There are twenty-one letters in the New Testament. These letters (also known as “Epistles”) are inspired instruction for the Church and cover a range of doctrines and duties for the church to know and follow. The styles of the letters will also vary with the different writing styles of the authors. They can be divided into two groups: Paul’s Letters and the General Letters.
The apostle Paul makes the largest contribution to the NT letters. Paul’s letters contain deep theological teaching, confrontation of error, practical instruction for Christian living, encouragement to God’s people, and praise to the Lord. In the NT they are essentially ordered from largest to shortest.
The book of Romans is a theologically rich letter written by the apostle Paul. This powerful book contains in an unparalleled style the most comprehensive and profound explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of the New Testament. The theme of the books of Romans is the righteousness of God (1:16-17). Paul looks at how the righteousness of God exposes mankind’s (both Jew and Gentile) sinfulness and their need for righteousness (1:18-3:20). He then writes about how guilty sinners can receive the righteousness of God (3:21-5:21) and how this righteousness leads to a transformed life (6:1-8:39). The theme of God’s sovereignty in relation to righteousness and Israel is also discussed (9:1-11:36). Paul concludes with a section that considers what the righteousness of God looks like in Christian service (12:1-16:27). Paul’s letter to the Romans provides every believer with a firm foundation in the doctrine of salvation. This foundation is essential if we are going to have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and live a transformed life that God approves (Rom. 12:1).
1 & 2 Corinthians
1 Corinthians is Paul’s response to a number reports and questions from the Corinthian church. In this letter Paul deals with divisions (1 Cor. 1-4), sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5-7), idolatry (1 Cor. 8-10), corporate worship (1 Cor. 11-14), and the resurrection (1 Cor. 15). Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians provides a defence of his apostleship. This letter gives the reader great insight into Christian ministry, including the hardships and the joys. Paul also raises the serious matter of examining one’s salvation to see of they are really in the faith.
The Church is Galatia was being deceived by a false gospel. This false gospel was demonic in origin and was based on works. Paul writes in strong terms warning the Galatians to not be deceived but to hold to the true Gospel of God’s grace and to walk in the freedom it brings. The doctrine of justification by faith is at the centre of this book and defended by Paul.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians isn’t written to address a specific problem. Instead Paul writes this letter to convey the meaning and significance of Christ’s work in salvation. This work has resulted in blessings for those in Christ. The letter is divided into two major sections. The first part of the letter is a reminder of the privileges Christians have in Christ (Eph. 1-3). The second part of the letter is the response to the privileges Christian have in Christ (Eph. 4-6). In the first three chapters the following aspects and out workings of the doctrine of salvation are covered: predestination, redemption, salvation by grace through faith, and unity. In the final three chapters, practical matters concerning spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:1-16), holiness (4:25-5:20), submission (5:21-6:9), and spiritual warfare (6:10-20).
Paul writes this letter to encourage the Philippian Christians. Paul addresses the themes of hardship and harmony. Hardship in the Christian life can bring difficulty, but believers are still able to rejoice because of the Lord’s provisions, protection, and promises. Harmony in in the church will occur when God’s people have an attitude of humility (Phil. 2:1-4), and this exemplified by the Lord Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11).
Epaphras (the likely founder of the Colossian church) had visited Paul in prison. During this visit he had filled Paul in on the progress and situation of the church in Colossae. He shared encouraging news with Paul (which is evident from Col. 1:3-8), but he also revealed some troubling news. This troubling news is what many scholars refer to as the “Colossian error”. After carefully reading through this epistle it becomes evident that the church was being influenced by a subtle teaching that was “cheating” the Colossian Christians (2:8). The Epistle to the Colossians is Paul’s answer to error and false teaching infecting this local church. In this epistle he presents the Person of Jesus Christ as the only source for true Christian living. The answer to the successful, powerful, and true Christian life is found exclusively in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the Supreme One and therefore it is from Him alone we gain the sufficiency needed for the Christian life. Tradition and experience will come and go, but Christ will endure forever. Colossians presents Jesus Christ as Lord, the Preeminent One over all creation. Paul’s shows the Colossians what this means in their person lives (3:5-17), homes (3:18-21), and workplaces (3:22-4:1).
1 & 2 Thessalonians
After receiving a positive report from Timothy, Paul writes to commend the Thessalonian Christians. In writing these two letters, Paul main focus is to address matters concerning the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and what this means for Christians living. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians contains Paul most compressive discussion on this topic. From these letters we learn that Jesus is coming back (1 Thess. 4:15), His return provides us with comfort and hope (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11); His return will bring retribution on the unbelieving (1 Thess. 2:16; 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:6-9), all believers, dead and alive, will participate in His return (1 Thess. 4:14-17), and it should drive us to be hard working and holy people (1 Thess. 4:3-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-15).
1 & 2 Timothy
The first letter of Paul to Timothy provides us with a clear understanding of a church’s confession and conduct. Shortly after his first Roman imprisonment, the apostle Paul wrote this letter to Timothy (ca. AD 62-64). Timothy, the recipient of the letter was viewed as Paul’s “true children in the faith” (1:2). He was a young man (4:12) who struggled with infirmities (5:23), and seemed to be timid by nature (2 Tim. 1:7). He grew up in a godly home and his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5) taught him the Scriptures from childhood (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15). Timothy was a gifted preacher (4:13-14), and he had before him the important task of remaining in Ephesus (1:3) with the purpose of defending the church’s message (1:1-20), providing directions for the church’s members (2:1-3:16), practicing the duties of the church’s minister (4:1-16) and provide understanding on dealing with the varying church members (5:1-6:21).
2 Timothy is the last inspired letter written by the Apostle Paul shortly before his death. At the backdrop of this letter Paul is in a Roman prison and he had no expectation of being released (4:6-8), and sadly had been abandoned by many who were close to him (4:9-12). Despite the expected anxiety of his last moments alive, the aged apostle does not sit there with any regrets (4:7). Instead, he is filled with a burning passion for an uncompromising commitment to standing firm on God’s truth. Paul writes his last will and testament to young Timothy. Timothy, the recipient of the letter, was young (1 Tim. 4:12), struggled with infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23), and seemed to be timid by nature (1:7). Despite such circumstances, he was a gifted preacher (1 Tim. 4:13-14), and Paul required of him to stand tall and fulfill his ministry in the last days (4:5). Paul is passing the flaming torch of faithful ministry over to Timothy, who in turn is to pass it onto “faithful men” who will teach others also (2:2). The message of 2 Timothy could be summed with the following words, “fulfill your ministry” (4:5).
The historical situation of the letter is that Paul had sent Titus to put things in order in the young churches, and appoint elders to shepherd the churches. However, false teachers were infiltrating the churches. So Paul writes this letter to provide practical instruction on the qualifications of church leaders (Titus 1:5-16) and the conduct of the church’s members (Titus 2:1-3:8). This letter strongly emphasis how a church is to be faithful and honour the Lord in a sinful society.
The Colossian church met in Philemon’s house. Philemon owned at least one slave, a man by the name Onesimus. Onesimus had wronged his master (Philemon 18) and escaped. From Colossae, he made his way to Rome, probably hoping to loose himself in the large crowds of the city, which was the empire’s capital. While he was in Rome by God’s providence he came into contact with Paul, who by God’s grace led him to Christ (Philemon 10). Onesimus then become a valuable asset to Paul. In his letter to the Colossian church Paul described him as “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you”. But the fact that Onesimus had broken the law (he was a runaway slave, cf. Philemon 15) had to be resolved. So when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians he also wrote this personal letter to Philemon. In this letter Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive his new brother in Christ.