††††††††††† Each epistle has distinctive features, but at the same time there is overlap as there is in all four gospels. If the gospels and epistles were all using the same wording, then sceptics would have some justification for saying that the writers just copied one another. In fact some sceptics do say that or that the writers used one or more common sources. However, if the writers all said different things so that there was no overlap it could be argued that each writer was putting forward a different doctrinal scheme.
††††††††††† As far as the four Gospels are concerned see my article headed The Gospels.
††††††††††† As to the Epistles one would say, starting with that to the Romans, that the apostle Paul expounds in that epistle the gospel. In the Acts of the Apostles we get the preaching of the gospel, but in Romans the teaching of it. The Roman epistle was written to persons who had received the gospel, but no doubt needed to be established in it. Paul starts at the bottom so to speak and tells us of the state of mankind and goes on to show how God has come in to meet manís need and towards the end of the epistle touches on the corporate relations of Christians (chapter 12:4-8). Individual blessing comes first, for without it persons cannot rightly be together corporately.†
††††††††††† If we go to the Ephesians we have, we may say, the top stone of Paulís ministry. Paul begins with Godís thoughts, that is, his purposes rather than manís condition as in Romans (Ephesians 1). He comes down to speak of manís need and how it has been met later (Ephesians 2). In this epistle Paul does not speak of the coming of the Lord but rather stresses the dignified position that the Lordís people have been given (Ephesians 3) and stresses that they should walk in accord with it (Ephesians 4). The fact that in chapters one and three he prays for the saints shows that he realises that for the saints to be in the gain of Godís thoughts for them there must be a work of God in them and not only a formal acceptance of the truth. Acts 20 could well be read with this epistle. John in Revelation speaks of how the Ephesians had fallen, though they had outwardly maintained a respectable front (Revelation 2:1-7).† One would note that Ephesus was in Asia as to which Paul later says: ďAll who [are] in Asia,... have turned away from me.Ē (2 Timothy 1:15).
††††††††††† Between Romans and Ephesians we have the epistle to the Colossians (ignoring the order of the books in our Bibles). In order to be in the gain of Ephesians we need to see that Christ must have his right place with us. Colossians focuses on Christ and our completeness in him (chapter 2:10), whereas Ephesians takes us to the ultimate, which is God the Father (Ephesians 2:18; 3:20/21). We must always remember that Christ is the mediator of God and men and it is through him we have access to God. Paul speaks in Colossians of Christ and what He has done rather than what He has been made or given. It appears that some copyist imported from Ephesians the words ďthrough his bloodĒ found in the authorised version of the Scriptures in Colossians 1:14. However, the point in Colossians is to focus on Christ rather than, as in Ephesians, on what God has done and the means by which He has done it (Ephesians 1:7). It is not, as some may think, that a copyist or translator didnít like the idea of the blood so left that bit out. Actually the blood is mentioned in Colossians 1:20 anyway.
††††††††††† If we consider the epistles to the Hebrews and Galatians; we can see that in the case of the Hebrews they were in danger of giving up Christianity and reverting to Judaism (Hebrews 6:1-8; 10:38/39). However, the Galatians were not actually giving up their Christian profession, but rather bringing Judaism into their Christianity (Galatians 5:1-10). In both cases the blessings of Christianity would be effectively lost. Notice that Paul (assuming the writer to the Hebrews was Paul) does not just speak to the Hebrews of the gospel in the way that he does to the Romans, but rather contrasts the Christianís blessings with what Israel had under the law and at the same time shows that the law was only a shadow of the good things that had now been brought to light in the gospel. As to the Galatians Paul rather shows that if they bring law keeping into Christianity they lose the liberty with which Christ has made us free. Again Paul brings forward things that the Galatians had not considered, rather than simply presenting to them the gospel as he did to the Romans. As has been well said: ďYou will not bring back people who have departed by what they know; you have to present something else to themĒ (F.E.R New Series Vol. 12 page 125).
††††††††††† To the Philippians and Thessalonians Paul concentrates on the view before them, that is, the Lordís coming, and the fact that we should be pressing on (Philippians 3; 1 Thessalonians 1:9/10 and other passages). In Ephesians Paul writes of ďthe helmet of salvationĒ as a present thing (Ephesians 6:17) whereas to the Thessalonians he also writes of the helmet, but as ďthe hope of salvationĒ a future thing (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Further, he is not thinking so much of the assembly as a corporate body, but of the personnel that compose that body.† In the case of the Philippians he was speaking to a mature body of Christians (Paul was at the time of writing in prison in Rome Ė Philippians 1:12 et. seq.) whereas the Thessalonians were relatively new converts. We should bear this in mind when dealing with mature Christians as distinct from relatively new converts.
††††††††††† In contrast to the epistle to the Ephesians where Paul expounds the truth of Christís assembly as a spiritual body and its universal character, in the epistles to the Corinthians he concentrates on the practical expression of the assembly in local companies of Christians. In the first epistle he deals largely with practical problems and in the second he brings in a more comforting line. The first epistle has been likened to feet washing and the second to the use of the towel (John 13:5).
††††††††††† The epistles about which I have briefly written above are very important. Some may dismiss them as simply being Paulís ideas, though actually they are largely the expression of the ministry given him by Christ Himself. Without them we would have no real basis for a Christian assembly. We take the Lordís Supper from what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11 rather than directly from the first three gospels, which could be said to only apply to Christís immediate disciples who knew him personally when he was here on earth. If we take the Lordís Supper from the gospels why not also make a ritual of the feet washing spoken of by John in his gospel? However, if we take as our authority for eating the Lordís Supper what Paul says, let us not overlook what Paul writes in the first part of chapter 11 which deals with headship.†
††††††††††† As to Paulís epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon one would say that it would appear that Timothy was a young man (1 Timothy 4:12), Titus was probably a mature man and Philemon probably an older man. I judge this from the fact that Titus was told to rebuke the Cretans severely (Titus 1:13), and the fact that Paul writes very respectfully to Philemon.† Paul uses wisdom in the way he writes to each one. The first epistle to Timothy deals with practical assembly problems when things were in order, while the second deals with the way we should meet conditions when the assembly has become corrupted. Titus is instructed to deal with conditions of a serious nature in Crete. Paul deals with Philemon himself regarding a delicate practical matter.
††††††††††† It is right to get the benefit of spiritual fresh air, such as we may get on the mountain top, but at the same time we may have to deal with practical problems in the Christian company, in our household circumstances and in our personal path through this world. We should not mix these things up as has been well said: ďYou must distinguish between the assembly and the individual path, else you get into confusion at every stepĒ (F.E.R. New Series Vol. 12 page 208)
††††††††††† As to the epistle of James, he has clearly a burden to bring before believers the importance of fruit bearing. Our Christianity is not to be a dead orthodoxy. He speaks of the wisdom that comes down from above and gives details of it. One believes that he would have seen this in Christ when he was a child as it appears that he was the Lordís natural brother. Consider what Luke says as to the Lord when He was a child (Luke 2:40 & 52).
††††††††††† As to the two epistles of Peter we will find that he does not go into detail as to assembly practices though he speaks of the house of God and stresses that our service Godward should be spiritual (1 Peter 2:1-6). However he speaks of Godís government here on earth, in the first epistle as affecting Christians and in the second as affecting the wicked.
††††††††††† John in his epistles concentrates more on what is in our hearts (what is often spoken of as our state). If the state of our hearts is wrong it will sooner or later show itself in our walk and ways. He writes of the Christian assembly (3 John 9/10), but does not go into detail about it.
††††††††††† As to Judeís epistle, as he was a brother of James he would no doubt have known Christ before he entered on his public ministry. It is remarkable that God has seen fit to use two of the Lordís natural brothers to write epistles that have been preserved to us and show that they were believers and in accord with the apostles who proclaimed the gospel.† It appears that it was only after Christís death that they were converted (consider John 7:5). Jude really shows that the evil things warned about by Peter (2 Peter 2) had actually in Judeís time been found to have blossomed amongst professed believers. Read my article ď2 Peter 2 and Jude ComparedĒ.
.†††††††††† Revelation is not exactly an epistle, though it contains letters (chapters 2 & 3). Rather it is a book about judgment and leads on to the ultimate sorting out of all things.