The Epistles of Paul - Summaries and application 

A summary of the contents of some of Paul's Epistles and their application today

Galatians: Foundations for Christian Living 

Paulís letter to the Galatians (who were mainly Gentile converts) makes it apparent that the churches there were no longer obeying the truth but were turning to a ďdifferent GospelĒ, reverting to weak principles and relying on human effort rather than on the Spirit. They were being misled into adhering to the law. Importantly, the Judaisers were trying to compel them to be circumcised.

Paul wanted to make sure that the Galatian Christians did not submit to the law - which cancelled the New Covenant entirely - but to be justified by faith. He evidenced the bona fides of his message and his obedience as Godís servant.

He appealed to the Galatiansí experience, explained that Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith not works, noted the order of events which reinforce that the law does not cancel out the promise and spoke of the law as being temporary until the coming of Christ, Abrahamís seed. He averred that the law could never bring about righteousness and that we are all one in Christ.

Paul described adherence to the law, which had to be fully kept, as being a yoke of slavery and severing one from Christ, the latter conferring no advantage. He talked about reliance on the flesh as indulgence in a sinful nature rather than serving one another in love, led by the Spirit.  

His message that because we are all sinners we need Godís justification - which we have received thanks to Christís death - is just as significant for us, today.  

Thessalonians: Living in the light of the Lordís coming

Paulís main purpose in writing the Letters to the Thessalonians, most of whom were Greek converts from paganism, was to provide encouragement, to teach them about living as Christians and to provide clarification about the parousia, about which they held a misunderstanding.  

The Thessalonians faced persecution for their Christian beliefs and there was criticism of Paulís work among them. Accordingly, Paul addressed the Thessalonians by praying for them and expecting them to pray constantly and by expressing encouragement and thankfulness for their faith, love and steadfastness. He also reminded them what God had done in the past, exhorted them to further progress in Christian living through love and looked to the future regarding the parousia and eschatologicial matters, stating that because of what God had done in the cross and resurrection, the future could be faced with a solid assurance of hope.  

Paul warned against sexual immorality, encouraged the Thessalonians to new heights of brotherly love and raised the related subjects of working for a living verses idleness.  

He reinforced how suddenly the parousia would come but in 2 Thessalonians, to correct a misunderstanding about its timing, emphasised that certain events and signs would  precede this, thereby echoing Jesusí teaching in this regard.  

There is much of significance in these Letters which has a practical application today, for example our attitudes to money; sexual morality; thankfulness to God and to others; encouragement and love of others; discipline; dignity and, importantly, how we ourselves should be prepared for the parousia.  

1 Corinthians: Living as a Christian Community  

Corinth, on a major trade route, was an important city and its residents knew much about commerce. It was dominated by the temple of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Thus the Christian converts there would probably previously have taken part in idolatrous and immoral activities.  

The Corinthian church was comprised of few people in the upper strata of society and it included factions, identified by their leaders. Peterís party represented Jewish Christianity; Apollos had a cult following because of his eloquence, enthusiasm and concern for the young; some claiming to follow Christ were anti-authoritarian whilst Paulís party had emerged in reaction to the other parties.  

Paul endeavoured to contrast human wisdom (eloquence, reasoning, intellect), which the Corinthians believed they possessed, with Godís wisdom (ďfoolishĒ preaching and Christ crucified, resulting in salvation), saying those called had entirely the wrong attitude, being spiritually bottle-fed because of their wrangling over human leaders.  

Paul used farming and building metaphors to describe the relationship between the church, God and his servants and warned against the Corinthianís over-realised eschatology.  

He taught against the Corinthiansí sexual immorality and their antinomianism, stating important limitations on Christian liberty. Paul also averred that secular law suits are not appropriate for settlement of Christian disputes. He provided instructions regarding sexual relationships within marriage; divorce; marriage and singleness; meat sacrificed to idols and the rights of an apostle.

In 1 Cor 10-16, having listed sins from Israel ís history and warned the Corinthians not to fall into similar sins, Paul addresses disorderly worship, saying that everything should be for the glory of God. He focuses on the role of women in the church, giving reasons why they should be veiled when praying.  

Paul explains the distinction between agape meals and the Lordís Supper, clearly stating the characteristics of the latter and the correct mindset when celebrating it.  

He deals with the source and purpose of spiritual gifts and lists the gifts, stressing the underlying principle governing their distribution as unity in diversity. He says love is the greatest gift and enumerates its many attributes.  

Paul makes a comparison between the human body and the Body of Christ and covers tongues and prophecy, plus conduct in Christian worship, saying this should be intelligible and with adult thinking.  

Paul reaffirms the essentials of the Gospel (kerygma) and expounds the consequences of Corinthian confusion over the Resurrection. He emphasises the Resurrection evidence and draws comparisons between present and resurrection bodies, saying that as Christ has been raised from the dead so all will be made alive.  

He gives instructions regarding the church collection - using the Macedonian church as examples of giving generously and sacrificially - and indicates principles to govern church giving.  

1 Corinthians is a practical letter giving important behavioural instructions. Many of the issues it covers being just a relevant (if not more so) today. Its teaching can be directly applied to discipleship, mission and ministry: there need be no dilution of the message and its ongoing appropriateness.  

2 Corinthins: Living in the Face of Adversity  

2 Corinthians, written in preparation for Paulís third visit to the Corinthians, deals with suffering and ministry.  

Paul lists his sufferings and avers that God brings good from these by providing comfort - which can be passed on to others - and revealing His power. Paul is assured that present suffering brings future rewards and speaks of perseverance in discouragement.  

Regarding his own ministry, he says the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation and claims his ministerial competency comes from God. Paul asserts the new covenant as superior to the old and uses a picture of a veil to demonstrate the latterís fading glory.  

The Epistle lists desired characteristics of a minister of Christ and mentions unequal yokes; Paulís concern is that the church should not be compromised or contaminated with unrighteousness. He compares his own apostolic ministry with the Corinthians and identifies the marks of true versus false apostleship. Paul describes himself as a servant of God, saying his accusative opponents were preaching a different message.  

Paul mentions boasting in the Lord and when boasting might be acceptable and unacceptable. He also refers to his thorn in the flesh and maintains its presence, despite his prayers for removal, is to stop him becoming too spiritually elated.  

Paul addresses the Corinthians as brothers, children and friends, thereby demonstrating his love for them.  

There is much in the Epistle which is relevant and of significance today, especially in the areas of suffering and comfort, ministerial competence, true apostleship and legitimate boasting.

Romans: Righteous Living in the light of Godís Mercy

Paul did not found the Roman church but knew about it through close relationships with its members. His third missionary journey completed, Paul planned to visit Rome and probably wrote this letter (which gives a more detailed and systematic statement of his faith than in any other he wrote) from Corinth, in preparation, in 55AD.  

He expounds the stages of Godís judgement and the groups subject thereto, stating that righteousness from God, which has legal and moral aspects, is dependent on faith not obedience to the law.  

Paul argues for the equality of humanity in salvation, saying we have redemption through the cross, Jesusí death being an atoning sacrifice.  

He notes Abrahamís acceptance in response to faith and that all people of faith are Abrahamís true descendants.  

Paul outlines the results of justification and explains the stages of salvation. He reminds us that sin came through Adam but Godís grace is through Christ, in whom we died, were buried and rose again.  

Paul maintains we are slaves to righteousness (rather than sin): death ends the sway of the law - which tells us what sin is and stimulates our sinful nature, resulting in death - freeing us to belong to Christ.  

Covering life in the spirit, present suffering and future glory, Godís love in Christ, experience of the Holy Spirit and relationships and attitudes to one another, Paulís teachings of salvation for everyone by faith in a God for everyone offer vital lessons for todayís broken world and divided church.  

Romans 9-16 includes Paul presenting the history of Israel, emphasising Godís free choice, the peopleís responsibility and Godís great plan. He highlights four widening circles of practical concern and gives guidance to ďstrongĒ and ďweakĒ Christians, explaining the necessity of mutual responsibility. Paul points towards three purposes God has in election: salvation, sanctification and consecration and he reveals his own travel plans.  

Amongst the key issues discussed are Godís sovereign mercy (extended by His choice) and the reasons why the Jews did not receive Godís salvation, although Paul reminds the Jews of salvation for the ďremnantĒ. He illustrates his points by using the example of an olive tree and branches being grafted back on.  

Paul states that our bodies are to be presented as a living sacrifice, our minds are to be continually renewed, that we should accept our place humbly and win by love and peace. Having noted differences in practice between two groups in the Roman church, Paul strongly advocates not judging each other or causing others to stumble, giving reasons for these responsibilities.  

Looking to the teachings of the Old Testament and Jesus, in addition to his own experience, Paul endeavours to encourage the Romans in their practical living and a looking forward to the day of salvation.  

Particularly applicable today are Paulís guidelines for behaviour, the remembrance of what Christ did for us and how we should glorify God through Him, accepting one another just as Christ accepted us.  

Colossians: The Person of Christ  

The church at Colossae was founded by Epaphras: Paul had never visited there. However, whilst imprisoned, he wrote to the Colossians to warn them of the dangers of false teaching.  

The first part of the Epistle covers doctrine whilst the second part is largely exhortation. However, the letter centres around the ďColossian heresyĒ which threatened the faith of this predominantly Gentile church. The particular pastoral needs of Colossian Christians meant that Paul emphasised certain aspects of Christís person and work.  

The false teaching sought to detract from the person and divinity of Christ and from his work. Paul, therefore, emphasised the pre-eminence, supremacy and divinity of Christ and the sufficiency of His work. His reminder that Christ is divine and fully God, creator and He who alone is able to save and reconcile through His death on the cross is a message the world needs to hear today. Christ is revealed as the agent of creation and thus is placed above it as the ďfirst bornĒ; a revelation equally relevant nowadays.  

Paul also writes of empty speculation, elements of Judaism and angel worship but another of his messages pertinent for today is the all-inclusiveness of the Gospel; that nobody stands beyond reach of Christís salvation.  

Paul also reminds his readers that there is nothing lacking in the atoning sacrifice of Christ but there is yet more suffering to be done, whenever the Gospel is proclaimed boldly.  

Todayís world needs to embrace the glory of God which shines through this Epistle.  

Ephesians:  Living according to Godís purpose  

This Epistle describes Godís intention to unite everything in Christ, delivered through Godís power and Jesusí resurrection. Paul explains we were pre-chosen to be holy and blameless as Godís children through Christ, living to praise of His glory; all Godís resources are in Christ.  

Paulís states that nobody deserves Godís acceptance on its own merits but only on Christís merits, received by faith. He writes of humanityís unsaved state and what Christ has done, explaining that the cross produces unity, with Jesus breaking down the dividing wall of hostility, making us one and reconciling us to God.  

Bringing together Jews and Gentiles is, Paul says, a major part of Godís plan, the Gentiles being fellow-heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise. From this unity the church will be strengthened - with divinely authorised leadership and every member equipped to build up the body of Christ - and grow in the right direction, that we may be grounded in love and, ultimately, in perfect unity with God.  

Paul states the need to abstain from sin and adopt a holy lifestyle, discarding the old nature for the new, walking in love, as children of light and as wise people.  

He deals with relationships between husbands/wives, children/parents and slaves/masters and describes the nature of Christian warfare and the armour needed.  

The epistle is applicable today to Christians anywhere; even those aspects which initially seem outmoded1 can apply in modern situations2. We still need unity, love, salvation (and church growth!)  

1 Timothy - Entrusting Ministry to others    

Timothy collaborated with Paul in other Epistles and was his fellow mission worker. He was highly regarded by Paul, who wrote this letter whilst Timothy was in Ephesus . It comprises similar themes to those in the Epistle to Titus, i.e. what we believe (true and false teaching), church worship/order and instructions about pastoral ministry.  

Paul issues warnings against false teachers who engage in pointless discussion of legends and genealogies and who mistake the law, telling Timothy to avoid this and, instead, to promote true doctrine.   

He has much to say about church order, worship and pastoral organisation, addressing not just Timothy but widows, elders, slaves, false teachers and the wealthy. Public prayer in worship and the qualifications of church leaders and helpers are covered by Paul.  

He teaches about womenís status in church, holding in tension equality between the sexes versus natural distinctions and manís headship. However, the relevant verses actually relate to public worship and the context at the time must be remembered, e.g. women were generally less educated than men (and thus less equipped to lead) and only men could be Jewish Priests or allowed to vote or hold certain public positions. Expecting women to have authority over men then would have made the church noticeably different.  

Whilst instructions regarding women and slaves are not directly applicable today, the remainder of this Epistle is, although the nature of false teaching has changed. Paulís instructions regarding church leaders remain sound, as do his messages to the wealthy and others.  

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire May 2017  

1 e.g. masters and slaves

2 e.g. company bosses and their staff