I finished 2nd Timothy on December 31, 2019. Although I did not finish reading the later epistles, and my study of the Gospels this year did not progress my Harmony of the Gospels a great deal, I’ve done OK at doing what is needed to increase my gospel scholarship.
So what did I learn of Paul’s epistles? I learned the order they were written in, and that yes, in fact as it is stated in the Bible Dictionary, it is interesting to read them in order and see how things progressed through those years of the early church.
Group 1: “The Children”
The first written by Paul was Thessalonians I and II in about AD 50, so 20 years after the death of the Savior. These are kind, soft gentle. It is like it is written to children, those who are new in the Gospel. Entreating and uplifting.
Group 2: “The Teenagers”
The second set of epistles were the “teenager” epistles: 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians and Romans. These are “teenager” epistles because they are dealing with laws and rules and standards and how parents lived verses how the teenagers live. It is all about the Law of Moses and its applicability in the new world that was emerging and what Christ taught. We all go through a Law of Moses period where we have to live by the rules before we learn the spirit of things. These epistles are teaching the new church that same dynamic.
These were written about five years later, between 55 and 57 AD.
Group 3: “The Gospel Adults”
The third set of epistles are perhaps the most doctrinally significant and relevant. The Bible Dictionary lists the order as Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Hebrews. I’ve decided a better order is Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews and Philemon.
I put Ephesians first because it really is a bridge between the second set and the third set. In it Paul seems to be frustrated in a certain sense that his teachings about the appropriate place of rules has not been understood, and so to make his point, he jumps way down the road from incrementalism to wholesale argument change in explaining that if Christ is Lord, then it is up to him to decide how we are saved. These are the strongest statements about grace in the Bible, and it is in reaction to the continued focus on the Law of Moses. Philippians and Colossians seem less extreme, but continue the theme of greater understanding of the Gospel of the Savior, and our place in it. It might be thought of as epistles of maturity.
Hebrews is really perhaps the capstone of Paul’s epistles. It really is amazing. It is amazing. In it, Paul connects the history of Israel to the Savior’s mission and fulfillment of those promises. It is really the most significant of Paul’s epistles. It’s explanation of the Savior as the High Priest, his entry into heaven through the Holy of Holies, the nature of priesthood, and how faith connects us to it all.
All of these were written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, about 10 years after the first set of epistles, between 60 and 62 AD.
Group 4: “The Pastoral Epistles”
The fourth set is pastoral epistles, those written to other ministers. I actually would put Philemon in this set, thus putting it at the end of the third set, as a transition to this set.
Philemon a personal letter mainly, like the epistles to Timothy and Titus, but it is not really pastoral, in the sense that it deals with sort of low-level activities of slavery, and theft, and running away. And yet one could view it as a pastoral epistle to the Aaronic Priesthood, those who are newest into the ministry.
These were written in 65 or 66 AD.
2nd Timothy is a stunning, personal epistle, and the conclusion of Paul’s life. What a life; one can sense his efforts over decades. “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)