Bible Study: History

The Sequence of Paul's 14 Epistles AD 52 to 69 !

by Dr. J.W. Bernard

After believing for many years that 2 Timothy was Paul's last letter, I found myself dismissing my solid proof.  My reason for 2 Timothy being the last letter was taken from chapter 4, verses 6 & 7: "For 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."  This seemed to be my rock-hard proof of the conclusion to his ministry.  To me, this had to be his last epistle.  My other reason for this conclusion was that in Acts 13:25 I read that Paul used similar word describing John the Baptist finishing his course or work up until that time.  

My commanding problem was that in Acts 20:24, Paul speaks of finishing his course also, but unlike John, he still had a long way to go.  Paul also spoke of "dying daily" or being appointed to death, etc. long before he wrote these words to Timothy of finishing his course.  This made me look again at the order of Paul's epistles.  Maybe 2nd Timothy was not the last.

No one I have read after has the final word on a chronological order of the Apostle Paul's Epistles.  That is, because it is difficult to be precise about the order of the events during his last days after the Acts period.  However, in comparing the Epistles with the historical book of Acts, we find somewhat of an order of his early Epistles.  As we establish the epistles written during the Acts period, we have those later epistles selected for us.

Paul's 8 Epistles written during the Acts period (AD 30 - 62)

These first two epistles of Paul were written soon after the conversion of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:8,9).  The news of their conversion was spreading (present tense verb) through Macedonia and Achaia.  Paul was taken from them for a brief period (1 Thess. 2:17) and was recently at Athens (1 Thess. 3:1).  He had already preached in Achaia (1 Thess. 1:7,8).  Timotheus and Silas just returned (1 Thess. 3:6) from Macedonia, which happened (Acts 18:5) soon after Paul's first arrival at Corinth.  Then about four years later he writes......

The date of this epistle is established more accurately than Paul's other epistles.  Apollos had been working at Corinth, and was now with Paul in Ephesus (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4,22; 4:6; 16:12).  During the writing of this epistle Paul resides at Ephesus (Acts 19:1), during the days of unleavened bread (1 Cor. 5:7) and intended on remaining at Ephesus until Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8).  He met with a disturbance in the theatre.  Aquila and Pricilla were with him at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19) and had taken up their residence at Ephesus just before the visit of Paul (Acts 18:26).  After leaving Ephesus, Paul arranged to go through Macedonia to Achaia (1 Cor. 16:5-7).  Also, at that time, the Great Collection was going on in Achaia (1 Cor. 16:1-3).  When he wrote to the Romans from Corinth during his three months' visit there (Acts 20:3), the collection was concluded in Macedonia and Achaia (Rom. 15:26).  Now, Paul hopes to go by Corinth to Jerusalem, and then to Rome (1 Cor. 16:4 & 15:25-28).  The time he entertained this personal plan was at the close of his Ephesian residence (Acts 19:21).

Paul was exposed to a great danger in Proconsular Asia, i.e. at Ephesus (2 Cor. 1:8).  This happened in Acts 19:23-41.  Paul traveled from Troas after staying there for some time and then made his voyage to Macedonia (Acts 20:1).  Paul was in Macedonia at the time of the writing (2 Cor. 9:2).  The verb is in the present tense.  He intended (2 Cor. 13:1) shortly to visit Corinth.  This was the course of his journey in Acts 20:2.

It is my understanding that this letter was not written before Paul's second visit to the Galatians.  He spoke of their conversion as having occurred at his first visit (4:13).  This hints to me of two visits.  "Am I now become your enemy by speaking truth among you?" (4:16) implies a second visit in which he had offended them.  He was welcome on his first visit.  However, Paul marvels that they forsake his teaching so quickly (1:6).  A comparison of the structure of the doctrine of Galatians and Romans indicate that they were written around the same time.  However, there is nothing in this epistle to fix the date of it.  Nor is there any external evidence of a conclusive nature supplied by other epistles.  The content of this letter is my basis for believing that it was written within a few months of the Roman epistle.

Paul had never been to Rome when he wrote this epistle (1:11-15).  He intended to go to Rome after visiting Jerusalem (15:23-28).  This was his purpose in Acts 19:21.  This gives us a time setting.  He was going to bear a collection of alms from Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem (15:26, 31).  He carried the collection from Corinth to Jerusalem at the close of this three months' visit (Acts 24:17).  When Paul wrote this epistle, Timotheus, Sosipater, Gaius and Erastus were with him (16:21-23).  Out of these four, Luke mentions three in the Acts as being with him at Corinth during the three months' visit (Acts 20:4).

Paul drops his Apostleship from this Philippian letter and the letter to the Hebrews.  This epistle was obviously written during his first imprisonment (AD 59) in a Roman prison (Acts 24:27).  The success of the gospel among the praetorian guard (Phil. 1:13) relates to Paul preaching the kingdom of God in Acts 28:31.  Paul has hope of soon sending Timothy to Philippi and also the hope of his release (Phil. 2:23, 24).  Philippians must have a prior date because the new themes of Ephesians and Colossians do not appear in the epistle.  This would place Philippians at a time long before Ephesians and Colossians and the late revelation of the mystery.  The lack of internal evidence in Philippians of the new and all important theme of "the mystery" gives weight to an early writing, long before "the mystery" was revealed.

I am fully persuaded that the author of this critical epistle to Hebrew believers was the apostle Paul.  Although he was distinctively and essentially the "apostle of the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13), his ministry was by no means confined to them, as the book of Acts clearly indicates.  At the time of Paul's arrest, the Lord said, "He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel" (Acts 9:15).  It is note worthy that our Lord mentions Israel last.  This corresponds with the fact that Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews was written after most of his epistles to the Gentiles.  It is clear from 2nd Peter 3:15 that this epistle was written by Paul.  Peter wrote to the Hebrews as the opening verses of his first epistle indicates.  Then in 2nd Peter 3:1, he says that this second epistle was also addressed to the same people as his first epistle.  In verses 15, he declares that his beloved brother Paul "also...hath written unto you."  If Hebrews is not that epistle, where is it?  Although this Epistle was Paul's crowning connection with to the Jews, it was his last.

A great change is approaching.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul says to the leaders of the Jews (Acts  28:17), "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet (Isa. 6: 9, 10): 'Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.  For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them'." (Acts 28: 26, 27).  Then Paul declared to them, "Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen."  This is when the Jews walked out on Paul (28: 25) and then he turned his back on the nation that he had first gone to (Romans 2:10; 3:1-6).  Now, he "welcomed all (Gentiles) who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance" because he no longer ministered to the Jews first who had been a trouble to him.

This same passage from Isaiah was used by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 13: 10-17.  After the Jews blasphemed (Matt. 12: 22-25) the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus told them that "the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.... in this age or in the age to come." (12: 31, 32).  This is when Jesus turned His back on the Jews and started teaching the public (13: 1, 2).  He severed all connections with His physical family (12: 46-49) and "went out of the house" (a picture of natural ties) "and sat beside the sea.  And great crowds gathered about him..."  THEN, Jesus changed the method of teaching.  He started using parables.  His disciples asked, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matt. 13: 10) and Jesus explained that He did not want the Jews to understand (13: 11-17).  So, he took the disciples aside and explained the parables to them.  He wanted them to understand.  The prophecy of parables is seen in Matthew 13: 34, 35.

So, what we have here is... two men, Jesus and Paul, turning their backs on the Jews and going to the multitudes AFTER they quote the passage from Isaiah 6: 9, 10.  The Jews had forfeited everything in Matthew 12 and as the apparent second chance was given to them during the Acts period, Paul saw that there was no use in prolonging what was apparently dead and over, he turned his back on them also.  These Epistles that follow are under the new administration of Paul.    (Quotes here are from the ESV.)

Paul's 6 Epistles written after the Acts period (AD 64 - 69) are:

Now, after Paul's release from prison (AD 64-67) he writes his first epistle as an Apostle to Timothy.  The epistle to Titus is soon to follow.  The two young ministers must have the correct organizational set up (for each local assembly) with order and structure.

Following his release, Paul begins his unrecorded 4th missionary journey.  His travel takes him east to Macedonia (1 Tim. 1:3) where he preaches the hope of the eternal life promised long ages ago (Titus 2:1).  During this period, he wrote two pastoral epistles, 1st Timothy and Titus.  Both of these young men needed further instruction by the apostle concerning organization and structure of the local assemblies.

Here we find Paul in prison (AD 67-69) for the second and last time.  Throughout Paul's imprisonment, the activities of the young preachers still banded together with him. He would send them out to various places with messages from him and then they would return with news from the churches.  However, at the writing of 2nd Timothy, Paul replaced Titus (at Crete) with Artemas (Titus 3:12).  Then Titus was sent to Dalmatia after his visit with Paul at Nicopolis, the winter before Paul's last imprisonment (Titus 3:12 and 2 Tim. 4:10).  Tychicus is sent to Ephesus to visit and obviously reports back to Paul with one more important visit to Ephesus coming later (2 Tim. 4:12).  Luke remained a companion of Paul in his final imprisonment (2 Tim. 4:11).  Finally, Timothy is told to come and be with Paul in his last imprisonment (2 Tim. 1:8; 2:3).  Paul wanted Timothy's fellowship badly (2 Tim. 4:9, 21).  Remember, Timothy was with him in his first imprisonment.  He is told to bring with him Mark, who now can be of great use.  Paul's attitude in 2nd Timothy is one of quiet resolve, waiting for his final appointment of death.  He still speaks of the promise of life as his main message (2 Tim. 1:1, 10, 11).

Timothy must have completed his journey to see Paul (Colossians 1:1 & Philemon 1:1) and bring his friend Demas, whom he picked up in Thessalonica.  This caused great joy for Paul (Col.4:14).  These last epistles contain further truth that was revealed by the Holy Spirit only to Paul.  The divine (and very important) revelation of "the mystery" of the Body was given only to Paul and is explained in Ephesians (a circular letter to be carried to several churches), and Colossians.  This truth is put into practical application in the epistle to Philemon concerning his run away slave.  This subject, "the mystery" is the cap stone of Church teaching.

Paul was the only one who received the revelation of "the mystery" (Eph. 3:3).  If it had been known before Paul's calling, it would have been mentioned by someone.  It was not to be taken to the Jew first.  This new revelation of "the mystery" of the body (Eph. 3:9) must be made known to all men because it "had been hid in God."  Every mystery in the Word of God was taught and revealed as it was received from God.  The "mystery of Christ" was revealed little by little until it became very clear (Eph. 3:5).  Paul sent the message to Ephesus (or Laodicea) and Colossae by the hand of Tychicus (Col. 4:7 & Eph. 6:21).  For Tychicus had previously spent time in Ephesus and would be the likely candidate to carry the letter to Ephesus (or Laodicea) and Colossae.  So the 14 epistles close with the high and heavenly revelation of this new Body of Christ.  Paul's life did not end in discouragement.  It ended in great joy and peace as was found in Philemon.  The fact is, Paul is optimistic of his release by their prayers and a miracle of God (Philemon 22).  

The concluding statement of Paul in Colossians 1:25 is, "...to complete the Word of God."  I heard my friend, Russ Schaefer say that this statement should be enough for us to conclude that Colossians is the last writing of Paul, the Apostle.  Paul's last words were about GRACE.  In Colossians we find that the Christian is "complete in Christ,"  the Word of God is complete and that there is nothing to be added to the Christian experience.  This epistle closes the fourteen epistles with the high and heavenly revelation. 

The identifying mark of Paul's 14 epistles is:

These fourteen epistles are identified as Paul's in 2nd Thessalonians 3:17, 18.  He says, "The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen." This is the way that Paul signed "every epistle."  His "mark" was: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you."  And here are the fourteen references that mark Paul's epistles.

  1. 1st Thess. 5:28 - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen."
  2. 2nd Thess. 3:18 - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen."
  3. 1st Cor. 16:23 - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you."
  4. 2nd Cor. 13:14 - "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.  Amen."
  5. Gal. 6:18 - "Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen."
  6. Rom. 16:20 & 24 - "...The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen."
  7. Phil. 4:23 - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen."
  8. Heb. 13:25 - "Grace be with you all. Amen."
  9. 1st Tim. 6:21 - "Grace be with thee. Amen."
  10. Titus 3:15 - "Grace be with you all. Amen."
  11. 2nd Tim. 4:22 - "Grace be with you. Amen."
  12. Eph. 6:24 - "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen."
  13. Phile. 1:25 - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen."
  14. Col. 4:18 - "Grace be with you. Amen."

Paul's 11 sermons in the book of Acts

  1. Acts 9:20             in Damascus
  2. Acts 13:16-41      to Jews in Antioch
  3. Acts 14:15-17      in Lystra
  4. Acts 17:2, 3         in Thessalonica
  5. Acts 17:22-31      to Greeks in Athens
  6. Acts 18:5             in Corinth
  7. Acts 19:14; 20:21 in Ephesus
  8. Acts 20: 2-23       to Christians of Ephesus
  9. Acts 22:1-21        to Jews in Jerusalem
  10. Acts 24:10-21      to Roman Governor Felix
  11. Acts 26               to Jewish King Agrippa 2nd

The Use of Paul's Letters in the Church

Unlike today, where almost every home has a Bible, the first Christian writings were not composed for private devotion or edification.  They were public writings, intended for reading in the assembly.  Increasingly, they were read in the liturgy alongside selected readings from the Law and the Prophets.  This hastened the perception of Paul's letters as being Scripture and the Word of God--they came to be shared in the convictions held concerning Torah.  Because of such public and liturgical use, these writings also came to be employed in the preaching and teaching activities of the church.  So, Paul's letters were compiled, one by one to help shape the continuing tradition of the community, being quoted as authorities alongside passages from the Torah.

These writings were exchanged between churches for the purpose of being read aloud in the assembly.  The practice is reflected in Acts 15:23 where the apostolic letter is sent to gentile believers "in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia."  Second Corinthians is sent to "all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia" (2 Cor. 1:1).  Galatians is written for all the churches of that province (Ga. 1:2).  The Colossians and Laodiceans are to exchange the letters Paul wrote to each (Col. 4:16).  Ephesians and 1 Peter are circular letters, intended for numerous churches throughout a particular region.  These last two examples are especially interesting, as they indicate that already in the first Christian generation, news and admonition from an apostle of teacher to one community in particular became a source of encouragement for other communities as well.

It is very interesting that after A.D. 70, there are no more inspired writings that we have collected together to be called the Word of God.  However, in A.D. 95 Clement of Rome wrote a letter of exhortation to the Corinthian congregation in which he refers to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Clem. 47:2-4).  In addition, he makes extensive and unmistakable use of the letter to the Hebrews (1 Clem. 17:1-6; 36:1-6); cf. Eusebius Ecclesiastical History III.38.1). This means simply that both documents had by that time not only reached the Roman church but also attained significant authority there.  Some 20 years later (A.D.115), Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, wrote to the Ephesian church as he made his way to Rome and his eventual martyrdom.  He tells its members that Paul "in all his letters mentions your union with Christ Jesus" (Ign. Eph. 12.2).  We do not know how many of Paul's letters were known by Ignatius.  Certainly he knew 1 Corinthians (cf. Ign. Eph. 16:1; 18:1; Magn. 10:2; Trall. 2:3), and quite probably Romans (cf. Ign. Eph. 8.2; 18.2) and Ephesians (cf. Smyrn. 1.2; Pol. 5.1; 6.2).

Shortly thereafter, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, wrote to the Philippians, sending them his collection of the letters of Ignatius (Letter to the Philippians 13:2).  He not only recalls Paul's personal presence in that community, but refers to letters Paul wrote to them (3:2).  The style of Polycarp's letter makes the definite identification of specific Pauline texts difficult, but it is obvious that he knows and uses a large number of Pauline letters, including the Pastorals (4:1).  We have the author of 2 Peter speaking of "all" Paul's letters, regarding them as being "like other Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16).  These references suggest that collections of some or many of Paul's letters were extant by the end of the first decade of the second century in such major centers of Christianity as Rome, Corinth, Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus and Philippi, and that for such churches Paul's letters were already well on the way toward the status of "Scripture."

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