An Introduction to Paul’s Three Asian Letters

An Introduction to Paul’s Three Asian Letters September 12, 2016

I’m slowly but surely working on an NT Intro, now into the Pauline letters, currently working on Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians. Anyway, here are some things I’m scribbling for those inclined to read.


I urge you to imagine Paul, sitting in an Ephesian prison, probably malnourished and suffering horrific illness, alone in the dark and damp, with the smell of rot and perhaps even excrement and death around him.[1] Picture him either scribbling away on a small sheet of papyrus and squinting for lack of light or else whispering through a slot in the door to Timothy some instructions about what to put in a letter to one or more of the central Asian churches. This is a far darker image than the usual portraits of Paul writing in placid solitude at a desk or sitting comfortable on a bed, quill in hand, with a pensive look on his face, like he’s just about to write 1 Corinthians 13. What Paul experienced in an Ephesian prison was not serendipitous serenity but searing hardship, not soothing tranquillity but brokenness and anxiety. So it is all the more remarkable that it is from this tumultuous period of Paul’s career that we get from him, not only the letter to the Philippians, but also the letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and what was very probably a circular letter to the Asian churches in the letter to the Ephesians. These three Asian letters are all deeply connected at level of the circumstances for their writing and in terms of their theological content. Each letter in their own way is a testimony to Paul’s unquenchable passion for Christ, the poignancy of his prose where he waxes eloquently on themes such as reconciliation and union with Christ, and his pastoral care in seeking communities that embody the message of the gospel in their relations with one another.

In Colossians Paul declares war upon inane human philosophy and hostile powers while composing majestic prose in praise of Christ. The Christ-Poem of Col 1.15-20 alone makes the letter theologically priceless. Colossians is filled with sheer christological intensity in describing how the purpose of creation and the point of his resurrection was so that in all things Christ would have supremacy. This is why Paul paints a majestic panorama of the preeminence of Christ over all of creation, he incorporates exodus imagery when describing our deliverance from the domain of darkness, he urges the Colossians on to thanksgiving and faithfulness, and bids them not to be deceived by hollow philosophy or promises of visions of angelic liturgies in heaven. Paul exhorts them to a heavenly perspective that works itself out in the form of cultivating earthly virtue. He requires Christian households to exhibit relations of order and mutual respect between members precisely because they are Christian. Paul stresses how mission means unveiling a mystery to outsiders, in all things prayer, in all speech grace, and to all friends greetings.

Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters but also the most personal and perhaps the most pastoral. Paul writes to Philemon for Onesimus, a slave who has either runaway or absconded, and he has sought out Paul to intercede before Philemon on his behalf. In the course of their encounter Onesimus has also come to faith in Christ. So Paul writes to Philemon, not with heavy-handed authority, but like a father urging a son to do what is right in the Messiah, on the basis of love, in the name of fellowship, for the sake of a new brother. The letter to Philemon shows Paul urging individual believers to think about things ‘in Messiah’ so that a whole community might begin to reflect and effect reconciliation between its members.

Ephesians is, according to F.F. Bruce, ‘The Quintessence of Paulinism’ because Ephesians ‘sums up the leading themes of the Pauline letters, and sets forth the cosmic implications of Paul’s ministry as apostle to the Gentiles.’[2] Ephesians is most likely a circular letter, perhaps identical to the ‘letter from Laodicea’ which eventually made its way to Colossae, carried around on a circuitous route by Tychicus.[3] It was arguably meant to be a digest of Paul’s general instructions to the Asian churches, pointing them to God’s grand purposes that had Christ as their climax, the genuinely gracious nature of the gift of salvation, the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, calling believers to overflow with thanksgiving and praise, urging them to continually put off the old man and to put on Christ, to walk in light not darkness, and to continue to fight against the powers and authorities of this present darkness. The letter to the Ephesians shows Paul wanting the churches to be united around ‘one Lord, one faith, and one baptism’ as he himself requests prayer that he ‘will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.’[4]

If Paul sent a tweet to the Asian churches, I reckon he’d say: Christ is preeminent, he’s broken the dividing wall between us, so forgive each other as God forgave you, and keep the bond of peace!

[1] On the case for an Ephesians imprisonment as the context for the captivity epistles of Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, see Wright PFG 7-8.

[2] Bruce 1980 [1977], 424.

[3] Col 4.16; on Tychicus, see Col 4.7 and Eph 6.21.

[4] Eph 4.5; 6.19.

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