New Small Group Lesson Series – Paul’s Prison Letters

I just posted a series of 16 lessons on Paul’s prison letters. We are wrapping these lessons up in our LIFE groups and I wanted to share. You can find them here, in the small group lesson page or in the Bible class archive

Summaries of the New Testament Books

To follow up on this post summarizing the books of the Old Testament, here is the list for the New Testament. Here is this list in pdf. These are just quick helps to help people get a feel for these books and see how they connect with each other.

Bible Study Helps – New Testament

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is also divided into sections that help keep similar writings together. Here are the four sections that divide the Old Testament:

1 – Gospels

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  • The Gospels are ordered by the date some people believed they were written. You don’t have to put a name on a Gospel until there are more than one and only Luke is the only one of the four to identify himself. A few hundred years after these were written false teachings entered the church that forced the church to decide which writings were inspired/from God and which were not. It was during this process that the New Testament was laid out in its current form.

2 – Historical

  • Acts of the Apostles
  • Acts is the history that all of Paul’s letters fit into. You read about Paul visiting the churches he wrote letters to in the book of Acts (the cities of Ephesus, Galatia, Corinth, etc)

3 – Paul’s Letters

  • Romans – Philemon
  • These are ordered from longest to shortest with Romans being the longest and Philemon the shortest of Paul’s letters
  • These are some of the earliest writings in the New Testament with Galatians being the earliest book written (48 AD)

4 – General Letters

  • Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, and Jude
  • These are all the letters written by people other than Paul

5 – Apocalypse

  • Revelation
  • This is the last book of the New Testament to be written, nearly 60 years after Jesus’ ministry

Gospels

Matthew

Date written – 60s

Author – Matthew

Summary – All four gospels tell about the life of Jesus from the time before his birth to the time after his death and resurrection. Yet each Gospel has a distinct emphasis. It is like hearing the same story from four different points of view. Each writer is remembering and focusing on different aspects of who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Matthew’s emphasis – Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Matthew also emphasizes Jesus as King as prophesied Messiah and descendent from David’s throne.

Mark

Date written – 50s

Author – Mark

Summary – Mark is about who Jesus is. At first Jesus is more secretive about who he is because he doesn’t want to fulfill the wrongly directed hopes of who the Messiah was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. In the first half of Mark (1-8) It is not uncommon in Mark for Jesus to tell people to keep who he is a secret. Once Peter confesses Christ in Mark 8 Jesus speaks much more freely about who he is and what he came to do. Like Matthew, Mark ends with Jesus commissioning his disciples to spread the Gospel all over the world.

Mark’s emphasis – Jesus as Redeemer

Luke

Date written – 60s

Author – Luke

Summary – Luke and Acts are both written by Luke and tell the story of Christianity from the birth of Jesus through the growth of the early church. There are many teachings and miracles in Luke that points us right to the heart of God and just how compassionate he is toward mankind.

Luke’s emphasis – Jesus as compassionate and uplifter of the oppressed

John

Date written – 80s

Author – John

Summary – The Gospel of John tells the story of the life and ministry of Jesus through an insider point of view. Matthew was a disciple of Jesus but not in his “inner circle” like Peter, James and John were. Luke and John were not part of Jesus’ 12 disciples. So John holds a special place in teaching us about God and Christ as an “insider.” One things you will notice in John are a lot of double meanings that often leave people confused (being born again is one example from John 3). Like the other three Gospels, John shows Jesus on his way to a cross. Like the other Gospels Jesus defeats death through his resurrection and shows us that there is hope beyond the grave.

John’s emphasis – Jesus as the Son of God and his unique relationship with His Father.

History

Acts of the Apostles

Date written – 62

Author – Luke

Summary – Luke wrote the book of Acts to tell the rest of the story. Acts covers the first thirty years of the church and tells how the Gospel went from being believed by just a few disciples waiting in Jerusalem to the Holy Spirit inspiring them to convert thousands and take the message all over the world. In the book of Acts we see missionaries including Paul, Barnabas, Mark and Luke (who both wrote the Gospels) travelling around the world, spreading the message of Christ to Jews and Gentiles. They travel to many of the cities Paul later writes the letters that follow.

One major dividing line in the book is Acts 10 where God allows the message of Christ to be preached to the Gentiles for the first time. This had been God’s plan all the way back to Abraham when he promised Abraham he would be the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5).

Paul’s Letters

Romans

Date written – 55

Author – Paul

Summary – Romans was written to a racially divided church. The Jew and Gentile Christians were struggling to find unity. Paul writes Romans to reconcile their relationships and to understand that the message of Christ should act as a common bond across all nations just as God planned for it to do from the beginning.

1 Corinthians

Date written – 54

Author – Paul

Summary – Corinth is a town in Greece where Paul visited in Acts 18. The Corinthian church was also very divided (1:10-17). Paul sets them straight by talking about how true leaders should bring unity and not division but that ultimately our leader is Christ and not any earthly leaders. Paul also deals with many of their specific concerns as a congregation including marriage (chapter 7), the eating of food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-11) and issues in worship (chapters 11-14).

2 Corinthians

Date written – 55

Author – Paul

Summary – 2 Corinthians seems to be about Paul’s defense of his ministry to those hostile toward him at Corinth. He upholds his integrity and commission from God and defends many of his travel plans in this letter.

Galatians

Date written – 48

Author – Paul

Summary – Galatians was written to address a specific concern among the Christians in the region of Galatia. It seems those who were Jewish Christians were beginning to enforce various aspects of Judaism (circumcision for one) on the Gentile Christians. Paul writes this letter to assure them of the sufficiency of Christ apart from the Law of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and to help mend the broken relationships left behind between the Christians in the Galatian churches.

Ephesians

Date written – 60

Author – Paul

Summary – One of four letters Paul wrote from prison. Normally Paul’s letters have a specific occasion that prompted him to write these churches. Ephesians is the hardest to pin down. What stands out in Ephesians is the connection between knowing God and what he has done for us (Chapters 1-3) and the resulting actions that should be in our lives in response to all God has done for us (Chapters 4-6).

Philippians

Date written – 61

Author – Paul

Summary – Paul invites the Philippian Christians to live their lives for Christ even if it includes suffering (Phil 1). He encourages them to imitate Christ’s humility (Phil 2) and to keep in mind the importance of Christ (Phil 3). Even though in jail, Paul has found contentment (Phil 4:11-12).

Colossians

Date written – 60

Author – Paul

Summary – One of four letters Paul wrote from prison. Colossians was written to help combat some false teachings that were taking place in the house churches of Colossae. It seems some believed that it was necessary to appease angels by doing certain religious ceremonies in order to gain entrance to the presence of God (see especially Col 2). Paul assures them, as he did the Galatians, that we don’t need anything more than Jesus Christ to be in the proper relationship with God.

1 Thessalonians

Date written – 50

Author – Paul

Summary – 1 Thessalonians may have been written to Christians in Thessalonica who struggled with understanding the second coming of Christ and what that meant for Christians who died before his return. Some believed in the early church that Christ would come back within a generation due to some of Jesus’ teachings (like John 21:22). Paul encourages them toward purity, love and responsibility.

2 Thessalonians

Date written – 51

Author – Paul

Summary – Paul wrote this letter to alleviate even more concerns they had about the return of Christ. It seems some had taught Christ has already come back (2 Thess 2:1-2) and that there were false teachers in their midst (2:3-15). Paul writes this letter to inform and encourage them toward faithfulness so that they will not be led away from God through false teaching.

1 Timothy

Date written – 62

Author – Paul

Summary – 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are called the “Pastoral epistles”. They were written by Paul to help equip these men of God toward a more productive ministry. They were also written to help these ministers of the Gospel (Timothy and Titus) to effectively lead in the congregations they were a part of. These three letters are very practical covering everything from how to dress to qualifications of elders and deacons and how to treat others in the church.

2 Timothy

Date written – 63

Author – Paul

Summary – Written as Paul nears the end of his life in Roman prison. He writes this to ensure the faithfulness of Timothy and to encourage him to finish strong just as Paul is doing himself. The most famous verse in this book is found in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 where Paul encourages him to study the scriptures and explains the extent of their usefulness.

Titus

Date written – 62

Author – Paul

Summary – The last of Paul’s pastoral letters, this letter is written to give instruction to Titus on how Christians are to live and what should be taught to those in the church. Another very practical letter.

Philemon

Date written – 60

Author – Paul

Summary – One of four letters Paul wrote from prison. This letter was written to reconcile the relationship between a slave and a slave master who were both Christians in the church in Colossae. The slave, Onesimus, came to Paul so he could help him make things right again with his master, Philemon. Paul put the pressure on Philemon to make things right, even if it wasn’t easy.

General Letters

Hebrews

Date written – between 60 & 70

Author – Unknown

Summary – Hebrews reads more like a sermon than a letter and that may have been how the book of Hebrews started out. Hebrews is about the sufficiency of Christ and his exaltation above all others in all creation. The book proves that by showing his fulfillment of many things found in the Old Testament including the priesthood, sacrificial system, and many other things. This letter was undoubtedly written to a Jewish audience, who would have readily seen the connections the writer of Hebrews makes with the Old Testament.

James

Date written – 44

Author – James

Summary – James was the half brother of Jesus, sharing the same mother, Mary. James is often thought of as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It is very practical and easy to understand. This is a great place to start studying the Bible if you are looking for something practical and easily applicable.

1 Peter

Date written – 65

Author – Peter

Summary – 1 & 2 Peter were written to remind Christians of their special status with God so that they could endure some pretty intense persecution. Peter speaks to unjust suffering and living as a Christian in a hostile world.

2 Peter

Date written – 65

Author – Peter

Summary – 2 Peter was written near the end of Peter’s life and he is calling them to the truth and reminding them of the legitimacy of the Gospel, that what Christ had done for them was real. As an eyewitness who is about to die defending his faith, he wants to make sure those he is leaving behind will hold true to the Gospel because Christ will return and Christians are called to live with that in mind.

1 John

Date written – 90

Author – John

Summary – If Timothy and Titus are pastoral letters to individuals, 1-3 John read like pastoral letters written in love to help them grow closer to God and to other Christians. In 1 John, John tells us what it means to walk in the light and just how connected our love of God is with our love for others (1 John 3). We also get more “insider” facts about who Jesus is and what he has done for us.

2 John

Date written – 90

Author – John

Summary – This letter is addressed probably to a local congregation in order to help them combat false teaching. That false teaching had to do with whether or not Jesus really came in the flesh. John, who knew Jesus first hand, assures them that he did.

3 John

Date written – 90

Author – John

Summary – 3 John is written toward a specific problem in a specific church. A man named Diotrephes was causing a problem in the church and John writes to Gaius, a leader in the church, in order to help him deal with this issue.

Jude

Date written – 70

Author – Jude

Summary – Jude is very much like 2 Peter and is written to combat wickedness in the church. Jude uses several examples from scripture and Jewish tradition who did the same things and were punished by God.

Apocalyptic

Revelation

Date written – 90s

Author – John

Summary – Revelation is an often misunderstood book. It was written to Christians who were undergoing some severe persecution in order for them to have the courage to hold to their faith, even if it meant they would die for Christ. Much of what is found in the book has already taken place but a few things still have not. The book concludes the New Testament with a beautiful picture of how this world will end up. Everything will be made right and whole again and there will be no more pain, tears or death as we live in perfect relationship with God.

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Writing Curriculum on Paul’s Prison Letters – Suggested Materials

I am currently writing a small group series for our congregation on Paul’s prison letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). Here are the resources I am currently using. Anything I am missing that you have found useful?

  • IVP – Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
  • Paul: Apostle of a Heart Set Free by F.F. Bruce
  • NICNT on Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians by F.F. Bruce
  • Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters by N.T. Wright
  • Word Biblical Commentary on Colossians and Philemon by Peter O’Brien
  • Anchor Bible Commentary on Philemon by Joseph Fitzmyer
  • NICNT on Philippians by Gordon Fee
  • Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians by Ben Witherington
  • Interpretation Commentary on Philippians by Fred Craddock
  • Pillar Ephesians Commentary by Peter O’Brien

What else should I consult?

Study Guide – Philemon 1:17-25

1:17 – In other words, if you don’t take him back…don’t consider me a partner any more? Wow Paul…that is some strong language. It shows you just how strongly Paul feels about Philemon making the right decision on this matter.

Have you ever stood up for someone or stepped into a situation to try to make things right? What happened and what did you learn from it?

What potential barrier or roadblock does Paul attempt to alleviate in the reconciliation of Philemon and Onesimus?

It sounds like Paul converted both Philemon (1:19) and Onesimus (1:10). That gives Paul a very special relationship with both of them and makes him the perfect person to help make this situation right again. Do you think you have played a pivotal role in certain relationships in your life? How can God use you to bring a godly influence on the people and relationships around you?

If all that wasn’t enough Paul concludes with more words about what Philemon ought to do and his confidence Philemon will do the right thing. It sounds like Paul really knows Philemon. He knows him well enough to know just how far to push the envelope with him to make things right. What is interesting is usually we think of the person who messes up as the one who needs to make it right. But here Paul is stressing the one who has been wronged, Philemon, as the one who needs to take steps to make this right. This is probably because of Philemon’s superior social status to Onesimus and that it would make more sense for the superior to bear with those under them than for the slave to initiate reconciliation with his mater. However, Paul reminds them both that they are brothers in the matter…far more than master and slave.

It is important for us all to remember that while by earthly standards people in certain positions are treated in certain ways that is not true in Christ. We treat everyone the same and don’t elevate some and devalue others. All are equal valuable in Christ’s eyes and so they are to us as well.

1:22 – One last little shot by Paul…oh yeah, I intend to visit you soon too. In other words, if you don’t work this out I will know about it when I get there!

1:23 – Why does grace play a key role in all that is going on in this book? How do you need to have more grace for those around you?

Study Guide – Philemon 1:8-16

Paul starts off with a pretty strong appeal. Who is Paul appealing for and why?

Why do you think Paul wants this to be Onesimus’ own decision and not something done because Paul is twisting his arm?

Paul wants Onesimus to do this out of love and not out of obligation…and yet Paul is certainly doing some arm twisting in this letter! Paul is making a big appeal here. Something like… “I am old…you wouldn’t want to spite an old man would you? Onesimus is like a son to me…surely you would take back someone I consider a son. I have the right to order you but I wouldn’t do that! No…instead do it because you are supposed to love others.” Paul is really putting the pressure on Philemon to do the right thing.

Your Bible probably has a footnote by Onesimus’ name…What does it say his name means in Greek? Notice the play on words Paul uses with that in verse 11.

What arm twisting does Paul do in verses 12-16?

In verse 16 Paul brings it all into perspective. While Onesimus is a slave the reality is something much bigger and more important than that…What does Paul mention about Onesimus in verse 16 that will basically force Philemon to do the right thing?

The take home point in these verses for us is about reconciliation toward those who have done us wrong. Are there people in your life whom you have never forgiven or “taken back”? If so, why? How do Paul’s words in this letter remind you just how important it is to not hold things against people?

How can we, like Paul, still see people who have messed up as “dear to us” again?

Study Guide – Philemon 1:1-7

Philemon Study Guide (1:1-7)

First we notice that Paul is in prison. Philemon is one of four letters Paul wrote from prison. The other three are Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Colossians has some interesting overlap with Philemon. Both are introduced as coming from both Paul and Timothy. Both introduce Paul as a prisoner (Philemon 1:1, Col 4:3). Both mention Onesimus and Archipus (Philemon 1:1:2, Col 4:9, 17). In the final greetings section of both letters, 5 out of 6 of the people mentioned are in both Philemon and Colossians. So we would probably be correct to assume that Philemon lives in Colossae.

In 1:2 we notice that Philemon is probably the head of a house church. The early church didn’t meet in large auditoriums. They met in homes and were probably congregations of 50 or less scattered throughout the city.

In 1:3 Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” When you read through Philemon were there any things Paul wrote that could bring you grace and peace just as he intended Philemon to experience it?

Next we find the thanksgiving and prayer section. It sounds like Paul prays specifically for Philemon, by name, and on regular occasions. Who do you find yourself praying for on a regular basis and what makes those people different from others you might pray for regularly?

In verse 6 he prays that Philemon would basically be more evangelistic. We typically think we evangelize to bring a benefit to someone else. But notice Paul flips it here. What benefit does he pray for Philemon to experience in verse 6 as the result of sharing his faith with others?

How do you think you might be benefited in the same way when you share your faith with those around you?

It makes sense that the more we share or tell something to others, the better, richer and deeper understanding we will personally have regarding what we share. You might have thought Paul would have told him to “share the Gospel” but instead what does he tell him to share? What is the difference/is there a difference?

What does Paul say Philemon has done that has given him great joy?

How might you go about “refreshing the hearts of the saints” today?