St. Paul Writes about the Church
April 1977

“St. Paul Writes about the Church,” New Era, Apr. 1977, 30

St. Paul Writes about the Church

Some Interesting History from Paul’s Epistles

Through his diligent service as a special witness for the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul left us a great testimony of what he knew about Jesus. As he went about his labors, he traveled much, taught much, and wrote much. His accomplishments were so significant in the work of the Lord that Luke, the historian, recorded more about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles than about all of the other leading brethren combined. Of .course, Paul’s greatest contribution was his testimony about the mission of Jesus Christ. However, in administering in the affairs of the Church, traveling, writing, and all that a servant of the Lord does, Paul was daily making Church history. Many of his writings have been collected and constitute a sizable portion of the New Testament. Through reading these we obtain a glimpse of what the Church in New Testament times was like.

Readers generally think of the book of Acts as history and the epistles as doctrine, but such a classification is misleading, for there is much doctrine in the Acts and much history in the epistles. In fact, the epistles of St. Paul are among the most fruitful sources of New Testament history available to us today. These epistles provide two kinds of historical information: (1) they elaborate and give additional details of events that are mentioned only briefly in the Acts, and (2) in many instances they are the only available source of important and interesting items of history. If Paul had not written about them, these events would be entirely unknown to us today.

Much of the unique information that is conveyed to us through Paul’s writings has to do with his travels and the travels of the early brethren of the Church. Paul frequently mentions his companions in the ministry, their strengths and weaknesses, their personal problems, and their travels throughout the Church in many different countries. Since their travels were often occasioned by local problems in the various branches, it follows that the condition of the Church in New Testament times becomes clearer because of Paul’s literary accomplishments. Although travel was more common in that early time than many people of our day may have supposed, it is fortunate for us that it was as time-consuming and difficult as it was, for in many instances Paul was unable to go personally to help solve problems in the branches of the Church and so would send the brethren armed with a letter from him. If he had been able to go in person, we probably would not have had the written accounts of the various situations and so would know much less than we do about the early Church and the people who made it go.

Furthermore, the book of Acts ends with Paul enduring a two-year imprisonment at Rome. However, Paul’s epistles indicate a release from this imprisonment, followed by a second imprisonment at Rome, about which Acts says nothing. Fortunately, some of the final scenes of Paul’s life are mentioned in his last few epistles, which give us a glimpse of the man as well as the messages and tell of things we otherwise would not know.

Let us look in greater detail at some interesting historical contributions of the epistles.

Paul’s Background

The book of Acts offers some informative details about Paul’s early life and background, stating that he was born at Tarsus, a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, and that he studied in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel. (See Acts 22:3; Acts 23:6.) Paul confirms most of this in his epistles and also adds that he was of the tribe of Benjamin. (See Rom. 11:1; Philip. 3:5.) Acts offers three separate accounts of Paul’s conversion while on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1–25; Acts 22:1–16; Acts 26:9–20.) In his epistles Paul confirms what we find in Acts and also adds that at some time during the first three years following his conversion he went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus. (See Gal. 1:15–17.) Chronologically, this information could be inserted at about Acts 9:21 or 22. [Acts 9:21–22]

Acts informs us that sometime after his conversion, Paul went up to Jerusalem and was introduced to the apostles by Barnabas. (See Acts 9:26–29.) It does not indicate when this was. However, Paul tells us that this visit to Jerusalem was three years after his conversion and after his sojourn in Arabia. He also informs us that he abode with Peter for 15 days and also met with James the Lord’s brother. (See Gal. 1:18–20.) This could be placed chronologically at about Acts 9:28.

The Jerusalem Conference

The 15th chapter of Acts [Acts 15] tells of a significant Church council at Jerusalem. It was momentous for its declaration that the Gentiles of Antioch and vicinity would not be required to be circumcised for salvation. In his epistles Paul confirms the essential facts of that council and adds some interesting personal details. For one thing he tells that he went early to Jerusalem before the council convened so that he could confer with the leading brethren and thus determine beforehand their acceptance of his position. Paul’s astuteness as an administrator is seen in this event. He also states that he took Titus (a Gentile convert) with him to the council. This he probably did as something of a living witness and object lesson that an uncircumcised Gentile could be a good Christian. Paul states that this council was held in Jerusalem 14 years after his conversion. (See Gal. 2:1–10.) None of these very interesting details are recorded in the book of Acts.

Paul and Peter at Antioch

Paul alone tells us that sometime after the council, Peter came to Antioch, and after sitting at the same table and eating with the Gentiles, he [Peter] withdrew himself and sat with some Jewish Christian brethren who had just come from Judea. This so aroused Paul that he confronted Peter face to face on the matter, apparently because he interpreted Peter’s actions as a vacillating attitude and a violation of the principle of acceptance of the Gentiles in full fellowship in the Church. Paul was possibly a little hasty, for Peter no doubt had some very justifiable and benevolent motives in trying to keep everyone happy, but this dramatic encounter is unmentioned in Acts, being found only in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians (Gal. 2:11–14). Chronologically, it would probably be inserted between Acts 15:35 and 36. [Acts 15:35–36]

Paul’s Travels

Acts recounts Paul’s three major missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire, but Paul’s epistles tell of several “side trips” and other excursions that are unmentioned in Acts. These include a hasty trip from Ephesus to Corinth and back to Ephesus during the third mission (2 Cor. 13:1), a trip through Illyricum to preach the gospel (Rom. 15:19), and most exciting of all, a contemplated trip to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). Paul was in Corinth at the time he informed the Romans of his intention to visit Spain. But he said that he must first go to Jerusalem. To go to Jerusalem from Corinth would add about 1,600 miles to the trip. In terms of the overall distance, this meant about a 7,000-mile trip from Corinth, to Jerusalem, to Spain, and back to Jerusalem—a most ambitious and time-consuming undertaking when we consider the mode of travel available. Whether Paul ever got to Spain we do not know, but his plans are certainly impressive. The subject is chiefly of interest to us in this article because the whole idea of a trip to Spain is to be learned only from Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Paul’s Welfare Projects

Paul’s third missionary journey ended at Jerusalem, probably about A.D. 61. The book of Acts tells of his arrival at Jerusalem but says little about why he had come. (See Acts 21:17–19.) It does mention that he brought alms for his countrymen. (See Acts 24:17.) However, in Romans 15:24–31 [Rom 15:24–31], Paul explains at some length that his purpose in going to Judea was to take a welfare donation from Macedonia and Achaia to the “poor saints which are at Jerusalem.” This is mentioned also in 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 [1 Cor. 16:1–4]. The welfare aspect is further developed in 2 Corinthians 9:1–15 [2 Cor. 9:1–15], in which Paul urges the Corinthian saints to get their donation ready beforehand so that he could obtain it when he arrived. The emphasis on these things brings us to another significant feature. Acts 11:27–30 makes scant reference to Paul as a welfare worker and mentions one occasion when with Barnabas he took a donation to the saints in Jerusalem. This was about A.D. 41 or 44 and was possibly Paul’s earliest experience with welfare as a Church program. However, as indicated above, his epistles give evidence that in the years that followed he became a diligent welfare worker, collecting donations throughout Galatia (see 1 Cor. 16:1), Macedonia (see Rom. 15:25–26), and Greece (see 2 Cor. 9:1–5) for the Judean saints. Furthermore, Paul adds yet another reference to this subject. After the favorable decision of the Jerusalem council, Peter and others counseled Paul and Barnabas to go forth, and to “remember the poor.” To which Paul replied that he “also was forward to do” exactly that. (See Gal. 2:10.) From the book of Acts we would scarcely know of Paul’s great diligence in welfare activity—but from his epistles we learn of his several welfare collections and of his strong persuasions to the branches of the Church concerning this part of his ministry.

Paul As an Administrator

From the epistles we also get an impression of Paul as an administrator in the Church. Not only did he send letters to various branches, but he frequently dispatched one or more of his aides to deliver the epistle and to investigate problems and conditions in local areas. Thus he sent Timothy to Thessalonica (see 1 Thes. 3:2) and to Macedonia (see Acts 19:22) and to Corinth (see 1 Cor. 16:10). Tychicus he sent to Ephesus (see Eph. 6:21–22); several brethren were assigned to Corinth (see 2 Cor. 8:23; 2 Cor. 9:3). Titus was sent to Corinth (twice) (see 2 Cor. 7:6–15; 2 Cor. 8:4) and also to Dalmatia (see 2 Tim. 4:10) and to Crete (see Titus 1:5). Epaphroditus he sent back to Philippi from Rome, because he became “sick, nigh unto death.” (Philip. 2:25–30.) He wished to send Apollos from Macedonia to Corinth, but Apollos would not readily respond to Paul’s urging and didn’t go at that time. (See 1 Cor. 16:12.) In recounting his persecutions and trials, Paul added that not only did he have to contend with all the trouble and persecutions from outside the Church, but that he had the daily “care of all the Churches” (2 Cor. 11:28), evidently referring to his administrative responsibilities.

Problems among Members of the Church

If the unique content of each of the epistles can be taken as an indicator, it becomes possible to determine, to some extent at least, what the problems were in the various branches of the Church. Thus the Thessalonians seemed to be troubled about the situation of their deceased relatives and friends, the resurrection of the dead, and the second coming of the Lord. (See 1 Thes. 4, 1 Thes. 5; 2 Thes. 2.) The Corinthians were torn by dissention and a fractious spirit and also by immorality, and some doubted the reality of the resurrection. (See 1 Cor. 1, 1 Cor. 5, 1 Cor. 15.)It seems that the Galatian branches had an abundance of members who did not properly understand the temporary and preparatory nature of the law of Moses, and thus Paul wrote to them about it. (See Gal. 3–5.) The Colossians seem to have had difficulty understanding the place of revealed knowledge in the gospel plan, the relationship of Jesus to the Father, and other aspects indicative of problems engendered by elements of Greek philosophy. (See Col. 1–2.)

Paul’s Sufferings

In each of the forementioned branches of the Church, and especially in Thessalonica, Corinth, and Galatia, there appears to have been a strong contingent of members who opposed Paul and his teachings. They seemed to have severely questioned his authority as an apostle, defamed his character, impugned his motives as an honest man, and in general to have sought to discredit his accomplishments. As a consequence Paul’s letters are replete with declarations about the reality of his calling as an apostle see Gal. 1:1–24; 1 Cor. 9:1–2; 1 Cor. 15:1–11); reiterations of his circumspect behavior—that he labored with his own hands for financial support so as not to be a burden to the saints (see 1 Cor. 9:11–19; 1 Thes. 2:5–9; 2 Cor. 11:6–9; Acts 20:33–35); and the fact that he labored incessantly, under great physical and emotional handicaps, even enduring persecution in order to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people (see 2 Cor. 11:24–33; 2 Cor. 12:1–11).

Nor was Paul passive in expressing his opinion about his enemies. He not only defended his work and motives, but classified his detractors as “false apostles, deceitful workers … and ministers of Satan.” (2 Cor. 11:12–15.) The book of Acts does not detail these items in this manner, and although it indicates that Paul met with opposition, Acts is really low-key compared with the intensity conveyed by Paul’s own writings. For example, consider the following description by Paul of his sufferings and persecutions:

“I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. …

“Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;

“And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:

“Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” (1 Cor. 4:9, 1 Cor. 11–13.)

And also:

“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair:

“Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:8–9.)

What were some of these persecutions, buffetings, and distresses of which Paul spoke?

“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.

“Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;

“In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;

“In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.

“Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:24–28.)

Few of these things are recorded in the book of Acts, and were it not for Paul’s writings on the matter, we would not be aware of the magnitude of the opposition that was heaped upon the servants of the Lord.

New Items

The concluding chapter of several of the epistles is especially newsy and gives an abundance of personal information about many members of the Church. This is especially noticeable in 1 Corinthians 16 [1 Cor. 16], Romans 16 [Rom. 16], Colossians 4 [Col. 4], and 2 Timothy 4 [2 Tim. 4], in which we learn that the Church held meetings in members’ homes, that many members were faithful at great risk to their safety and even their lives, and that various brethren were ill, or in prison, or had forsaken Paul, or sent their greetings, or had moved, etc.

We also learn from the epistles that Paul generally did not actually write the epistles himself but employed a scribe. Thus Tertius wrote the epistle to the Romans (see Rom. 16:22), and it is probable that other scribes wrote others of the epistles, although Paul is careful to state that he signed them himself: “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so l write.” (2 Thes. 3:17; see also Col. 4:18; 1 Cor. 16:21.)

Final Imprisonment

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the book of Acts ends with Paul experiencing a two-year imprisonment at Rome. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he was released from this confinement, for he asks Titus to come to Nicopolis to meet him, for there he intended to spend the winter. (See Titus 3:12.)

Likewise, to Timothy he writes that “at my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me. … Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me … and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” (2 Tim. 4:16–17.) These statements indicate a release from his first imprisonment. However, the tone of the second letter to Timothy indicates that Paul is in prison again, and even though he had been released “at his first answer,” he does not expect to be spared again. He asks for Timothy to come to Rome to see him, whereas earlier he had planned to leave Rome and winter at Nicopolis. He also says at this time, “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:6–7.) The change in attitude and tone of this letter as contrasted to 1 Timothy and Titus written just previously strongly suggest a second Roman imprisonment in more serious circumstances than the first. Of none of this would we know if we had only the book of Acts. Whether Luke simply did not finish the story when writing Acts, or whether the final pages of the book were subsequently lost we do not know. Fortunately, we are able to learn a little of the concluding events of Paul’s life beyond the book of Acts because of Paul’s informative epistles.

Thus the unfolding of the gospel in the New Testament, with its geographical extension throughout the Roman Empire, is very incomplete as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke but fortunately is enriched by the intense, informative, and complex epistles written by Paul himself.

Photos by Don O. Thorpe

The desert of Sinai

A small mountain village in Greece

Columns from the ruins of Corinth

Caesarea, Israel, on the shores of the Mediterranean

Looking from the agora (marketplace) toward the acropolis in Athens

The acropolis hill

David’s tower in Jerusalem

Artifacts from the ruins of Caesarea

Close-up of Corinthian columns

Countryside in Greece

The forum at Rome

The Parthenon on the acropolis in Athens

Near the foot of the acropolis