Hard Christianity

Hard Christianity: The Story Behind the Prison Epistles

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Locked in prison for preaching the Gospel, no money, little resources yet the will to encourage and exhort the newly formed body of believers; this is how the New Testament epistles find the Apostle Paul. Having founded churches in Rome, Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus, Paul is faced with issues spreading through the Christian congregation that require addressing, and address them he does. This glance back into the infancy of the church will reveal the historical context of Paul’s correspondence as well as reiterate the role of the Holy Spirit in the church and lives of believers.

As the early church blossomed, there arose those who continued to hold on to waning ideology, specifically the rules and regulations of Moses’ Law.  Though converted, conservative Jewish teachers still held on to the notions that in order to be God’s people one must obey the previous pact of God; the Ten Commandments. Along with the law there was the teaching that one must be circumcised as mandated to the Hebrews. Essentially, as Kulikovsky asserts, Gentiles who wished to be saved must have, grace under Christ as well as the law under Moses 1.  However, Paul clarified this point by asserting that circumcision was nothing; what mattered more was faith (Galatians 2:16, 20, NIV 2). Paul would further remark that preaching the law and circumcision was a perversion of the Gospel 3. It was a new day where acceptance into God’s royal family came only by belief in Jesus. This seven step conversion as expressed by Towns 4 is based upon acknowledging God, acknowledging responsibility to God, realizing your sin and the wedge sin has driven between you and God. The second half is recognition of reconciliation to God through Jesus, a willingness to be saved and lastly repentance. You will note that there is no step for circumcision. Paul’s letters instead seek to heal the bifurcation of the church through continuing the lessons of Christ.

As John records in his gospel account, Christ taught that the Holy Spirit would come to guide the believer (John 16:5-15, NIV). This guidance was assured to come from Christ who received it from the Father. This is important because in a spiritual society that historically had been guided by religious men like the Judaizers, there was now a greater teacher that would lead believers into all truth. It would be the promised advocate that would prove the world wrong in their sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8, NIV). This additional advocate (John 14:16, NIV) would be the Spirit of Truth. So to all who sought the truth about salvation had a guide directly from God; not just with us as in Jesus’ case but now in us (John 14, 17, NIV). Faith was the new key that unlocked the door to the kingdom. No longer were acts of contrition enough. Nor were the bonds of the law and rituals of the Jewish people sufficient to gain entrance into God’s Kingdom. The gate pass would now resemble the threefold likeness of the Triune God. According to Kang5, the quest for the believer would now consist of theoria or contemplation, praxis or practical application and poiesis or formation. Tradition was not enough, the kingdom dweller would need to consider the kingdom first (Matthew 6:33, NIV) and how the teachings of Christ are applied to their life.

In conclusion, Paul’s answer to the abounding issue of the Judaizers not only bore historical context but foresight as well. Even today there are those in the Christian church who believe that singing on the choir or serving on a board in constant faithfulness will equate to a place in the Kingdom of God. However, as Paul was clear to relay, it is not by any thing that we could do but by grace through faith that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8, NIV). As for the circumcisions marking God’s people as a sort of identity tag, Christ would declare that the new proverbial moniker would be those who keep His commandments (John 14:21, NIV). No act of cutting or eating with socially acceptable people can make one righteous, but it is the faith in the work of the cross and he that wrought it that has become our catalyst into the kingdom. Thanks be to God for sending His Holy Spirit to guide and direct us into all truth; least we be over burdened with ritual and tradition to no end. This writer prays that the readers of Paul’s epistles find the clarity and morality expected of believers in Christ, so that our church can be the beacon on a hill shining brightly through the darkness of this world.

  1. Kulikovsky, Andrew S. (1999) The Historical Context of Paul’s Letters To the Galatians and Romans (April 8, 1999) located at http://hermeneutics.kulikovskyonline.net/hermeneutics/galromhc.pdf
  2. Tyndale House Publishing (1988) Life Application Study Bible, New International Version Carol Stream Illinois
  3. Kulikovsky, Andrew S. (1999) The Historical Context of Paul’s Letters To the Galatians and Romans (April 8, 1999) (p.8) located at http://hermeneutics.kulikovskyonline.net/hermeneutics/galromhc.pdf
  4. Towns, Elmer L. (2004) Your Ministry of Evangelism: A Guide For Church Volunteers (p. 70). Evangelical Training Association, Wheaton, IL
  5. Kang, S. (2002). The church, spiritual formation, and the kingdom of God: a case for canonical-communion reading of the Bible (p. 137). Ex auditu, 18137-151. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.