The Prison Epistles of Paul Apostolic School of Theology Joshua L. Poole Abstract The Epistles of the New Testament are arguably the most spiritually in depth readings in the entire Bible. Paul, the author of the Epistles, gives a detailed account of his life which was centered on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The contents of his writings explain the perils, trials, persecutions, of a devout man determined to finish his course on earth, living in the will of God. Some such writings were the Epistles Paul wrote while in prison for teaching the message of Jesus Christ unto Salvation.
These letters written to the churches of that day were instructions given to address the issues of true Christian living. Paul gives his readers the hope of God even in the most perilous of times. It also shows that even while incarcerated, there are still works to be done for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Paul, through Christ Jesus, overcame the greatest of obstacles to bring future audiences the hope and assurance they would need, believing in the word of God. The structure, message, purpose, and contribution, would reach people from generation to generation, seeking and saving the lost!
The Prison Epistles of Paul The Book of Colossians The book of Colossians is believed to written sometime in between 56 and 61 A. D. while Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Tenney, 1985). In this letter to the church at Colossae, Paul addresses the issue of Gnosticism in the church. Gnosticism, according the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus (2013), is the thought and practice especially of various cults’ of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis or knowledge.
Paul’s desire in this prison letter was to correct the false teachings that were rising up in the church at Colossae. The problem of heresy was brought the forefront of the letter and would be the main focus of his writing. Structure There is a specific structure of the book of Colossians which can be broken up into two parts. The first (10:3-2:23) is the polemic against false teaching, and the second (3:1-4:17) is made up of exhortations of proper Christian living. According to Webster (2013), “polemic” means to aggressively attack or refute the opinions or principles of another.
This is typical of Paul and his approach, presenting a theological foundation, with the position on which practical exhortations are built (Tenney, 1985) Message and Purpose The message and purpose of the book of Colossians was Paul’s counter attack on the “Colossian Heresy” that he considered being an opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This false teaching is identified as “philosophy” (2:8), presumably drawn from some Hellenistic traditions as indicated by the reference to “the fullness” (1:19); “the rudiments of the world” (Gk stoicheia; (2:8, 20) “wisdom” (2:3, 23); and ascetic practices (2:23) (Dockery, 1992).
The major theme of the book of Colossians centers on the supremacy of Christ in all things. Paul undoubtedly sought to address issues such as family life, conduct and speech, and the putting on of the love of God in his message. He gives the basis for resisting relational legalism (2:16-23), turning the attention of the believers focus back to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ where it should be. Remember as mentioned earlier, the correct theology was laid out in chapters 1 and 2, and followed by exhortations of how to live a Christian life were given in chapters 3 and 4.
In saying that, one can draw the premise of the book of the book of Colossians as one of correction, followed by instruction. Contribution Colossians provides the audience with one of the Bible’s fullest expressions of the deity and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The evidence of this is found in chapter 1 verses 15 through 20. Paul talks about the majesty of praise that sets forth Jesus Christ as the image of the invisible God. Furthermore, that God is the creator and the sustainer of the entire universe, and the head of His body, the church.
This book contributes to the believer’s outlook of what true Christianity really is; it is the complete submission to the government of God in our life through Jesus Christ. Paul teaches that the “traditions of men” are wayward and contrary to the Government of God in the life of the believer. Colossians adds to the scripture a high Christology, alluding to the imminent implications of conduct for the believer. Much of Paul’s writing points out the fallacies by which the church at Colossae was infected with at the time of his letter (Dockery, 1992).
The Book of Ephesians The book of Ephesians is thought to be written sometime in between 60 and 61 A. D (Tenney, 1985). Many churches had already been formed at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians. Its structure is similar to that of the Book of Colossians. Although, one variation to the book of Ephesians, is that he addressed the issue of spiritual maturity and the sovereign grace of God displayed towards sinners in Christ Jesus. The best news in the entire world was the expression of grace that God showed toward His fallen creation (Dockery, 1992).
Structure Although the structure of Ephesians is strikingly similar to that of the Book of Colossians, there were several unique differences to this book. According to the Dockery (1992), some of these differences were the expansion of blessings, confessions of the new life, a theological expansion of household roles, and several others. It goes on to say that the Book of Colossians was a more condensed version of similar teaching and instruction, where Ephesians gives a more expanded view of the similarities that the two books share.
It serves as instruction for the church as a whole instead of just on a local level (churches “the body” and “the head” being Christ). The contrast and highlights of Ephesians is a broader explanation addressing the issues of that day. Message and Purpose Ephesians was not a book directed toward the novice of the Christian faith but rather to those that had achieved some maturity in spiritual experience. The central message of the letter was the re-creation of the human family as was originally intended by God at the time of creation.
Paul explains the new creation destroys the misguided view that God is bias and rejects people based on nationality. At Christ death, this distinction was abolished, leaving no more hindrance, and reuniting humanity as the people of God through Christ Jesus (the head). It is also worth to note that the book is the basis for a full knowledge of life and how it is to be lived. The summery of the Book of Ephesians would place emphasis the unity of the church in Christ, through the power of the Holy Ghost. Paul’s writings displayed the redemptive power, grace, and mercy of God that was made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
To conclude, Ephesians shows a full picture of the church as a single functioning body, unified, ready to take on the battle in the spiritual realm (Tenney, 1985). Contribution The contribution as stated by Bible. org (2013), references scripture to give a full comprehension of its tribute. The glory of God is not only the motivation, but the goal of God’s sovereign work among men. There is no more majestic theme, no more noble pursuit than the glory of God. Moses’ highest ambition and most noble request were to see the glory of God (Exodus 33:17–18:8).
The first coming of Christ was a display of the glory of God (John 1:14; see also Matthew 16:27–17:8). The Apostle Paul was encouraged and sustained by his awareness of God’s glory (see 2 Corinthians 3:7-18; 4:3-6, 16-18). The apostle Peter found the revelation of the “Majestic Glory” of our Lord a witness to the truthfulness of the prophetic word revealed through the apostles (2 Peter 1:16-19). Our Lord’s second coming will be a revelation of His glory, and the cause for the saints’ rejoicing (1 Peter 4:12-13). Every supreme goal of our every action is the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The Epistle to the Ephesians is all about the glory and grace of God. Many other references are made to the word manifesting His glory through divine revelation. Paul was an apostle of great understanding and wrote what God had revealed to him. The Book of Philippians The Philippian Epistle to the church at Philippi was thought to be written in about 62 A. D. according the Dockery (1992). Furthermore, it was a prison letter that was probably written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome and it was said to be one of his most warmly personal letters of them all. The issue that Paul addressed here was once again the false teachings of man.
There was a strong bond developed between Paul and the people of Philippi in his initial visit there. He wrote the church while imprisoned to inform them of his situation and to thank them for the gift they had sent. Structure What best describes the letter to the Philippians is the structure of this highly personal letter had the theological teachings of Paul embedded in it. Although the letter was extremely practical, his guidance, warnings, and concern were largely theologically based to address the issues of false teaching of legalism, perfectionism, and careless living (3:1-4:1).
One common theme found throughout the book of Philippians is joy which is mentioned 19 times in its four chapters. The next structural feature of the book even though a little rough in comparison to his other writings was his exhortation of the church to live in humility, fellowship, and union with the spirit (1:27-2:11; 4:2-3). Last, Paul thanked the church for their good gifts and financial support of his cause (Dockery, 1992). Message and Purpose There is no need to assume up front that there must have been only one purpose in the writing of Philippians.
In fact, as we read the letter, several objectives seem to be in the mind of the apostle Paul. First, it is clear that Paul wanted the church to know how things were going for him in his imprisonment (1:12-26) and what his plans were should he be released (Phil 2:23-24). Second, there appears to have been some discord and division in the church and so the apostle writes to encourage humility with a view toward unity (2:1-18; 4:2-3). Third, Paul, the pastoral theologian, writes to head off the negative teaching and consequences of certain false teachers (3:2-3ff. ).
Fourth, Paul wrote to commend Timothy to the church as well as to give the church a report about the health and plans of Epaphroditus (2:19-30). Fifth, Paul also wrote to thank the church for their concern for him and the gifts they had given (4:10-20) (bible. org, 2013). Another unusual tone of the letter to the Philippians was that Paul seemed to speak to the church as a friend that would understand how he felt in his mission for Christ. The tone is one of a friend baring the contexts of his heart to another. Contribution The contribution of this letter is the spiritual insight that Paul gives the eliever about church unity. Another loud tone of the book is the expression of joy that Paul shares with the church at Philippi all throughout his letter to them. Christian maturity was an overtone that Paul emphasized in his unusually intimate letter to the Philippians as well. Most people of Paul’s day knew him or knew of him therefore the majority of them were quick to accept his writing as scripture (Tenney, 1985). As seen throughout the letter to the church at Philippi, the problems there were normal life issues run of the mill stumbling blocks, nothing major.
Interestingly enough, this letter also was not super corrective in its structure or intent but made an impact in its instruction which in turn makes an impact on the reader. Paul merely spoke to the Philippians as their friend and as a thankful follower of Jesus Christ. The example of this friendship helps the reader to see the overall intent of Paul’s letter to his beloved brothers as they all continue in the love of Christ (Dockery, 1992). Philemon The book of Philemon was also believed to be written around 60 to 61 A. D. ear or around the same time as the other prison Epistles (Tenney, 1985). Around the time of this letter, the issues of cultural and social barriers were greatly hindering the church. Another issue that Paul faced was the social acceptance of slavery in his day. Just as his letter the church at Philippi, Philemon was also a very personal letter. It is considered the most personal letter that Paul ever wrote because it was addressed to one particular person, Philemon. The contents are what made it person since it addressed issues that friends would usually spend time to talk about. Structure
Although Philemon was a short letter as mentioned above, Paul actually addresses a number of issues. In this letter are found all the ingredients of forgiveness. * The Offense (11,18) * Compassion (10) * Intercession (10, 18-19) * Substitution (18-19) * Restoration and Favor (15) * Elevation to a New Relationship (16) Every element of the divine forgiveness of sin is duplicated in the forgiveness that Paul sought for Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. This is a practical lesson in the petition of prayer, “forgive us our doubts as we also have forgiven our doubter’s (Tenney, 1985). ” Message and Purpose
Philemon had a slave named Oneimus as mentioned above who apparently stole from him and then ran away. It just so happened that this slave ended up in the same prison as Paul. The man repented while there with Paul and became a believer of the truth. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he interceded on the behalf of the slave and asked Philemon to forgive him. Paul asked that Philemon not only forgive him but also to receive him as a brother (Dockery, 1992). The primary message and purpose of the letter was to manifest the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for each one of us as He did before God in pleading our case.
This is one of the finest illustrations of the doctrine of substitution (intercession). Just as Paul did on behalf of Oneimus, so can be said for what Christ did for humanity. Through the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, it is clear to hear the cry of Jesus Christ agreeing to take the place of humanity to have its’ sin imputed to Him. Christ took humanities place in spiritual death but in return gave humanity its place in spiritual life. Paul’s message to Philemon was that because of what Christ did on the cross, Oneimus was to be received as Paul would have been received.
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Philemon 1:18) God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:1) The backbone of Paul’s message and purpose was to teach all people to love unconditionally. His intent in the other Prison Epistles was to show the new relationship between master and servant as seen in Philemon’s case. Now Paul was demonstrating how this new relationship should work.
Even though before they were to men coming from different two different classes of the Roman Empire, now they were brothers in Christ and should show unconditional love for one another. Paul exquisitely illustrates from this situation what the life of Christ was all about. No one ever in the human race was able to stand before God and take the punishment for the crimes of humanity. Jesus Christ alone did this and Paul points that out in this letter (Tyree, 1995). Contribution The biggest impact that this letter makes is giving the grounds and basis of how social and cultural issues should be handled.
Paul’s depiction of Christ unrelenting love for humanity drives home the message of unconditional love and forgiveness toward people. First dealt with on a personal level, and then moving onward to a broader level or scope for society. It shows that social and cultural barriers can be eliminated in Christian fellowship. Another powerful statement made in this letter is what the Christian attitude is towards slavery. Paul accepts but does not indorse slavery (only as a legal fact), pointing to Oneimus’s higher identity as a Christian brother setting the master-slave relationship on new ground.
This defiantly contrasts the dominants of the laws of that day. Paul skillfully gives up his authority and right to issue commands to appeal to Philemon’s freedom of choice to follow the Christ like example in deciding how to express his love. The last profound contribution of the letter to Philemon is the illustration of how God gives us a new identity when the believer comes in repentance and faith. The Lord forgives and welcomes the new believer as Christ. Standing in the gap for all of humanity, Christ repaid the debt in full that humanity owed God (Dockery, 1992).
Conclusion The most amazing conclusion to the study of the Prison Epistles of Paul is the impact the one Apostle made from a jail cell to the churches of that day and to the world to come. It is important to think of the spiritual insight and direction God breathed through Paul for His newly formed church. From the study, it seemed Paul never wavered from his position of the gospel or his relationship with Christ no matter what the situation was. He used every encounter as an opportunity to do a work for God.
The perils and trials that he experienced only seemed to strengthen his resolve to move forward advancing the Kingdom of God in any way that he possibly could. It is plain to see that Paul wrote from a position of spiritual understanding that is almost unmatched anywhere else in the Bible. Divine enlightenment was the order of the day in the life of Paul. The establishment of the church was no easy task and the instruction and guidance he delivered will give every future church the basic foundation it will need to establish itself in today’s society. References Bible. rg (2013) The Prison Epistles of Paul; Bible. org Retrieved March 14, 2013 from www. bible. org Dockery, David S. (1992) Holman Bible Handbook, Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee Hacker (2013) Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus; Merriam-Webster. com. Retrieved March 15, 2013 from http://www. merriam-webster. com/dictionary/hacker Tenney, Merrill C. (1985) New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 Tyree Jr. , Thomas (1995) The Study of Philemon: Mesa, California Retrieved on March 17,2013 from: www. egracebiblechurch. org/philemon. htm