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OBSERVATIONS ON THE APOSTOLICAL EPISTLES IN GENERAL, AND
THOSE OF SAINT PAUL IN PARTICULAR.
1. Importance of the Epistles. - Nature of these writings. - II. .
Number and order of the Epistles, particularly those of Saint Paul. - III. Of the Catholic Epistles, and their order. - IV. General plan of the Apostolic Epistles. – V. Causes of their obscurity considered and explained. – Observations on the phrase
ology of Saint Paul in particular. I. THE Epistles, or letters addressed to various Christian communities, and also to individuals, by the apostles Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude, form the second principal division of the New Testa
These writings abundantly confirm all the material facts related in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. The particulars of our Saviour's life and death are often referred to in them, as grounded upon the undoubted testimony of eye-witnesses, and as being the foundation of the Christian religion. The speedy propagation of the Christian faith, recorded in the Acts, is confirmed beyond all contradiction by innumerable passages in the Epistles, written to the churches already planted; and the miraculous gifts, with which the apostles were endued, are often appealed to in the same writings, as an undeniable evidence of the divine mission of the apostles.
Though all the essential doctrines and precepts of the Christian religion were unquestionably taught by our Saviour himself, and are contained in the Gospels, yet it is evident to any person who attentively studies the Epistles, that they are to be considered as commentaries on the doctrines of the Gospel, addressed to particular Christian societies or persons, in order to explain and apply those doctrines more fully, to confute some growing errors, to compose differences and schisms, to reform abuses and corruptions, to excite Christians to holiness, and to encourage them against persecutions. And since these epistles were written (as we have already shown) under divine inspiration, and have uniformly been received by the Christian church as the productions of inspired writers, it consequently follows, (notwithstanding some writers have insinuated that they are not of equal authority with the Gospels, while others would reject them altogether) that what the apostles have delivered in these epistles, as necessary to be believed or done by Christians, must be as necessary to be believed and practised in order to salvation, as the doctrines
chaelis's Introduction, vol. i. pp. 149–159. Bp. Newton's Dissertation on Saint Paul's Eloquence. (Works, vol. v. pp. 248–271.) Dr. Kennicott's Remarks on the Old Testament and Sermons, pp. 369–379. Dr. A. Clarke on 1 Tim. vi. 15. and 2 Tim. iv. 8. 1 See it particularly 1 Cor. xii. and xiv.
and precepts delivered by Jesus Christ himself, and recorded in the Gospels; because, in writing these Epistles, the sacred penmen were the servants, apostles, ambassadors, and ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God, and their doctrines and precepts are the will, the mind, the truth, and the commandments of God himself. On account of the fuller displays of evangelical truth contained in this portion of the sacred volume, the Epistles have by some divines been termed the DOCTRINAL BOOKS of the New Testament.
That the preceding view of the Epistles is correct, will appear from the following considerations.
In the first place, they announce and explain DOCTRINES, of which our Saviour had not fully treated in his discourses, and which consequently are not clearly delivered in the Gospels.
Thus there were some things which our Saviour did not fully and clearly explain to his disciples (John xvi. 12.), but accommodated his expressions to those prejudices in which they had been educated. Of this description were his discourses concerning the nature of his kingdom ; which, agreeably to the erroneous notions then entertained by their countrymen, the apostles expected would be a temporal kingdom, and accompanied with the same pomp and splendour which are the attendants of an earthly monarchy. This opinion was so deeply rooted in the minds of the apostles, that Jesus Christ did not think proper to eradicate it all at once, but rather chose to remove it by gentle and easy degrees. Accordingly, in compliance with their prejudices, we find him describing his kingdom, and the pre-eminence they were to enjoy in it, by eating and drinking at his table, and sitting on thrones, and judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke xxii. 30. Matt. xix. 28.)
But after the Holy Spirit had given the apostles clear and distinct apprehensions of the spiritual nature of Christ's kingdom, and the real nature of its happiness, we find what noble representations they give of the glories which are laid up in heaven for true Christians, and what powerful arguments they derive thence, in order to persuade them not to set their minds upon the things of this world. They describe the happiness of the world to come by an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away (1 Pet. i. 4.): by a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Pet. iij. 12.), where God shall be all in all (1 Cor. xv. 28.): he shall reign with an absolute dominion, and it shall be our honour and happiness that God is exalted ; and they exhort us not to set our minds upon the things that are seen, and are temporal, but on those things which are not seen, and are eternal. (2 Cor. iv. 18.)
Again, it was the same prejudice concerning the temporal glories of Christ's kingdom which caused his disciples to misunderstand the meaning of his various clear and explicit discourses concerning his sufferings, death, and resurrection. (See Mark ix. 10. Luke ix. 45. xviii. 34.) They vainly expected that their master would gain earth
1 Dr. Whitby's General Preface to the Epistles, ø 1. On the subject of the preceding paragraph, see also Archbp. Magee's Discourses, vol. i. pp. 471–474. and vol. i. p. 317. et seq.
ly conquests and triumphs, and they could not apprehend how he should become glorious through sufferings. In consequence of these mistaken ideas, the doctrine of the cross and its saving effects were not understood by the apostles (Matt. xvi. 22.), until our Saviour had opened their understandings by his discourses on this subject after his resurrection ; and therefore we cannot expect so perfect an exposition of that great and fundamental article of Christianity in the Gospels as in the Epistles, in which Christ's dying for our sins, and rising again for our justification, is every where insisted upon as the foundation of all our hopes ; and the doctrine of the cross is there spoken of as a truth of such importance, that Saint Paul, (1 Cor. ii. 2.) in comparison of it, despises every other kind of knowledge, whether divine or human. Hence it is that the Apostles deduce those powerful motives to obedience, which are taken from the love, humility, and condescension of our Lord, and the right which he has to our service, having purchased us with the price of his blood. (See 1 Cor. vi. 20. 2 Cor. v. 15. Gal. ii. 20. Tit. ii. 14. 1 Pet. i. 18, 19.) Hence they derive those great obligations, which lie upon Christians to exercise the duties of mortification and selfdenial ; of crucifying the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal. v. 24. vi. 14. Rom. vi. 6. 1. Pet. iv. 1, 2.); of patience under afflicEions, and rejoicing in tribulations (Phil. iii. 10. 2 Tim. ii. 11, 12. 1. Pet. ii. 19, &c. iv. 13.); of being dead to this world, and seeking those things which are above where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1., &c.) Thus, as our Saviour spoiled principalities and powers, and triumphed over his enemies by the cross (Col. ii. 15.), so the believer overcomes the world by being crucified to it ; and ben comes more than conqueror through Christ that loved him.
Once more, it is in the Epistles principally, that we are clearly taught the calling of the Gentiles to make one church with the Jews. Our Lord, indeed, had intimated this glorious event in some general expressions, and also in some of his parables (see Matt. vùi. 1. xx. 1. Luke xv. 11., &c.); and the numerous prophecies of the Old Testament, which foretel the calling of the Gentiles, were sufficient to convince the Jews, that in the times of the Messiah, God would reveal the knowledge of himself and his will to the world more fully than ever he had done before. But the extraordinary value which they had for themselves, and the privileges which they fancied were peculiar to their own nation, made them unwilling to believe that the Gentiles should ever be fellow-heirs with the Jews, of the same body or church with them, and partakers of the same promises in Christ by the Gospel. (Eph. iii. 5.) This Saint Peter himself could hardly be persuaded to believe, till he was convinced by a particular vision vouchsafed to him for that purpose. (Acts x. 28.) And Saint Paul tells us that this was a mystery which was but newly revealed to the apostles by the Spirit (Eph. iii. 5.) : and therefore not fully discovered by Christ before.
Lastly, it is in the Epistles chiefly that the inefficacy of the law to procure our justification in the sight of God, the cessation of the law, and the eternal and unchangeable nature of Christ's priesthood, are set forth. Compare Rom. iii. 20. 25. Gal. ii. 21. iii. 16. y. 2. 5. Heb. ix. 10. vii. 18. v. 5, 6. vii. 24, 25.
SECONDLY, in the Epistles only we have instructions concerning many great and necessary DUTIES.
Such are the following, viz. that all our thanksgivings are to be offered up to God in the name of Christ. The duties which we owe to our civil governors are only hinted in these words of Christ “ Render unto Casar the things that are Casar's," but are enlarged upon in Saint Paul's Epistles to the Romans (xiii.), and to Titus (ii. 1.,) and also in the first Epistle of Saint Peter. (ii. 10. 17.) In like manner the duties, which we owe to the ministers of the Gospel (our spiritual governors), are more expressly taught in Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (vi. 6.), the Thessalonians (1 Thess. v. 12, 13.), and to the Hebrews. (xiii. 17, 18.) Lastly, all the duties belonging to the relations of husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, are particularly treated in the Epistles to the Ephesians (v. 28–33. vi. 1—9.), and the Colossians (ii. 11---25.) ; but are scarcely ever mentioned in the Gospels. This is a convincing argument that the Holy Spirit, who influenced the pens of the apostles, not only regarded the particular exigences of the Christians who lived in those times, but also directed the sacred writers to enlarge on such points of doctrine and practice, as were of imiversal concern, and would be for the benefit of the faithful in all succeeding generations. It is true that the immediate occasion of several of the epistles was the correction of errors and irregularities in particular churches :3 but the experience of all succeeding ages, to our own time, has shown the necessity of such cautions, and the no less necessity of attending to the duties which are directly opposite to those sins and irregularities, and which the apostles take occasion from thence to lay down and enforce. And even their decisions of cases concerning meats and drinks, and the observation of the ceremonial law, and similar doubts which were peculiar to the Jewish converts, in the first occasion of them :-- even these rules also are, and will always be, our surest guides in all points relating to church liberty, and the use of things indifferent ; when the grounds of those decisions, and the directions consequent upon them, are duly attended to, and applied to cases of the like nature by the rules of piety and prudence, especially in one point, which is of universal concern in life, viz. the duty of abstaining from many things which are in themselves innocent, if we foresee that they will give offence to weak Christians, or be the occasion of leading others into sin.
II. The Epistles contained in the New Testament are twentyone in number, and are generally divided into two classes, the Epistles of Saint Paul, and the Catholic Epistles. Of these apostolical letters, fourteen were written by the great apostle of the Gentiles; they are not placed in our Bibles according to the order of time when they were composed, but according to the supposed precedence of the societies or persons to whom they were addressed. Thus, the Epistles to churches are disposed according to the rank of the cities or places whither they were sent. The Epistle to the Romans stands first, because Rome was the chief city of the Roman empire : this is followed by the two Epistles to the Corinthians, because Corinth was a large, polite, and renowned city. To them succeeds the Epistle to the Galatians, who were the inhabitants of Galatia, a region of Asia Minor, in which were several churches. Next follows the Epistle to the Ephesians, because Ephesus was the chief city of Asia Minor, strictly so called. Afterwards come the Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians; for which order Dr. Lardner can assign no other probable reason than this, viz. that Philippi was a Roman colony, and therefore the Epistle to the Philippians was placed before those to the Colossians and Thessalonians, whose cities were not distinguished by any particular circumstance. He also thinks it not unlikely that the shortness of the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, especially of the second, caused them to be placed last among the letters addressed to churches, though in point of time they are the earliest of Saint Paul's Epistles, and indeed the first written of all the sacred Scriptures of the New Testament.
1 Compare Eph. v. 8. 20. 1 Thess. v. 18. Heb. xiii. 14, 15.
2 Whiiby, vol. ii. p. 1. Lowth's Directions for the Profitable Reading of the Scriptures, pp. 199-211.
3 Such were the corrupting of Christianity with mixtures of Judaism and philosophy, apostacy from the faith which they had received, contentions and divisions among themselves, neglect of the assemblies for public worship, and misbehaviour in them, the dishonouring of marriage, &c. &c.
Among the Epistles addressed to particular persons, those to Timothy have the precedence, as he was a favourite disciple of Saint Paul, and also because those Epistles are the longest and fullest. To them succeeds the Epistle to Titus, who was an evangelist; and that to Philemon is placed last, as he was supposed to have been only a private Christian. Last of all comes the Epistle to the Hebrews, because its authenticity was doubted for a short time (though without any foundation, as will be shown in a subsequent page); Dr. Lardner also thinks that it was the last written of all Saint Paul's Epistles.
Some learned men, who have examined the chronology of Saint Paul's Epistles, have proposed to arrange them in our Bibles, according to the order of time : but to this classification there are two serious objections, viz. 1. The order of their dates has not yet been satisfactorily or unanimously settled ; and, 2. Very considerable difficulty will attend the alteration of that order which has been adopted in all the editions and versions of the New Testament. This was the received arrangement in the time of Eusebius, who flourished in the beginning of the third century, and probably also of Irenæus, who lived in the second century. Consequently it is the most antient order : in Dr. Lardner's judgment it is the best thrat can be adopted;' and therefore we have retained the received order in the subsequent part of this work. As, however, a knowledge of the order in which Saint Paul's Epistles were written, cannot fail to be both instructive and useful to the biblical student, we have deemed
1 Dr. Lardner's Works, 8vo. vol. vi. pp. 646–649.; 4to. vol. iii. pp. 407, 408.