Today we begin a new series which is a postscript to our Legacy Series called, “Dear Church: a look at the letters of Paul.” Now, if you recall, our Legacy series was an eight year-long journey through the storyline of the Bible… and some of you may remember that just this past August we declared that our Legacy series had ‘officially’ come to an end. The reason we said that was because we’d come to the point in the Bible where the storyline ends, at the end of the book Acts with Paul the Apostle, the man you just heard about in our intro video, under house arrest in Rome. And during those 8 years we did cover almost all of the storyline of the Bible. But the Bible has 66 ‘books’ in it and not all of them are a part of the Bible’s storyline. There are some books in the first half of the Bible, the Old Testament, that are collections of poetry; there are other books in the Old Testament that only contain prophecy; and then there is a large group of books in the second half of the Bible, in the New Testament, that we call books, but they are actually letters… letters just like what we think of when we hear the word letter today. Now, I know that almost no one writes and mails personal letters anymore, but the letters in the Bible are exactly this: something written down by one person and mailed to someone in another location. And the New Testament contains a lot of letters; Peter and John, two of Jesus original 12 disciples, wrote 5 letters between them that are a part of the New Testament. James and Jude, Jesus’ two half-brothers each wrote one letter that ended up in the New Testament and there is even one letter in the New Testament called The Letter to the Hebrews whose author is still a point of debate. But the bulk of the letters in the New Testament, 13 in all, were written by Paul or as he is also called St. Paul or Paul the Apostle or Paul of Tarsus. And we felt it was important for us to stop and under the umbrella of our Legacy Series look at these letters of Paul because even though they don’t tell us much about the story line of the Bible they are still a huge part of our legacy as followers of Jesus. And again, while these letters don’t tell us much about the narrative flow of the Bible, every one of the letters of Paul was written because there was something going on, some real-life story on the ground, an ‘occasion’ as they say in the scholarly circles, that was important enough to Paul to cause him to pay the price for a scroll, which wasn’t cheap by the way, hire someone to write down his words on that scroll and then pay an additional price to have someone to hand deliver that scroll to people in a far-away place.
And we believe that these ‘occasions,’ these things that were happening within the churches that Paul wrote to, are also a part of our legacy. Here are some for-instances: One of the ‘occasions’ that caused Paul to write a letter was this: there was a church in what is now Turkey that had been invaded by some big-shot Jewish people from Jerusalem who’d come all that way to try and take the church’s focus off of the freedom we have in Jesus. They were actually trying to make everyone follow all of the old rules of Judaism… especially circumcision. Paul heard about this and felt this was a huge problem that he needed to address, so, he wrote that church a ‘Dear Church’ letter correcting this bad teaching. Or how about this situation: in one of the churches, one that Paul had actually helped establish, there were people who claimed to be followers of Jesus who were living openly sinful lives… and I’m talking really open and really sinful… sinful even by pagan standards! Well, when Paul heard about this, even though he was living hundreds of miles from that church, he felt this was an ‘occasion’ that he needed to address; so he wrote them a ‘Dear Church’ letter and told that church to deal with that problem,. Here’s another situation: there was a congregation with a young pastor that Paul knew with all of his heart had been called to be the leader of that church and yet no one in that young man’s church was taking him seriously because he seemed too young. And so Paul wrote two “Dear Pastor’ letters full of hang-in-there-encouragement to this young pastor. These are just three of the ‘occasions’ that Paul addresses in his letters… But, the truth is, false teachers in the church and so-called Christian people living in open sin and facing opposition as you live out your calling in Jesus are still the same sorts of ‘occasions’ that happen today. Paul’s letters, even though they were written over 2,000 years ago, still address a multitude of the same sorts of ‘occasions’ we find in today’s church; and they not only address occasions in the church, they also address many of the ‘occasions’ we face in our individual lives as well! This is why we are looking at Paul’s letters over the next 7 weeks!
But I better be straight with you; we will actually only be glancing at them. As I said earlier, there are 13 letters in all and our series is only 8 weeks long. Plus, this week is an introduction week, the next two weeks we will be looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans, so, we will only be talking about 6 specific letters and we will only be able to emphasize the biggest ideas found in these 6 letters. So, please don’t be disappointed if we don’t cover everything that you feel is important in say Galatians in a 25 minute sermon. I recently heard of a pastor that spent 8 years preaching through Romans. I know a pastor that preached 52 45 minute sermons on Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon, a letter that only has 25 verses! We know that each of Paul’s 13 letters are rich with ideas that have been a continual source of direction and guidance to the church, but we are only going to be able to give you a taste of their grandeur and importance. Our greatest hope is that what you hear during our series will give you confidence as you read and study Paul’s letters in the future… that what we do together will make you want to look at these letters on your own, listening to hear Paul saying, ‘My dear brother or sister’ to you.
But, the first thing I have to say as an introduction is this: The Letters of Paul are letters. Now, this might sound odd for me to say, but when we read them we have to set aside the ‘importance’ of the chapter and verse divisions. Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verses. Chapters were added in the 13th century and verses were added in the 16th Century and the reason they were added to the entire Bible was simply as a way to make it easier to locate places in the books. Paul wrote his letters as one whole with the expectation that they would be read as a whole in one sitting just like we would read a letter today. So, just like a letter today, we shouldn’t just pick up one of Paul’s letters and just start reading where ever… at least we shouldn’t until we are confident that we know the big picture of what Paul was trying to say and how what we are reading fits into that context and message. So, the first rule for reading Paul’s letters is that they are to be read as whole units and not as a collection of disconnected chapters and verses. Just so you’ll know, this is how we went about formulating what we would say each week about each of the letters we are going to cover. We read the letters again and again from start to finish looking for the one underlying, primary theme that Paul was concerned about. And we feel that what we found will be both encouraging and life changing for everyone. Actually, I don’t see how it could be anything but encouraging and life changing to spend time thinking about what one of the greatest pastors in all of Christian history had to say about things like the goodness of God’s grace toward you and me; or what faith looks like in the middle of difficult times; or what it means to find your true identity and calling in Christ. Preparing for this series has been both encouraging and life changing for me and I am confident that as the weeks unfold it will be the same for you.
Something else that I think we all need to know before we start looking at Paul’s letters is that just as modern letters have a format… we begin by writing ‘Dear so and so’ and then we end with a final ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Yours truly,’ 1st Century letters also had rules and Paul’s letters follow these rules almost to a tee. The reason I bring this up is that when Paul sat down to write any of his letters he wasn’t thinking that he was writing sacred documents that would become a part of the New Testament. He was simply writing a letter in the most proper way possible to help people he cared about who were dealing with all sorts of circumstances. And these circumstances are the ‘occasions’ I mentioned earlier. And boy, is it important for us to know as much as we can about these ‘occasions’ before we try to dig into Paul’s letters. One great thing though, and I say this with great confidence, there has never been a better time in all of history than right now to get a good idea about what was going on in lives of the people Paul wrote to; why, with all of the historical and sociological and archeological scholarly information that is available to us today you can be confident that you can find all sorts of information to help you understand what was going on in ancient places like Corinth or Ephesus or Galatia when Paul wrote his letters. Think about this with me: reading Paul’s letters without knowing at least some of this information would be like reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn without knowing that the United States had just fought a civil war and that slavery was one of the great dividing issues that caused the war. You might enjoy the book and you might even get something out of it but my bet is that what you would take home not knowing about the Civil War would be something very different from what Mark Twain intended his novel to say to you. And it’s the same for Paul’s letters. So you can count on it that we will do our best to give you the context and the occasion, the bottom line events, that caused Paul to write in the first place, so you will best be able to see how helpful and important the things Paul was trying to tell his dear friends are. Something we can be very certain about is that the people that first received these letters thought that what Paul had to say was both helpful and important. If they hadn’t they wouldn’t have kept them… they would have done the same thing we do with mail that isn’t important to us: they would have pitched it out… and they certainly wouldn’t have made copies of the letters and then passed them around to churches in other towns. But, from all that we can tell, these 13 letters of Paul quickly became a part of the fabric of early church worship everywhere and by very early in the second century all 13 of Paul’s letters were already included in almost every listing of the important Christian writings that would someday be called the New Testament. And as best as I can tell there was never any debate about whether these letters were actually written by Paul or whether they were useful for helping the church stay true to the original message of Jesus.
One thing is certain, I don’t believe there was another person in Paul’s generation who was more qualified in every way, education, experience, maturity, creativity, to write these letters than Paul. And much of the power of his letters to still speak to us today grows out of Paul’s own skill as a writer; why, he’d not only received a great classical Greek and Hebrew education during his early years growing up in Tarsus, but he’d also trained in Jerusalem in all things Jewish under Gamaliel, the most important and respected rabbi of his generation. And as you read his letters you will see him using all sorts of literary tools, both Jewish and Greek, to make his points. He uses argument and rhetoric and poetry and imagery and metaphor, and he uses them like a pro, I might add, all in the attempt to convince people like you and me how important it is, as he tells us in one of his letters, to live lives of humility, gentleness, patience and love. And he went to all of this trouble because he loved God’s people. He loved the wayward Corinthians; he loved the suffering Ephesians; he loved timid Timothy. And I am confident that if Paul were writing a Dear Grace Church letter today we would be able to tell, no matter what hard things he might have to say to us, we would be able to tell that he loves us and he only wants the very best for us in Jesus.
And if there is one Big Idea that all 13 of Paul’s letters contain it is this: Paul wants us to be the best followers of Jesus possible. You will see this everywhere in everything he has to say. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Paul was always thinking about this: if we are disciples of the risen Jesus and if we claim to be following him then we are expected to give him the very best. Every letter emphasizes the practical aspects of what it looks like to surrender and follow Jesus with all of your heart and soul. In fact, I am going to make a very strong statement: while we are going to be talking about all sorts of subjects as we look the letters of Paul over the next two months what we will actually be looking at is what Paul has to say about following Jesus. Following Jesus with all of your heart and soul is central to everything in Paul’s letters no matter what subject Paul is talking about or what occasion he is addressing. You will be able to see that Paul believed that Jesus is the central to everything: without Jesus we have no savior; without Jesus there is no gospel; without the gospel we have no hope; without Jesus there is no Church and without Jesus we have no mission. And Paul knew what he is talking about when it comes to Jesus, too. Everything Paul says about what it should look like to follow Jesus grows out of the fact that one day he met Jesus and came to a full understanding of the salvation that Jesus offers; he then surrendered his life to Jesus and took on the mission of spreading the good news about Jesus to the entire world. And his letters will continually point us back to Jesus as our source of hope and strength and help and confidence and Paul will tell us to look to Jesus as our example for how to live in our fallen world. I will say it again: Paul’s letters at their highest level are about being confident in the one we serve and being confident that we know what it looks like to serve Him. As you read Paul’s letters always look for what he has to say about Jesus because Jesus is the main subject of everything Paul has to say.
I said earlier that the storyline of the Bible ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. Well, we do know what happened next in the story line of the church. Nero, the Roman Caesar at that time, needed a scapegoat to blame for a fire that had destroyed much of Rome; he blamed the Christians and Paul was one of the many Christians put to death in that persecution. But while Paul was under house arrest he’d written a lot of letters that made their way not only to the originally intended people but overtime to followers of Jesus everywhere. These letters are Paul’s greatest legacy. And the storyline continued as people faithfully copied the letters and it continued when others prayerfully decided to gather them into the collection we now call the New Testament; and the storyline continued as these letters became primary sources for explaining the glory and the majesty of Jesus and all that he has done for us. And the storyline continued when people like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther translated these letters into the languages of the common people and the storyline continues as we, here at Grace, read Paul’s letters and learn what it truly means to surrender to Jesus and follow him.
Now, I know that our circumstances are very different from the people that first received these ‘Dear Church’ letters and we do have to carefully handle these letters so we don’t force them into saying things that we want them to say. But we do know that God is still using these letters to reveal himself to us and all that he has done for us through his son, Jesus. God is still using Paul’s letters to bring focus to our lives and to encourage us in our obedience to all that he has called us to do and be in his world. I am excited to begin this journey into another aspect of our legacy and I am confident that when this series is over we will be a different church.
So, next week we begin with The Letter to the Church in Rome or as we call it Romans. It’s the longest of the letters and we will be covering it over two weeks but it isn’t so long that it can’t be read in one or two sittings. My assignment for you all over the next week is to read the Letter to the Romans… and read it in any translation that helps you feel the flow of what Paul was trying to say to the people in that church… a church he hadn’t ever visited, a church where he knew almost no one, but a church that he cared enough about to write to, hoping to lead them into being better disciples of Jesus. So, here is my final word to you today: If you want to see all that the church can do and be in this world, read Paul’s letters… and if you want to see all that you can do and can be in this world read Paul’s letters. I promise you, they will change your life!