The divine order of Paul’s epistle was inspired by God.
God inspired the apostle Paul to write thirteen epistles, Romans through Philemon, to the Body of Christ in this present age of grace. The church which is the Body of Christ is a spiritual Body seated with Christ in heavenly places and wherein there is neither Jew nor Gentile (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:10-11).
It was a mystery hid in God (Eph. 3:9) that nobody knew until He revealed it through the apostle Paul (Col. 1:24-27). The Lord also revealed other mysteries to Paul that are related to the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1).
Paul is the Pattern and Spokesman for the Body of Christ
Just as the law was dispensed through Moses, so the mystery was dispensed through Paul. He is the only writer of scripture who writes about the Body of Christ. No other writer even mentions it! Therefore, it is in his epistles alone that we find the salvation, position, walk, and destiny of the Body of Christ.
We are not exalting the words of Paul above the words of Christ because Paul wrote: “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:3). All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable FOR us (2 Tim. 3:16), but it was not all written directly TO us. Therefore, it must be rightly divided to be understood (2 Tim. 2:15).
Just as it was apostasy for Israel to depart from following Moses as their divinely appointed spokesman, so it is apostasy for the church today to not follow the apostle Paul (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:4). In fact, it is apostasy to turn from the doctrines of grace revealed through Paul to go back under the law of Moses (1 Tim. 4:1-5).
If Satan cannot deceive you into denying the inspiration of the Bible, he will seek to deceive you concerning its proper interpretation. He hates the revelation of the mystery more than any other message because by it God made a fool out of him (1 Cor. 2:6-8). Since it is God’s will that all men see the fellowship of the mystery (Eph. 3:9), it is Satan’s goal to make sure nobody sees it. He blinds people to the truth by false doctrine and religious traditions.
The apostle Paul referred to the importance of his ministry in every epistle that he wrote. He was not an egomaniac (Eph. 3:8). The Lord placed an emphasis on the distinct apostleship and ministry of Paul because he is the spokesman for the Body of Christ to follow in this present age (1 Cor. 11:1). The failure of the professing church at large to recognize this truth is the reason for all of the confusion and division that abounds. May God help us to “Hold fast the form of sounds words” (2 Tim. 1:13) of Paul’s epistles.
Paul Wrote Thirteen Epistles to the Body of Christ
The number thirteen signifies separation in the Bible (unto bad or good), and it is associated with Paul’s ministry (e.g., Acts 13:2, 9). We could say that he was the thirteenth apostle because he was given a ministry that was distinct from the twelve apostles. God inspired Paul to write thirteen epistles to the Body of Christ.
The epistles that Paul wrote are easy to identify because they all contain the same token. False teachers sent out counterfeit letters as from Paul (2 Thess. 2:2), so his name appeared in his own handwriting as the first word in every epistle that he wrote as the token of authenticity (2 Thess. 3:17). Many believe that Paul also wrote Hebrews, but not only does it lack his token, but there are also major doctrinal differences between the epistle to the Hebrews and Paul’s epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Heb. 3:14).
The Order of Paul’s Epistles
The apostle Paul wrote nine epistles to SEVEN (the number of perfection) churches and four epistles to three individuals. While it is not possible to know the exact dates when Paul wrote each of his epistles because that information is not revealed in scripture, we can know the general order in which they were written based on the internal evidence.
- During his ministry in the book of Acts (mid to late 50’s A.D.), Paul wrote 1&2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1&2 Corinthians, and Romans.
- During his first imprisonment in Rome (early 60’s A.D.), Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
- Between his Roman imprisonments (mid 60’s A.D.), Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus.
- The last epistle that Paul wrote before his execution (mid to late 60’s A.D.) was 2 Timothy.
The books of the Bible are not arranged in chronological order, but they are not thrown together by man without order and design. God made sure that Paul’s epistles were arranged in a spiritual order that is designed for our edification. Romans was not the first epistle that Paul wrote by inspiration of God, but it is placed first because it is the foundational book of doctrine for this present age of grace.
In the pastoral epistles, the apostle Paul gives three faithful sayings that are to be emphasized in the church.
- Salvation (1 Tim. 1:12-16) – Paul was saved by the revelation of a new gospel.
- Godliness (1 Tim. 4:8-9) – The mystery of godliness is the Body of Christ (1 Tim. 3:16).
- Eternal Glory (2 Tim. 2:10-13) – All will members of the Body will be glorified, but our reward in how we reign in the heavenly kingdom will be determined by our faithfulness to the truth.
In the last reference that Paul referred to a faithful saying he combined all three and provided a definition for what a faithful saying is (Titus 3:4-8). A faithful saying is a statement of truth that is worthy of all acceptation and is to be affirmed constantly.
The three faithful sayings are related to the three tenses of salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) and the three abiding hallmarks (1 Cor. 13:13) of true spirituality (faith, hope, and charity), which are emphasized in Paul’s epistles.
The church epistles are arranged according to the order of Paul’s faithful sayings. The first four have to do with the faithful saying concerning salvation. The next three have to do with the faithful saying concerning godliness. The last two have to do with the faithful concerning our hope.
Furthermore, the three groups of church epistles are arranged according to the design and purpose of the scripture: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction (2 Tim. 3:16). Many will give credit to J. Sidlow Baxter for pointing this out in his work, Explore the Book, which was first published in 1960. However, E.W. Bullinger wrote about it in his book, The Church Epistles, and it was published in 1905 (before he moved to the Acts 28 position).
Salvation in Christ – Justification – Faith
- Romans – Doctrine concerning salvation in Christ
- 1 & 2 Corinthians – Reproof for not living by the doctrine of Romans
- Galatians – Correction for doctrinal failure as to Romans
The Body of Christ – Sanctification – Charity
- Ephesians – Doctrine concerning the Body of Christ
- Philippians – Reproof for not living by the doctrine of Ephesians
- Colossians – Correction for doctrinal failure as to Ephesians
The Coming of Christ – Glorification – Hope
- 1 Thessalonians – Doctrine concerning the coming of the Lord
- 2 Thessalonians – Reproof and correction as to 1 Thessalonians
Taken together these nine church epistles provide “instruction in righteousness” for this present age of grace. The epistles to Timothy and Titus concern the proper doctrine and order of the local church. The second epistle to Timothy deals with the apostasy in the last days of this present dispensation. The epistle to Philemon is fittingly placed last because it illustrates the doctrines of Paul’s epistles through a real-life situation.
Paul’s Epistles are NOT to be Divided
The Thessalonian epistles were probably the first epistles that Paul wrote by inspiration of God, and yet they are placed last in the order of church epistles. Bullinger wrote, “There are no church epistles beyond this because there is no higher truth to be taught. The consummation is reached…
The Church of God is led from the depths of degradation (in Romans) to the heights of glory (in Thessalonians) caught up to be forever with the Lord and left there in eternal blessing in and with Christ.” The mystery of the rapture of the Body of Christ (before the 70th week of Daniel) is only found in Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 15:51). This proves that Paul knew the mystery of the Body of Christ during the Acts period, otherwise, he could not know and write about our hope.
The same hope in the prison epistle of Ephesians is what Paul taught in his earliest epistle of 1 Thessalonians (cf. 1 Thess. 5:8-10; Eph. 4:4; 6:17 – the helmet of salvation). This proves that all thirteen of Paul’s epistles are written to and about the church which is the Body of Christ and work together as a unit. Understanding this will keep you from becoming a Hyperdispensationalist that wrongly divides Paul’s Acts and prison epistles.
This present dispensation began with Paul’s salvation and ministry in the book of Acts, but there are a few differences between the epistles he wrote during the Acts period and afterward due to the transitional nature (i.e., the prophecy program of Israel phasing out while the mystery program of Body of Christ was phasing in) of that period.
For example, Paul went to the Jew first and the sign gifts were in effect to provoke them to jealousy. Paul did not preach the gospel of the kingdom, but God used his ministry to get a remnant out of Israel and into the Body of Christ (see Rom. 11) before He officially set the nation aside in judicial blindness. The Body of Christ did NOT begin in Acts 28, the transition period ended.
David O'Steen has been the pastor of Hope Bible Church in Jackson, GA since 2005. Pastor O'Steen believes that the King James Bible is the inspired and preserved word of God (2 Tim 3:16) and that rightly dividing (2Tim 2:15) is the key to understand the Bible.