The Pauline Prison Letters










MAY 20, 2012




    During the Apostle Paul’s time in prison, he wrote four letters. We know these letters today as the Pauline Prison Epistles. They are the letter to the Ephesians, the letter to the Colossians, the letter to Philemon, and the letter to the Philippians. These letters were written sometime around A.D. 61 – 62. While Paul did experience imprisonment during his time in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-26:32) many scholars including Paul Benware conclude that these letters were written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:30-31) and it seems likely that with references to “the praetorian guard” and “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 1:13; 4:22), it is during that imprisonment that Paul wrote these four letters.

Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were written at the same time and were sent together by Paul through Onesimus (the runaway slave of Philemon) and Tychicus. Scholars date these letters to A.D. 61. Philippians was probably the latest of the four letters written maybe a year or so after the first batch. The reason for this is that many events had to take place between the writing of the first three letters and Philippians. There are several journeys implied in the letter of Philippians. First, news reached Philippi that Paul was imprisoned in Rome. Then, a collection was taken and sent to Paul via Epaphroditus. Later, news of Epaphroditus’ illness made it back to Philippi and the church in Philippi sent word of their concern for Epaphroditus. Word didn’t spread very fast in those days (no cellphones or internet) and it took considerable time to travel between Rome and Philippi (no cars or airplanes). Given these facts, a date of A.D. 62 is reasonable for the writing of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

    If there were to be one theme assigned to all four of Paul’s prison epistles, I would have to say the overarching theme is Jesus Christ. In Ephesians, the theme is the church, the Body of Christ. In Colossians, the theme is the sufficiency and deity of Christ. In Philemon, since this is a personal letter, it really has no theme, but brotherhood in Christ could also be a fitting theme. The theme of Philippians is joy in the Person of Christ.

The letter that we call Ephesians was probably not written directly to the church at Ephesus but rather was likely a circular letter that started in Ephesus and was passed around to all the churches in the area. Paul Benware says,

“For example, there are no personal references in the letter, no details of his ministry among them, no mention of greeting to particular individuals, and no warnings about any unique dangers or problems that they faced. It is inconceivable that Paul, who had spent three years with them, would be so absolutely impersonal. Only a circular letter could account for such a phenomenon.”

It is also likely that this was a circular letter because many early manuscripts do not include the words “at Ephesus” in chapter 1 verse 1.

    To summarize the book of Ephesians is fairly simple. The first half of the letter (1:1 – 3:21) is spent talking about the calling of the church. The second half of the letter (4:1 – 6:20) is spent talking about the practical conduct of the church. The first part of chapter one is spent in praise of God’s redemptive work. God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all assigned a specific role in producing our salvation. God the Father chose us out of all humanity for himself (1:3-6). Jesus paid for our salvation on the basis of his Blood, cleansing us from sin, and setting us free (1:7-12). The Holy Spirit seals us and acts as God’s down payment of our inheritance of eternal life (1:13-14). The rest of chapter one is Paul’s prayer for an understanding of God’s grace. Chapter two explains that salvation is because of God’s grace and Jews and Gentiles are reconciled because of that same grace. Chapter three reveals the mystery of the church as the Body of Christ, and then Paul prays again for power and understanding for believers.

    The second half of Paul’s letter is spent addressing how believers in the church should behave. First, the church is to act in unity, each acting according to the spiritual gifts that they have been given for the good of the Body. Second, believers are to live righteously, avoiding all sin. Third, Paul tells us that we are to be living under the control of the Holy Spirit. Next, Paul addresses believer’s roles in marriage and in the household. Finally, before his concluding comments, Paul reminds his readers that they are in a spiritual war with the enemy and lays out a battle plan for us to follow.

    The letter from Paul to the Colossians was written to correct the church in Colossae doctrinally, because they were being affected by wrong teaching and false doctrine. As is typical of one of Paul’s letters, he spends the first part of his letter addressing doctrine and the second half of his letter talking about putting the Christian life into practice. After offering thanksgiving and prayer for the church, Paul immediately begins to lay down the doctrine of Christ, his divinity and his saving work (1:15-23). In the third portion of Paul’s letter, he talks about his own ministry to the church at large and his concern for the local church at Colossae. Next, Paul begins his discussion of false philosophy. He warns against the false doctrines floating around in the church. Then, Paul lays out the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Paul warns his readers of spiritual dangers and exhorts the church. Finally, before his concluding remarks, Paul spends some time talking about practical Christian living. He points out sinful attitudes and actions that should be avoided and virtues that should be practiced through the power of the Holy Spirit. He also exhorts his readers to godly lives within the home and encourages them in the prayer lives. Finally, he concludes with his usual style and grace.

    Philemon is a personal letter Paul wrote to his friend, mostly on behalf of their mutual acquaintance, Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave in Philemon’s household. He apparently stole from his master and ran away. Paul wrote this letter to persuade Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a new brother in Christ. This letter is unique in that unlike everything else written by the Apostle Paul, it has no doctrinal instruction in it whatsoever. The outline of the letter is quite simple. First, the greeting. Then, an offer of thanksgiving and prayer. His request to Philemon and then Paul signs off.

    The last of the prison epistles is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote this letter as a thank you note for the financial gifts that the Philippians had sent him. Throughout the letter he uses the word “rejoice” or one of similar meaning 16 times. Paul’s letter breaks down nicely into six sections. He starts off his letter with greetings and thanksgiving and prayer for the Philippian believers. He then talks about his personal circumstances in Rome. He tells them about the impact his ministry is having, expresses his joy at the spread of the gospel, and he shared his continued commitment with them. In the next section, Paul shares his practical exhortations to the Philippians. He petitions them for unity and for humility. He calls them to godly living. In this section, he takes a short aside to address his fellow workers Timothy and Epaphroditus and their mission to Philippi. Paul then takes chapter three to discuss his past and present need, particularly his need for Christ. In the next section, Paul shares his secrets for joyful and contented living. In the last section, Paul, once more, offers thanks for the meeting of his needs. One of the most quoted and misapplied verse of Scripture is here in this passage. Many people quote Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” However, they pull it out of context to apply to anything they wish to do in life. The context of the verse begins in verse 11.

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.”

(Php 4:11-13 NET)

Paul is saying that he has learned the secret to contentment!

    The Pauline prison epistles have been called the “Christological epistles” by many commentators. Christ is the focal point of these letters. And we have Christ to thank for the inspiration to Paul for these rich and wonderful letters. Thanks be to God!


Benware, Paul N. Survey of the New Testament. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1990.

Cone, Christopher The Promises of God. Ft. Worth, TX: Exegetica Publishing & Biblical

Resources, 2005.

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