Tuesday, September 23, 2008

October Synopsis: Seven Authentic Letters of Paul

Bible Cover to Cover for October: The Seven Authentic Letters of Paul

1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Romans

These are the seven letters that scholars all agree were written by Paul. Disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus) will be read later. We begin with Paul’s seven authentic letters (the earliest writings in the New Testament) rather than Acts which is written a half century after Paul. The Paul of Acts is a legendary character that serves the purpose of the author of Acts.

In these seven letters written on the road to particular congregations, we get insight into the struggles and the convictions of the early Jesus movement as understood by Paul and his communities. Paul mythologizes Jesus for a Greek and Roman audience. There is little about the historical person of Jesus in Paul’s letters. Paul is mostly concerned about the death and resurrection of Christ (the Messiah) and what it means for his readers to live “in Christ.”

It is in these seven letters that we find the “real” Paul. One of the challenges is to seek to uncover what is coherent in Paul’s message and what is contingent upon circumstances. We find in the authentic Paul a radical message of personal and social liberation and egalitarianism between women and men, between slave and free, and between Jew and Greek.

I Thessalonians: This is Paul’s first letter and the oldest writing in the New Testament. There was concern that Christ had not returned. Paul reassures them that Christ will come again and the dead will be raised. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (5:2)

I Corinthians is written for the church that has lost its center in Christ. Fighting, division, competition, and self-aggrandizement rule the day for the Corinthians and Paul teaches them the meaning of community, of love, and of authentic spiritual maturity. Chapter 13 contains some of the most beautiful poetry in scripture. That is why you hear it during weddings.

II Corinthians: Relations between Paul and the people at Corinth had deteriorated. This letter reveals the hurt and frustration when people of faith have conflicts that cannot seem to be resolved. Paul tries to walk that difficult line of seeking reconciliation but needing to defend his ministry. “Make room in your hearts for us...” (7:2)

Philemon: Paul writes to Philemon who is the owner of a slave, Onesimus. Paul admonishes Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom and to take him back not as a slave but as a brother.

Galatians: The Galatians have reverted back to their old ways by putting the demands of the law onto Christians. Galatians is an important letter which tells of the universal implications of the Christian faith. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!” (3:1)

Philippians: Paul writes this letter from prison and it is a powerful letter of faith and joy amidst struggle. It is a letter of confidence in Christ’s presence. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” (4:4)

Romans is Paul's theological summa. Romans was the work that changed Martin Luther and inspired him to reform the church. "We are justified by grace through faith." Paul wrestles with the same questions we do today. How good do I have to be? What is the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law? Why do I keep doing the bad things I detest?

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