THE LETTERS OF PAUL, Part 1
Paul of Tarsus was the first great missionary of the Church. He made four missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world. In many of the cities he visited, he built up a community of Christians around a local church. Paul kept in touch with his churches by letters. Thirteen letters written or attributed to Paul are included in the New Testament.
Paul was not always a believer in Christ. In fact, before he converted to Christianity, he was known as Saul and was a persecutor of Christians (Acts 8:3). When he was on a trip to arrest Christians in the Syrian city of Damascus, Saul had a vision of Jesus (9:1-19). After that encounter, he was known as Paul and became the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews), preaching the gospel of Jesus everywhere he went and to everyone who would listen.
Paul made many converts during his missionary journeys. He also made enemies. Jews and Gentiles alike were upset by Paul because the gospel of Jesus that he preached upset the religious or cultural foundations of their society. Paul was beaten and imprisoned on a number of occasions. Finally, when he offended the Jews by bringing an uncircumcised Greek Christian into the Temple in Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and kept in prison for two years, charged with treason. Because he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, he had a right to be tried by the Romans, and he chose to claim that right. Paul was taken to Rome where he remained under house arrest, preaching about Jesus, until he was executed by beheading.
Tradition holds that Paul was buried under the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, a church in Rome. Excavations that took place from 2002 to 2006 found a sarcophagus labeled “Paul Apostle Martyr.” A probe sent into the sarcophagus revealed incense, linens and bones that dated to the first century AD. Pope Benedict XVI announced that the results of the excavation demonstrated that the tomb was St. Paul’s.
Suggested Readings: Romans 1:16-17, Romans 3:21-31, Romans 5, Romans 8:14-39, Romans 12
The Letter to the Romans is Paul’s longest and most important letter. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome during the winter of AD 57-58, while he was staying in Corinth. He wanted to travel to Spain to preach the gospel there and planned to use Rome as a base for his missionary efforts. He wrote the Christians in Rome explaining his teaching about Jesus in hopes that he would be welcomed by them.
In Romans, Paul writes that salvation comes from Christ and we receive the grace of salvation because of our faith in Christ. For the Jews, it was the Law of Moses that showed them what sin is and that they were slaves to sin. For the Gentiles, who did not have the Law, nature (the law written on each one’s heart) served this same purpose. However, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we are all freed from the chains of sin. We are no longer slaves to sin or bound to the Law of Moses, but free children of God and co-heirs with Christ to God’s kingdom. Jesus accomplished our salvation by the gift of His life lived in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, even unto death. Just as through the disobedience of the one man, Adam, all became sinners (original sin), so through the perfect obedience of the one man, Jesus Christ (the new Adam), all will be saved. Paul writes, “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (8:16-17). Being children of God, as Christ is, means to suffer, as Christ did. But Paul is confident that the suffering we endure in this world is nothing compared to the glory that awaits us.
The Jews were the first to receive the revelation of God, and the Messiah came into the world through the Jewish people. The Jews rejected Jesus, so God turned His mercy to the Gentiles. But God’s promises are never broken. God will, in turn, use the Gentiles as instruments by which the Jewish people will be saved.
In the last chapter of Romans, Paul encourages us to imitate Christ in loving one another. Just as Christ suffered everything out of love for us, so we ought to be willing to sacrifice everything out of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. All of the commandments, Paul says, “are summed up in this saying, [namely] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:9b-10).
1 and 2 Corinthians
Suggested Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10
Paul arrived in the city of Corinth in Greece around the years AD 50-52. There were already Christians living in Corinth when Paul arrived, and he took a job as a tentmaker to support himself while he preached the gospel, first in the synagogues and then to the Gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles says that Paul stayed in Corinth for some time before moving across the Aegean Sea to the city of Ephesus. While in Ephesus, Paul learned that all was not well in Corinth. The Christians were dividing themselves according to which apostle baptized them (Paul, Apollos or Peter), and whether they were wealthy or poor. As well, many were living immoral lives.
Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians in order to urge the Christians in Corinth to put an end to their divisions and immoral living, and to provide answers to a number of practical questions, such as whether or not Christians should eat food that was sacrificed to idols (yes, as long as it does not cause other Christians to be offended), whether or not Christians should marry (yes, if they feel so called), and whether or not Christians who were not circumcised should be circumcised (no, there is no need; we are not saved by circumcision, but by Christ).
Paul is especially concerned about the behavior of Christians at Mass. In the early Church, the Lord’s Supper was often celebrated in the context of a meal. Apparently, some were eating well, while others were being left hungry. Paul describes such rude behavior as unworthy of the Eucharist. How can they receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist worthily while treating so poorly their brothers and sisters in the Church, which is the Body of Christ? Paul even claims that the reason so many among them are ill or dying is that they are under the judgment of God for their lack of love for one another. The only solution is to examine themselves and recognize that they cannot worthily receive the Body and Blood of the Lord if they do not recognize the unity of the Church as the one Body of Christ.
From there, Paul goes on to speak of spiritual gifts that Christians receive in order to serve the Church. Some are administrators, others are teachers; some heal, while others are prophets. The greatest gift, however, is love. Without love, all of the other gifts are of no value at all.
Sadly, Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth failed to persuade them to heal their divisions and reject their immoral ways. Paul wrote another letter, called “the tearful letter,” telling the Corinthians how sad and disheartened he was by their refusing to live according to the gospel. Paul’s disciple, Titus, delivered the tearful letter to the Corinthians. We no longer have a copy of this tearful letter, but we do know that Titus met up with Paul again in Macedonia with the good news that the Christians in Corinth had repented and were now living the gospel faithfully. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about how happy he is to hear of the Corinthians’ return to faithfulness. He commends them for their generous contributions to his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. He writes to them of his own suffering for the sake of Christ, and how his suffering reveals the power of Christ. Paul is not discouraged, because the suffering he undergoes today is for eternal glory.
WHAT DO THESE LETTERS OF PAUL TEACH US ABOUT JESUS?
- Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we are all freed from the chains of sin. We are no longer slaves to sin, or bound by the Law of Moses, but free children of God and co-heirs with Christ to God’s kingdom.
- Jesus is the new Adam. Just as through the disobedience of the first Adam all became sinners, so through the perfect obedience of Jesus all will be saved.
- Being a Christian means to suffer with Christ. But, if we share in Christ’s suffering, we will also share in His glory.
- Just as Christ sacrificed everything for us, so we ought to be willing to sacrifice everything for Christ in loving service to others. “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).
- There should be no division in the Church, because the Church is the Body of Christ. We cannot worthily receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist if we are treating our brothers and sisters in Christ poorly.
- The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people, all for the service of the Church. The greatest gift is love.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.