Paul's Letters and Theology

In this lesson we will discuss four topics:

1.       Why are Paul’s letters arranged the way they are?

2.       Why do some people think Paul did not write some of the letters?

3.       What are “house churches”?

4.       Why the shift from Peter to Paul in Acts?  In other words, do Christians have to obey the OT?


Why are Paul’s letters arranged the way they are?


The letters of Paul in the NT are:

·         Romans

·         I Corinthians

·         II Corinthians

·         Galatians

·         Ephesians

·         Philippians

·         Colossians

·         I Thessalonians

·         II Thessalonians

·         I Timothy

·         II Timothy

·         Titus

·         Philemon

But these letters are not arranged chronologically.  The first letter Paul wrote was probably Galatians, and the last letter Paul wrote was II Timothy.  So why are the letters of Paul arranged this way?  Simple, they follow two rules:

1.       1.  The first group is letters to cities and the second group is letters to individuals.

2.       2.  Within each of those two groups, the letters are arranged from longest to shortest.

3.       For example, Romans is longer than I Corinthians, which is longer than II Corinthians, which is longer than Galatians, etc., with II Thessalonians being the shortest of the letters to cities. 


I Corinthians

II Corinthians





I Thessalonians

II Thessalonians






to cities










I Timothy

II Timothy




Letters to







Why do some people think Paul did not write some of the letters?


We need to talk about this just so you are aware of this difference of opinion.  I have listed 13 letters of Paul, but not all NT scholars believe that Paul wrote all these letters.  Most NT scholars believe that Paul wrote the first four letters, Romans to Galatians, but after that NT scholars are divided.  Of the remaining 9 letters, some believe Paul wrote all of them (I fall in this category), some believe Paul wrote some of them, and some believe Paul did not wrote any of them. 

        Let me use one of the letters and show how this works:  I Timothy.  This letter mentions leadership roles in the church, specifically overseers (some translate the Greek word as “bishop”) and deacons. 

·                 1.  Those who say Paul did not write this letter:  Paul died in the mid-60’s, and church leadership structures had not developed to the point where a church would have a pastor, overseers, and deacons.  This is a highly functioning system, and a movement such as Christianity, which spread mainly among poor people over a wide area (the Roman Empire), would not have had the time to create such a system.  The letter must have been written at a later time, the thinking goes, sometime after the year 100, and after the church developed those leadership roles.  Therefore someone wrote the letter and put Paul’s name on it, which was a common act in those days when plagiarism was not seen as wrong but as a way to recognize someone’s influence.

·                 2.  Those who say Paul did write this letter:  The fact that those leadership roles had not developed is not a problem.  The church was still in a state of growing leadership maturity, and the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write the letter so that the early church leaders would understand how God wanted the churches to be managed. 

Each of the 9 letters after Galatians could be examined from those different opinions, that Paul didn’t write it or that Paul did write it.  But for the purposes of this class, and to keep the information simpler, I will present each of the letters as if Paul wrote them.


What are “house churches”?


I mentioned above that Paul wrote letters to cities.  To be more specific Paul wrote letters to house churches in those cities.  When Christianity first developed right after Jesus, Christians gathered in each other’s homes.  As a house church grew it split and two homes hosted these Christian gatherings.  This process continued and eventually Christianity consisted of hundreds and perhaps thousands of “house churches” across the Roman Empire.  Therefore, when I say that Paul wrote letters to cities, you know that I mean he wrote letters to house churches in those cities.

        As Christianity grew some of the Christians probably considered dedicating a building for a church building.  But that thinking ended most likely in the mid-90s when Romans began to persecute Christians.  (Remember that the persecution under Nero in the mid-60s was limited to the area around Rome.)  At that point Christians realized that having a church building was like putting a target on themselves because it would make it easy for the Romans to find them.  And so Christians continued to use house churches for many years.

        The first building that has been discovered and that was probably only for Christian use dates from the year 250.  Optional:  to learn more about it, go here: 

Why the shift from Peter to Paul?  In other words, do Christians have to obey the OT?


Paul became the leader of the young Christian movement because he had the correct understanding of the message of Jesus.  That may sound odd, but usually movements begin with one person or a group of people, and only later do later people fully understand the movement.  For example, consider these countries, when they received their freedom, and when their constitutions were written:

·             The United States:  Became an independent nation in 1776; Constitution ratified in 1789.

·             India:  Became an independent nation in 1947; Constitution ratified in 1949.

·             Kenya:  Became an independent nation in 1963; Constitution ratified in 1969; a new Constitution approved

                    in 2010.

The same process happened in Christianity.  Peter and the other Apostles traveled with Jesus, but it took Paul to fully understand the message of Jesus at a later time.  Another way to see this process:  Peter played an important role in the development of Christianity and Paul played a different role, just like those who fight to start a country have different skills than those who write the constitution of a country. 

    In order to fully understand the message of Jesus, though, we have to examine the message of the entire Bible.  That means we have to understand how Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the Holy Spirit are connected.  And in the process you will understand that Jesus’ message really tied the OT and the NT together.


Abraham  We discussed how God and Abraham formed a Covenant.  In that Covenant God told Abraham to begin the practice of circumcision for all baby boys at 8 days of age.  God’s people, who became known as the Jews, continued that practice.  I mentioned that that Covenant “established the people of God.”  


Moses  In the OT, God gave the Law to Moses.  This Law consisted of rules for living, sacrifices, worship, etc.  I mentioned that this “taught the people of God how to live.” 


Jesus part 1  By the time of Jesus, the Jews had practiced both the Covenant and the Law for around 1500 years. Since Jesus was born a Jew that meant he was circumcised and followed the Law of Moses.  After Jesus was baptized he began to preach.  You know that Jesus preached for about 3 years.  In all those years he never told Jews not to follow the Covenant (and circumcision) and not to follow the Law.  The only comment he made about them was in the Sermon in the Mount:

·             Matthew 5:17:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to    

                abolish them but to fulfill them.”

When he mentioned the Law, Jews would have understood that this included the Covenant with circumcision as well.  But what did it mean to “fulfill” the Law?  No one understood while Jesus was alive.  We will move on and come back to that later.


Peter  He traveled with Jesus for three years and was one of the Original Apostles.  He was also a Jew.  Before he met Jesus, Peter believed that, in order to please God, males needed to be circumcised (the Covenant) and everyone needed to follow the Law.  The Jews had practiced that for 1500 years, and Jesus never said to stop, so Peter believed that was necessary to please God.  After Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter continued to believe that males needed to be circumcised and everyone needed to follow the Law.  But now he added “belief in Jesus” to that.  So for Peter, that meant there were three steps to pleasing God:

·             1.  Circumcision, if male

·             2.  Follow the Law

·             3.  Believe in Jesus (and to follow his teachings)

Remember, this just made sense to Peter.  Jesus did not tell the Apostles to stop circumcision and following the Law, and so they didn’t.  Jesus did say that he came to fulfill them, but neither Peter nor the other Apostles really understood what “fulfill” meant.  You can guess who did have the correct understanding, but before I move on let me discuss Peter’s greatest contribution to the young Christian movement:  courage.

        Peter had an incredible amount of courage.  We all know people who are courageous, and even people who will do any crazy thing, but Peter’s courage was beyond that.  Let me give you three illustrations from Peter’s life to show this courage.

1.           1.  Peter and the apostles were with Jesus when he was arrested.  Jesus began to pray and prayed long into the night.  After it was dark, Judas, soldiers, and others approached Jesus to arrest him.  Peter had a sword and swung it:  he was only able to cut the ear off of one of the servants.  But think about it this way:  Peter was not a soldier, yet he was willing to attack a group of trained soldiers in the middle of the night with only one sword in order to protect Jesus.  And he was such a terribly swordsman that all he could accomplish was to cut someone’s ear off.  That took a great amount of courage, because Peter probably thought he was going to die fighting to protect Jesus.

2.           2.  After Jesus was arrested he was taken to the house of the High Priest.  Peter and John followed.  John was probably a teenager at that time and so no one noticed him.  The house had a courtyard in the middle of it, and Peter went into the courtyard.  Three different times people accused Peter of being one of Jesus’ followers, but each time Peter denied that he knew Jesus.  Then Jesus looked at Peter and Peter left the house weeping. 

a.      Christians have long used this story to show that Peter denied Jesus at a time when Jesus needed him the most.  But here is my question:  where were the other Apostles?  John was there, but he was young and so was not in any danger.  But the other Apostles fled to safety.  Only Peter followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest and even went inside to the courtyard in the middle of the house.  Yes, Peter did deny Jesus, but at least he was there.  That took great courage.

3.           3.  After Jesus ascended out of view from the Apostles, they returned to Jerusalem.  Think about their situation:  their leader was crucified not long before that, and so they probably all thought they were in danger of being arrested and crucified.  So their plan was probably to stay out of sight and not be noticed.  Then the day of Pentecost came and many people noticed that they were speaking in tongues.  If you think about it from the Apostles’ viewpoint, the worse had happened:  many people discovered them.  What did Peter do?  He went out and preached to the crowd.  He was probably thinking that he would speak, be arrested, and crucified, but he spoke to the crowd anyway.  Once again that took great courage.

        These examples show that Peter had great courage, and that was the quality that the young Christian movement needed.  Their leader had been killed in a gruesome way, and the movement needed someone with an immense amount of courage who would say:  “Follow my example:  let’s go!”  Therefore, Peter had the right quality at the right time.  He did not have the full understanding, but he was able to get the movement started.  But just like a constitution comes along after the nation is formed, the proper understanding would appear in the person of Paul 20 years later.


Note:  before Paul, then, if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian, he/she was told by the Apostles to be circumcised (according to the Old Testament Covenant between Abraham and God), follow the Law (of Moses), and believe in Jesus.  That changes with Paul because he will properly understand the teachings of Jesus concerning circumcision and the Law, and he will convince the other Apostles. 


Paul  Paul was a courageous man also, but his main attribute was his clear understanding of the purpose of Jesus.  Paul realized what Jesus had meant when Jesus said that he came to “fulfill” the Law (and, by extension, the Covenant).  Paul understood that they were not deleted, but Jesus was added on to them.  But what does that mean? 

    Think back to the purpose of the Covenant and the Law:

·                 Covenant:  establish the people of God:  This is how one joins the people of God.

·                 Law:  how to live:  This is how one is to live after being part of the people of God.

Take the Covenant first:  Paul realized that the important aspect of the Covenant was the faith Abraham had in God and not in the act of circumcision.  Paul understood that someone could be circumcised but that does not mean that they have faith in God.  Therefore Abraham’s faith was the important part of the Covenant and not circumcision.  God was not interested solely in having Abraham circumcised but firstly in Abraham believing in God.  In a rough analogy, circumcision is like the ring in a wedding:  it is not the important part, but only symbolizes the important part, which is the relationship.  Therefore circumcision is only the symbol.   Paul wrote about this in Romans 4:10 and the first part of 11:  “Under what circumstances was it [a relationship to God] credited to him [Abraham]?  Was it after he was circumcised, or before?  It was not after, but before!  And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

Paul realized that circumcision was necessary before Jesus as a symbol, but after Jesus, that type of physical symbol was no longer necessary.  The act of circumcision was limited in that it was only a physical act.  Therefore Paul did not believe that Gentile males needed to be circumcised.  Faith in Jesus was what established one as part of the people of God after Jesus, not circumcision.

        Now the Law:  Paul understood the purpose of the Law, which was to show God’s people how to live.  But Paul also realized that the Law was insufficient.  Think about it this way:  one of the 10 Commandments says not to kill.  But none of the 10 Commandments says to love everyone.  Therefore, I could think about killing someone, but as long as I didn’t do it, I was obeying that command.  One of the 10 Commandments says not to commit adultery.  So, I could think about committing adultery, but as long as I didn’t actually commit adultery, I was obeying that command as well.  Paul realized that the 10 Commandments, and all of the Law, were limited in that it only monitored behavior and not attitude.  Paul wrote about this in Galatians 3:23-25:

·             Before this faith [in Jesus] came, we were held prisoners by the Law, and locked up until faith should be revealed.  So the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.  Now that faith [in Jesus] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the Law.

Therefore, Paul no longer believed that Christians should follow the Law.  But then, what did Paul believe?  How were Christians supposed to live?  To that we have to go back to Jesus and then discuss the Holy Spirit.


Jesus part 2  In the Sermon on the Mount, which I pointed out earlier where Jesus made his statement about fulfilling the Law and Prophets, he also used two of the 10 Commandments to explain what “fulfill” meant.  Peter didn’t understand it, but Paul did.  Jesus mentions the two Commandments I mentioned above, points out that they are inadequate, and describes how he is enlarging their meaning:

·         Matthew 5:21-22:  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not kill (some translations have ‘murder’),’ and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with is brother will be subject to judgment.  Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca [or you are worthless]’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin [the Jewish court].  But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

o    Basically Jesus shows here that, not only can we not kill others, but we cannot even think or killing them or even bad of them.  The opposite way to express this is that we are supposed to love others.   [Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan.]

·         Mathew 5:27,28:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

o    Once again, Jesus says that now no longer are people not supposed to commit adultery, but they cannot even think about it.

In these two passages, Jesus shows that following the 10 Commandments, and by extension the Law, is no longer sufficient.  After him people will be held to a higher standard, that of loving others.  When Jesus said he was going to fulfill the Law and Prophets, he meant that he was going to raise the standard or raise the bar.  So he did not do away with the Law and Prophets, but he built on them and expected even more from people.  But in all fairness, how could he require more of people who came after him than people in the OT?


Holy Spirit  This is possible because of the Holy Spirit.  Remember back to a discussion on the Trinity, that the role of the Holy Spirit is to teach.  After the time of Jesus, the standard will be raised because the Holy Spirit will teach and remind people how God wants them to live.  Jesus mentioned this in John 16:7,8:  “But I tell you the truth:  It is for your good that I am going away.  Unless I go away, the Counselor [meaning the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  When he comes, he will convict the world of guild in regard to sin and righteousness [meaning how to live] and judgment."

Jesus explains that after he is gone the Holy Spirit will come to those who believe in him.  That is how it is possible, because the Holy Spirit will teach each believer in Jesus.  That is why Christians no longer need to follow the 10 Commandments or the rest of the Law:  the Holy Spirit teaches them to love everyone and so they don’t need a written law that requires them to do less (love vs. do not kill)


·         Abraham:  God and he agreed to an Covenant, which include circumcision for all males

o    This “established the People of God”

·         Moses:  God gave the 10 Commandments and many other laws (over 600) for the Jews to follow

o    This “told the People of God how to live”

·         Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Law and by extension the Covenant

o    The Apostles did not fully understand him

·         Peter thought a Christian should be circumcised (if male), follow the Law, and believe in Jesus

o    He did not fully understand “fulfill”, but that didn’t matter because his main contribution was courage

·         Paul did fully understand Jesus’ purpose and what Jesus meant by “fulfill” and taught that God wanted faith and not circumcision or the Law

o    He became the main Christian leader after the Council of Jerusalem

·         Jesus actually said what Paul came to understand later

o    Circumcision was replaced with true faith

o    The Law was replaced by the Holy Spirit teaching believers

·         Therefore,

o    before Jesus the Covenant with circumcision and the Law was in effect

o    after Jesus one only needed faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit would then teach the believer how to live


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