May 18, 2022 08:00am
The Letters of Paul: What Was His Purpose?

Why are there letters in the New Testament and why did Paul write so many of them?

Pure conjecture here, but I think God did it to preserve for us letters – not theology textbooks or memoirs of church growth – so we could understand what the churches were going through, how to solve problems in the church today by better understanding the gospel, and how we plant better churches. They were also  intended to be cared for and shared with churches to correct theological and application issues.

When you read the New Testament, you’ll quickly notice there are basically three types of documents: gospels (accounts about the life and work of Jesus), church history (the entire book of Acts), and a bunch of letters, mostly from Paul, some from John and Peter, some from others. Some places even received  multiple letters: two to the church at Thessalonica, two to the church in Corinth, and two to Timothy. So why letters? Well, it was the technology of the time. They didn’t have Twitter, blogs, YouTube, or Rumble, so they wrote letters. 

For most of history, letter writing was a critical form of information. They were written on papyrus, which isn’t the easiest thing to write on, then hand-delivered by someone visiting the person or town. We know that Paul dictated to a scribe because he often switched from the scribe to himself to “sign” the letter—see these verses for examples: 

“Here is my greeting in my own handwriting—Paul” (1 Corinthians 16:21). 

We even get a shout out from the scribe writing Paul’s letter to Rome: “I, Tertius (Ter-tee-us), the one writing this letter for Paul, send my greetings, too, as one of the Lord’s followers” (16:22).

We also know that he used couriers to deliver letters to the churches. For instance, Phoebe delivered the letter to the church in Rome—see Romans 16:1-2. She was a trusted friend and co-laborer in the church at Cenchrea (Sin-crea). We also know these letters were primarily addressed to the churches they were sent to but also intended to be circulated between churches. Paul told the church in Colosse: “After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them” (4:16). So they would read the letter, make a copy of it then pass it along to other churches.

You see, Paul was the foremost church planter of the first century. Traveling around the Mediterranean rim, he planted churches in major cities. Writing letters to them was his way to check in on how they’re doing, address theological issues that came up, and even correct practical matters going wrong in the church. 

So why did God choose to include Paul’s letters as a major form of New Testament content and not more church history or collections of theology and church practice. Do we get all of that in the letters? Yes. From these letters we can glean how churches operated, what problems they faced, and even tie them to events in broader world history. We also glean theological truth from them.

I’m not saying that Paul’s letters don’t include those things, but why did God choose to use these letters and not those things specifically. I mean, why don’t we have a book of the New Testament called Systematic Theology or Paul’s Rules of Order? I think—and I want to be very clear these are simply my thoughts—it’s because God wants to tie church history, theology, and church matters to real people in real churches encountering real problems.

I’ve been in full-time ministry for the last fourteen years in three different churches, nearly a decade and a half on the front lines of working with people, and here’s what I have learned: Church work is more than memorizing theological definitions and knowing dates in church history. Serving in a church is practical. It’s about leading people to follow Christ in a life-changing way. Does theology matter? You bet—it matters immensely. Does church history matter? For sure—very helpful to know. But those things are for the purpose of reaching people God has called us to reach, caring for the people in our church, and loving the world Christ died for.

Paul put it this way: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). 

Studying and understanding theology is great, but it’s all for the purpose of “[making] disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. [And teaching] these new disciples to obey all the commands [Jesus gave].”

So why do I think Paul wrote letters? Because God is tying all of these things—theology, church history, church practice—to the church’s mission. He’s showing how these things truly matter in the practical workings of the church and in the real lives of people.