Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon
New Testament Survey, Lesson 7 of 13
The books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon are often called “the Prison Epistles.” They were written by the apostle Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome. When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, some of the Jews made false charges against him (Acts 21:27-40). They stirred up the people against him. They probably would have killed Paul, but he was rescued by the Roman soldiers who put him in prison in Jerusalem.
While Paul was in custody, a group of the Jews made a vow to kill him. When the Romans learned this, they took him to Caesarea (Acts 23:12-35). After being imprisoned there for two years, Paul realized he was not going to be set free. Therefore, he used his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor (Acts 25:1-12). After a very dangerous voyage by sea, Paul arrived in Rome (Acts 27:1-28:31). He lived under house arrest for two years awaiting his trial before Caesar. During this time Paul wrote letters to the churches in Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae and also to a Christian named Philemon. All four of these letters mention Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; 6:18-20; Philippians 1:12, 13; 4:22; Colossians 4:2-4; Philemon 1, 10, 22, 23).
The Prison Epistles were all written at about the same time. They were also written to congregations or individuals in the same area. Therefore, they are alike in many ways. Tychicus, Paul’s companion, was the bearer of the epistles of Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7, 8). Ephesians and Colossians are called “twin epistles” because they are so much alike. About one half of the verses in Ephesians are also found in Colossians in very similar language.
Paul visited Ephesus briefly at the end of his second missionary journey. He left Aquila and Priscilla there as he continued his journey to Jerusalem. Apollos, an eloquent Jew, came to Ephesus and preached in the synagogue. He preached about Jesus, but knew only John’s baptism. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they eexpounded unto him the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:18-28).
When Paul returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey, he found twelve disciples who had received John’s baptism. They may have been taught by Apollos before he learned the baptism of the Great Commission had replaced the baptism of John (Mark 16:15, 16). Paul taught them the way of the Lord more perfectly and baptized them into Christ (Acts 19:1-7).
Ephesians has been called “Paul’s great treatise on the church of Christ.” It tells of the church as part of the eternal purpose of God (Ephesians 3:8-11). It describes the church as “the body of Christ.” Christ is the head of the body (Ephesians 1:22, 23; 5:23). There is one body just as there is one God, the Father, one Lord and Savior, one Holy Spirit, one hope, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Philippians is a beautiful letter Paul wrote to a church he loved. The church in Philippi was established by Paul and Silas on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16:11-40). Lydia and her household, and the jailor and his household, were among the first converts. Philippians was written to thank the church for the gift they sent to help Paul while he was in prison (Philippians 4:10-20).
Just as Ephesians sets forth the church of Christ, Philippians sets forth the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11). Even though Paul was a prisoner when he wrote to Philippi, he is full of joy. The key word in Philippians is “joy.” This word, and other forms of it such as “rejoice,” is found at least fifteen times in the four chapters of this epistle. Philippians teaches us that Christians can be happy even if we are in the midst of hardship and suffering. We are joyful because of the hope we have in Christ.
The church at Colossae was not established by Paul himself. He says he had “heard” of their faith (Colossians 1:4, 9). One of Paul’s co-workers, possibly Epaphras, had first preached the Gospel in Colossae (Colossians 4:12, 13). False teachers had come to Colossae with a strange, new doctrine. They mixed pagan philosophy and Judaism with Christianity. Paul opposed this false teaching by showing that Christ is over all things. Any spiritual teaching that is not Christ centered from beginning to end is false. If it is wrong about the nature of Christ, it cannot be right about anything else!
Colossians has been called “the most Christ centered epistle in the New Testament.” It shows that Jesus Christ is head over all things. He existed before the world came into being. Indeed, He is the Creator of all things. All the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him. He is the head of the church. Through His death on the cross, He has made it possible for all to be reconciled to Him (Colossians 1:14-20).
Philemon is one of the shortest books in the New Testament. It is a personal letter which Paul wrote to his friend, Philemon. Philemon was a Christian. The church met in his house (verse 2). Slavery was common in the Roman Empire in Paul’s day. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from his master. Paul met him and taught him the Gospel. Now he is sending Onesimus back to his master. He sends this letter along with him. He points out to Philemon that he will now have Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. The New Testament does not specifically forbid slavery. Neither did the apostles command that owners of slaves must free them. However, the principles of Christ, when applied, will cause people to give up slaves. If one would not want to be a slave of another person, he will not make another person his slave. This is the application of the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12).
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