Monday, 9 March 2015

The Epistles Part 6

               So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letter from James is possibly the earliest document in the New Testament. It is one of the ‘general letters’, so-called because it has no specific audience as far as is known. It is a very practical letter with an emphasis on the way to lead a life of faith. As a result, the theology is much simpler which is perhaps why Martin Luther famously labelled it the ‘Epistle of Straw’.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.

Thoughts about 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus

                These three letters are known as the pastoral letters because they were written to pastors of churches. After Paul was released from imprisonment in Rome (around AD62) it is suggested that he might have embarked on a fourth missionary journey. Timothy was left in charge of the church in Ephesus while Titus was given charge of the work in Crete. Having settled these arrangements Paul then set out for Macedonia. Perhaps Paul worried about these two effective but inexperienced leaders, or maybe he received word that they were facing difficulty. For whatever reason he wrote first to Timothy (we think) then to Titus and then, having been imprisoned for a second time in Rome, he wrote to Timothy again.
               To Timothy he writes about the need to be firm with those who promoting false teachings. The command is to focus on ‘sound doctrine’ (1 Tim 1:10). That doctrine is then expanded in the following verses. His own life is an example of the purpose of Christ’s coming which is the foundation of the glorious gospel. Timothy being a young man, Paul was concerned that older people might seek to intimidate him and cause him to deviate from the path.
               Worship needs to be orderly, calm and above reproach. In Ephesus in particular the role of women at that time needed to be considered carefully in the light of the practices in the temple of Artemis where temple prostitutes were prominent. It is likely that these instructions were not intended for all time and in all places. For one thing the church in Philippi, from where Paul may well have written this letter, would appear to have had several women in leadership.
               The choice of elders and deacons should also be governed by a sense of order. Chapter 3 lays down a list of qualities required of people in such positions. These are added to in Titus 1, as we shall observe later. He also has instructions for the role of pastor, returning to the exhortation for Timothy to remain strong and not be bullied by older men. (1 Tim 4:12) Was Timothy possibly struggling with his relationships with church members? Were people trying to pressurise him into favouring some people’s needs over others. That might explain the explicit instructions in chapter 5. Perhaps Timothy had written to Paul requesting advice on how to deal with widows, elders, slaves etc. Timothy is to set an example, exercising restraint in all his actions, words and attitudes so that all may know and follow the path of godliness.
               The task of Titus on Crete has some similarities. Titus1:5 suggests that Paul and Titus had been working together on the island. Since the ministry there is not mentioned in Acts it is likely that Paul returned there after his imprisonment in Rome, possibly to follow up contacts made when he made a brief visit while a prisoner under escort to Rome (Acts 27). As with the letter to Timothy, Paul stresses the need for ensuring the suitability of elders as the new church seeks to combat the low standards of behaviour which seem to have been the norm. That phrase ‘sound doctrine’ appears again in Titus 2:1. Here it is not expanded on, perhaps because Titus was well aware of what was meant. There are, however, parallels with the words to Timothy in Paul’s instructions to Titus regarding teaching women, slaves and other groups within the church. ‘Don’t let anyone despise you’ (Titus 2:15) echoes 1 Timothy 4:12.
               The call to step away from unruliness in chapter 3 is a further clue to the specific task on Crete. It must have been tough to set an example and raise standards when there were so many who were ‘foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved’ (Titus 3:3). Yet there is a reminder that ‘we’ (presumably Paul and Titus) were once like that. Therefore there is hope for those who will follow the command to ‘do good’. Verse 8 resonates with Philippians 4:8-9.
               The second letter to Timothy, written shortly before Paul was executed, is written in a different tone. The circumstances are different. Paul was chained in a dungeon like a common criminal he was lonely – only Luke was with him (2 Tim 4:11) and presumably scribed the letter. Perhaps he had received news of Timothy’s continuing struggles and was concerned to provide some instruction and encouragement. Perhaps also Paul was aware that some people were trying to play down Paul’s imprisonment for fear of undermining the gospel. Paul says otherwise. We are not given a spirit of timidity (1:7) and so should not be ashamed to testify or be ashamed of imprisonment for the faith (1:8)
               The instructions set out in the first letter are briefly underlined: Guard the good deposit (1:14). Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2:1). Then there is the hint that Timothy should be passing the task of teaching to others who are qualified to teach (presumably according to the instructions in the first letter). Although this is a much more personal letter than the previous one, or the letter to Titus, there are still common themes. ‘Godliness’ is emphasised in chapter 3 and explained more fully.

               Towards the end of the letter Paul reflects on all that he has gone through, some of which were witnessed personally by Timothy. There is the feeling that Paul knows he may not have another opportunity to communicate with Timothy, in spite of the pleas to get to Rome before winter, and so gives some final words of advice, one of the most famous being ‘all scripture is God-breathed’ (3:16). The Word is of greatest importance.

The Epistles Part 5

               So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letters to Timothy and Titus, are known as the Pastoral letters and were probably written some time after the events of Acts 28. It is likely that after Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome he was released and embarked on a fourth missionary journey. Timothy and Titus were church pastors. Paul wrote to advise and encourage them in their work. The second letter to Timothy may well have been written while Paul was back in prison in Rome, this time awaiting execution. 
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.

Thoughts about Philippians and Philemon

                The tone of the letter to the Philippians is different to many of the other letters. The word ‘joy’ features strongly throughout the letter and reflects the writer’s mood as well possibly a particular affection that he has for the church. In Acts 16, Philippi is recorded as a place where there was no Jewish synagogue so the first place Paul went was to a ‘place of prayer’ by the river. It is the place where Lydia was converted and became one of the founders of the church there. It is also the place where Paul was imprisoned with Silas. It seems that the church in Philippi had heard of Paul’s imprisonment and had sent gifts, news and encouragement to him. The letter is a response to that.
               The letter is also different in that there are no references to the Old Testament, probably because there were very few there who came from a Jewish background. So, in encouraging the members to stand firm in the faith, Paul relies heavily experience and teaching about Jesus. His reference to being in chains for the gospel suggests that there had been questions about how this possibly happen; perhaps there was even a note of despair and fear in the messages he had received from them. As is so today, there would have been many who would have been quick to seek to disparage a name. So having giving the initial greetings, Paul quickly points to the Gospel about Jesus Christ as being the priority. It doesn’t matter how the word gets around. If the love of Jesus is made known that’s enough.
               There was undoubtedly much discussion within the church about what was going on and the squabbling was in danger of leading to division. Along with the exhortation to climb down from personal pedestals Paul points to the example of Jesus in one of the most sublime passages about Christ. The words may well have come from an early Christian hymn, possibly even written by Paul himself, and offer a snapshot of the man who was both human and divine – but with the emphasis firmly on the divinity. From here he charges his readers with the responsibility to be obedient, humble and remain firm amidst the ‘crooked and depraved generation’ (2:15). There then follows a brief commendation of Timothy and Epaphroditus who he plans to send to Philippi. This was obviously intended to be a very brief letter!
               But then, at the beginning of chapter 3, Paul writes ‘Finally, my brothers’ – and continues for another two chapters! No wonder that, in Troas, Eutychus (Acts 20:9) dropped off, with devastating consequences, while listening to one of Paul’s sermons! However, Paul’s ‘finally’ is the prelude to several themes of encouragement to what might today be termed ‘positive thinking’. ‘Rejoice in the Lord!’(And remember that this is written to the church founded in the place where Paul and Silas sang hymns while the earthquake made the prison walls tremble!) It doesn’t matter what is going on around. Yes, we need to beware of those who seek to divert us with false teaching and religious rigmarole which is irrelevant but we need to look for light rather than the darkness, pressing on towards the common goal whatever personal differences of opinion may exist amongst the people.
               He singles out two names, Euodia and Syntyche – possibly church leaders – who seemed to have irreconcilable differences. Focus on rejoicing. If we praise God wholeheartedly, how can we scowl at our neighbour? Chapter 4:8-9 sums up the positive approach – look for the sunshine amidst the clouds. The more we fill our minds with the good things the less corrosive become acid of resentment or despair.

               The brief and personal letter to Philemon is perhaps a practical example of the above. Philemon was a slave owner living in Colosse and the letter was sent at about the time he wrote to the Philippians and also the letter to the Colossians, which we have already looked at previously. It seems that a slave called Onesimus stole from Philemon and ran away, a crime punishable under Roman law by death. He somehow ended up in Rome where he met with Paul and became a Christian. Perhaps part of the evidence of his new faith was to be worked out in returning to his master whatever the consequences. But Paul sends him with a letter of commendation and a plea for clemency. Verse 11 contains a play on the name Onesimus which means ‘useful’. The story of Onesimus reminds us that in Christ we have the offer of redemption which can work itself out in the present as well as through Eternity.             

The Epistles Part 4

               So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letter to the Philippians and the personal letter to Philemon, like the letters to Ephesians and Colossians, were probably written around AD60 to 61 while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. He received visitors during that time; people who kept him informed of all that was going on in the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation or a reaction to a problem. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.

Thoughts about Ephesians and Colossians

                These two letters were probably written at the same time. It is likely that the letter to Philemon was written and sent by the same courier, Tychicus. Certainly he is the one who is charged with filling in the gaps for both the Ephesian and the Colossian letter. There is also a hint that there may have been a fourth letter in the mailbag, to the church at Laodicea (see Colossians 40;16). The churches in Ephesus, Laodicea and Colosse were not so very far apart and whatever Paul wrote to one was intended to be shared with the other.
               The two letters under consideration here are quite different in presentation and yet there are distinct similarities in some of the content. The opening sentences of Ephesians depart from Paul’s normal greetings which followed a pattern common in letter writing of that time. The more impersonal opening may indicate that the letter was intended to for a number of audiences in the area. Paul was well acquainted with the area having spent three years there. In this letter he does not address any specific issues but concentrates on teaching which was intended to build up the church in Christ. To this end the overarching of theme of unity in the Spirit threads its way through the letter.
               The letter begins with an affirmation of the supremacy of Christ and the privileged position which belongs to his followers because of their relationship with him. This was all planned beforehand. Several times in this letter Paul alludes to our being chosen through pre-destined plans. He makes no attempt to address directly the conflict this causes with the notion of free-will and the choice to follow or turn away.
               Instead he prays for wisdom and enlightenment for his readers. The ability to understanding the riches of God’s gifts and deal with the tensions which arise out of the many different interpretations we put on the scriptures require an enlightened attitude which church history reveals has been sadly lacking. We are heirs to the kingdom through being part of the body but Paul is concerned that the body should hold together.
               Our journey from sin to salvation is emphasised in both letters. Because of the Cross we are no longer separated from God. It is not of our doing but we are the beneficiaries of God’s plan and action through Jesus and then the Holy Spirit. The majestic language at the end of Ephesians 2 describes a process which has been set in motion; a process which defines our purpose and the nature of our inheritance.
               Rooted in the love which surpasses all knowledge (Eph 3:19) we are to reflect what has taken place inn our relationship with God by adopting a new relationship with one another. Love is the key to unity. In love all the other ‘ones’ of Ephesians 4 hold together. Love is the power which creates our light and it is in love (Eph 4:29) that we are charged to build one another up.
               Often we have struggled with the reference in Ephesians 5 to different relationships, particularly the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22 & Col 3:18).For such tensions we require his prayer for wisdom and enlightenment (Eph 1:17-18). We need to contrast the times in which he wrote with the nature of today’s world where we have hopefully made some progress along the road to better relationships that God wants from us. The fact that we are still struggling after nearly two thousand years with many of the issues which Paul highlights should underline the need for the cautionary words of chapter 6 about wearing the full armour of God, and persisting in the faith. Paul closes with an exhortation to pray – another thing which these two letters have in common.
               Where the letter to the Colossians differs is that there is a specific problem of which Paul had been made aware of through Epaphras, one of the founder members of the church in Colosse. It is not entirely clear what the ‘heresy’ was but as we read Paul’s words we gain some idea of what concerned him most. Because of the strong Greek influence in the area there was much academic debate and a heavy emphasis on the power of human thought and knowledge. As in the letter to the Ephesians Paul wants to emphasise Christ’s supremacy and the sufficiency of his actions for us. ‘See that no-one takes you captive..’ (Col 2:8)
               What follows in the Colossians letter is similar in emphasis to the principles laid out in Ephesians butin shorter form. There is also reference to the way the Colossians have already expressed their faith in baptism (Col 2:12) and how they should understand the importance of this. In many ways Paul’s message is that they should keep their observance simple. He recognises the need for laws for living but insists that these should be for the good of the individual in community. Living in harmony is the underlying message in chapter 3 with the need for breaking down barriers reiterated.

               Because Colossians follows the more conventional pattern, it ends with messages to and from individuals. Some of these names crop up again elsewhere so keep an eye out for them…

The Epistles Part 3

So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians were probably written around AD60 while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. He received visitors during that time; people who kept him informed of all that was going on in the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation or a reaction to a problem. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.

Thoughts about Romans

                Rome – the centre of the empire, and consequently of the known world at the time of Paul – was important to Paul’s strategy to reach the Gentiles. And, of course, he was himself a Roman citizen. He wanted to get there but there was so much to do first, so he wrote. He had been on three exhausting journeys around Asia Minor and Greece and was probably, at the time of writing, in Corinth preparing to take a relief fund back to the Christians in Jerusalem. Always planning ahead, Paul may have been thinking of his dream to travel to the other end of the Mediterranean Sea to Spain. On the way he would make that visit to Rome and so he wrote, in part perhaps to prepare the way for his arrival.
               From the beginning of the letter Paul establishes the basis for his arguments; faith in God, through Christ, is the only pathway to salvation. Paul gives his impression of the evils of the world and the deepening problems; the hopelessness for all caught up in it. Many believe they can find their way out by their own efforts but the sentiment of chapter two echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ Perhaps surprisingly, in the eyes of many of his readers, he is particularly hard on the Jews who regarded themselves as superior because of their observance of the Law. A Jew himself, he does not dispute the special place that a Jew may have but cautions against complacency and a sense of superiority for God holds Jew and Gentile in equal esteem – and both are equally sinners!(3:23) Jews were not alone in condemning vice in others but failing to live according to their principles. Because of the Law the Jew has less excuse for being a sinner.
               So faith is the key, but not as a replacement for the Law, but as its fulfilment. Abraham is held up as an example of God’s response to faith. Faith is therefore the binding agent, not bloodline or religious observance. Jesus came to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17) through the Cross and Resurrection but we have to believe (John 3:16-17). When we believe that the effect of the Cross offers the reverse of the events of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) then we become united with Christ through faith. The real purpose of the Law is to convince us that we cannot be free from sin by our own efforts; that we need God. And God sends his Holy Spirit to live with us and within us (chapter 8).
               Paul is filled with anguish because of his fellow Jews who refuse to accept that Jesus is their Messiah while Gentiles turn to him in faith. God has kept his promises and the nation which has a history of stubbornness and rebellion remains the chosen race. And here we receive a warning against condemning Jews for failing to believe. In chapter 11 Paul clearly foresees and so counsels against holding the view that Gentile Christians are superior. Many Jews, Paul included, did become believers and therefore the hope for Israel remains. We are not to condemn but rather to hold out that hope for all who will turn according to the principle of faith.

               And so in the closing chapters Paul turns to the practical implications of the life of faith; of living at peace with one another; respecting the earthly authorities except where there is direct conflict with God’s commands. We are to be sensitive to those around us and not allow our sense of freedom through faith to become a stumbling block to others. We are to follow the example of Christ who sought to embrace all with his love. So his closing remarks include a warning against causing division – faith is the key; unity is the banner.

The Epistles Part 2

               So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. It is difficult to establish an exact chronological order but following on from the letters and visits to Corinth it is likely that the next letter to be written was while Paul was in Corinth, this time to the Romans. It is worth remembering that these letters are often only one side of a conversation. As you read ask yourself what may have prompted the responses you are reading.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.

Thoughts about Corinthians

                There has been some speculation about where Paul was when he wrote these two letters and that then affects the dating. Does it matter? Well, possibly when it comes to interpreting the finest details but for our purposes here the popular assumption that Paul was coming to the end of his stay in Ephesus when he received letters and representatives from the church in Corinth provides the soundest basis.
Of all the places Paul visited in Greece, this must have been some of the toughest ground for planting a new church. There were very few Jews; there was a huge divide between rich and poor; the town was dominated by the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love; people there were proud of their own intellectual prowess. Nevertheless a church was established and continued to function after Paul’s departure.
Tales of argument and division; incestuous relationships; improper behaviour in church and disorderly worship which extended even to conduct at the Lord’s Supper; all of these things, on reaching the ears of Paul, gave rise for great concern. Even so the letter begins with a word of encouragement, focusing on the gifts with which they have been blessed. But the tone is set in the first few words: sanctified, holy, together. Paul is saying, ‘This is what you are called to; this is what you have been given – but now I must take you to task for the way you are failing in the task.
And so the first six chapters deal with the things which disturb Paul; the division, the cliques, the immoral behaviour, the lack of leadership. He reminds them of the wisdom which rises far beyond that which human thought can aspire to and challenges them to remain rooted in Christ. They should rely only on Christ and not exhibit pride. Neither should they consider themselves superior and free from moral laws.
In chapter seven Paul begins to answer some of the questions that were raised. His answer to the question of whether people should marry is coloured by his expectation that the Second Coming was imminent. He then goes on to deal with food first offered to idols. The principle is not freedom but rather consideration for others and, once again, placing Christ first; not succumbing to complacency.
Chapter eleven contains one of the controversial passages regarding the place of women. Local and more general customs come into conflict. It is important that Christian practice should not be misinterpreted. Paul’s comments are influenced by the common ground between Corinth and Ephesus where Paul was staying at the time. This was a specific instruction for a specific situation with no universal application. Most importantly it was about orderly worship, as were the instructions which follow regarding conduct at the communion meal. At this time the Lord’s Supper happened as part of a fellowship meal and it appears that behaviour was unruly with the greed of some causing others to go hungry
From there the line of thought moves into orderly conduct with regard to attitude to spiritual gifts and other spiritual matters, including further thoughts about the conduct of women in worship. In the midst of this rests one of the sublime passages in Paul’s letters – Love is central to the teaching; and to the desired conduct of the people.
In the concluding chapters Paul addresses the issue of resurrection – a difficult one for Jews and Greeks alike. In doing so he has left us a challenging passage, but one which emphasises that the Resurrection of Christ is at the foundation of our faith.

The second letter has a different emphasis. It seems that Paul had been under attack and he defends himself at length but still with the integrity of one who sees Christ as being first in his life. He wrote this letter a year at most after the first. He has also endured a painful visit to Corinth in that time. It seems that things were settling down in Corinth for the tone of the letter changes – but it remains intensely personal throughout and while there may have been less need for Paul to defend himself he continues to lay down an explanation which perhaps can be used wherever and whenever it is necessary. The first nine chapters deal with plans, travels and events as well as money concerns – particularly fund-raising. Chapters ten to twelve then provide the defence against the few critics who still spoke out in Corinth. The letter closes with a word of caution to make sure things are sorted before his planned visit which he hoped would be a much happier one.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Epistles Part 1

                                 Thoughts about Galatians and Thessalonians

Paul’s first two missionary journeys left behind a turbulent wake of activity in Galatia. Amongst the Jews who had settled in that area he and his companions had caused consternation and division, some of which mirrored the reaction of the Jewish authorities to Jesus. Then amongst those who accepted the new teaching there was further division, especially regarding the status of Gentiles who became believers, and about the ritual procedures by which they were to be integrated into the faith community.
                The way he introduces himself at the start hints at what is to come. The emphasis on the authority of Jesus Christ sets out his intent to refute accusations that he was compromising the Gospel simply to attract Gentile converts. After the greeting he denounces any attempt to water down the Gospel, calling it ‘no gospel at all’ (1:7). He then proceeds to give a ‘warts-and-all’ account of the manner in which he came to be called by God and the affirmations he received from other apostles. His account of his disagreement with Peter (2:11-14) sets the scene for his argument against the Judaisers, the people seeking to enforce Jewish customs upon the Gentile believers.
                The foundation for Paul’s argument in this letter is that blood lines and observance of the Law count for nothing. To emphasise this he goes back to the very beginnings of the nation of Israel and the relationship which Abraham had with God, a relationship which pre-dated the Law-giving and which was based upon Abraham’s faith. The promise given to Abraham is inherited through faith and not confined to one nation or one set of rituals (3:9). The promises of God cannot be overwritten and the Law, though necessary and important, was only ever temporary. Important to this is his emphasis of the seed of Abraham being singular and referring to Jesus (3:16).
                Through various means Paul tries to impress upon his readers that the real inheritance is through faith in Jesus; that this is the way to freedom. The Law is the way of enslavement. Freedom is characterised by life in the Spirit which benefits not only the individual believer but also all around.  The theme of the New Creation will appear in another later letter but this is where Paul introduces the idea. (6:15) Don’t perpetuate old practices. Start again.
                From the outset the letters to the people of Thessalonica carry a very different tone. Paul had only been able to make a brief visit to this the capital city of Macedonia. He had fled from there to Berea and then again fled from Berea to Athens and finally on to Corinth from which place he then wrote to encourage the new converts. It seems that there was great persecution in that area and so the fact that a church remained and grew in that region was remarkable. Concerned about the spiritual well-being of this young church, Paul wrote, probably responding to questions and concerns raised with Timothy who then returned to Paul. These letters were probably written about twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus so perhaps it is not surprising that they centre mainly on the question of the Second Coming which many early Christians, including Paul himself, thought was already overdue.
                Although different in tone from the Galatian letter, it would seem that there had been some question over the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship. So, as in Galatians but in a different way Paul seeks to explain himself and point out the manner in which he lived among the Thessalonians. (1Thess 2) Then he emphasises the need for living in a holy and honourable way (1 Thess 4:1-12) which has parallels with some of the teaching in Galatians 5.
                But what was to happen to all those who had died in those twenty years since Jesus had promised he would come again? Paul has wrestled with this on many occasions and will refer to it again in later letters. Here he affirmed that Jesus had promised that those who had already died would not miss out (1 Thess 4:15). Such reassurances are not recorded in the Gospels so Paul’s confidence is based either on direct revelation or on oral tradition at that time. The rest of the letter is concerned with instructing the believers to be watchful, cautious but active in the faith – and that does resonate with Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 & 25.

                The second letter, written about six months after the first (it is believed), continues the warnings and reassurances and prayers regarding the Second Coming. Perhaps Silas and Timothy returned from delivering the first letter with even more questions and worries which Paul felt needed to be addressed quickly. Paul spells out the signs to watch for (2 Thess 2:1-12) but then urges the readers to stand firm and remain active as well as prayerful.