Christian Living

Understanding Paul’s Letters in the Bible

Discover How to Navigate and Rightly Understand What Paul Wrote

The apostle Paul is the most prolific writer in the New Testament. He wrote about half of the books, which comprise roughly one third of the content. These are all letters.

Some of Paul’s letters are to groups of people and others are to individuals.

Paul wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He addresses them to groups of people, usually churches.

Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon to individuals. In these various letters, he sometimes had cowriters, but even then, he took the lead.

These letters total thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books. Though we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, it’s possible Paul was one of the unidentified co-authors.

If so, this would bump the total to fourteen books he was involved in writing.

In most cases, however, we don’t know the circumstances behind why Paul wrote these letters, so we need to take care that we don’t take what he intended for one person or one church from long ago and wrongly apply it to us today.

Though we clearly know the circumstances for Paul writing to Philemon (a petition to restore the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master), in most cases we don’t know the situations behind Paul’s letters.

As we read them, it’s as if we’re listening to half of a conversation and don’t know the context.

He may have been answering a question they asked or addressing a specific problem that’s come to his attention (such as 1 Corinthians 1:11). But we usually don’t know.

Just as listening to one side of a phone call could cause us to form wrong conclusions, we run the same risk if we don’t read Paul’s letters with care.

As a result, we should be wary of Paul’s writings so that we don’t misunderstand them. Yet we would be equally wrong to dismiss his letters as not applicable.

To better navigate this tricky dilemma, we’ll do well to divide the content of Paul’s letters into three categories.

Paul’s Story

In Paul’s letters, he often talks about his personal situation. He writes about the things he did in the past, what he’s doing in the present, and his plans for the future. He also tells us about other people or situations.

We can treat these passages just like any other historical section of the Bible.

When we read Paul’s letters, we may be surprised at how often he talks about himself or situations he’s aware of. We can learn much through Paul’s example and his life, as revealed in his letters.

Paul’s Teaching

Another portion of Paul’s writings teach the recipients about the truths of God and how to best navigate their journey of faith.

Though Paul certainly selects what he teaches based on the specific needs of the recipients, we don’t need to know why he’s doing so.

Regardless of the circumstances, we can trust Paul’s teaching to contain godly truths that universally apply to all people regardless of the situation or the era. Paul’s teachings in his letters are clearly applicable to us today.

Paul’s Commands

The third type of content in Paul’s letters is where things get tricky. It’s when he tells his audience what to do. Though the applicability of some situations are clear, most are not.

Consider when Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine for medicinal purposes. This instruction is obviously directed to Timothy and him alone.

It would be foolish for us to think Paul is commanding us to drink wine. This would be especially detrimental for a recovering alcoholic.

Another example is when Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. Paul’s certainly not telling us to prepare a guest room for him today. That wouldn’t make sense.

An alternate example is Paul’s frequent command to love one another. He gives this instruction in six of his letters. Peter and John also include this command in three of their letters. Most importantly, Jesus teaches we are to love one another (John 13:34).

Therefore, Paul’s command to love one another is something we should all follow. We know this because Paul repeats it to several audiences, Peter and John concur, and most importantly, it comes from Jesus himself.

Yet most of the rest of Paul’s instructions fall in the murky area between these two extreme examples.

We’re left with a dilemma of wondering whether these commands from Paul are generic instructions we should all follow today or specific direction tailored to one audience: the letters recipients.

In this latter case, we may be incorrect to assume these commands of Paul apply to us today.

To guide us in navigating this dilemma we can consider three principles.

  1. First, if Paul wrote the same command to multiple audiences, it more likely applies to us too.
  2. Second, if other New Testament writers give the same instruction, we can give it even more credence.
  3. Last, and most significantly, is if Jesus commanded it. Then we must follow and obey what he said.

And we can turn to the Holy Spirit to guide us in how to rightly navigate Paul’s commands that we find written in his letters.

Conclusion about Paul’s Letters

We must treat the commands we find in Paul’s letters with care.

We should neither outrightly dismiss them as irrelevant nor naively embrace them without considering if they’re meant for us.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.

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