There is a marvellous symmetry and orderliness evidenced in the manner of the divine revelation to mankind. God has spoken in His Word—the Word personal and the Word written. The law and the prophets were until John. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. Following His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit came to form the Church of the new dispensation and to be the Guide, Comforter and Teacher of the saints until all should come to the unity of the faith and be presented faultless in the presence of Christ’s glory. He selected different servants to emphasize various phases of truth. To Peter, James and Jude it was given to open up sanctifying truth as to the believer’s relation to the kingdom of God, while that kingdom is still rejected by the world. To the Apostle John was given particularly to make known precious and intimate things having to do with our place as children in the family of God. And to Paul, foreordained to be an apostle to the nations, was revealed in all its fulness the great mystery of the Body of Christ. These various lines of truth are not antagonistic one to the other, neither does one supersede and so make needless any other line of truth. All are required in order that the believer may be perfect or mature, wanting nothing. For the Christian is, at one and the same time, a child in the family, a subject of the kingdom, and a member of the Body.
Had it been the mind of God that Paul’s ministry should have set all the rest to one side he would have been the last to write. But the fact is that all of his epistles were written, and he himself was probably in heaven, when Peter wrote his second epistle, and all of John’s writings were penned many years after Paul’s personal ministry on earth had ceased. These considerations alone should impress upon us the value of every portion of the Word of God.
How like God it was to choose for the special mission to the Gentiles one who had been a stern, bigoted Jewish zealot, who could not brook the thought of any further revelation than that given by Moses and the prophets, and who was so blinded by prejudice that he failed to see in Christ Jesus the One of whom all these prophets spoke. His remarkable experience on the way to Damascus opened his eyes to heavenly realities and blinded them to all human religiousness and worldly glory. It was the revelation of God’s Son in him that revolutionized him completely. Henceforth he would know nothing among them but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Hidden for a time in Arabia Petra, he was instructed by the Lord Himself as to the message he was to carry to the world. His was to be a double ministry: that of the gospel and of the Church.
From the first he went beyond the twelve in his proclamation of the gospel, for he preached justification from all things, in addition to remission of sins. And he declared even in Damascus that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Peter had declared Him to be Christ the Servant of God; for if the Revised Version be referred to, it will be seen that this is the term used in Acts 3:13, 26; 4:30. Peter did not deny His Sonship. He calls Him Lord and Christ, which implies full Deity (Acts 2:36), and as recorded in Matthew 16, he had already confessed Him as Son of the Living God. But in presenting Him to Israel in the beginning, it was as the Servant of Jehovah he proclaimed Him. But from the very first Paul was led to insist upon His Sonship. Side by side with this mystery of the gospel went the mystery of the Body. The other apostles saw, in measure at least, that Jew and Gentile were to be blessed on the common ground of grace (Acts 15:7-10). To Paul was vouchsafed the great truth that the middle wall was done away completely and all who believed were baptized by one Spirit into one Body and so, as intimately related each to the other as the members of a human body are to its head and to one another (1 Cor. 12:12, 13).
To Paul it was given to complete the Word of God by unfolding all His counsels and purposes. For though others wrote later, as we have seen, yet no new doctrinal unfoldings were added to this revelation of the mystery.
A thoughtful consideration of Paul’s letters will reveal the wonderful scope of his ministry, linking itself intimately with that of all his fellow-servants and yet transcending them all.
In the epistles to the Thessalonians, which are the earliest of his letters to be preserved for the edification of the Church, he unfolds precious truth as to the consummation of the Christian’s path, the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him. In the first epistle the emphasis is laid upon our Lord’s coming for His saints, to take them to be with Himself. In the second letter he dwells largely on Christ’s revelation from heaven with all His saints when He descends to take the kingdom and reign in righteousness over a redeemed universe.
Next in order of time we have the epistles to the Corinthians. In these we have, in the first, the order and discipline of the Church of God viewed in responsibility, in the place of testimony on the earth, and in the second, that edifying ministry which the risen Christ has given to His Church for its instruction and growth. Note that in Scripture the Church is never, as in Romish conceptions, the teacher, but Christ has given gifts to His Church that it may be taught of Him through His servants. Were the churches today more subject to what the Lord has given us in these Corinthian letters, godly order would displace fleshly confusion.
It is not possible to pronounce with absolute certainty as to the order in which all Paul’s epistles were written, but it is evident that Galatians and Romans are most definitely related. In the former law and grace are fully discussed and the relative place of each, in the divine scheme, made clear, while in the latter we have the fullest unfolding of the gospel of God that has ever been made known. That gospel reveals the righteousness of God, showing how God can be just and the Justifier of all who believe in Jesus. It harmonizes God’s present work of grace among all men with the promises made of old to Israel and shows the practical results that flow therefrom.
Colossians and Philemon belong together. Whether written, as some suppose, in prison in Cesarea or with others in Rome, both were carried by Onesimus, the converted runaway slave, to Colosse. The great theme of the longer letter is the Headship of Christ, a truth that was in danger of being side-tracked because of false teachers, and so needed full reiteration and explanation. The shorter letter has been well described as “the finest specimen of early Christian personal correspondence extant.” It illustrates beautifully the great truths of substitution and acceptance.
Ephesians is the capstone of the Pauline revelation. Here we have restated that “whole counsel of God” which Paul tells the Ephesian elders he had already declared unto them. It opens up the truth of the Church as the Body of Christ with its glorious privileges, as well as the walk that should characterize those so richly blessed.
Philippians is the epistle of Christian experience and so it is radiant with the joy of the Lord. For real Christian experience consists of the knowledge of, the enjoyment of, and the manifestation of, Christ Himself, and of this the letter treats.
The pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus stress the importance of sound teaching coupled with sound living in order to combat the growing evils of the age.
Hebrews, I know, is not ascribed to Paul by many. I have given my own reasons elsewhere1 for holding to the Pauline authorship. It is the call to converted Hebrews to come outside the camp of Judaism, giving Christ the pre-eminent place, as He has fulfilled all the types and shadows of the Mosaic dispensation. As such, it is a fitting close to this wonderful scope of ministry given through Paul.
His life was one of intense devotion to the Christ who had won his heart, and separated him to be His ambassador to the Gentiles. In this calling he gloried. He magnified his office. But, on the other hand, he never ceased to have a passionate, yearning love for Israel, and wherever he went, his message, to the very last, was to the Jew first. No one saw with clearer vision the sins and failures of his people, but no one was prepared to endure more on their behalf if he might but win them for Christ.
The record of his sufferings is simply staggering. One wonders how any man was able to go through all that he was called upon to endure for the gospel’s sake. But he bore it all gladly, desiring only that Christ might be magnified in him, whether in life or in death. As we today look back over nineteen hundred years of human history, he towers high above all the men of his time, challenging” us to follow him as he followed Christ.
1 The Epistle to the Hebrews and Lectures on Titus. Same author, $1.25 cloth; 60c. paper.