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.