Paul’s self-identification in his letters

It struck me as I was reading one of the Apostle Paul’s letters that he has a common way of identifying himself in the salutation of his epistles. I decided to do some analysis, because while there are some divergences, there’s a commonality that is striking.

Let’s look at each epistle and his salutation (usually in the first couple of verses):

RomansPaula servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle
1 Cor.Paulcalled by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus
and our brother Sosthenes
2 Cor.Paulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
GalatiansPaulan apostle
and all the brothers who are with me
EphesiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilippiansPaul and Timothyservants of Christ Jesus
ColossiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
1 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identification>
2 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identificastion>
1 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
2 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
TitusPaula servant of God and an apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilemonPaula prisoner for Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother

What are some general observations about his openings?

  • Paul identifies as an apostle in 9 of 13 letters (exceptions – Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
  • Paul’s favorite designation of himself – “apostle of Christ Jesus (or Jesus Christ)” – 7 times.
  • Paul calls only himself an “apostle.”
  • When Paul’s name is immediately combined with another name (“Paul and Timothy,” “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”), he does not identify the group as “apostles.”
  • When Paul separates names with a personal description (“Paul, <description>, and <Name>, <description>” he never identifies his companion as apostle, but rather “our brother” (1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Col., Philemon).
  • Paul’s identification of himself as a “prisoner” in the letter to Philemon points to the fact that in this letter, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of love rather than his authority as an apostle (see v. 14).

To Paul, the idea of apostleship was central to the issue of authority in the early church. The household of God was built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The mystery of Christ, hidden for ages, was “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). Now, when we read Paul the Apostle, we can “perceive [his] insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). The New Testament presents the office of apostle as foundational, unique, and not to be continued, for once the foundation is laid, we build on it (1 Cor. 3:10), but we don’t lay another foundation.

The one time in Scripture that we see a selection of a new apostle is in Acts 1. After the events of the Passion Week, the days that followed, and the ascension of Jesus, the eleven apostles gathered to await the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter took the lead in suggesting that they fill Judas’ empty place with another man to be the 12th apostle. He recounted the type of person they would need to select to fill this role: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Here we clearly see what they considered to be the necessary qualifications to be an apostle – 1) to have followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, and 2) to have been an eyewitness to the resurrection so that he can continue to testify to the validity of the resurrection claims of the gospel. The uniqueness of this event in Acts signals that the appointing of apostles is not to repeated in the churches today.

Paul, appointed a preacher and apostle by Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11, cf. Gal. 1:12)), described his experience as an eyewitness to the resurrection as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8), in that Jesus appeared to him post-ascension on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Paul was unique in his placement among the apostles.

Because of the foundational role played by the apostles in establishing the church and presenting the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), this is an office that has no modern day counterpart. No plan for apostolic succession was ever proposed or executed. Some of the activity that the apostles did, such as taking the gospel to frontier peoples, does continue, but the office does not.

All this is instructive when we observe certain preachers these days who self-identify as an “apostle.” This is unnecessarily self-aggrandizing at best, and harmful at worst. It opens the door to so-called new revelations that undermine the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.

In this age of the church, God’s revelation is complete, and there is no need for further “words from God.” We have God’s prophetic word “more fully confirmed” in the Holy Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:19-21). We need preachers, not to speak new words, but to “devote [themselves] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).

Will the moral line hold?

If secular, humanistic, materialistic philosophies have failed to prevent moral decay, on what basis do we think that other examples of immorality can be halted?

If the post-christian worldview that has gained ascendency since the middle of the 20th century wasn’t able to provide a hedge against such self-serving sins as sex before and outside of marriage, cohabitation without marriage, homosexuality and gay marriage, it will also be unable to keep further pleasure-seeking dominoes from falling. Whether we’re talking about polyamory, polygamy, or, heaven forbid, pedophilia as an “orientation” similar to homosexuality, there’s really no objective moral basis on which to deny such pleasures or declare them wrong.

10 years ago, the Harvard Medical Health Letter published an online article entitled, Pessimism about Pedophilia. In it, one of the summary points was, “Pedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change. Treatment aims to enable someone to resist acting on his sexual urges.”

The larger question that we will begin to see raised is this: if this is truly an orientation like other sexual orientations, why should we even talk about “treatment?” It’s only a matter of time before the humanistic implications will come home to roost, and these other things will vie for acceptance and normalcy.

There is literally no objective basis outside of God and the Bible to condemn anything.

Paul warned us of such times. “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Will the moral line hold? Not on the basis of any thought that denies the existence of God and the truth and sufficiency of the Bible, any thought that loves pleasure rather than God.

Paul goes on in this passage to instruct young Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,” reminding him of the God-given origin of the “sacred writings” (3:14-17). So, our first response to this inexorable march is to firmly align ourselves with the teaching of Scripture. All the evil in the world cannot prevent believers from following Paul’s example in his “teaching…conduct…aim in life…faith…patience…love…steadfastness…persecutions and sufferings” (3:10-11).

Paul’s further instruction is for us to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching….always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:2, 5). Our second response is bound up in preaching the gospel to a world that desperately needs it.

The moral lines may continue to fall. In the face of this, we must remain steadfast and preach the word.

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.

When God’s sovereignty intersects with time

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by Mark Knox

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves.

“…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2:23 ESV

Acts 2:23 contains one of the clearest expressions of God’s sovereign working in history, yet ascribes guilt and responsibility to those committing those actions. As we let this passage speak for itself, what exactly is being said?

  1. It was God’s eternal plan to deliver his Son Jesus to be crucified. “…according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” By pairing these two powerful nouns (“plan” and “foreknowledge”), we know that the writer is not referring to a simple fore-seeing by God of what will take place, but is referencing his sovereign plan and determination of what will take place. This comes out clearly in other places in the book of Acts as well, notably 4:28.
  2. Those who, in time, committed these acts are held as responsible and guilty for them. “this Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” This is an indictment on both the Jews (represented by their leaders) and the Roman authorities (“lawless men”). If you read the context in the early chapters of Acts, you will take note of this recurring theme in the Apostles’ preaching. It is highly accusatory, though not for the sake of stirring up guilt for guilt’s sake, but to bring them to the realization of their sin and Jesus’ status as the Anointed Messiah, so that they would repent and believe.

So then, this could lead us to a very perplexing question. How could a just God lay blame and pronounce judgment on men for an event that he pre-determined would happen?

What I find most interesting is that the passage doesn’t attempt to answer that question at all.  It simply moves on with the narrative, leaving the tension unanswered.

And I think that is the key to how we should treat passages such as this. Let the Bible speak, even as it affirms truths that are difficult for us to reconcile.

Later, Paul addresses this very question in the book of Romans, but even there, does not give an intellectually reconciling answer. After a discussion on the electing choice of God, he raises this objection,

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault (human responsibility)? For who can resist his will (human choice)?’”

And then notice Paul’s response to these questions:

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” – Romans 9:19-20a

In other words, let God be God! The correct, humble response to tensions like this in Scripture is to let the Bible speak for itself. The fact that there is tension in our understanding should drive us to our knees in humble submission before the God whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours.