The New Testament—The Letters
Let me once again reiterate how significant of a value we place on the Bible. The Scripture is inspired, or “God-breathed” (as we quoted from II Timothy 3:16) All of us who are speaking to you in these days, firmly believe that THIS (Bible) is the Word of God. We believe that God the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors, and directed them to write every word, every sentence. Now, it is interesting that a large proportion of the New Testament are what we refer to as “Letters”—they are literally that—a letter from an individual, either to another individual, or more often, to entire church congregations. And as it declares in I Timothy 3:16, we believe that those letters were inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s truth to all Christians everywhere.
Now, let’s try to understand more of this portion of the New Testament, called “The Letters”. They divide neatly into two categories: Pauline Letters and non-Pauline Letters. “Pauline” means that a letter came from the Apostle Paul. Paul was first Saul, a zealous, one might say, extremist Jew, who was intent on snuffing out Christianity. We first hear of him at the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1—which says “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death”). But God had different plans for Saul—and one chapter later (Acts 9) he is gloriously converted on the road to Damascus. His name was changed to Paul, he was called by God to be an Apostle, and he ended up not only being perhaps the greatest missionary in the New Testament, but when he is imprisoned (and even when he is not), he took time to record strategic messages to both churches and individuals. Nine of Paul’s letters are addressed to churches (Romans through II Thessalonians) and four letters, addressed to individuals (I & II Timothy, Titus and Philemon). That makes 13 books in all by the Apostle Paul. And then we have eight letters addressed to Jewish Christians (Hebrews through Jude). That comes to 21 New Testament books that are considered “Letters” (that’s 21 out of 27 total New Testament books), so you can see that the Letters are the major category in the New Testament. So, let’s quickly look at each book, and try to summarize.
The Book of Romans
Paul wrote this grand declaration of Christian theology to declare the full meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and just as importantly, the effect of that Gospel on our standing and relationship with God. The theme verses are found in Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of
God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” The concept of righteousness is a major truth for Paul in Romans. The noun “righteous” occurs 34 times. And with variations of this word, it is used all told, 64 times in the book alone!
Key Chapters in Romans:
Of course they are all important, but Romans 3-5 contains the full theology of justification by grace through faith in Christ apart from the works of the Law. Chapters 6-8 contain some of the most foundational passages on how to experience God’s deliverance from the power of sin, utilizing not only our standing with Christ, but also the power of the Holy Spirit. And Romans 8:31-39 contain soaring affirmations of the love of Christ.
Here is an abbreviated outline of Romans:
I. Introduction (1:1-17)
II. Condemnation: the need of Righteousness because of sin (1:18-3:20)
III. Justification: The Imputation of God’s Righteousness through Christ (3:21-5:21)
IV. Sanctification: The Impartation and Demonstration of Righteousness (6:1-8:39)
V. Vindication: Jew and Gentile, the scope of God’s Righteousness (9:1-11:36)
VI. Application: the practice of Righteousness in Service (12:1-15:13)
VII. Personal messages and benediction (15:14-16:27)
Corinth was a major city in northern Greece. The estimated population was 700,000. We know that the Apostle Paul helped to plant this church (Acts 18). He received a word from the Lord encouraging him to stay, and he did stay, for a year and a half. And although he faced real persecution, he endured, and a church was functioning. The city of Corinth was known as a very sinful place. In secular Greek language, to “Corinthianize” was another term for fornication. And the church had its share of significant problems. Many scholars believe that I Corinthians was primarily a corrective letter—that is, an attempt to address significant issues in the congregation at Corinth. But within its pages, I Corinthians has some significant passages. One interesting passage is in chapter one (verses 18-25) where Paul defends his preaching “the cross”. It was offensive to Jewish listeners, foolish to Gentiles, but to those being saved, it was the power of God. And who can forget chapter 13—a soaring description of love. Chapter 15 is one of the best defenses of the resurrection of Christ, which is central to our faith.
>Here is a brief summary outline of I Corinthians:
>I. Introduction (1:1-9)
II. Divisions in the church (1:10-4:21)
III. Moral disorders in the church (5:1-6:20)
IV. Instructions concerning marriage (7:1-40)
V. Instructions concerning food offered to idols (8:1-11:1)
VI. Instructions concerning public worship (11:2-14:40)
VII. The doctrine of the resurrection (15:1-58)
VIII. The Collection for Jerusalem (16:1-4)
IX. Conclusion (16:5-24)
The Apostle Paul made a total of three visits to Corinth, and actually wrote four letters (the first and the third letters were evidently lost). What we call I Corinthians was actually his second letter to the church, and II Corinthians, according to various details, was actually the fourth treatise. But just a year or so, separates these two letters. II Corinthians is one of the most personal, perhaps the most autobiographical of any of Paul’s letters. That is to say that he reveals intimate details and struggles of his life in this book. Chapter one details how in moments of desperation, he despaired of even going on with life itself! Several significant themes are addressed in this deep book. Paul defends his calling as an apostle perhaps more in this book than any other. Chapters 4-5 contain wonderful assurances that even though this physical life is fading away, it is being replaced by a permanent spiritual life that will last forever. Some attention is given to what happens when we die. Later in chapter 5, we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. II Corinthians 5:17 describes the wonderful change that Jesus brings, and verse 21 (same chapter) is a one verse statement of the gospel. Chapters 8-9 contain the most comprehensive teaching on giving (stewardship) anywhere in the Bible.
What follows in an abbreviated outline:
I. Paul’s defense of his Apostleship (1:1-7)
II. Instructions on giving (stewardship) (chaps. 8-9)
III. Paul’s defense of apostolic authority.
In this book, the Apostle Paul slams legalism, and defends the freedom we have in Christ. There were “Judiazers”, legalistic teachers from the Jerusalem church who came to the province of Galatia, and tried to force the Christians into a more strict observance of the Old Testament Law. Needless to say, they were forcefully opposed by Paul. There are many key verses: Galatians 2:20 says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me….” But perhaps chapter five is the key chapter. It contrasts what happens when we’re in control (“works of the flesh”) with what happens when the Holy Spirit is in control (“the Fruits of the Spirit”). And Galatians 5:13 is a call to use our freedom in Christ as an opportunity to serve each other in love.
Here’s an outline of Galatians:
I. Personal: The Gospel of Grace. Justification by faith defended (1:1-2:21)
II. Doctrinal: The gospel of grace. Justification by faith explained (3:1-4:31)
III. Practical: The gospel of grace. Justification by faith applied (5:1-6:18)
The Prison Letters
Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and II Timothy are sometimes referred to as the Prison Letters, because Paul was incarcerated (in prison) when he penned each of these.
The Book of Ephesians does not appear to attempt to address any specific problem; rather this book sets forth the glorious mystery of “The Church, which is Christ’s Body”: Christ the Head, and believers as co-members of one another, blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. It is clear that Paul wanted to expand the mind of believers regarding their wealth in the riches of Christ. The great Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee wrote a commentary of this book with three words: Sit, Walk, Stand. Also, in Ephesians are two great prayers for Christians, found in 1:17-23, and 3:16-21.
Chapter one does more in describing the position of the Christian believer than perhaps any other place in the New Testament. Ephesians 5:21-33 is the most expansive text on marriage in the New Testament. And Ephesians 6:10-20 contains the most exhaustive teaching on spiritual warfare in the New Testament.
Here is an outline of Ephesians:
I. Salutation or greeting (1:1-2)
II. The Doctrinal Portion of the Letter, the Wealth and Calling of the Church (1:3-3:21)
III. The Practical Portion of the Letter; the Walk and Conduct of the Church (4:1-6:24)
A. The Believer’s Walk in Unity (4:1-16)
B. The Believer’s Walk in Righteousness (4:17-5:18)
C. The Believer’s Walk in the World (5:19-6:9)
D. The Believer’s Walk in Warfare (6:10-20)
E. Conclusion (6:21-24)
Paul had several purposes in writing this letter: 1) He wanted to express his love and gratitude for the financial gift they had sent him; 2) to give them an updated report of his own circumstances; and 3) to encourage the Philippians to stand firm in the face of persecution and to rejoice regardless of the circumstance; 5) to exhort them to live in humility and unity; finally, 6) to warn them of the legalistic “Judaizers” who had slipped in among them.
One of the key themes is joy. “Joy” in one form or another, the word is used 16 times in this short book! Chapter two has significant teaching regarding the Person of Christ, Who emptied Himself in coming to earth. And in chapter four, Paul shares the secret of contentment (4:11-13).
Here is an outline of Philippians:
I. Salutation and Thanksgiving for the Philippians (1:1-11)
II. The Circumstances of Paul in Rome: the preaching of Christ (1:12-30)
III. The Pattern of the Christian Life: Having the Mind of Christ (2:1-30)
IV. The Prize of the Christian Life: Having the Knowledge of Christ (3:1-21)
V. The Peace of the Christian Life: Knowing the Presence of Christ (4:1-23)
It is clear that Colossians addressed a major concern of the Apostle Paul: namely, the specter of Gnosticism. The Gnostic heresy denied the divinity of Christ, and in this book, there is a towering defense of Jesus Christ’s divinity (see 1:15-20). But there are other significant portions as well. Chapter two reveals how the believer is complete in Christ, and needs nothing added to the finished work of Christ. Chapter three then builds on this to show Christ’s power in relationships.
Here is an outline of Colossians:
I. Doctrinal: The Person and Work of Christ (1:1-2:3)
II. Polemical: The Heretical Problems in light of Union with Christ (2:4-3:4)
III. Practical: The Practice of the Believer in Christ (3:5-4:6)
IV. Personal: The Private Plans and Affairs of the Apostle (4:7-18)
The Apostle Paul desired to express his thankfulness for what God was doing in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians, to defend himself against a slander campaign, to encourage them to stand fast in the face of persecution, and to answer a doctrinal question regarding the fate of Christians who had already died prior to the Lord’s return.
Two key words/phrases stand out: “sanctification” (4:3, 4, 7) and “the Coming of the Lord”, which is referred to in each chapter of this letter (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23). Chapters 4-5 stand out for their teaching on the events surrounding the return of Christ, the rapture of the Church, and the “Day of the Lord”.
Here is an outline of I Thessalonians:
I. The Past: The Work of Faith (1:1-3:13)
II. The Present: The Labor of Love (4:1-12)
III. The Prospective: the Endurance of Hope (4:13-5:28)
This letter was written perhaps six months after the earlier letter. This second letter seemed to have been prompted by three developments: 1) there was news of increasing persecution; 2) to deal with reports of a pseudo-Pauline letter and other misrepresentations of his teaching about eschatological matters, and 3) to give detailed instructions covering the disciplinary steps the church should take in correcting those who refuse to work (3:6-15).
There is a huge focus on end-time events in both of the letters to the Thessalonians. But I Thessalonians, the focus is on Christ coming FOR His Church, whereas in II Thessalonians, the focus is on Christ coming WITH his Church in judgment on the unbelieving world. Chapter two is key in that it corrects the mistaken notion that the Day of the Lord had already occurred.
Here is an outline for II Thessalonians:
I. Salutation or Introduction (1:1-2)
II. Paul offers commendation and comfort regarding Persecution (1:4-12)
III. Paul corrects and challenges regarding the Day of the Lord (2:1-17)
IV. Paul commands and convicts regarding Idleness (3:1-16)
V. Paul concludes with a benediction and greeting (3:16-18)
The Pastoral Letters
This last grouping of Pauline Literature addresses two individuals: Timothy and Titus. Paul was their mentor, and he not only directs them, but offers us challenge as well, in this portion of God’s Word.
It is clear that Paul seeks to boost his charge, Timothy in this first letter. He desires to both challenge and encourage him. He reminds Timothy of his faith, which came from a godly lineage, his giftedness, which came through the “laying on of hands”. He also gives Timothy his insights into the church at Ephesus (where Timothy served as Pastor): The errors of false teachers and the sound doctrine needed; the need for elders and deacons (and the qualifications for each post), instructions about caring for widows, and finally, instructions to exhort those who were rich. Chapter three is noteworthy in that very specific qualifications are listed (here and in Titus) regarding church leaders.
Here is an outline of I Timothy:
I. Salutation (1:1-2)
II. Instructions regarding doctrine (1:3-20)
III. Instructions concerning worship (2:1-15)
IV. Instructions concerning leaders (3:1-16)
V. Instructions concerning dangers (4:1-16)
VI. Instructions concerning various responsibilities (5:1-6:10)
VII. Final instructions to Timothy (6:11-16)
II Timothy continues to offer challenge to Timothy (see 1:6, 2:1, 15; and 4:5), but also challenge for the church. A key need, and a tremendous challenge even for today’s Church is found in 2:2—“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” Within that one verse is God’s strategy for discipleship. I and II Timothy, as well as Titus, are books that every pastor should focus on for personal enrichment. Listen to II Timothy 2:15—“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” As pastors, one of our main callings is to study the Bible!
Here is an outline of II Timothy:
I. Salutation (1:1-2)
II. Expression of thanks for Timothy (1:3-7)
III. The call to remember Timothy’s responsibilities (1:8-18)
IV. The character of a faithful servant (2:1-26)
V. The caution of a faithful servant (3:1-17)
VI. The charge to preach the Word (4:1-5)
VII. The comfort of a faithful servant (4:6-18)
VIII. Concluding greetings (4:19-22)
Titus was a young pastor on the island of Crete. Paul mentored him as he did Timothy. Some key words in this letter are: “good deeds”, used six times; “grace” (1:1, 4, 13; 2:10, 13 and 3:15). Chapter two is a very important passage dealing with relationships within the church.
Here is an outline of Titus:
I. Salutation and opening greetings (1:1-4)
II. Ordination of elders in the church (1:5-9)
III. Offenders in the church (1:10-16)
IV. Operation in the church (2:1-3:11)
V. Final instructions and greetings (3:12-15)
This short one-chapter book is a personal letter addressed to Philemon, whose slave, Onesimus, had run away, but whom Paul led to Christ. Now Paul was making a way to send him back to Philemon. The main exhortation for Philemon (and us) is to forgive others in Christ!
Here’s an outline of Philemon:
I. Prayer of thanksgiving for Philemon (1:1-7)
II. Petition of Paul for Onesimus (1:8-18)
III. Promise of Paul to Philemon (1:19-21)
IV. Personal matters (1:22-25)