The apostle Paul wrote nine epistles to seven churches and four epistles to three individuals. All thirteen of his epistles are written to and about the church which is the Body of Christ. The book of Romans is first in the canonical order of Paul’s thirteen epistles, but it was not the first epistle that he wrote by inspiration of God. The Pauline epistles are not arranged chronologically but according to a divine order for our edification.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (2 Tim. 3:16)
The Spiritual Order
Salvation in Christ (faith)
- Romans – doctrine of salvation by the faith of Christ
- 1 & 2 Corinthians – reproof for not living by the doctrine of Romans
- Galatians – correction for listening to false doctrine not in line with Romans
Body of Christ (charity)
- Ephesians – doctrine of the Body of Christ
- Philippians – reproof for not living by the doctrine of Ephesians
- Colossians – correction for listening to false doctrine not in line with Ephesians
Coming of Christ (hope)
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians – doctrine, reproof, and correction concerning the coming of the Lord
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.
This present dispensation began with Paul’s salvation and ministry in the book of Acts, but there are some distinctions between the epistles he wrote during the Acts period and afterwards 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 transition period ended in Acts 28.
The Chronological Order
While it is not possible to know the exact dates of when Paul wrote each of his inspired 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 found in his epistles.
During the Acts Period (mid to late 50’s A.D.)
- 1 Thessalonians – compare 1 Thess. 3:1-6 with Acts 18:5
- 2 Thessalonians – written shortly after the first epistle (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1)
- Galatians – time of Acts 18:22-23, not long after churches started (Gal. 1:6)
- 1 Corinthians – in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8, 19), cf. 1 Cor. 4:17; Acts 19:22
- 2 Corinthians – written before the collection taken up (2 Cor. 8-9), time of Acts 20:1-2
- Romans – in Corinth (Rom. 16:23), after collection (Rom. 15:26), time of Acts 20:3
The Prison Epistles (early 60’s A.D.)
- Ephesians – Eph. 3:1; 4:1; 6:20
- Philippians – Phil. 1:12-17; 4:22
- Colossians – Col. 4:3, 7-18, sent with epistle of Philemon (cf. Col. 4:12, 16; Phile. 2, 23)
- Philemon – Phile. 1, 9, 13, anticipating freedom (v.22)
Between Imprisonments (mid 60’s A.D.)
- 1 Timothy – traveling (1 Tim. 3:14-15)
- Titus – Paul did not start churches on the island of Crete in Acts, traveling (Titus 3:12)
Last Epistle Before Execution (mid to late 60’s A.D.)
- 2 Timothy – 2 Tim. 1:8; 2:9; 4:6