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Letters of St 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.

Romans

The let­ter to the Romans was writ­ten by St. 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 St. 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)

First Corinthians

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 St. 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 St. Paulâ??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 St. Paulâ??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 St. 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.

Second Corinthians

The entire sec­ond let­ter of St. 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 St. 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. (I Corinthi­ans 13)

Galatians

The let­ter of St. 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 St. 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 Book II, Wor­ship)

For as many as have been bap­tized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gala­tians 3:27)

Ephesians

The let­ters of St. 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.

St. 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, St. 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)

Phillippians

As we have men­tioned, the let­ter of St. 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, St. 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 St. Paul’s famous pas­sage about the self-emp­ty­ing (keno­sis) of Christ which is the epis­tle read­ing for the feasts of the Nativ­i­ty and