A Quick Guide to the Pauline Epistles

A young man named Saul was bent on eliminating Christianity from the face of the earth. He was a Jew, a Pharisee (well-versed in the Old Testament),  a man of knowledge, letters, and spirit.

Then Jesus directly intervened. The risen savior appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus—an encounter that completely transformed him. This man Saul became the beloved apostle, saint, evangelist, theologian, and pastor we call Paul.

Paul’s an important character: out of the 27 books in the New Testament, Paul wrote 13.
Out of all the biblical human authors, Paul has written the most books of the Bible.

Paul was chosen for a few specific tasks (Eph 3:8–9):

  • Preach Christ to the Gentiles
  • Convey God’s plan for managing the church

We see Paul doing the first in the book of Acts. We see him doing the second in his letters (there’s certainly overlap, though).

Most of Paul’s letters fall into two groups: letters to churches and letters to individuals.


Pauline epistles to churches

Nine of Paul’s letters were addressed to local churches in certain areas of the Roman empire. On the whole, these epistles tend to deal with three general issues:

  1. Doctrine: what Christians should know
  2. Application: what Christians should do with doctrine
  3. Logistics: specific instructions, greetings, etc.

Paul’s writings on application are usually rather general. You’ll see Paul telling children to obey parents, masters to be kind to their slaves, and the like; you won’t see Paul giving children a list of things to do, or giving masters a bill of slaves’ rights in the church.

In short, Paul focuses on the “why” (doctrine) and the “what” (application), not the “how.”

Paul’s a very organized writer, and these epistles can usually be split into sections based on these issues. The book of Romans is a good example:

  1. In the first 11 chapters, Paul explains what the gospel is.
  2. In chapters 12–15, he explains what it means to be a “living sacrifice” (Ro 12:1–2).
  3. At the end of chapter 15, he discusses his plans to visit, and the final chapter of Romans includes many greetings to Christians in the area.

As you read these epistles, keep an eye out for these themes.

Here’s the list of Paul’s epistles to churches:

  • Romans. Paul explains how the gospel works and how to respond. Paul wrote this letter before he had visited the Roman church.
  • 1 Corinthians. In 55 A.D., Paul admonished the local church that he had founded in Corinth.
  • 2 Corinthians. Come 56 A.D., the Corinthian church had escalated and then resolved their conflict with Paul. Second Corinthians is Paul’s a letter of forgiveness and reconciliation.
  • Galatians. Someone had misled the churches of Galatia—resubjecting them to the Law of Moses and devaluing God’s grace. Paul writes the Galatians an aggressive letter to set them straight on their freedom in Christ.
  • Ephesians. Paul outlines doctrines of grace, peace, and salvation, and then instructs the church to walk in a manner worthy of Jesus Christ.
  • Philippians. Even though he’s suffering in prison, Paul finds joy in Christ. He writes to the church at Philippi urging them to take on a Christlike attitude.
  • Colossians. This letter explains to the church at Colossae who they are in Christ.
  • 1 Thessalonians. The church of Thessalonica is setting a great example for other churches, even though they’re being persecuted for their faith. Paul encourages them to “excel still more.”
  • 2 Thessalonians.  The affliction just won’t let up on the Thessalonian church, so Paul coaches them on standing firm until Jesus’ return.

Pastoral epistles from Paul

Three of Paul’s letters are addressed to individual pastors. Two are written to Timothy, and the last is written to Titus. Because these letters are for specific individuals, they include more specific instructions than the other letters.

Paul considers Timothy and Titus to be his sons in the faith (1 Ti 1:2; Tt 1:4). He trusts them to manage their local churches well (1 Ti 3:15; Tt 1:5) and maintain his sound teaching (1 Ti 4:6; Tt 2:1).

Here’s a high-level idea of what each pastoral epistle is about:

  • 1 Timothy. This is Paul’s guide to godliness and sound teaching for the young pastor Timothy at Ephesus.
  • 2 Timothy. Paul’s death is drawing near, and he charges Timothy to carry on his gospel work.
  • Titus. Paul had left Titus at Crete to set up order in the churches there. Now he writes Titus instructions for leading a counter-cultural church.

Today, these letters still teach us how the church should be managed—they’re especially helpful for church planters.

Then there’s Philemon

Philemon is a hybrid of the two categories. It’s a message to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church, but it’s addressed to the church his house as well (Phlm 2). In a way, it’s an open letter to an individual.

Philemon’s runaway slave had converted to Christianity, and Paul was sending him back to Philemon. Paul encourages Philemon to welcome the runaway as a brother, not a slave—the rest of the church is witness to Paul’s exhortation.

So the letter to Philemon has specific instructions for an individual church leader (like the pastoral epistles) but is addressed to a local congregation (like a church letter). You can learn more about Philemon’s role here.

The Pauline Epistles’ roles in the Bible

Unlike the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline epistles hardly contain any narrative. These are primarily correspondence: Paul sends greetings, instructions, encouragement, and background information.

Because of this, the epistles contain the majority of Christians’ theology. This is where the story of Jesus described in the Gospels is explained in greater detail. It’s also where we learn how Christians should live in response to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

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