The Story of the Bible: Paul’s Epistles

Today’s post is the eighth installment in a series that breaks the story of the Bible down into ten ‘chapters’. Read Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, and Chapter Seven.

The Apostle Paul was not only a zealous missionary, a successful church planter, and a strong preacher. He was also a prolific writer! During the course of his missionary travels Paul wrote 13 of the 27 New Testament books. The writings of Paul are the next great chapter in the story of the Bible.

Paul’s writings are called “epistles” because they are actually letters which he sent to the churches. The Greek word “epistle” is based on the verb “to send.” These letters follow the literary pattern of Greek letters which were written in the first century. The basic elements include the following:

  1. The Salutation: “Paul, an apostle to the churches of…”
  2. A Health Wish: “Grace to you and peace.”
  3. Prayer for the Readers: “And this I pray, that your love may abound…”
  4. Body of the letter: “Now concerning…”
  5. Closing Greetings: “Greet every saint; All the saints greet you.”

The Book of Acts provides the historical context and background for most of Paul’s letters. In teaching Paul’s letters, my students find it helpful when I teach the letters in the chronological order in which they were written, setting the historical context for each. You may find this to be a helpful approach as well.

Paul was accompanied on his first missionary journey by Barnabas. Leaving Syrian Antioch in the spring of A.D. 47, they sailed for Cyprus, the homeland of Barnabas. After ministering in the major cities of Cyprus, they took a ship to a region known today as Turkey. There they had a successful church planting ministry, returning to Antioch in the fall of A.D. 49. But their rejoicing over the success of their mission soon changed to serious concern. Paul learned that the believers in the churches which had so recently been established were being taught that circumcision and keeping Jewish traditions was necessary for their complete salvation. Paul wrote his first letter, the Epistle to the Galatians, to refute this error and convince these new believers that people were justified by faith alone and not by works of the law (Galatians 2:16).

Paul set out from Antioch on his second journey in the spring of A.D. 50. Silas accompanied Paul on this journey, and they were later joined by Timothy and Luke. After visiting the churches which Paul and Barnabas had established on their first journey, the missionary team crossed the Aegean Sea and ministered for about six months in Macedonia. Luke records that during this period thriving churches were planted in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Paul then traveled south for a brief ministry in Athens before traveling on to Corinth where he spent the next year and a half. It was during this time that Paul joined with Aquila and Priscilla in a tent making business while he evangelized the city and established the church at Corinth. It was also during this period that Paul wrote his next two epistles–First and Second Thessalonians. Paul wrote the first letter to the believers at Thessalonica to commend their faithfulness in the face of conflicts and to correct certain errors which had been reported to him. His second letter, written about three months later, was primarily written to correct their misconception that the Day of the Lord had arrived.

Paul left Corinth in the fall of A.D. 51 and crossed the Aegean for a brief stay in Ephesus. There he left Aquila and Priscilla with plans to return, if it was the Lord’s will. After visiting the church in Jerusalem, Paul returned to Antioch where he had begun his mission two and a half years earlier. Paul reported to his supporters the wonderful things God had accomplished and took a well-deserved furlough before starting out on his third journey the next spring.

Paul third missionary journey began in the spring of A.D. 53. He traveled once again through the region of Galatia and then passed through the Lycus Valley to Ephesus where he spent the next three years. After speaking in the synagogue for three months in Ephesus, Paul established a school where he taught daily for two years. It was probably during these years that the churches in the Lycus valley (Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea) were founded. Around A.D. 56 Paul received some troubling news regarding the church at Corinth. Paul responded with the letter we know as First Corinthians addressing the matter of division within the body and replying to questions raised by the believers.

Leaving Ephesus in the spring of A.D. 56, Paul crossed the Aegean to Macedonia. While ministering among the churches in Macedonia, Titus reported to Paul that the situation in Corinth had improved. The Apostle sat down and wrote his second canonical epistle to the Corinthians preparing them for his forthcoming visit.

Leaving Macedonia in the fall of A.D. 56, Paul traveled south to Greece where he spent the winter. Most of that time was probably spent at Corinth where he sought to encourage the believers and strengthen the church. It was during his winter in Corinth that Paul wrote his letter to the believers at Rome, preparing them for his forthcoming visit and enlisting their support for his anticipated travels to Spain. Paul also used this letter to expound the good news of justification by faith for all who believe in Jesus.

Departing from Corinth in late winter or early spring of A.D. 57, Paul returned to Jerusalem where he was arrested under suspicion of bringing Gentiles into the temple area. Paul spent his next two years in the custody of civil authorities in Caesarea awaiting formal charges against him. He eventually asserted his right as a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar. Luke records the details of Paul’s perilous journey and ship wreck, and how he was brought safely to Rome. There under house arrest, Paul had considerable freedom for witness and ministry. It was during these two years in Rome that Paul wrote his prison epistles, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.

Paul appears to have been released after his two years of house arrest in Rome. Perhaps formal charges were never brought against him and the statute of limitations expired. After his release in the spring of A.D. 62 Paul enjoyed further opportunities for travel and ministry. He was able to visit the believers in Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi. It was probably from Philippi that he wrote his first letter to young Timothy who was serving as Paul’s representative in Ephesus. Paul wrote First Timothy to help young Timothy exercise the leadership which had been entrusted to him. Later Paul journeyed to Crete where he left Titus in a similar capacity as Timothy. Paul wrote Titus from Asia Minor providing direction on matters on leadership and church order.

Paul’s final epistle, Second Timothy, was written shortly before his death in Rome. He was once again in prison, but this time as a criminal. His death was imminent. Paul wrote Timothy, who was still in Ephesus, to bring Mark and join him in Rome before winter (A.D. 67/68). Second Timothy was written to encourage Timothy in his ministry. Paul urged him to endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill his ministry. According to early Christian tradition, Paul was executed in early A.D. 68 outside the gates of Rome and buried in the catacombs south of the city. But the death of Paul was not the end of his ministry and influence for he left a legacy of thirteen New Testament epistles for believers to read and study.


About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).