctrine and love, a true conversion of life, a complete end to all impurity and immorality and a total commitment to spiritual battle. He addresses the Church as a whole; husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. He calls all to “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4.24).
The letter to the Ephesians finds its place in the liturgical lectionary of the Church, with the well-known lines from the sixth chapter being the epistle reading at the sacramental celebration of marriage (5.21–33).
As we have mentioned, the letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians was written at the time of his confinement in Rome. It is a most intimate letter of the apostle to those whom he sincerely loved in the Lord, those who were his faithful partners in the gospel “from the first day until now” (1.5). In this letter, Saint Paul exposes the most personal feelings of his mind and heart as he sees the approaching end of his life. He also praises the Philippian Church as a model Christian community in every way, encouraging and inspiring its beloved members whom he calls his “joy and crown” (4.1) with prayers that their “love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment,” so that they “may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with all the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ for the praise and glory of God” (1.10–11).
Of special significance in the letter to the Philippians, besides the mention of “bishops and deacons” (1.1), which hints at the developing structure of the Church, is Saint Paul’s famous passage about the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ which is the epistle reading for the feasts of the Nativity and and Dormition of the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church, and which has been so influential for Christian spiritual life, particularly in Russia.
Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant (slave), and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name . . . (2.5–9).
Like all Pauline epistles, the letter to Phillipians has its place in the Church’s normal lectionary.
It is believed that the letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians, written, as we have said, from Rome, was expressly intended to instruct the faithful in Colossae in the true Christian gospel in the face of certain heretical teachings which were threatening the community there. It appears that some form of gnosticism and angel worship had crept into the Colossian Church.
Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy which, in all of its various forms, denied the goodness of material, bodily reality, and therefore, the genuine incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in human flesh. It made of the Christian faith a type of dualistic, spiritualistic philosophy which pretended to provide a secret knowledge of the divine by way of intellectual mysticism. Gnosis, as a word, means knowledge.
In his letter, Saint Paul stresses that he indeed wishes the Colossians to be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1.9), and that indeed it is true that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2.3). The real point of the Christian gospel, however, is that in Christ, through whom and for whom all things were created (1.16), “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (2.9). It is only through the incarnation of Christ and His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, in the most real way, that salvation is given to men. It is given in the Church, through baptism; the Church which is itself Christ’s “body” (1.24, 2.19).
Thus, the apostle insists to the Colossians that Christ is superior to all angels, having “disarmed the principalities and powers (i.e., the angels)… triumphing over them on the cross” (2.15). He warns them, therefore “to see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to human traditions, according to the elemental spirits of the uni-verse and not according to Christ” (2.8). He warns as well that they should “let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind . . .” (2.18)
The content and style of the letter to the Colossians is very similar to Ephesians. Following the doctrinal instructions of the letter, their spiritual implications for the believer are spelled out with moral exhortations for a life lived in conformity to Christ and in total service to Him. Like the other letters of Saint Paul, the letter to Colossians is read in its turn in the liturgical services of the Church.
It is generally agreed that Saint Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are the first of the apostle’s epistles, and are also the earliest written documents of the New Testament scriptures. They were most likely sent from Corinth, at the end of the forties, in response to the report brought from Timothy that certain difficulties had arisen in the Thessalonian Church about the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
In both of his letters to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul repeats the same doctrine. He urges patient steadfastness of faith and continual love and service to the Lord and the brethren in the face of the many persecutions and trials which were confronting the faithful. He affirms that the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5.2) when all satanic attacks against the faith have been completed. But in the meantime, the Christians must continue “to do their work in quietness” (2 Thess 3.12) without panic or fear, and without laziness or idleness into which some had fallen because of their belief in the Lord’s immediate return.
Concerning the resurrection from the dead, the apostle teaches that as Jesus truly rose, so will all “those who have fallen asleep” (Thess 4.14).
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven . . . and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord (1 Thess. 4.16–17).
This entire passage (1 Thess 4.16–17) is the epistle reading at the funeral liturgy in the Orthodox Church. Both letters to the Thessalonians are included in the liturgical lectionary during the Church year.
The letters of Saint Paul to Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral epistles. Although some modern scholars consider these letters as documents of the early second century, primarily because of the developed picture of Church structure which they present, Orthodox Church Tradition defends the letters as authentic epistles of Saint Paul from his house arrest in Rome in the early sixties of the first century.
The two letters to Timothy are of similar contents, having the same purpose to teach “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15).
In his first letter to Timothy, Saint Paul urges his “true child in the faith” (1.2), who was in Ephesus, to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1.18–19). He urges that prayers “be made for all men” by the Church (2.1) and that “good doctrine” be preserved and propagated, most particularly in times of difficulties and defections from the true faith (4.6, 6.3). In the letter, the apostle counsels all in proper Christian belief and behavior, giving special advice, both professional and personal, to his co-worker Timothy whom he counsels not to neglect the gift which he received “when the elders laid their hands” upon him (4.14).
The main body of the first letter to Timothy describes in detail the requirements for the pastoral offices of bishop, deacon and presbyter (priest or elder), and offers special instructions concerning the widows and slaves. The rules concerning the pastoral ministries have remained in the Orthodox Church, being formally incorporated into its canonical regulations.
Of special note in the first letter to Timothy is Saint Paul’s confession of sinfulness which has become part of the pre-communion prayers of the Orthodox Church.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first (1 Tim 1.15).
In his second letter to Timothy, Saint Paul again urges his “beloved child” to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (1.2, 6). He stresses the absolute necessity for “sound doctrine” in the Church, calling for a firm struggle against “godless chatter” and the “disputing over words” (2.14,16) particularly in “times of stress” when the gospel is attacked by men of “corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who are merely “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (3.1–8). As in his first letter, the apostle specifically mentions the need for the firm adherence to the scriptures (3.15).
The expression of Saint Paul in this letter, that the leaders of the Church must be found “rightly handling the word of truth” (2.15), has become the formal liturgical prayer of the Orthodox Church for its bishops.
Saint Paul’s letter to Titus in Crete is a shorter version of his two letters to Timothy. The author outlines the moral requirements of the bishop in the Church and urges the pastor always to “teach what befits sound doctrine” (1.9, 2.1). It tells how both the leaders and the faithful members of the Church should behave.
Sections of the letter to Titus about the appearance of “the grace of God . . . for the salvation of all men . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (2.11–3.7) comprise the Church’s epistle reading for the feast of the Epiphany.
Generally speaking, each of the pastoral epistles is included in the Church’s continual epistle lectionary, coming in the Church year just before the beginning of Great Lent.
In his letter to Philemon written from his Roman imprisonment, Saint Paul appeals to his “beloved fellow worker” (1.1) to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus who had become a Christian, “no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16) He asks Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me” (17) and offers to pay whatever debts Onesimus may have towards his master.
Virtually none of the modern scriptural scholars think that Saint Paul is the author of the letter to the Hebrews. The question of the exact authorship of this epistle was questioned early in Church Tradition with the general consensus being that the inspiration and doctrine of the letter is certainly Saint Paul’s, but that perhaps the actual writer of the letter was one of Saint Paul’s disciples. The letter is dated in the second half of the first century and is usually read in the Church as being “of the holy apostle Paul.”
The letter to the Hebrews begins with the clear teaching about the divinity of Christ, affirming that God, Who “in many and various ways . . . spoke of old to our fathers” has “in these last days . . . spoken to us by a Son, Whom He appointed the heir of all things, through Whom He also created the world” (1.1–2).
He (the Son of God) reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature (or person), upholding the universe by the word of His power (1.3).
Christ, the divine Son of God, was made man as the “apostle and high priest of our confession” (3.1), “the great shepherd of the sheep” (13: 20), “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12.2), whom God sent to “taste of death for everyone” (2.9).
He Himself . . . partook of the same nature (of human flesh and blood), that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that.is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage . . . (being) made like His brethren in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful highpriest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted (2.14–18).
The main theme of the letter to the Hebrews is to compare the sacrifice of Christ to the sacrifices of the priests of the Old Testament. The Old Testament priests made continual sacrifices of animals for themselves and the sins of the people, entering into the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple. Christ makes the perfect and eternal sacrifice of Himself upon the cross, once and for all, for the sins of the people and not for Himself, entering into the heavenly sanctuary, not made by hands, “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9.24). This is the perfect and all fulfilling sacrifice of the one perfect high priest of God Who was prefigured in the mysterious person of Melchizedek, in the Old Testament, as well as in the ritual priesthood of the Levites under the old law which was “but a shadow of the good things to come” and not yet the “true form of these realities” (10.1, See Gen 14, Ex 29, Lev 16, Ps 110).
Through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the believers receive forgiveness of sins and are “made perfect” (11.40), being led and disciplined by God Himself Who gives His Holy Spirit that through their sufferings in imitation of Christ, His people “may share in His holiness” (12.10). This is effected, once again, not by the ritual works of the law which “made nothing perfect” (7.19), but by faith in God, without which “it is impossible to please Him” (11.6).
The letter to the Hebrews, which is read in the Orthodox Church at the divine liturgies during Great Lent, ends with the author’s appeal to all to “be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken” and to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (12.28). It calls as well for love, faith, purity, generosity, strength, obedience and joy among all who believe in “Jesus Christ (Who) is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (13.8).