“New Testament Backgrounds: Thessalonians through Hebrews,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 56
Members of the church at Thessalonica, in Macedonia (Greece).
Both epistles were written either from Athens or Corinth, in Greece.
First Thessalonians was possibly written about midyear in A.D. 52, 2 Thessalonians probably a few months afterward.
Purpose of the letter:
During his second missionary journey, Paul labored at Thessalonica among the Jewish people, but some of them rejected the message. (See Acts 17:1–9.) The gospel was well established, however, among the gentiles of this city. (1 Thes. 1:9, 1 Thes. 2:14, 1 Thes. 4:1–5.) These gentile converts experienced much persecution from their own countrymen as well as from the Jews, as Paul did during his initial stay. Silvanus and Timothy had been sent by Paul as official church representatives to “know your faith” (1 Thes. 3:2, 5) and to learn of the saints’ progress in living the gospel. The report that they gave to Paul brought to light problems, both doctrinal and practical, among the members. It appears that a misunderstanding had developed concerning deceased members and their relationship to events after the second coming of Christ. Paul attempted to clarify the issue by briefly reviewing some of the principles of the second coming in the first epistle. The question persisted and consequently drew further commentary in his second letter. In addition, he counseled the saints concerning the persecution they had experienced (1 Thes. 2:14) and also concerning their daily living of the gospel (1 Thes. 5:14–22). He also gave direction pertaining to their difficulty with slothful and disobedient members. (2 Thes. 3:6–15.)
The Second Coming of Christ—Paul instructs the saints concerning the prophetically significant future Messianic event. (1 Thes. 1:10, 1 Thes. 2:19, 1 Thes. 3:13; 1 Thes. 5:1–9; 2 Thes. 1:8.) It seems that some of the saints had lost loved ones and were fearful that their demise would deprive them from participation in the experiences of the second coming, especially if it were imminent. Paul’s counsel assures them that the righteous will be resurrected to participate in these glorious happenings. (1 Thes. 4:13–18, 1 Thes. 5:10.) His second epistle also prophetically instructs them concerning the approaching apostasy and the ensuing events in the course of time before the coming of the Lord would occur. (2 Thes. 2:1–10.)
Difficult Passages (selected):
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that they who are alive at the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them who remain unto the coming of the Lord, who are asleep.
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first;
Apparently, both Timothy and Titus were presiding officers over certain local units of the church—links between the apostles and local church officers.
The apostle Paul.
There are not sufficient references in 1 Timothy or Titus to establish a definite place of origin for the letters. References in 2 Timothy suggest that Paul wrote this letter at Rome during his second imprisonment. (2 Tim. 1:8, 16–17; 2 Tim. 2:9; 2 Tim. 4:6–7, 16.)
1 Timothy and Titus were written possibly between the time of Paul’s first and second imprisonments in Rome, between A.D. 62 and 66; whereas 2 Timothy was written when his death was imminent, about A.D. 67 or 68.
1. Administration of the Church—Paul outlined qualifications for certain church leaders, especially bishops (1 Tim. 3:1–13). Important instructions were also given regarding the church’s responsibility to various classes of members within the church—the aged, the young, the widows—all of whom were to be treated with discretion according to their situation and needs (1 Tim. 5:1–20).
2. False Teachers and Apostasy—Corrupt teachers were, and would be, on the scene encouraging questions, doubtings, disputations, and strife among the members (1 Tim. 6:3–10). Timothy was to avoid these teachers and teachings, and to warn the saints against such (1 Tim. 1:4–11, 1 Tim. 4:7, 1 Tim. 6:3–11, 17, 20).
3. An Example of Godliness—As a leader, Timothy was admonished to be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation [conduct], in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). He was also to encourage the saints to “be rich in good works” (1 Tim. 6:18) and to live in a godly manner (1 Tim. 6:3).
This is possibly the last epistle Paul wrote. As a prisoner in Rome, his martyrdom seems imminent (2 Tim. 4:6–7), but he rejoices in his testimony of Christ and in the privilege of suffering for Christ’s sake. He faces his final hours with the sure knowledge that he has “fought a good fight, and kept the faith,” for which a “crown of righteousness” is laid up for him (2 Tim. 4:7–8). His concerns are not alone, nor even primarily, for himself. He is deeply concerned over the growing threat of corruption and apostasy in the Church. To Timothy he gives solid encouragement and further counsel concerning both his personal life and his leadership role in the Church.
1. Exercising the Gift of God—Paul admonished Timothy not to be timid as an instrument for Christ, but rather to declare boldly, in love and power, and by the Spirit, his conviction of Christ. “Be not thou … ashamed of the testimony of our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:8).
2. Righteousness Necessary for Leadership—Timothy was counseled to “flee youthful lusts” and to follow righteousness, faith, charity, and peace (2 Tim. 2:22). As he is more and more “approved unto God” (2 Tim. 2:15), he will be magnified in his ability to bless those he leads.
3. Paul predicted further apostasy—The last days of that dispensation were to be anything but promising for the Church. Paul not only revealed to Timothy present betrayals of the truth by once faithful saints (2 Tim. 1:15; 2 Tim. 2:17–18; 2 Tim. 4:10, 14–16), but also prophetically revealed an increase in apostasy (2 Tim. 3:1–13, 2 Tim. 4:3–4).
Sound Doctrine and Good Works—The predominant theme of Titus is the admonition to strive for godliness and to “maintain good works” (Titus 2:12, Titus 3:8). As a leader, Titus himself was to show “a pattern of good works” (Titus 2:7) and to boldly teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1, 15), encouraging the saints to “live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:12, 15).
1. Question may arise as to what was meant by Paul’s counsel to “neither give heed to … endless genealogies.” (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 3:9.) The genealogies here referred to may have been (1) the long genealogical recitations used, by Jewish members to support their false claim to salvation on the basis of their ancestry (see Matt. 3:9); or (2) the genealogies of endless generations of false gods invented by the Gnostics. In either case, such discussions of genealogy were essentially irrelevant to salvation through Christ. Genealogical research among the Latter-day Saints today has quite different purposes from the genealogies Paul discussed.
2. Are deacons to be married? In detailing qualifications of deacons, Paul declared that they were to “be the husbands of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:12)—a requirement that would seem inappropriate for most deacons as we know them in the present Church order. Deacons in those times were men of marriageable age. The age for ordination is a matter of procedure, not doctrine.
By Lane Johnson
Philemon, a friend of Paul and a faithful member of the church in Colosse; also to Apphia, probably Philemon’s wife, and to Archippus, possibly their son. (Philem. 1:1–2.) The branch of the church that met in Philemon’s house is also mentioned. (Philem 1:2; compare Rom. 16:5, Col. 4:15.)
The apostle Paul. (Philem. 1.)
About A.D. 62, during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome.
Purpose of the letter:
The epistle to Philemon is a special letter of intercession on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, who had earlier fled his master Philemon, and possibly taken with him some of the latter’s money or property. Ordinarily, under contemporary law, a runaway slave could be subject to frightful penalties. However, while in Rome Onesimus was converted to the gospel by Paul and had proved himself “profitable” (Philem. 1:10–11); therefore, when Tychicus went to Colosse (bearing the epistle to the Colossians), Paul sent Onesimus along, with an appeal to Philemon to receive him in the spirit of forgiveness as “a faithful and beloved brother.” (See Col. 4:7–9.)
Aside from the fact that it is a remarkable example of a tactful appeal, this epistle shows that the gospel of Jesus Christ is an equalizing force in the lives of men regardless of differences in social status. Because Onesimus had come repentant into the gospel brotherhood, Philemon was asked to receive him, not as a servant, but as “a brother beloved, … both in the flesh, and in the Lord.” (Philem. 1:15, 16.)
Because Paul has, in effect, delivered a slave back into servitude, some have interpreted this epistle as an endorsement of slavery as a practice. On the other hand, others have understood the request to receive Onesimus “not … as a servant” (Philem. 1:16) to be a disavowal of slavery. But Paul seems to have intended neither of these. He simply acknowledges slavery indirectly as a social reality, at the same time reminding Philemon of the obligations of brotherhood in the kingdom.
Since the letter itself is not addressed to any specific group, speculation has at times arisen among scholars concerning the identity of the intended readers. Apparently the title of the letter, “To the Hebrews,” did not belong to the original text. The content of the letter, however, suggests the appropriateness of the title and that the letter was intended for a specific local group of Jewish Christians known personally by the author.
Since the letter itself is anonymous, speculation has also arisen over its authorship. The style and language patterns do not seem to be those of Paul; however, many of the ideas and teachings in the epistle are typical of those he set forth in his other letters. Some have therefore concluded that Paul was the author responsible for the teachings and that another was responsible for the literary form of the letter. (See Sidney B. Sperry, Paul’s Life and Letters, pp. 268–72.) Of great significance to Latter-day Saints is the fact that Joseph Smith regarded Paul as the author of the epistle. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 59; D&C 128:15.)
Apparently from Italy (see Heb. 13:24), and likely from Rome. The Codex Alexandrinus, an important early Bible manuscript, reads “from Rome” as the place of origin.
Most scholars place the writing of the letter before the time of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Assuming Paul to be the author, the letter was likely written in the early 60s during his first imprisonment in Rome.
Purpose of the letter:
A tendency of many early Jewish converts to Christianity was to regard their new faith as a sect within Judaism, or a sort of reformed Judaism with Christ in the picture. Shortly before his imprisonment in Rome, Paul had spent a good deal of time in Palestine. He likely had made friends of many Jewish Christians and had seen firsthand the tendency among some Jewish members to revert to the old Mosaic order.
The book of Hebrews ties the lesser law of the Mosaic order to the living Christ by emphasizing the superiority of the new gospel covenant, made effectual by the Savior’s sacrifice, over the old law, and by showing how the old law was actually fulfilled in Christ. Several specific aspects and emphases of this basic theme follow:
1. The Supremacy of Christ—In chapter 3, Paul argues that only the Savior can bring into our lives true rest (peace of the Spirit and ultimately eternal life), a rest that not even Moses or Joshua could bring by guiding ancient Israel back to the land of promise. Many of the children of Israel had not been permitted to enter the promised land because of unbelief; similarly, one cannot enter the spiritual rest of the Lord without coming in faith unto Christ, the mighty “Apostle and High Priest of our profession.” (Heb. 3:1.)
2. Precedence of the Gospel over the Law of Moses—The Epistle to the Hebrews indicates that the gospel of Christ was on earth before the law of Moses and has precedence over the law. (Heb. 4:2; see also Gal. 3:8, 17–19, 24.) Thus, the law of Moses is a lesser order. The new covenant of the gospel brought by the Savior is higher than the old Mosaic law because it involves additional covenants of a higher spiritual nature, under the Melchizedek Priesthood and not under the Aaronic Priesthood only. It thus secures real or total righteousness. (Heb. 8:6–13.)
3. The Place and Importance of Two Priesthoods—In no other New Testament source is found such detailed knowledge concerning the priesthood as in the book of Hebrews. Jesus was called by his Father to the holy priesthood, which is also called “after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:6.) Paul argues that Melchizedek must be reckoned as greater than the Levitical priests (who held the lesser priesthood), since even Abraham, the forefather of Levi, paid tithes to him. Paul then reasons that Christ’s priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, must be superior to the Levitical order (Heb. 7:1–11). With the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood by Jesus comes a new and higher law or covenant, implying the insufficiency of the old law administered by the Aaronic priesthood (Heb. 7:12). Christ is the administrator of this new covenant (Heb. 8:6); therefore, the saints were urged to look to him and not to the law of Moses for salvation.
4. The “Single Time” Sacrifice of Christ—Paul points out that all the old Levitical ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices “offered year by year continually” (Heb. 10:1) could not make Israel perfect nor give her access to the true holy place, the kingdom of heaven (Heb. 9:1–10). But Christ, the great High Priest, by the shedding of his blood “once” (Heb. 9:12, 26–28; Heb. 10:12), made possible, through the remission of sins, the sanctification of those who follow him (Heb. 10:9–18). He fulfilled the old law and became the “mediator of the new testament” (covenant) by his sacrifice and death (Heb. 9:15–17). Jesus was the true sacrifice, while all of the animal sacrifices were but symbolic of him.
5. The Necessity of Faith in and Obedience to Christ—Hebrews 11 is perhaps the greatest single chapter on faith in the New Testament. Paul has already mentioned faith as a necessary condition for the righteous life (Heb. 10:38); now he proceeds to illustrate this fact by pointing to examples of faithful men of earlier dispensations. He then admonishes the saints to lay aside their own sins and look to “the author and finisher of our faith,” even Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:2). As they do so, they are promised an everlasting inheritance in “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the … church of the firstborn.” (Heb. 12:22–23. See also D&C 76:62–70.)
Difficult Passages (selected):
“The rest here referred to is not physical rest, for there is no such thing as physical rest in the Church of Jesus Christ. Reference is made to the spiritual rest and peace which are born from a settled conviction of the truth in the minds of men. We may thus enter into the rest of the Lord today, by coming to an understanding of the truths of the gospel.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 126. See also p. 58.)
As a further extension, “The rest of the Lord, in eternity, is to inherit eternal life, to gain the fulness of the Lord’s glory. (D&C 84:24.)” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 633.)
2. Did Jesus ever commit sin? (Heb. 5:8–9.) Because of Hebrews 5:8–9, which says that Jesus “learned … obedience by the things which he suffered” and was “made perfect,” some have suggested that he was not always sinless in mortality. In response, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written: “Christ always was perfect in that he obeyed the whole law of the Father at all times and was everlastingly the Sinless One. See Heb. 4:14–16; Heb. 5:1–3. But on the other hand he was made perfect, through the sufferings and experiences of mortality, in the sense that he thereby died and was resurrected in glorious immortality.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:158.)