The Epistles of Paul

The Epistles of Paul have been already characterized as the Levitical division of the New Testament Pentateuch. They are this as bringing into the sanctuary — into the presence of God; and for this declaring the power and value of the work which opens the sanctuary and gives the soul its ability to stand before Him. So the sacrifices are in the forefront of Leviticus; the opening of the sanctuary by them on the day of atonement occupies the central portion of that book. But at that time it could be but for a moment: sacrifices and sanctuary alike were only "the figures of the true;" the dispensation was that of law, and even the high priest who alone entered the holiest, could not draw nigh; the true way in to God could not yet be made manifest. Paul was from the first, as the Acts has shown us, in the light of the opened heavens — opened really now; and the gospel of the glory of Christ was that by which he was converted, as it was that glory that drew him on, and gave him as his one purpose to win Christ and to be found in Him. For all else his desire and aim were this, to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.

As a minister of Christ, there were two special spheres assigned to him: he was in a distinct and peculiar sense "minister of the gospel" (Col. 1:23), not "a" minister, as the common version reads; just, as he was also in a specific sense "minister of the church" (ver. 25). On the one hand, none besides of the inspired writers declares the truth of justification and the place in Christ; though John does indeed approach very near to him in both respects, and the parable of the publican intimates the former, without developing it (Luke 18:13, 14). We find these as foundations in the first of Paul's epistles. As to the Church, it is only Paul who speaks of it as the Body of Christ, or develops its relationship as Bride to Him.

The Epistles group themselves in two series. They are fourteen in number; which, of course, has its significance, as everything else in regard to the word of God, and shows in the double seven what has been already said to be characteristic of his testimony: he is the witness of the perfection of the accomplished work. Yet this does not mean that his writings will necessarily arrange themselves in this septenary way, and in fact they do not. They really partake of the pentateuchal form which runs so through the structure of Scripture, falling into two divisions of five parts each. The first division comprises what we may designate as the positional epistles, treating for the most part of individual position with its consequences; while the second division treats of associative or collective relationships. There stand thus in the first series, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians (with Philemon as a supplement), and Philippians. In the second we have, the two epistles to the Thessalonians, the two to the Corinthians, Hebrews, the two to Timothy, and Titus. It may seem at first sight as if Ephesians were connected as much with the second division here as with the first, seeing that the Church occupies so large a place in it, and the truth concerning it is even in some respects more fully developed than elsewhere. Yet, while we must admit a strong link in this way with Corinthians, the difference between them is just as plain, and will illustrate that between the two divisions, just where they approach most nearly to one another. Corinthians, it is plain, speaks of the Church in its order and activities on earth; Ephesians gives it as an object of faith simply, in its heavenly character. Thus it is really an individual position with regard to it that we take in this epistle. That there is everywhere in Scripture a connection of the various truths (or parts of truth) with one another, is of course evident, and that links between these various parts may be found everywhere therefore. Scripture itself is thus, as being the living thing it is, an organism; and we cannot wholly separate any book of Scripture from the rest. It will be our constant aim to show and rate at their value these living links; while even for this very purpose the individuality of each book, and every real division that Scripture manifests, must be maintained; just as in all physiology, the organs, and the tissues also which make up the organs, must be first demonstrated, before we trace these living interdependencies at all. The application of this to Scripture is not yet finding the full and hearty recognition that it ought to have in order to the experience of its value aright.

We shall confine ourselves for the present to Paul's first pentateuch, as this will occupy us for a good while to come. The central thoughts and relations of the books must be briefly stated — quite briefly in the first place — in order that a nearer view may be a real enlargement of thought, and not an entanglement or a perplexity. And here, however foolish would be the idea of studying Scripture in the concordance, every true student of it will gladly own the help which the concordance gives to clear discernment of the central thoughts of its divisions; and most of all, perhaps, in the Epistles. We must, of course, be here as always taught by the Spirit, in order not to go astray, and must use a just discrimination as to the material which it puts into our hand. There is no way of knowledge which will enable us to escape the need of labor: labor is a condition of all fruitfulness which a wise and holy God has given us as a yoke most helpful in our fallen state, but which has also its abundant recompense in its gains along the road, and in the joy of an activity, which is as it were the very buoyancy of life itself, and maintains this.

1. A mere glance at a concordance will assure us how large a place in Romans the thought of righteousness has. Conspicuously absent from the practical and preceptive fourth division, in the rest of the epistle it is occurring constantly; while justification, the declaration of righteousness as against accusation made, has proportionately almost as large a place.* Thus the foundation character of the epistle is fully manifest; and the foundation is, one may say, of squared stones. These words occur in various applications but in the same interest, that of the salvation of the sinner who believes in Jesus. Thus we have man's lack (and hopeless lack) of righteousness fully proved against him; but with this the righteousness of God in justifying; that righteousness is imputed without works; that it is a righteousness of faith; a justification by the blood of Christ; and how righteousness of life is secured by it. Romans is thus a full and exact gospel treatise; but it goes further than many Christians are able to follow it, even to a place in Christ attached to a new life in Him, of whom Adam was but the contrastive type. These two things then, righteousness and a place in Christ, may be said to be the twofold theme of the first epistle. The righteousness of God in the present rejection of Israel as a nation (Rom. 9 – 11) is an argument appended very naturally to the main topics; though here also righteousness is the keynote still, and of course in harmony with the numerical place of the epistle.

{*"Righteousness" (dikaiosune) occurs thirty-six times; nearest to it comes second Corinthians, seven times. "Righteous" (dikaios) seven times; which is only exceeded by Matthew and Luke of the Gospels, while in the Epistles first John comes next with five occurrences. "Justify," "justification," occur eighteen times; Galatians coming next with eight.}

2. Galatians is in closest connection with Romans, being a buttress to its doctrine of justification by faith; but essentially, in accordance with the second place in which it stands, it is a controversy. Judaism and Christianity, law and grace, are shown to be in absolute opposition, now that faith is openly avowed to be God's principle, the schoolmaster's reign over, and the children of God at home with God, having received the Spirit of adoption. The "cross," "crucified,"* "curse of the law," are characteristic words: the law as a principle lay in the way of blessing, and to be a Saviour Christ must take its curse, to remove it from us. Thus alone could the spirit of bondage be removed, and the liberty attained with which Christ has made us free. But also this deliverance is from the world, as well as law: the cross is the stamp of the world's enmity to Christ; and we, as crucified with Him, are crucified to the world. Nothing counts for God now but that new creation, to which as in Christ we belong.

{*"Our old man was crucified with Him" is found once in Rom. 6:6.}

3. Ephesians is characteristically the epistle of the heavenly places. In it the sanctuary is opened, not merely to let out the light of the glory, wonderful as the blessing of that is, but a risen and glorified Man has entered and sat down there, and He the Representative of men His people. We therefore are quickened together with Him, risen, and seated in Him in the heavenlies where He sits. That is the height of Christian position: no higher can be imagined.

But there is more that follows, nevertheless; for by the indwelling of the Spirit, the fruit of redemption, we are joined to Him as members of a Body of which He is Head, the Church being thus His Fulness (or complement), who Himself filleth all in all. This is a mystery, long hidden, now told out; besides which the Church is shown to be the Eve also of the Last Adam, the fulfilment of the earliest type of these relationships, with which at the very earliest moment for expression of it the divine heart overflows! Again the Church as indwelt of the Spirit is the habitation of God, and growing unto an holy temple in the Lord; to God is glory in the Church by Christ Jesus unto all the generations of the age of ages! In every truth here, Ephesians without doubt fills its numerical place; and what an unrolling of glories it is! Must not the mere naming them fill our hearts with adoration?

4. Colossians doctrinally follows Ephesians. Some would have it precede it; but its connection with it, which cannot be doubted, is really on the other side. It has the character of its fourth place, and speaks of the walk on earth in the power of the truths that have been already unfolded. For this reason it is that on the one hand the sitting in heavenly places is not mentioned, and on the other we have the links with Romans and Galatians which have been urged in behalf of its intermediate position. The heavens are where the hope is laid up; while we are cut loose from earth in order that we may be unhindered in our course thither. This position of the Colossian epistle may account also for what at least would seem unaccountable in the intermediate one, that the Spirit of God is only once mentioned. In the first three epistles it is quite otherwise; and here also we must probably take into account the objective character of the epistle to explain the omission. It is not the power working in us that is in question, which has been already sufficiently attested, but the objective truths that rule the heart and possess it. It is the furnishing for the way that is before us here — the first part of Numbers, and not the experience of the way in the latter part. And here a beautiful character of the epistle comes out, that it is Christ and His fulness that is the furnishing. Thus the central text is surely here (Col. 2:9, 10), "For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily; and in Him we are filled up." We see this variously applied and amplified throughout the epistle.

A singular-looking supplement to Colossians is found in Philemon; but even the historical connection is very close. "Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians, and was sent back at the very time of that letter, Philemon himself also belonging to Colosse. It is strange, in fact, that it should be separated from that epistle, except from its being written to an individual, not an assembly, as in the latter case.

"The subject, too, no doubt seems different. It is nevertheless most beautifully connected as an appendix, as we shall easily see. For it is striking that addresses to masters and servants are found (along with other relations in life,) in both Ephesians and Colossians; to masters, in Paul's epistles, nowhere else; thus this address to a master fittingly follows.

"A reason, too, for these addresses in these two epistles is surely this, that the thought of the place in Christ, and of the new life of which they speak, should not be taken enthusiastically to do away with the relationships of the present: a real danger, as it has proved, for some.

"Now Philemon demonstrates practically how for the apostle these relationships remain. Onesimus is by his conversion much more than a servant, a brother beloved yet Paul sends him back to his master, though he would gladly have retained him, but without his mind he would do nothing. The epistle shows thus strikingly the true exalting, power of Christianity, not intended to release from the duties or disadvantages of an earthly place, — not to be a lever to lift into earthly position or ease, — but to fill with a competency to serve in the lowest and lowliest, like Him whom we all serve." (Numerical Structure of Scripture.) Philemon thus clearly connects with the subject of Colossians, the earthly path of the heavenly people.

5. Finally in this series, Philippians takes its place as a grand and blessed Deuteronomic review of conditions and results. The way and the end are put together in a glorious fashion, as found in the experience of the apostle himself; none surely more competent to give them to us! It is that experience side of things which we have noticed as absent in Colossians, but which is now developed in a practical summing up of all that is gone before it. The lesson of Romans is shown as learned in the ability to go on in freedom from the law of sin, the flesh being dismissed as having no confidence in it. It tells of the Cross as for Christ the end of a path of humiliation, which leads out of the world, and into the highest place with God in all which we are exhorted, as having His mind, to follow Him: which is the lesson of Galatians. It speaks also of Christ as in the place He has reached, a heavenly Object for the heart, as in Ephesians and (especially) Colossians. Then in conclusion it tells us of the practical result for one who has fully tested it, — of the competency of Christ so known and lived for, amid all exercises and all circumstances whatever: "I know both how to be abased and how to abound everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need: I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me." That is not a theoretic conclusion, but a conscious experience.

In their relation to one another it is plain that these epistles are a progressive series, with the pentateuchal seal fully upon them. They give us position and the outcome of position known and enjoyed. There is no need to enter more at present into this, which in its details can only properly be realized as we take up the books in succession.