Summary and Analysis
Letters Written in Captivity
When Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, he expressed hope that he would visit the church in that city as soon as arrangements could be made following his journey to the city of Jerusalem. The visit to Rome was delayed for about three years, but when he finally reached the city, he arrived as a prisoner awaiting trial before the court of the emperor. While in Jerusalem, he was arrested on the charge of causing a riot in the Temple. After being held in prison in Caesarea for about two years, he was transferred to Rome at his own request to be tried. After spending about three years as a prisoner in Rome, he was tried and convicted.
Seven letters in the New Testament initially were credited to Paul on the assumption that he wrote them while a prisoner in Rome. However, three of these letters — 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus — now are generally recognized as belonging to a period somewhat later than Paul's death, and many New Testament scholars believe the same is true of the Epistle to the Ephesians, but the authorship question is in no way a completely settled issue. However, in all four of these letters, Paul's influence is recognizable; possibly they were written by disciples of Paul who wrote in accordance with the instruction that they believed he would have given. Three other letters — Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians — are still regarded as genuine letters of Paul, although some question remains about where they were written, for no conclusive evidence indicates whether it was Rome or Ephesus, in both of which Paul was a prisoner.
The Epistle to the Philippians is an informal correspondence that Paul sent in response to a gift he received from the church at Philippi. Knowing that Paul was in prison and probably in need of material benefits, the Philippian church sent one of its members, Epaphroditus, with a gift of money and the intention of staying with Paul to assist him in any way that Epaphroditus could. However, Epaphroditus became ill and was forced to return home, and Paul sent this letter to the church of Philippi with him.
The letter begins with an expression of thanks for the gift and a prayer for the well-being of the church. With reference to his own personal experience, Paul says that his only desire is to be free from prison so that he might be of greater service to the church. Regarding it a great privilege to be counted worthy to suffer for the cause of Christ, he writes a famous hymn concerning Jesus, "who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." Paul commends this spirit of humility and service to the church at Philippi, urging that its members be of the same mind as that which was manifest in Jesus.
Paul tells the church members that Timothy will visit them in the near future and asks that they receive him with kindness. Interrupting the main course of his letter to warn against the propaganda being circulated by Jewish legalists, he reviews his own experiences with Judaism and his conversion to the Christian faith. With a few practical admonitions and a prayer for God's blessing on the Philippian church, Paul closes the letter.
The Epistle to Philemon, a very short letter dealing with only one topic, certainly was written by Paul. Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave, had in some way contacted Paul and come under the influence of the Christian gospel. For Paul, the situation was in some respects threatening: For a slave to desert his master was considered a very serious offense legally punishable by death, and anyone who apprehended a runaway slave was to return the slave immediately to the slave's master. How long Paul knew about Onesimus we are not told, but evidently it was long enough for Onesimus to receive instruction concerning the meaning of the gospel. Once Onesimus accepted the Christian gospel, Paul insisted that the slave return to his master.
Paul's purpose in writing this letter is to request that Philemon not only take back Onesimus as his slave but that he treat him as a brother in Christ. The letter is written in a most tactful manner, for Paul knows that Philemon has a legal right to put Onesimus to death. Paul therefore appeals to Philemon's conscience as a Christian brother to recognize that Onesimus is not only a slave but also a child of God. In the eyes of the Roman government, Onesimus is a criminal deserving of death, but as Christians, both he and his master are brothers in Christ.
The Epistle to the Colossians is addressed to a church that Paul did not visit. Epaphras, a visitor from Colossae, came to see Paul and brought news and greetings from the Christians in that city. Following a series of conversations with this visitor, Paul wrote his letter to the Colossian church. One of the main purposes of the letter is to warn the church members about a certain dangerous philosophy that was making inroads in that community. The particular doctrine that Paul apparently had in mind was a form of Gnosticism, a mixture of both philosophical and religious ideas. Believing that matter is evil and only spirit is good, the Gnostics held that the physical world was not created by a supreme being because a perfect deity would not have direct contact with an evil world. The world came into existence through the action of a series of intermediary beings whose worship was a necessary means toward human salvation. Paul writes that in Jesus there dwells all the fullness of the Godhead; there is no need for the worship of these intermediary powers. Furthermore, he rejects the asceticism and the sensual indulgence associated with the Gnostic conceptions of salvation.
The letters that Paul wrote while a prisoner either in Ephesus or in Rome are the latest writings of his that are preserved in the New Testament. They represent his most mature thought concerning the meaning of Christianity and are of special value for that reason. Although he has some things to say with reference to particular problems in local churches, he mainly discusses the significance of Jesus' life in relation to both the salvation of human beings and its place in the scheme of the universe as a whole. The letters are also of interest because they reveal the changes that took place in Paul's own thinking during the years following his conversion to Christianity. Perhaps the most significant change that can be noted in these later writings lies in the fact that Paul no longer talks about the end of the age in terms of Jewish apocalypticism. His teaching emphasizes the quality of living that is made possible when a person's life is transformed by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ.
Some critics maintain that in Paul's later years, he speaks less about the historic Jesus and more about the cosmic Christ. This criticism can be misleading if it suggests that, for Paul, the earthly life of Jesus was unimportant or did not provide the foundation on which Christianity is built. On the other hand, in Paul's judgment, the power of the one and only God of the universe, working in Jesus, makes Jesus' life significant and thus brings to all humanity an opportunity to see how the redemption of humanity can be achieved.