For the last several weeks (okay, months) I have been doing a self-study of the New Testament epistles using one of my pastor’s former seminary books: The Word of the Lord Grows: A one volume guide to a fuller understanding of the origin, purpose, and meaning of the New Testament by Martin H. Franzmann. It is fascinating, albeit slow going. Each chapter in the book discusses the historical context and a brief content outline of one or more books in the New Testament. For example, I am currently reading the chapter on Paul’s captivity letters. So along with the chapter I am reading the books of Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians. I am trying to read them quickly and as a set to give myself a sweeping historical foundation which I can use for further study. Still, at the pace I am going, I hope my pastor doesn’t need his book back anytime soon!
As I was reading these letters last night, I began thinking about the order of the books as they appear in the Bible. I knew before I began this study that the books in the New Testament were not necessarily in the order in which they were written. For example, the Gospels were written later than the epistles but they appear first in the New Testament. This makes intuitive sense to me. The gospels are the good news, the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. They should appear foremost in the New Testament. I began to wonder, though, how the order of the epistles was determined. (If you know the answer to this, please comment below.) They seem to be grouped by author, but not necessarily chronologically. Here, for example, is a listing of when Paul wrote each of his letters compared to how they appear in the Bible (recognizing that the dates listed and events in Paul’s life are rough; as with any good researcher, historical scholars debate and question everything!)
Chronology + Paul’s Activities Biblical Order
Galatians (48 A.D. – First Missionary Journey) Romans
1 & 2 Thessalonians (50 A.D. – Second Missionary Journey) 1 & 2 Corinthians
1 & 2 Corinthians (55 A.D. – Third Missionary Journey) Galatians
Romans (56 A.D. – Third Missionary Journey) Ephesians
Colossians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity) Philippians
Philemon (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity) Colossians
Ephesians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity) 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Philippians (59-61 A.D. – Roman Captivity) 1 Timothy
1 Timothy (62-63 A.D. – Between Captivities) 2 Timothy
Titus (63 A.D. – Between Captivities) Titus
2 Timothy (65-67 A.D. – Second Roman Captivity) Philemon
One of the things I enjoy most about my current study is that I am gaining a better picture of the historical context of the letters. Reading them in order and with an eye to when and where Paul wrote them brings the letters to life in a new way. They aren’t just pieces of the Bible; they are instruction, admonition, explanation, and defense from the apostle Paul to the young churches developing throughout the Roman Empire.
One of the unique aspects of Christianity among many of the world’s religions is that it has a history. It is not merely a spiritual faith; it also has a historical foundation supported through historical texts and archaeology. For the historian and, in some cases, for the apologist, this historicity is important.
As I was thinking of these things last night and wondering to myself why the Bible does not order Paul’s epistles chronologically, it suddenly occurred to me that regardless of the reason, it is good that they are not in chronological order. While reading them in this way gives me a new perspective and a historical understanding of Paul’s work, the point of the letters is not Paul! It is not the story of Paul that is important. That is interesting and helpful historically, but nothing more. It doesn’t really matter when Paul wrote each letter or where he was when he wrote it or even who he was writing it to. It matters what he was writing about. It matters what he said. About Christ. And about our relationship to Him.
It is Christ who is of foremost importance. We can learn a lot from history, but history is nothing more than the story of our physical past. Christ is the story of our spiritual future. As Paul himself noted, The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man [Adam] was of the dust of the earth, the second man [Christ] from heaven… just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Corinthians 15:46-47,49).
History is important, but historical understanding should never be confused with faith in Christ. Faith comes to us not from history, but from the Holy Spirit of God.
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).