Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, Oh My!
Galatians and Ephesians only took two days apiece. In just four days total, we moved through both books. The next four books will go by at that same pace. In another four days, we will cover Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
I consider these next four books “Paul’s Short Books”. That is not the most imaginative name for them, but it is accurate. Philippians and Colossians are only four chapters each, 1 Thessalonians is five brief chapters, and 2 Thessalonians is just three. That makes them much shorter than Romans and Corinthians, and somewhat shorter than Galatians and Ephesians.
But they are not just shorter. They are also markedly different. They are not what any of Paul’s first five books were. Romans was a carefully crafted presentation of the Gospel, that is, God’s good news of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. The Corinthians were impassioned pleas to a church that was falling into false teachings and bad behaviors. Because of their length and their content, all three books feel like juggernauts to me. If Paul’s letters were a naval fleet, these three books would be the aircraft carriers.
Galatians and Ephesians, though not that much longer than Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians, also have that juggernaut feel. Galatians is, like Romans, a crafted argument which sets the Gospel against works salvation. Ephesians is a crafted essay which describes the Gospel’s blessings in a lyrical manner. Both are very solid and substantial works. In our naval analogy, they would be the battleships or cruisers.
Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians are something else entirely. They are more like the destroyers. They are smaller, as we have already said, and thus easier to handle (“faster moving and more maneuverable” if we really push our naval analogy). But their content is also different.
In one very true sense, these books are largely just Paul checking in with people he cared about. He has very close relationships with the Christians of Philippi and Thessalonica, and that closeness makes itself known in those letters. I’m not sure he was as close to the Colossians. I don’t think he had ever been to Colossae. However, he seems to have known and been fond of at least some of the people in the Colossian church (such as Philemon, whom Paul says he brought to Christ), and that fondness can be seen in that letter as well.
These letters aren’t the carefully crafted treatises that Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians are. They also aren’t the impassioned pleas that Corinthians and Galatians are. They are not solid juggernauts. They are more like light correspondence.
But that doesn’t mean that these books are completely dissimilar to the previous five, nor that they are less valuable than the previous five. They are not. They are like the previous five in some other ways, and they are valuable in their own way.
Same Gospel, Different Delivery
Let’s talk first about the ways they are like the previous five, and let’s do that by using our naval analogy one last time. It is true that these books are not the ships that the previous five books were. It is true that they are more like destroyers than aircraft carriers. However, destroyers have some of the same arms and armament aircraft carriers do. Maybe not as much or as large, but still some of the same.
This is likewise true of these four books. Some of the Gospel content of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians appears in Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Philippians 3, for example, starts with Paul’s discussion of “confidence in the flesh”. He rounds out this discussion by talking about “the righteousness that comes by faith” (3:9). The righteousness that comes by faith is a Gospel term. It is another way of stating or summarizing the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith. It even appeared in Romans 10:6 and will appear again in Hebrews 11:7. While Paul’s discussion of this righteousness that comes by faith is much shorter than the one we get in Romans, it is still a good discussion of it. If that discussion was all we had, we would still be able to understand what the Gospel is.
Standing Against Heresy
Some of the impassioned plea of Corinthians and Galatians is also in these books. The Colossians had fallen into some false teachings, mysterious false teachings that today are known by the ominous-sounding name “The Colossian Heresy”. We’re not exactly sure what this Colossian Heresy was, but it had something to do with angels and also The Law.
Paul confronts that heresy in this letter, telling the Colossians on a couple occasions not to be “taken captive” by it (2:8) and that those things were “a shadow” of the reality of Christ (2:17). Not only so, but the Thessalonians fell into some bad behaviors. For some reason, they had a tendency to be lazy to the point of completely ceasing all labor. They would not go to work. Paul confronted that as well, telling the Thessalonians in both letters to stop being so lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:14 & 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10).
So these letters don’t have everything that the previous five letters had, but they have enough of those to effectively communicate the same basic message. They are clearly in the same fleet. They have some of the same guns and they have the ability to use those guns.
Meeting People Where They Are
That truth then brings us to the way in which these letters are valuable. I can explain the value of these shorter-and-different-yet-still-the-same letters with a little saying I use often, the saying, “That’s why God made chocolate and vanilla.” This saying means first that some things work for some people while other things work for other people.
It means second that God has covered all people by providing many different things. God did not expect Romans to work for everybody. In fact, He knew it wouldn’t work for everybody any more than vanilla works for everybody. He knew some people would be thrown off Romans by its length or style. And so He gave Philippians. He did not expect Corinthians to work for everybody, and so He gave Colossians.
In fact, every book of the Bible is an example of this idea. No book of the Bible communicates a radically-different message than any other book of the Bible. Every book of the Bible communicates the same message, the Gospel message. Every book of the Bible simply communicates that Gospel message in its own way in order to reach the people that the other books don’t or can’t. And I don’t think any books demonstrate that principle better than these four.
Besides these truths, we have to quickly mention the unique beauty these four books contain. In these books we are going to find the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2, one of the best descriptions of what Jesus is, was, and will be there is. We are going to find the teaching to not “be anxious about anything” and of “the peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4). We are going to find Christ called “the image of the invisible God” and “the firstborn over all creation” in Colossians 1 and the promise of the resurrection of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the promise of Jesus’ return in 2 Thessalonians 1. These may not be Romans-class books, but they contain some Romans-class beauty and truth.
My hope is that you are going to enjoy that beauty and truth over the next four days. I don’t know if these short books work as well for you as the others might; they may simply not be your chocolate or your vanilla. But I know they do work, and my prayer is that will work in some way to reconfirm Paul’s Gospel message and his impassioned pleas for us all.