On the art of exhortation: St. Paul’s short letters
I am going to round out my coverage of St. Paul’s letters today, leaving only his instructions to the bishops Timothy and Titus to a final commentary. We have before us a series of very short epistles to the various churches in the Greek world, gentile communities which either Paul or his close collaborators had established—one letter each to the Christians at Philippi and Colossae, and two to the Thessalonians. In closing I will mention his personal letter to Philemon.
To understand the importance even these very short letters had for the communities to which they were addressed, it is necessary to remember that Paul was a heroic figure to the Gentile Christians. His power as a preacher and a debater were unparalleled, as were his courage in the face of opposition, and the many sufferings he had to endure—not to mention his initial persecution of Christians, including his assistance in the martyrdom of St. Stephen, his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, and the visions he had been granted by Our Lord.
Moreover, Paul was especially targeted by the Jews, who hated him because his Jewish credentials were impeccable, yet he embraced Christ and opposed any Judaizing of Christian faith and practice. His opponents hounded him everywhere he went. He had to be lowered in a basket over the walls of Damascus to escape their violence. But Paul also aroused opposition among idol worshipers and magicians because he was so forthright in his denunciation. He exposed Elymas the Magician. He was stoned in Lystra. He and Silas were imprisoned in Thiatira, where despite an earthquake that freed them, they did not escape but rather saved the jailer’s life. They ran into trouble in Athens and provoked a riot by the silversmiths (idol-makers) in Ephesus. In one very human scene, when Paul was preaching in Troas, a boy (Eutychus) fell asleep and fell from a third-floor window, so that Paul had to ensure that he was unhurt (probably by healing him).
When he visited Jerusalem and met with the Apostle James, Paul was arrested by the Jews and had the opportunity to defend himself before the Jewish council and the chief priests. It was the Jewish plot to kill him that led him to be imprisoned for the last time. But he was protected by the governor Felix, by Festus and by King Agrippa, until he could make good his appeal to Caesar. On his way to Rome by ship, he saved all on board from a storm at sea and a shipwreck off Malta—through his strong personality, confidence, sound advice and openness to grace. For a gentile Christian community to receive a letter from St. Paul was much like a local church in the second half of the twentieth century receiving a personal letter from Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, and John Paul II all rolled into one—if their very community had been founded by the writer.
A standard form, but many gems
Unlike the longer letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians and the Ephesians, which include major treatments of key mystical, sacramental, doctrinal or moral questions, these letters more easily reveal the common structure of all Paul’s writing simply because they are so brief. Paul’s standard epistolary format begins with a very Christian greeting, then expresses his heartfelt prayers and thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the community to which he was writing, then offers encouragement and a little basic instruction to keep them on the right track, and finally mentions something of his present circumstances (which invariably prevent him from visiting them personally), before closing with particular greetings (if any) and a final blessing.
One common theme in the letters is Paul’s warning not to be misled by Judaizers who try to win Christians back to particular legalisms and bodily practices (such as circumcision) which have no power to save, and from which they have been set free in Christ. This was a clear danger to the early Christian gentile communities, as Christians of Jewish background came to them and tried to draw them into traditional Jewish observances. Paul opposed these tendencies with all his soul.
Usually, Paul’s exhortation to continued life in Christ takes the practical form of reminding these communities of the broad outlines of their manner of life—the need for constant humility, forgiveness, sympathy and service and the absolute necessity for Christian perseverance in purity, as exemplified by avoiding all sins of the flesh, especially the sexual immorality so rampant among pagans, and living instead according to the Spirit they had received. On a more practical level still, Paul often mentions very briefly the key points he made to the Ephesians about relations between husbands and wives and their children, on the one hand, and between masters and slaves, on the other.
Yet each letter contains its particular gems, because of the powerful phrasing with which Paul stresses this or that counsel or teaching. It makes sense to offers some of the highlights here:
On preaching Christ: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will…. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.” (1:15-18)
On life and death: “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (1:20-24)
On humility: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….” (2:5-7)
On true reverence: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2:12-13)
Note: Chapter 1 is a great jewel.
On redemption: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (1:11-14)
On the completion of all things in Christ: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)
On perseverance: “And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (1:21-23)
On the value of suffering: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.” (1:24-26)
Note: Both letters are sent as from the co-workers, Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy.
On bishops and priests: “But we beg you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” (1 Thes 5:12-13)
On Christian attitudes: “Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thes 5:13-22)
On the assumption of spiritual superiority: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thes 3:11-15)
In connection with this last exhortation, while it is certainly applicable in many contexts, I can shed some particular light. The Thessalonians were apparently very concerned about the question of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, and it is in these two letters that Paul explains most of what little we know about it. These famous passages are 1 Thes 4:13-5:11, and 2 Thes 1:5-2:12. Paul touches on the essential equality of the Lord’s coming for both the dead and the living, the inability to know the time of the end in advance (and consequently the need to live in Christ always), the nature of the antichrist as a “man of lawlessness” who gains power through Satan and is restrained by Christ until the time when He will unmask and slay him, and the delusion which God permits in those who refuse to recognize evil.
Thus the point of the last quotation above is to warn against those who will not settle down to proper Christian responsibility because they are ever expecting Christ to come, and so seek to mind everybody else’s business. This, of course, is contrary to Paul’s teaching no matter what the reason!
Freed from slavery
I should emphasize that all of Paul’s letters share the common purpose of teaching Christians what Christ has done for them and how they must respond. As Paul put it so succinctly in Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Perhaps it is fitting, then, to close with a mention of the very short letter St. Paul wrote to his “fellow worker”, Philemon, who had apparently provided one of his slaves to Paul as a servant. This slave’s name was Onesimus, “whose [spiritual] father,” Paul writes, “I have become in my imprisonment” (v.10).
Paul, in prison, sends the now Christian Onesimus back to Philemon, with these words:
Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me…. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say. [vv. 15-21]
Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free.
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