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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 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)
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.
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)|
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)
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)
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