Lesson 1: Introduction to Paul's Prison Epistles
Acts Chapters 16-20
Paul's Prison Epistles. Hello! My name is Bernard Horsley. This is the fourth study in this series. The first three in this series were entitled: A Blending of The Four Gospel Records which covered Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in 128 correspondence lessons. Then ACTS - A Cassette Tape Study covered the N.T. book of Acts in 52 correspondence lessons. These were followed by: Paul's Missionary Journey Epistles which covered Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians and I & II Thessalonians in 88 correspondence lessons. All of those studies as well as this present study of 32 correspondence lessons called: Paul's Prison Epistles (covering Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon) use the same format of 20 minute lessons on audio cassette tapes accompanied by tests and work sheets. Some of these are also available as courses in written form. If you have a question on this, write to us. All of these studies, making a total of 300 lessons, should follow (of course) the order or sequence in the N.T. and as I have listed them here. At this point in your study, you should have completed 268 of these lessons (i.e. the first three courses). Alright, if you're ready, we'll follow the same routine in studying as before. We will read from the King James Version. You should read privately all the text material covered in the lesson before turning on the tape player. References may be found near the top of the test page. Then, you should read as I read on the tape. You'll need a pencil, paper and a common English dictionary at your finger-tips. Get the pencil and paper habit. Don't forget that pause button! That's what it was put there for! Take the time to back the tape up and listen again, if you are not sure. Or, turn the player off and re-read the text again, two or three times. There's no disgrace in that! Most of us need to run it through our computer several times to burn it in. Don't go on until you understand the text at hand. That is study! A lot of people read the Bible; but, not many study the Bible. In this course, we want to study...not just read. Let's study! Are you ready?
In this course we are going to cover four books: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Books number: 10, 11, 12 and 18 in the New Testament. These are all short books. Ephesians is the longest with only six chapters. All four books together total only 15 chapters (or 379 verses), their combined total space is less than 5% of the N. T.'s volume. But, you should remember, all books of the N.T. were (and are) a product of the Holy Spirit. These four books: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon like the last six books we studied were all written by the apostle Paul. These four books, we are embarking upon, were all written by the apostle Paul during his incarceration in or near the imperial prison at Rome. Thus, I have entitled this study, Paul's Prison Epistles. Someone asked the question once if the epistles were the lives of the apostles. But, I trust you know an epistle is simply another word for a formal letter.
Luke described the length of Paul's first Roman imprisonment as "two whole years." That's next to the last verse in Acts. If you consider Jesus' birth as the year AD 0, then Paul's incarceration in Rome was about AD 60-61- 62. In our last study, we concluded that the book of Romans was probably written during the three months mentioned in Acts 20:3; i.e. during the winter of AD 57-58. You will remember, as Paul wrote the book of Romans, he told of his plans to visit Jerusalem (Rom. ch. 15). According to the book of Acts, Paul made that visit to Jerusalem; about three or four months after he and Tertius wrote the book of Romans. In Jerusalem, Paul was taken into protective custody by the Roman guards during a riot at the Jewish temple and after a threat was made on Paul's life (Acts 23:12), he was arrested and taken to Caesarea where the apostle spent at least two years in prison (according to Acts 24:27). That imprisonment and Paul's transfer to Rome, the ship wreck and all that (Acts ch. 27 & ch. 28) accounts for at least the rest of AD 58-59 and possibly part of AD sixty. Now, add to THAT two more years of imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30) and you can see where I got the AD 62 figure. It is generally thought that these four prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon were written near the end of Paul's first Roman imprisonment. Thus, to date these books as written in AD 61 or AD 62 is undoubtedly pretty close to reality.
Now, why did Paul write these books? Who did he write them to? And what was Paul's connection to these people and these places? Ephesus and Philippi, I trust you remember from our previous study, were cities where Paul and his co-workers established congregations of the Lord's church. At Ephesus, Paul spent about three years on his third missionary journey and had great success (Acts 19:20, 20:31). He spent two years "disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus." (Acts 19:9-10). It was from Ephesus that Paul wrote the book of I Corinthians (you will remember) and it was in that fair seaport city of the province of Asia that the Diana makers and the worshippers of the goddess Diana rioted because that Paul and his co- workers said "that they be no gods, which are made with hands..." (Acts 19:26). The elders in the church at Ephesus came down to Miletus to bid Paul and his company farewell on Paul's trip to Jerusalem. Do you remember that touching scene? (That begins in Acts 20:17). It was to those elders and other brethren there that Paul wrote this letter of Ephesians. That letter starts off: "Paul...to the saints which are at Ephesus." (Eph. 1:1).
Likewise, I trust you remember the church at Philippi, the first church in Europe, was established during Paul's second missionary tour. His co- workers there were Silas, Luke and Timothy after Paul received the night vision at Troas (Acts 16:9). You quickly remember Lydia and the Philippian jailer were among the first to be baptized in the Philippian congregation. It was this congregation that sent Paul support once and again at Thessalonica. (Phil. 4:16). This congregation of Macedonia, Paul remembered most fondly.
Colosse was another town in the western part of Asia Minor. It was in the same province of Asia where Ephesus was located. Colosse was located near the eastern border of the province of Asia. This city was a little over 100 miles east of Ephesus on or near the great Roman road that led eastward from the city of Ephesus. Colosse was also located on a tributary of the Maeander River which empties into the Aegean Sea not far from Ephesus. However, what is said here in the book of Colossians is the first we learn about a congregation of the Lord's church in that city. We have no documented reference (in the book of Acts or in any other book of the N.T.) that Paul ever went to or spent time in that city. The first verse in Colossians ch. 2, probably means Paul had never seen the Colossian brethren face to face in the flesh. So, Paul's association and connection to this congregation is not so obvious as was the case with the Philippian congregation and the church at Ephesus. We'll get back to this when we get down to the task of reading and analyzing the book of Colossians.
Philemon, on the other hand, the fourth book in this series, takes its name from a man, not a city. Philemon was a preacher. He lived in or near the city of Colosse, that we just discussed. This letter to Philemon of Colosse is a personal letter, a private letter (if you will). Paul undoubtedly wrote many private letters over the years; but, all others have been lost. I would not classify Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus as private letters in this sense. Those letters were written to these two young preachers, Timothy and Titus, and those letters concerned doctrine, Timothy and Titus, were to preach and make known. It is true that Philemon WAS a preacher (we have already said); but, Paul's message to Philemon was private; not concerning doctrine or his preaching as such. So, whereas the other three letters in this series, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians were written to churches, i.e. congregations, the entire camp of the saints in those cities; the letter of Philemon (one short chapter of 25 verses) was written to a preacher, an individual named Philemon. Back in the hills of eastern Kentucky where I grew- up, decades and decades ago; this book was usually pronounced "Phil- men." We also had trouble with a few other of "m-air" Bible words. But, some place along the line, I learned that most of this sophisticated world pronounces it: "Fi-le-mon." So, I gave in. Anyway, Philemon of Colosse had a slave named Onesimus that ran away. This slave ultimately wound up in Rome, that big capital city, where Paul was in prison. How or why he happened to make contact with Paul we are not told. Maybe he wound up on skid-row. We simply don't know. Maybe he heard Paul preach a sermon or teach a class once back in that school of one Tyrannus, back at Ephesus when he and his master, Philemon were visiting and Paul's sermon got to him and finally soaked-in. Like I said, we simply don't know. But, some how, Onesimus, was converted to the faith and I get the impression he was taught by the apostle Paul, himself. BECAUSE, in this letter to Philemon; Paul said (in v.10), "I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds." What else could that mean; than that Paul was responsible for converting this slave, named: Onesimus? Remember now, Paul wrote this letter (we call Philemon) to a preacher by that name at Colosse on behalf of this Christian slave, Onesimus. Thus, Philemon was a preacher-slave owner. Onesimus was an indentured servant; that had a Christian master, i.e. a slave master. We glean a lot of information from this book. The book of Philemon is included in this series of lessons, because it was one of the books Paul wrote during his first imprisonment at Rome. Thus, it is one of Paul's Prison Epistles, written near the same time as the books of Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. As we have said, Philemon was associated with the church at Colosse. We shall cover Paul's two books to Timothy and the book to Titus at a later time in a series we shall call: Paul's Letters to Preachers, written AT A LATER TIME after Paul was released from his FIRST Roman imprisonment. However, it seems more natural to cover the book of Philemon here and now; because, it was associated with the church at Colosse and since it was written at or near the same time as the book of Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians.
Now, let me double back on a couple items, just here. First, let me ask you: What kind of a church was that at Colosse? What kind of a church was that at Philippi? and what kind of a church was that at Ephesus. Do you think they might have been Lutheran churches? or Calvin churches? What about Armstrongism? What about Methodist, or Holiness, or Adventist? When Paul wrote to the Romans (ch. 16:16), Paul said: "the churches of Christ salute you." THAT no doubt included the church at Philippi, where Paul had been only a few weeks before he wrote the Roman letter. Obviously, it included the church at Ephesus, where Paul had recently completed a three year stay, establishing that church. And, who would doubt that salute to the Romans included the Colossian church also? There was ONLY one church. All these congregations of the Lord's church taught the same doctrine, the same gospel. They taught truth. Jesus said to the Heavenly Father, "Thy word is truth." (John 17:17). There were no creed books, no' earthly headquarters, no general conferences, conventions, or councils. As Paul wrote these letters, from that prison in Rome, all congregations were simply churches of Christ. It's just that simple. Denominationalism had not yet raised its ugly head. It simply was not there.
The second item I wanted to double back to here is this: I keep mentioning Paul's FIRST imprisonment at Rome. That implies a second. And, it is generally thought that Paul was acquitted and released from this first Roman imprisonment about AD 62 or, in other words, very soon after these four books were written. However, it is generally believed ALSO that Paul was imprisoned in Rome AGAIN only two or three years later. The second time Paul was not released; but, executed. That must have been perhaps AD 64, or AD 65, or possibly even a little later than that. Reference to that occasion is why Paul said to Timothy, near the end of II Timothy: "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..." (II Tim. 4:6-7).
Now, if you will permit me to be so boring as to mention a few more dates; you will remember we have (in our previous studies) mentioned the Roman- Jewish war, more popularly known as the War of AD 70. This Roman-Jewish war was the war that terminated the Jewish nation and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. THIS, Jesus discussed with Peter, Andrew, James and John on the side of Mt. Olivett (recorded back in Matt. ch. 24, Mark ch. 13 and Luke ch. 21). That war actually began about AD 66 or AD 67 and, of course, ended in the fall of AD 70, from whence the war takes its name. The reason I take the time to mention this here is simply to help you, hopefully, to develop a more consecutive and a better rounded-out mental picture of the decade of the AD 60's. You see, it was only shortly after Paul wrote these books, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, that Paul was apparently released for a short time, two or three year. Then, he was imprisoned again. Not much is known about his second imprisonment. Paul was probably murdered at the hand of Roman guards. He must have died just about the time the war started or possibly a few months before the war began. That war destroyed and dissolved the Jewish nation for ever. We talked about this when we covered Romans ch. nine. Many of the Jewish people were enslaved at that time. All of these things, of course, drastically effected every congregation of the Lord's church. Many Christians were Jews; not only in Judea and the homeland; but also scattered over the empire. Thus, as we read and study what Paul said TO these churches AND IN these epistles; keep mentally bouncing the text off-of that decade of the AD 60's. If they could have only seen with 20-20 foresight what they clearly saw with 20-20 hindsight only a few short years down the road; Paul's words in these epistles would more likely have been heeded. However, built into this is a great lesson for you and for me that we must be ready always (as Peter said in I Pet. 3:15). Concerning our Lord's second coming; Paul said to the Thessalonians (I trust you remember back in I Thess. 5:2-3), "The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. FOR when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape." In our next lesson, we shall start our actual study in the book of Ephesians. All of our time will be spent in introducing Ephesians. Before starting lesson # 2, would you consider some home work? Please do a precursory reading of the book of Ephesians. Until lesson # 2, this is saying: have a good day.