Vol. 1, Chapter XII (Cont’d) – The Epistles


The sermons of Stephen and the apostles in Acts (excepting the farewell of Paul to the Ephesian Elders) are missionary addresses to outsiders, with a view to convert them to the Christian faith. The Epistles are addressed to baptized converts, and aim to strengthen them in their faith, and, by brotherly instruction, exhortation, rebuke, and consolation, to build up the church in all Christian graces on the historical foundation of the teaching and example of Christ. The prophets of the Old Testament delivered divine oracles to the people; the apostles of the New Testament wrote letters to the brethren, who shared with them the same faith and hope as members of Christ.

The readers are supposed to be already “in Christ,” saved and sanctified “in Christ,” and holding all their social and domestic relations and discharging their duties “in Christ.” They are “grown together” with Christ, sharing in his death, burial, and resurrection, and destined to reign and rule with him in glory forever. On the basis of this new relation, constituted by a creative act of divine grace, and sealed by baptism, they are warned against every sin and exhorted to every virtue. Every departure from their profession and calling implies double guilt and double danger of final ruin.

Occasions and calls for correspondence were abundant, and increased with the spread of Christianity over the Roman empire. The apostles could not be omnipresent and had to send messengers and letters to distant churches. They probably wrote many more letters than we possess, although we have good reason to suppose that the most important and permanently valuable are preserved. A former letter of Paul to the Corinthians is implied in 1Co_5:9: “I wrote to you in my epistle;” and traces of further correspondence are found in 1Co_16:3; 2Co_10:9; Eph_3:3. The letter “from Laodicea,” referred to in Col_4:16, is probably the encyclical Epistle to the Ephesians.

The Epistles of the New Testament are without a parallel in ancient literature, and yield in importance only to the Gospels, which stand higher, as Christ himself rises above the apostles. They are pastoral letters to congregations or individuals, beginning with an inscription and salutation, consisting of doctrinal expositions and practical exhortations and consolations, and concluding with personal intelligence, greetings, and benediction. They presuppose throughout the Gospel history, and often allude to the death and resurrection of Christ as the foundation of the church and the Christian hope. They were composed amidst incessant missionary labors and cares, under trial and persecution, some of them from prison, and yet they abound in joy and thanksgiving. They were mostly called forth by special emergencies, yet they suit all occasions. Tracts for the times, they are tracts for all times. Children of the fleeting moment, they contain truths of infinite moment. They compress more ideas in fewer words than any other writings, human or divine, excepting the Gospels. They discuss the highest themes which can challenge an immortal mind — God, Christ, and the Spirit, sin and redemption, incarnation, atonement, regeneration, repentance, faith and good works, holy living and dying, the conversion of the world, the general judgment, eternal glory and bliss. And all this before humble little societies of poor, uncultured artisans, freedmen and slaves! And yet they are of more real and general value to the church than all the systems of theology from Origen to Schleiermacher — yea, than all the confessions of faith. For eighteen hundred years they have nourished the faith of Christendom, and will continue to do so to the end of time. This is the best evidence of their divine inspiration.

The Epistles are divided into two groups, Catholic and Pauline. The first is more general; the second bears the strong imprint of the intense personality of the Apostle of the Gentiles.


87. The Catholic Epistles

I. Storr: De Catholicarum Epp. Occasione et Consilio. Tüb. 1789. Staeudlin: De Fontibus Epp. Cath. Gott. 1790. J. D. Schulze: Der schriftstellerische Charakter und Werth des Petrus, Jacobus und Judas. Leipz. 1802. Der schriftsteller. Ch. des Johannes. 1803.

II. Commentaries on all the Catholic Epistles by Goeppfert (1780), Schlegel (1783), Carpzov (1790), Augusti (1801), Grashof (1830), Jachmann (1838), Sumner (1840), De Wette (3d ed. by Brückner 1865), Meyer (the Cath. Epp. by Huther, Düsterdieck, Beyerschlag), Lange (Eng. transl. with additions by Mombert, 1872), John T. Demarest (N. York, 1879); also the relevant parts in the “Speaker’s Com.,” in Ellicott’s Com., the Cambridge Bible for Schools (ed. by Dean Perowne), and in the International Revision Com. (ed. by Schaff), etc. P. I. Gloag: Introduction to the Catholic Epp., Edinb., 1887.

The seven Epistles of James, 1st and 2d Peter, 1st, 2d, and 3d John, and Jude usually follow in the old manuscripts the Acts of the Apostles, and precede the Pauline Epistles, perhaps as being the works of the older apostles, and representing, in part at least, the Jewish type of Christianity. They are of a more general character, and addressed not to individuals or single congregations, as those of Paul, but to a larger number of Christians scattered through a district or over the world. Hence they are called, from the time of Origen and Eusebius, Catholic. This does not mean in this connection anti-heretical (still less, of course, Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic), but encyclical or circular. The designation, however, is not strictly correct, and applies only to five of them. The second and third Epistles of John are addressed to individuals. On the other hand the Epistle to the Hebrews is encyclical, and ought to be numbered with the Catholic Epistles, but is usually appended to those of Paul. The Epistle to the Ephesians is likewise intended for more than one congregation. The first Christian document of an encyclical character is the pastoral letter of the apostolic Conference at Jerusalem (a.d. 50) to the Gentile brethren in Syria and Cilicia (Act_15:23-29).

The Catholic Epistles are distinct from the Pauline by their more general contents and the absence of personal and local references. They represent different, though essentially harmonious, types of doctrine and Christian life. The individuality of James, Peter, and John stand out very prominently in these brief remains of their correspondence. They do not enter into theological discussions like those of Paul, the learned Rabbi, and give simpler statements of truth, but protest against the rising ascetic and Antinomian errors, as Paul does in the Colossians and Pastoral Epistles. Each has a distinct character and purpose, and none could well be spared from the New Testament without marring the beauty and completeness of the whole.

The time of composition cannot be fixed with certainty, but is probably as follows: James before a.d. 50; 1st Peter (probably also 2d Peter and Jude) before a.d. 67; John between a.d. 80 and 100.

Only two of these Epistles, the 1st of Peter and the 1st of John, belong to the Eusebian Homologumena, which were universally accepted by the ancient church as inspired and canonical. About the other five there was more or less doubt as to their origin down to the close of the fourth century, when all controversy on the extent of the canon went to sleep till the time of the Reformation. Yet they bear the general imprint of the apostolic age, and the absence of stronger traditional evidence is due in part to their small size and limited use.



Comp. on the lit., biography, and doctrine of James, § 27 and § 69.

The Epistle of James the Brother of the Lord was written, no doubt, from Jerusalem, the metropolis of the ancient theocracy and Jewish Christianity, where the author labored and died a martyr at the head of the mother church of Christendom and as the last connecting link between the old and the new dispensation. It is addressed to the Jews and Jewish Christians of the dispersion before the final doom in the year 70.

It strongly resembles the Gospel of Matthew, and echoes the Sermon on the Mount in the fresh, vigorous, pithy, proverbial, and sententious style of oriental wisdom. It exhorts the readers to good works of faith, warns them against dead orthodoxy, covetousness, pride, and worldliness, and comforts them in view of present and future trials and persecutions. It is eminently practical and free from subtle theological questions. It preaches a religion of good works which commends itself to the approval of God and all good men. It represents the primary stage of Christian doctrine. It takes no notice of the circumcision controversy, the Jerusalem compromise, and the later conflicts of the apostolic age. Its doctrine of justification is no protest against that of Paul, but prior to it, and presents the subject from a less developed, yet eminently practical aspect, and against the error of a barren monotheism rather than Pharisaical legalism, which Paul had in view. It is probably the oldest of the New Testament books, meager in doctrine, but rich in comfort and lessons of holy living based on faith in Jesus Christ, “the Lord of glory.” It contains more reminiscences of the words of Christ than any other epistle. Its leading idea is “the perfect law of freedom,” or the law of love revealed in Christ.

Luther’s harsh, unjust, and unwise judgment of this Epistle has been condemned by his own church, and reveals a defect in his conception of the doctrine of justification which was the natural result of his radical war with the Romish error.



See on the lit., biography, and theology of Peter, § 25, § 26, and § 70.

The First Epistle of Peter, dated from Babylon, belongs to the later life of the apostle, when his ardent natural temper was deeply humbled, softened, and sanctified by the work of grace. It was written to churches in several provinces of Asia Minor, composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians together, and planted mainly by Paul and his fellow-laborers; and was sent by the hands of Silvanus, a former companion of Paul. It consists of precious consolations, and exhortations to a holy walk after the example of Christ, to joyful hope of the heavenly inheritance, to patience under the persecutions already raging or impending. It gives us the fruit of a rich spiritual experience, and is altogether worthy of Peter and his mission to tend the flock of God under Christ, the chief shepherd of souls.

It attests also the essential agreement of Peter with the doctrine of the Gentile apostle, in which the readers had been before instructed (1Pe_5:12). This accords with the principle of Peter professed at the Council in Jerusalem (Act_15:11) that we are saved without the yoke of the law, “through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” His doctrinal system, however, precedes that of Paul and is independent of it, standing between James and Paul. Peculiar to him is the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades (1Pe_3:19; 1Pe_4:6; comp. Act_2:32), which contains the important truth of the universal intent of the atonement. Christ died for all men, for those who lived before as well as after his coming, and he revealed himself to the spirits in the realm of Hades. Peter also warns against hierarchical ambition in prophetic anticipation of the abuse of his name and his primacy among the apostles.

The Second Epistle of Peter is addressed, shortly before the author’s death, as a sort of last will and testament, to the same churches as the first. It contains a renewed assurance of his agreement with his “beloved brother Paul,” to whose Epistles he respectfully refers, yet with the significant remark (true in itself, yet often abused by Romanists) that there are in them “some things hard to be understood” (2Pe_3:15, 2Pe_3:16). As Peter himself receives in one of these Epistles (Gal_2:11) a sharp rebuke for his inconsistency at Antioch (which may be included in the hard things), this affectionate allusion proves how thoroughly the Spirit of Christ had, through experience, trained him to humility, meekness, and self-denial. The Epistle exhorts the readers to diligence, virtue, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly love, and brotherly kindness; refers to the Transfiguration on the Mount, where the author witnessed the majesty of Christ, and to the prophetic word inspired by the Holy Spirit; warns against antinomian errors; corrects a mistake concerning the second coming; exhorts them to prepare for the day of the Lord by holy living, looking for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness; and closes with the words: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom be glory both now and forever.”

The second Epistle is reckoned by Eusebius among the seven Antilegomena, and its Petrine authorship is doubted or denied, in whole or in part, by many eminent divines but defended by competent critics. The chief objections are: the want of early attestation, the reference to a collection of the Pauline Epistles, the polemic against Gnostic errors, some peculiarities of style, and especially the apparent dependence of the second chapter on the Epistle of Jude.

On the other hand, the Epistle, at least the first and third chapters, contains nothing which Peter might not have written, and the allusion to the scene of transfiguration admits only the alternative: either Peter, or a forger. It seems morally impossible that a forger should have produced a letter so full of spiritual beauty and unction, and expressly denouncing all cunning fabrications. It may have been enlarged by the editor after Peter’s death. But the whole breathes an apostolic spirit, and could not well be spared from the New Testament. It is a worthy valedictory of the aged apostle awaiting his martyrdom, and with its still valid warnings against internal dangers from false Christianity, it forms a suitable complement to the first Epistle, which comforts the Christians amidst external dangers from heathen and Jewish persecutors.



The Epistle of Jude, a, “brother of James” (the Just), is very short, and strongly resembles 2Pe_2:1-22, but differs from it by an allusion to the remarkable apocryphal book of Enoch and the legend of the dispute of Michael with the devil about the body of Moses. It seems to be addressed to the same churches and directed against the same Gnostic heretics. It is a solemn warning against the antinomian and licentious tendencies which revealed themselves between a.d. 60 and 70. Origen remarks that it is “of few lines, but rich in words of heavenly wisdom.” The style is fresh and vigorous.

The Epistle of Jude belongs likewise to the Eusebian Antilegomena, and has signs of post-apostolic origin, yet may have been written by Jude, who was not one of the Twelve, though closely connected with apostolic circles. A forger would hardly have written under the name of a “brother of James” rather than a brother of Christ or an apostle.

The time and place of composition are unknown. The Tübingen critics put it down to the reign of Trajan; Renan, on the contrary, as far back as 54, wrongly supposing it to have been intended, together with the Epistle of James, as a counter-manifesto against Paul’s doctrine of free grace. But Paul condemned antinomianism as severely as James and Jude (comp. Rom_6:1-23, and in fact all his Epistles). It is safest to say, with Bleek, that it was written shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, which is not alluded to (comp. Jud_1:14, Jud_1:15).


The Epistles of John

Comp. §§ 40-43, § 83 and § 84.

The First Epistle of John betrays throughout, in thought and style, the author of the fourth Gospel. It is a postscript to it, or a practical application of the lessons of the life of Christ to the wants of the church at the close of the first century. It is a circular letter of the venerable apostle to his beloved children in Asia Minor, exhorting them to a holy life of faith and love in Christ, and earnestly warning them against the Gnostic “antichrists,” already existing or to come, who deny the mystery of the incarnation, sunder religion from morality, and run into Antinomian practices.

The Second and Third Epistles of John are, like the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, short private letters, one to a Christian woman by the name of Cyria, the other to one Gains, probably an officer of a congregation in Asia Minor. They belong to the seven Antilegomena, and have been ascribed by some to the “Presbyter John,” a contemporary of the apostle, though of disputed existence. But the second Epistle resembles the first, almost to verbal repetition, and such repetition well agrees with the familiar tradition of Jerome concerning the apostle of love, ever exhorting the congregation, in his advanced age, to love one another. The difference of opinion in the ancient church respecting them may have risen partly from their private nature and their brevity, and partly from the fact that the author styles himself, somewhat remarkably, the “elder,” the “presbyter.” This term, however, is probably to be taken, not in the official sense, but in the original, signifying age and dignity; for at that time John was in fact a venerable father in Christ, and must have been revered and loved as a patriarch among his “little children.”


88. The Epistles of Paul

Παῦλος γενόμενος μέγιστος ὑπογραμμός. (Clement of Rome.)

Comp. §§ 29-36 and § 71.


General Character

Paul was the greatest worker among the apostles, not only as a missionary, but also as a writer. He “labored more than all.” And we may well include in this “all” the whole body of theologians who came after him; for where shall we find an equal wealth of the profoundest thoughts on the highest themes as in Paul? We have from him thirteen Epistles; how many more were lost, we cannot even conjecture. The four most important of them are admitted to be genuine even by the most exacting and sceptical critics. They are so stamped with the individuality of Paul, and so replete with tokens of his age and surroundings, that no sane man can mistake the authorship. We might as well doubt the genuineness of Luther’s work on the Babylonian captivity, or his Small catechism. The heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, accepted ten, excluding only the three Pastoral Epistles which did not suit his notions.

The Pauline Epistles are pastoral addresses to congregations of his own founding (except that of Rome, and probably also that of Colossae, which were founded by his pupils), or to individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon). Several of them hail from prison, but breathe the same spirit of faith, hope, and joy as the others, and the last ends with a shout of victory. They proceeded from profound agitation, and yet are calm and serene. They were occasioned by the trials, dangers, and errors incident to every new congregation, and the care and anxiety of the apostle for their spiritual welfare. He had led them from the darkness of heathen idolatry and Jewish bigotry to the light of Christian truth and freedom, and raised them from the slime of depravity to the pure height of saving grace and holy living. He had no family ties, and threw the whole strength of his affections into his converts, whom he loved as tenderly as a mother can love her offspring. This love to his spiritual children was inspired by his love to Christ, as his love to Christ was the response to Christ’s love for him. Nor was his love confined to the brethren: he was ready to make the greatest sacrifice for his unbelieving and persecuting fellow-Jews, as Christ himself sacrificed his life for his enemies.

His Epistles touch on every important truth and duty of the Christian religion, and illuminate them from the heights of knowledge and experience, without pretending to exhaust them. They furnish the best material for a system of dogmatics and ethics. Paul looks back to the remotest beginning before the creation, and looks out into the farthest future beyond death and the resurrection. He writes with the authority of a commissioned apostle and inspired teacher, yet, on questions of expediency, he distinguishes between the command of the Lord and his private judgment. He seems to have written rapidly and under great pressure, without correcting his first draft. If we find, with Peter, in his letters, “some things hard to be understood,” even in this nineteenth century, we must remember that Paul himself bowed in reverence before the boundless ocean of God’s truth, and humbly professed to know only in part, and to see through a mirror darkly. All knowledge in this world “ends in mystery.” Our best systems of theology are but dim reflections of the sunlight of revelation. Infinite truths transcend our finite minds, and cannot be compressed into the pigeon-holes of logical formulas. But every good commentary adds to the understanding and strengthens the estimate of the paramount value of these Epistles.


The Chronological Order

Paul’s Epistles were written within a period of about twelve years, between a.d. 52 or 53 and 64 or 67, when he stood at the height of his power and influence. None was composed before the Council of Jerusalem. From the date of his conversion to his second missionary journey (a.d. 37 to 52) we have no documents of his pen. The chronology of his letters can be better ascertained than that of the Gospels or Catholic Epistles, by combining internal indications with the Acts and contemporary events, such as the dates of the proconsulship of Gallio in Achaia, and the procuratorship of Felix and Festus in Judaea. As to the Romans, we can determine the place, the year, and the season of composition: he sends greetings from persons in Corinth (Rom_16:23), commends Phoebe, a deaconess of Kenchreae, the port of Corinth, and the bearer of the letter (Rom_16:1); he had not yet been in Rome (Rom_1:13), but hoped to get there after another visit to Jerusalem, on which he was about to enter, with collections from Macedonia and Achaia for the poor brethren in Judaea (Rom_15:22-29; comp. 2Co_8:1-3); and from Acts we learn that on his last visit to Achaia he abode three months in Corinth, and returned to Syria between the Passover and Pentecost (Act_20:3, Act_20:6,Act_20:16). This was his fifth and last journey to Jerusalem, where he was taken prisoner and sent to Felix in Caesarea, two years before he was followed by Festus. All these indications lead us to the spring of a.d. 58.

The chronological order is this: Thessalonians were written first, a.d. 52 or 53; then Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, between 56 and 58; then the Epistles of the captivity: Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, Philippians, between 61 and 63; last, the Pastoral Epistles, but their date is uncertain, except that the second Epistle to Timothy is his farewell letter on the eve of his martyrdom.

It is instructive to study the Epistles in their chronological order with the aid of the Acts, and so to accompany the apostle in his missionary career from Damascus to Rome, and to trace the growth of his doctrinal system from the documentary truths in Thessalonians to the height of maturity in Romans; then through the ramifications of particular topics in Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and the farewell counsels in the Pastoral Epistles.


Doctrinal Arrangement

More important than the chronological order is the topical order, according to the prevailing object and central idea. This gives us the following groups:

1. Anthropological and Soteriological: Galatians and Romans.

2. Ethical and Ecclesiastical: First and Second Corinthians.

3. Christological: Colossians and Philippians.

4. Ecclesiological: Ephesians (in part also Corinthians).

5. Eschatological: Thessalonians.

6. Pastoral: Timothy and Titus.

7. Social and Personal: Philemon.


The Style

“The style is the man.” This applies with peculiar force to Paul. His style has been called “the most personal that ever existed.” It fitly represents the force and fire of his mind and the tender affections of his heart. He disclaims classical elegance and calls himself “rude in speech,” though by no means “in knowledge.” He carried the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. But the defects are more than made up by excellences. In his very weakness the Strength of Christ was perfected. We are not lost in the admiration of the mere form, but are kept mindful of the paramount importance of the contents and the hidden depths of truth which he behind the words and defy the power of expression.

Paul’s style is manly, bold, heroic, aggressive, and warlike; yet at times tender, delicate, gentle, and winning. It is involved, irregular, and rugged, but always forcible and expressive, and not seldom rises to more than poetic beauty, as in the triumphant paean at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans, and in the ode on love (1Co_13:1-13). His intense earnestness and overflowing fulness of ideas break through the ordinary rules of grammar. His logic is set on fire. He abounds in skilful arguments, bold antitheses, impetuous assaults, abrupt transitions, sudden turns, zigzag flashes, startling questions and exclamations. He is dialectical and argumentative; he likes logical particles, paradoxical phrases, and plays on words. He reasons from Scripture, from premises, from conclusions; he drives the opponent to the wall without mercy and reduces him ad absurdum, but without ever indulging in personalities. He is familiar with the sharp weapons of ridicule, irony, and sarcasm, but holds them in check and uses them rarely. He varies the argument by touching appeals to the heart and bursts of seraphic eloquence. He is never dry or dull, and never wastes words; he is brief, terse, and hits the nail on the head. His terseness makes him at times obscure, as is the case with the somewhat similar style of Thucydides, Tacitus, and Tertullian. His words are as many warriors marching on to victory and peace; they are like a mountain torrent rushing in foaming rapids over precipices, and then calmly flowing over green meadows, or like a thunderstorm ending in a refreshing shower and bright sunshine.

Paul created the vocabulary of scientific theology and put a profounder meaning into religious and moral terms than they ever had before. We cannot speak of sin, flesh, grace, mercy, peace, redemption, atonement, justification, glorification, church, faith, love, without bearing testimony to the ineffaceable effect which that greatest of Jewish rabbis and Christian teachers has had upon the language of Christendom.



Chrysostom justly compares the Epistles of Paul to metals more precious than gold and to unfailing fountains which flow the more abundantly the more we drink of them.

Beza: “When I more closely consider the whole genius and character of Paul’s style, I must confess that I have found no such sublimity of speaking in Plato himself … no exquisiteness of vehemence in Demosthenes equal to his.”

Ewald begins his Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (Göttingen, 1857) with these striking and truthful remarks: “Considering these Epistles for themselves only, and apart from the general significance of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, we must still admit that, in the whole history of all centuries and of all nations, there is no other set of writings of similar extent, which, as creations of the fugitive moment, have proceeded from such severe troubles of the age, and such profound pains and sufferings of the author himself, and yet contain such an amount of healthfulness, serenity, and vigor of immortal genius, and touch with such clearness and certainty on the very highest truths of human aspiration and action …. The smallest as well as the greatest of these Epistles seem to have proceeded from the fleeting moments of this earthly life only to enchain all eternity they were born of anxiety and bitterness of human strife, to set forth in brighter lustre and with higher certainty their superhuman grace and beauty. The divine assurance and firmness of the old prophets of Israel, the all-transcending glory and immediate spiritual presence of the Eternal King and Lord, who had just ascended to heaven, and all the art and culture of a ripe and wonderfully excited age, seem to have joined, as it were, in bringing forth the new creation of these Epistles of the times which were destined to last for all times.”

On the style of Paul, see my Companion, etc., pp. 62 sqq. To the testimonies there given I add the judgment of Reuss (Geschichte der h. Schr. N. T., I. 67): “Still more [than the method] is the style of these Epistles the true expression of the personality of the author. The defect of classical correctness and rhetorical finish is more than compensated by the riches of language and the fulness of expression. The condensation of construction demands not reading simply, but studying. Broken sentences, ellipses, parentheses, leaps in the argumentation, allegories, rhetorical figures express inimitably all the moods of a wide-awake and cultured mind, all the affections of a rich and deep heart, and betray everywhere a pen at once bold, and yet too slow for the thought. Antitheses, climaxes, exclamations, questions keep up the attention, and touching effusions win the heart of the reader.”


89. The Epistles to the Thessalonians

Thessalonica, a large and wealthy commercial city of Macedonia, the capital of “Macedonia secunda,” the seat of a Roman proconsul and quaestor, and inhabited by many Jews, was visited by Paul on his second missionary tour, a.d. 52 or 53, and in a few weeks he succeeded, amid much persecution, in founding a flourishing church composed chiefly of Gentiles. From this centre Christianity spread throughout the neighborhood, and during the middle ages Thessalonica was, till its capture by the Turks (a.d. 1430), a bulwark of the Byzantine empire and Oriental Christendom, and largely instrumental in the conversion of the Slavonians and Bulgarians; hence it received the designation of “the Orthodox City.” It numbered many learned archbishops, and still has more remains of ecclesiastical antiquity than any other city in Greece, although its cathedral is turned into a mosque.

To this church Paul, as its spiritual father, full of affection for his inexperienced children, wrote in familiar conversational style two letters from Corinth, during his first sojourn in that city, to comfort them in their trials and to correct certain misapprehensions of his preaching concerning the glorious return of Christ, and the preceding development of “the man of sin” or Antichrist, and “the mystery of lawlessness,” then already at work, but checked by a restraining power. The hope of the near advent had degenerated into an enthusiastic adventism which demoralized the every-day life. He now taught them that the Lord will not come so soon as they expected, that it was not a matter of mathematical calculation, and that in no case should the expectation check industry and zeal, but rather stimulate them. Hence his exhortations to a sober, orderly, diligent, and prayerful life.

It is remarkable that the first Epistles of Paul should treat of the last topic in the theological system and anticipate the end at the beginning. But the hope of Christ’s speedy coming was, before the destruction of Jerusalem, the greatest source of consolation to the infant church amid trial and persecution, and the church at Thessalonica was severely tried in its infancy, and Paul driven away. It is also remarkable that to a young church in Greece rather than to that in Rome should have first been revealed the beginning of that mystery of anti-Christian lawlessness which was then still restrained, but was to break out in its full force in Rome.

The objections of Baur to the genuineness of these Epistles, especially the second, are futile in the judgment of the best critics.

The Theoretical Theme:: The parousia of Christ. The Practical Theme: Christian hope in the midst of persecution.

Leading Thoughts: This is the will of God, even your sanctification (1Th_4:3). Sorrow not as the rest who have no hope (1Th_4:13). The Lord will descend from heaven, and so shall we ever be with the Lord (1Th_4:16, 1Th_4:17). The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night (1Th_5:2). Let us watch and be sober (1Th_5:6). Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation (1Th_5:8). Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks (1Th_5:16). Prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil (1Th_5:21, 1Th_5:22). The Lord will come to be glorified in his saints (2Th_1:10). But the falling away must come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition (2Th_2:3, 2Th_2:4). The mystery of lawlessness doth already work, but is restrained for the time (2Th_2:7). Stand fast and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours (2Th_2:15). If any will not work, neither let him eat (2Th_3:10). Be not weary in well-doing (2Th_3:13). The God of peace sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming (ἐν τῇ παρουσία) our Lord Jesus Christ (1Th_5:23).


90. The Epistles to the Corinthians

Corinth was the metropolis of Achaia, on the bridge of two seas, an emporium of trade between the East and the West — wealthy, luxurious, art-loving, devoted to the worship of Aphrodite. Here Paul established the most important church in Greece, and labored, first eighteen months, then three months, with, perhaps, a short visit between (2Co_12:14; 2Co_13:1). The church presented all the lights and shades of the Greek nationality under the influence of the Gospel. It was rich in “all utterance and all knowledge,” “coming behind in no gift,” but troubled by the spirit of sect and party, infected with a morbid desire for worldly wisdom and brilliant eloquence, with scepticism and moral levity — nay, to some extent polluted with gross vices, so that even the Lord’s table and love feasts were desecrated by excesses, and that the apostle, in his absence, found himself compelled to excommunicate a particularly offensive member who disgraced the Christian profession. It was distracted by Judaizers and other troublers, who abused the names of Cephas, James, Apollos, and even of Christ (as extra-Christians), for sectarian ends. A number of questions of morality and casuistry arose in that lively, speculative, and excitable community, which the apostle had to answer from a distance before his second (or third) and last visit.

Hence, these Epistles abound in variety of topics, and show the extraordinary versatility of the mind of the writer, and his practical wisdom in dealing with delicate and complicated questions and unscrupulous opponents. For every aberration he has a word of severe censure, for every danger a word of warning, for every weakness a word of cheer and sympathy, for every returning offender a word of pardon and encouragement. The Epistles lack the unity of design which characterizes Galatians and Romans. They are ethical, ecclesiastical, pastoral, and personal, rather than dogmatic and theological, although some most important doctrines, as that on the resurrection, are treated more fully than elsewhere.

I. The First Epistle to the Corinthians was composed in Ephesus shortly before Paul’s departure for Greece, in the spring of a.d. 57. (Comp. 1Co_16:5, 1Co_16:8; 1Co_5:7, 1Co_5:8; Act_19:10, Act_19:21; Act_20:31) It had been preceded by another one, now lost (1Co_5:9). It was an answer to perplexing questions concerning various disputes and evils which disturbed the peace and spotted the purity of the congregation. The apostle contrasts the foolish wisdom of the gospel with the wise folly of human philosophy; rebukes sectarianism; unfolds the spiritual unity and harmonious variety of the church of Christ, her offices and gifts of grace, chief among which is love; warns against carnal impurity as a violation of the temple of God; gives advice concerning marriage and celibacy without binding the conscience (having “no commandment of the Lord,” 1Co_7:25); discusses the question of meat sacrificed to idols, on which Jewish and Gentile Christians, scrupulous and liberal brethren, were divided; enjoins the temporal support of the ministry as a Christian duty of gratitude for greater spiritual mercies received; guards against improprieties of dress; explains the design and corrects the abuses of the Lord’s Supper; and gives the fullest exposition of the doctrine of the resurrection on the basis of the resurrection of Christ and his personal manifestations to the disciples, and last, to himself at his conversion. Dean Stanley says of this Epistle that it “gives a clearer insight than any other portion of the New Testament into the institutions, feelings and opinions of the church of the earlier period of the apostolic age. It is in every sense the earliest chapter of the history of the Christian church.” The last, however, is not quite correct. The Corinthian chapter was preceded by the Jerusalem and Antioch chapters.

Leading Thoughts: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you (1Co_1:13) ? It was God’s pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching [not through foolish preaching] to save them that believe (1Co_1:21). We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto Gentiles foolishness, but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1Co_1:24). I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus, and him crucified (1Co_2:2). The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God (1Co_2:14). Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1Co_3:11). Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy (1Co_3:16, 1Co_3:17). Let a man so account of ourselves as of ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God (1Co_4:1). The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power (1Co_4:20). Purge out the old leaven (1Co_5:7). All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient (1Co_6:12). Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ (1Co_6:15)? Flee fornication (1Co_6:18). Glorify God in your body (1Co_6:20). Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but the keeping of the commandments of God (1Co_7:19). Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called (1Co_7:20). Ye were bought with a price; become not bondservants of men (1Co_7:23). Take heed lest this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak (1Co_8:9). If meat [or wine] maketh my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh [and drink no wine] for evermore, that I make not my brother to stumble (1Co_8:13). They who proclaim the gospel shall live of the gospel (1Co_9:14). Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel (1Co_9:16). I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some (1Co_9:22). Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (1Co_10:12). All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient. Let no man seek his own, but each his neighbor’s good (1Co_10:23). Whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord … He that eateth and drinketh eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself if he discern (discriminate) not the body (1Co_11:27-29). There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit (1Co_12:4). Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1Co_13:13). Follow after love (1Co_14:1). Let all things be done unto edifying (1Co_14:26). By the grace of God I am what I am (1Co_15:9). If Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins (1Co_15:17). As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1Co_15:22). God shall be all in all (1Co_15:28). If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1Co_15:44). This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (1Co_15:54). Be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1Co_15:58). Upon the first day in the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper (1Co_16:2). Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. Let all that ye do be done in love (1Co_16:13, 1Co_16:14.).

II. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians was written in the summer or autumn of the same year, 57, from some place in Macedonia, shortly before the author’s intended personal visit to the metropolis of Achaia. It evidently proceeded from profound agitation, and opens to us very freely the personal character and feelings, the official trials and joys, the noble pride and deep humility, the holy earnestness and fervent love, of the apostle. It gives us the deepest insight into his heart, and is almost an autobiography. He had, in the meantime, heard fuller news, through Titus, of the state of the church, the effects produced by his first Epistle, and the intrigues of the emissaries of the Judaizing party, who followed him everywhere and tried to undermine his work. This unchristian opposition compelled him, in self-defence, to speak of his ministry and his personal experience with overpowering eloquence. He also urges again upon the congregation the duty of charitable collections for the poor. The Epistle is a mine of pastoral wisdom.

Leading Thoughts: As the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ (2Co_1:5). As ye are partakers of the sufferings, so also are ye of the comfort (2Co_1:7). Not that we have lordship over your faith, but are helpers of your joy (2Co_1:24). Who is sufficient for these things (2Co_2:16)? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men (2Co_3:2). Not that we are sufficient of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God (2Co_3:5). The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (2Co_3:6). The Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2Co_3:17). We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2Co_4:5). We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves (2Co_4:7). Our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory (2Co_4:17). We know that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens (2Co_5:1). We walk by faith, not by sight (2Co_5:7). We must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ (2Co_5:10). The love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge, that one died for all, therefore all died (2Co_5:14). And he died for all, that they who live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again (2Co_5:15). If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new (2Co_5:17). God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation (2Co_5:19). We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God (2Co_5:20). Him who knew no sin he made to be sin in our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2Co_5:21). Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers (2Co_6:14). I am filled with comfort, I overflow with joy in all our affliction (2Co_7:4). Godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, but the sorrow of the world worketh death (2Co_7:10). Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich (2Co_8:9). He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully (2Co_9:6). God loveth a cheerful giver (2Co_9:7). He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (2Co_10:17). Not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth (2Co_10:18). My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power is made perfect in weakness (2Co_12:9). We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth (2Co_13:8). The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all (2Co_13:14).