THE PRISON LETTERS OF PAUL
Of the thirteen books of the New Testament written by Paul, he refers to himself as a prisoner or a person “in bonds” in four of them (Lea and Black, 431). These have become known as the Prison Letters. How and why he wrote them, as well as the purpose and audience of each letter will be the subject of this brief overview of the prison letters of Paul. As always, Paul had his opponents in these times as in all other times of his life. This overview will also briefly touch on the opponents and their nature around the writing of these books.
Occasion and Purpose of the Prison Letters
The requirements of this week’s post are to detail two of the four letters. This writer could not choose between them! Looking at them together then separately leads to the best understanding in this brief overview. We start with the origin, or “where” of each book.
These letters are generally accepted as the Prison Letters. It is likely that Paul was not in a conventional prison, but more likely in detention or house arrest (Lea and Black, 431). His movements were monitored and restricted but “captive” may be a more accurate description of his status than “prisoner” at this time. But where?
Based on Paul’s letters, there are three possible locations for the writing of these letters. Each has merit and possibility. Caesarea is a possibility. Paul was held captive there. It was during this imprisonment that he appealed to Caesar for help in his release. The transportation of the letters indicates that Paul had access to friends or those “on the outside”. There is no indication that while in Caesarea he had access to any visitors. For this and other reasons Caesarea can be eliminated as the location of the writing.
Ephesus is also a possibility. Paul’s time there was full of hardship and disappointment (Lea and Black, 433). He was very briefly imprisoned at Philippi but not long enough to have done most of this work. There is some evidence based on the timeline of visits between Paul and the receivers of the letters of Philippians that this book could have been written in Ephesus. But this evidence is very speculative and much less than conclusive.
All in all, the majority of evidence points to Rome as the location of this work. It is not absolutely proven by the internal evidence of these books, but most likely. Paul was in prison there for two years, a time sufficient for all of this writing. Those who traveled to him to Rome, Luke and Aristarchus, are mentioned. This is some contradiction in Paul’s announcement to visit Spain in Romans, written earlier than the prison letters. But perhaps that is simply explained in that Paul changed his mind about Spain while in Prison in Rome. All in all, Rome is the most likely choice.
Lea and Black lay out a simple connection between three of the four and connect the fourth in a way that is logical, easy to understand and well supported (Lea and Black, 431-432). Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon are clearly linked to the same place and also the same time by their content and by the persons responsible for their delivery. Tychicus is listed as the carrier or mailman for Colossians and Ephesians as noted in Colossians 4:7 and Ephesians 6:21. There was no postal service in those days and the confidence in the character and reliability of the carrier on an important letter to its destination was a very important factor is the success of the communication. The carrier of Philemon, Onesimus, was a friend and companion of Tychicus so it is very likely that the books were written around the same time and place. These facts do not identify the time or place but put them together in general.
What about Philippians? It is likely that Philippians was also written in Rome, just later than the other three. In Philemon, he expressed hope for his release. In Philippians he expressed optimism (Lea and Black, 435). Philippians was written toward the end of his two year captivity with the other three written earlier. So the occasion and location of all four books is likely Rome during the time of his captivity there, around A.D. 60-62 (Lea and Black).
What was their purpose? What did Paul wish to communicate to each set of readers? There were four different sets, receiving four separate letters. They were separate but very similar. In each Paul would reassure, clarify, instruct and bless. The timeline of this week’s discussion board does not allow the understanding of this topic desired, so reliance on the Instructor’s Notes for this week is needed! Ephesians, hand delivered by Tychicus, was intended to instruct those believers to return to their baptismal commitments, clarify for them the true character of the church and to instruct them on what a mature Christian should look like. Ephesians has a more serious tone than the other three and feels more like a “general statement” and guideline for the church in Ephesus (Lea and Black, 439).
It not clear who delivered Philippians. But, written toward the end of Paul’s captivity it has a much more hopeful tone. This letter was to reassure its readers that he would soon be with them, to thank one of them and the church in general for its generosity and to instruct some of the more strong willed church members on settling their differences.
Colossians, like Ephesians was delivered by Tychicus. It was as unique in its detail as Ephesians and Philippians as discussed so far. This writing dealt with an issue as important today as in that day, the issue of dealing with the church’s stance on the current philosophies of the day (Lea and Black, 453). Paul referred to it as false teaching. Colossae was one of the smallest cities visited by Paul and the church there was made up largely by Gentiles. There were some Jews in the group and they were creating confusing and the appearance of false teaching by their insistence to obeying some of the old law in addition to living a life of faith in Christ. Paul dealt with these issues directly and charged the church’s leader, Archippus to lead the church by clearly embracing the new ways of Christ as opposed to the old ways of the law.
Philemon is the last to be discussed. This letter was delivered to an individual man, Philemon, by his slave Onesimus. This slave had previously escaped its master, and then came to know Paul in Rome. Paul converted Onesimus to Christ, and then asked of him a tremendous act of faith. He asked him to deliver his letter back to his previous slave master! What a sacrifice Paul asked of Onesimus! They both had faith through Christ that Philemon would receive the letter and the escaped slave in the love of Christ, accept the letter’s contents, forgive the slave for his escape, and then release him to return to Paul. That’s exactly what Philemon did. This letter instructed its receiver on the appropriate Christian attitude toward slavery as well as forgiveness. Somehow this writer completely missed this great story until this week’s reading.
Each of these four letters is a unique expression of Paul to their target audience. They share common dates, city of origin and themes, but each address the specific needs of the reader. Even in captivity, monitored by an untrusting government, Paul continued to ministry to those God put in his path. Amazing.
Paul’s life from his conversion to his death is a story of his struggle against the opponents of this mission and his faith. There were certainly opponents to him specific to several of these prison letters. But an overview of the opponents of Paul specific to these books would be incomplete without some notes on those who created this captive environment to begin with-those that put him in captivity to begin this period.
Paul was in prison in Rome after being arrested in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey. Jews in Jerusalem were so emotionally opposed to his message and his mission that they caused a riot there and accused him of teaching others ways what were treasonous to the Roman Empire. These charges were completely untrue but they did set in motion the events that would eventually land Paul in captivity in Rome. The complete irony of the situation is that had he not been converted on the road to Damascus and become the leader of the Christian movement in that part of the world, he may have been the one leading the riot in Jerusalem against a different follower of Christ who had heeded the call! Paul’s Jewish opponents in Jerusalem and throughout his ministry were carbon copies of the Paul-before-conversion. Their opposition to his ministry was as zealous and aggressive as his persecution of Christians before his conversion. His ultimate captivity in Rome was a result of that same opposition and persecution.
There are at least two accounts of opposition to Paul specific to these four letters. First in Philippians, Paul faced opposition from a variety of groups (Lea and Black, 444). These in some cases were church members who believed that the old law must be more closely followed than just the faith message Paul delivered. They were sometimes Judaizers, Christian or non-Christian Jews who believed that the Torah Law still superseded faith in Christ. In short, even if you were a Christian, if you did not follow Torah Law first, you could not have a relationship with God. This was a hot topic of the day that this writer does not fully understand. Paul dealt with this issue at the Council of Jerusalem but its controversy followed him almost everywhere to some extent, although more focused in some places such as Philippi.
Paul also faced specific opposition in Colossae but the focus there was more on false teaching. Within the church were those who were teaching theology very different than Paul. Rather than confront them directly in debate, in Colossians Paul summarized five of the most dangerous teachings and their true answer in Christ. Among those were the supremacy of Christ, the deception of apparently modern human philosophy, old Jewish practices and their place in the church, asceticism as a chacteristic of heresy and the worship of angels (Lea and Black, 453). His opposition in Colossae was more eclectic (Lea and Black). It was perhaps more appealing to the church because it appeared more modern and mysterious. Colossae’s location on a popular trade route made it an easy collection place for ideas from different parts of the world. Paul’s message was that faith in Christ conquered all in a timeless approach. The messages in Colossians are important to us today for the same reasons they were important in A.D. 62 to the citizens of Colossae. Modern philosophy is interesting but not relevant if it contradicts the timeless teachings that come from the life of Christ. Today’s world views of relativism are no different than the opposition faced by Paul here.
This week perceptions of the life of Paul changed for this writer. The rather complicated series of missionary journeys combined with the letters in and out of prison all became simpler in some ways. To be sure, the depth of theology and the teachings of Paul are a lifetime to study to even the most serious student. But this week they became different. They truly became timeless.
Timeless is the word that comes back time and time again. His life was a series of unpredictable events that are also mirrored over and over again in human civilization. A man is prepared for a life and journey by his education and upbringing, only to go a completely different direction. At the same time, his education and upbringing support almost effortlessly the final outcome.
Paul writes from captivity to churches for which he cares for deeply. Their issues, two thousand years ago, are in many ways a mirror image of the issues believers and churches face today. At the same time, God turns time in captivity and endurance into a time of greatness. This writer cannot read of his time in prison and not think of Corre Ten Boom or his days of difficult physical endurance and not think of Lottie Moon. God’s truth is timeless as are the characteristics of human behavior, good and bad.
Overall, Paul wrote words of strength to those he loved and for which he deeply cared. In the case of these four letters, they are known as the prison letters. Although certainly to a scale of minute-impact compared to Paul, it should challenge us all to more actively encourage and mentor those God has put in our path.