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Three Letters of Paul

Galatians, Ephesians, and Philemon


Letter of Paul to the Galatians

Galatians 1:1-10, Address and warning

Galatians 1:11-24, What Paul has to say about his calling

Galatians 2:1-21, Meetings in Jerusalem and Antioch

Galatians 3:1-14, Faith vs. Law

Galatians 3:15-29, The purpose of the Law

Galatians 4:1-20, An example from human law

Galatians 4:21-31, A second example from human law

Galatians 5:1-12, Christian liberty

Galatians 5:13-26, Boundaries of Christian liberty

Galatians 6:1-18, Final instructions

Letter of Paul to the Ephesians

Ephesians 1:1-14, Greeting and God's plan of salvation

Ephesians 1:15-2:10, Salvation through Christ is a gift from God.

Ephesians 2:11-22, Jews and pagans are united in salvation.

Ephesians 3:1-21, Paul's self-assessment and prayer

Ephesians 4:1-16, Call to unity

Ephesians 4:17-32, New Life in Christ

Ephesians 5:1-2, Walk in love

Ephesians 5:1-21, How to live your life

Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Give way to one another in obedience to Christ

Ephesians 6:10-24, Spiritual warfare and farewell

Letter of Paul to Philemon

Philemon 1:1-7, A personal letter to Philemon

Philemon 1:8-25, I'm writing on behalf of Onesimus.

More Letters from Paul

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St. Paul at his Writing-Desk, by Rembrandt, 1629-1630.  Click to enlarge. Public domain in its source country on January 1, 1996 and in the United States.
St. Paul at his Writing-Desk, by Rembrandt, 1629-1630. Click to enlarge.

Introduction (09/18/23)

Pauline letters vary in audience, style, and topic. Galatians, addressed to one of Paul's own churches, first heatedly criticizes them for abandoning the pure Gospel and then, when he cools off a little, contrasts faith and law in a way very similar to Romans. Ephesians seems to be addressed to strangers and talks calmly about God's plan for salvation and the accompanying new rules for living. Philemon is a personal letter to friends, but with a special request.

Galatians 1:1-10, Address and warning (2007, 09/18/23)

The early Church was facing a crisis. People were going around to the new congregations established by Paul and other missionaries and "explaining" that faith in Jesus and baptism into that faith were not sufficient for salvation. For example, someone told the Galatians (who were Gentiles) that they needed to be circumcised. Paul and other apostles and Church leaders responded vigorously to this falsehood and others with sound doctrine. Paul in particular got really ... annoyed, shall we say. Later in the letter to the Galatians he says, "Are you Galatians crazy??" and "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" But his main point is this: "Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." I keep telling you, don't believe what I say -- read the Gospel for yourself!

Did you know that the way Paul starts his letters is just the standard 1st-century Greek way of starting letters? When we write a letter, we start with the date and "Dear X," and we end with "Yours truly" or "Love" and our own name. Greek letters normally didn't put in a date. They started with the name of the writer, then the name of the person getting the letter, and then a blessing, and we see that structure in all of Paul's letters, I think. His letter to the Galatians is pretty funny, actually, because as soon as he finishes the blessing, he starts haranguing them about their idiotic behavior in abandoning what they had originally been taught about Jesus for some other teaching about Jesus. It's always a good idea to stick to first principles.

Galatians 1:11-24, What Paul has to say about his calling (09/19/23)

It's always interesting to me to hear how a minister came to his or her calling, especially when, like Paul, they came kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14). Paul briefly reviews his personal history in the faith, both as a Pharisee and as a Christian. He emphasizes that the gospel that he preaches - or the good news, because that's what "gospel" means - came directly from Jesus, just as it did for the other apostles. Remember, he's talking to his own converts, who for some reason have started to embrace a different Gospel preached by somebody else (we don't know who), and he wants to establish his own credentials as superior to theirs.

Galatians 2:1-21, Meetings in Jerusalem and Antioch (09/20/23)

Paul continues to explain how he came to preach the good news to the Gentiles and defended them against a group of Jewish Christians who thought that the Gentiles had to be Jews before they could be Christians. You can sort of see why they thought that: Jews had been expecting the Messiah for almost a thousand years, and now here he is. He's Jewish, and so his followers should be Jewish, too, dadgummit!

But then Paul starts shifting over to salvation by faith vs. salvation through the Law, saying, in essence, "We Jewish Christians think we are saved by faith, not Law; the Gentiles have faith; why do they need the Law?" Paul is not saying the Law is worthless or bad in any way, just that it isn't going to save the Gentiles. There was a big powwow in Jerusalem in 60 A.D. (Acts 15), and the Church decided the same thing. Gentile Christians only have to keep a little bit of the Law.

Galatians 3:1-14, Faith vs. Law (09/21/23)

My favorite part of all of Paul's letters is Galatians 3:1: "Are you people crazy??" They received the good news from Paul, accepted it on faith, and trusted his word that they didn't have to follow all of the Law. As soon as Paul's back was turned, they received the bad news from somebody else that they had to be circumcised and follow all of the Law - and now they believe that! He's exasperated, and he continues to point out that they received their salvation through faith, not Law.

Galatians 3:15-29, The purpose of the Law (09/22/23)

Paul spends a lot of time telling his Gentile converts that they are not subject to the Law. Nevertheless, there seem to be rules. I suppose it's possible that he doesn't mean them as rules, but more as a measuring stick for what "walking by the Spirit" does and does not look like. They look to me like rules, though, and pretty good rules, at that. If you love God and love your neighbor, you will automatically be following both the rules and the Law.

Galatians 4:1-20, An example from human law (09/25/23)

Paul has gotten most of his annoyance off his chest, but he's still not letting the Galatians off the hook. Paul had preached the Gospel to them, a Gospel that freed them not only from the burden of their sin, but also from a burden they didn't even know they carried, bondage to false gods. Now they want to embrace the Law, and Paul is perplexed. He gives them an example from human law, which presumably they can understand because it's about the bondage of slaves vs. the liberty of heirs. We've been adopted; we are heirs; we are free. Why on earth would we want to return to bondage under the Law?

Galatians 4:21-31, A second example from human law (09/26/23)

I read somewhere in a commentary on Genesis 21:10 that the sons of a slave inherited along with the sons of a wife, unless the slave and her sons were set free. Back in Genesis, Ishmael, the son of Sarah's slave, Hagar, was older than Isaac, so he would have gotten a double portion of the inheritance - two-thirds to Isaac's one-third. Sarah wanted her own flesh-and-blood son, Isaac, to inherit the blessings God had promised to Abraham, so she demanded that Abraham free Hagar and Ishmael. (Now, you may think that being set free in the middle of the desert isn't all that great, and I agree, and apparently so did God; Genesis 21:17-20.)

Paul uses this second example from human law as an allegory to illustrate that the Galatians were brought into the kingdom of God under a different covenant than the one they are now thinking about accepting now, the Law of Moses.

Galatians 5:1-12, Christian liberty (09/27/23)

Paul has given the Galatians two examples from human law, contrasting the privileges and benefits of freedom with the drawbacks of bondage, and he has confidence that they will come around. He's still simmering, however, and harbors the unloving wish that those who have preached circumcision to his Galatians would emasculate themselves. Bible study ain't for sissies, as I've said before, but it's a measure of the truth of scripture that when Paul has such an unchristian thought, no one edits it out.

Galatians 5:13-26, Boundaries of Christian liberty (09/28/23)

Our American fellow-readers know that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. constitution does not allow them to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, to incite riot, or to libel another person. Speech is only free within limits. Paul has spent much of his letter to the Galatians exhorting them not to exchange their freedom in Christ for bondage to the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, their freedom also has its limits, and now Paul tells them what some of the limits are.

Galatians 6:1-18, Final instructions (09/29/23)

Apparently, Paul's scribe suggested that he say something nice to the Galatians, because toward the end of his letter (6:1-10) he gives them some kindly advice about taking care of each other and doing good. Probably the "famous quote" from Galatians is "Let us not be weary in doing good." That would have been a great place to quit. However, Paul then adds a post script in his own handwriting: "Don't get circumcised, and stop giving me so much trouble!"

Ephesians 1:1-14, Greeting and God's plan of salvation (10/02/23)

I once remarked in a Bethel class that Paul is difficult to read. A student said she didn't think Paul was hard to read at all, and I said, "That means your translator worked very hard to make it easy!" In modern terms, Paul had a Ph.D. in theology, and his letter to the Ephesians reads a lot like a book written by a theologian for theologians. Take a look at vss. 3-12: In Greek, that's all one thought, and the World English Bible translators, God bless 'em, have chosen to make it all one sentence in English. I've tried to show you the complicated sentence structure with bullets.
(3-4) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ;
This is another letter, however, so it begins just like Galatians: (From) Paul, to the Ephesians, God bless you; God is good. From there on, the two letters couldn't be much more different. They are so different, in fact, that many scholars think they weren't be written by the same person. I don't buy that: you would write one kind of letter to your son at college who has just gotten three Ds and an F, and you'd write a completely different kind of letter to a committee at another church about a joint project. Why wouldn't Paul write two different kinds of letters? The Galatians are the son at college; the Ephesians are the committee.

Ephesians 1:15-2:10, Salvation through Christ is a gift from God. (2007, 10/03/23)

Remember Galatians where Paul was so exasperated with his converts for seeming to abandon what he had taught them? Totally different tone here in Ephesians! First, he speaks to them as if he doesn't know them very well: "having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you." Second, he praises them for their love.

The famous quote from Ephesians is "For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." Now there are two things about the famous quote that you need to know. First, in English, the logical antecedent for the gift of God is faith, but in Greek this is impossible. You can take my word for it, or you can read the longer explanation in the bullets below, which you probably aren't really interested in. Either way it's impossible for "faith" to be the "gift of God" in this passage. The "gift of God" is the whole process of salvation by grace through faith.

Second, the famous quote omits the reason for our salvation: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them." God loves you and wants to save you, but one reason for that salvation is that God has work for you to do.

Ephesians 2:11-22, Jews and pagans are united in salvation. (10/04/23)

We absolutely love to play the game of "Us vs. Them." In the very early Church (Acts 6), a distinction was drawn between the Hebrews and the Greeks - they were all Jewish Christians, but the Hebrews spoke Aramaic, and the Greeks spoke Greek. When Gentiles started becoming Christians, "Us vs. Them" became circumcised Christians vs. uncircumcised Christians. Paul says, no, there's only one kind of Christian, and we are all fellow-citizens in the household of God. Try to remember this the next time you talk to someone from another denomination who doesn't think quite the same way you do.

Ephesians 3:1-21, Paul's self-assessment and prayer (10/05/23)

Paul hasn't forgotten that he persecuted the Christians before his own conversion, and he calls himself "the very least of all saints." He realizes that his conversion was directly related to his job of preaching the good news to the Gentiles. He prays for the Ephesians, and then, as occasionally happens, he is so overcome with the goodness and mercy of God that he adds a doxology in vss. 20-21. You see Paul's complex thoughts in the three sentences represented by vss. 1-7, 8-12, and 14-19. He was trained as a lawyer, and it shows.

Ephesians 4:1-16, Call to unity (10/06/23)

Paul returns to the theme of unity in Christ: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all. The idea of "one body, lots of different jobs" that's presented here is more fully developed (not to mention more clearly presented) in 1 Corinthians 12.

Ephesians 4:17-32, New Life in Christ (10/09/23)

God loves us so much that he'll take us just the way we are. God loves us so very much that he won't leave us just the way we are! Paul gives some specific examples of the kinds of changes we need to expect and cooperate with.

One directive that might be puzzling, however, is this: "Be angry, but do not sin." We are so often told that anger is a sin that we read this and think, "What's up with that?" The answer is that it depends on what you are angry about. Jesus was angry on at least one occasion (Mark 3:5), so clearly anger, in and of itself, is not sinful. John Wesley explains that, "Anger at sin is not evil; but we should feel only pity to the sinner. If we are angry at the person, as well as the fault, we sin." He notes that we avoid this latter sin only with difficulty. So it's okay to be angry about the sin, and not okay to be angry at the sinner. Simple, not easy.

Today's Greek lesson: anthropos, rendered man by many English translations, in modern English is more accurately person, which is what the God's Word translation has. I also found self and way of life a couple of times apiece. Greek doesn't change, but English does. Get yourself a new translation to go along with your new self.

Ephesians 5:1-2, Walk in Love (2007)

One of the classic jokes in any slapstick movie is "Walk this way." Generally, a swaying young woman or elderly butler turns to lead the main characters somewhere, and the main characters follow with an exaggerated imitation of the way the leader walks. Occasionally in the Old Testament, and frequently in the New Testament, "walk" means "put one foot in front of the other"; however, normally in the OT and commonly in the NT, the Bible has an idiomatic use of "walk." When Paul says to the Ephesians, "Look carefully then how you walk," he doesn't mean "Watch where you step." He means, as do all the Biblical writers using this idiom, "Take heed to how you live your life."

Ephesians 5:3-21, How to live your life (10/10/23)

No letter from Paul is complete without some instructions for how new Christians should be living their new lives. Remember that yesterday we read that we should "put on a new self." It would be reasonable to ask, "OK, Paul, what is this new self supposed to look like? Honestly, I was perfectly happy with my old self." So Paul gives some guidelines - not comprehensive, by any means - for improvement. No sexual immorality, no coveting, no drunkenness. Pay special attention to vs. 11. I had a boss once who, when confronted with a choice of things that could be done, considered whether he would want his actions to appear on the front page of the New York Times. If you'd rather nobody know about it, don't do it. Meantime, you are free to love one another (vss. 1-2). Let's see that on the front page!

Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Give way to one another in obedience to Christ (10/11/23)

Today we come to a verse that's my personal nominee for "most often quoted out of context": Wives, be subject to your own husbands. Remember that right before this, Paul says, " thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ." Now he's going to give six examples of "subjecting ourselves to one another": wives, husbands, slaves, masters, children, and parents. Everybody is supposed to be subject to everybody. You know that I'm always saying to read in context, and this is particularly important in the writings of Paul, because his contexts can be several chapters long. When he introduces an idea, he likes to get all the meat out of it. It's really easy, and all too common, to take one verse and completely distort his meaning by ignoring the context.

Ephesians 6:10-24, Spiritual warfare and farewell (10/12/23)

Vss. 12-13 speak to me specially today, because a couple of hours ago I watched a video on the terrible effects of schism within the body of God's people. Paul warns us against struggling against flesh and blood - other people - and instead encourages us to put on the armor of God and stand against the devil and his works.

Brothers and sisters, I believe two things. First, denominations are God's gift to a diverse humanity, and second, God hates schism. If we can't get along well enough with other Christians and Jews to stay in communion with them in spite of liking different kinds of music, how can we ever present an example that will attract unbelievers?

Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians without personal greetings, which is unusual for him. This is one characteristic of this letter that has led many scholars to think Paul didn't write it. However, notice vss. 21-22. Paul is sending the letter by the hand of Tychicus. Do we think Tychicus showed up without saying, "Hey Jacob! Paul says hi!" We do not. Paul ends with a blessing.

Philemon 1:1-7, A personal letter to Philemon (6/15/2010, 10/13/23)

We'll end this short study of Paul's letters with a short letter that was probably written near the end of his life while he was in prison in Rome. It follows the standard letter format of "sender/recipient/blessing/body" that we've seen in the other letters, but it differs completely in tone and content from the scolding in Galatians and the theology in Ephesians. Philemon, like many of the Pauline letters, also includes personal greetings to and from people other than Paul and Philemon. Philemon is otherwise never mentioned in the New Testament.

A long time ago, one of my papers was reviewed by a fellow who taught me more about reviewing than about the topic of the paper. He started his review by saying (roughly) what an honor and opportunity it was to be chosen to review this outstanding work, which was probably going to win a Nobel Prize! By this time I could see that he was a man of intelligence and discernment, so when he started tearing the paper to shreds, I took his comments very seriously.

Paul takes much the same approach with Philemon. He starts his letter by complimenting Philemon in glowing terms: "our beloved fellow worker," "I hear of your love and faith," "I have derived joy and comfort" "because of your work for the saints." Then he alludes quickly to his authority over Philemon, only to dismiss it immediately in favor of "an appeal to love" "for an old man in prison." By this time, if I were Philemon, I would be feeling that Paul was a man of intelligence and discernment, and I would consider his appeal - whatever it turned out to be - very seriously.

Philemon 1:8-25, I'm writing on behalf of Onesimus. (6/16/2010)

Paul gets to his point: Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to Philemon, has become a Christian and a useful aide to Paul. Paul is sending him back, and he pleads with Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. The name "Onesimus" means "profitable"; this is probably why Paul makes the comment in vs. 11 about Onesimus's former and current level of usefulness. Over the centuries, various commentators have put forward opinions about where this letter was written, who Philemon was and where he lived, and whether vs. 18 implies that Onesimus not only ran away but also stole something from Philemon while he was at it. However, what you see is what we've got. You know what I know. You also know what the commentators know, so don't feel too intimidated by what they think. I love reading commentaries, and they can be entertaining, insightful, instructive, and useful. They can also make stuff up from whole cloth. You have to read the Bible for yourself.

More Letters from Paul
Overview of Paul's Letters
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy

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