Often times we open up the New Testament and read one of the letters thinking that Paul (or Peter, etc) wanted to write a theological pamphlet and send it to whoever would read. Maybe that day Paul was interested in atonement or communion or some other doctrine. So he got to writing his essay, put it in an envelope, and headed to his nearest post office.
While the authors certainly want to be clear on these deeply theological issues, what prompted the letters was very different.
Jesus Christ came to live among a fallen people. He revealed himself to be the Son of God who was ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus performed miracles and taught about new ways of living. He came fulfilling the law and the prophets. Then he went to the cross. Jesus died and then was raised on the third day and continued to open up his disciples minds to understand the Scriptures and how they relate to him. After forty days Jesus ascended to Heaven and gifted his people with the Holy Spirit.
Those early believers, if they truly believed this, must have had questions. It was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles who wondered what practices of the Old Testament should continue? In what ways should new believers be brought into the community? How did Jesus fulfill the law–did he end it or make it more demanding? What does God want me to do? What if we aren’t good enough and sin? How do I treat others who sin against me? What does the future hold? Is Jesus coming back and if so, when? If Jesus has defeated sin and death why are people still dying? If Jesus has authority over all powers why do we still suffer? How do we relate to those who are making us suffer? What is our purpose?
When you start to understand the context of the early church the letters that were written to them become more energized. The letters weren’t textbooks. They were compassionately written messages to churches needing help and guidance. They were life-giving.
As you read them I hope you see how vital they were and how vital they still can be for the church, a church always in need of being reformed according to our Scripture.
Paul has done work in your area a while back. He came and taught, spending time in the household of a neighbor, Lydia. He got in to some trouble with the local officials, and while in jail he ministered to fellow prisoners and even though an earthquake loosed his chains and could have freed him, he remained. In doing so he kept the prison guard from taking his own life, and later this guard and his whole household believe in Jesus.
You believe what he taught about Jesus and seek to follow his teaching, even in a city that has shown itself to be hostile. There are some things that are familiar to the Jewish faith, and Jesus seems to be a continuation, but there is a radical newness to Christianity, as well. As much as you try to hold on to Paul’s teaching of the gospel, you have still have questions. Other teachers have come around and are spreading a message that doesn’t quite sound the same, and that troubles you. You’re also troubled because you know Paul himself has again found himself imprisoned in Rome.
You worry about him and the work he is to do for the gospel of Christ. Can he still spread the word?
To your delight you hear that your church has received a letter of encouragement, and it is from Paul, and from his fellow servant Timothy! You’ve been given the chance to hear it read for body of believers in Philippi. At the end of the day you all gather together in a home that you’ve frequently used for meetings–for prayer and worship, and you sit down to hear the news. He writes:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…
Or: An exercise in imagination to help see the importance of Paul’s letter
Imagine if you will:
Paul has come your way through the region of Galatia, and you think you understood what he has taught. But he wasn’t the only one who has come talking about Jesus, and what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean for us.
Some of what Paul said sounded radical, such as complete dependence on God’s grace, not on what we do. But others came along to you adding to his teaching.
Yes, God is gracious, but don’t we still need to earn grace? God has given you the law, right? Shouldn’t we then follow it? Why would he give it to you if you couldn’t follow it? And if you can uphold the law, then you must.
Should we be concerned? Did Paul just emphasize some parts of the gospel and other teachers emphasized other parts? Are they teaching the same thing? They all sound pretty smart, how can I make heads or tails of this? Are they all right in some way? How should we react?
If only Paul would write to us to help clear things up…