|Topical Bible Study||September 1953|
Know Your Bible—Part IX
Paul’s Letters to Christians at Rome and Corinth
THE book of Acts is the last historical book of the Bible. With the exception of Revelation, which is largely prophetic, the remainder of the New Testament is made up of epistles, or letters, written by different apostles to various congregations of the Early Church, and some to individuals. This article will examine the letters of Paul to the churches at Rome and Corinth.
While there are many and varied thoughts set forth in the epistles found in the New Testament, each one seems to have been prompted by a special need which the writer discerned and which he endeavored to supply. Thus each of these letters has a main theme to which all its subject matter is directly or indirectly related.
Paul’s letter to the brethren in Rome indicates that this congregation was made up partly of Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, and partly of Gentile converts to Christianity. As we noted in our review of the Book of Acts, this situation created a problem for both Jewish and Gentile Christians.
The issue in the Roman church was similar to that which troubled the brethren in other places. The Jewish Christians, accustomed to thinking of their relationship to God in terms of their Law and its ordinances, found it difficult to recognize Gentile converts to Christ as really being in the favor of God unless they consented, at least, to circumcision of the flesh.
Gentile converts, on the other hand, never having been under the Law, readily grasped the idea of their freedom in Christ, and resented the thought of being brought under the bondage of the Law in deference to their Jewish brethren. Paul had not as yet been in Rome, nevertheless he learned of the situation there and, in keeping with his apostolic responsibility toward the church, wrote “The Epistle to the Romans,” in an effort to help the brethren see the way of the Lord more clearly.
The theme of the epistle is the manner by which a Christian may know that he is in harmony with God, and enjoying the privileges of the Gospel of Christ which is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16) Paul touches upon this theme at many points throughout the epistle and by various forms of expression.
In chapter five, verse one, he refers to it as ‘justification.’ In chapter eight, verse one, he describes it as a condition in which there is “no condemnation.” In verse sixteen of the same chapter he speaks of it as the ‘witness of the Spirit’ that we are the “children of God.” In verses thirty-three and thirty-four, also of the same chapter, he becomes eloquent on the point, and declares, “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”
In chapter twelve, verses one and two, he reaches the climax of his lesson, and shows that nothing short of a full, sacrificial devotion to God, through Christ, can, during this age, place one in a position of favor before the Lord. Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The rest of the epistle presents the details of God’s will for the consecrated Christian.
Closely related to this leading theme of the epistle is Paul’s presentation of the fact that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners in God’s sight, and that the only means of approach to him is through the merit of the shed blood of Christ. It was the Law, some features of which the undeveloped Jewish Christians in Rome were seeking to impose upon Gentile converts, which had brought the Jews under condemnation. The Gentiles, on the other hand, by nature also stood guilty before God because, although never having been given a written law by him, they “are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts.”—Rom. 2:14,15
Thus, as Paul presented it, “all the world may become guilty before God.” (Rom. 3:19) The Jewish Christians realized, in a sense, that they needed Christ, yet felt that they also should at least practice circumcision; but in the fourth chapter Paul corrects this false impression. He points out to them that Abraham was justified by his faith before he was circumcised, that it was not circumcision that gave him justification before God, but his faith in the promises of God. How much more, therefore, would this be true of Christians, both Jewish and Gentile.
In order to impress upon his readers the ineffectiveness of the Law as a medium of justification and salvation, Paul relates his own disheartening effort to gain a standing before God by keeping the Law. This personal touch of the epistle is found in the seventh chapter. In verse twenty-four he likens the Law to a dead body to which he was chained, and cried, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Then, in the next verse, Paul points to the true way of justification and life, saying, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” that is, I thank God that through Jesus Christ I can be delivered from death. Then the eighth chapter begins with the assurance, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” For a truly marvelous presentation of God’s grace through Christ to every consecrated Christian, we suggest a rereading of chapter eight. Every line is beautiful and reassuring.
Throughout the early chapters of the epistle, Paul is particularly severe toward his fellow countrymen because of their slowness in grasping the fullness of Divine grace through Christ. Judging from the opening verses of the ninth chapter, it would almost seem that he feared they would infer that he was prejudiced against his own people, so he assured them that this was not so. He wrote, “I speak the Truth in Christ, I do not speak falsely, my conscience co-attesting with me, in a holy Spirit, that I have great Grief and Unceasing Anguish in my heart, on account of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the Flesh; (for I myself was wishing to be accursed from the Anointed one.)”—vss. 1-3, Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott
These opening verses of the ninth chapter introduce what might be considered a parenthesis inserted in the main theme of the epistle, dealing with the position of the natural descendants of Abraham, the Jewish nation, which rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The climax of this brief presentation is reached in chapter eleven, where Paul shows that although Israel was temporarily cast off because of unbelief, and did not obtain the great prize of joint-heirship with Jesus, they are yet to attain salvation.
In this chapter, Paul likens the great Oathbound Covenant with Abraham concerning the blessing of all the families of the earth through a “seed” to an olive tree, the natural branches springing from its trunk being the Jewish people at the time of Christ. He shows that, because of unbelief, most of these natural branches were broken off, and that Gentile branches were being grafted in to take their places.
Thus he reasons that this great loss of natural Israel led to “the reconciling of the world,” an opportunity, that is, for Gentiles who accept Christ to be reconciled to God, and by being grafted into the Israelitish olive tree, become joint-heirs with him in his kingdom. (vss. 12-22) But the time is coming, Paul adds, when natural Israel will be received back into Divine favor, and adds, “If the casting away of them be the reconciling of the [Gentile] world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?”—vs. 15
Speaking of Israel’s blindness with respect to Jesus being their Messiah, Paul explains that this would continue “until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in,” adding, “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion [symbol of Christ and his completed church] the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” (vss. 25,26) That will mean, as Paul asserts, ‘life from the dead.’ It will then be time for the resurrection of the dead to begin.
PAUL wrote two letters to the church at Corinth. They are generally referred to as I and II Corinthians. An important fact in connection with all the apostolic letters of the New Testament is that they are addressed exclusively to Christians, never to the world in general. Their subject matter is not suitable for unbelievers, and any attempt to apply it to such distorts its meaning. Notice the opening salutation of I Corinthians.
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”—vss. 1-3
Although Paul addresses the brethren in Corinth as the church of God, and speaks of them as being ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints,’ his letter to them indicates that they were far from being mature Christians. The epistle was written, in fact, to correct wrong practices among the Corinthian brethren and to point out the way of the Lord more clearly.
In the tenth verse of the first chapter Paul comes to the point of one of their difficulties, saying, “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” The reason for this admonition appears a few verses further on where he says, “Every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”—vss. 12,13
In other words, a sectarian spirit of division was creeping into the church at Corinth, and one of the objects of Paul’s letter was to help the brethren see how wrong it was, how unchristian. A considerable portion of the epistle is directly or indirectly related to this problem. Much of the twelfth chapter is a setting forth of the oneness of the body of Christ, showing that while individuals in that body may be given different opportunities of service, they are all parts of the one body. “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” Paul wrote.—vs. 13
The thirteenth and fourteenth chapters point out the way of love, and how this godly principle should rule in the church, enabling all its members to work together in one spirit. There is service for all in the body of Christ, and when love is ruling in Christian hearts all of its members will work together harmoniously to the glory of God.
The opening verses of chapter six reveal that the brethren were plagued by difficulties among themselves, considered by them so serious that they were bringing each other into the civil courts to obtain justice. Paul corrects this also, and in doing so, reminds the reader of one of the future services to be enjoyed by those who will be associated with Jesus in his kingdom. He writes, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?”—vss. 1,2
Among some of the other problems which Paul endeavored to solve for the Corinthian brethren in this epistle were along domestic lines. (1) The proper attitude of converted slaves toward their masters, (2) the attitude of masters towards slaves, (3) whether or not to eat meat offered to idols, and (4) whether those serving the church in spiritual matters can properly expect the brethren to provide their material needs.
In this last connection, Paul explained that while according to the Law a workman was worthy of his hire, and that it was not proper to muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn, nevertheless he was not taking advantage of this, but was providing for himself. To do this Paul worked as a ‘tentmaker.’—I Cor. 9:7-15; Acts 18:1-3
Paul referred to this when he wrote that he kept his body under, or, as the Greek text states it, “I browbeat [American Standard Version, buffet] my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”—ch. 9:27
Apparently some of the brethren in the church at Corinth were quite immature along doctrinal lines. In the fifteenth chapter of the epistle Paul asks, “How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (vs. 12) The Jewish sect of the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, and perhaps some of these living in Corinth had accepted Christ in a measure, but still held to their unbelief regarding the resurrection.
Whatever the reason, Paul devoted this entire chapter to the subject of the resurrection. He showed first that Christ was raised from the dead; that if this were not true our faith would be vain. He showed that the death and resurrection of Jesus opened the way for the resurrection of all the dead. “As in Adam all die,” he wrote, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”—vs. 22
Paul then explained the order in which the resurrection will take place—“Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.” Properly translated, this last expression would read, ‘Afterward they who become Christ’s during his presence.’—vs. 23
Verses twenty-four through twenty-eight reveal that the period of Christ’s presence, during which the general resurrection will take place—following the ‘first resurrection’ of the church, the ‘firstfruits’—is the time of his kingdom reign. Christ must reign, Paul asserts, until he has put all enemies under his feet, and “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”—vs. 26
The glorious consummation of the Divine plan for the reconciliation of the lost world to God is beautifully stated in verse twenty-eight, which reads, “When all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” Incidentally, what more definite proof could we have that the Heavenly Father and his beloved Son are not one and the same person!
A CONSIDERABLE portion of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, even as the first, is devoted to local conditions in the church at Corinth, although the approach is somewhat different. In his first letter, the apostle condemned the church in a very forceful manner for their various wrong viewpoints and practices. He told them that they were sectarian, that there was fornication among them, that they were wrong in appealing to the civil courts to settle difficulties among themselves.
It seems that Paul learned that this letter had made the brethren feel very “sorry.” Nevertheless, it was a godly sorrow which, as he says, “worketh repentance.” (II Cor. 2:2; 7:10) The letter had a salutary effect for which the apostle was glad. In his second letter, without in any way indicating that he regretted anything he had said in the first epistle, he nevertheless manifestly endeavored to heal any wounds it might possibly have caused. The letter reveals the largeness of Paul’s heart, and his sincere desire to see all the brethren work together in unity, peace, and brotherly love.
Chapters three through six are, in a general way, devoted to a very important doctrinal aspect of the Divine plan, particularly as it relates to the church’s participation with Jesus in what Paul describes as the “ministry of reconciliation.” He introduces this lesson by referring to the ancient tables (or tablets) of the Law which were given to Moses, and shows that they were typical of the “fleshy tables of the heart” which he describes as the “epistle of Christ.”—II Cor. 3:3
Moses was mediator of that original Law Covenant, and Jesus and the church will be the Mediator of the New Covenant which was foreshadowed by the Law Covenant. Just as Israel was taught the Law contained on those original tables of stone so, through the church, Christ will teach the people the law of the New Covenant. Thus Paul refers to the church as being “able ministers of the new testament [covenant].”—vs. 6
This writing of the ‘epistle of Christ,’ antitypical of the tables of the Law, is being accomplished, Paul wrote, by the Spirit of God. The former he refers to as being “of the letter,” and the latter “of the spirit.” The former was a ministration of death because, not being able to measure up to the requirements of the Law the Jews were brought under condemnation. But the ministration of the Spirit, Paul writes, “giveth life.”
This, indeed, is the design of God in connection with the New Covenant—through its terms all mankind will be given an opportunity to receive life. Not that the law of that covenant will be any less perfect, but because the blood of Jesus by which it will be sealed will be efficacious to cleanse the people from unrighteousness.
This is still future. Speaking of the glory on the face of Moses’ countenance when he came down from the mountain bearing the tables of the Law, Paul compares it with the glory which will be associated with the inauguration of the New Covenant, and shows that the church will share in that glory with Jesus, as ‘able ministers’ of the New Covenant. He says that the former glory “had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech.”—vss. 10-12
Paul’s use of the word ‘hope’ indicates that the ‘glory’ he is speaking of, the glory of being associated with the inauguration of the New Covenant, is yet future. We do not hope for that which we already possess. Paul speaks of this hoped-for glory as one which excelleth. He uses this hope of glory as an encouragement in affliction when in the next chapter he writes, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”—II Cor. 4:17,18
In the opening verses of chapter five the apostle continues this same means of encouragement finally getting back to the subject of the church’s part in the ministry of reconciliation. In the opening verse of chapter six, he speaks of this as our being “workers together” with the Lord. Throughout the remainder of this chapter he exhorts to Christian faithfulness in order that “the ministry be not blamed.”—vs. 3
It would seem that some in the church at Corinth were questioning Paul’s appointment by the Lord to be one of the apostles, so through most of chapters eleven and twelve he presents evidence to substantiate his position of authority in the church. Chief among these were the many ways in which he had had the privilege of suffering for Christ and the fact that the Lord had favored him with special visions which enabled him to understand clearly the great plan of God, and thus to minister it effectively to others. In one of these visions he was caught up to the “third heaven.”—II Cor. 12:2Go to Part X